The Heart-Wrenching Reality of Revisiting Your Childhood Home, Decades Later

Briana Haas-Zak

I can’t let go of my childhood home. That big, beautiful, brick house in Fremont, OH, has a hold on me much like the first boy I kissed. Even now, as a middle-aged adult living in New York City, I find myself pulled back to Wood Street even though the house was sold long ago.

Twenty-five years ago, in fact. Just as I was moving to New York to start my career, my mother sold the house where I had spent most of my life. I was suddenly faced with the fact that not only was I uprooting, I was simultaneously losing my anchor to my past. And yes, it hurt, more than I like to admit.

Since I returned to Fremont often to visit family, I’d also routinely revisit my childhood home. Much like a stalker who hadn’t fully moved on from an ex, I’d do casual drive-bys and admire my old home from afar. I’d often think about knocking on the door to ask if I could take a peek inside, but felt it wasn’t worth a restraining order.

Getting inside your childhood home

My childhood home on Wood Street

Briana Haas-Zak

These drive-bys continued for 15 years. Then lo and behold, in 2010, I was actually invited inside.

What it’s really like to revisit your childhood home

It turns out, a friend of mine from high school had bought my childhood home. Once he heard I was in town, he invited me to drop in.

To say I was eager to see the place would be an understatement. I imagined walking through each room, accompanied by my husband and daughter, while imparting tales of sliding down the staircase with cousins during holiday parties, or showing the exact spot where we put our tinsel-covered Christmas tree every year.

Unfortunately, my excitement was short-lived, as my friend had failed to mention that he was renovating the place, and had already ripped everything out.

While I hadn’t expected to see the same ’80s furniture and decor, I wasn’t prepared to see my home stripped bare. The staircase, which I’d remembered as so grand, now looked basic and unimpressive.

childhood home

The grand staircase, which seems not so grand now

Briana Haas-Zak

We made our way to my bedroom, where I used to cover the walls with rainbows and posters of heartthrobs like Rob Lowe, Michael J. Fox, and Barry Gibb. But now, there was no evidence that I’d ever been there at all.

I had one last hope: I headed to the closet. Inside, in a spot where you would have to know to look, I found it: I Love Mike.

This phrase was written by a lovesick teenage me back in 1987. By now, of course, Mike was long gone and forgotten. But seeing those three words filled me with a weird feeling that was both exhilarating and devastating, tinged with loss and hope all at once.

Unless you’ve discovered a treasure like this at some point in your life, I’m not sure I can capture this experience in words. But the closest I can say is that in an instant, this strange, bare, empty house felt like home. My home.

childhood home

In my bedroom before my heartthrob phase

Briana Haas-Zak

Why people have a hard time letting go of their childhood homes

I’m not alone in this strange, tortured attachment.

For many of my friends—both those who’ve moved away and those who still live in the same town—childhood home drive-bys seem to be a regular routine. Some even stop to surreptitiously snap selfies on the front porch before the new homeowners notice. One woman who lived too far from her childhood home to spy on it in person regularly resorts to Google Earth.

Some work up the courage to knock. And occasionally, they get invited in. Some find it to be an amazing experience. As one acquaintance of mine put it, “It was magical, akin to traveling back in time.”

Others, upon finding that their home is for sale, pounce on the opportunity to attend an open house.

Jennifer Winograd used this tactic to revisit her home in Houston. While it got her in the door, she wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be to see the changes that had unfolded since she’d left.

“The owners turned my bedroom into an office, and covered our beautiful pool with an awful koi pond,” recalls Winograd. It wasn’t all bad, though. Inside an upstairs closet, she located some sticky remnants on the wall from an accident with her brother’s Stretch Armstrong.

“We could never get all the pieces off the walls,” she says. “And, nearly 40 years later, it couldn’t have made me happier.”

So why do so many people stalk their childhood homes?

“Visiting your childhood home is about reconnecting with the innocence and the positiveness of a childhood gone by,” says psychotherapist Mark Jeremy Trybulski.

Trybulski even admits to doing it himself. “As we grow older, the memories of childhood fade and the home acts as an anchor in reestablishing one’s identity,” he explains.

Yet changes and renovations to the home by new owners can be jarring. One friend told me they were angry about a sports team banner hung on their old house; another wasn’t happy with the choice of “Smurf blue” paint.

How to revisit your childhood home without getting arrested

Since so many people long to revisit their childhood homes, I’m sharing best practices for getting inside when a drive-by isn’t enough:

  1. Just knock. Know that you’re not guaranteed entry; don’t take it personally.

  2. Ask for a tour. Ideally without the current homeowner! In my case, since a high school friend had bought my home, I was able to walk unattended with my family so I could be open and honest about how I was feeling.

  3. Be prepared for changes. Had I known what I was walking into, I might have braced myself. Even the smallest changes, though understandable, can really throw you for a loop.

Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote, “You can’t go home again.”

I know I will never again experience my dog playing in that front yard, or my brother trying to put out his latest fire, or me and my best friend sitting on the roof outside my bedroom smoking cigarettes. But that doesn’t mean those memories are gone. They’re with me. They’re also in my house on Wood Street, like ghosts that only I can see when I drive by.

childhood home

Me and my brother with our pets in front yard

Briana Haas-Zak

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Source: Housing Trends Feed