the words ‘good bye’ are said daily. we have countless euphemisms for our departures: “cheerio” “see you later” “ciao” but the words “good bye” suggests a certain finality.
i have said these words countless times but, today, i uttered those words, with finality, as i said “good bye” to the house i grew up in.
today was the hardest day. saying ‘good bye’ to such a ‘friend’ was the only time those words have strangulated. it was the only time i have felt a sadness unlike any other sadness i have felt. as i closed the door, for the last time, i felt something close inside me. it was final. something was severed, just as my umbilical cord was cut many years ago. i now had to breathe my own breaths. it was the first time i ever felt alone. it was the first time i felt real loneliness. i felt at a loss for a loss that was not yet gone. i felt orphaned by the searing pain of familiar nostalgia and the gnawing ache of a new melancholy.
today was the hardest day.
home is where the heart is and our home was filled with love. as i drove down our old street, looking for a place to park, i already felt an overwhelming sense of emptiness.
and then it hit me. this would be the last time i would ever return to this place. this place called home, to which i had returned countless times. this place was sacred. somewhere I knew would always be there for me from when i returned from my travels. this place was my rock. it was grounded. earthed. steadfast.
a light would always be left on. it was a place i knew i could return to and be safe when I needed to feel. to feel loved. to feel comforted. it was my home. it was the only family home i knew. this home was more than a house. more than mere bricks and mortar with a few roses planted by the door. my home was sentient. this home was my friend. and now i had to say ‘good bye’.
i parked the car outside and composed myself. i sat, gripping the steering wheel, and looked into the garden. a garden where roses grew. roses that my late father planted. a garden where ghosts of little Kathryns played. i could see them all so clearly. i could see a seven-year old Kathryn, with long blonde hair, playing with her little black poodle and giggling happily. i could hear her. she was truly happy and oblivious to the black clouds that would darken her future skies. i saw a teenage Kathryn sitting on the back porch steps, on a hot summer night, with girlfriends from school – music blaring out; and i could see her saying ‘good night’ to old boyfriends. i could see her returning home and the joy in my mother’s face, beaming, as she reached out her hands to welcome her, whether that had been returning from a trip to Sri Lanka or a trip to the local shops… my mother, she was always like that. always happy to see me home, safe.
but today she wasn’t there to welcome me. sadly, she is now in a care home. dementia has her in its vice-like grip and i cannot do anything to pull her out of its clutches. she is slowly disappearing from me and, in some strange way, saying ‘good bye’ to the home was like saying ‘good bye’ to her because she, too, was home. i have no idea where that home is now. but i have my own home, life, love and career and i am happy. i am happy that she could see me grow up and become the woman that i am today.
…today was the hardest day.
with a sigh, and heavy heart, i got out the car and went into the garden, fumbling in my numerous pockets for my key, whilst trying not to spill the hot coffee i had taken with me.
that garden. that garden was where i played as a young child. it was in that garden that my father taught me how to skip. it was in that garden i played with my rabbit, Benjamin. it was in that garden i would twirl around the clothes pole until i was dizzy and giddy. it was in that garden that i would sunbathe and it was in that garden that i would often sit and read on warm summer nights, drinking in the heady fragrance of night-scented stock that my father had planted beneath my bedroom window.
my father. i could see his ghost too. i lingered by the old garden shed and i swear i could see him in there, through the small dirty window. i could see his weather-beaten face. he looked as though he was working on something. as i recall, he would spend many happy hours in that garden shed, pottering around, making hand-sculpted wooden toys and odd boxes for me to keep my secrets in. or he would be sharpening his tools, the lawnmower’s blades or cutting the neighbour’s kids’ hair. he was always busy but he always had time for good people and animals.
i could see the ghosts of our dogs. i could see them running about the garden and jumping up to welcome me home.
there were no little dogs to welcome me today.
i climbed the steps and put my key in the lock and turned it open.
the sun-filled porch was warm and the air was musty and hot, like a hothouse. my mother’s bird of paradise plant stood alone. it took seven years to flower. i am glad she got to see this happen.
the back porch as we called it, even although, technically, was the front of the house, was a place where i would sit with my mother on lazy summer Sundays. we would sip iced lemonade and play Scrabble, or we would talk until the small hours of the morning.
there were so many ghosts here today…
i opened the door to home. the staircase was first to greet me. a staircase that was not just a means of getting upstairs, or downstairs. this staircase was an old friend. a place i would retreat to when i needed space from family gatherings. a place where i could just sit and be alone with my thoughts. thoughts often broken by the family dog licking my hand. that staircase held so many ghosts… as a child that staircase was a pirate ship, a jungle, an alpine mountain, the Empire State Building and a spaceship… that staircase was anything and everything that my childhood imagination could envisage. my friends and i played on that staircase. we would slide down it, head first… racing each other to the bottom. we would do this countless times until either my mother’s patience or the skin on my knees wore thin.
