Opinion: Finding Meaning


This Old House

Can I add my 2 cents to Laguna’s historic home preservation battle? Readers will recall the passing of my Mom at the venerable age of 101. Mom left behind a home she designed and built with her childhood sweetheart. Here, 10 children came of age and went forth. We were the Hellewells; this home was our crucible. When I walk through the empty rooms today I hear distant sounds, memories echoing. What to do with this old house?

There was some other property and our parents left one of those irrevocable trusts, vaguely worded as to purpose. We’re supposed to look after each other, but there’s no specific guidance. How could our parents have been so forgetful as to not give clear direction?

Our first thought was a quick sale to house flippers. They would update it with the cosmetic veneer de jour: stainless in the kitchen, grey carpet and paint inside, a brightly painted front door, some new plants in front, solar on the roof, whatever. Take the money and run.

It was hard to part with the home and all those memories. We were a different family, larger than most. As a result, money was scarce. We drove old cars and handed down our clothing. Dad grew a big kitchen garden and raised rabbits for Sunday dinners. We bought day-old bread and drank powdered milk. But we didn’t dwell on economics; as a large bustling family, we had our own vibe. We were the Hellewells.

Sell the home where all that happened? On further thought, we’ve determined to restore the home ourselves and rent it to a family like we were. When it’s served its final purpose for us, it could be a new beginning for them. There’s a wide range of skill and availability among my siblings, but we’ve gone to work as we’re able. And we’re talking. Arguing too, but speaking more than we have in years.

Turns out it wasn’t just the house that needed repair, our relationships had also decayed. Years ago, we threw a big celebration for our parents’ 25th anniversary. Looking back, it was the high point of our family. The older children were off to college, doing well; the younger kids showed promise. We gathered for a family portrait, in front of the fireplace. I love that picture—it caught us in a moment of innocence, at our peak.

Then the ‘60s happened and our home wasn’t spared the rebellions of that time. We were a religious family, but not all followed that tradition—a fault line through our solidarity followed by others. Childhood joy turned to adult rancor. We don’t talk about it, but some of us don’t talk to others.

Now we’re working more or less as a team to renovate the family home. It seems we’re doing better, communicating, solving problems. I get it now. The folks were smarter than we realized with that vaguely worded trust. Caring for our old home is bringing us together. It could happen to Laguna also. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email:  [email protected]

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