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Coming Home

Cozy up with twenty-five stories of simpler times.

You can’t ask an acquaintance if he had a good childhood. It’s too personal — and a potential can of worms. But we’re naturally curious, looking for clues about the situations that our friends come from. This interest comes out in questions like “What do your parents do?” “Are you close with your family?” “Have you been home recently?” and even the straightforward “Where are you from?”

But what does a “good childhood” mean anyway? Most upbringings are complicated; mixed bags. Most parents try their best, and all make mistakes.

Descriptions, whether words or images, of the physical spaces of our formative years hint at the relationships within. If these walls could talk, they’d tell tales long forgotten.

Published on January 20, 2010

Introduction by Laura Brunow Miner

Guest design by Matthew Buchanan

In Side Out

In Side Out

The side door to my parents’ house was the only door I ever used to enter the house. I’d walk in slowly, stalling before telling them about a car window I broke, or walk in late, feeling invincible after spending time with my first love. The side door was the place where I reflected on all the monumental moments in my life, before leaving one world behind and entering another.

Photographer: Ricky Montalvo

I am a video producer for Yahoo!’s studios division, and a freelance multimedia storyteller. I like Nutella on flour tortillas.

Dear @Pictory:

The house I grew up in had two crabapple trees. My mom always tells me they were fat with blossoms the day she brought me home.”

Second Home

Second Home

The fig tree in the backyard transformed my grandparents’ home into an Eden. They transplanted it from their old house when they moved in 46 years ago. I’ve lived here twice: in 1979, when my family was evacuated from Tehran, Iran; and twenty years later, when I graduated from college. In nearly all the years between and beyond, four generations have filled out the house on holidays. My brothers, cousins, and I regularly slept over after special occasions, holding out for days until we surrendered to our parents. My earliest memory was forged here, on my third birthday, as I watched my mother and grandmother transform anonymous shortbread cookies into golden likenesses of Big Bird with impasto from their pastry bags. The house was virtually unchanged when I moved back in 1999. The Muppet Movie bath towels for the grandchildren still hung neatly in the bathroom and the fig tree bore fruit each spring and fall. Their house is still my home base when I’m in town. One quiet morning I tried on my great grandmother’s wedding gown, savoring the warmth and weight of a few yards of gauzy fabric. My grandparents’ house has always been my second home, and the dress fit like a second skin.

Photographer: Amy Duke

Amy toils at a contemporary art museum in the Midwest and regularly returns home.

Roughing It

Roughing It

My younger brother and I were born in some armpit of Los Angeles, but when I was three our parents decided we needed to grow up somewhere far, far different. They found a six acre parcel of coniferous forest in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas and dragged a secondhand trailer onto it. For the first couple years we didn’t have running water, and two or three years after that we finally procured electrical service. A television eventually showed up around the time I turned 13. It was black and white, and the bunny ears delivered three snowy channels on a good day. I spent most of my time reading geeky books and collecting bugs in the woods while the other kids my age played video games and watched sitcoms — I was the awkward one who didn’t know what happened on Full House the night before. In 6th grade I was voted “Future Millionaire Mad Scientist.” Bit by bit, Dad and Mom put together a real house a couple hundred feet away from the trailer. They tackled whatever work they could do on their own, and contractors were hired for the harder stuff when we had the money. Although it was unfinished, we finally moved into the house shortly before my 18th birthday. I had eight months in which to enjoy it before moving away for college. That was almost nine years ago and the trailer still sits in the same place it always has, hunching further into the dirt as it falls apart. It’s filled with old clothes from the ‘80s, empty boxes, brittle magazines, and carelessly discarded bits of my childhood. My lungs hurt for a couple hours after I tiptoed around inside taking photos.

(Editor’s note: the next photo story is from Andrew’s little brother.)

Photographer: Andrew Collins

Andrew Collins is a travel-hungry data addict who designs interactive things and sometimes static things. He toots and cusses @inRGBwetrust.

Tight Quarters

Tight Quarters

On a recent trip back home, I decided to take a peek into the slowly decaying trailer that I lived in with my four-person family for the first sixteen years of my life. As expected, it seemed much smaller and more claustrophobic than I ever pictured it as a child. It seems my personal space requirements have expanded to fill the progressively larger apartments I’ve moved into over the years. But still, I believe my current preference for smaller, studio-style apartments stems from this childhood experience; having everyone sharing a single space seems to put me at ease.

