Friday, February 7, 2014

Always Coming Home: A Touch of Memoir

A few months ago I posted some poetry I had written while on a visit to Vermont. The poem I started thinking about was "Always Coming Home."

I'm southern by birth and blood--over five or six generations worth. I can claim that much but even now when someone asks me where I am from I still equivocate. The question is not meant to ask you where you were born but where you grew up.

My high school graduation class Facebook page sometimes has postings where someone talks about the elementary schools they attended and with who. Do you remember? Have you seen so-and-so who played Little League with us? Or that time we did something in elementary school? So many reminiscences and questions. I read those postings with a kind of longing. Those kind of memories I don't have with any of those there.

Where are you from? Definitely a question to equivocate with. I can't answer it with any kind of conviction.

I grew up in many places as a child: my place of birth, West Germany (yes, West Germany, not to be confused with East Germany at the time) , Washington State, Hawaii, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. From birth to the age of 13 I never lived any place longer than three years and even when I did manage two or three years I never attended the same school two years in a row. Time was I could name every single one of them but not anymore. Memories fade as new ones shoulder them out. It's an inevitability and fourth graders don't keep diaries.

I am an army brat---a military gypsy who followed a father from post to post. Changing schools, making friends I knew I would not have the following year, and knowing that a house was just a house, all of them just shelter. Life was very temporary. Some of us did not thrive in such an environment; some of us learned to adapt. And with that adaptation came a few shortcomings.

I've never done the research; I can only relate my own experience and epiphanies.

Changing schools so often led to abrupt changes in curriculum. One would just start to learn something, enjoy it, and look forward to the next part—then wham! Not at the new school. They thought something else was more important. I recall being tested in late elementary school and placed in a group being taught the ‘new math’.  It was an abysmal experience, trying to twist my mind into different pathways after I had managed to finally make the ‘old’ system make sense. Then I entered junior high after my father’s retirement and some enthusiastic academic decided I needed to be exposed or something to advanced mathematics. The experience sent my brain into mathematical seizures and I’ve been mathematically brain-damaged ever since, always squeaking by, in high school and college, on the absolute minimum necessary.  And did I mention lucky? My college professor wanted to pass us math morons so much they rewarded constant attendance, laboriously completed homework, and graded on a curve. Bless him!

Making new friends and leaving old friends? Ah, friendship is the most difficult task of all. New post means new school, new neighborhood, and new faces. If you’re housed on post everyone understands and friendships form quickly. You have so much in common. Off-base is harder. You’re always the new kid. You can only do the best you can. But after a few changes you learn friends come and friends go. You can promise, once you’re literate, to write but it rarely lasts when you’re only eight or ten years old. I learned friends are not life-time figures. I’ve learned how hard it is to hang on to those you want to keep. And I’ve accepted I will never reminisce with anyone who can remember that tree house we found or singing at the annual May Day Festival. No one person, other than family, runs through my lifeline.

It all sounds kind of sad, doesn’t it? Not really. I remember all my friends with affection and a bit of nostalgia. Any one of them could walk into my life right now and I would be happy to see them. No anger parted us---just life circumstances. My welcome back would be as warm as if we never parted.

And ,yes, houses are just houses. Something composed of brick, wood, natural stone with tin roofs, asphalt roofs, and shingled ones. Some were larger than others. Some were prettier. I do remember most of them. Some of them were pits. One of the reasons we had so many addresses was my father could not be trusted to find a decent domicile. He took the first and cheapest place he could find without a thought there was a wife and two children who needed to live in it as well. My mother corrected his mistake on a frequent basis. The man could take care of a platoon of men but had no idea about what it took to take care of a family.

More than the houses, I remember the places we lived---the geographical and natural space that contained us. Snow and tall, looming mountains. Trees which shrunk me down to the size of Gulliver. Turquoise waves lapping against gray-white sand. The smell of ginger flowers. The sound of rain on coconut trees. A sky full of bright stars. Warm, green forests with spring-fed streams. All of these and more are the images of my childhood. I do not understand to this day why they impressed me, a small child, beyond any reasonable expectation. But they are there, indelible and full of wonder, just behind my eyes.

Now when I travel some place hits my mind and heart with just one word: home. I look out around myself and my heart says “home”.  I suppose since I don’t have a single place to say I grew up in this is a good thing. Perhaps it is a gift, this adaptation. I will never be lost. Wherever I go I am always coming home. So where am I from? I'm from here and I'm from everywhere.

Always Coming Home

Windswept grasses
Blue haze in the distance
Sand dunes sculpted in wind
Rainbows crowning mountaintops
Turquoise water lapping at sugared sand
Dark green fir and spruce
Burying their heads in soft gray clouds
A winding wet-black road
Where redbuds peek
Wide, muddy rivers and sparkling streams
My heart always says
I’m home—I’m always coming home.



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