Image Credit: Noah Spivak
By Jason Zweig | 2:00 pm ET Nov. 27, 2015
At least a decade before any of you are likely to be born, I’m writing to tell you things about home and family that took me decades to understand.
Already, in 2015, as the rate of home ownership has slipped to its lowest level since the 1960s, some economists think it could be in permanent decline. “The drop in home prices and the rise in bankruptcies after the financial crisis seems to have made many people suspicious of owning a home,” says Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale University who has studied the history of real-estate prices.
Many young workers — your parents’ generation — prefer renting a place to live rather than owning a home. You will gain a lot if you join them: freedom from leaky roofs and faucets, the ability to move wherever and whenever you please. But you will lose something too, and you should understand what owning a home means — or at least used to, before you were born.
This past week, just before Thanksgiving, my brother, Stefan, and I helped our 87-year-old mom get ready to move out of the house she has lived in for half a century.
In 1961, when I was two years old, my parents were roving northern New York state looking for a country house where they could escape the pressures of the weekly newspaper they ran near Hartford, Conn. Somehow they ended up in Belcher, N.Y., a hamlet of less than 100 people and more than 300 cows. The nearest stoplight was — and still is — 12 miles away.
Mom and Dad took one look at Hall’s Pond, a 20-acre sapphire-blue lake set down amid white birches at the top of a hill overlooking the Green Mountains of Vermont, and told each other they had found Eden.
They paid $13,000 for 96 acres, including the lake, two cabins and an outhouse, the farmhouse at the foot of the hill and the 2-acre pond across the dirt road from the house.
The cabins at the lake had no indoor toilets. Trust me, you don’t know how cold a winter can be until you’ve used an outhouse in northern New York State in January.
When my parents sold their newspaper business in 1965, they relocated to Belcher and opened an art and antique shop they called Eden Galleries.
Changing careers was nothing new for Dad; he had been a farmer, a competitive boxer and semi-pro baseball player, commander of a minesweeper in World War II, a political-science professor and, my mom working right alongside him, editor and publisher of prizewinning newspapers first in Ohio and then in Connecticut.
Dad’s wrists were so strong from milking cows as a boy that he could snap an apple in half with his bare hands — and yet he was so refined that he could recite hundreds of poems by heart. Standing in the living room this past week, I could hear him reading Shakespeare aloud to me and teaching me how to do the crossword puzzle as I sat in his lap as a young boy.
Dad died in 1981 after a long struggle against lung cancer. He insisted on dying at home, in his own bed, “with my boots on.” Mom still kept his ashes, and her mother’s, in a drawer in the living room.
She might be four feet ten inches tall on tiptoe and 90 pounds soaking wet, but Mom has the strength of a giant. Ever since Dad died, she has lived alone in the middle of nowhere, rejecting all offers of help from us and her neighbors. Profoundly hard of hearing, her eyesight fading, barely grazed by hip and abdominal surgeries, she used a long-handled grabber to pull glass jars full of pasta out of her food cupboards, which are so fully and neatly stocked she could survive a nuclear war. Until a few years ago, she mowed the lawn herself.
Only last winter did Mom finally concede it might be time to move. Belcher was snowbound in a deep freeze when the power went out for days on end. Mom doesn’t own a cell phone; we had no way to reach her directly and had to communicate through her nearest neighbor, Betty Osborne, half a mile down the road. At first Mom just put on a third or fourth sweater under her fur coat. Finally it got so cold in the house that she let another neighbor, Warren Cicotte, pick her up and drive her back to sit in front of his wood stove.
Florence Rudio, who helps her daughter Jill Fronhofer run the Black Creek Farmhouse Inn, a bed-and-breakfast a few miles down the road, tells me she knows folks who are so thrifty that they put antifreeze in their toilet tanks in the winter so they can keep their thermostats on 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m glad Mom never heard about that, or she would have tried it, too.
Dad wasn’t handy, but he tried. The bathroom is still lined in the slightly crooked tiles and gently wrinkled wallpaper that he and I struggled to lay down together. Next to the road is the stone wall that he built by hand.
Every summer we hauled rocks and dirt from our garden out to the center of the small pond in our rowboat; we dropped them into the water, and after a few years we had built an island. Wind and rain have shrunk it, but it is still there.
Long ago, Mom began turning the house into a museum of our family, especially of Dad. A home that once housed four people no longer has room for more than one guest; every cubic inch is given over to the storage and display of papers and photos and souvenirs. They seem to have bred over time, multiplying mysteriously in some kind of spontaneous generation.
