Moving frequently and living far away from family made keeping up with our own extended families difficult. Jim shares his own observations with us.
We called her “mama,” and though I had only seen pictures of her, she was my grandmother. And soon, she’d be coming from the United States to visit us in Germany for several weeks around the Christmas holiday. I wasn’t sure how to feel, as we had spent the first six years of my life in Germany, and we were extremely close to my German grandparents who lived about an hour away from us. I loved my Oma and Opa, and wasn’t sure I really even wanted another grandmother, after all . . . what was wrong with the one I had?
Christmas that year in Karlsruhe came and went without incident, and my grandmother turned out to be a decently sweet woman. I wasn’t to see her again for several years, when we moved to Tobyhanna Army Depot for a short year. We had the opportunity to visit with an Uncle and Aunt (my mom’s only sibling, who also…much to my Opa’s dismay . . . also married and American soldier) near Fort Campbell, and my grandmother came over from Indiana for a short visit. But more than anything, I missed my Oma and Opa. And I missed the family garden in Landau, with the huge dark cherry tree that I’d spend hours in, supposedly picking cherries to place in the bucket, but more often than not, eating more than I could safely stomach.
Orders came and we were back overseas by 1978. Home. Finally. Again. We were stationed in Mannheim, and this became the place I now tell people I “came from.” Oma and Opa were about an hour away, and we visited often, usually several weekends each month. Holidays were spent together, and I can vividly recall every Christmas spent either at our apartment on Ben Franklin Village, or their apartment in Landau. Our family was close, and there never was a time that I thought anything differently. It was as it was supposed to be.
But there was an entire family across the Atlantic Ocean. One that we rarely saw. This was well before the age of the internet, cell phones and text messaging. I know from talking to my mother that my parents sent money back to my grandmother every month. Of all 13 children in my father’s family, he was the only one to strike out and make something of himself. On the few occasions that we did have to visit, we felt like strangers within our own family.
My sister and I didn’t speak the same way our cousins did, and we certainly didn’t see the world from the narrow viewpoint that our Indiana relatives did. Even though we all knew we were family, it never felt that we belonged. And to a degree, we didn’t. The military had made something of my father, and his children (my sister and I) were expected to (make that demanded to!) attend college after high school. When we were back home in Germany, we watched both American and German television, gaining a world view on current events that was sorely missing in the local broadcasts back in America. In the end, we were as close to foreignors to each other as we could be.
While the lineage lines between us and our Bedford cousins might have been a short line, we might as well have been distant, long-lost third or fourth cousins (twice removed). I can only safely name four or so cousins on my father’s side (remember, he came from a family of 13 children . . . I have lots of cousins). And of those four, I can’t say with honesty that there is a huge, personal connection between us. Contrast to my mother’s side, where I only have two cousins from one Aunt and Uncle, and those I feel a deep family bond that will never go away.
Growing up a Brat afforded us a once in a lifetime opportunity. We grew up in a country that we called home, though it wasn’t America. Throughout my entire childhood, we stayed primarily overseas, and that kept us close to the only “family” I counted on to always be there. And while our lives were wonderful, always being away from the States for so many years created a divide and disconnect from my father’s family that never fully closed. This was a price that we paid . . . that my father paid . . . in order to serve our country and to make a better life for all of us. These are some of the sacrifices that Brats make without willingly knowing about it. These are some of the connections that we lose by seeing the world…