Tuesday 1 June 2010

Left home

Home is so Sad
by Philip Larkin

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

I used to think that it was imperative 
that a family home should remain
both a bulwark against encroaching age,
and a sanctuary for return.
But two things changed my mind 
and this poem confirmed it.

I only had one real childhood home
and believed it to be ancestrally ours.

We were a family of five, later joined by an elderly aunt

when she became too frail to stay in her own home.
My mother ran a nursery school
in one 'wing' of the house,

and so it was full from ground floor to attics.

Of course we grew up and left to study
 but still visited from not so very far away
(no heart-breaking emigrations)
and our spaces were filled for a while
with lodging students.
Its life was extended with transplants.

No real thoughts of leaving were ever entertained by my parents.
The prospect was too daunting,
but so was the upkeep and maintenance of this large house.
As the house emptied, it began to wither.
The piano was tuneless.
Weeds grew in the front drive.

The photographs, gold-tinged,
sticky in their stacked albums
show us as strangers.

When our parents died, within five weeks of each other
we had to empty the house with brutal speed. 

Now the house is sold and clumsily converted into flats.
I passed by once and felt nothing.

When we were looking for a larger home
 to fill with our own growing family
we blithely trotted round to view houses
with scant thought 
for the bereft owners.
 We coolly noted the peeling posters,
the graduation photos,
the sad soft toys
lined up on the counterpane
of someone's childhood bed.
(Shaped to the comfort of the last to go)
and thought joyously, 
 of how we would bring the house back to life
with our new and vital presence.
This was our moment and it had no conceivable end.

I could hardly empathise with them
until now.

So what's best to do?
No immediate decision is needed.
The house is still full,
but migrating birds depart swiftly.
Will we be ready
with a marvellous new plan?

Or will we stay
just a little too long 
with the soft toys, the Playmobil,

the music in the piano stool,
in case they might come back?


  1. In my experience, it's less wrenching and brutal if you are able to stay till you yourself are really ready to go, the last to leave, helped (in my case) by the clear message from the child who left that he is finished with this home. Leaving under duress, or because of age and incapacity, must be much much harder.

    What comforts me about handing this house on to someone else is that although I had those same optimistic feelings of what we could do to revive it, we bought it because it felt like a happy family home, battered though it was, and I hope that it still feels like a home to be happy in.

    And home being more than a house means that you can take the essence of it with you, or re-create it. If I were you, I'd take that Playmobil with you for future generations...

  2. You beautifully capture, and artfully show, how swiftly our lives move on, Lucille.
    There is something very poignant about just how ephemeral the family home turns out to be. Perhaps it's the contrast between the structural solidity of bricks & mortar, and the ever-changing nature of family life.
    Home turns out to be a stage. On it, our emotions are given full rein: birthdays, illness, celebrations, disappointments, romance, laughter, tears and sometimes great sadness.
    As in empty theatres, whose actors have left in search of new scripts, stand quietly and you can almost hear the whisper of past dramas.
    I forget who defined middle-age as the time when our children leave home and the dog dies...

  3. We dismantled the family home ( much of it went in the skip actually!)and moved many miles away. I worried we'd pulled apart a base, a home, a safe place, all that was familiar for our children, especially as the youngest was still firmly ensconced within its four walls! Now, some two years later I noticed after a recent visit from them, pairs of trainers remained in the hall. T-shirts, a rucksack, a jacket, a book, tooth brushes. "Not worth taking" they said, "We'll leave them here for next time."
    "Home," they agreed is wherever we are - and their trainers and toothbrushes!
    And although they no longer return to the home they grew up in, they feel at home when they're here. And all the memories we have as a family are wherever and whenever we are together.
    My family home was in Kensington in Abington Road. I left there when I was a little girl, but the memories and important things came with me.
    For me the hardest part of selling up and moving from our home of some thirty years was actually taking the decision to leave. It wasn't easy, but once reached it only ever felt the right thing to do.
    I've brought the Lego and Playmobil with me, I like to think it will be played with again!

  4. I did wonder when you said you were looking at Larkin, but Blogger didn't give me your email address so I couldn't ask.

    You must remember that his poems were always, deliberately, crafted to be miserable. Don't ever look to him for guidance or insight, or you might end up suicidal.

    Going back home is lovely. I go back home to my in-laws now - it is welcoming, warm, and it was never even my house. And the lego comes out for my children.

  5. You capture well the strong, mixed feelings of one's ancestral home. There are so many memories, sensory experiences embedded in our psyche.

  6. Oh, and one more thing. Are you the cutie behind the buggy with your aunt?

  7. You never really truly "own" a house do you? You just own the memories afterwards. How awful to lose parents within weeks of each other. I lost mine within fifteen months of each other and thought that was bad enough..........