House-hunting and family-dodging

    Photo by the author / North by Northwestern

    This past spring break I met my parents in Phoenix, Arizona to help them house-hunt and to see all the family we’ve put off seeing for years. My dad grew up in Scottsdale, just northeast of the city, and went to college at ASU in Tempe, just southeast of the city. As a freshman he met my mom, a Chicagoan who wanted to go to a school as far from home as possible. They’ve been talking about moving back to Arizona for years now — I used to be terrified of leaving behind my Pennsylvania friends halfway through grade school, of not having a Pennsylvania home to come back to, but now, three years into college, the thought doesn’t scare me as much anymore.

    My uncle, my dad’s younger brother, flies for Southwest Airlines, and one time he ran into my parents in the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. They had just landed on a house-hunting trip they had meant to keep secret, so they wouldn’t have to see any of the family on their vacation. I like to imagine them bumping into each other in the airport Chili’s or Applebee’s. “We were gonna call,” maybe my dad said. “No you weren’t,” I imagine my uncle replying.

    House needs some fixing up, but that’s part of the appeal, my dad told me.

    My parents have been working with the same realtor for a few years now, trying to juggle appropriate property listings with my parents’ tight budget. They’ve been dreaming of moving back for years, but have largely kept the dream a secret, afraid to tell the rest of the family and commit themselves to monthly dinners and birthday parties and holiday gift-giving. My mom explained that if you have money, now’s the perfect time to buy a house, with property values plummeting, lots of nice places going to foreclosure and banks desperately trying to turn a profit. I asked her if we have money, and she said we’d have more if they weren’t putting two sons through college and grad school. The realtor took them to a property one morning on our trip and my parents came back beaming, as excited as I ever remember seeing them, and they said they’d take us out there the next day. I asked if they were going to tell the rest of the family about the house, and they said they’d cross that bridge when they got there.

    It’s a beautiful property, to be fair. Enormous lot. House needs some fixing up, but that’s part of the appeal, my dad told me. Gives them license to make it into something entirely their own. “Knock that one wall down,” my brother and my dad agreed, “and really open the living room up, get some life in there.” Put a pool in the backyard, with one of the infinity edges that look like they go on forever, onward and into the desert, maybe a tennis court in the other corner. Keep a saguaro cactus or two for aesthetics. The whole shebang. There was a hole in the roof of the master bedroom and cracks in the entryway, but these were minor fixes, I remember the realtor telling us, and shouldn’t be dealbreakers.

    “A little elbow grease,” I remember my dad told me on the front lawn, hands on his hips, surveying the property. They said they would keep one of the bedrooms as a bedroom, for when we came to visit (presupposing we came to visit), maybe convert the others to offices or a gym. “Make it into whatever we want.” It was an odd sort of homecoming for him.

    Scottsdale had changed since they last lived there. Every time we go back we take a nostalgia tour around my dad’s old haunts, the old house where my grandpa lives, sometimes just driving past it to see how much landscaping or repair work needs done, without actually going inside to visit. My grandpa’s sufficiently demented by now that we don’t like spending time with him if we don’t have to; it makes us feel bad about the state he’s in and it makes us feel bad about ourselves, living so far away in the northeast, leaving him alone to fend for himself.

    We are The Ones Who Got Away; my parents were able to make it “out of there,” in a way my uncles and their children never did, and so we drive by without visiting and perpetuate the cycle. Past the famous drive-in church that the creator of the comic The Family Circus, who was from Scottsdale, drew into his strips. Past my dad’s old high school, which he says used to stand on what is now the parking lot of the bigger, shinier incarnation of the high school. Sometimes we drive down to Tempe, ASU’s campus, and see my parents’ first apartments, old dorms, favorite restaurants. “That’s my Jack in the Box,” my dad says about the fast-food joint on the corner. “That was down the street from my apartment, that’s where your mom and I went for special occasions.” He never forgets to mention that they were poor, that a Jack in the Box milkshake would cap off a good month for them.

    I can’t help but think of us as ghouls, swooping in with our properly-managed savings and feeding on the poor investments and fiscal misfortune of others.

    A lot of it has changed, and the parts that haven’t feel like they were preserved ironically, almost — my dad is amazed that the local burger joint with the “Over 250 served!” sign in the front lawn, an all-too-obvious jab at McDonald’s, is still in business. “I must have had half of those first 250,” my dad tells me. “I wonder how many they’re up to by now.” Probably not too far off from billions, I think to myself.

    The drive is always a bit melancholic, with pangs of longing that come with the nostalgia. During one particularly bad visit to my grandpa’s house, my dad remarked that the childhood bedroom of my Uncle Rick, who passed away from stomach cancer twelve years ago, had been converted into yet another office my grandpa will never use. My grandpa offered to play us a mazurka on the piano that hasn’t been tuned in thirty years, and after making up some excuse about having to take “the kids” (aged 20 and 25) back to the hotel, Dad fidgeted in the backseat all the way back to our rooms. My mom asked if he wanted us to go back, and he said he didn’t want to go back, he wanted to “go back, back back, back to when things were normal.”

    I texted my brother from the front seat to the backseat, hoping his phone was on vibrate, saying I don’t understand how in the fuck my parents think they’ll be able to come back here and live here with all these skeletons back in their lives. They don’t seem to realize that they can go back, but they can’t ever really go back back. I guess it’s why I feel less scared by the prospect of never having a home in Pennsylvania to go back to these days.

    My parents’ dream house is listed as a short sale — it hasn’t been foreclosed yet, but it’s close. The family who lives there knows what is most likely going to happen to them but is still trying to live their lives. My dad told me the kooky grandfather was even playing his electronic keyboard in the living room while they were scoping out the property for the first time. I can’t help but think of us as ghouls, swooping in with our properly-managed savings and feeding on the poor investments and fiscal misfortune of others. My parents recognize they would only be able to afford their dream house if it came from the ashes of another family’s dream. We’re juggling finances and tuitions and house payments and loans just the same as everybody else, and I’m afraid we’ve forgotten that we’re no different from these people we think we’re better than.

    The realtor apologizes for the mess as we maneuver around plastic tubs and suitcases, signs that the homeowners are slowly but surely packing and preparing for the big move. My mom tells us not to get too excited too early, that you often hear horror stories of evicted families positively destroying the home before being thrown out, taking weed-whackers to the walls and throwing paint (or worse) all over the floors. The realtor once again tells us we have nothing to worry about, that the current tenants are good people and that she’s confident and optimistic about the bid my parents placed, that she’s sure my parents “will be very happy soon,” presupposing that they aren’t quite there yet.

    “A beautiful property,” my mom tells my aunt over our one allotted family dinner out of the entire week, the night before we leave. “Knock that one main wall down, let it breathe a little,” my dad agrees.


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