A Eulogy of Home by Clare Birmingham

Creative Nonfiction

2022 Cedarburg Reads Writing Contest Winner - Adult

As we say goodbye to 317, I find myself reminiscing about our days there to the point of distraction. Maybe it’s because I am sentimental, or perhaps it’s because I am beginning to build a house of my own, but I feel myself truly grieving the passing of this home from our hands into another’s. But how does one mourn the loss of a place? Can you truly say ‘goodbye’ to your childhood home?

If the saying goes that “a house is not a home,” then a home must be more than the wood, pipes, and nails used to construct it. And yet, Dad uncovered and refinished those 100-year-old hardwood floors, buffing them—and later protecting them from scuffs—with true love and dedication. Grandpa installed the hot water heater before his hands and memory became shaky, and Sean and I learned enough about the pipes in that house to become the designated plumbers in our subsequent residences. We made hundreds of nail holes in those walls to hang cast-iron trivets, a hallway of coat hooks, Opa’s drawings, posters of terrible tween bands, and almost 4 decades of anniversary pictures. We bled onto those impossibly slippery stairs and got splinters from the back porch floorboards—inextricably blending with the house far more tangibly than memories can manage.

But my goodness, the memories. We had some of the best parties ever in that house, sanctioned and otherwise. Our house was a scene, and so often a stage. We broke things and fixed things and made things there. We fortified traditions in that house that have since been carried outside its walls, across the country and the world. I still follow the mantras repeated within those walls: measure twice, cut once; say what you mean, and mean what you say; no socks on the stairs; even day, odd day; I love you, too. I know every harmony to every Beatles song because of the Sunday morning ‘Breakfast(s) with the Beatles’ in the tiny kitchen where Mom reigned. And I can still identify each family member by the creak of their footsteps—is there anything more wonderful than that? Another gift from the house.

I always looked forward to coming home, which was something many of my friends never understood. Growing up meant moving out, and moving out meant we were adults, and adulthood meant independence from the creature comforts of childhood homes, right? But the further I’ve moved, the more I miss things like how it always smelled so good—sautéed garlic, musty bookshelves, and Windex—and worrying over forgetting this exact combination doesn’t tug at my heartstrings, it yanks. So much more than just “smells,” the scent of the house was because we loved to do our homework and watch Mom cook with growling bellies and swelling hearts, we loved to buy used books so much we built our own library with bookshelves Dad made, and we really, really loved clean windows.

That’s not to say we didn’t have some fights in this house, and I personally know how great the heavy doors slammed. But I could always hear you pause briefly on the landing outside my door, resisting the urge to see if I’d calmed down. Sometimes I’d sneak down the split stairway to hear what you were saying in the hallway before coming to receive my punishment; the house had so many of these helpful designs. Learning the silent spots on the stairs was essential—the new kids in the house will learn that.

The house shaped us as we grew within it. The amount we swapped bedrooms proves how much we changed while living there, and how often we asked the house to reinvent itself alongside us; a bedroom became an office, the attic became a suite, and the front room became a bedroom, twice. Oma passed away in that front room and maybe that would scare some kids, but I still can’t imagine a better place to depart than in that beautiful, sunny nook. Our family got bigger in the house too, as future-fiancés were introduced, and pregnancy announcements made. Baby Elizabeth had her first Christmas there, with a truly spectacular tree in the same front room. The circle of life at its best, right under our big brown roof that was so hard to match siding paint colors with.

It makes me sad to think that my children will never have firsts in that house, but the fact that I’m even thinking about that just shows how much I took the joys of growing up there to heart. I want family dinner every night, no phones or excuses. I want a sunny spot to read in where I can hear birds and lawnmowers and kids riding their bike past, bound for a park where my name graces the ‘dedicated by’ marker. I want parties that take up the whole block, with bands playing on a quickly cobbled stage and whole roasted pigs. I want wine-laden holiday parties that last the whole day and consist mostly of laughter. I want my kids to wake up Christmas morning to smells so good they are equally excited for presents and for quiche. I want to see something handmade in every single room. I want to live a life of adventure that always ends with being happy to come home.

And you gave us all of that, House. I hope you feel we gave you something, too. Please know that we love you and all your idiosyncrasies. Know that we will tell stories of you and hang pictures of wonderful memories that happened within you for generations to come. Thank you.