A House That's No Longer A Home
Updated: Feb 15
My childhood home was recently sold, and I struggled to watch the walls and floorboards of youth ripped away along with the memories that came with that. But that's a part of growing up, isn't it? (Feature Story For Feature Feature Writing Course, GWU, 2021)
My home was a place of familiarity and comfort; where childhood photos and elementary school artwork hung on the walls and the sounds of Saturday Night Live playing from the kitchen TV filled the house every Sunday morning as biscuits baked in the oven. It’s where the dog’s shedding fur covered the white couches, and in turn, the clothing of whoever sat down. The kitchen was stocked with my favorite snacks, and the plates and silverware were in their proper cabinets. It’s where my bedroom door was splatter painted and a collection of Barbie dolls and Polly Pockets covered the basement floors.
But the portraits of my sister and I have been taken down and my bedroom door has been painted white. The silverware is now in storage and the couch was sold to neighbors who recently moved in nearby. The TV no longer plays throughout my house with only my parents around to watch, and the Barbie dolls have been taken from the attic and placed in storage elsewhere.
As my family prepares to sell the only home I have known for 22 years, the staged interior now resembles a skeleton of the life it once possessed. To accept that this house is no longer my home, I must reconcile with the years of inevitable growth and change that took place within the confines of 58 Claremont Avenue.
When my parents married in 1994, they were living comfortably in an apartment in Manhattan. Then they began planning to start a family the next year, and knew they wanted to do so in the suburbs.
My father grew up in the projects of the Bronx, living in a co-op apartment where he shared a bedroom with his younger sister until he eventually moved out. The two-bedroom place was cheap enough for his own parents to afford, both of whom were Holocaust survivors and immigrants. My mother was raised in Brooklyn, where her parents bought one side of a duplex townhome for under $40,000 dollars. They had very little money, but purchasing a home was part of my grandfather’s ‘American Dream.’ Her father - my grandfather - was a Holocaust survivor as well, and worked hard to provide for his family and eventually own some property. Both of my parents didn’t want to raise their own eventual family in that same environment of small apartments and cities where the cars were broken into each night.
“I’m from Brooklyn, where everybody goes to Long Island, and your father is from the Bronx, where everyone goes to Westchester,” my mom said. “But he refused to go to Long Island, and I didn’t care. At that point, we just needed to start looking seriously at homes.”
Armed with a composition notebook filled with listings, prices, and town information, my parents traversed across Westchester County looking for their ‘forever home.’ They didn’t find the house until months later, after competing in bidding wars with other young couples looking for their own versions of the American dream. With the help of my grandfather and long negotiations, my parents purchased 58 Claremont Avenue in Rye, New York for just under $375,000 dollars.
The three story, three bedroom house was in need of refurbishments. It hadn’t been updated since the 1970s, which showed in the orange shag rugs and panelling around the house. There was no modern form of air conditioning and parts of the house were chipping. My grandfather headed a contract plumbing business, and with his team, they ripped out the orange rugs to reveal furnished hardwood floors. They put in a new boiler and heating system, and fixed all the piping.
“When grandpa saw the house he thought it had good bones - he said we would work on it,” my father said. “After you guys were born, we didn’t just want the forced air, we wanted constant heat so you two wouldn’t be uncomfortable.”
I have never been uncomfortable in my home. I’ve been angry and depressed, anxious and excited. I yearned to escape home at times, but always knew that I would be welcomed back. This is where I fell down the staircase as a toddler so my parents installed a runner to cascade down each flight of stairs, ensuring that it wouldn’t happen again. And when I was too scared to go down into the dark and shadowy basement for many years, my grandfather built a life-size Barbie dream house to show me that I did not have to be frightened. Toys were spread around the living room and den - two of each for both my twin sister and me.
“We had two of everything… two highchairs in the kitchen, swings… just everything,” my mother said. “The entire living room was corralled with baby gates so you girls could play and we didn’t have to worry about you getting out.”
If the traditional American dream lends itself to the ownership of property and the accumulation of things, then my family had achieved it. On birthdays and holidays, my sister and I would receive more dolls to add to our collections or toy cars to drive around the hardwood floors. But as I grew older, the toys and clothes and our growing selves couldn’t comfortably reside in that same three-story, three-bedroom house that my parents bought as newlyweds.
In 2005, the house was remodelled to add a new level and extend the kitchen. My grandfather helped with the plumbing and heating, and expanding the structure of our decks. My family lived in a rental apartment for over a year - the first (and last) time I was away from home for that long.
