Letting Go of Books and Houses

The House

The House

Last week my mother and her partner moved to a new temporary home, leaving behind the house she had lived in for the past thirty years, the house my father had planned and built before he passed away. Sean, Baby and I moved with them, at least for the next few days before going back to Canada.

I wrote the following post in December, when the idea that the house would soon be torn down didn’t fully sink in. Then I got busy—packing, cleaning, teaching workshops, visiting friends and family—and I never got around to publishing this. Now, one day before the house’s final moment (and two days before our flight back to Toronto), I read the post in the brand new apartment we all moved to and find that I lamented mostly about the loss of our books. Maybe it was easier than thinking about losing my childhood home.

Reading it now, it is the present tense that breaks my heart.

I’m posting it as is.

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I was seven years old when my parents started building their dream home. At the time, my family —father, mother and six children—was living in a cramped three-bedroom apartment in downtown Petah Tikva, thirteen kilometres east of Tel Aviv. My father was thrilled when he found cheap land in Mahane Yehuda, where he was born and lived until he was ten. The neighbourhood was a village once, a jumble of sheds and small stone houses, founded by Yemeni immigrants in 1913. Later, the city expanded around the village, swallowing it whole.

During the year it was being built my dad took us to the house every Saturday and we walked around the skeleton of it—all concrete and brick and poking metal wires—and imagined it alive. I still remember it new, the smell of fresh paint and sawdust and earth, the sheen on the tile floors, the promise of possibilities. It was a large, split-level house linked by many staircases, with six bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, and even a shower in the garage. The shower was a grand gesture from my father to my mother, the clean freak, installed especially for when we came back from the beach on Saturdays, so that we wouldn’t drag sand all over my mother’s new floors. From our rooftop we could see palm trees poking from between the smoky city roofs, hazy hills in the distance. And in the back, the eight olive trees my father had planted—one for each member of the family. An ancient lemon tree stood at the edge of the lot, the house built conveniently next to it so my mother was able to reach outside her kitchen window on the second floor, and pluck lemons off the branches. After years of sharing small living quarters, we were intoxicated by the spaciousness. The house felt vast, endless, filled with cozy nooks and secret places, and when my cousins and I played hide and seek they would run up and down the stairs until they were out of breath and they still couldn’t find me.

My father enjoyed the house he had built for less than a year before he suffered a heart attack. He was ill for a few months, and for a while there was talk of installing a special elevator. A contractor came by and drew marks on the wall where the elevator would start. My father passed away before it was set up.

Our heights etched into the doorframe

Our heights etched into the doorframe

In the thirty years since it was built, the house has slowly deteriorated. My mother struggled to maintain it while trying to raise her six children. What once seemed like a luxurious mansion is now a drafty, derelict concrete monster. The wooden shutters are crooked and missing slats, windows are wedged in their tracks, the paint is peeling and the walls are cracked, swollen with moisture. Half the outlets hang by a thread, the electric wires exposed. The front yard is strewn with weeds and wild life has been slowly migrating indoors: cockroaches and ants and mice. Pigeons coo on window sills and crows crowd the roof. In the yard, stray cats laze in sunshine and porcupines hide in bushes. Once, my mother found a snake in the kitchen. My brother killed it with an ornamental sword while standing on a chair. The house has been becoming less and less hospitable every time I visit. Last week, during one of the worst storms we had in years, Sean and I sat huddled by an electric heater dressed in coats and could still see our breath. We woke up to puddles in the living room and had to place three buckets in my childhood room, which quickly filled to the brim. The next morning, as I was snuggling my baby who was having her first cold during the storm, we woke up to water dripping into her crib.

“Maybe,” I told my mother. “It’s nature’s way of helping us let go of the house. So by the time they tear it down you’d be thinking Good Riddance.”

“Maybe,” my mom said.

The view from the roof

The view from the roof

They’ve been talking about tearing the house down for so long that it has become a myth. For the past few years, every time I came to stay it was the last time. But this time it’s really happening. Next month, the house will be bulldozed and an apartment building will be built on its ruins, where my mom and her husband will gracefully retire. It’s the right thing to do, obviously. We all know it. Accept it. But it doesn’t make it any easier. An act so violent, so final. An erasure of our past.

I volunteered to tackle the books. There were hoards of them. This was a house of eight avid readers, collectors and compulsive gifters of books (many were inscribed from one family member to another), shoppers at used bookstores, forgetful borrowers. After we left home, my mother and her husband collected the remaining books and created a library of floor-to-ceilings bookshelves in one of my brothers’ rooms. But there is no space for so them in my mother’s new apartment. The library had to be dismantled and given away, destroyed, much like the house. I started by dividing the books into ones I thought my siblings would want to look at first and the ones I figured we can let go of. Nissim, my mother’s husband who works in the flea market in Jaffa, said he’d take them to his bookseller friend. I started packing them into boxes but it was taking forever and was heavy to transport, and so Nissim came up with a better idea. He’ll open the back of his work truck and toss the books from the second floor window straight into it. I didn’t like the idea much. Like the demolition, it felt too harsh, too disrespectful. But there was so much more work to be done and I had no help and I was tired and so I agreed.

Then, over one of our last Friday dinners at the house, my brother accused me of throwing away books he had wanted to keep. Books that meant something. How could you know which books mattered to me? He said. These were my childhood memories. I felt horribly guilty, even after my mother assured me that she’s been telling my siblings they had to deal with the books for months now. That they all knew that that she’d be getting rid of them, and that everyone is just being emotional and sensitive right now. I continued to feel guilty even after my brother forgot all about it. When I asked Nissim if I could track the books down, he said they are all gone by now. “He only keeps them for a few days and then he throws them in the garbage.” My heart broke. I wouldn’t have done it if I knew, I told Sean. I thought I was passing them on to a book aficionado, giving them new life. I can’t shake the feeling that I committed some crime against books, and even worse, like I had a part in the process of erasing and bulldozing my siblings’ memories. These pictures I took when I could have still saved the books take on a new meaning now. (Of course, many of the books featured here I did save. They were my favourites).

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Don’t worry, I kept those. From left: José Saramago, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, George Orwell’s 1984, and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Oh, how I loved this book! Anne of Green Gables.

Unreturned library books

Unreturned library books

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Alice in Wonderland (also taken from the library)

Alice in Wonderland (also taken from the library)

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In the back of Nissim's truck

In the back of Nissim’s truck

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Poetry by Rabindranath Tagore

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Copies of my father's poetry book

Copies of my father’s poetry book

4 comments to Letting Go of Books and Houses

  • Our family had to do something similar when my parents sold their home. For 24 years we’d packed the house, basement, and garage to the gills with mementos. And for months my mom told my sister and I to deal with our things. Eventually stuff got tossed and my sister got upset. But she was avoiding dealing with it, possibly her way of not dealing with the sale of the house.

    As for the bookseller—there is no way you could have known. Very sad to hear, but not your fault.

  • Ayelet

    Thank you for your kind words, Monica.

  • So beautifully written Ayelet. And the pictures are well, breathtaking, pardon the cliche. I am so sorry that your father didn’t get a chance to make that house his home.

  • Ayelet

    Thank you, Dhana.

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