Written by Center for Community Change Writing Fellow Stephanie Land. Originally published in the NY Times.
My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter. We had one week left there until we reached the 90-day maximum stay in the shelter system in Port Townsend, Wash., and had grown used to our street, with its five little brown cabins on the edge of town. Our cabin was on the end and had two bedrooms with two twin beds. We had a stand-up shower, a table and a small couch that was covered with a sheet.
I’d put a calendar on the wall that I stared at after my daughter, Mia, went to sleep, memorizing our schedule and her visitation schedule with her dad. The walls were otherwise bare. I knew not to nest. This wasn’t permanent.
She started walking the day before her first birthday — little tentative steps across the tiled floor of our cabin. I’d saved up money from landscaping jobs and bought her a nice pair of shoes. Ones she could wear every day. Ones that would take her wherever she needed to go. The day she took her first steps, I took a short video and used a friend’s computer to upload it to an online album to share with distant friends and family.
I’d just left a destructive relationship with $200 to my name. I had put most of our clothes and furniture in a small storage unit. I was allowed to bring one bag of clothes for each of us to the shelter, and toys I’d grabbed from a box that said “Free Stuff.”
My daughter and I spent our days going on long walks into town. I usually followed the same path: To the co-op for deli food I could purchase with food stamps and a plum or peach for Mia, then uptown where I’d get coffee from a bakery I used to work at. If the day was nice, and the tide was low, I’d go on to the streets lined with holly and madroño trees, to a shaded park with thick grass and swings. Mia would tumble down the long, sloping hill to the trail that led us to the ocean, where we’d watch the ferry and barges pass. It certainly wasn’t the worst place to be homeless, but I still felt like a failure.
On the floor of our cabin was a green box, holding legal packets and files from my custody case. In court, I’d asked for an order of protection, but a judge denied it due to lack of evidence of physical violence. The box seemed to illuminate my failure in not providing a happy home with two doting parents. I’d failed her even in my womb, dragging her through my stress and heartache. When she was born, she had two scabs on her hands called sucking blisters from trying to self-soothe.
I’d strap my daughter to me and walk. I forced myself to go into town, down sidewalks, where I knew people would be in my path. I practiced meeting their eyes and smiling, but often glanced at the ground out of habit.
Though I was almost 30 years old, I had no idea how to be an adult. I’d never been good with money. I’d wanted to be a writer, and I figured I would try to live a free life worth writing about. I’d been traveling from Alaska to Montana, following a dream to live in the land that Steinbeck had fallen in love with. Then I got pregnant. As an adult, I was still a child.
When I think back to the days in the cabin, I remember Mia’s watchful, dark eyes and her independence. I remember her wanting to nurse all night. I remember sitting on the small wooden porch, phone pressed to my ear, and a friend’s voice talking me through those long minutes that seemed like hours as I listened to my 10-month-old cry herself to sleep in her portable crib.
Soon, we would move into a transitional apartment complex that doubled as a halfway house. We’d stay there for a few months, waiting for housing assistance funds so we could get our own two-bedroom apartment. I’d work part-time, go back to school, and she’d go to day care. We’d have a schedule, scribbled out in a day planner I carried. I had to learn how to both take care of myself properly and care for a toddler on my own, and sit with the solitude of it nightly.
Several years later, I wanted to show Mia videos from when she was little, but I could find only still images. Most of the videos from my daughter’s first year, which I had stored online in a Picasa web album, had disappeared. I’d spent that time focused on gain, recovering from loss, and now I’d lost the record of her first smiles, crawls and words.
But the other day I went looking for a photo and noticed the videos had somehow resurfaced. I watched the one of her taking those unsteady steps about a dozen times. I saw the dingy cabin floor that I could never get clean, that huge, heavy round table that took up so much space, and Mia’s unwashed hair and stained shirt. She made her way across the floor, pausing to squat and balance herself, babbling, making her way over to me.
I didn’t realize how much I’d been with her in taking those steps. How connected we’d been as each of us was learning to walk on our own.