House

When is a House a Home?

What is a house? Is it just shelter?

For some people who may be homeless, an apartment is shelter. It can be a one room rental and still be home as well as shelter. What makes a house special? I think it all depends on who lives there – a roommate to share the space for company, a significant other, a spouse, a pet or family members.

During my early life I lived in a variety of places which took me from England to our first apartment in the United States. We then moved to a series of walk-up apartments before my parents bought their first home. This one and only house is where my parents stayed, never to move again. For my parents living in that house meant that they had arrived; they had their piece of the pie. They owned it and had stability and security. Sewickley home (2)

My brother and I did not live there long, but still called it home. After going away to college, neither one of us returned to that house to live. During my married life, I experienced living in several apartments, eventually we bought our first home, then built a house and sold the first one. We then transferred to another state, found a rental house until we sold the one we built. We then bought a house in the new state only to be transferred several years later. The saga went on. There were multiple moves after that. When do roots become important to promote that security and stability? One might say once children are born; yet we moved three children multiple times.

Each of those moves was traumatic for my kids and for us as parents because we left friends, but not so much because of the houses themselves. We left several really nice houses behind, but that’s what they were – houses, just shelter. Don’t get me wrong, leaving each of the houses was hard because they each had some unique feature. We do get attached to things. But the memories that were grown in those houses we take away with us when we leave. I have to remember this now as we contemplate downsizing and moving!

I suppose feeling that human connection in life is what makes us happy or leaving them makes us sad. What makes a house a home is the people in them or around them. This is what I found important in my relationships with houses. For my parents, they moved around a lot as well. Yet for them, finding an anchor was important, since their lives had been so unstable and disrupted during and after World War II. They also wanted to feel rooted to a community since they had no family around.

My mother lived in her little house for twenty-eight years, all by herself, after my dad passed away. She kept up with the house repairs and yard upkeep because that property was hers and ultimately too important to neglect or sell. It was only after her stroke when she could no longer live alone did she move out. It was very sad to have to sell the house after she was in a nursing home for over a year. I was sad for her; my attachment to it was only that it was her precious house. All she wanted to do was to go home.

The Kitchen and the Attic

These are my parents, Zdzislaw and Stanislawa Serbinski, who spent much time in their kitchen. My dad would start reading the paper with his morning coffee while mom did her daily crossword puzzle. This photograph, taken by my brother Andrew, is a special reminder of our parents.

The kitchen is a focal point of family life in most homes. It’s not just where meals are prepared but also where lively conversations start and stop, a gathering space for friends and family.

This kitchen was in the first and only home my parents bought after living in the United States for 12 years. The purchase was in the summer of 1963; they were proud. This kitchen is where my mother made her famous pierogi’s on a pastry board, on that table. She never had any counter space. The kitchen is where we would spend hours talking while I was home from college on breaks. This is the kitchen where mom collapsed from a stroke while making a cup of tea on the night of February 17, 2007.

This kitchen brings back many memories of time spent in that house. I was already in junior high when we moved in, so time living there was short.  But I spent more time there after my marriage, bringing the grand kids to mom’s house. My memories are a blend from several decades.

Unlike the kitchen, the attic was never a place where anyone went unless sent there on a specific mission. It had always been in disrepair, as I remember, with falling plaster and in need of paint. Mom did, however, do a lot of DIY repairs to it over the years, just like in the basement. By the time the house was to be sold, the attic looked good.

And then there were all those letters, documents and old photos up there too. Having found the box in the attic, with all the memorabilia that mom saved, set the stage for constructing the details of mom’s past. The joy of my life has been exploring the past – my mother’s past through those letters.  With all its contents, the box in the attic represented a link to those days which either brought a smile to her face or brought back horrifying memories, all of which defined who she was.

The box had letters written primarily in the 1940’s between mom and dad during the war, as well as communication with dad’s family during and after the war. Since my mom liked to keep anything sentimental, she even saved letters from me while I was away at school. Talk about a journey into the past!

You may have gathered that my family was not born here in the United States. Yes, my parents were Polish, born and raised in Poland. In the U.S. they raised two children to speak the Polish language and to like Polish food. The language is hard, while the food is often quite good, if you like it! To keep up a language when you hardly ever speak it is really difficult. The saying, “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” is so true. But I love the fact that I try to speak another language.

The journey into my mother’s life, found in Letters From the Box in the Attic: a Story of Courage, Survival, and Love, is my labor of love. She grew up in Poland, suffered trauma during the war, came to the United States where she and my dad hoped to experience the American Dream. They bought a little house in a quaint town with an inviting old kitchen and saved their memories in a box in the attic.

After much research, including travel to Poland, and letter translations, I started the writing process. Letter From the Box in the Attic will soon be unveiled. This post and others will introduce this piece of non-fiction, as I tell her story.