By Angie McGuinness | Life is messy. Somewhere, I have come across this saying. Maybe on a refrigerator magnet or one of those wall hangings you find in a beach house; the phrase lingers in my mind as I survey my possessions scattered across the floor of my childhood bedroom. They are arranged in odd formations around the room, as though set down by a tornado that passed through just moments ago. As I stand in the now bare setting I close my eyes and click my heels together, hoping when I open them I will have found myself back home.
Home is where the heart is . I don’t like that saying; there is too much room for error. What if you don’t have a home? Does that make you heartless? In my mind a home is concrete: a building, a house, a square drawing with a triangle roof. As a former foster child I rarely forget that having a home is a privilege. I was born into foster care by my 19-year-old birth mother, so my first home was with a nice couple who had a dog. I stayed a few months with them for what is called “emergency foster care,” before I moved again, this time to more permanent placement. So permanent, in fact, that I was adopted into it three years later. The delay did not come from any indecision or trauma, but simply because in Pennsylvania, it took that long to file the paperwork. But when it happened, I had a house with a pointed roof and even a storybook chimney.
“It’s sold,” I moan over the phone to my childhood friend Emily, “We’re moving. It’s over. It’s done.”
My dramatics are stretched to the limit, even for me. Luckily Emily is equally devastated.
“What?” she sympathizes, “You can’t sell Glenwood Road, it’s like … an icon!”
Her word choice perplexes me but I have to admit she has a point. My house is a grand marker in the scheme of our lives, a meeting place, a commune, a safe haven. It was where everyone would come after school, where we would sled down the hill in the front yard during snow days, where we would eat popsicles on the stoop out front. My house was where we all grew up.
“What about all your stuff?” Emily asks. “Where are you going to go? What’s going to happen?”
The questions throw me back into my own thoughts of late. Posed to a 22-year-old student about to graduate, those queries pertain to both living arrangements and life expectations. What’s the next step? Where am I going to go now? And how can anyone be expected to change so much at the same time?
I feel like a little kid again as I ask my parents whether I will still have my own room in their new house.
“Of course,” my mother responds absentmindedly as she continues typing on her laptop. “There will always be room for you.”
Her answer isn’t exactly what I asked but her response is still comforting. As the youngest of four children, I am the only one who could possibly warrant an actual bedroom in the new house, wherever it turns out to be. Every room I’ve ever had was a hand-me-down from whatever sibling had been the most recent to move out. As such I am secretly pleased that my parents have reserved a spot for me, even though most people my age are leaving the nest for good.
Until I was nine I shared a room with my sister, who is four years older. At the time those four years endowed her with enough authority for me to adhere blindly to whatever mandates she set down. Following her rules was like living with a 13-year-old dictator. Quarantines were enforced. Order was paramount. Revolution was whispered in secret at night. Intoxicated with her authority, my sister implemented edicts that begged to be broken. Once, in a fit of frustration over having to harbor her kid sister in a space she wished were her own, she took a roll of masking tape and divided the room in half. My side had the closet. Her side had the door. For the majority of the day I had to ask permission to cross her side in order to leave, and even then she only obliged for emergency bathroom situations. Later, when my mother made her remove the tape, I was still too scared to cross the invisible line my sister had drawn.
I could appreciate her point of view, the importance of having one’s own room: a space that you can fill with little pieces of yourself. To decorate uniquely with prized possessions and personality. Without a room, she had no private space of her own, no way to illustrate her differentiation from the rest of us. Though she did make a valiant effort at it in the wake of her masking-tape defeat. With the mentality of an exiled leader, my sister promptly packed her bags, dragged out her mattress, and moved into the bathtub. Though the situation was quickly remedied, the message was clear: sometimes you just need a little space.
As I pack the empty cardboard boxes my Dad has picked up from the local liquor store, I remember the shoeboxes I used to keep in my bedroom. When I was young I used to be neat—overly neat, OCD neat. Every book, every stuffed animal, every crayon had a specifically designated, color-coded shoebox that in turn had its assigned place on a shelf. Looking for a multicolored Superball? Try the purple Reebox. A dress for that Cabbage Patch doll? The black Hush Puppies right there. Life was messy, but not in my little world. My mom’s constant reminder to make beds was superfluous, as my own little ritual never required it. I would wake up at 3 a.m. like clockwork and make my bed to perfection. I would then tiptoe downstairs to my parents’ bedroom and squeeze my way into their bed, confident that my own room would remain pristine.
My mother recently admitted how much she used to worry about this when I was younger, how she hoped I would eventually grow out of it, become a messy teenager. Of course she was right, but not entirely. I don’t always make my bed anymore, and my belongings are far from color-coordinated, but I still pack things away. I routinely clean out my closet, getting rid of non-essentials and organizing what I have to keep, streamlining my life. In some ways it comes back to being a foster child. Where deep in the back of my mind I am still ready to be sent away, so I always keep things nearby and well-labeled, marking what I would take with me if I had to leave. After a while this becomes second nature, but still fills me with melancholy when I wonder whether anywhere will ever feel permanent.
Now, my mother laments that my neatness was just a phase, a tendency that vanished just as quickly as it appeared. Her favorite counterexample dates to before the adoption—in fact, to the last time we moved. The buyers were on their way and our house was completely packed up. In the flurry of activity, no one noticed as my two-year-old self removed a permanent red marker from a tabletop situated serendipitously at my eye level. With the grandeur of an ancient master putting paintbrush to paper, I touched the tip of the marker to the wall and slowly trailed it behind me as I walked up the stairs. Meticulously I weaved my way in and out of each room, never wavering in my determination to outline the entire perimeter of the house. The red marker did not stray as I ducked under the dining room table, squeezed behind the flowered couch, and edged my way around beds, leaving an unabashed mark of my exploration. My mother likes to recall how upon discovering the marks she was struck by my level of commitment, as I had even been thorough enough to continue the red line across my own shoes.
I think about this now as I move on from the house we’ve lived in from that day to this. What mark do I leave behind to prove my existence? What is my trail, my trajectory, my red line leading me around the world and back again? In a month we will be moving, saying goodbye to this house even before we have found another. It’s sad packing away things imbued with memories you had almost forgot existed, but it is a sadness that issues from a happy realization: despite my misgivings, my subconscious habit of preparing to leave, I have become attached to this house.
So I sit in the haphazard mess of my childhood bedroom, relaxed in the disorder for once, and my thoughts drift to the story of that marker. I think about that red line, now painted over, as my own yellow brick road, a path I created for myself so that no matter how far I strayed I could look down at my red painted shoes and find my way back home.