One of my earliest memories consists of me sitting in the beige back seat of my mom’s Mitsubishi Sedan, waiting in the Park & Ride lot in West Michigan. From what I recall, my mom stepped out of the car and walked over to talk to my dad. They spoke for three minutes or so. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but even my 6-year-old self could see that it was uncomfortable for both of them based on their strained smiles. Meanwhile, I was completely alone in the car. Just me and my thoughts. My observations were contained in my child-sized head, never to reach the cochlea of another’s ears. As I waited for my mom to come back, I looked around the parking lot. Not one other soul was there. I remember realizing, in some 6-year-old capacity, that I was the only connection left between my parents. I was the only reason they still saw each other, the only reason we were in the Park & Ride. As the only child, I felt like a burden. My mom came back to the car, giving me a “See you on Monday, I love you.”
I loved her too. I was going to miss her this weekend. I unbuckled my seatbelt, slid out of the car and walked over to my dad’s tan Chevrolet Impala. He gave me a big hug and told me that it was good to see me and he loved me. I loved him too. I got into the back of his car and we drove off to his Grand Rapids apartment.
The ride, just like all the other rides from the Park & Ride to his apartment, was mostly silent besides the Dave Matthews Band on the radio. On these rides, my dad would ask me questions: “How’s school been?” “What have you done in the two weeks since I last saw ya?”
I always gave him the same types of answers: “Good” and “Not much”. I felt bad giving such short responses, but I hated the idea of having to catch up with my dad. Occasionally, I would go on little tangents about the book I was reading or what local history we had talked about in class. He told me about work and about being back in school for social work. After about an hour and 10 minutes of adjusting to the change in parents, we’d arrive at the apartment. The rest of the weekend was spent running errands, watching movies and maybe playing a little Mario Kart. I didn’t really care what we did as long as I was with him.
This was my childhood — always moving from one home to another. And, in my elementary school-sized world, I knew my life was very different from everyone else’s. Pretty much everyone else had parents who were still together, and pretty much everyone else had siblings. I had neither. I had, well, me. I always knew that people saw only children as spoiled and in constant need of extra care. I didn’t want to draw that attention to myself. So, I never talked about my home life. I would sit quietly in class, constantly reading so that I wouldn’t have to worry about conversation.
I was left with hours upon hours every day to sit alone with my thoughts, both at school and at home while my parents were at work. I never had the chance to talk about how I felt being moved from place to place, always being alone or separated from one of my parents. After all, no one I knew could relate to my idiosyncratic experience. At night, when I figured other families were probably sitting and watching TV together, I would think and think and think, trying to entertain myself in one part and trying to reason with my experience in another. Once I got to high school, my thoughts would bounce from contemplations on the meaning and purpose of life to what the world would be like if Pokemon were real. Introspection was my biggest hobby — I had nothing else to do.
I knew I didn’t have any control over my circumstances. Even now, I sometimes still feel like I don’t. I’m 19 years old, but there’s plenty of times when I feel like that 6-year-old kid sitting in the beige back seat of the car, watching. But, I’ve outgrown the custody agreement, and definitely my car seat. I feel like I should’ve moved on from my contempt with having such a different childhood than everyone I know, but I haven’t.
On the Wednesday of my first welcome week at the University of Michigan, my parents helped me move everything into my room for nearly two and a half stressful, sweaty hours. They wanted to help me unpack, but I insisted on doing it myself. I said my goodbyes, and they went their separate ways in their separate cars. Once they left the room I was utterly alone, with nothing but my thoughts and boxes.
This moment was probably the first time that I’d been genuinely alone in my life, but it didn’t feel any different from the 18 years leading up to it. I started folding my clothes and setting up my dorm. I put posters on the walls and made my bed. The entire time, my mind was present — I could not break from the stream of consciousness, the hobby of introspection. I was in a completely new environment, unlike any place I had ever been before. But it felt like home.
Once I set my room up, I wandered from my dorm on the Hill Neighborhood to the main part of Central Campus. I walked through the Diag, looking at every tree and squirrel I passed. I was trying to take it all in — I’d only be here for four years after all. As I walked, questions darted in and out of my mind: Will I fit in? Will I make friends? How do I make the most of my time on campus? And the biggest one of all: Will I still feel alone?
That night, I couldn’t fall asleep for the life of me. I spent an hour looking at the dark ceiling, unable to shake one specific realization: I didn’t miss my mom’s or dad’s homes. It was a horrible feeling. I was away from the people who loved and cared for me, and I still felt as at-home as I did in their abodes. I felt ungrateful and insolent. My parents did their absolute best to raise me in their own ways, yet here I was, the stereotype of the spoiled only child who didn’t appreciate what they were handed and always needed more. I was dejected.
Even in my sleep, I couldn’t shake my self-disgust. The next morning, I got out of bed and began my day, moping around like a sad Charlie Brown. As I sank deeper and deeper into my self-pity, remembering my days in the car seat, a light of realization emerged: 10 years ago, I was the little kid in the back seat of the car with no one but my thoughts. On my second morning at school, I was the college kid who was happy to watch the sunrise over Nichol’s Arboretum alone. Those countless handoffs, infinite hours alone and moments of independence that characterized my childhood and made it so that I didn’t miss home were forever a part of me. I can’t change how I was brought up or how I feel about my home, I can only embrace the fact that now, wherever I go, I can easily create a new one.
Later that semester, I returned home for three weeks of Winter Break. I came to the conclusion that I had, in fact, missed my parents. I didn’t miss their homes, but they were home to me, stationary or not. I may have spent most of my time in my own head, but they were still present with me too — on both sides of the Park & Ride — and I will never forget that.
I’m no longer required to spend specific amounts of time at my mom’s or my dad’s place, but I do my best to hold up the ancient and hallowed schedule. My dad now lives in a house in Dowagiac, Mich. and my mom moved as well. Things aren’t how they used to be: Both houses have pets now, both of my parents are remarried. They don’t hand me off to one another — I drive myself to and from their houses in my gray Chevrolet Cruze, the beige back seats long in the rear view mirror.
Some things remain the same. When I’m home, I still move from one parent to another. I still pass the same Park & Ride from those bygone years each time. And it’s still just me and my thoughts in my head.
And I’m okay with that.
Statement Columnist Miles Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.