Untethered: How Do You Know You’re Living Where You Want To Be?

“When I’m gone, are you gonna get your grandpa, you know, his dope?”

My sister deepens her voice on the his dope. She’s imitating my dad, talking about my grandpa and the very mild and completely legal edibles he and my sister bring him because he is pushing 90 and heaven forbid he takes something that helps him sleep. My dad has been asking this because he and his wife are moving away. My sister has been taking my dad to the dispensary to get my grandpa “his dope” for some months, and despite a lot of evidence to the contrary in some old family photos, apparently the whole experience makes him nervous (according to my sister).

My mom has been dreaming of both moving away and also of taking psychedelics for years. She’s sold her house and has been living in her late mom’s house. I’d dreamed or joked or both of finding some psychedelics for her, of MK-Ultra-ing the conservatism out of her, whispering in her ear about maybe not hating people, while she’s tripping, seeing if there are any pieces of that angry reactionary shell that might break off. She tells me the energy in my grandma’s house, her dead mom’s house, is heavy. She also tells me she has been cleansing it, of course. In her mind, nothing originates from her but solutions. Problems are external.

When I visited my hometown for the eclipse, my mom and I had a mediocre dinner with questionable drinks at a gay bar. She’d suggested it, which seems odd until you know that it’s in the very same building that was once the boarding house my grandfather, her dad, grew up in. Later, without my mom, I heard a baby cry while being held by its mother when the sun was eclipsed by the moon’s shadow. Before I left, I did hand her something she could try, a parting gift, a shot in the dark at healing.

Part of the reason I moved back to Pittsburgh was so that I could be somewhat near my family. Within months of my returning from the west coast in 2015, my mom’s house was broken into. She had to clean up rummaged-through closets. I was able to drive up to see her within a few days, the drive only a few hours. I’ve attended a wedding since then, a funeral. I’ve had my own wedding attended by family and went to extended family holiday celebrations. It’s been a location that, though still far enough away to prevent drop-in visits, allowed for connection.

Now, they’re both moving south in search of something else — warmer weather, activities to fill out their retired lives, the American dream. They are separately, but at the same time, in the same year, dissolving my sense that traveling back could mean seeing extended family, would mean flitting back and forth, as I had once done, between the apartments or houses my parents lived in but that I had never lived in because they stayed, which I know is not the case for everyone by any means, in close proximity to each other for almost two decades after their initial separation.

My sister will still live there, up in Buffalo. A couple old friends still will, too, and of course, I’ll still see my grandpa when I visit. But if I look at the senses of belonging, of home, that have dissolved over the past 12 months, this was one I maybe didn’t expect.

There are photos from 2018 of my sister and I in the snow at my mom’s place, the winter I went back after moving out and away from my abusive marriage. The journey home after that breakup felt like a reset and a reassurance; there are these people who are there for hard times. I told my dad and his wife some of what happened. I told my mom. I had her watch Big Eyes with me and pointed and made the comparisons that made sense and then she told me how she “liked him” though and that I was “mean to him.” Then, following that, there were even more years of a Trump presidency, Q Anon, Covid, sheltering in place, an uprising, a failed insurrection, unending twists and turns and doubling downs.

But only once did I go up and not tell my mom, not see her, when I was hurt by something or other she’d said or done. I told my dad about it, and it was like his eyes sunk deeper into his skull with the hurt of hearing it. He told me not to do that, that I’d regret it. He and my mom had moved us all a solid 45 minutes away from his parents because my grandmother, my father’s mother, would not could not stop being mean to my mom. She died not long after that move, while on bad terms with my dad. He’s never forgiven himself for leaving things that way.

When my mom packed up her house, she handed over tubs of old photos to my sister to go through. And so, on subsequent trips back up there, my sister and I combed through the old pictures. There were so many chubby kids’ cheeks, my old bowl cuts, and her dimply little smile under strawberry hair. We shrieked in horror at each other as we saw the same dresses — that had already been hand-me-downs from the 80s — appear first on me, and then on her, as late as the 2000s. “I can still feel the itch,” she moaned.

