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The Fall of the House of Boylan

The Fall of the House of Boylan
December 14, 2011 Jennifer Boylan

The Boylan house, about 1920.

This coming weekend,  my spouse Deedie (“Grace”) and I will go down to Devon, Pennsylvania, to say goodbye to the house that my family has lived in for the last 39 years.  Since my mom’s death this July,  the family has been going about the necessary steps to sell the old house, and if all goes well, we will close next Wednesday, the 21st of December.

The last month or so– since we first accepted the offer on the beautiful old place–has been hard emotionally.  I guess I felt as if we’d said a proper farewell to my mom this summer– but turning our keys in the lock for the last time presents us with a new kind of loss, and this one’s not so much about saying goodbye to my mom (again); it’s about saying goodbye to our own history.

We moved into that place in the summer of 1972.  I had just turned 14.  For the next four decades, it was the “mother ship,” the place we could always return to, the place where we know our hearts dwelled.  Both of my parents died beneath its roof;  one of my children was conceived there.  It was the place where I lay on my back at age 15, dreaming of a future that I believed to be impossible.  It was the place where I proposed to Deedie, and she said Yes.  It was the place whose doors opened to me after I spent months and years traveling the world.

And so we say goodbye not only to a place, but to a connection to the people we have been.

I’ve been wondering about a proper ritual for taking my leave, and have asked a few friends about good ways to make this break.  One friend suggested “smudging”– walking around with a bundle of smoking sage leaves. Another said to touch every wall and say, “Thank you.”  A third proposed a three stage ritual, one for each floor– on the top floor, eat something sweet, and be glad for life’s joy; on the middle floor, eat something bitter and acknowledge life’s pain and loss; on the first floor eat something salty, and acknowledge life’s flavor and continuation.

I even got as far as imagining my “items.”  The sweet would be handmade chocolate; the salty would be a Philadelphia soft pretzel, preferably purchased at a WaWa; the bitter would be some Angostora bitters, possibly shaken into a nice Manhattan.

But I suspect all of this is too histrionic for me.  Instead I bet we will just drink a little Irish whiskey, sing a few songs, shed a few tears, laugh at a few stories.  A ritual only makes sense if you believe in its power;  and the power of Irish whiskey and song is what I suspect I will trust most at this hard juncture.

The thing is, I really do want to leave the house–this last, final time– with a sense of hope, a sense of completion, a sense of a cycle complete.  There’s no point to going all the way down to Pennsylvania just to make myself sad again.  I want to bid all of this bon voyage, with love, and sadness, and hope.

My agent Kris Dahl says that the Devon house has appeared in virtually every single thing I’ve ever written.  It appears in various guises in the stories in Remind Me to Murder You Later; it’s the model for the abandoned high school in The Planets.  It’s the castle in the Falcon Quinn series, and of course it stars as itself in my memoir.

The places we live in make us who we are.  I grew up in this rambling, elegant, slightly eccentric house, a place full of books and creaking stairs, empty rooms that no one knew what to do with; a living room with a warm fireplace.  There’s a windowsill on the landing between the first and second floors where I made out with the girl from London I wrote about in She’s Not There; there’s a walk around the block I’ve taken with my father and mother, with Deedie, and with my own children.

And yet, I’m not the first person to take my leave of this house in the last 100 years. The Hunt family– from whom we bought the house in 1972, and who moved in in 1949–had to pack up their things when their father died. Al Hunt, who of course went on to be a well-regarded journalist, wrote me when I told him the house was sold– “Just hope you all are as fortunate as we’ve been: turn that treasure of a house over to people who care, appreciate and will infuse it with the same joy it has enjoyed for past 62 years. I think about it most every day, wonderful memories: xmas eve parties, dinner table discussions/arguments, swimming parties, painfully small kitchen, monkey in the third floor bathroom, an exuberant feeling when I walked throough tbe door after any absence. I have a picture of that house in our bedroom.”

Yes, that’s right, he said monkey in the bathroom.  And yet Jesus the Monkey (so called because, well, what did people yell when they opened the bathroom door and saw a monkey swinging around the shower rod?  “Jesus!”) was not the strangest thing ever to dwell beneath that roof.

Here’s what we know:  soon a new family will live there.  The family in question is a lovely young family, with three small children, who– if the fates smile– will spend their lives beneath that warm, crazy roof, blessed by its many lovely rooms, and, above all, by each other.

I was blessed to have this house in my life.  And now it moves on.

There’s a scene in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” after Humphrey Bogart and his fellow prospectors are taking leave of the mountain where they discovered all the gold.  As they walk away for the last time, Bogart looks up at the Sierra Madre one last time, and says,  “Thanks mountain.”

For this strange, blessed, heartbroken, hilarious, joyful, tragic life,  so much of it lived beneath the generous eaves of my family home, I am grateful.

Thanks mountain.


  1. Mrs. Chili 13 years ago

    What’s the saying? You can take a kid out of Brooklyn…? or something like that. Just because you’re giving the physical place over to someone else, that doesn’t mean that the place will ever leave YOU. I have the feeling that house will forever be a part of your identity, regardless of whose name is on the title.

  2. Ed 13 years ago

    This is a beautiful tribute to your history. I will be knocking at this door soon enough – for now we’re still the DJ’s on Third Street. My mountain. Thanks for sharing yours so eloquently ~


  3. Flying Mermaid 13 years ago

    I admit to falling head over heels with that house, and wondering what happened to it. If I, a complete stranger, almost feel I’m losing a limb at the thought of that house being gone, I can’t even imagine what you must feel.

    But then, I can, really, having had to pack up the house that had been home to hundreds in the 53 years my family had it, after my own mother died a few years back. That was an overwhelming task on so many levels, only one of which being my mother’s hoarding behavior, never having thrown out a damn thing in all that time.

    My family home had no personality of its own, was built by my parents in the early 50’s, so no ghosts. The house was a blank slate, and had to create its own meaning from the stain of our adventures. But your house! Even thinking about it’s an adventure!

    Thanks for bringing the place so alive for us. Letting go will be hard, but you must be very thankful that you’ve bound it comfortably between myriad covers, forever. Lawd knows we are.


  4. Arianwen Morgana 13 years ago

    Letting go of this touchstone to your past is never easy. I have often thought about this situation with the home in which I was raised, as it has only known our family as its residents — my maternal grandparents built it (literally, as my grandfather was a friend of the builder and helped not only to put it up, but also was responsible for the second storey) just prior to my mother being born. My mother returned to this house to raise her family and still lives there with my sister and her two children. Letting go will be difficult, but the most important part of it will always remain with you — the memories. It is now time to let the house bless another family’s future.

  5. Cathleen Miller 12 years ago

    What a lovely tribute to home, how place shapes us, and to your own history. Thank you for sharing this. It makes me recall the place that shaped me and remember the sweetness, bitterness, and saltiness that is still held there. I hope your parting was gentle.

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