latterly, that staircase had a stair-lift. that had now been removed but the scars remain:
the carpet, discoloured; and holes in wall-papered walls where its fixtures once secured a safe means of aiding my mother’s mobility.
the dining room was bare. the dining table and chairs were gone. table and chairs. table and chairs where once we all sat around together to eat many a family meal together. ghosts of birthday parties. so many candles and wishes. so many Christmas dinners and crackers pulled. so many NYE parties, and so many times i sat at that table with my friends. so many ghosts here today – all seeking one more seat at that table. i could hear laughter and voices from the past. so much joy. all that remains now is faded wallpaper and cobwebs, with patches intact where pictures once hung.
the dining room now empty and forlorn. a room where there once was so much love. so much laughter, and tears. a room once filled with life and belongings now empty. a room where, as a young child, i would play with my friends. the old dining room table was not just a table. in the wilds of childhood imagination, it was a Sherman tank… a spaceship… a tree-house… a cave… or a place to hide when i hurt myself. i used to run and hide each time i hurt myself, as i was scared of pain. there was no table to hide beneath today. and i was hurting.
i took a deep breath and stepped into the living room. the ‘living‘ room. there was no life there today. it was empty. boxes of stuff sat in the centre of the room waiting for someone to make a decision as to what best be done with them. a lifetime of stuff, now in boxes waiting to be discarded. my mother, the hoarder.
before the wall unit took pride of place in my family’s living room, there was a piano. our family home was always filled with music. always filled with music, love and friends. so many family gatherings. so much joy and song.
this living room… this living space was once alive and filled with laughter; with love; with breath, now lay empty. loveless.
the old gramophone was, as a child, the core of entertainment. more so than the television. music was a big part of my childhood. the house reverberated with music and song, and i am sure i once heard it sing along. but not today.
i decided to take the old gramophone home with me. i have nowhere to put it, as yet, but it pains me to see it end up on a landfill site somewhere… unwanted and discarded as junk. to me it was worthy of saving, of salvaging. it was something i could cling onto as many hours of my childhood were had listening to scratchy old ’78s. jesus. what will become of them?
i look out across the street. houses, where friends once lived and hear the music that we all once took great pleasure in listening to.
and then there was the fireplace that my brother built, when he was learning how to work with stone and brick. it quickly became the heart and electric hearth around which we sat. me. family. friends. i would sit by the fire, on a cold winter night, basking in the incandescent warmth of fake coals and play solitaire or read; or fall asleep curled up like my dog, faithfully by my side.
but now the fireplace is cold. it offers no real warmth today. i could turn it on, but it’s not ever going to be the same. things have changed. my life has changed and like this house… this home, i feel it emptying of something irreplaceable. is this preparation for her death? is this symbolic?
this living room. this living space once filled with breath. once filled with laughter and love now lay empty. as i turned to close the door, i took one last ‘snapshot’ of memories but all that remains now is lampshades, covered in dust – the only tangible reminder of those who lived here lies in the minute particles of their skin as they slowly shed their mortal coil; and indentations and footprints upon the carpet – impressions of what once was there – a coffee table, sofas, armchairs… the shuffle of countless footsteps. footsteps that once danced, but now are crippled. these impressions will soon be gone and a new family will make this home. fuck. i hope they can make as many happy memories as i have accumulated over the past forty years.
but the ghosts don’t want me to leave. they are liveliest here. they beg me to stay. i watch them dance and play, and walk around and through me, just as i have walked through this house. this home. am i a ghost now, too?
this was once the liveliest of spaces. now it feels the most empty of all the rooms; except, perhaps, for the chambers of my heart. i linger and hear distant voices: my mother singing; my father’s laughter; old Hank Williams records, crackling. someone, please return the stylus to the start because i, too, feel so lonesome, i could cry.
and cry i did.
i hear someone play the piano… badly. i see the ghosts of old friends and family, baby nieces and cousins from Shetland. i see conversations dance before me; i can smell the sound of the old projector of when we would have family gatherings and plough through troughs of old photographs and super8 home movies. i can smell the perfume and feel the smiles of beloved aunts. i see so many bad choices of wallpaper.
there have been many tears, over the past forty years and more.
so i closed the door and broke down.
it feels like a loved one has died. for so long, this house was the only home i knew. it was where i learned to walk and talk; where i learned to read and write (thank you, Mum – for equipping me with these skills before i started school); where i also learned how to take a photograph, roller skate and jive; how to ride a bike (thank you to my eldest brother, home on leave from the Royal Air Force, for his patience and determination); and how to skip and knit… and kiss.
