My sister, Anna, and I stood in our sage-green living room in York, Pennsylvania last weekend inspecting a deep dent in the wall.
“This is from that time I threw my Nintendo DS at you,” she said. “Remember?”
I didn’t, but I believed her. We had more than our fair share of fights in this house.
Anna turned to the wall and spread her arms out, “hugging” it, like she had with the rungs of the staircase and the lamp post outside.
We had returned to York, a place we both couldn’t wait to leave for Temple, to help my mom move out of the house we grew up in.
Thirteen years ago, after my parents divorced, my mom, sister and I moved into a townhouse a few miles away from the house we lived in before. It was smaller, yes, but we fit well.
We’d be there two years tops, my mom said then. At age 7, I didn’t care, I was just happy to be getting a loft bedroom.
Years went by, and my sister and I moved through grade levels and schools. My mom got another degree, and a new job, and we stayed.
Occasionally she would apologize or talk about getting a “real” house. That always confused me. It felt really real to me.
More years went by. We went to work. We went to school. We painted our room three times. We fought a lot. My mom met Randy and we welcomed his family into ours. We had a lot of birthday parties and sleepovers and family dinners. We had friends in and out all the time. We became a unit. We called ourselves “APA,” for Amy, Paige and Anna. We turned this “temporary” townhouse into our home.
I graduated high school and left for Temple in 2013, ready to explore a place with new people and experiences, but scared to not have my mom and sister by my side.
A month into school and a few days after my 18th birthday, I spontaneously walked into a tattoo parlor in Fishtown. I called my mom in a hurry, explaining what I was doing. She wasn’t happy about it, she said, but couldn’t stop me.
It took a few painful minutes to etch the three little letters into my skin, but I felt comfort in knowing “APA” would be with me always.
A year ago, when my mom and her longtime boyfriend started planning to buy a house in Lancaster, I was happy. My sister and I would both be out of the house by then. It was the natural next step.
For months when I was home for a weekend here or there, I would help my mom pack. We looked through pages of yearbooks and tried on dance costumes for fun and read notes I passed in high school with my friends. We divvied up plates and winter coats and hair products, packing and planning for an unknown date when we’d move all of it to a new place. It was comforting to see all of the physical things that had made our lives in that house so fun and worthwhile.
When the house officially sold, it became more real. Anna, who’s now a freshman at Temple, hopped on a train with me.
“It’s weird to come home,” she said. She’d only been away for three weeks. Just wait until it’s been three years, I thought.
My mom greeted us with giant hugs.
While packing up each room, I remembered all the good things that happened in them.
I remembered whispering in the dark of my room to my best friend during a sleepover. I thought about the smell of a pine tree and opening presents on Christmas morning in our living room. I could feel the sun streaming into the kitchen during Sunday morning breakfasts. I laughed thinking about how many mornings we spent fighting for mirror space in the bathroom. I reminisced saying “I love you” for the first time last year in the early hours of the morning in our basement.
While my mom had a love-hate relationship with the house, I was happy it was where our lives played out. We lived so fully here, I realized. But we’d grown out of it. And those memories would travel with me, just like the many boxes of our stuff.
My mom, sister and I stood together Sunday night in the empty living room, about to depart for a train back to Philly. We shed some tears and had a long group hug before walking out the door for the last time.
We were leaving our house behind, I thought as we drove away. But home would travel with me.
It’s in the tattoo on the left side of my torso. It’s in the inflection of happiness I hear when I talk to my mom on the phone. It’s in the glimpses of my sister I catch across campus every once and awhile. It will be in the next house we will share with our family that’s growing.
Home, I realized, is in the three of us.
Paige Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.