“We ran out of space,” My mom said. “You were sharing a room with [your sister], but you were growing girls, and we knew that you would want your own rooms as you got older.”
Since my parents moved themselves into the master bedroom on the new floor, my sister and I would have to decide who would take their old bedroom. It wasn’t much of a discussion; my twin sister is fourteen minutes older than I am so she had first pick. My sister - prone to nostalgia and a recurring fear of change - chose to remain in our old bedroom that we shared before the remodel. I didn’t have much authority over where I was put, but I ended up with the larger room and a private bathroom. Still, stripped of every other decision in the process as I was only seven, I was able to choose what color I wanted my new room to be.
“Grandpa asked you, ‘Ilana what color do you want for your room?’ and of course you said green, it was your favorite color at the time,” my mother said. Despite my reluctance towards the idea of moving, the one good outcome of the process has been watching those juvenile lime-green walls get painted over with a light creme color. “We weren’t thrilled about the green, but grandpa said, ‘Ilana wants green, I’ll make it green.’ And [your sister] picked pink. I guess those made sense for your age.”
In those years I spent much of my time cooking pancakes in the kitchen on playdates and with nannies, or playing outside on the swingset. There was always something going on in my home. Older cousins from foreign countries were staying in the guest room. My grandparents showed up at the house each week with pastries and games to play.
“Remember the little computer area in the den?” my sister said to me. “We had a lot of fun with that, all the CD games and playing Webkinz. I also liked when we were younger the basement was carpeted, I don’t know why mom and dad ripped that out.”
The basement was no longer as intimidating when I was with my sister and friends staying up late for our first sleepover. It was the perfect size to line four sleeping bags side by side to the latest Disney Channel original movie.
When I was younger, I contracted Scarlet Fever and had to remain in bed for a few weeks. It was lonely and I was bored, so my father installed a television in my room. It had been my grandmother’s TV from the mid-nineteenth century and only played four channels. But it was all my own, and I could watch from the comfort of my own bed.
There have always been televisions in every room of the home, whether my mother was watching a rerun of Friends in the kitchen or my father played one of those classic black and white films from the 50’s and 60’s. As a family, we would gather in the den each week to watch the latest episodes of American Idol, the phone resting between us as we anticipated casting our votes.
When my grandmother started dating a man with a gay son, the only way my parents knew to explain that dynamic was by watching Modern Family. They didn’t know how to explain complex concepts to their young girls, and instead we gathered in the den. My father sat on the carpeted ground leaving room for my mother, sister and me to spread out on the plush brown couch. Together each week, the four of us watched plotlines taking place in homes like ours and used it to explain the role of family and the home.
“We may not have always been at home during your childhood, your dad and I,” My mother said. She still feels guilty for this, and not being able to pick us up from school in the afternoons or prepare home-cooked meals for dinner at night. My parents both worked during the week, leaving my sister and I with nannies and playdates. “But when we were home, all we wanted was to play with you girls. We just wanted you two to be happy in the house, to have it be a place of safety and comfort.”
In July of 2008, my parents called me into my sisters room. Sitting us down, they explained that our grandfather had passed away after being sick for many months. I don’t remember anything else from that conversation except for the intensity of the pinkness emanating from my sister’s walls, and watching the young neighbors playing basketball in the street outside through the window. Avoiding my family’s concerned stares, I ran to my lime-green bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
Over 300 people filed through the front door and throughout the house a week later. We were sitting shiva and black cardboard boxes cluttered the living room. Prepared meals and pastries covered the kitchen island, and every mirror in the home was covered with a towel. All the portraits of my sister and I were temporarily replaced by portraits of my grandfather and only the sounds of grief and silence echoed from room to room. It was difficult to differentiate the constant mourning throughout my home with the previously joyous environment.
My house didn’t feel like a home for some time after that; all I heard were muffled tears coming from the landing of my parents’ bedroom. Some of the towels didn’t come down for months, and nobody bothered to change that. It was simply a sign of the times showing through the household.
Eventually the home was filled with people again. Friends came over to practice with makeup. My sister and I did art projects in the basement, covering the tiled ground with paint in the process. My grandmother visited regularly bringing along food and chocolates, and we would set the dining room table for five while feasting on take-out. It was all so comfortable and expected and crucial for my development; it was home.
