This Empty House

James Kerr

I STEP INTO THE OLD farmhouse where I grew up and am momentarily confused.

Where’s the blue sofa under the living room bay window with its plump pillows and cozy blankets that my mother likes to throw over her as she reads the morning paper? Where’s the coffee table with the covered pewter candy dish filled with M&Ms and Hershey Kisses? Where’s the rickety table where our family of eight crowded around for countless meals in the tiny but somehow adequate kitchen?

Then I remember: We took those items to Mom’s new apartment at the senior center when we moved her there six months ago, following her series of ministrokes. Since our father passed away in 2019, we’d done all we could to keep our 89-year-old mother in the house she loved—the house where she’d raised us and took care of my father after his own stroke. 

But the game was up. She could no longer be on her own. The senior center was not home, but it was a nice place staffed with kind, competent people who could look after her. She was safe there. It was the right place for her.

And so now, after 56 years, the old farmhouse was empty, and we need to figure out what to do with it.

Jim Kerr’s parents on the front porch of the old farmhouse. Photo was taken six years ago.

Deciding what to do with an empty homestead, and all the stuff in it, doesn’t often land among the list of life’s 10 biggest stressors. But for me and my five siblings, it’s one of the most difficult decisions we’ve ever had to face. 

Yet, face it we must, for the family’s finances depend on it.

All that good care at the senior home comes at a steep price, after all—specifically $7,500 a month. That money has to come from somewhere, and my parents were not rich people. Right now, we’re funding Mom’s care by pulling from a small sum invested in certificates of deposit. But at the rate we’re going, those funds will be gone sooner rather than later.

Our parents’ only other substantial asset is the farmhouse and the six acres of ground that surround it. At 300 years old, the house is in dire need of updating and probably not worth much in its current condition. But the land, surrounded by developments in a busy southeastern Pennsylvania suburb, certainly is. Should we subdivide the property and sell off parcels? Fix up the house and try to sell or rent it? Sell the entire property as it is?

Right now, we siblings are divided on the best course to take. My older brother would like to go the development route. But that plan will take time and money to make it happen, and we don’t have a lot of time and money to work with.

A few of us favor selling the property as is and being done with it. But that will surely limit its value and, if we go that route, we’ll have no control over what happens to the property. For all we know, the buyer could raze the house and build a McMansion.

The good news is, we’re a close bunch and we’re not about to allow the emotions of a difficult situation divide us. The important thing is our mother’s health and happiness, and we’re committed to doing anything we need to do to provide for her in her time of need, just as she and Dad did all those years raising us.

And yet it’s hard to stay unemotional in a situation like this. After all, it isn’t just a house. This is our home, our ballast, the very foundation of our family. Pull it away and what do we have to stand on?

I wrestle with the thought as I walk through the empty house. Ghosts dwell in every room. The dining room where we sat for so many holiday dinners. The parlor where we set up Dad’s cot when he was too weak to sleep upstairs.

Up the squeaky old stairs that have carried so many feet over the decades and where, one terrible day so many years ago, my grandmother fell and broke her hip. I remember looking down at her little body crumpled on the landing and hearing her pitiful wailing as we waited for the ambulance to arrive.

The tiny bedroom I shared with my older brother—how did the two of us manage to live in here with so little space? My parents’ bedroom with the mirrored dresser, queen bed and corner desk—everything in its place, untouched, as if in a museum. The bathroom where we found our mother lying on the floor that morning before the ambulance came and took her away for the last time.

The old cast-iron radiators. The too-small and too-few closets. The chipping plaster walls. When I was little, this house felt like a castle. But looked at through modern eyes, this old farmhouse seems suddenly inadequate for a family of four, let alone a family of eight. Who would want it? How is it possible that a family other than our own could ever live here? 

My tour of the upstairs complete, I go back down the steps and descend into the musty, low-ceilinged basement where I have to duck to make my way around. There is the freezer where my mother stored the vegetables she picked and bagged from the garden; the shelves once lined with jars of pears from the old tree behind the house; the chalkboard on the wall where we six kids would write our names and ages. My entry is frozen at the age of 19 when I was a sophomore in college.

Memories. Ghosts. 

How do you part with a place that made you happy? I don’t know. All I know is that every detail of this place is so etched in my mind that even when I leave it physically for the last time, I will be able to walk it every day in my mind. Walk the rooms, hear the laughter, smell the meals, relive the joys and traumas imprinted there. 

“What will you do with the house?” our mother asks us these days when we visit her at the senior center. She knows she isn’t going back there, that she’s too weak to go back there. 

“We’ll figure that out when the time comes, Mom,” we tell her.

That time is fast approaching. It will be a day of reckoning, a day I don’t like to think about. In the meantime, the old house sits waiting, its rooms quiet for the first time in 56 years.

James Kerr led global communications, public relations and social media for a number of Fortune 500 technology firms before leaving the corporate world to pursue his passion for writing and storytelling. His debut book, “The Long Walk Home: How I Lost My Job as a Corporate Remora Fish and Rediscovered My Life’s Purpose,” was published in 2022 by Blydyn Square Books. Jim blogs at Follow him on Twitter @JamesBKerr and check out his previous articles.

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