it is where i learned about life, love and loss. it is where i now learned about myself, that i am, perhaps, not as strong as i once thought.
i exhausted myself of tears, wiped my face with trembling hands and picked myself up off the floor and continued on my quest to say goodbye to this loyal friend; to say ‘goodbye’ to this house and the ghosts of former Kathryns… the ghosts of all tomorrow’s parties.
before heading upstairs, i ventured into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of water. but there were no glasses. no cups. no cups overflowing with love and hot tea. and so i sipped the cold water from my cupped hands.
our kitchen was small, but functional. and always clean and tidy. and there was always the fragrance of fresh laundry hanging in the air.
upon returning home, from anywhere at any time, my mother would most likely be found in the kitchen. she loved to bake and used to bake the most incredible scones and cookies. i remember, as a child, following her around like a greedy pup – waiting for her to let me scrape out the remains of the cookie dough. i can still taste its sweetness. sadly, due to illness and depression, she hasn’t baked in a long, long time but i can still smell that warm aroma of toasted sugar and chocolate.
i look out through the net curtain to the house across the street where one of my closest friends grew up. Linda. we were the same age and looked similar: two little skinny waifs with long blonde hair and huge eyes. hers green, mine blue. she was my soul mate and to this day, although we don’t see as much of each other as we perhaps should as life is short, when we get together it is like not one day has passed since we last hugged each other.
i see the ghosts of these little blonde girls, playing on roller skates or bicycles or running with kites. i see ghosts of them as teenage girls, standing on her doorstep and discussing what to wear to the next high school dance. i see it all: pages of those old teen diaries coming to life and i reminisce, with a smile. but where has the time gone? it seems like only yesterday.
i remember the Belfast sink by the kitchen window and how, as children, many of us in this street were bathed in the sink. this was mainly for convenience, i think… i hope! i remember the teasing of friends as those who were allowed out later than my own curfew would stand by the window, and laugh and point; and me gesticulating wildly and shouting back at them, laughing. they would only laugh until it was their turn to be the spectacle in the window. oh precious memories. my friends and i still joke about these moments to this day.
food was a big part of our family life and social gatherings. for many years, and much to the chagrin of my mother, i had no interest in food and she, my father and brothers tried everything from cajoling me, bribing me – even ridiculing me – in their attempts to coax me into eating. i had become a worry. a talking point. i received a scolding from a red-faced aunt. still, i couldn’t care less about food. i wasn’t interested. my cousin once highlighted to me that i once went through a phase of only eating food that was white. jesus. what a little freak! i would only eat haddock fish, boiled potatoes, pickled onions, milk, cauliflower or lean chicken breast. it was a major concern. so much so, my mother took me to the Doctor who duly examined me but seemed more preoccupied with the length of my eyelashes and my precocious stare than my incongruous diet. it was a relief to all when i became a teenager and becoming more interested in food. food and boys. i realised that the two can be fun. and so i learned to cook in this kitchen.
it was here that i also learned about the loss of another kind of friend.
i remember the dove grey and sky blue chequered pattern on the tiled floor. i remember finding one of our family dogs, Bonnie, lying dead there one Sunday morning. she had been ill – more ill than the Vet had realised. i remember the pain in my heart and the sound of my own shock and grief. i remember curling up beside her – just as i had done so many times before by the fireplace – cradling her cold and lifeless body in my arms and seeing a trickle of blood weep from her little black nose that i loved to kiss. i remember the sound of my heart breaking.
and as i close the kitchen door, i hear that sound again. as fresh and raw as it was that Sunday.
and so i ventured upstairs, one step at a time. it’s strange, but the wood of the banister felt unusually warm to the touch – almost like skin. it felt as though this house… this home… still had a pulse. it was like she was still breathing, and breathing with me. as i climbed the stairs, which seemed to be endless, i noted stairway walls anointed with the oily marks, from repeated hand placements; and the faded frames of blank images, where once pictures hung, often at odd angles. unambiguous; these empty spaces will remain, until my home’s new occupants paint over them. they are, today, the only proof of our lives here. they still, in a strange way, adorned the stairway – or gateway – to the quieter spaces in this home. spaces where meditative rituals took place: the brushing of hair before bedtime; the bathing; the faint mutterings of my mother’s prayers and the dreams. what dreams may come now is anyone’s guess.
i pause and take a deep breath, then step into my old bedroom. immediately, i am greeted by the same funky pink plastic lampshade i chose when i was seven years old. a lampshade i once so sorely wanted – now faded, jaded, dusty and discoloured. that pink shade saw many a dream and was a comforting pink cloud of solace on many a sleepless night. a pink cloud of optimism, at a time when my grief for my father completely overwhelmed me.