My father lost his job in 2008 due to the financial crisis, and remained at home for months. He didn’t do much during those months that followed, he watched a lot of TV and overtook the basement to watch his weekly sports games. It was suffocating at times, like the house we just remodelled was no longer big enough. He eventually found a job, working from home in the small office that was overtaken with loose papers and wires. The house felt like a workstation; my sister and I found ourselves tip-toeing up the stairs so they wouldn’t creak while he was on a call. We started spending more time in our own bedrooms, since the den was connected to the home office and we could hear my father’s voice from the living room. Eventually, he found a new job and started commuting into the city again, leaving the home empty for my sister and me.
When I was 12 years old I got my first Iphone, and a year later my first laptop. I spent a lot of my time in bed watching movies on Netflix or scrolling through Instagram and Facebook on my phone. It was that age of utter annoyance, and the thought of holding conversations with my family fueled a desire to be alone. My sister did the same, and we rarely spoke to each other despite living in adjacent rooms. My mom would call us ‘ships passing in the night’ each time one of us went to get food from the kitchen while the other briskly ascended the staircase with little conversation. And so the years went by.
“I feel like the years in this house kind of just went [gestures] over my head,” my mother said.
Between my parents both working full-time jobs and my sister and I juggling middle school classes, studying for our Bat Mitzvah, and constantly changing friend groups, time at home became scarce. My mother, father, sister and I resided under the same roof but were all spending our time apart.
After a fight with my mother one summer, I slammed my bedroom door a bit too hard and it ended up falling off the hinges. I don’t remember what the argument was even about anymore, but I had observed my mother reacting in a similar manner all throughout my childhood and mimicked her own slamming of the door. For days, it remained propped up against the wall of the hallway. I couldn’t stare at it anymore and my parents were hesitant to put it back on the hinges, so in the days that followed I searched the house looking for supplies: paint, tarp, paintbrushes. I brought the door into my backyard and set up the paint and tarp beside the swingset which sat rusting in the corner of the yard. Blasting my favorite playlist from Itunes with a paintbrush in hand, I ‘Jackson Pollocked’ the door until the splattered colors overpowered the white frame. So everytime I entered my bedroom, I entered a creative space of my own within this suffocating suburban life.
My parents’ ‘American Dream’ was solidified when we adopted our dog during my freshman year of high school. We installed baby gates until he was trained and kept them up until the house was staged last month. We had a white fence put up around the perimeter of the house so he could run freely on sunny days or in the snow. While putting in the fence, my father tore down the swingset. It was getting too rusty, he would tell my sister and me, and we were getting too old to use it anyways.
As a teenager, I still spent most of my time alone in my bedroom. My sister and her friends would often gather at our house to cook meals or watch the latest episode of The Bachelor. I struggled to understand why we weren’t spending time together anymore; everything we did in this house we did together. I hid behind closed doors, instead constructing puzzles and listening to the record player that resided in the corner of my room. Behind the doors of my bedroom, I could do what I wanted, listen to the music I liked and watch TV without being interrupted.
By the time I was in high school, my home had become too small. Each morning that I left for school, I counted the number of steps it would take to walk from my room to the front door. I knew what time of the morning the sun would shine through the sunroof, and when the mailman arrived based on my dog’s loud barks coming from the living room window.
I craved an environment outside the four walls of my bedroom and the confines of all those rooms I had seen since I was a child. I started travelling each summer, leaving home for months at a time only to return to the same lime-green walls and the basement cluttered with school supplies and toys. My house became a ‘home base.’
Throughout my time at college, I rarely returned to 58 Claremont Avenue. I had my own room and freedoms elsewhere. Between school, travelling, and a growing desire to ‘discover myself’ apart from my family, I spent less than three weeks out of the year in the confines of those lime-green walls.
When I was home, I stayed up late to sneak outside for a midnight joint without my family knowing. My sister and I would meet in the kitchen at two in the morning and make blintzes or pasta, and this became our only interactions with one another. But again, we were all doing our own thing; my parents commuting to work, my sister spending time with friends watching The Bachelor in the den, and I remained in my room. We reunited at home for holidays, breaks, and the occasional birthday celebration - gathering in the dining room for dinner like we did when I was younger.
Then came the pandemic and lockdowns, and my family was under the same roof once more. My sister and I completed Zoom classes in the comfort of our backyard, setting up camp on the patio furniture while the dog galloped through the backyard. In the comfort of my own home, everything felt less overwhelming but more constricted. It was like I was in a safe space tainted with nostalgia, which made for a difficult re-adjustment to living at home. My parents took over the dining room, essentially transforming it into an open-concept work space where they spent hours making phone calls and updating Excel spreadsheets. They worked – and lived – in the same place, making it difficult to discern the time that should be spent on their jobs versus indulging in home life. Once again, the house didn’t feel like a home but now there was nowhere to go.
