As I was driving over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to my family’s townhouse in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, my mind was racing with a hundred thoughts per second. It was March 11, 2020, and my university had just shut down. I was on my way back to my family’s house for who knows how long.
I hadn’t lived back at home in three years, but once I pulled into the complex I saw my two younger sisters, Lola and Savanna, who had suddenly become taller and had dip-dyed blue and pink hair, walk out of our front door to help me bring my things in. My dad, a bald-headed man in his usual wife beater tank top, was following behind. I was welcomed back by my sister’s timid voices and my dad’s open arms.
While they were happy at that moment, I knew of the obstacles to overcome once I walked inside. Living at school made me independent and taught me to love myself physically and mentally. But how would I make these feelings stick back home?
For most of high school, all I wanted to do was graduate and head off to college. Those feelings weren’t just because of the endless homework I had on subjects I didn’t care about or the so-called popular social scene I never felt I fit in, it was because of the hardship my parents faced.
My parents got divorced the summer I was going into the 5th grade. My mom pulling out of the driveway in the moving van one day is still a memory I recall frequently. She told me, “Someday, when you’re older, you’ll understand why I’m doing this.” But it’s been 11 years, and it still doesn’t make sense. My mom moved to New Hampshire to be with another man, and while she said she was fulfilling her need for happiness, she abandoned her four children along the way.
From that point on, I was raised by my dad in a single-parent household. My dad was managing our house and his job as a chef, on top of taking care of me, my older brother, and two younger sisters.
Likewise, I began to take on responsibility. Whether it was making dinner for my sisters on the nights my dad worked late at the restaurant or waking up early to curl the twins’ hair before picture day, everything I did came to revolve around my family.
I felt trapped at times. Playing field hockey and lacrosse in high school was my method of escape from the mental stress I was facing. As much as I love my family, being responsible for them meant I didn’t have moments to myself where I could make decisions about what I wanted to do.
At first, it was an adjustment moving back home. My sisters and I shared a bathroom, and every time I went to take a shower I would see my makeup and hair products all over the vanity (I would have never left my things like that). It was frustrating, they would use my stuff without asking. That blew up into an argument. My dad yelled at me if I left to get coffee or food and didn’t ask if anyone else wanted anything, which to him, meant I’d failed to consider the whole family’s needs. After living at school I was used to taking care of myself, and I forgot what it meant to share and be considerate of others in my household.
In June 2020, I was three months into living back at home and the world was still shut down, but time continued to go on. On a bright Sunday afternoon, as I sat on our front porch deck reading “Lord of the Flies” for the second time, I saw my dad pull up in his car with groceries. He made a grunting noise as he unloaded them and carried them to the door.
In my eyes, my dad had always been a superhero, but while his tough, stern personality hadn’t changed, his physicality had. Once I saw his back and shoulders buckle under the strain of the same bags that he used to carry with ease made that clear. From that moment, I made it my goal to see living at home as a positive. Even though my family had adjusted in the 12 years since my parents’ divorce, my dad needed some weight lifted off his shoulders.
He was struggling to organize the bills and clean the house, because he woke up every day at 5:30 a.m. and wouldn’t be home until 5 p.m. I helped out with those things growing up, and while I never enjoyed doing the dishes or taking out the trash, I didn’t mind doing these things, because I never truly understood how hard my dad worked. I’m happy to relieve some of that stress from him.
Both my sisters are going through the seventh grade all-online. I may not have to watch over them like I did when they were younger, but now when the twins sit at the kitchen table during school time, I’ll sit at the table as well with my laptop. While my dad’s at work all day, there’s no one to keep an eye on Lola and Savanna to make sure they are getting assignments done. I tried to help them with math and reading homework; virtual school gives me enough trouble as a college student, so I knew Lola and Savanna were struggling.
My sisters still see me as a parent rather than a sibling, since I’m constantly reminding them to do their chores and homework, which has caused arguments in the past. I had to learn to develop a friendship and not be the so-called “control freak” they like to refer to me as.
The twins and I binge-watched “One Tree Hill” throughout the summer, and we still go on short adventures to Dunkin’ Donuts listening to Khalid. My teenage sisters are not the same two little girls I used to play basketball with in my driveway. They’ve grown since I’ve been away at college, changing their interests from playing dolls to keeping up with Tiktok trends.
I’ve always been overprotective of my sisters, because they’ve been through so much growing up. They were raised without a mother and I never wanted them to feel unloved or abandoned. Now they are in their teenage years—the day after their 13th birthday, my dad said to me, “Bella, if there was a time they needed you in their life it would be now, in their young adulthood.” I’m cherishing the time I spend with Lola and Savanna, because they truly are growing to be mature young ladies.
Every day of the week my dad makes us a home cooked meal after a long day of work. When I first came back home from school, I would usually take my plate up to my room and eat there. As I reshaped my relationship with my sisters and dad, I started eating dinner at the table. I forgot what it felt like to sit at the table with my family with the news on in the background to unwind after a long day.
I spent my whole life being a young adult and I thought college would slow down time to enjoy different experiences for myself. But three years after I graduated high school, I found myself right back at home. I’m lucky enough I got to experience living at college for two years compared to some students who never left home. Being home with my family outweighs all of the negatives of the pandemic because I know this won’t be forever; high school-aged Bella would have said otherwise, but like the rest of my family, I’ve grown and matured.
Photos by Colleen Claggett