Home for the Holidays

Home isn’t the epicenter of every family. For some families, home is more ground zero than point of origin. Though sometimes familial love is so passionate, so explosive, so tragic that it just can’t fit under one roof, that same love can transcend distance. And that makes it alright when growing up means going away, when moving on means never going back.

Sally Littlefield
Dec 17, 2016 · 6 min read

The first house I remember living in was the spacious two-story on Yorkshire. It felt like home because we felt like a family — my parents were married, there was a swing set in our backyard, and we had a pet dog. When we got the house, we also got the Lambs, the family down the street. Our parents were best friends, and the four of us kids were practically siblings. We fought over our communal BopIt, we stole each other’s fruit snacks, we fell asleep on each other’s laps in the backseat of the car on road trips. Summer meant the Lamb’s two boys, Bryan and Eric, and my brother Tyler and I alternating between days spent at their house and days spent at our house. My home expanded to encompass their house as well.

But then Bryan got sick, really sick. Then Bryan died. Whereas our large house used to feel empty without Bryan and Eric in it, suddenly it felt much too small to house just my parents, my brother, and I.

Grief can make people who love each other lash out at each other. Grief can make smart kids fail middle school English, and Grief can make their concerned parents express their hopeless frustration as anger. One such night, my dad hit Tyler. Dad stumbled out of Tyler’s room into the hallway, and I looked at him with shock. He met my gaze, muttered “He threw a globe at me,” and walked away.

I have to get out of this house.

It was clear my Dad and Tyler needed space, so Dad bought himself a cabin in the mountains. Going up there gave him some room to breathe that he didn’t have at home. It was his source of strength, and at the time, I thought he was the strongest person I knew. Things were quiet for a while.

When I was thirteen, Dad and his old friend from school, Dean, went up for a ski weekend. The first day of the trip marked the end of an era. The second day, Dad found Dean on the porch, a gun in his hand and his brain in pieces in the snow. That image got tattooed in Dad’s mind. It took up a lot of room. After that, he became different, distant, and I didn’t know him for years. He never went back to the house in the mountains.

I have to get out of this house.

I guess we thought that if we left our home behind, the ghosts wouldn’t follow us. So we moved across town. I set up shop in my new room, and I painted the walls orange to make it mine. Dad got a new job. Tyler and I started at a new high school. We tried to be new people.

In the wake of the move, Tyler changed the most. I think I noticed it before anyone else. Our rooms shared a wall, and sometimes I’d hear him talking to himself as I was falling asleep. “What does it mean?” he’d desperately ask no one. “What does being an adult mean?”

My parents noticed Tyler changing a couple months later. I was at a friend’s house when I got a call from my dad.


“Don’t come home tonight.”


“Tyler’s hallucinating. He’s throwing things, Sal, he hit Mom. It’s not safe. You still with your friend?”


“Stay with her.”



My mom took Tyler’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder the hardest. They’d always had a special bond, and they seemed to get each other on a level no one else did. As it turned out, this was because she had the same disorder.

Our house wasn’t big enough to contain both of their emotions, and they fed off of each other. When Tyler got angry and hit me, her uncontrollable maternal instinct to protect me would take over. She’d lose herself for a moment, and she’d hit him. Her love for both of her children was so intense, so overwhelming, that sometimes it exploded in ways she never thought she’d be capable of back when held her brown-eyed baby boy for the first time at twenty-eight.

“What do you want me to do?!” she’d plead to my brother in the aftermath, horrified with herself. “Do you want me to open up a vein? How can I get you see how much you’re tearing me apart?”

I have to get out of this house.

The next year, my parents divorced, a separation we all thought would be healthy for all of us. But it didn’t work out as planned. My dad did get his own apartment for a few months, but then we realized we couldn’t afford two rents. When my dad moved back in, he got the master bedroom, so my mom took my room, painting my orange walls a beige color she said wouldn’t give her headaches. I moved to the small room that had been her office. There was barely enough room for me, but it was mine.

It was mine until my dad would burst in to vent about how batshit crazy my mom was being, or until my mom would burst in to act the way my dad said was batshit crazy. She did love me — she loved me so much it hurt — but her love was toxic. Her love was violent. Her love found me like a guided missile when I stole away to my office/room to try to do my homework in peace. Her love complained that I loved my academics more than her, demanded I drop all my AP classes, called me a selfish bitch.

Once I turned sixteen, whenever I felt like the house was too small for the family that lived in it, I could finally just leave. I could mindlessly drive around town, track seven of Enema of the State by Blink 182 on repeat. I usually ended up right back where we’d started, back at our home on Yorkshire. I would stare at it through the fogged-up windshield of the minivan, and it would stare back, with that face I’d first noticed as a child: two window-eyes and one garage-mouth.

Why do bad things happen to good people, and why do those good people sometimes act like bad people? I’d ask it. How the hell did we get here?

The house never answered back.

Five years later, none of us live in that town anymore. My dad has moved to a bachelor pad in the city so he can learn how to be single. My brother’s moved into a rehab facility so he can learn how to be sober. My mom’s moved in with a boyfriend so she can learn how to feel loved. I’ve moved away to college so I can learn how to grow up.

Time may heal all wounds, but space is a decent shortcut. From our new homes in various cities, we’ve been able start the process of moving on. We’ve begun to develop our own identities outside of who we were in the context of the family. We’ve also learned to set boundaries with each other. Under the careful guidance of a therapist at Family Week at Tyler’s rehab, we learned to say, “I love you, but this is killing me.”

Some families don’t go home for the holidays. For them, going home is going backwards, returning to an ugly version of yourself that you’re not proud of. Rather than return to a home that didn’t fit any of us, each of us has instead carved out new homes elsewhere. When we invite each other into these new places, each of us understands what a gift the invitation is, that it symbolizes a trust and understanding we never had before.

It’s terrifying, it’s anxiety-inducing, and it always brings tears. But for the first time in a long time, it feels like home.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

Thanks to Kristen Wilson, Michael Mark Cohen, and Hayley Carter

Sally Littlefield

Written by

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

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