A Child of Place

Second Childhood Home in Catlett, Virginia

If you were a child broken by a sudden family move, then you might have a strong attachment to place. In other words: what writers and artists sometimes spend their lives looking for (or trying to get right), you already have: you have carried it with you.

Cornfields by the house, green ribbons and tassels. The bike shed with the flat roof you played house on. Stream (more rightly a crick) where you dumped your organic yogurt, so your mother didn’t find out you hadn’t eaten it. Where you hunted for crayfish under rocks. Bridge to the garden. The garden. The house painted pale apricot with deep peach shutters, repainted a crisp white with green shutters when your family moved. The iron railing they added to the concrete front steps, for safety. You had never needed safety. Orange Tupperware pitcher you watered the front beds with. Front yard swings. Woods where you roamed, found a passable cedar tree for Christmas. Mayapples and Jack-in-the-pulpits, violets and ferns. Burrs. Milkweed pods, fox berries, trumpet vines, pokeberries, dandelions, clover. Swimming in the Rappahannock, the deep cool of the wide, green riverbank. The rocks only half-submerged in the shallows. Swimming there with your friend Celia. Celia’s house for fourth of July: small fireworks spinning on a glass front door, laid down on the grass. Hostas and orchard: peach, plum, apple, dwarf cherry and pear. Pears falling to the ground. Eating pears all afternoon. Celia’s old white horse: Sweet Chariot. Old Bud, the Billy goat that butted you over the moment you turned your child back. The indignity of it. And still you played near Old Bud and the junked cars, wasp nests in their vinyl, heated hollows. Dug for plastic shotgun shells on the red dirt hill. Once: threw eggs in the hen house. Uncle Al, upset about his eggs. Played in the barn with the kittens, the sweet hay. The red and black oaks towering thinly above. Sycamore, tulip poplar, hickory, elm. Summer like a yard stick of good play.

Can we always live here? asks my child. Our house sits on a quarter acre, in town. Fenced backyard. Loblolly pines creaking above us. I grew up on five, then ten acres. Not enough room to wander here, to be outside, away from the sound and sight of neighbors. But still, that attachment to place.

When I was eight, my family moved abruptly from deep-greened and cornfielded Virginia to the flat brown of Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. It broke my child heart. My father, in the Army, was there for a year-long targeting course. My mother had just given birth to my sister Della prematurely—four pounds, six ounces, smaller than a baby doll. We photographed her on my parent’s bed, next to the baby doll. We photographed an apple by her head—the apple was much larger. We fed Della bottles with protein powder in it. My mother was carried into a deep postpartum depression. Homeschooling, driving from Virginia to Kansas, all worldly goods packed up and in multiple moving vans. I remember we all got sick that road trip—intestines churning down the road, stops at rest areas to change totalled child outfits. I remember four tornados touched down in Kansas before we did, blew over houses. And that tornados visited Virginia just after we had left. Ordinary omens. My mother worked harder than ever, clipped her bangs back, nursed Della and baked peanut butter cookies: pans and pans of them. I can’t see a peanut butter cookie without thinking of my mother’s sadness and her baking in brown, flat Kansas. The state penitentiary was across a field from our backyard. We could heard the roll calls in the morning, on the loudspeaker. Sometimes an inmate escaped, and ran through our military base neighborhood. The military police and their dogs would follow, barking. My mother baked, pressed a fork into sugar, printed a hashed cross on each peanut butter cookie.

In Kansas, I cried at night for the home we left: my birth home in Opal, Virginia. My mother somehow found time to comfort me: kind words in the dark at night, M&Ms. She said “I know, honey,” and I knew she understood.

To live on a military, cement cul-de-sac in brown, flat Kansas after having lived in your pioneer dresses in rural Virginia—to be homeschoolers among families who went to the base school, was a culture shock. Some of my best memories in Kansas were from winter: my mother put soup in glass quart jars, and my brother and I ate our school lunch in the field between our house and the state penitentiary. The wind was whip cold, but there were large tufts of brown grasses and a culvert hollow we could eat our soup in, wind-shielded. All that year I held our Virginia home in my mind. I didn’t understand we had sold the house, and would not be returning to it, even if we returned to Virginia. We did return: my parents bought a colonial-styled home in an even more remote part of Virginia, among fields and Mennonite dairy farmers. I cried more at night, in a new bedroom. Again my mother comforted me. This house had five acres, fields and woods around it, room for a large garden and chicken house. It was a good home, but not my birth home. It was where I would finish my childhood, before another move.

