Could i make the sylvanian families homeless?

Woman&Home - 2008

Elaine Kingett found the emotional challenge of selling the family home as tricky as the clearing out and packing up

It had seemed so simple. When my daughter, Lucy, 18, left home to join her two older brothers at uni, we would sell up in Brighton, downsize and move on. No more rambling family house with acres to clean and heat, no achingly empty shrine-like bedrooms calling out for lost children. I'd buy a bijou little number that I could fill by myself, the kids would manage when they came home, and I'd start a new life as a single woman with a dog. It was logical, practical and eminently achievable. But what I didn't take into account was the emotional.

True, I told myself, I needed the money to help out the kids and protect my pensionless old age (a bit extra for Botox and Restylane wouldn't go amiss), but when the time came to put the house on the market my head said "Yes" but my heart shouted "Whoa!"

I roamed around stroking the doorframes and gazing out of the windows, feeling like a woman condemned. Or maybe a woman twice bereaved. Having lost a husband some years earlier, was I now going to lose my identity as a mother and home-maker?

Despite the fact that during the year I'd fallen in love with a wonderful new man, I was grief-stricken. I knew there was another chapter of my life waiting, when my new man and I would eventually set up home in Cornwall, where he runs a business, but for logistical reasons that couldn't happen immediately. In the meantime, I planned to buy somewhere small in Brighton for me and Lucy, which would be hers when I moved to the West Country. But selling our family house was about leaving the past behind and it made me miss their father even more.

Spring arrived, I bit the bullet and signed with an estate agent, relieved that the property market had slowed and nothing much would happen. Then someone made an offer. Lucy was ecstatic and started scouring the Internet for a city centre des res with one bedroom and no outside space. I went home and wept.

Downsizing I could do – mentally – but the reality was harder to take. I did BIG houses – four-storey, Georgian Grade II-listed piles in Bath with orchards and cantilevered stone staircases. I'd given birth to my second son in a bedroom with original shutters and a dog grate, overlooking the house where Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones. When it came to property I was a snob. God, the years I wasted yearning after a "double-fronted"!

But it was the logistics that stopped me sleeping. I added important-sounding lists on to my laptop – to store, to sell, to take to new place – but when it came to making the decisions, I panicked and couldn't prioritise.

Admittedly, 27 years of kids, their friends, assorted pets and a love of socialising had knocked the corners off most of my furniture, but I still had a house full of family treasure. Every room told a story that had to be unravelled, stared at, considered and packed up or put aside. In my head I moved endlessly around, opening cupboards and drawers and staring into scary spaces.

The loft, visited only at Christmas time to collect decorations and stockings, was a particular nightmare. It overflowed with boxes, hastily taped up and filled with each child's evocative ephemera – drawings, school books, dusty holiday souvenirs. Under the cobwebbed eaves were chequered, woven plastic holdalls heavy with Lego and Scalextric. There were bin bags stuffed with "special" baby clothes that I'd saved for my Granny moment, and blinds that didn't fit any window in this house. My heart sunk when I remembered the piles of Rolling Stone and The Face magazines that I carted round because they might be "worth something". There were my dead husband's art school folders, books and lovingly made model aeroplanes that he was never going to come back for.

And how could I make the Sylvanian Families homeless? Or the Ewoks? When the children were growing up it seemed like family life would go on forever.

My sons had important work to do as well. Since they'd left home I'd been the caretaker of "things we do want but not where we live at the moment, thanks Mum". One had earmarked his Dad's collection of sci-fi, the other his vinyl. Pleas for them to make decisions had fallen on deaf ears. What was I meant to do with Jamie's old Amiga, Games Workshop figures or sheep's skull on a pole? With William's battered stereo, Japanese cartoon books or handpainted trainers? Was I a bad mother to suggest that they threw them away?

We had all come to terms with not living together any more but it seemed harsh to remove all the evidence. Jamie's bedroom had long since become Will's, then the lodger's and now the study; Will's was the sleep-over space for Lucy's friends, but as long as I was in this house, we all knew that their boats had not been completely burned for a possible return trip.

Practical problems continued. Ikea furniture was difficult enough to assemble, let alone take apart. I'd lost the keys to the window we'd prised open to get the sofas in. Who'd want a cooker that only we knew how to turn on with a chopstick? And can you store a terracotta pot with 10’ olive tree that was a present from your late mother?

Then one afternoon, ploughing up a windy field in the rain with two dogs in tow, my brain churning with the madness of it all, a light came on. I'd go through the house and if I didn't want it and neither did they, then it'd have to go but otherwise, it was my responsibility to organise the safe storage of my children's most important heirlooms until they were settled in their own homes. Suddenly, sentimentality didn't seem so silly.

I accepted the offer on my house, put it in a mental drawer marked "To be dealt with later", told my buyers we'd move out after Christmas, sorted a few books as a token gesture and went on holiday. It was only when I returned in the October gloom that Lu and I set about house hunting. We did purpose-built, we did conversion, we did new build, we did "needs attention", we did "over-priced with delusions of grandeur", we did "it's featureless, but hey, look at the price!"

All of it felt like punishment, none of it felt like me and the thought of my position being described by my children as "Mum's got a flat in Brighton" was depressing. It conjured a smell of cat wee and the dim light of a 40-watt bulb in a communal hallway.

Reluctantly I began packing. My friend Jan and I did a car-boot sale in her sitting room – a great success and far more civilised than a cold car park at 5am. I became a regular visitor at charity shops, now to deposit rather than buy. I was terrified by eBay, with its talk of PayPal and shipping requirements, and what if I got ripped off by a fraudster? I knew the opening times of the council tip by heart and I definitely believe everyone should experience the euphoria of triumphantly slinging that bag of rubbish into the pit. I booked a space at the local Self Storage.

Then plans changed again. Rather than buy anywhere, I realised in a falling house market I could rent – for me in Cornwall while I waited for my new man to resolve his own family complications, and for Lucy in Brighton.

My sale advanced. A survey was done, a mortgage arranged. No problems arose and my house slowly slipped out of my hands.

And that is what it's all about. Letting go and realising that it's not where you live that makes you who you are. Remember how you feel when you're on holiday? How you realise just how few possessions you actually need? Not the sofa nor the chairs, maybe the photos, maybe the dog. All the rest is surplus to requirements.