June 5, 2020 — Houses and Homes
After weeks of literally not leaving the neighbourhood, save for one solitary cycle excursion along the Rideau River, the kids and I finally undertook the 7-hour drive to my parents’ Bruce County farm during the final week in May. Jessie and Henry were really excited to go — Henry even compiled a ridiculously sweet Top 10 list of things he wanted to do there (“#1: Make Cake with Grandma”). Prior to the trip, I was feeling somewhat anxious about the fact that the daily provincial COVID-19 numbers weren’t going down — they’d actually been rising — but there were almost no cases in their region of Ontario. Of course this made us the risk — but aside from running and biking and as few grocery trips as possible, I’d been leading a pretty hermetic existence. It was hard to know what to do, but my parents and sister had really been encouraging us to come for the visit that had been postponed since Easter; as usual, it had been months since the kids and their grandparents had seen each other. I let myself be convinced.
Truth be told, my apprehension was not only virus-related. It was our first visit as a family of three, and the first time I’d seen my parents since I’d shared the news about the separation. Quite predictably, my ex-wife’s name was not uttered during our 5 days together; nor were there questions about our interactions, custody arrangements or anything at all, really, with the lone exception being Dad’s ongoing curiosity regarding how access to our car is being negotiated. (Safe topic — metal lacks emotions.) As established in my last article, not being asked is definitely worse. Though knowing how ‘adept’ my family — myself very much included — is at communicating, any broaching of the topic would have come as a surprise.
So there was that, hanging, and not exactly invisibly in the background given that Henry called and conversed with his mom more than once from the living room. But not in the foreground either, because that area was occupied by boxes of packed books and china. Several weeks earlier, almost shockingly, my parents had purchased a retirement house in town, after over 45 years in the same farmhouse, and over 50 years on the farm overall. Though a next step of some sort would have eventually happened, various options had been discussed for so long that the fact that a move is now actually quite imminent is still difficult to come to grips with. Jessie and her cousin Sadie got the books of photos out, and there I was, 8 years old, 12 years old, 17 years old (that flowing hair!), 30 years old (yes, I do still have that shirt), each time in the very room where we were flipping through the albums.
Not all good memories, mind you, and so much about the actual farmhouse layout has long driven me crazy. But after supper, when the kids went outside to take pictures of the sunset over the forest and fields from the back gangway, and to do photoshoots with, and yoga and silly songs on the lawn in front of, the ‘cows’ (they’re steers)… well, it was hard to not get choked up while taking in the panorama of my children happily immersed in the so-familiar and so familial landscape. “You’re gonna miss this when it’s gone,” sang Soul Asylum way back in 1996. (Absolutely the only thing about Twister that I can recall is the soundtrack.) Then, I missed home because I was gone, living in South Korea; now, almost a quarter of a century later, it will soon be the farm itself that disappears, that is no longer an active dot on the mental maps that Jessie and Henry construct to arrange and make sense of their worlds.
Instead, it will assume much the same role that the McCurdy farm has served for me since my grandparents relocated from it to Owen Sound in 1988. When I drive by my mother’s childhood farm and home, a place I visited and overnighted at often as a child, so many details of the property looks different that it’s hard to know which to focus on — my reconnaissance is “a search for a moment in the past that is now of course unattainable,” as Ian Tamblyn described the tale he wove in “Tiger Lily Road,” the 7-minute showpiece on his 2002 album Voice in the Wilderness (“that door, it’s not the same”). It’s hiraeth — a Welsh word without a direct English translation which means a homesickness tinged with wistfulness or longing for a past which cannot be returned to. The farmhouse is still there, but it’s now just a house, rather than the home I recall. The fact that it’s now my childhood home which is about to undergo this transition is a bit hard on my heart, even though the head knows that it’s an entirely logical move; indeed, it’s one that my sister and I have actively encouraged.
A house versus a home. An unscientific survey (of my itunes library) indicates that there are a lot more songs written about the latter, which seems entirely understandable as surely there’s a limit to what one can say about a physical structure without blending in all the emotion that goes with it and the people that live inside it. But that transition, when the home is vacated and sits awaiting, as a mere empty house, its next chapter, is a poignant and emotion-filled time for those with significant ties to the building (and land) in question.
Scanning through the home-themed titles in my collection, I landed on the 2016 bluegrass reworking of “Home for Sale,” by the underappreciated Dwight Yoakam — on Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…, an album title so tongue-in-cheek (it’s a sendup of The Beverly Hillbillies theme, reruns of which I often watched as a teenager after arriving home to the farm from school) that I totally missed the reference. Yoakam’s simple lyrics vividly sum up the conflicted thoughts which swirled through me during and after the visit:
Home for sale, that’s much too large
Too many rooms, big ole empty yard
Far more space than the owner needs
Price includes all memories
My parents’ home is not yet for sale. But very soon, it will be only an empty house.