I Never Thought I’d Move Back in With My Parents. But Here We Are
Coming home was supposed to be a short-term thing, but 2020 had other plans.
It occurred to me one night at midnight that I never really knew exactly how many clocks my parents have. I know it was midnight because as I was struggling to fall asleep in my childhood canopy bed, smushed next to my husband, I heard them all. Twelve dings and dongs ringing out from each of 13 different clocks, which, it so happens, have all been wound so they don’t strike in unison. This means that there are three and a half minutes of clocks proclaiming the stroke of midnight, like an overzealous bell choir that’s lost its mind. It’s … a lot.
We’re here with the clocks because back in April, a 100-foot pine tree decided it had had enough of standing tall and uprooted itself clear from the ground and onto our house, puncturing ceilings and walls with giant sappy branches. So we nailed bright blue plastic tarps onto our roof and siding, making our sweet pink-doored house look like a huge IKEA bag, and lived there for four months until insurance came through and construction could begin. (This was 2020; living in a house with holes in the roof was pretty on-brand.) When construction finally started, my husband, Justin, our three-year-old son, Quinn, and I headed five minutes up the road to stay with my parents. We swept into their pristine house like a tornado, a riotous tumble of energy, noise and crap: fleets of toy garbage trucks and construction vehicles, a bunch of stuff for a makeshift basement preschool, a three-story wooden fire station that would take over their fancy living room. Looking back, I wish we had brought more.
“So how long did they say this was going to take?” my dad asked as Justin and I unloaded the car. He was sitting in his maroon leather recliner, watching golf and sneaking potato chips, pretending not to notice that I’d just walked by carrying a small toilet.
“Not sure,” my husband answered. “Thanksgiving? Definitely by Christmas.”
As I put some things away in my old dresser, now a depository for tax documents, I felt a pang of déjà vu. It caught me rather by surprise; I’d been in this house countless times since moving out and had felt nothing. But I suppose I was never there long enough; I was never alone enough; it was never quiet enough for me to remember it all. And anyway, things had changed. My parents waited for my sister and me to move out and then promptly blew out the kitchen. They redid the bathrooms, too, and finally, mercifully, replaced some of their uncomfortable antique furniture with pieces that are (almost) downright cushy. (See: the maroon leather recliner.) It’s my childhood home, version 2.0.
But some things haven’t changed, and the déjà vu grew stronger in my old closet, where my parents now store my son’s toys. The closet is a minuscule room squeezed under a flight of stairs so that the ceiling slopes down into a big triangular wedge; you have to duck your head to walk in. This chunk of wall used to be covered in writing and speckled with stickers. It’s been painted over, but as I hung up some of my clothes, I remembered how it used to look, a dense mess of words that, if you untangled them, told the story of growing up: little notches in my mom’s handwriting documenting my height, song lyrics, poems, names of people my friends and I hated (someone named Shannon?), and initials of people we loved — EG + SB 4-ever, the SB crossed out with thick, decisive lines and followed by a stunningly long row of initials, each eventually crossed out, too, some crested with devil horns or dripping with tears. (Hey, love is hard.)
I finished hanging up my clothes and hit my head as I backed out of the closet. Well then, I thought as I closed the door. I guess that’s that. It had taken a while — I’m now brushing up against 40 — but I was back, solidly and unceremoniously, living with my parents, in the house I so desperately wanted to leave for a good part of my life.
Even though my childhood home is only five minutes from my current one, there’s a lifetime between them. But after only a few weeks, that lifetime seemed to be shrinking, two steps forward, five steps back. I’d been there less than three hours before my dad asked if I’d gotten my car inspected and my mom reminded me to make my bed. I’m aware that some level of feeling stuck is essentially universal now, thanks to the pandemic: stuck at home, stuck far away from loved ones, stuck closer to them than we’d ever dreamed. (In fact, thanks to the pandemic, more than half of young adults are back living with their parents again.) But me? I’m stuck in a time warp.
I’d figured that moving back home would be hard. I knew that we’d lose our privacy, our sense of normalcy, maybe our sanity — at least temporarily. I just never imagined that we’d also lose everything.
