I grew up in a trailer park — and I wouldn't change a thing
As I say goodbye to my family’s home of 22 years, I’ve been reflecting on some lessons this place taught me
This First Person article is the experience of Erin Mick who grew up in a trailer park community in Picture Butte, Alta. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
In 1998, my mom ordered our house. We went to Triple E to pick the layout, the number of cupboards and windows, the colours and everything else. I fell in love with some supremely '90s cat-shaped vases on display in the office, so you can imagine my five-year-old joy when those were gifted to us with the house.
That mobile home sat on my family's hog farm near Innisfail, Alta., until the pork industry crashed at the turn of the millennium, forcing my family — along with many others — to start over.
I knew nothing about any of this, except that we had to go elsewhere, and I was thrilled to discover that we could take our beloved house with us.
"How will it get there?" I asked.
"They'll drive it down on the back of a BIG truck!" said my mom.
Elsewhere turned out to be a quiet trailer park in a tiny place in southern Alberta called Picture Butte, where our custom-built, kitty vases and all, white-and-green house stands to this day.
Twenty-two years later, we are selling that beloved house because my grandmother recently moved in with my mom, and they both need more space. In this peculiar lull between the sale and my family's imminent move-out date, I find myself reflecting on the life my mother built for us here — and what it means to say goodbye to a trailer park childhood.
Maple Estates Mobile Home Park is the kind of place that feels quintessentially small town: sleepy, with wide streets, lots of retired folks and many young families with kids. My happy youth here was underscored by the music of the prairie: crickets, coyote song, chinook winds, gentle summer rain, or sometimes, on rare, crisp winter nights, the distinct sound of nothing at all.
I adore our house. How could I not? I ate stovetop popcorn and watched rented VHS tapes here. Enjoyed thousands of hearty meals under this roof. Played my Game Boy for hours in the sunny living room. Pulled on my ballet tights every week in front of my vintage vanity. Sobbed over preteen crushes in here. Learned to read here. Learned everything here.
So you can imagine my confusion when, as a teen, I also started to learn about trailer parks — or, more accurately, learned what people who don't live in one think about them.
I started noticing how they're portrayed in movies and how others reacted when they found out where I lived. Even having learned this lesson young, I was still shocked when my mom recently divulged that some of my schoolmates had been forbidden from attending birthday parties at my house — forbidden from the trailer park altogether.
I was shocked again when, some weeks ago, our realtor received a phone call from an angry person who took issue with our listing. They called it misleading, accused us of lying because there's "no such thing as a custom-built mobile home." They questioned the water and sewer fees (utilities in mobile homes are shockingly affordable) and further stated that we should "be more upfront" about the finish of the basement. (There is, of course, no basement at all).
Yet another shock came several weeks later during an inspection scheduled by the eventual buyers, when the inspector reported that the house has polybutylene ('poly-B') plumbing. Poly-B is an unstable form of plastic that was phased out in the early 2000s and which, if still present in a home, will often exempt it from insurance coverage or lead to complications in getting it. There is no such plumbing in our house. None. Turns out the inspector simply made an unchecked assumption. In doing so, he put the sale of our house, and my family's livelihood, in real jeopardy. Luckily, our plumber intervened on our behalf to have the false report retracted.
The bad inspection, the nasty phone call… these things fit so comically within a set of behaviours I've witnessed my whole life having grown up in a stereotyped form of housing. And the consequences of these stereotypes aren't merely emotional, but material and financial as well. During the sale of our house, I've learned that ownership of a mobile home on leased or rented land is handled more like that of a vehicle, without an official deed or property title. This means that mobile homes are like vehicles, which are usually considered to depreciate in value rather than appreciating like most other detached houses.
It's easy to imagine how this might be relevant to the ongoing housing crisis, but suffice to say that between the depreciation of our home, an inflated market, and the current popularity of house "flipping" for profit, competition for the remaining choices has been fierce. Add requirements into a housing search such as we have, like an appropriate layout for my grandma's accessibility needs, and the already meagre options narrow substantially.
We have this home because it was the one that met our needs. We kept this home because we loved it and it kept us safe. We are selling this house because our personal circumstances have rendered staying here almost impossible. We are selling this house and finding another at great emotional and material cost.
In the past, whenever I've heard someone describe any kind of neighbourhood as "sketchy" or "bad" I have shuddered, but I've usually swallowed my words. I regret this. What I should have always said is that such a judgment is fundamentally classist, usually incorrect and deeply hurtful to everyone who lives there. And it bears saying that my mom and I are white, able-bodied, and formally educated, so I can't imagine the unfairness that rains down on others at different intersections of discrimination who are also living in marginalized forms of housing.
I'm not upset because of an angry call, or an irresponsible inspector, or misinformed parents two decades ago. I'm upset because of all the time I wasted in my youth believing the lesson such things taught me: that my home is trash and should be treated as such.
That lesson was a lie.
I would rather live here than in a neighbourhood completely devoid of personality. I would rather live here than on a street where neighbours snipe at each other over millimetres of grass growth or call the police whenever a dog barks. I'd rather live here than in a place where everyone assumes that I, like them, look down on neighbourhoods like this. I'd rather live here than most places.
I re-read my listing before it was taken down and was surprised, even having written it myself, at how much warmth I found there. That such a clear display of love garnered such an angry response from a stranger continues to baffle me. I can't shake the feeling that by writing about a trailer and a trailer park with that level of care, I transgressed the same boundary which I've variably succumbed to and railed against at different times in my life — the boundary that states I should only ever be ashamed to have come from here.
But I'm not. And the people who care for my family don't believe I should be. I'm struck with an overwhelming sense of gratitude when I think about all the hands that have reached out over these last few months to help pack boxes, do meal runs, take cars for oil changes, pick up the phone to check in, to play Scrabble with my grandma, to make coffee. These are the things I will try to remember, to hold snug to my chest as we move on.
So, all told, this has been my open love letter to a trailer park childhood. For your consideration.
And please, if your kid wants to go to a birthday party in a home like mine, just let them.
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