Earlier this week, my mom texted me a photo of our old house, the one I grew up in. She sold it and moved out in the end of 2012 when I was still living in New York City. My parents got divorced probably ten years ago at this point, and my dad bought a new house, but my mom stayed there for a few years, which I was relieved about because I was really attached to the house, even though I was no longer living in it. We moved in when I was four and a half, so for all intents and purposes, it was my home my whole life. Twenty years of memories were wrapped up in those walls and sprawled through the yard and neighborhood.
I’m such a nostalgic person and resistant to change, especially major ones, so it was bordering on intolerably painful for me to say goodbye to that house and lose what I felt was a big part of who I was, my concept of our family, and close the door on a very deeply entrenched chapter (or epoch) in my life. I was very torn up by my parents’ divorce and as far as I understand, my sisters and I felt the fracture in their relationship disintegrated something we thought was so stable at its foundation—our family unit. We were the epitome of a close-knit family growing up, since all of us are relatively antisocial. We tended to spend nearly all of our leisure time together, enjoying activities as a five-person unit, or in smaller subgroups of our clan. It was much rarer to have friends over, particularly adult couples that my parents would interact with socially. They invested so much time and attention into building strong family bonds, supporting our extracurricular activities, and instilling values and establishing priorities like good study habits, care for nature and the environment, and a simple life rich in love and happiness rather than superficial purchases of fancy clothes and makeup. I love the values and morals that I was raised with and very thankful for all of the effort and energy my parents sunk into caring for us and helping us have good childhoods that felt safe and full of possibilities.
My sisters and I were shocked when my parents separated, and later divorced. From my sheltered and outsider perspective, they always seemed to have so much adoration for one another, they enjoyed the same activities, had similar viewpoints and values, and generally seemed happy and content with their lives and the relationship. Even though I was no longer a child when they separated and as a young adult, one’s understanding of the complex dynamics of a marriage are better understood with that maturity, the severing of my parents’ marriage demonstrated the adage that you never truly understand what’s going on in the relationship between other two people, even if you’re privy to much of what goes on. They had had the quibbles and issues when I was young and their differences when I was a teenager that I was actually aware of at the time, but it all felt so minor in the greater picture of a 30-year partnership. Moreover, the fights or blips in their harmony I saw never seemed to be related to deep-seeded issues or ones that were non-negotiable, cannot-be-compromised major issues. For that reason, the separation blindsided me in many ways and it shattered what was actually an illusion but felt like a truth of a stable bond and family. I had many friends whose parents had split up over the course of our friendships, but it always felt like my parents had a secret sauce or a protective bubble against this unfortunately frequent course of marriages. They always seemed so synced up and like they were jiving in their thriving and not for want of something else.
Alas, I was wrong, and they went their separate ways after more than thirty years as partners. Mom sold the house at the end of 2012 because it was simply too large for her since my sisters and I had all moved out, and I think it reminded her of our “old” life, and that filled her with a sense of loss and loneliness. And so, basically on her own, she packed up the house and all the twenty years of belongings contained within and got it ready for market. She watched the realtors strip the house of its essence of being a “home”; they painted over all of our stenciled walls, washing every room in white like a blank slate. Our furniture was sold and replaced with neutral, simple pieces to present a clean, modern look to prospective buyers, free of character and evidence of being lived in and loved by our family. I barely recognized each room photographed on the MLS listing, as each room looked sterile and foreign, undifferentiated and with no hints to its prior life, the one I had known. Apparently, such staging of a house allows prospective buyers to imagine their own family and ideas coloring the walls and filling the rooms. The blankness affords the possibilities and personalization to take hold.
And it did. A family with young children purchased the house at the end of 2012. Mom packed up her remaining belongings and the lingering traces of our family’s stamp on the home. She moved to a quiet cabin-type house in a neighboring town and admirably started building a new home for her new life.
I felt like I never got to say goodbye to the house. It sold relatively quickly once it went on the market, and though I was fairly certain that my last visit home in the early fall before its sale would be my last time waking up there, I was too fearful and saddened about that reality that I resisted really saying goodbye to it and making my peace with my final smell, feel, and look around the home where I grew up. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, so I didn’t push myself to face the honest truth that that was no longer going to be a place I could call home.
It’s not always possible to get closure in things, whether a relationship changing or ending, the sale of a childhood home, or the splintering of what you considered to be a sacred and solid family unit. That lack of autonomously-controlled finality can leave one feeling empty and not at peace. Many endings are never going to be easy or devoid of emotional pain and loss, but the grieving process can be lengthier and leave deeper wounds when the change or loss comes suddenly.
One thing I’ve learned about myself is that as someone who really, really hates change (from the minute, topical ones to foundational and major ones), I can’t force the pace that I can let go of something and accept the new reality. I have to let my mind and heart ride the process they need to go through to make peace with the loss of the old and welcome of the new.
Many autistic people experience meltdowns and shutdowns with superficial and significant changes; I’m definitely not alone. Before I knew I was autistic, I used to try and pressure myself to “get over it” as quickly as I perceived others too and I’d try to force myself to not feel as deeply the pain that I did about the losses of things I treasured when the changes came against my will. In the past year or so, I’m beginning to see the flaws in this militant mindset. Then, not only am I grieving the loss and struggling through the change, but I’m angry with myself and ashamed of my perceived “suckiness” at handling the transition. Why chastise myself when I’m already hurting? I certainly do not try to wallow now longer than need be, but I do try to respect my emotional needs and the pace and process I need to go through for any change, be it small or large. The pressure and expectation to navigate this process against some “norm” or metric derived from something or someone other than myself only works to further cause discomfort and hurt. One of my challenges is transitions and I do best right now by allowing my emotional process to unfold organically, supporting my needs so that I can get through it as gracefully and quickly as possible but without applying external or internal pressures to do so in any set way or on any restrictive timetable.
I’m a lot more at peace about the house and my parents now. It’s still immensely saddening to see them apart and I’d be lying if I said I no longer pine for the days we felt like one unified, happy family. But I’m okay. We will never get that back and I’ve made as much peace with it as I can for now.
The family that purchased our house is still there. I hope they’ve filled those walls with laughter, happy memories, “firsts”, and lots of love. They’ve certainly turned it into their own. In the photo Mom sent me of its outside face as she walked by earlier in the week, the house looks nearly unrecognizable. Once white with red siding and then a light gray with a deeper red for the shutters as our home, their home is a deep purple eggplant with white trim around the simpler windows. I don’t know if it’s easier or harder to see it that way in light of it no longer being my home. I’ve heard they’ve made major reconstructive changes inside as well. I think that part is harder to come to terms with. But I’m much closer to “getting there” (a place of peace) than I have been. I hope they love the home and treat it well. The kids are lucky; it’s an amazing place to grow up.