“I have no emotional attachment to the house; I never liked it physically,” Mom told us. “But everything important that ever happened in our life as a family is here, and I can’t just leave all that behind.”
So Stefan and I spent days helping mom pack everything she wants to keep into boxes. Some, piled into the giant cargo van I rented, will go into storage near my house in Connecticut; some will go into storage in Stefan’s town in Alabama.
Almost none of it will fit into the single bedroom she will have in his house. But that doesn’t matter to her; the thriftiest person I’ve ever encountered, Mom is prepared to spend thousands of dollars to keep her things preserved, even if she never sees them again. “I just need to know they’re safe,” she tells us. Nowhere she can move to would ever feel like home to her unless she knows that her keepsakes are secure.
None of us know how many photos she has kept, but when we packed it felt like thousands.
The mementos have accreted in layers, like the archeological strata of ancient Rome or Jerusalem: Inside a 40-year-old cardboard box was the leather briefcase, with Dad’s initials in gilt, that she had given him after they married in 1951. Inside the briefcase she had curated a collection of important bank records, including check registers from 1976, the year Stefan began graduate school in Chicago, and 1979, the year of college I spent in Israel. In one of the inside compartments was a packet of old checks, including one from June 2, 1955, which my dad had made out in his elegant handwriting to the Mergenthaler Linotype Co. for $3,171.20 as a downpayment on a new typesetting machine for the Wellsville Press, the newspaper my parents were then publishing in southeastern Ohio.
Hoping to escape having to pack every single picture, I pointed to a framed set of photos of Stefan and me. “I think I’ve scanned all of those,” Mom said. “OK,” I shot back. “You can just leave it here, then.”
“You can’t just leave it!” she exclaimed. “If we leave it, somebody will throw it out!”
At that moment I stopped trying to bend her to my will or make her see my logic. “All right, Mom. I’ll pack it and take it with me.”
I had to let go of the fact that my mom couldn’t let go. Who am I to tell her what she needs to keep? Who is anyone else to define what “home” means to her?
Mom was so anxious to pack all her things that at first she refused to go to the farewell party that Betty and her other neighbors had organized for her on Sunday. We finally coaxed her into going. To everyone’s surprise — especially her own — she had a great time. When we left, the neighbors burst out into a spontaneous round of the old Dale Evans and Roy Rogers song “Happy Trails.” Mom said later that she couldn’t catch the verses, but it made her smile to realize that everyone was singing for her.
We had another responsibility. After 4 p.m. on Monday, the temperature had fallen below freezing when we walked across the road to the shore of the pond. The grass, stiff with frost, crackled under our feet. The moon, nearly full, had risen just above the tree line in the darkening blue sky, and the hills around us were turning amethyst in the twilight. My brother and I set the urns down on the grass a few feet from the water. We recited the kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, as loudly as we could so Mom could hear us. My voice cracked once or twice; it felt as if the ancient words were coming up out of my bones. After the final “amen,” my brother and I turned and poured the ashes, first Grandma’s and then Dad’s, into the cold, still water. We turned around, and Mom – swaddled in her faint-blue parka trimmed with fur, a gray sweater substituting for a headscarf, her white hair flaring out — had covered her face with pale hands. It was as if she had almost disappeared with the fading light.
Stefan and I put our hands on her shoulders. “Are you OK?”
She nodded and took her hands away. I realized she had been looking up between her fingers. She pointed across the pond, where the moon was mirrored on the dark water. “It’s the reflection of eternity,” she said. “Dad will always watch over us.” She took our arms and we walked back slowly to the house.
“It was a good omen,” she said the next day, when the bidders on the house finally accepted her selling price. “I could feel Dad looking down at us from above in that beautiful clear sky. Everything all at once seems to have fallen into place.”
A home is more than a house. In ancient Greece, home was synonymous with family, as in the House of Atreus chronicled by the playwright Aeschylus; in the Bible, the House of Israel symbolized an entire people.
“A rental doesn’t have the same permanence,” says Prof. Shiller of Yale University. “There’s an instinctive sense of territoriality shared by people and animals that a rental probably can’t fully satisfy.”
And a home is more than an investment; it is the place that helps shape who we are. Your generation, my grandchildren, may well be thankful that you don’t have to bear the burdens of owning a home — the mortgage, the maintenance, the pain of pulling up roots that run decades deep. My generation, and my mother’s, are thankful we had the blessings.
An abridged version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal: