November 27, 2020

Obituary for a Christchurch Home

This morning I received an email from the city of Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand:

“Our home moved on its foundations and the roof is ready to cave in. The stone fireplace fell and the chimney collapsed. The plaster on the walls has peeled like a banana.  The conservatory dropped, windows broke. Cracks are everywhere, especially in the foundations. The house moves, creaks and shakes with aftershocks, which are coming within minutes of each other. We have received the red sticker for demolition.”

I was asleep in Switzerland when the earthquake struck Christchurch. Twelve hours separated me from New Zealand – they were already into the next day’s afternoon. My floor trembled and I swayed against the door.

My childhood home was built by my parents on a hill that looked out over Christchurch towards the Southern Alps. We moved in when I was four years old in 1949. Calmed by the protective shelter of giant eucalyptus, which towered over our glass and stone house, I found a haven.

Months before, a fire had roared through our apartment building one night. When the fire was put out only the stench of wet cinders and a faint glow of broken beams remained in the dawn light. I could not get dressed – my shorts and sandals were devoured by flames. The little chairs and table where my brother David and I drew pictures evaporated, and even White Bear, who had never left me before, had disappeared.

But on Aynsley Terrace, a house rose up that would not burn down, a house designed by my mother, that had a room only for me, with twin beds covered in blue eiderdowns and a desk built into the wall. My father and I planted hollyhocks underneath my window and a china doll joined me for company. Terraces lead down to the river Heathcote, one terrace had an old walnut tree where a swing was placed. Ice plants and wild geraniums covered rock walls, built by my father with help from other family members. From the bay windows the green copper dome of the Basilica and the Christchurch cathedral spire reassured me. God was centered in our city.

When I saw on television that the cathedral was destroyed as if a bomb had fallen on it, suddenly I heard David singing and felt my grandparents’ presence next to me as we listened to him. For a time, David had been the choir’s soloist. His voice seemed to reach every corner of the high vaulted roof. I learnt that tourists had been on the cathedral tower when it swayed and fell.

Twenty-four hours passed until my loved ones were accounted for. I was aching for people I no longer knew – the girls I’d gone to school with who were now grandmothers, neighbors who had watched the city grow and had grown with it. My life in Switzerland continued, but part of my mind was roaming around the Christchurch streets as the dead were buried, possessions retrieved, lost pets hunted and cars dug from the mud.

When I was eleven years old I left Christchurch for the United States, never to return to the city, except for a three-day visit when I was thirty. My parents had taken us away as parents do, but I never wanted to leave. I thought it inconceivable that we would ever abandon the shelter of our home. But when a family arrived to visit the house and two little girls bounced on my blue eiderdowns and fought over who should have which bed, I knew again that empty ache of loss.

Over the years I grew used to the feeling. Good things happened to me and I moved on. But in my mind I kept a magic place and sometimes returned to it. I became a ten year old again, playing in the conservatory, living make-believe adventures.

This morning the email arrived. It came from one of the girls whose parents had bought our home. She moved in after her parents moved out and her own children had grown up there. She knew her home was beloved ever since it was conceived in my parents’ minds. I cried … no, I howled … not ashamed to admit that the house was like a member of the family. I am only grateful it did not take a human life when it died.


  1. Mary Parlange says:

    Beautiful eulogy to your childhood home, JoAnn. I can really see your room and feel the safety and rootedness you had there. And it’s wonderful you have kept in touch with the people who lived there after your family left! We also did, with the home I grew up in. A doctor and his family moved in, and they still own the house. I haven’t been back to see it because they’ve remodeled and I want to keep it in my memory just as it was when I was small. But they own another home in Santa Fe and I have been to visit them there.

  2. Susan says:

    Jo Ann,
    As i dry the tears that honor your very moving piece, i realize that i weep not only for your loss of a beloved home, but for all our childhoods, so short in actual years, so disproportionately long in memory. Your childhood and mine, populated by ghosts, live indelibly in our minds. You have given substance to yours so that i can see it, at least this little part of it. Thank you.

  3. Hoan says:

    This is sad, and beautiful. I find wonderful that, whatever life throws at us, most of us do manage in the end to retain foremost in our minds an image of beauty mixed in with the tears.
    Thank you, Jo Ann, for sharing.

  4. Thank you Jo Ann. For your thoughts and your writing.

  5. Bob Byrd says:

    Thank you for sharing your feelings about your home. I can only attempt to imagine how you feel by thinking of my own childhood home and the memories I hold from there. It may sound silly, but it makes me want to give you a long quiet hug.

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