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PERSPECTIVE

Our Foundation

The demolition of my childhood home also bulldozed some of my fondest memories of my father.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anne Donohue
January 20, 2008

A bulldozer plowed into my childhood home in Needham a few months ago, razing it to make room for a new McMansion. A former neighbor sent us a photo of the bulldozer taking its first bite of our front door. The foreman of the demolition crew told the neighbor that the house didn't come down easily; it was well built, not a bit of rot in the 60-year-old wood. But more than lumber was lost that day.

I first learned of the house's impending doom on the third anniversary of my father's death. He put a lot of himself into that old oversize Cape. All that I can recall of my childhood and adolescence happened there - I was 7 when we moved in and 21 when I left. What I remember now is the time I spent with my father, puttering, wallpapering, and being his little carpenter's helper. Before we even moved in, I helped him renovate the kitchen. We were so caught up in the project, he forgot to take me to church. I arrived late in my white First Communion dress with sawdust still in my hair.

When I was 9 or 10, I helped him build a playroom in the basement. I was skinny enough to squeeze between the thin faux-wood paneling and the concrete foundation to pull through the electrical wiring. It was in that playroom, during a seventh-grade party, that my father came down to the cellar and yelled at my friends. They, in their adolescent wisdom, were using their heads to pound holes in the suspended ceiling tiles that he and I had carefully installed a few years before.

Like most families, we had our share of troubles. Once I kicked a hole in a door when my brother locked me in a closet. When I was in junior high, my father became deathly ill with peritonitis. I remember the doctor coming to the house - a rare event even then and a good indication of just how sick he was. It was in the front hall that my mother welcomed me home with a hug and told me my father had been given last rites. Thanks to that (or perhaps the experimental drug they gave him), my dad survived and lived for another 34 years.

My father and I were often at odds. He was the son of poor Irish immigrants but managed to graduate from Harvard. He had high expectations for his children and thought we didn't appreciate all we had. And while I'd never admit it at the time, he was right. He was always right. We jokingly marked the calendar on the rare occasion he could be proved wrong. I didn't deal well with his hopelessly high expectations. But working beside him on a house project, we usually got along. I was useful to him. I measured up.

When my parents finally moved out, I was 27, newly married, and I felt no sentimental attachment to the house. Family is about people, not buildings, I thought. But now, nearly a quarter of a century after I last set foot in the place, my stomach churns knowing that someone was able to destroy "my home" in a matter of minutes. Do the new owners know why there were cracks in the basement ceiling tiles at the old place? Did the McMansion builders realize, as they lay waste to our home, that my father, an early conservationist (or just a frugal Yankee), and I filled the attic with insulation during the energy crisis of the '70s?

I suppose change is natural, and people want to mark their turf. But there is something unnatural about tear-downs. They are brutal and profligate and final. A total loss. But beyond waste and excess, homes are the backdrop for memory, the setting of our lives. Years ago, I visited Ireland and saw the houses where my grandparents lived. I got a sense of what their lives must have been like. I wanted to be able to drive up with my grandchildren someday and say that is where I grew up, and where I got my first phone call from a boy, and where my dog died, and where my family lived and loved and fought and laughed. I wanted to find the crawl space off my bedroom where I hid the diaries that chronicled those years. And I wanted to show them what my dad and I helped build together.

I hope the children of Mr. and Mrs. McMansion have fond memories in the new place they build, and that no one takes a bulldozer to their life in the years ahead. But mostly, I am just glad that my father didn't live to see this day.

Anne Donohue is a journalism professor at Boston University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.


(Illustration by Katherine Streeter)

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