The picture that you see below is what has been the Balk homestead for the last 9.5 years.
And I hate it.
It all started back in 2007 when my parents were looking for a new house. Finding a house with a first-floor master bedroom for my mother, while staying in the same district for my sister’s schooling was a tall order. Yet, they found a house that fit their needs, and quickly pounced on the property the first day it hit the market. I was less than excited about the new house, a house that was significantly farther from the shuls I’d walk to on Shabbos and Yuntif. I’d try and find every flaw of the home and point it out to my parents: The kitchen is so ugly! The bedrooms have no lights! Do you REALLY want to live on the corner of one of the biggest, most annoying intersections in Shaker Heights? Sadly for 12th grade me, those complaints fell on deaf ears. I packed my room in early June as I was headed to camp later that month. I’d call from camp and dial a number that was no longer in service. I put the new phone number in my phone as “New House”, a contact which remains in my phone today. When camp was over, I had five days until I left for the year to Yeshiva. My parents picked me up from the bus, and as we drove a different way home, I quizzically asked “Aren’t you going the wrong way?” To my horror, they were not. We arrived to the house, I shudder to say “home” because it felt nothing like home. The five days flew by and before I knew it, I was on the plane, first to JFK and then to Israel. At 35,000 feet, I finally came to terms with my parents’ new house. After all, the inconvenience it provided me melted in comparison to my mother getting her life and mobility back. I thought about the time it would take her to go up and down the stairs of the grand, two story foyer in our old house. I still can’t believe she’d do it a few times a day. It made my annoyance seem so obnoxious, so trivial. I’d remind myself of that tidbit every time I’d make the almost two mile trek to shul when I’d come home. Every step is a mitzvah, I’d tell myself, although it didn’t make the journey any easier.
A few Saturday nights ago, my father called me and told me that someone had put a bid on the house. It had been on the market for a little while, and I was happy that someone had taken interest in it. The catch was that they wanted to move in very quickly, as soon as possible. I booked a flight home the next day, and began packing and cleaning up my bedroom. I found so many amazing things from my childhood, artifacts that hadn’t been touched in nearly a decade. Old speeches I gave, pictures with friends, other wonderful souvenirs from my formative years. Rejection and acceptance letters from colleges, that my mother had opened before I got a chance to do so. Meaningful, loving cards from my parents telling me how proud they were of me (and that I needed to clean my room). Items that shaped me into the very person I am today.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. As I lay in bed for the final time in my now “old” house, I tried to think about what it meant to me. The frustration wrought in the decision to move there, and the unknown in the decision to move out. And I immediately thought of my mother. It was her house. It was a beautifully open home, one that could not have been more perfect to host gatherings with throngs of people coming together (Sedarim, epic July 4th extravaganzas, her unbelievable surprise party celebrating her 5 year liver transplant anniversary). Her large bookcases from our old house miraculously fit into a perfect space, so perfect that people assumed we’d had these installed after we moved in. The house she’d come home to after various bouts in the hospital or physical therapy rehab, the one that would welcome her with open arms.
Ultimately, more than any of those other events, this house will be remembered by me as the house where we mourned my mother. The house where we were comforted in a time of great darkness and sadness. I’ll never forget the family, friends, rebbeim and others who came to pay their respects. I still get goosebumps when I think about Rabbi Penner, the dean of YU’s rabbinical school, flying in one of my rabbeim to visit us for the day. It’s been three years, but those are snapshots that will last a lifetime.
Our sages teach us that when mourning for a family member, it’s appropriate (when possible) for all grieving family members should observe shiva together in the house of the deceased. The home that someone has lived in is a place where their spirit continues to dwell after their passing. Although I can still find flaws with the physical structure, my mother’s spirit continued to dwell in that house.
But her spirit can also be found at the Cleveland Clinic. At Menorah Park. Park Synagogue. Bnai Jeshurun. Gross Schechter Day School. Fuchs Mizrachi School. The JECC. Heinen’s. Boris Kosher Meats. There aren’t too many places I visit in Cleveland that my mother’s neshamah didn’t touch, directly or indirectly. I don’t have to look too deeply.
These were the thoughts that ran across my mind as I stared at the ceiling of my bedroom on my last night at 2791 Chesterton Road. How could I sleep? By the time I finally learned to stop hating this house, my family didn’t even own it anymore. All I wanted to do was cry. The house that I didn’t even want to move to had moved me to tears.