The Doc Project·Personal Essay

How selling my parents' house made me reconsider what truly defines us

Richard Kemick pressured his parents ages ago to sell their family home — a split-level bungalow they owned for three decades. With the house now up for sale, Kemick wants to understand the place that they, as a family, constructed and how that place, in turn, constructed them.

Richard Kemick writes selling the family home felt like selling all 'archeological evidence that we exist'

The Kemick house, circa 1990. (Kelly Kemick)

During such troubled times as these, when the very concept of mundanity seems from another lifetime, the one place I have retreated into normalcy has been my dreams.

In fact, my dreams have become like infomercials in both their degree of tedium and their soothing, late-night comfort — the belief that a better world, one of genius inventors and an effortless utopia, is suddenly within reach.

Each night, the characteristics of these dreams differ slightly (once, I was inexplicably wearing rollerblades) but the gist is always the same: I am vacuuming the carpet, polishing the faucet, watering the ficus. And then, for the rest of the dream, I just stand there and gaze upon the shadowless shine of a freshly scrubbed tub.

It is, however, never Litia's and my carpet that I am vacuuming. Instead, the dreams always take place in my parents' house, the one that my brother, Tress, and I grew up in. It is the same house that is now up for sale.

Well, I mean, obviously not right now. It is currently a tad gauche to host an open house, but it was up for sale, and as soon as renting a U-Haul doesn't pose the same medical risks as Russian roulette, it shall be up for sale again.

Richard Kemick celebrating his fourth birthday surrounded by his brother, father and friends. (Kelly Kemick)

A house steeped in memories

Each great family has their home base, homes that define the dynasty: the Kennedys have their compound, the Mings have the Forbidden City, the Hamlets have Elsinore. Without 0001 Cemetery Lane, isn't the Addams family merely a motley crew of ill-adjusted albinos?

Our family has owned the same split-level bungalow for 30 years. And through these decades, the house has been subject to an unending onslaught of renovations; renovations which have been layered overtop each other like a geological record of our lives.

Richard Kemick, right, with his brother Tress at the Kemick house in 1994. (Kelly Kemick)

Pick a wall — any wall — strip it to the studs, and you will see the floral wallpaper phase, the baby blue period, the wood-panelling revival, the seafoam interregnum, and finally — now that my parents have started painting not for themselves but for someone else — the acquiescence into eggshell.

Then, too, there are the sections of history that have been ripped up and discarded, that now live only in recollection.

Once all Kemick's have departed from the house, how would someone standing by the dishwasher know that there was a time, however brief, that the kitchen once boasted faux-cobblestone linoleum, atop which we all danced and argued like we were centre-stage in some Dickensian musical? And so, in that sense, selling the house seems like selling our entire world, all archeological evidence that we existed.

The Kemick house lit up during the winter holidays. (Submitted by Richard Kemick)

Saying goodbye

The truth is, I pressured my parents to sell the house ages ago. It's been just the two of them for over a decade now, and their lives have slowly turned into a conveyor belt of chores. The lawn always needed mowing; the drain, unplugging; the property taxes, paying.

How tiring it all seemed, how expensive, how risky. Every winter they ascended the roof to hang Christmas lights as in a scene from Into Thin Air.

But wanting something and getting it are two very different things. Because ever since the Kemick house was put up for sale, whenever I visit, I feel like I'm saying goodbye to a family pet, one whom I left a long time ago, first for university, then for an apartment with friends, and then for the unfolding of the rest of my life, but always with the expectation that I could return; that while I could leave it, it would never leave me.

Because it's not just a house — it's an archive of art projects, an auto shop for oil changes, a graveyard for failed time capsules. It's a laboratory for curse words and a safe harbour for my T4s because how am I to know where I'll be in eight months?

It's the place I retreat to, either awake or asleep, when the world begins to crumble. It is the centre of gravity around which our entire family revolves. But when that centre is sold, won't we become planets with a lopsided orbit, wandering ever farther into some distant corner of darkness?

I wanted to write the biography of the Kemick house because I wanted to understand the place that we, as a family, constructed; and I wanted to understand how that place, in turn, constructed us.

About the producer

(Michelle Fleming)

Richard Kelly Kemick is the author of I Am Herod, a backstage and undercover look at one of the world's largest religious events. He is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards, an Alberta Literary Award, and was a Featured Artist on the Kemick refrigerator for sixteen years. He divides his time between Rossland, BC and Calgary, AB.