Photographer: Ian Collins

I live and work in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco as a programmer and designer, mostly for web projects.


For five years, we lived in fairy land. Layers and layers of redwood debris ensured my feet would never make a sound on the constantly damp ground. An old abandoned car lived at the bottom of the hill, where elephant eared plants nestled against its windows. The deer, the fox, and the salamanders were confidants. Plants, some larger than me, became friends and encouraged me in my dreams. The house that I grew up in wasn’t a house at all. The shell, the place I slept, was in a room whose length was only as long as the bunk bed, with a two-foot square closet I shared with my sister. The single-wide mobile home that my father towed from Arizona to California was about as small and unappealing as homes can be. But the place I grew up? It was a magical land where the sprites barely escaped my constant efforts to catch a glimpse.”

Patricia Grier
My Castle

My Castle

When you are little you love your house, no matter what. It’s your castle, your playground. Your fortress of solitude. No one has a porch as big as yours, and certainly they’ve never seen a deck and rope swing like the one you have out back. No sir. Then you grow up, move away. If you’re lucky, your parents stay — but every time you go back to visit, it gets just a bit smaller. Perhaps a tad shabbier. You stay away for a long time. When you finally go back home, you’re shocked. It’s run down, dusty, falling apart in places. At first you wrinkle your nose, but the more you look around, the harder you look, you see it. Those bits that you loved peek back at you. Your favorite reading spot is still there. And you realize you could never quit it entirely. In fact, you dream that maybe someday it could be your house. And you could fix it, make it better than it ever was. Maybe you can. Let’s hope so.

Photographer: Hannah Huffman

Hannah Huffman gets paid to dig up artifacts. She wishes she got paid to take pictures instead. Regardless, she’ll just keep on keeping on.

Dear @Pictory:

The house I grew up in had wallpaper in the bathroom. I was terrified the design was carnivorous plants and they’d eat me.”

Back in the USSR

Back in the USSR

I was born in Soviet Russia and lived in this communal apartment until I was five. I’ve spent every summer in this St. Petersburg apartment with peeling wallpaper and cracked ceilings since then. The building itself is from the early 1800s and my mother moved into our room in 1981. Since the apartment is communal, we all lived in a 40 square foot room and shared the kitchen and bathroom with two other families. Right outside this door there’s a panel of wall paper on which I’ve been measured every year since I was four. We now own the room in the apartment. I hope we never have to fix it up because every inch is so perfectly lived in and loved and every wall holds all of my most treasured memories and conversations.

Photographer: Maria Piessis

I am a freelance photographer/designer/marketing manager. I live in Washington D.C. now, but grew up in Colorado and Russia. I love details.

Public Affection

Public Affection

I grew up in Hong Kong’s public estate housing, designed for low income citizens. The community aspects of it were nice, and there were pretty parks with trees and birds. After I moved away into a privately owned flat, I started paying eight times more rent for a flat that is smaller and has less shared area for social activity. The bottom of my building now is just an overly crowded shopping mall. Lately I’ve been thinking of getting a low income job in order to apply for a public estate flat again.

Photographer: Dan Lai

Dan Lai is the IT Department Head of a Hong Kong Exhibition Company.


My parents were successful young professionals (a veterinarian and a speech pathologist) in a small Louisiana town when I came along. By the time I was four they were burnt out. So they sold everything and bought a 41-foot sail boat named the Mimi. Over my grandparents’ protests they moved their little baby boy onto it and sailed off into the Gulf of Mexico. We lived on that boat for something like five years, from when I was a toddler to when I was in second grade. Most kids my age had TVs and watched cartoons, and indeed we had one in the first few months on the boat. But one day the salt air got to it. We took it into a repair shop in the Keys; a delicate operation of hoisting it into the dinghy, riding it across Marathon’s anchorage, pulling it up on the dock, and then walking it to the shop. On the way back though, tragically, a cruise ship passed us in the harbor and its wake swamped the rubber dinghy, drowning the TV’s delicate circuitry in two feet of salty Gulf water. But, I learned to read faster than most kids, and since there weren’t a lot of other kids around I became really comfortable with adults. After sailing from Louisiana down the Florida coast, through the Keys and out to the Bahamas, we finally settled on the west coast of Florida living in marinas in good school districts.”

