I've Had Blank Walls For All Of The Pandemic; I Didn't Realize How Much It Affected Me

By Jillian Pretzel

One hot afternoon in July, when visiting my mom, I found a stack of spare photo canvases and framed pictures leaning up against the wall in her guest room. 

I ventured into this seldom-used room to change my daughter's diaper, but I ended up sitting on the floor for a half-hour, pulling canvases out of the stack, one-by-one, to show my interested baby. "Look honey, that's Mommy and Daddy," I said, pointing to a wedding photo. I picked up pictures of my high school graduation and touched individual faces in a group shot at the beach, naming grandparents and even introducing her to a few cousins she hadn't met yet. My daughter put her hands on the pictures and smiled at me. "Hi," she said—one of her few words to date. Clearly, she approved.

I realized she'd never had this opportunity at our own home. We hadn't hung any photos yet, even six months after moving in.

Back in late 2019, my husband and I became nomads. We moved from our one-bedroom condo in Southern California to a studio in Brooklyn, following my husband's job, the promise of New York excitement, and dreams of great pizza. However, our situation changed when, just weeks after landing in New York, we found out I was pregnant. And only weeks after that, we first heard of COVID-19. Our New York adventure had turned upside down, on two counts, and we decided to not get too comfortable in our chic Brooklyn apartment.

We repacked our suitcases, and like many New Yorkers in early 2020, hit the road in search of less-populated places. We wanted to find a town with low Covid infection rates, pleasant walking paths, and hopefully some acceptable pizza as well.

Luckily, we found an Airbnb in a small town in Pennsylvania that was cute, cozy, and nearby some pregnancy craving-approved restaurants. We kept our bags packed, hoping we could move back to the city soon. However, by the time our short-term lease was up a few months later (and my belly had outgrown most of my stretchiest pants), we still weren't sure if, or when, my husband's job would require him to come back to the office. So, we signed another short-term lease in a different place nearby. And then another.

Within the year, we lived in four places across three cities, with each place feeling more like a hotel than a home. Our new baby never had a true nursery. We kept about half our clothes in our suitcases at all times, and we never decorated beyond a few fridge magnets. Paying for short-term housing was depleting our savings, and we constantly wondered when we'd ever get a chance to settle down.

Then, at the beginning of 2021, my husband and I decided we'd finally had enough. We found out that our tenant back in our California condo was moving out and talked about moving back into our old place. We loved the idea of being near family again and knew the condo would be a cheaper place to stay while we made long-term plans. In February, we cleaned out the few things in our dresser drawers and moved back to our hometown, a new baby in tow. Maybe this place was still a temporary fix, but at least we could figure out our next move while living in a place that felt, at least a little, like home.

Right away, it felt good to be back in California. We were happy to be near family, especially after a year of avoiding crowds, and it was nice to not have a checkout date. For the first time in a year, I unpacked my suitcase completely.

Of course, the place wasn't perfect. My daughter still didn't have her own room, my husband didn't have a dedicated home office, and it still felt like a temporary place to land. Even as the weeks and then the months passed.

Then, that one day at my mom's house, I found all the old photos in the guest room. Looking back on family memories, I realized what I was missing back at the condo. My husband and I had been so used to moving around, living as guests in someone else's home, we hadn't thought to hang pictures of friends, family, and even our baby on the walls. Before leaving my mom's that day, I packed some of my wedding photos and a family group picture in the trunk. When I got home, I ordered even more photos, especially some prints of our new family of three.

That Saturday, I spent the entire morning hanging photos. I stood on a step stool, and on the bed, and on a chair, while my husband held the baby and squinted to make sure the frames were centered. I became obsessed with finding a spot for everything. I spent hours hanging and sifting through countless pictures of our baby's smiles.

When the work was done, almost every wall had a picture of our family (or at least a toothy picture of the baby). Suddenly, the place felt more like home. 

While my daughter enjoyed looking through the photos on her grandma's guest room floor, she loved it when she could see so many of the same photos hung up in our home. In fact, since redecorating, my now one-year-old has made up a game. She points to her favorite photo above her changing table, waits for me to carry her to the wall, and touches each face as I name off Mommy, Daddy, and Baby. "Hi," she'll say approvingly.

She loves seeing our smiles around the house—and so do I.

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