Moving often marks a milestone in one’s life. It could involve a new job, returning home to take care of a parent, beginning or ending a relationship, or just getting away from the familiar for the sake of adventure. Those turning points are, at various turns, exciting, terrifying, freeing, and lonely—and, in some cases, all four at the same time. To celebrate them, we’ve begun our “People on the Move” series, in which we’ve asked people to recount the most meaningful move of their lives.
At 15 years old, I wasn’t concerned about talking to my mom with tact or sensitivity. And so I had no problem telling her that I didn’t like the yellow Cape Cod–style house as we toured it with my sister Madison. It was settled beside a small Amish farm, atop a hill in Pennsylvania, and it was not where I wanted to live.
Unlike the apartment we were leaving, this house was really out in the country. It was a fifteen-minute drive to downtown Lancaster, and a twenty-five minute drive to what I considered my home, the town of Oxford.
In Oxford, I had built up as much independence as a 15-year-old could. The town, though little, made me feel like I could do what I wanted, go where I wanted, when I wanted. I got a job at a nearby Rita’s Italian Ice and enjoyed the ten-minute walk there and back before and after my shifts. I completed my papers and homework at a coffee and bagel shop on the corner of the main drag. I went for long runs down my favorite streets, where the dark brick Victorian-style houses stood taller and more eccentric than the rest of town. If I wanted space, I would leave the house and walk through the old, beautiful graveyard on our corner.
Our Oxford home was tall, with worn, dark-red brick and spiky, cast-iron roof cresting.
The yellow house was cheery and quaint, and the closest shop, a family-owned grocery store, was two and a half miles away.
At the yellow house, the Realtor led us around to a weedy, half-acre backyard, and as Madison tried to be encouraging, I interrupted with, “There’s no place to go out here!”
Anna, my oldest sister, had moved to Missouri three years earlier, and Madison was leaving for Pittsburgh in the fall to start her freshman year of college. I would be left at home with my mom, with one year to wait until I could get my license.
Despite my protests, my mom bought the house. I don’t think she told me until after the closing, and I don’t blame her. But after three years of courtrooms and, finally, my parents’ divorce, she wanted to build some stability. A new home, a new job, a new start.
I remember a big fight between my parents in which my dad made sure we heard every nasty thing he could think of saying about my mom before slamming the door behind him. My sisters and I huddled in the living room. And instantly my mom was there, down on the floor with us, gently asking, “Want to go to Nana and Pop-pop’s house tonight?”
We ended up never going back.
In the following weeks, friends and family opened their arms and homes to us, and we hopped from place to place until my mom found the Victorian house in Oxford, Pennsylvania.
It was more than we could afford, but it was also too beautiful to turn down. Hardwood floors stretched through every room, creamy white baseboards melded into creamy white walls that were crowned with decorative molding. The turret on the corner of the house made our living room a rounded half-circle with large windows.
My Pop-pop designed a bunk bed with tall legs so that Anna’s trundle bed fit beneath it and we could all share the back bedroom. Mom picked up even more hours as a medical transcriptionist and used the front room as her bedroom and office, clicking away late into the night.
I loved that house. And at the time, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It was where I became close friends with Madison. It was where I discovered music, art, and writing. My identity, interests, and independence were born in Oxford, which is why I considered it importantly and intricately connected with who I thought I was.
But it was also where I grew angry and defiant, and where I collected and mounted up in the space between us any mistakes I had seen my mother make. Instead of talking with her about the ways I felt hurt or abandoned, I skipped to frustration, disappointment, and escape.
In Oxford, I could get my distance. I thought that independence equaled strength, that respect had to be earned, and that rebellion was my right.
This new house felt like a little yellow box in the middle of nowhere. It looked like way too much Mother-daughter one-on-one time.
My mom and I lived in the yellow house for three years, until I moved to Chattanooga to study English at a college there. I met a kind and quirky Georgia boy named Ben, whom I would later marry.
Throughout the first few years of college, I’d travel back home for the big holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But before the Easter of my junior year, my mom invited Ben and me up to Pennsylvania with promises of a delicious holiday dinner.
As Ben and I drove north, the landscape transformed, as I had seen it do before, from the mountains and flatlands of Tennessee to the rolling, lush green fields of Pennsylvania.
We arrived at 2:00 a.m. and slipped quietly inside. The darkness of the house reminded me of the many nights when my mom and I were jolted awake by the ringing of her phone, which was always set on the highest volume so that she wouldn’t sleep through any of her on-call shifts for the hospital.