In there, too, are a batch of photos from an Amway conference. In them, my parents are roughly the age I am now. I remember the Amway days. They were so sure they were going to move up the pyramid, that life would be different, better. We sat on the blue carpeting that filled the house and flipped through the Amway magazine detailing the prizes you could win when your downline was big enough, Disney cruises, trips to Florida and yet more Disney — and central Florida is where my dad is now moving like he’s never forgotten the siren’s call contained in those glossy pages. Of course, we know that no one ever won out when it came to Amway, except for the people at the very top, who, years later, would go on to lobby excessively to dismantle laws that sought to prevent pyramid schemes, and who would even have a representative in the Trump cabinet in the form of Betsy DeVos. My mom maybe had two or three customers I remembered, ladies who applied makeup in the bathroom where my floating bath toys sat on the edge of the tub. I learned to apply makeup with the leftover Amway palettes. We never seemed to run out. For years, I washed our floors with Amway cleaning concentrate. Later on, determined to have never been duped, my mom blamed their Amway dreams falling apart on my dad, on his inability to get his downline in order, never on the trick she fell for while dreaming.

In the photos, there is a rack of fur coats in a convention hall. My mom and other women try them all on, modeling for the camera. It’s funny to think of this extremely analog form of manipulation. Fur coats and nothing around them but blank walls and easy-to-clean polished concrete. My mom grins into the camera, and I can practically hear how her heels would have clicked on that floor. In other photos, they are seated and applauding at banquet hall tables, sweating men in ties and collared shirts grin at the photographer and clasp their wives close to them, so sure they’re both shooting into the stratosphere.

In one final photo, which I packed up to bring home with me, my dad stands on a stage. The photo is taken at an odd angle, as though my mom is maybe seated in one of the front rows, pointing the camera upward. My dad is being led across the stage, hand in hand with a woman I don’t recognize. Behind him, monstrous red lights cut through what looks like fog or smoke. He is smiling under his mustache and wearing a suit, even though he had never had a job that would have required him to even wear a collared shirt or a tie. My sister speculates that he is perhaps walking across hot coals.

They were so unmoored at my age, thrashing around in the dark for some kind of social mobility, for someone or something that would lead them somewhere else than where they’d found themselves plunked down. Like everyone else at that convention, they were easy prey. What they had was a young kid, a head of household with just a high school education, recently closed factories and narrowing blue collar job prospects. Bills. And a more-economically-depressed-than-most region — go Bills! It’s nice to think they can choose something for themselves now, decades later, as Boomers and some of the last Americans with pensions from union jobs, savings, the ability to finally stop laboring and laboring. I wish I could be a fly on the wall at that conference. I do suspect that my mom carries that brainwashing about bootstrapping with her still, the rhetoric about pulling yourself up through hard work that was so transparently a lie because no one who made any money from Amway got it without having dozens or even hundreds of people in their downlines losing out.

Their impending moves have made me start questioning if I want to be here in Pittsburgh at all — or where I want to be physically located, if I even care. And I found, also, in those photos, a mirror held up to the economics we’re all experiencing right now and the recession that is encouraging me to stay put for a little while at least. Moving would almost certainly mean paying more for housing, would mean more disruption, more uprooting. It might be a reaction, too, to feeling like I’m losing roots, like I just want to say “fuck it” and tear them all out instead of dealing with less of something I’m accustomed to. I’m trying to sort through what I want and how much of it is what I want and how much of it is what I’ve been influenced to want — what’s real, what’s a scam, what exists in the space of something that is surely a scam but is also somehow real. The aesthetics of dreams and promise and hopes and goals never match up with the dirty dishes in the sink, or the mechanical scheduling of a little time off mid-week to attend a protest against yet another anti-abortion or anti-trans speaker, or the taxes that are owed that are going to pay for more weapons and weapons and weapons.

This dissolution of home presents a lot of choices — how I’ll spend my time — who I’ll visit, when, for what holidays if any. And also, whether I want to stay or move and explore somewhere new. It has me combing through my connections in this city, which also has me feeling cold and calculating, but nevertheless, it’s something I’m doing. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to turn to myself and just myself and ask — do I like it here enough to stay? And to realize, if I don’t, I do have choices. I’ll just have to look for them.

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Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.


  1. Autostraddle, is there any way to turn off these autoplaying video ads that open every single time I open an article? And then they hover annoyingly over the top of the text! It’s the absolute worst! They are so so irritating it makes me not want to open any articles.

  2. Really beautiful piece, Nico. You really captured the rust belt then and now as a really stark backdrop to the relationships at play here. Thank you for putting yourself out there so much for this series.

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