Lately, I've been spending a lot of time looking up my childhood home on real estate websites. That's a normal holiday tradition for all of you, too, right? Just kidding; even I know a bizarre coping tactic when I see (or engage in) one. But it's about as normal as any of the things I do to deal with the cloud of weirdness that rises around me every holiday season, when the urge to think about my estranged relationship with my toxic mom develops. As the Advent calendar empties out, my fingers seem to loom over my phone of their own accord, daring me to dial the number I've deleted but still have memorized. In these moments, I go to work, doing anything that will quench my thirst for family nostalgia besides actually calling my mother.
Other December days might find me going through photo albums from the '80s to see if I grew up to look like her, or watching old TV shows we used to watch together — as if a re-run of Frasier contains some secret message that will help me finally make sense of our relationship. I often find myself looking up pictures of the house on Google Earth, where my mom still lives, while listening to the theme from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, like a teenager mooning over some non-existent lost love.
These are all methods I've developed as an adult to pick at the wound that is my relationship with my mother, while also fighting the urge to actually make contact with her. In this strange version of reality, spending the holidays clicking around my old neighborhood on Google Earth might almost pass as healthy. Almost.
But sometimes — especially this time of year — the one person I can't fit into my life starts to feel like the only person who matters.
Even though it's winter on real Earth, it's always early fall at my old house on Google Earth. The trees are nearly stripped bare, the lawn is covered in leaves, but it's still warm enough for the garage door to be casually left open all afternoon. In the photos, I can see paving stones I remember tripping over as a kid, a new car I've never ridden in parked in the driveway. My paranoid mother's greatest fear when I was a kid was always that someone would invent something like Google Earth — some kind of mysterious new technology that would allow strangers to peek into her life whenever they wanted and judge her. Of course, back then, she couldn't have known that the stranger would be me.
My mother and I don't talk. That sounds both more and less severe than it is. I'm not alone in the world — I have a husband who loves me; a father who wasn't always in the picture when I was a child, but who adores me now; a family of friends who have cared for me since the day I left that house on Google Earth. But sometimes — especially this time of year — the one person I can't fit into my life starts to feel like the only person who matters.
The front yard of that house is as far as Google Earth will take you. But pop your address into some real estate sites, and you'll get inside. Maybe not my house, but one of the identical houses across the way, each built in 1962 in the shape of what someone thought a happy family home should look like — kitchen and living room in the front, bedrooms and bathrooms tucked around back. Clicking around photos of the now-emptied-out home across the street, I wonder if this is the closest I will get to the house where I grew up for the rest of my life.
The simplest thing to say about my mother is that she is unwell. The more accurate thing to say about my mother is that she suffers from many mental health issues that impact her and others, which she refuses to get a handle on; that she is angry, mean, wrathful without thinking. She may not do it on purpose, but that doesn't make it hurt less. The most accurate thing to say, if you ask me, is that my mother liked having a child but not being a parent, and felt free to take out that disappointment on me in any way she saw fit.
So, I pulled up stakes. It's been over two years now since I last spoke to my mom — I know the exact date, because my phone recently sent me a reminder of the photos I took that day, at my old house. "Celebrate the memories!" it said, over hurried shots of beige shag carpet and peeling white paint, some clothing I had left behind in the closet that had begun to molder. I wish I had taken more pictures. At the time, I had just wanted to get out. I'd tried to leave her so many times before, it never occurred to me that it might finally stick.
I'm an outspoken advocate of not speaking to your family when the situation is toxic and hurtful, when even making small talk with them hurts. I think that we should be free to do this without guilt — to make the choice for emotional self-preservation without feeling like a bad child.
But while I can stand for it logically, it feels hard sometimes. It feels very, very hard, even with all the people in my life who care about me, who understand so many things about love and respect and care that my mother didn't. It feels especially hard around the holidays — even though we barely ever celebrated the holidays in that house on Google Earth; even though I feel so whiplashed by the events of this election season that I barely feel any urge to celebrate anything, be it a miracle of lights or a one-day sale at the mall.
But I feel it in my heart, anyway. I want to be in that house. I want to be in that house back before I knew that the things that went on in that house were fucked up. I want to go back to that house and be a kid that I never was — happy, carefree, naive about how bad life and people can get. Every Christmas, I want to go back to my real house, and have a pretend life. And so, I click.
This isn't all as new as I may be making it sound; I've tried out a few different techniques over the years to reconcile my craving for home around the holidays with my need to not talk to my mom. I've taken the train out to where I lived and walked around the downtown area, drinking coffee, going to the new convenience store that replaced the old bakery. I've taken a cab past my childhood home, though that freaked the cab driver out; he thought maybe I was casing the place, and I thought it was easier to bear his suspicion in silence than explain what was actually going on. Taking in the windows and trees and potted plants from the street at 20 miles an hour, I thought: I was so miserable in that house. So why am I so desperate to get back inside?
One of the strangest things about being an adult is figuring out that the world of your childhood has gone on without you — places changed, pets and parents kept aging, progress kept marching. But when your childhood was toxic, it becomes more confusing. This life with my family was terrible, you think — so why do I want to go back to it so badly? As a teenager, I couldn't wait to leave my hometown and never look back; today, I subscribe to our state's glossy magazine, and own a retro-throwback sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of our local university. I have spent more time back there by myself than I would have ever imagined, haunting all my old places like a lonely ghost, not sure if I want to hide away from my mother, or if I want to run into her more than anything in the world. Teen me would think I was pathetic; but teen me didn't understand that getting out of the grip of your troubled family is one of the most confusing blessings in the entire world.
And maybe we should just take it easy on ourselves when it comes to our coping mechanisms. If you're not hurting yourself or anyone else, is it really a problem? Maybe there is no such thing as a correct or dignified coping method; there's simply whatever lets us make it through one more day of tinsel and Santa and Charlie Brown singing "Christmastime Is Here."
I tell myself I'm done with the Google Earth and the real estate websites for today, but I leave the tabs open on my computer. A few hours later, I find myself idly clicking around the map of my old street the way you might aimlessly internet shop, filling up a cart with things you know you'll never buy. A few of the houses on the road have been tidied up from the traditional boxy, one-floor box dwellings of the neighborhood into something chicer, with two stories, a bigger garage, trim — houses where it looks like families could have a nice life. I know it means nothing, of course. But I sit, look at the house captured in mid-fall, and I imagine what each house might look like with Christmas lights.