The warmest spot in my parents’ house is in the left corner of the dining room, just in front of the china cabinet. There’s a vent behind this cabinet, and this vent is closest to the furnace, so the air here blows out the hardest and the hottest. The trick is to crank up the thermostat, sit in front of the cabinet, tuck your feet underneath it, and tent yourself in a blanket so the heat gets trapped inside.
I spent a lot of time in front of this vent when I lived here. Much of it was convenience: Before my parents renovated the house, there was a landline phone in the kitchen with a long twisty cord that could stretch into the dining room. This gave me a small measure of privacy, so I could talk on the phone (undoubtedly to all the people whose initials were once on my closet wall), untwisting the corkscrew cord as the heat from the vent turned my toes red.
Like much else in my childhood home, I’d forgotten about this corner. I didn’t remember it until one particularly cold day in October when I realized that my dad had become even more stingy with the thermostat than he’d been when we were growing up.
“We do not need to turn the heat on. It isn’t even November,” he said as I stomped around the house, angry at being so cold. “Put on a sweatshirt.” I hadn’t brought any — how I wish I had! — so I found an old field hockey sweatshirt in my sister’s room, sat in front of the vent, and texted her: WHY IS DAD SO ANNOYING ABOUT TURNING THE HEAT ON???
I’d figured moving back home would be hard. I knew we’d lose our privacy, our sense of normalcy, maybe our sanity. I just never imagined that we’d also lose everything.
I’d been apprehensive about moving back home with my parents for reasons exactly like this, all the innumerable ways in which how we like to live our life could potentially collide with all the ways they like to live theirs. Things like how we make the bed (my mom irons her pillowcases; we, obviously, do not), how we spend our evenings (my patient husband celebrated his 40th birthday watching Law & Order at volume 65 with my dad), how we like to cook. (My mother, who only ever steams her vegetables, watched in horror as I sautéed peppers one night, reeling from the smoke and the thin film of grease on the stove; I’m now forbidden to sauté in her kitchen.) We are, praise God, on the same page about how to hang toilet paper (over, not under).
I was also discomfited by the perception of it all. Even though I know it’s temporary, and even though urbanists say that multi-generational living is the wave of the future — it’s at its highest point since 1950 — moving back with my parents makes me feel like a failure to launch, or, even worse, like someone who did launch, only to fall out of orbit and land right back in her childhood bed. This feeling is particularly strong each time my dad stops me at the door on my way out. “Do you have cash on you? You always need to have some cash on you just in case,” he says, flummoxed at the way my generation blindly relies on debit cards and apps. It’s achingly sweet, this moment, but when I replay it, it’s also sort of pathetic: I am 38 years old, and my dad just slipped me $10.
But the main reason I didn’t want to go back to my past is simply because I really liked my present. Our sweet little pink-doored house had become our sanctuary, with its window boxes of flowers that I could somehow never keep alive; the wispy bursts of lavender by the front door that I somehow could; and its big windows that kept the place sunny all day. The house told the story of our life through its scratches, dings, and, in the case of our downstairs bathroom, a chipped doorframe, a reminder of the time Quinn inadvertently locked himself inside and we had to break through the door with a goddamn chain saw to get him out. The house held our future, too, all its rooms shifting along the way: a family room becomes a play space; a spare bedroom, a nursery. Why leave that place for somewhere I already left?
Even so, I knew that moving home would have its perks, like built-in babysitters and backup when you’re in the trenches with a three-year-old. What I didn’t expect were all the other small pleasures, like the smell of my mom’s pumpkin bread, and little joys, like seeing my parents’ bemusement over Quinn’s pat refusal to wear pants inside. There are the forgotten comforts, too, like the vent behind the china cabinet, and the plastic rosary looped around my bedpost, a relic from Catholic school.
There’s also the weird but wonderful nostalgia that comes from seeing my mom with my son. One afternoon, I watched them play Candy Land with the old set we used back in 1984, long before Lord Licorice relocated from a forest to a lagoon and Queen Frostine was (unfairly) demoted to princess. I’m sure I played this game with my mom, too — we must have, even if I can’t really remember it — but on that afternoon, I was there again, three and a half years old, playing Candy Land with my mother, who was, I suddenly realized, far younger than I am now.