She’d gone back to school for ultrasound technology so that she could handle the upcoming college tuition payments for me and my sisters. She worked long day shifts and then took calls all through the night. I remember hearing her from across the hall. “All right,” she would say. “I’ll be there in thirty minutes.” I dreaded those phone calls because I knew how exhausted she would be for her seven o’clock shift the next morning, and how still and empty the house would feel when she left.
I would hear her run downstairs, click on the coffee maker, and pull on her sneakers and windbreaker. Soon the door would slam shut, and the silence that followed gaped in contrast. I’d lie awake, sometimes until the sky began to lighten.
In the morning, she’d be back at home, and we’d scramble eggs and eat together before her next shift.
My mom’s endurance never wavered. Though tired, she never made excuses or called out. She didn’t decide that working hard hours day after day was a reason to throw up her hands and quit. She didn’t hesitate or question whether all her hard work to take care of us was worth it, even during the moments when I was hateful and angry.
One morning, I wrote a note on a scrap of paper and stuck it in her bag, asking if she’d want to go on a bike ride when she got home.
She never showed surprise or confusion when I reached out. She just rolled with it, as if she’d been waiting and expecting me to ask.
When Ben and I awoke the first morning of our visit, we drifted into the kitchen and looked out to the backyard, which runs flat until Mom’s property line, where it then slopes steeply and suddenly down to a farmer’s field. We watched as two black cows seemed to teeter on the horizon.
My mom had already left for her early-morning shift at the hospital, and I found a note written in her slanted, looping cursive. Sometimes, if I’m not paying attention, my handwriting looks just like hers. Her message was both loving and over-instructive.
“Check the cabinets for some cereal,” I read aloud as Ben removed two white coffee mugs from the shelf.
I found the cabinet stocked with quinoa, split peas, chia, hemp, flax seeds, and her favorite cereal, Blueberry Morning. There was also a shiny silver bag of Peppermint Patties and a cream-colored box of chai. I recalled many nights when we would sit at the kitchen table after dinner, eating Peppermint Patties and drinking tea (our idea of a healthier dessert).
Over time, we built many little traditions together, making as much as we could of the time she wasn’t working. We’d ride our bikes for miles up and down the hills along her country road. We’d sit together, listening to audiobooks, as she worked on one of her quilts and I painted or made leather journals. We learned to play volleyball together, hiked different trails every week, and took day trips to small towns and nearby beaches we’d never seen before.
On Easter Sunday, the whole family came over. Mom had cleaned and decorated. She’d added a few leaves to the large oak dining-room table, cut a bundle of forsythia branches to decorate the long wooden cabinet against the sidewall and the antique radio that had once belonged to my great-grandfather. We circled the table, tucking rustic napkins under the edges of mismatched plates.
As we gathered ingredients for lunch, however, Mom discovered the leg of lamb she’d bought for dinner had rotted. She had planned to slow-cook it and serve it with scalloped potatoes, arugula salad, honey rolls, red wine, and a homemade key lime pie loaded with heaps of hand-whipped cream.
Now, forty-nine dollars sat rotten in the fridge. But she just pulled packages of beef from the freezer and didn’t let her disappointment ruin the evening.
In fact, the day exceeded what any of us could’ve hoped for ten years earlier. There was laughter, joy, support, and reminiscing. As the evening continued, Mom and I returned to the kitchen to make sandwiches and popcorn.
We pulled leftovers out of the fridge and our old air popper off the top shelf, leaning and reaching around each other as we worked.
In my haste, I dropped the glass popcorn dish and it smashed against the corner of the counter, taking the ceramic sugar bowl down with it.
Glass, popcorn kernels, and sugar covered the floor, the counter, a stick of butter, and the sandwich my mom had just made.
Before I had finished apologizing, she was there with a broom.
“It’s OK,” she said.
“Are you guys all right?” Ben asked.
“We just bumped into each other,” my mom said.
I looked around at the damage. “Oh, Mom,” I said. “I got glass all over your sandwich. I’m sorry.”
“That’s OK, Kar,” she said, pulling another roll out of the bag. “We’ll just start over.”
This wasn’t the first time she’d forgiven a mistake without hesitation. In all my memory, I can’t remember her showing anger or disappointment when I made a mistake, mistakes much greater than a ruined sandwich. I only remember the same grace she offered me when we moved to the yellow house years earlier.
The house that made me at first feel trapped had only pinned me to one of the most loving and forgiving relationships I’ve ever known.
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