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When winter comes, Mom and Dad find homelessness more difficult. Dad stays in shelters, and Mom stays with Lori. When Dad gets tuberculosis, he spends six weeks recovering in the hospital, forcing him to get sober. A hospital administrator gets him a maintenance job at an upstate resort, but Mom doesn’t want to go, so Dad goes by himself. He enjoys his time near the woods and stays sober through the summer and fall. Mom convinces him to come back the next winter, and he immediately returns to drinking.
That Christmas, Jeannette buys Dad warm clothes for the winter, and he is offended that she would treat him like a charity case. When Jeannette can’t afford her tuition fees the following semester, Dad goes out and wins $950 and a mink coat in a poker game, the precise amount of money she needs. When she graduates, she does not invite him to the ceremony because she worries he will show up drunk and cause a scene. Dad understands, and still expresses pride in her success.
Mom and Dad move into an abandoned building in the Lower East Side, living with other squatters who have led unruly lives and battled authority. Jeannette observes that her parents have found their home, the place they belong, and wonders if she will ever find the same.
In her search for home, Jeannette begins dating a man named Eric. She likes Eric because he is organized, responsible, and nothing like her father. They quickly move in together, and Jeannette gets a job writing gossip articles for a prestigious news outlet. Dad occasionally calls in tips for her column. Jeannette enjoys going to fancy parties, but she fears people will find out about her parents and her past.
Four years later, when Jeannette and Eric are married, Mom asks Jeannette if Eric would loan her a million dollars. Mom wants the money to buy her brother’s oil-rich property, which is identical to the property Mom inherited. Jeannette realizes that Mom’s property is also worth the same amount of money, and Mom sat on a million-dollar property while the family starved.
At this point, Jeannette is a successful journalist, Lori is a freelance artist, and Brian is a police officer with a wife and a child. Maureen drops out of community college and moves in with Mom and Dad. Maureen behaves erratically, and one day tries to stab Mom. She spends a year in a mental institution and moves to California when she’s released. The family drifts apart, and a year later Dad dies of a heart attack. Jeannette sees Dad once before his death. They reminisce about old times, and Jeannette concludes that he loves her. A year after Dad dies, Jeannette divorces Eric and moves into an apartment on the West Side.
Five years after Dad dies, Jeannette and her new husband, John, host the family for Thanksgiving dinner. John is a writer who admires Jeannette’s strength and says her scars prove that she is strong. Brian is a decorated sergeant and recently divorced, and Lori is an illustrator.
The family eats a large meal, and Brian notes that if someone is determined to put food on the table, they will find a way to do it. Jeannette often has similar thoughts upon seeing abundant amounts of food. Lori admonishes him for bringing up the past, but the conversation remains good-natured. Sitting down for dinner, they all toast to Dad’s life.
As, Jeannette, Lori, and Brian appear to grow into well-adjusted adults, Mom, Dad, and Maureen struggle to adapt to life in New York City, highlighting their lack of independence. Mom and Dad’s unique struggles on the streets of New York City highlight their toxic dynamic. Away from Mom, Dad manages to stay sober for nearly half a year, but when he comes back, he returns to his old habits and behavior. Mom can’t be blamed for Dad’s alcoholism, but the two of them do appear to bring out the worst in each other. Jeannette supposes that Maureen’s inability to establish independence in New York City could be attributed to the fact that she survived in Welch by relying on others, unlike her siblings who learned to fend for themselves. Her psychotic break later in life reveals one of the many flaws in Mom and Dad’s extreme parenting style. As the youngest child, Maureen grew up during the most turbulent episodes the Walls family went through, which meant she got the least functional and present versions of Mom and Dad as her guides. Unlike her siblings, Maureen never received the tools she needed to thrive.
Toward the end of his life, Dad appears to regret his loss of connection with Jeannette and attempts to make amends in his own way. His anger at receiving warm clothes for Christmas demonstrates that Jeannette’s care for him hurts his pride. In light of this, we can see his contribution to Jeannette’s college tuition as an attempt to restore balance in their relationship by, for once, providing for Jeannette’s education. His understanding that Jeannette might not want him at graduation demonstrates a before unseen humility and suggests that he now is willing to put Jeannette’s feelings before his own. Although they never truly reconcile, Jeannette and Dad manage to forge a kind of relationship before his death through Dad’s interest in her journalism career. These small steps allow Jeannette to remember what she once loved about Dad, making it possible for her to agree to John’s toast at the end.
As Jeannette becomes more secure in her new life, she begins to reach a place of understanding with her parents, and even finds herself able to learn from them. When Mom and Dad become squatters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she recognizes that they found purpose and a place to belong. Jeannette notices that while her parents’ life as squatters allows them to live in accordance to their true selves, her life, while comfortable, forces her to deny her roots. She keeps her past hidden from her colleagues, fearing that she would lose her job if people found out about her parents. After Dad dies, Jeannette grows restless and unsatisfied, divorces her husband, and moves to a new part of town, indicating that she realizes she has not yet truly found the home she was searching for with Eric in New York City. When Jeannette and her second husband John host the family for Thanksgiving dinner five years later, it appears Jeannette has found her true home. John states that he views her scar as a sign of her strength symbolizing his acceptance of and appreciation for everything Jeannette endured to become the person she is now.
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