If I had to pick a word to describe my family dynamic, I’d pick houses. How we communicate and relate to each other is often through houses. Who constitutes my ‘family’ also comes from my relationship with houses. It may seem strange at first, to having a moving definition of who is your family. But that’s the thing; who I lived with and where I lived was never static. This was especially true in my late teens.
When I first moved to Michigan in the middle of the school year in 8th grade, we didn’t have a house for 6 months. We stayed in my grandma’s condo during that time. It had a weird layout with the 2 bedrooms being downstairs. One room was grandmas, and the other bedroom had 4 beds and nothing else. To be fair, nothing else would fit. My brother, me, my granduncle and occasionally my mom on the weekends all slept in that room. It was packed but I loved it.
It was a welcome contrast from our previous residence. We had moved from Indiana, where land was cheaper. It was massive in comparison to the condo: three stories that included a walk-in basement we absolutely did not need, an extra living room and dining room we hardly used, and a bedroom for each family member. It was the ideal suburban home, but it rarely had more than 3 people living in it. My dad was a contractor in the military then, so most of his time was overseas. He’d spend roughly six months in Iraq, then one in Indiana, then go back for six months. So my mom, my brother and me were it’s default occupants and we all grew to hate that Indiana home.
Anytime I was alone in that house, it became a monster swallowing me whole. The resounding silence, the dark empty rooms, and the inability to be certain no one was hiding in the basement. It was too large for intimacy. If you weren’t careful, you could come home every day to your family and be isolated. This wasn’t my family’s style. We craved family connection more than we craved privacy.
So in that tiny condo in Michigan, we flourished. My grandma didn’t. During those sixth months, my mom, brother and I were shopping for houses “fit for a family”. All had more space than we wanted. We started looking at condos, but none felt right. Then we saw a condo down the street from grandma’s; too nice to be true. It had 3 bedrooms, a view of a pond, more garden space and the bedrooms were upstairs. My mother was not convinced, but my grandma was.
My grandma’s house had always been transient. All her children and grandchildren were welcome to stay. None were expected to sell their house and move in, like my mom did. She loved us, but she needed her space back. So we bought her 2 bedroom condo, and she bought the perfect one down the street.
This is where the story gets complicated. My parents should have divorced when I was eight, but they decided that it would be best to wait until I graduated high school. Their argument was children with two parents present turn out better. I see their point, but that’s not how the situation turned out. To solve the “should be divorced but aren’t” situation, my parents decided to rarely be in the same country in the same time. My dad started first contracting with the military in Iraq for six months at a time. My mom stayed in America, working and supervising me and my brother. That is, until we moved to Michigan.
Now with another adult to legally supervise (my grandma), my mom was free to take the traveling job she always wanted. And she did, consulting mostly in America. Her life became like George Clooney’s in the movie Up in the Air. Gone from Michigan Monday — Friday, often a new location every few weeks, then home for the weekends.
I was 14 and my brother was 12 when this dynamic first started. At the time, we were abiding by a law that said “You can stay home alone at 14, but cannot supervise another person until you are 16.” This meant we could not spend the night in that 2 bedroom condo until I turned 16 unless my mom was there that weekend. My brother and I had our own room, but we never slept there. Instead, at dinner we would take the 2 minute walk to my grandma’s house and spend the night there. Most kids I know who live between two houses do so because their parents are divorced. I’m not sure what to call my situation.
We stayed this way for a year, then things changed again. My uncle, my mother’s brother, lived in this Michigan town too. He had a house pretty similar to the one we had in Indiana, located on the other side of town. When I turned 15, his wife went to NYC to pursue a career in finance. They no longer needed that big house so they sold it. My uncle couldn’t leave Michigan just yet though. So he and his 3 year old daughter moved into my grandma’s house. The same one my brother and I didn’t live in, but slept in. I often joked that during this time, we had a full family; a mom, a dad and 3 kids; they were all just taken from different parts. To this day, I still consider my uncle like a second father because of that year we lived in the same home.
I picked up a lot of strange habits from this family dynamic. Like always answering unrecognizable phone numbers at any hour because it could be my parents calling from a far country. Or saving voice mails from people I love, even the banal ones, in case I never see them again and I want to be reminded of their voice. Realizing there is a big difference between time spent together and quality time, and always striving for the latter. I never got attached to places as homes because I realized home was people. As long as my favorite people were there, home could have been a new bed every night.
There were some definite upsides to this upbringing. You learn to appreciate people and their time more. It easy to take someone for granted when you see them every day. It’s harder when those visits are limited. I learned independence young. In high school, I woke myself up, and took myself to school on time. A lot of days I could have skipped and no family member would have noticed. I’m a nerd so that never sounded appealing. I opened the mail and paid the bills. Sometimes even bought my own groceries on the bus. Besides money, I didn’t need my parents to sustain myself. It also meant I wasn’t forced into a relationship with my parents and instead could choose what to depend on them for. I never needed to tell my parents anything, but I constantly choose to let them know about the inner workings of my life. I think that’s fairly unique upbringing for a teenager.
Now that I’m older, this dynamic of how I was raised is hard to explain quickly. So when making friends, I rarely explain it anymore. However, it’s strange being friends with people who don’t know about my past because it was so crucial to my current formation as an adult. That’s why I wrote this piece. Now I can just send them the article whenever it comes up, instead of poorly explaining my history in parts. Each house in my life played a story, and now it’s written down for all to understand.