In the later months of the pandemic, my sister and I gathered on the couch in the den each night to watch movies. My father and I cooked dinner for the family while my mother cuddled with the dog in the living room. I sat outside in the backyard for hours of the day, taking advantage of the warm evenings where I didn’t have to be cooped up in the house. But the furniture began to disappear, either being sold or put in storage. Painters took over the kitchen and living room and the wooden cabinets were covered with a fresh coat of white. My bedroom door was painted over, as were the lime-green walls. The basement was emptied out entirely, no barbie dolls, Wii remotes, or bean bags in sight.
I will remember how the pandemic brought my family together again after many years of not living under the same roof. It took time to readjust to the dynamics of suburbia and having to adhere to the familial roles instilled in me since childhood. But it was also the final year I will spend in that house; the final time I would able to call 58 Claremont Avenue home.
There is still the stress that comes from selling one’s childhood home. My sister and I are both preparing to graduate, find jobs, and figure out where to live if not in the new house. There are greater consequences for these decisions; money has become a factor as well as distance to the family. My parents’ stories about searching for the perfect home and at the right price make more sense now.
That’s the price of suburbia; comfort and opportunity become entangled and confused. My dreams of success and future careers, or the blissful ideations of young love were generated wihtin the walls of my childhood home. But the world outside the confines of 58 Claremont Avenue are much more confusing and intimidating. There are other factors in play besides the wild imagination of a young girl playing with her dollhouse and painting in the backyard, like retirement, graduation, and making a living.
“We were waiting for when I retired one day to move,” my mother said. Working as a high school guidance counselor in a neighboring town for thirty years, my mother officially retired in December 2020 as a result of the pandemic. She could no longer provide the same support for her students virtually and there was no reason to live in Rye anymore.
“We timed it because of you and [your sister]. And I guess me,” she said. “We just didn’t want you to come home from college and feel lost, we didn’t want that kind of stress with so many other things going on.”
When my parents first bought the house, their taxes were less than $6,000 dollars - now, it’s nearly $28,000 dollars and no longer sustainable. My father said that the interest rates are lower now because of COVID and this is the best time to sell. Ultimately, the option to sell became a greater financial opportunity than the comfort of remaining in our home.
“I just cry everytime I think about it,” my sister said. “My life is there, all of my best friends.... You know I hate change and this is just too much. Every milestone of growing up, we were in that house.”
Since finding out the house is being sold, she has been listening to The Cinematic Orchestra’s song ‘To Build a Home’ on repeat for weeks. It’s her way of coping with the inevitable changes of moving houses, through the comfortable reminders that “this is a place where I don’t feel alone… where I feel at home.”
Only home has become a figurative space rather than a physical one. My house no longer resembles the dwelling that I grew up in, though I still hold these memories with me. I don’t know where I’ll be living next or when, and I don’t know how long it will take to call this next house my home without these moments of growth associated with it.
I’ll be returning to 58 Claremont Avenue in April, to say goodbye for the final time. I will only be saying goodbye to a staged house - the foundation of my childhood rather than the individual elements that defined my upbringing. The kitchen has changed, as have the dining room, living room, basement, and den. My bedroom is no longer lime-green, and my sister’s room is no longer hot pink. I’ll be returning to the house that I grew up in, only it’s not one that I recognize.
Because I’ll be moving to some new house that I have never seen before; there won’t be any portraits of my sister and I hanging from the wall and I will have to learn where all the plates and silverware go in the kitchen cabinents. When people ask me where I’ll be living after graduation I don’t know how to explain that I will be going to live with my family, but I won’t be going home. I wont be returning to 58 Claremont Avenue. For now we live in limbo, awaiting the final closure of the house and anticipating the day we move into the new house.
When I imagine myself driving past my childhood home in the next decade or so - like my parents have done with their own homes - I might think about painting in the backyard, movie nights in the den, or those pictures of my sister and I playing with toys in the living room. Perhaps I’ll recall all those people in the house for my grandfather’s shiva, or those long nights spent alone with only myself and the lime-green walls. For now, these crucial memories - good and bad - remain cloaked in nostalgia and the sentiments of my youth as I continue to search for the next place to call home.