it was here, in this room, on this bed, that i was when i first knew real darkness. it was here, one Sunday morning in May, that my mother came to wake me to tell me that my father had died. it was as if someone took the sun from my sky. it was as though all the light from life was sucked out. as though the fires inside were extinguished. those screams of anguish and grief, i could still hear them. they were deafening. they are now recorded in the very fabric of this room. they still deafen and defy. if i were to touch those walls, i would still hear those screams, screams like those from a wounded animal.
my old bed, still covered with the furry horsey blanket -a gift from a favourite aunt, looked small. and yet, at some points in my life, this was my island, my haven – a place to retreat to and listen to the radio or to write in my diary, or a place where i would go to just to think… or disappear.
i removed the clutter from it and lay down on the bed with a box of old diaries, i kept as a teenager, and thumbed through them. teenage tales beneath a pink cloud brought a little light and humour into an otherwise dark day – despite the sunshine outside. i felt a smile break my fall.
i opened the old built-in cupboard and was immediately transported back in time. a time where i collected Ladybird books and erasers. although the cupboard was now empty, i could see my white ice-skates hanging up, and i could momentarily hear the slice of blades on ice; i could see, in my mind’s eye, my books – all lined up neatly; stacks of magazines, scrapbooks and old Polaroids.
i could also see a complete collection of ‘Family of Man’ magazines i collected a child. i was precocious. how many 9 year-old girls do you know that have such an avid interest in anthropology at that tender age?
a gentle breeze carried voices of children, playing outside in the sunshine, through the house. i followed the voices into the toilet and was touched by the sight of a picture of the sun my mother, in her early stages of dementia, had drawn and stuck fast to the toilet wall with sellotape.
it made me laugh out loud.
i ran my wrists under the cold tap and shook my hands dry, blotting the excess water on my jeans as, for once, there was no fresh towel. the children’s voices seemed to be getting louder. i followed them into the bathroom where i found the net curtain billowing softly in the breeze of an open window. the bathroom felt cold and airy; the blue dolphin patterned wallpaper, faded and peeling.
the old 1970s bathroom cabinet was open and empty. it once held a collection of toothbrushes, all in various states of fray; tubes of pile cream and minty fresh toothpaste, squeezed until every last drop was used, as though they had been passed through a mangle; bottles of clear Avon nail polish, with the caps screwed on squint and stuck-fast; a tub of cotton buds; a tin of Germolene ointment; and a box full of discarded dentures. like i say, my mother – the hoarder.
the upstairs landing, once filled with the fresh smell of pine-scented steam from hot bubble baths and the sweet stench of baby powder from habitual dustings. but now, only a strange smell of stale toiletries and cosmetics lingered there. no fresh smell of pine. and no steam. both the house and i had run out of steam.
i felt weary. exhausted.
standing at the entrance to my mother’s old bedroom, i caught my own reflection in the dressing table mirror. i looked empty. i looked lost. i looked dead.
i could not bring myself to enter. i could still smell her perfume. i realised then that i was beginning to mourn her, even though she was still clinging onto life. but that smell of perfume. Youth Dew. it was her signature fragrance. it is not a scent i care for, however, at this point in time it was the most beautiful aroma. it filled my lungs and evoked many happy memories of special ‘mother-daughter’ moments in this little room. this room used to be my room, as a young child. a room where my mother would sing me to sleep, or lie beside me and stroke my face until i fell asleep when i was ill. it was a room once filled with toys and dolls. fuck. how i hated those dolls. i used to ask my mum to chuck them in the cupboard each night as their dead eyes scared me. feeling brave, in the throes of that memory, i opened the cupboard. i was relieved to find it empty. no dead-eyed dolls glaring back at me. just empty space. yet in the mirror, it was my own dead-eyed doll expression that would now haunt me. taunt me. scare me. scare me of my own mortality and the harsh realisation that our parents are not immortal.
my mother’s wardrobes were now empty. this was a task i could not bring myself to undertake but never voiced my concerns. my sister-in-law took it upon herself to remove all my mother’s clothes and donate the best of them to the charity shops that my mother believes are worthy. i cannot begin to say just how much i appreciate my sister-in-law’s interception. it was a very mindful and kind thing to do. a task that i think, in hindsight, would have broke me completely.
with a heavy heart, i sat at the top of the stairs and cried so hard that i thought i would never be able to stop, cradling myself in my arms.
this was the hardest day.
Words & Images (c) Kat McDonald 2017
dedicated to my mother. they say home is where the heart is. she has my heart. she is, and will always be, my home.
for my birthday, i had a tattoo done of a little drawing she did of her and i… she says she doesn’t recall drawing it on my leg. [smile]
i intend to have her ‘doodle’ made into a necklace for her to cherish… as a ‘mother-daughter’ thing.