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I Lost Everything When My Mother Got Evicted

As the nation braces for a wave of evictions, here’s what it’s like when you can never go home again

By Sharon McDonnell

I rang my mother’s doorbell over and over. No answer. Odd, I thought: my mother never went anywhere.

Even odder, the apartment was eerily silent. Our dog, Apricot, didn’t bark, and our cat, Muffin, didn’t scratch at the door. I had gone home that day in 1977 because when I called my mother on the phone there was no answer. She possessed no answering machine. But since her telephone service — as well as the electricity and gas — was often cut off because she couldn’t pay the bill this was nothing new. I had been raised to do my homework by candlelight. When the gas had been cut off for over a year, we simply ate cold food or my mother cooked dinner on a hot plate she plugged into an outlet down the hall.

I noticed the lock on the door had been removed. I buzzed the next-door neighbor to ask what had happened. “The police came to take your mother away,” she said flatly. “After the marshals moved everything out, she refused to leave. It was very sad.” This neighbor had no idea where my mother had gone.

It had finally happened. My mother had been evicted from our rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights, NY, for not paying the rent. I never saw our furniture, photographs, clothing, piano, or pets again. Luckily, I had moved out a few months earlier. I had graduated from college on a full scholarship and I was tired of paying rent and bills for two people since age 17. I welcomed the luxury of supporting a single person for a change.

My mother received $60 a week in child support and alimony from my father but he never quite grasped the concept of sending checks on a regular weekly basis. The day I turned 18, he stopped paying child support, which accounted for half that amount. I usually saw him twice a year, for Christmas and my birthday — sometimes a bit more — even though he lived just four blocks away. Since I’d read the divorce papers and learned he was supposed to keep paying it if I went off to college (which I was planning to do) until I was 22, I set up a meeting to tell him it was difficult for two people to live on $30 a week and insist we needed the financial help. He snorted in contempt: “Girls don’t need to go to college. I want you to know, I’ll pay it but under extreme duress. She’s your mother, she’s your problem.” She sure was. My mother refused to work or accept any kind of government assistance, even food stamps. She had mental problems combined with very traditional attitudes. She would say, “I’m a married woman, I’m not supposed to work.” And when I noted she was divorced, she would reply, “Your father’s divorced — I was the divorcer.” 

I was stuck.

Forty-three years later, sitting in my apartment in San Francisco, I recall that first eviction. That flooded back because my landlord gave me eviction papers, Christmas week 2019, because she wanted to move into my apartment, sending me into a panic. But I feel curiously disconnected  from my past. I think I know why. Unlike the madeleines, whose aroma sent Marcel Proust reeling back to the joys of his childhood, there is no single thing I possess — no  furniture, toys, family photo albums or old clothing — that might, by its very history, conjure such a torrent of memories.  

I always thought Thomas Wolfe, author of You Can’t Go Home Again, was wrong. People go home all the time. Time and again, adults say they are going “home” to visit their parents for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other holidays — even though they already rent or own their own homes or may have started their own families. The dining room table and chairs passed down from their  parental homes harbor the ghosts of past meals and arguments in every molecule. The china, glassware, jewelry, and wedding dresses inherited from their mothers are weighted down with generations of history, and fraught with family expectations. 

When they set foot inside these homes they grew up in and are suddenly surrounded by the paraphernalia of their pasts, many adults unconsciously lapse into their childhood roles — they re-become the ultra-responsible sibling, the “black sheep.” No wonder practitioners of psychometry finger an object a person owns: they know it lives and breathes the memories of  their past.

But without such mementos (the word is derived from the Latin “remember”) to release the flood of memories to remind you where you came from, it’s as if the past doesn’t exist. You’re floating free: material possessions are unable to clutch, restrain and “possess” you. You are free to reinvent yourself and take risks, throw off the ties that bind — and more often chafe. You face the future with an open heart, since not one solitary thing recalls you to your past.

As Janis Joplin sang: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” 

Throughout my life, I’ve felt “at home” in many places in the world, but my real home wasn’t one of them. I’ve tried to overcome a lifelong distaste — disdain, even — for material things. In my early 20s, I furnished my studio in a walk-up tenement in Manhattan, an apartment with absolutely nothing to recommend it, for under $200. For a few months I lived in an eccentric boardinghouse in Chelsea, where I was the only full-time New York resident, puzzling the other out-of-towners. 

Going out always won vs. staying home, hands-down. It didn’t matter if it was for entertainment around New York or travel to far-off places. Equally comfortable in restaurants, bars, friends’ homes, hotels, airports and locales from Bali, Venice, and Prague to the Greek Islands, I found nothing relaxed me more than being in a strange place,  cheerfully adrift and intent on finding my bearings, like a homing pigeon. I became, irony of ironies, a travel and culture writer. 

My apartments served as mail pick ups, places to sleep and store my magazines and books and telephone numbers (information is my most precious belonging). A sentimental attachment to my home or its accouterments? Not me. I’m always aware that a home, and everything it contains, can be swept away in an instant.

I once packed for a six-week trip to Europe as if it were a weekend jaunt. I don’t check baggage, and instead rely on just a duffel bag and a carry-on packed with things to read. Customs officials always eye me suspiciously, asking where my luggage is. Like a turtle, I carried my home with me wherever I went. My home was my imagination, memories, books read and concerts heard — stuff no one could take from me.

Losing everything your family owned at an early age — my mother, dead since 1989, placed everything in storage after her eviction, refused to tell me or any of her siblings where it was, and eventually stopped making payments — had its advantages, I sometimes felt in cynical moments. Clean slate, start from scratch — all the clichés were true. “Bad things happen at home” was the mantra wired into my brain. But if you’re hardly ever home, bad things aren’t gonna getcha.

Ultimately, I overcame most of my distaste for the concept of home and all it stood for. I’ve bought household items whose value actually exceeds double digits. I’ve gone on house tours from New York to New Orleans to observe (with anthropological zeal) how other people actually build a nest. I’ve even written historic house and design stories for Architectural Digest and American Spirit, the DAR magazine. And ironically, I’ve now worked from home since 1993, when I left my well-paying job in PR to jump off a cliff and become a freelance writer. From home-free to house-proud? Not quite.  

Now I live in a luxury apartment building, since my pending eviction vaulted me to the top of the applicant pile for my city’s affordable housing lottery. Evictions can open doors as well as close them, I’ve learned. Glancing at my cozy home, filled with art from India, New Orleans, and Sedona, I’ve come a long way. Reinvention is sweet.


This story is supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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