The Shape I Call Home

The Shape I Call Home

The Shape I Call Home 1280 851 Joshua James Amberson

At some point in my adulthood, I began telling people I grew up in a trailer. The more it left my mouth, the more symbolic the sentence became, the more the memory of those years turned mythic and surreal. I’ve said it so much and for so long that I’ve begun to question the validity of the statement, but still I say it. I use the sentence as a shortcut to explain where I come from in relation to who I am now. From the words, I grew up in a trailer, I assume my listener will understand that I didn’t go to summer camp, take horse-riding lessons, learn about salad forks or dessert spoons, go to a well-funded school, receive a car on my 16th birthday, research colleges upon graduation, or have familial expectations of success beyond being employed.

Expecting six words to convey all of that is a huge assumption, a very short shortcut, but at this point in my life, at 35 years old, it’s a leap I choose to take often and with relative abandon. Even more, I assume that from these six words my listener will recognize that the absence of particular kinds of experience—experiences I’ve found to be relatively common in the arts communities I now consider myself a part of—are both a source of insecurity and pride. I feel like I’m lacking, but that I wouldn’t be me without this lack.

*

When I say “trailer,” I mean mobile home. Though there’s really not a difference between the two, the word trailer can also, of course, describe a piece of metal hooked onto a car or truck to haul things in or on or with. This double meaning isn’t a coincidence. Both share the same origin story, born in the early days of American car travel, before there were hotels along every highway or, in most places, even highways. Designed for the rich, a trailer was essentially a glorified tent—a mobile home, travel trailer, and car trailer all in one.

As soon as trailers became more affordable, people in the lower classes began using them as permanent housing. During the Great Depression, informal, unmaintained trailer parks sprung up all across the country. At the time trailer manufacturers thought using trailers as homes was a “disturbing” trend, but they eventually saw an economic opportunity and within a decade they were marketing trailers as permanent housing. Trailers were initially used largely by those transitioning into a new life or out of life entirely; for many years, a common joke in the trailer industry was that their customers were “either newlywed or nearly dead.” But in time, trailers became ubiquitous, existing on the edges of almost every American city and town, their occupants of all ages. Depending on where you were, they were either normalized or stigmatized. During my adolescence, in rural Washington State in the 1980s and 1990s, they were a mix of the two—common, but also the kind of place where a single mom and a kid like me, who typically left the house in sweatpants and oversized t-shirts, were expected to live.

*

There’s a part of my trailer sentence that’s simply nostalgia. For the first six years of my life, I lived with my mom in a brown, single-wide trailer next door to my grandparents. My mom worked swing shift, so I had dinner and went to sleep at my grandparents’ place. She got home at one or two in the morning and carried me across the yard to the trailer. In the morning, I’d wake up before her and choose an unlikely assortment of clothes for myself—a Mickey Mouse shirt, costume glasses, swimming shorts, a belt that held up nothing. I’d grab some crackers and set up my watercolors at the counter that marked the boundary between the living room and the kitchen, painting as the room filled with light.

My mom worked at the Hewlett-Packard factory where she stood at a giant computer that printed off endless, seemingly meaningless reports, making sure the machine didn’t jam. She brought home reams of the perforated computer paper that I used as low-pressure canvases. We had a small boombox on the bar and I listened to my favorite tape, How Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk Began, over and over. After I finished a few watercolors, I ran down the hall and displayed them on the floor of my mom’s room and said, “Mom, look at my art.” She peeked over the edge of the bed and said, “Those are awesome, Josh. Want to make me a few more?” And I ran back down the hall, full of purpose. When she got up, we had breakfast together and put on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, an album that often spawned living room dance parties. If there’s a more idyllic childhood, I can’t imagine it.

When I was seven, we moved onto five acres of mostly-wooded land fifteen minutes away. We lived in a shaded-in, white single-wide with brown-stained ceilings that sagged with rain water. Our closest neighbor was a mile away. This was less idyllic, but I liked the woods and we built a big back porch onto the trailer that in summer overflowed with vegetables and flowers. My mom picked up a second job at the post office, so I was with my grandparents more often than I was at the trailer. Some days it felt like I’d never moved at all.

When I was living in trailers, I never would have imagined they would come to mean so much to me. At the time, I don’t even recall holding a significant distinction between trailers and houses. With my grandparents I lived in a house, but I didn’t see going to the trailer as a downgrade. I knew they were different structures, went by different names, but I don’t think I considered one inherently better than the other. My younger self would likely think my adult self a bit dramatic—over-concerned with a trivial distinction. The trailer was just a structure that represented nothing more than home.

After a few years of working both jobs, my mom began delivering mail full-time. I still took the bus to my grandparents’ house after school and ate dinner there, but my mom picked me up in the early evening instead of in the middle of the night. It was, in retrospect, an odd life—sometimes a bit uncomfortable, but rarely unhappy. At the time, the most stressful part was simply explaining to other kids why I lived so far away, why my mom gave me a ride to the bus stop in the morning, and why I took a different bus in the afternoon.

Then one night a rat walked into the living room as I watched TV with my mom’s boyfriend. It stood by the wood stove calmly and, for a moment, seemed to simply be watching a little TV before bed. Eventually it sauntered back where it came from, which turned out to be my room, where he and his friends had chewed a hole through the foundation’s rotting wood. My mom can tough out almost any situation, as long as it doesn’t involve rodents. Rats were enough to make her take out a loan and create a structure that was, for her, its own symbol. With it, the stigma of a young, single mom in a trailer could disappear in an instant. Over the next year, the area in front of our trailer became a construction site, and when I was 13 years old we moved into the house that had formed in the midst of it.