Andrew Fitzgerald
Family Heirloom

Family Heirloom

A “fusuma” is a sliding door used to partition off rooms in a Japanese house. The one shown here was made by my grandfather, a skilled calligrapher. It stood in my home for almost 40 years and has watched me like a great father would. Even when I was a child I understood how important it was and was scared to ever damage it. When I have my own house someday, I would like to make a room for this fusuma, and pass it on to future generations.

Photographer: Kido Takayuki

I love raw meat and photos. I’m a designer who’s feeding tropical fishes and a cute dog in Tokyo.

Cultural Studies

Cultural Studies

Growing up as a military brat, it was hard to call any place we lived home. But when my father would get stationed overseas, my mother, sister, and I would live with my grandparents in South Texas where I was born. It allowed me to learn about my heritage and culture in a way that most Americans can’t, and to connect with my grandparents. I took this shot when I went to visit them after being away for nearly two decades. Everything was the same but also different. This family sign above the front door has been there as long as I can remember. The wire running in front of it is a reminder of how my grandparents have always lived simply: it’s the wire from the roof antenna to their single television.

Photographer: Gil Creque

I’m a technology enthusiast with a background in public opinion polling. I’m also a tech early adopter, part-time technology and web consultant, Drupal kool-aid drinker, and Democrat. I live in Melbourne, Florida.

Time Capsule

Time Capsule

Even though my parents just moved from New Jersey to Florida, they took an important part of the old house with them. Dad’s old red Craftsman is more of a time capsule than a toolbox, and it immediately transported me back to my dad’s garage. Grease, Gojo hand cleaner, old coffee cans filled with nuts, bolts, washers, and fuses of all shapes and sizes — a vivid picture with an accompanying scent. The lid to the toolbox is always open, displaying a collage of important photos adhered with yellowed Scotch tape. They hold special meaning to my dad, and now, to me. Since I can remember, my dad was always working. He would work all night as a diesel mechanic in Manhattan, driving the empty highways while I was sleeping, then go straight to another job in the morning as a freelance contractor. I remember having to tiptoe around the house when I got home from school, so as not to wake my dad. I know he did it all for me and my brothers, so we could have the things we needed to succeed. My mother always told me, “Your father has hands of gold,” but I never realized how much of an artist my dad was until I became an adult. Until now, I never realized how similar we are. Fixing cars never interested me, but I have inherited the desire to make things better and beautiful, and to create something from nothing. Dad and his toolbox taught me to be my own artist.

Photographer: Michael O'Neal

Michael O’Neal is a designer at Apple and lives in San Francisco.

Dear @Pictory:

The house I grew up in was built by my fathers own hands, I still think about how safe I felt there as a child because of that.”

Modern American Gothic

Modern American Gothic

Returning home to Connecticut for Christmas, I found my parents reclining comfortably in retirement. I also suddenly realized that my own adult life is nearly identical to my mother’s, down to the red slippers, puzzle games, and stoic husband.

Photographer: Matt Baume

I’m a writer who years ago fled the suburbs in favor of San Francisco, and now looks forward to the day that I can flee right back.

The Hidden Life of Dogs

The Hidden Life of Dogs

There’s my mom — she didn’t even notice I was photographing her. She looks sad. This is the house my parents moved to when I was 15, after the previous house became too small for all of us. If only an image could describe a 33 year marriage gone sour halfway through. Perhaps this one does. For me, it represents everything that our new house symbolized. A family’s new found wealth, loneliness, and the distance that ended in our family falling apart.

(Editor’s note: I asked Linka if her mom would be comfortable with the photo being published. Her response: “Thank you for asking about my mom’s feelings. She is a wonderful woman, she understands my work, and she knows photography is my life’s focus. The photograph was taken more than 15 years ago. She is very happy now and has been divorced from that life for a long time. She will be proud that it was accepted.”)

Photographer: Linka Odom

I’m an artist, photographer, and sales rep for a fine art printing bureau in Los Angeles. I grew up in Texas and spent many days walking the creek behind my home. The constant little discoveries I made instilled in me a sense of adventure that I carry, always. When I discovered photography, it changed everything for me, by allowing me to investigate and observe emotions. My photographic practice is my therapy, my savior, and my ultimate passion.

Dear @Pictory:

The house I grew up in is haunted by my grandfather. Wooden planks cover what used to be, great pines once shaded the yard.”

