FALL HOME 2022 – The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted, delayed, or canceled various rites of passage for many. For me, it was saying goodbye to my childhood home. It simply did not turn out the way I had imagined — and it feels far from over for me.
I grew up in Newbury Park, California, an hour north of Los Angeles in the Conejo Valley. “Conejo” is the Spanish word for rabbit. In 1803, 47 years before California became a state, the Spanish government made a land grant and named it “Rancho El Conejo” because of the multitude of bunnies in the area. (Their descendants are still there.)
My parents moved from Long Beach, California, where I was born, to Newbury Park, closing on their newly constructed home on Aug. 20, 1971, just after my fourth birthday. They paid $38,000 for the four-bedroom, three-full-bathroom, 2,149-square-foot home on 0.105 acres in a newly built development named Casas de la Senda. (This translates to “houses of the path,” referring to the “greenbelt” sidewalk that ran behind all the houses and to the pool and playground).
This purchase was a stretch for them but they made it work, paying off the mortgage quickly with incentives from the bank that did not want to service the loan anymore because of the ridiculously low interest rate. That’s what being raised during the Great Depression and being particularly budget-minded and frugal will do for you.
We had looked at many model homes, and I remember “picking out” my bedroom in each of them. It was a shock to me when we entered our new house and I discovered that my room did not come furnished with all the pretty things I had seen in those model homes. I have clear memories of sitting on the uncarpeted stairs in that blank canvas of a house, grappling with this discovery.
A HOUSE FULL OF MEMORIES
As I contend with how to say goodbye to the home, a flood of memories surfaces.
For several years, the fields around our housing tract remained undeveloped. I used to walk on the dry, cracked soil barefoot, pretending I was in Africa. (I’m guessing my mother never knew that.) We used to hike the hills behind our home and be treated to mountaintop vistas of the land. At night it wasn’t uncommon to hear packs of howling coyotes in the hills.
Fields meant critters. Once we found a baby rattlesnake in our front courtyard. My brother valiantly beheaded it with a shovel, and our tomcat, Thomas O’Malley the Alley Cat (named after the character from Disney’s “Aristocats” movie), ate the remainder, rattle and all.
Mexican sheepherders brought their flocks to those fields to graze each spring during the few weeks we had lush, green grass. One year we even got to see them being sheared.
With no snow, we got creative with snowmen. We gathered tumbleweeds of graduated sizes, stacked them and spray-painted them white. We also turned a tumbleweed into a jack-o’-lantern.
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The street perpendicular to ours dead-ended at the hills. Before more developers came in, the high school marching band practiced there every afternoon. My friends and I would grab our batons and run down to watch the band and drill team. One time, a high school girl asked to borrow my baton because she had left hers in her locker. I didn’t know what a locker was, but I proudly let her borrow it for practice, awed that a “professional” had used my baton.
We had a small but great backyard. I had a swing set my mother had refurbished, sewing new seats for the teeter-totter herself. I got hours of pleasure from that thing. It was here that we raised guinea pigs, too. My father built elaborate cages with wire at the bottom that made them easy to clean. In the winter, he placed heat lamps in there to keep the pets warm. One night the lamps caught fire in the cage of our two calico twin-sister guinea pigs, Rachel and Rebekah. (Yes, they were named after the women in the Bible; my father was a minister.) My parents quickly extinguished it and the guinea pigs escaped unscathed.
We had plenty of fun in the development’s pool. I learned to swim there, and my mother reserved the clubhouse to throw me a pool party for my 10th birthday. She made spaghetti, and we ate salad with Italian dressing from little plastic margarine tubs turned bowls.
One year my parents planted a “dwarf” lemon tree. It turned out to be a full-sized tree and produced prolific amounts of lemons. We always had fresh lemonade. Once, they called the food bank and volunteers came and harvested nine grocery bags full. There were plums, too, courtesy of the neighbors’ tree, which hung over our fence on the zero-lot-line property. My mother made oodles of plum jam, which she served up on her homemade bread (the only kind of bread we ate in our house).
My mother planted roses. Those hailed from her own childhood in Saratoga Springs, as she took refuge from her abusive stepmother at Yaddo Gardens after the death of her mother when she was 8. I didn’t understand when I was growing up why we had roses, but I do now. She also grew geraniums in pots. Yaddo has potted geraniums now, so it makes me wonder if that’s why my mother had geraniums. (I do now, too, because they remind me of her.)
In addition to growing up there, I took my daughters for lengthy visits each summer, as that one trip was all we could afford at the time. We spent weeks there, and my parents got a good dose of their granddaughters. We had all kinds of fun, especially sewing and baking with grandma, swimming and visiting southern California attractions.
Saying goodbye to my childhood home is coming in stages.
One of the first was when I showed up unannounced at my parents’ home as the staff at my father’s adult day care program had suggested. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years prior. There was no place for me to stay, as my nephew, who had been living in the house for 14 years since age 15, had developed a hoarding disorder. He was systematically filling up the house, and I realized it was no longer the home in which I had grown up.