I knew the house was important to her, and I wanted to be supportive. But I couldn’t shake how sterile it was, with its white walls and white carpets. Neither of us had ever had anything so new, so untouched. The two of us spent months tiptoeing around, afraid we’d scuff something, track in dirt. Outside it was gravel and mud but inside the white held strong, stubbornly out of place. It wasn’t particularly comfortable, and I wished I didn’t have to worry about ruining this structure I didn’t even like. My mom got pregnant, married her boyfriend, got pregnant again, everything changed. I spent as much time as I could outside of the house—first with friends, and then in a relationship that lasted until I moved out.

Now I allow myself to edit the house out of my story—to think of it as a place I grew up avoiding, not a place I grew up in. I never say how long I lived in a trailer, just that “I grew up.” It’s a loose phrase, one everyone defines differently, but using it implies that it spanned the duration. And I like it that way.

*

It wasn’t until after I moved away from home that the trailer-as-distilled-biography began. I moved to a college town and soon noticed that, among all of the new people I was meeting, not one of them had grown up in a trailer. They had almost uniformly grown up in much larger structures, and many of them also had beach houses or mountain cabins. Some of their parents had hobbies that involved expensive musical instruments and home observatories. It took years before the concept of class difference sank in, but at the time it was clear that I had missed out on something. Many things. For the first time I was seeing that, in lieu of lessons and camps, I’d come up with makeshift ways of doing most things. During this period of time, I was perpetually worried that every action had a correct method that I simply hadn’t been taught. My approach to everything, from cooking pasta to hitting a tennis ball, was scrutinized by my roommates and friends. I often felt paralyzed by this, unable to feel comfortable doing even the things I thought I knew how to do.

Eventually I found the trailer could act as a stand-in for the times when I didn’t know the proper way—for the times where I could only listen to stories, not relate. I needed something, an excuse, so I wasn’t just ignorant or bad at things. In time that excuse became pride. It’s a common way out of shame—subvert expectations and turn it into pride—but it never fully makes shame disappear.

*

It’s a bit odd that I use the word trailer now, because at the time we always called it “the mobile.” I don’t know when I switched, but surely part of the reason was to enhance the story: a mobile home sounds halfway decent, but a trailer allows the imagination to run wild. It brings a litany of negative, but interesting, cultural associations—trailer trash, meth heads, rural recluses, trailer parks—that complicates my mild-mannered surface. But some of it probably has to do with the region. Over time, I’ve made a handful of friends who also grew up in trailers in the Pacific Northwest (all poets, oddly), and that’s the word they use. Which has made me feel like, even if it wasn’t the word I used, the word is within the local vocabulary, part of this place I call home. As outside money polishes the rugged exterior off of the Northwest, this connection to the old Northwest grounds me, gives me a complex history here—all through a single word.

Though the mobile home industry has tried to impose distinctions between trailers, mobile homes, manufactured homes, prefabricated homes, trailer homes, and house trailers, studies have shown that to most people these are synonyms. In different regions, people prefer different words, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Calling a trailer a mobile emphasizes the structure’s ability to move, ignoring the fact that they rarely move. They’re expensive and awkward to move and statistically most so-called mobiles move only once: from production line to site and there they stay.

This complex relationship between mobility and roots appeals to me. As my friends buy houses, I continue to rent a basement room with uneven floors, free-box furniture, junky thrift-store clothing hung on a section of rope that I call a closet. By choice, I piece together my income through an assortment of ill-paying jobs. I tell people it’s because I don’t want to be tied down, that I want to be my own boss. But it’s also as if, in some kind of self-flagellation, I want to honor the resource lack I was born into. Or perhaps it’s part of a self-imposed battle against lifestyles that are too comfortable, that seem too easy.

My mom’s battle is in the opposite direction. She’s trying to feel comfortable being comfortable—to feel okay about allowing herself luxuries she’s never been able to afford until now. A few years ago, after nearly 30 years of working for the post office, she bought a new BMW coupe. At the time I rallied against it using a financially logical approach. “You’ll be paying it off for years,” I said. “Don’t you want to retire early instead?” It simply wasn’t practical, I told her. But inside I knew I was mostly arguing for my own sake, knowing it would complicate my origin story. It’s difficult to maintain an I grew up poor narrative when your mom comes to town in a Beamer.

My mom often apologizes to me for the way we lived, and I’m never sure how to respond. How do I explain that the way we lived has become a point of pride, part of how I now define myself? In my memory, my shame developed in my late teens and early twenties, but my mom tells me that I refused to have friends over as a kid because I was embarrassed. I don’t remember these feelings, but it’s true that none of my friends ever came over; I always went to their houses. So maybe this is another tweak I’ve made to my narrative and the real story is still waiting below the surface of my memory.

I wonder if we all mythologize our childhoods in this way, if everyone has a trailer equivalent. Maybe not an emblematic structure, but at least some sort of unreal distillation of a place or time period; something we use to define our lives, something to explain why we are the way we are. I can’t remember the last time I was in a trailer and yet they linger in my mind. I can’t let them go. The unsightly rectangles somehow help me make sense of things, they give me a shape to contain all the ways I don’t relate to other people.

These days, the trailer has become more concept than structure. It’s the way I paint my life to be potentially more difficult than it was. It’s a nonexistent ideal, or anti-ideal, something I’ve pieced together out of memories and imagination. Sometimes I wonder if the trailer is the truth, or a fabrication. Perhaps, in some way, it’s both? The sentence is at least a cover for a pile of insecurities I don’t know how to separate from each other; part of an old identity I haven’t fully come to terms with and can’t let go of. So for now I hold on to the shortcut, the mythic truth, and I keep telling people I grew up in a trailer.

Header photograph © Emma Louise Leahy.

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