Cozinha (Kitchen)

Cozinha (Kitchen)

My aunt’s house has always been the default family meeting place, where weekly lunches and holiday feasts occur. It’s a big house and a small farm with sheep, chickens, and a variety of produce. This smoke filled kitchen is the birthplace of countless loud arguments and most of my favourite meals. Outside, my grandfather is feeding my aunt’s guard dogs, but I’ve also watched through that window as they’ve hung a slaughtered sheep from hooks. As a kid, I would spend my time there reading, playing with the dogs, or watching TV — but now that I only get to visit Portugal for two weeks at a time, I try to do as little as possible and just soak it in.

Photographer: Phillip Mendonça-Vieira

I’m a software developer living in Toronto, Canada. I take pictures every now and then.

One Horse Town

One Horse Town

There was always a lot of work to be done on a farm, but we were also able to make time for fun. I grew up twelve miles outside of Aitkin, Minnesota — a city with a population of 2000 — two hours north of Minneapolis. In January of 2009 I went back to the farm to visit my mom and show the place to some friends from college, one of whom is seen here riding my sister’s horse. There’s nothing fancy about things there, including the one story house in which I was born, but it’s always fun to bring people who grew up in a city and show them what country life is like.

Photographer: Levi Baer

I am an administrative professional, independent photographer, and communication ethicist living in Chicago.

The Great Outdoors

The Great Outdoors

This sprawling backyard in Pawling, New York, was the most important thing in my young life. My mom put together the best and biggest birthday parties out there, complete with piñatas and slip-n-slides. We had hills for sledding, a swamp for exploring, and trees for climbing. We put out salt licks for the deer family, birdhouses that the squirrels took over, and watched the bats circle around the trees in the evening. Now, whenever I return home, I look out there and can still see my brother and I making up games or playing in the rain. We grew up in that house, but stayed young in the yard.

Photographer: Ry Pepper

Ry is a theater technician in New York City who never leaves her camera behind. She also enjoys calling herself a photographer.

Dear @Pictory:

The house I grew up in had a tiny closet in my bedroom that was covered with strawberry scented stickers. It was the best.”

Starting Over

Starting Over

This is the house where I became a child for the first time. I came to live here with my grandmother when I was eight years old and spent the next ten years healing from the pain and hurt caused by my mentally ill mother. I learned to trust, to play, learned what being young meant. My grandmother, a former real estate broker, once said that it’s a sad thing to return to your childhood home, because so often it’s less than you remembered. I had been away from this state for over 20 years, and it took a great deal of courage to make the trip from Yosemite to visit 50 Villa Street. I tried not to think of what it might look like. Unbidden, images of decay arose, or perhaps an apartment building standing where I used to play. When I arrived, I was delighted at how clean and neat it was — but Grandma was right. It wasn’t the same. But it did provide a sense of the wheel of my life coming full circle, and I felt like I could move on with my life from there.

Photographer: Edie Howe

Edie Howe is a photographer who lives and works in Yosemite National Park. She is also a mezzo-soprano without a venue. She still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, either.

This Old House

This Old House

At face value, the home I grew up in is not much to look at. The facade of concrete walls is painted the color of dirt and appears tired and worn from neglect. But I remember when it was painted robin’s egg blue and a weeping willow wildly whipped at the back porch during thunderstorms. I remember rollerskating to Anne Murray in the mildewy mint green basement and performing puppet shows for the neighborhood from the windows of the attic bedroom I shared with my sister. This sad little house seems so far from the memories in my mind’s eye. But, that happy little blue house still exists in a time when dreams were less about having it all and were more about having enough of what we needed.

Photographer: Lori Snyder

I am a freelance photographer in Gardners, Pennsylvania, and am privileged to share this life with my husband and two wildly wonderful little boys.

Split Reality

Split Reality

During vacations and long weekends, I grow up in Saugerties, New York, with a father and a stepmother and four siblings and tall mountains. During the week, I grow up in New York City with just a mother and me and tall buildings. It is the life I was born to lead, literally. When I was brought into this world, I was already split between two lives. I love my calm country life and the responsibility of having little ones who look up to me, but when I get restless it’s nice to know that the city is waiting on the other side of a three hour bus trip.

Photographer: Hannah Moch

Hannah Moch is a high school student living in New York City and Saugerties, New York. She uses her photography as a tool to memorize all the benign and fantastical parts of her life. She hopes to continue using photography to document the last few months of her high school career and whatever lies beyond for her siblings and herself.

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