2017 Winner

Natalie Cottrill

St Petersburg, FL

A fluffy white ruffled comforter, adorned with periwinkle blue pillows lay upon my first ‘big girl’ bed - a delicate iron trundle - ready and waiting for play dates and sleepovers. My white cabinets, lovingly rescued from the thrift store and painted sparkly white, hold up my revered 15-inch pink Disney Princess TV.  Two porcelain bunny lamps, with lampshades handcrafted by my mom with faux pink daisy blossoms, light up the room and make this truly the most comfortable place on earth.  Our spacious 1970’s ranch style house sits in front of our large pool and saltwater canal leading to the beautiful waters of Tampa Bay, Florida.  This is my first home, and all is right in my world.  This is where I planned to celebrate every birthday and open every Christmas present in front of a grand tree.  This is where I dreamt about meeting my high school dream date at the front door, and looked forward to sharing my secrets with my dearest neighborhood best friend. 

But plans change.  And it’s really hard to understand that; especially when you are only seven years old.  Several small family and financial alterations later,  my family and I entered a whole new world - a journey of five houses in six years.

We moved into our house on March 3, 2000 - the exact same day that I was born. To say I had a close connection with this house would be truly an understatement. I thrived with my two older brothers, happily married parents, and neighbors through the late night swims and early morning tantrums. Eventually, though, as often times good things do, the happier times started to drift away.  And the drifting led to a dreaded announcement.  My parents were getting a divorce.  It’s amazing how much one word, the “D” word, can pretty much decide the rank on your family’s happiness scale.

My parents’ split not only divided our family, but soon divided my close love for my first relationship - my first house. Leaving this house meant leaving our beautifully remodeled French Country kitchen, our bathroom that ABC’s Good Morning America renovated on live television, and my neighbors that soon became my best friends.  Going to an unknown place.  This marked the start of a journey that I was in no way prepared for.

Last looks were taken in and tearful goodbyes were said, and the white comforter and bunny lamps made their way to a new place to call ‘home’.  My 7-year-old self quickly pushed my worries aside - and focused on what moving really meant to me - getting to re-decorate my room! My lime green painted walls eventually were finished, accenting my new peace sign pillows, atop my same white comforter. The room was my newest dream come true.  I would’ve been okay with staying there forever, however, rising rental prices and financial issues had a different idea.  My mom was already working four jobs to try to make ends meet, and a rent increase of an additional $400 per month quickly sent us - mom, brothers, and me searching for somewhere new.

Four years in a somewhat happy home seemed to move by fairly quickly, and lime green memories soon turned to grey, both in color and in mood. We moved into a 2-bedroom place, housing 5 people, now including my brother’s girlfriend, not too far down the road. My small sense of ‘independence’ from my past two houses quickly deteriorated as I moved my belongings into my tiny shared room with my mom. My new teenage attitude quickly tempted  me through the frequent arguments, the lack of space, and my messy brothers, but at the same time, opened my eyes a bit. As I stood in the midst of my small house, I found that maybe everything wasn’t so bad. I attempted to look at the brighter sides of the situation, rather than the darker ones.

Two years of optimism (and being told we could live there for at least 8 years) were quickly met with a landlord’s abrupt phone call. A request for the owner’s family to take over our new and settled abode had to be met immediately.  Given 30 days notice to find a new rental amidst our very challenging economical issues, I could hear,  “No...please, no”,  as my mom responded to the woman on the phone. How could this happen? Why must it happen to us again? And how in the world are we going to do this?  Questions circled in my head for days. My mom’s typical calming response of “It’ll all work out” slightly held me over. And so, my entire family moved in with my aunt, uncle, and 10 year old cousin a few houses down. While I knew that life could certainly be worse, this point in my life was not easy for me. My allotted corner in my cousin’s bedroom had just enough room for some of my belongings. I could have made the decision to mope around (which I admittedly often did) and ignore any contact with anyone every single day, but I knew that wouldn’t lead me to anything better. Instead, I attempted to use the time to at least grow a LITTLE closer to relatives (despite experiencing the sister-like fist fights with my cousin). All there was left to do was wait. Wait for a new house, a new price, and a change that will once again start my life over.

Our next house obviously didn’t come with too many expectations. After moving so many times, it was only logical to look towards moving again. However, who would’ve thought we’d only have a year?  A flier on our front door awaited us as we came home from our 2015 new Year’s Eve night- “Urgent matters have caused this house to be in my possession in exactly 2 weeks”, the “2 weeks”- bolded. My heart fell to my stomach. There was not much of a sense of optimism, little sense of hope, and near to zero sense of happiness left. How many times could we do it? Moving is hard and physical work, not a fun job. How will we do it? Fourteen frantic days of house hunting commanded most of our time, leaving little for for school work, extracurricular activities, or any sense of free time. As we searched, we knew that anything would do, and there was not time to be picky. At this point, I had been very used to handling what is given to me. Whether it be a one bedroom house or one with no rooms at all, I knew that size and quality was not important. After a fallen through purchase and many long days, my mom and I found a brick house on the corner of 44th Avenue.  Once again,  it was time to call yet another place my new ‘home’.

While moving from house to house constantly and unexpectedly did make my life extremely different and sometimes painful, I realized how each move also brought me so much more than that…Moving is certainly a journey, and a journey is what you make of it yourself. I wouldn’t trade any of the houses I’ve lived in for the world.

As I lay in my bed under my white comforter in my tiny brick house on the corner of the street, I ponder upon what all of this really means. I can see from the corner of my eye my outdated bunny lamp with its withering flowered lamp shade. I gaze over my short life and realize that I never really had the chance to grow up in a ‘happy home’.  I visit friends’ houses to be greeted by gated neighborhoods, opening up to huge houses with parents who are in love. Their lives are not like mine. For a while, I chose to look at the situation sourly. Watching my princess TV be thrown into the garbage and my stuffed animals be moved into our new storage unit made me want to scream and cry. It may sound dramatic, but toys, pictures, and my long- time belongings were what my life was based on. How long do we get to live in this house for? Countless days and tears led me through the tough days, when I wished my family could simply be like everyone else’s. Was that so hard? Couldn’t I just have married parents or a place to call home? Why does my mom have to work so many jobs? Everyone’s expectations for me to just simply ‘understand’ what was being thrown at me was not necessarily something I could handle. How do I balance it all?

The bad days and confusing feelings piled up in my mind, until I one day came to a realization. While moving from house to house constantly and unexpectedly did make my life extremely different and sometimes painful, I realized how each move also brought me so much more than that. The long days of hauling chairs and tables from house to house were quickly turned into music sessions and dance parties with my family. The long nights of fighting whether the light should stay on or off with my cousin always ended with laughs and giggles before bed. And the small space shared between my mom and I turned into my favorite escape with my best friend. It’s easy to find the negative moments in bad situations (and I could certainly name many of them), but it takes a little bit of strength to move past them. Moving has been my obstacle, but an obstacle doesn’t fully stop you from anything. Growing the strength to move past some of my worst moments allowed me to make them some of the best ones instead.

Moving is certainly a journey, and a journey is what you make of it yourself.  I wouldn’t trade any of the houses I’ve lived in for the world. As I wait to see what the future of my house journey holds, I do so while holding the hands of my best friends, and I’ve dragged that white comforter, now quite unruffled, and those bunny lamps, now with two ears broken, along for the ride.  My family and I bring hope into every situation, no matter its worth. We remember that we’re all in this together, and that’s all that really matters.

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