Letter from my not-home

The author's favorite spot on campus. Photo courtesy of Emily Jo Wharry.

I don’t have a childhood bedroom. Growing up, I moved too much to settle in one for longer than two or three years at a time. With divorced parents who were both night-shift nurses — and an unorthodox, informal yet amicable custody agreement — I slept at a different house each evening. This was my normal: weaving my way around hospital shift schedules, an endless hopscotch of pick-ups and drop-offs. Mom’s, Dad’s, Grandma’s, back to Dad’s, Mom’s for two nights, Grandma’s.

When I was younger, I wore that lifestyle as a badge of pride. It made more sense to me than any of my classmates’ lives. “Don’t they get bored?” I wondered to myself, absentmindedly looking around their homes during playdates, seeing walls decorated with years-old photographs, forgotten toys from elementary school gathering dust under their beds. I felt unique, self-reliant. My backpack was always heavy, but only because I was adaptable.

But now, with what little clarity I’ve gained from growing older, I look back on my bounce-around childhood and remember only the most viscerally frustrating feelings: standing on the sidewalk after school, dialing back-to-back phone calls between Mom, Dad and Grandma as I attempted to untangle that day’s assortment of work schedules. Forgetting a textbook at one house, a work uniform shirt at another. Bizarrely, the worst days were the ones when all family members were off from work and available to watch me. The pressure of choosing a house to stay at overwhelmed my 13-year-old mind. What my mom, dad and grandma all reassured me was a purely logistical question drove me to tears as I tackled the mental arithmetic of evenly dividing my nights per week so no one felt I loved them any less. When either parent would move to a new house, I’d try to sleep at the other’s until the move was over. I never wanted to help pack up the rooms.

By the time I graduated high school and moved to college, the independence required of that constant back-and-forth desensitized me of any sentimentality toward place. I drove to campus and unpacked my dorm room alone. I sympathized, from a distance, with my fellow first-year classmates who needed workshops on adjusting to college. Homesickness never hit. In that first year, from day one of orientation to the end of finals, I never felt even the slightest pang of growing pains.

The author at 6 years old. Photo courtesy of Emily Jo Wharry

Coming to Northeast LA felt closer to a return than anything else: of all the places my mom and I lived in my elementary school years, its dark green hillsides and cracked, bumpy sidewalks had been my favorite. I always begged my mom to let us visit Brand Boulevard, Porto’s or my now-closed favorite bookstore that sold bookmarks made out of postage stamps. Later, I found out that in her twenties, my now 88-year-old grandma lived just a few blocks away from my Occidental dorm room on Almaden Drive. In the 1950s, she took the streetcar from York Boulevard to Downtown LA to work in a department store. She raised my infant dad in a trailer park in Highland Park.

So I dug my heels in.

More years at Oxy passed, and I left Northeast LA less frequently. I spent every fall, Thanksgiving and spring break on campus, even if it meant being bored with nothing to do. I asked to remain a resident advisor in the same building for three years, growing increasingly attached to its sprawling lawn, perpetually-sunlit colonnade, drab kitchen. Even when I knew I would be coming back three months later in the fall, I cried every time I had to pack up in May.

When the coronavirus uprooted almost every single college student in the U.S. mid-March, those overdue growing pains caught up with me. Long gone was the version of myself who bounced between houses every night and told herself that she took it in stride. I panicked, realizing, at 21 years old, I had no childhood bedroom to return to. With a day’s notice, I chose my mom’s as my destination, a house I never lived in before now. We cleaned out a spare storage room, and I wallpapered the unfamiliar interior with hastily-cut-out magazine art meant to mimic the comforts of a longtime bedroom. I carefully arranged stacks of beloved books lugged from my Chilcott dorm room. I tacked a small Occidental pennant on a wall — a purchase I made triumphantly after driving to the campus bookstore in 2016, on the same day I submitted my intent to enroll.

As I settled into my new room, I felt foolish for grieving the lost lifestyle of a liberal arts college kid — something afforded to only a fraction of people. I’d like to think that it’s not the conveniences of campus life that I’m missing, but a place that felt like my own.

My bedroom desk now faces a window overlooking our residential street in an unfamiliar suburban city. Though I watch cooped-up families walk their dogs and now-homeschooled kids play games in the driveway directly across from our house, mentally, I spend my days 36 miles away. A modest reporting gig at the Boulevard Sentinel serves as the tin can telephone string that keeps me connected to a place I think of as home: I call small businesses in Highland Park and churches in Eagle Rock to interview those impacted by the pandemic, scroll through neighborhood Facebook posts about wandering coyotes and free fruit. I think about how many people have been pushed and pulled from that corner of Los Angeles — waves of young families enraptured by its coziness, older families ousted by increasing rent — and how I’ve been swept into their stories, simultaneously observer and momentary participant.

I wouldn’t go back in time to change my upbringing. It gave me a perspective on life and family that I think few are lucky to learn young. My family’s love wasn’t tied to a place, but it could be found in the spaces between: my mom rushing to get me to my grandma’s before her shift, my dad dropping off a lunch at school to see me for five minutes before he slept and my grandma’s endless pick-ups and drop-offs catching all the remaining time. These weren’t the same as the simple comforts of place, but I found the latter in Northeast LA.

Weeks, months or years from now, when social distancing ends, I’ll go back there. Temporarily, permanently — in the endless and mind-numbing haze of the coronavirus lockdown, it really doesn’t matter to me. Maybe I’ll eat bangus at my favorite Filipino lunch spot, or drink a Coke outside TOWN Pizza. No matter the spot, I’m certain I’ll get to experience a novel feeling: crying not because you’re leaving, but because you’re returning.