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).
The military culture I grew up in was about disruption—not roots. My friends were all military like me, coming and going, and we made friends fast and released friendships even faster. Moving was part of the lives of most folks I knew in most of the places we lived. The year Dad served in Vietnam, I had five different first-grade teachers. The first four were military wives, two moving away before the end of the school year, and one losing her husband in Vietnam just before the end of the year. 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 behind neighborhood and school friends. 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 watchtower, stone townhouses, and a bridge linking it to Germany; population 400 strong. Located close to a commercial airport, the town gets overflights. At one point, a local campaign to cut back the flight load developed. The group 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 three told me about the news crew: for a great chunk of my childhood, I lived within spitting distance of runways, and I have one memory of plane noise. We were in Fayetteville, playing, when a pilot broke the sound barrier. All of us 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 GrandDoris passed, at age 102, Mom felt settled in Texas.
Another move did not interest Mom. My brother, who’d settled in Eastern Oregon after retirement, coaxed her 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. And they did it well. Markus and I arrived in Central Texas to oversee the packing of Mom’s household goods, tick off a short list of end-of-move 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 Mom’s house to ourselves.
It felt surreal being on our own in that town. I began to feel surprisingly sentimental about how much of my life had been tied to the place. It’d been a part in my life for circa sixty years, whether or not I’d liked it.
We all loved to hate that little town, actually, 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. Getting onto one main thoroughfare involved crossing two lanes of traffic plus a highway merging lane—all less than a half a block before a traffic light, which seemed to turn red at the worst possible moment. And picture crossing two heavily trafficked lanes of frontage road in an attempt to get onto a highway. Driving in Texas also involves turn lanes and turnaround lanes. On one family trip to Texas, Helena’s boyfriend went nuts about the craziness of turn lanes—because they’re in the middle of a road, serving both directions of traffic. “I know,” I told him, “but the other drivers expect you to use them.” Drive like the locals, or you may end up festooned upon a V8 pickup’s grille guard.
And those turnaround lanes? It’s best not to try to describe them.
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 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 this 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 as an immigrant—we’ve lived in my husband’s hometown. Where his sister is our neighbor and one brother is 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—roots I’ve sometimes envied—I might have considered a return to Oregon, myself.