The stage following was when my brother and I moved my parents out of their home to an assisted living facility, an excruciatingly difficult decision, as my mother, too, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The house they loved so much had become a place where it was no longer safe for them to live.
The next stage came in the form of beginning the cleanup, which was quite a job because of the aforementioned hoarding. I saved many significant family items. (The “Indian Guides” shield that had been my brother’s and dad’s when they participated in that program comes to mind, and yes, I shipped it to my brother in Texas at his request.)
Much more went into a dumpster. Ironically, the hoarding actually helped me come to terms with the fact that the home of my childhood was gone forever. It felt like ripping off a Band-Aid.
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Another factor that helped me during this transition was the real estate agent, Craig Burritt, whom I had stumbled on during the height of the hoarding after I made a frantic plea for suggestions on how to deal with it on the “I grew up in Newbury Park” Facebook page. (No worries, my attorney vetted him, as he had gone to law school with Burritt’s wife.)
What I liked from the beginning is that Craig seemed to understand that there was much more going on than simply what to do with this physical structure in which I had grown up. He clarified options, never once pushing me to any particular one, and always offering his help no matter which route I chose. He knew it was an emotionally charged time. He wasn’t like some other agents who called me telling me they had a cash buyer for the house and I could sell it tomorrow. These offers also came by mail, which was interesting to me, because how would they know my parents were even interested in selling?
I began making repairs — tenting for termites and fixing damage, exterior painting, chimney repairing, patching a gaping hole in the stucco behind the kitchen sink they must have made to fix plumbing, and installing new bathroom floors and carpeting upstairs. At that time I thought I would be overseeing any renovations that would occur before a sale.
Still, my options remained: I could rent, sell as-is, or fix up and sell, but only when I was ready, which admittedly took a while.
When I was finally ready to deal with the house, the main decision to be made was to renovate it or not. My parents had worked very hard to purchase that home, and while they were still lucid they kept up with its maintenance and, to some degree, updating. It didn’t feel right to sell it as-is to someone who simply wanted to flip it for a profit. So I told Craig I wanted to honor my parents’ hard work and redo it to get a fair market value for the property.
The problem for me was that it was July 2020, at the height of the pandemic when airlines had barely resumed domestic service. However, it wasn’t a problem for Craig. He basically took on the mantle of general contractor, and work started in late August 2020, with one caveat: that he save me the footprint in the patio that my parents had me make when it was poured in 1971. He did.
Fortunately, I had reconnected with my closest childhood friend from Girl Scouts in 2017 at the height of the mess at my parents’ home. She was a doll, a true friend. She went to the house, and we communicated via WhatsApp, going through the remainder of items that were in the home, determining what I wanted to keep. Then she stored those items for more than a year.
The rest, I fear, went to the dump, which pains me, but COVID made it beyond my control at the time. The house went on the market on Oct. 24, 2020, the day after my mother died, coincidentally, and it sold on Dec. 31 of that year.
Craig was a professional through and through during the whole process, from clearing out to renovating to marketing and to closing, which was a blessing.
But this rite of passage of letting the home go has not yet ended for me. I never got to see the house redone, except in listing photos, and that bothers me. (What did it look like without popcorn ceilings, I wondered.) I never met the buyers, a professional couple with a baby, if I understand correctly. I liked that part. They were going to raise their family there and hopefully enjoy the home as my family had. (They were also savvy buyers, as Craig told me they had Googled me and found the article I wrote for The Gazette about deciding to remodel my own home while I could enjoy it, because I was very sad that my parents had not gotten to enjoy the total makeover of their home.)
These are the two main sticking points for me. I know I need to make one more trip to California to officially say my goodbyes. I used COVID as an excuse for a long time to delay the trip, but that’s no longer valid.
I don’t have any justification anymore for putting this off except for the unknowns I am afraid to face. One is that I wonder if the home’s new owners would let me in to see its transformation. I completely understand that they are in no way obligated to afford me this kindness, but I hope they will. Do they realize how rare it is that they are only the second owners of the home?
The second is the question of the cactus. In addition to roses and geraniums, my mother had a cactus that was her pride and joy. She received it as a favor at a work luncheon when it was about 6 inches tall. It grew so big that she eventually planted it in the backyard, where it flourished and grew to over 5 feet tall. Then one summer beautiful blossoms began to appear. The blooming period didn’t last long, but it was something we came to look forward to every summer.
I wonder if the new owners took that cactus down, not waiting until summer to see its glory. I’m afraid to find out. I did save cuttings, which grow in pots under a grow light and serve as a reminder of my mother.
It’s an uneasy place to be, putting off this one last trip, and I still don’t have it planned. It feels almost like if I don’t go, it won’t really be true, which is irrational, I know — the irrationality of a child, like the one who grew up in that house. I wish that saying goodbye had been a family affair, because I think it would have been easier, but that was not to be for us given my parents’ illness.
I know I’ve built this up in my mind to be more than it is, and the longer I wait, the bigger it gets. I’m just praying for the fortitude to do it, to put it all to rest and to move on.