It happened again when I stumbled across the two of them, thick as thieves, pressing leaves between wax paper, and then again when I watched her tuck him in for a nap, carving out room for him among his stuffed animals. We let Quinn choose his favorites to bring along, capping it off at 10. My childhood teddy bear with the peeling velvet nose, who recently started wearing Quinn’s tiny blue hospital cap, just missed the cut.
My mom didn’t know back then that we’d have a long rough patch that would stretch throughout my teens, that we’d have fights that would leave her heartbroken and me furious, that I would slam myself into my dumb closet with my plastic rosary and pray that I could fast-forward time and get the hell out of there. She also didn’t know then that we’d someday become best friends, and I didn’t know that I’d grow up to be just like her, and neither of us would have ever suspected that all our steps forward would eventually bring us back to where it all began.
Of course, there are other things my mom doesn’t know. At the present moment, she doesn’t know that we’ve filled up her DVR with 57 episodes of Paw Patrol, or that we’ve ordered Quinn a giant slide for the basement, or that our pillowcases aren’t ironed, or that — oh sweet Jesus — my son just pooped on her floor.
One bright, sunny, hopeful morning in early November, exactly nine weeks after we moved in with my parents, our house burned down.
Well, I guess “burned down” isn’t the best way to describe it — more like “hollowed out.” The front of the house is still there — we still have our pink door — but the rest of it has been gouged out, just empty blackness, all of our belongings charred and scarred and burned.
My memories of that day are fuzzy. Someone told us later that four fire departments came, that at least one firefighter had to be rushed to the hospital, that it started somewhere around the construction site where the workers were finishing up, our Humpty Dumpty house only a few weeks away from being put back together again.
But I do remember the sirens and the smoke, huge angry plumes of it, which you could see from my parents’ house and from clear across town. My husband was at work, so my mom sped me to the house — it took us three minutes instead of five — and she held me as I fell to my knees and watched our sweet little pink-doored sanctuary burn and burn.
Now our property is ringed by yellow police tape, like a crime scene. There’s a new IKEA-blue tarp, this one bigger than a swimming pool, that covers the back of the house where walls and ceilings and floors and a roof should be. I went back to the house two days after the fire and peeked in a window that wasn’t smashed. I saw my son’s play kitchen, scorched black. Thank God, I thought, for the things we brought to my parents’ house. Someone pulled me away from the window before I could begin calculating all the things we didn’t.
The problem with living in a house that isn’t your own and with a curious three-year-old is that it’s hard to find a place to cry. Quinn is blissfully unaware of the fire; I guess we’ll show him this story one day, and he’ll marvel at what he didn’t know. In any case, I needed a spot where he couldn’t easily walk in and find me, so I shut my old bedroom door, unlooped the rosary from my bed — I hadn’t prayed in a while; I thought maybe it would help — and shut myself into my dark closet, where I heaved ugly sobs until I couldn’t anymore. In the groggy stillness that comes after a good cry, I thought about what we’d lost: all of our material goods (our books, our furniture, most of our clothes, everything in Quinn’s nursery), all of those steps forward, everything reduced to ash and glass and rubble and this godforsaken closet. I heard my family somewhere in the house, a squeal of delight from Quinn; a laugh, finally, from Justin; and my parents’ steady, calming voices. I turned on the light in the closet and sat there for a long while, looking up at the triangular wedge of wall that was once a makeshift diary of my life. It’s just a wall, I thought.
These are all just walls.
And so we’re here — still — and will be for a long time. All my reservations about moving back home seem so silly now, and all those sweet moments of nostalgia have become a lifeline. It will take at least a year, people say, to rebuild. Insurance will pay for us to make the house right, and we will. We’ll paint the front door pink again, although this time I’m choosing a rounded door, one that looks as though it was plucked off a quaint English cottage. We’ll hang up more window boxes, plant more lavender, and find a new bathroom door with a lock that can be opened from the outside, if need be. Insurance would also pay for us to live in a temporary house during construction — fully furnished, with truly cushy chairs, a functional closet that’s never been scribbled on, and, I am absolutely certain, way fewer clocks. But I think we may just ride it out here, with my parents. For now, at least, we’re home. And anyway (don’t tell Mom), I’ve already started our story on the closet wall, way up in a corner: EG + JG + QG, 4-ever.
Published as “Homeward (Re)bound” in the January/February 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.