When we moved again, to Hawaii (my father’s overseas tour; it was either Hawaii for all, or my father would go to Kosovo, and the family to Germany), I landed with my siblings on a fraught large family housing street, now demolished, then known as Ft. Kamehameha (Ft. Kam for short), on the gritty, brown-lipped beach of Pearl Harbor. I talked so much about Virginia that the neighbor children teased me. So when asked where I was going (it was a nosy neighborhood, with large picture-windows and small courtyard facing a back walking path, everyone knew everyone’s business), I would reply “Alaska.” My mother grew orchids in our courtyard. There was a crooked, dying plumeria tree in our backyard, and soursops that my mother put into our smoothies. The geckos crowded the backdoor light, sometimes falling with soft smacks.

Our last move was to Goldvein, Virginia. This home was on ten acres, with a pond and a barn. It had a long, gravel drive over a culvert (that would wash out regularly, creating contention with the neighbors who lived beyond our house and shared the road). We moved from Hawaii to Virginia in January, our tropical-thinned blood shocked by the change. The moving truck jack-knifed over the culvert and the narrow gravel road, was stuck for at least a day. It was so cold, so bitter cold, but so sweet to be back in Virginia. Old church friends sent a giant round tray of dried fruit, and we made oatmeal in the morning. My mother soon had her chickens in the barn, and dairy goats, and turkeys. Pigs. Geese and ducks and Guinea hens. She let my brother and I adopt two white, long haired kittens.

There are so many things that read like weakness that are actually strengths. Being mocked by the neighborhood children for my attachment to Virginia—as though we are not made of our attachments. As though our attachments do not say who we are, and what we love. Our attachments have the potential to be the best part of ourselves.

One of the mysteries I return to in my mind is that it takes so long to understand who you are, as a human. And yet life can be short, and violent, and you can barely begin to know before your life ends. Kierkegaard has a quote about how life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards. Kierkegaard, who died at 42, who thought he would die at 34, his father insisting, in a corrupt form of Calvinism, that God had cursed him and none of his children would outlive him. Five of his seven children did die before he did. So Kierkegaard wrote in a fury like he was bound to die, which he was. And then, after his father dies in 1838, when Kierkegaard was 25: a relief of self.

There are narratives hanging over each of us that direct our lives, whether we know or acknowledge them, or not. My father’s career in the military. My parents’ longing for a “back to basics” life, homeschooling their children away from the “secular” influence of public schools. Virginia’s history of civil war and plantation wealth: the schools and buildings built from enslaved labor. Visible and (made) invisible.

Sally Mann, in her memoir Hold Still, writes about Virginia’s land with great warmth. But Mann’s is a geographical history of generational wealth, replete with expensive cars, family doctors and major stock in the cotton industry that resulted in a 450-acre farm in Lexington. Enough money can land you near the Natural Bridge, in Jefferson’s majestic Virginia. Mann and Jefferson’s Virginia is a different world than the Virginia I grew up in. Much of Virginia is simply “the sticks” and the hollows, the closest thing a gas station or lone standing post office, maybe a Dairy Queen or a Walmart (if you’re lucky). This is the Virginia I love—the overlooked one. The one where the dairy goats and the chickens are raised. The County Fair. 4-H. Little Baptist churches and their old graveyards. There is something about scrub cedars and fields that catches at my heart.

Place is not only something you carry with you, it is something that holds you. Like in the children’s book Are You My Mother?, when, after the baby bird has fallen from its nest and experienced many adventures—repeatedly asking several strange machines “Are you my mother”? (a ship, a truck, a snort)—the baby bird is returned to its nest, the place where it would also encounter its mother, returning. I can think of many brilliant children’s books that illustrate this deep sense of place: Miss Rumphius, Blueberries for Sal, The Ox Cart Man, The Snowy Day, A Pocket for Corduroy. What is the boat or the hill or the laundromat that holds you best, and how can you return to it, either physically or in your mind? How can you honor that attachment? Much time has been spent decrying the concept of nostalgia, as though it is empty, an iridescent bubble of memory, without investigating what that nostalgia is an impulse towards, what attachment it indicates, and what it means for a person to retain that attachment despite everything else that has happened to them in their life. What is it about childhood, that keeps us there? For me, it is a deep and layered sense of place and self: Virginia’s green-ferned woods, Virginia of humid summer, Virginia home where my mother labored and brought me into being in May, the corn just growing in the fields.