Posted by on Nov 30, 2015 in Articles & Advice, Blog, Columns, Featured |

Image Credit: Noah Spivak

By Jason Zweig | 2:00 pm ET  Nov. 27, 2015

Dear Grandchildren,

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.

These days, Americans aren’t so interested in buying homes. The proportion of people who own one is around its lowest level in three decades.

Many young workers — your parents’ generation — would rather rent. Join them, and you will gain freedom from leaky roofs and faucets, the ability to move wherever and whenever you please. But you will lose something, too, something that goes beyond the question of your finances and building equity. And you should understand what that is.

This past week, just before Thanksgiving, my brother and I helped our 87-year-old mother 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 fewer 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 two-acre pond across the dirt road from the house.

With low ceilings, exposed beams, creaking floors and steps so small that you had to walk pigeon-toed to climb upstairs, the three-bedroom house smelled like dust and had changed little since it was built, probably in the 1840s. The water came from a shallow, stone-lined well that went dry almost every August, forcing us to haul buckets up from the pond.

Dad (your great-grandfather) had been a farmer, a boxer and semi-pro baseball player, commander of a minesweeper in World War II, and a political-science professor.

He died in 1981 after a long struggle against lung cancer. Dad 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.

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, she used a long-handled grabber to pull glass jars full of pasta out of her 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.

“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.”

Long ago, Mom began turning the house into a museum of our family, especially of Dad. Your great-uncle and I spent days helping mom pack everything she wanted to keep into boxes. Inside one 40-year-old cardboard box was the leather, monogrammed briefcase she had given Dad after they married in 1951. 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.

We had another responsibility. The temperature had fallen below freezing as we walked to the shore of the pond. The moon 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.

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. Mom 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.

A home is more than an investment. It is the place that helps shape who we are. Your generation may well be thankful that you don’t have to bear the burdens of owning one — 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.

Source: The Wall Street Journal


Note: An extended version of this article, with additional photos, is available here.