Recently, I read a letter my dad had written to me in 1968, during his Vietnam tour. In it, he mentioned how happy he was to be coming home soon, and he asked if I was excited about our upcoming move to Cincinnati. At the time, we were living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a mile from Fort Bragg and Pope Field (where my dad had been stationed), and moving was part of our lives.
The military culture I grew up in was about disruption—not roots. My friends were all military like me, coming and going, and we adapted, realizing friendships fast. The year Dad served in Vietnam, I had five different first-grade teachers. The first four were military wives, three moving away before the end of the school year, and one losing her husband in Vietnam just before the summer break. The last was pulled from retirement to teach us, and she was a firm believer in corporeal punishment. To this day, I can feel the sting of a wooden ruler being smacked across my open palm.
I have no single memory of being sad to leave friends behind. My parents practiced the art of keeping us looking forward. They’d hype up a destination. Dad usually enthused about the new house and school while Mom dove into the new destination’s history, filling us in on just what kind of place we’d be settling into.
I live in Switzerland, now. I’ve settled in my husband’s hometown, a medieval micro city with a bridge linking it to Germany, a watchtower, and stone townhouses; population 400 strong. Located close to a commercial airport, the town gets overflights. At one point, a local group campaigned to cut back the flight load. They claimed, among other things, that the air traffic was harmful to kids. A television news crew rolled into town. They saw a bunch of children playing—my three among them—and asked about the planes. “What planes?” the children cried, their eyes traveling skywards. I laughed when my kids told me about the news crew: for a great chunk of my childhood, I lived within spitting distance of runways, and I have a single memory of plane noise. We were in Fayetteville, playing outside, when a pilot broke the sound barrier. We cheered. The memory of that window-rattling kerpow! still fills me with joy.
This August, my husband and I flew to Central Texas, to the town where my grandparents settled after retiring, and where my mom moved, several years after my dad’s death, in 1990, to look after them. She’d left Oregon—a place she loved—fully intent on returning, but by the time my grandmother passed, at age 102, Mom had settled in Texas. Another move did not interest her. My brother, who’d relocated himself Eastern Oregon after retirement, coaxed Mom into a return to Oregon.
The bulk of the moving operation involved preparation. My brother, his wife and kids, and my sister and her daughter did all that. Markus and I arrived in Central Texas to oversee the packing of Mom’s household goods, tick off a short list of final errands, and drive Mom’s car—packed with orchids, which themselves had gone through many moves—up to the small university town of La Grande.
For nearly a week, Markus and I had the Texas house to ourselves.
It felt surreal being on our own in that town. And the closer we got to the end of that leg of our journey, the more sentimental I began to feel about how much of my life had been tied to the place. It’d been a part in my life for circa sixty years.
When Mom had first settled back in Texas, she bought a house a ten-minute walk from my grandparents’ house, a place they’d built post-retirement. We all loved to hate that little town, and my husband and our kids never made sense of it. Its layout cannot be beat for strangeness—and I’ve been to and lived in a lot of towns. On one family trip to Texas, Helena’s boyfriend refused to use turn lanes, crazed by how they ran down the middle of road, serving both directions of traffic. I insisted he use them. When in Texas, drive like a local, or you may end up festooned upon a V8 pickup’s grille guard.
On this last trip to Texas, I wrestled with my sentiments for the town I hated. Should I stop by my grandparent’s old house one more time before leaving? Drive by the church they attended and I detested (and still feel all that emotion in my marrow)? Markus pestered me about stopping into the cowboy supply store we’d always visited with the kids, the manager shouting, “Well, hello, Switzerland!” as soon as we walked through the door. No. What was Boot City to just the two of us? We packed Mom’s car and left town our final time, heading west before turning north. I watched the familiar scenery rolling by and wondered if I’d ever see it again in my life.
I may go back about five generations in Texas territory, but I’m no part of it. No insider. No Texan. I can remember family gatherings at my grandparents and feeling like a stranger among cousins. I used to tell myself that I’d never have kids unless I could raise them among family. Give them roots. I’ve done just that. Outside of living five years in France—which thankfully gave everyone a feel for what I’d experienced growing up and being an immigrant—we’ve lived in my husband’s hometown. His sister is our neighbor, and a brother lives a three-minute walk away.
Growing up, I was always an outsider to everything I am. As an immigrant adult, I still am. I don’t know any other way to live. Without family with roots in Switzerland, I would be awfully tempted to return to Oregon, myself.