Though I am currently between gigs (a.k.a., a recession victim, an unemployed writer/teacher) there is a question that continues to place ahead of ‘What do you do?’ on my dread meter — ‘Where are you from?’ I’ve lived in the Washington, DC area for decades, but like most people there, I consider myself from somewhere else, though in my case I’m not exactly sure where that is.
I always give the convoluted truth: ‘I don’t really have a home town; you see, I was a Navy brat, so I lived all over the country, but my parents were from Massachusetts originally, and I was born there, so I guess I’m a New Englander. I imagine many have regretted asking the question, since it’s a bit like asking ‘How are you?’ and getting, ‘Actually, funny you ask, I’ve had this pain in my knee for about a week!’ Perhaps long ago I should have practiced the equivalent of ‘Fine, and you?’ — ‘Home? The U.S. Navy.’
I have always envied people from ‘normal families’ who can name a single town, a single house on a single street, where they grew up, like the families I saw on TV while I was growing up. The Andersons and the Cleavers and the Nelsons and the Ricardos didn’t move every year! By the time I left for college I could recall living in 13 different houses and attending 12 different schools. Seventh grade was the worst: September and October in Rhode Island; November until February in Seattle (it rained every one of those days); March through June in San Diego. Anyone who has lived through seventh grade with eyeglasses, freckles and frizzy hair knows how hard that was.
Of necessity, our moveable home remained spare on ‘stuff,’ so once something had outgrown its daily usefulness, it disappeared (charity or the dump, I guess); this applied to furniture, toys and clothing; everything was disposable. Our home was noticeably lacking in the kinds of things I saw in non-military homes, like collections of stuffed animals, or books or Hummels, or things to hang on walls. As we moved around the country to a series of seaside Navy bases, some prettier than others, I learned from an early age not to become too attached to a house or a school or a friend (my circle of permanent friends were my brothers and sister). I don’t remember complaining about the impermanence of military family life. Though inconvenient, it seemed okay because it was the only life I knew.
I did become quite accustomed to being close enough to the ocean to smell the salt. Many years later, I visited Chicago and casually mentioned that being away from the water made me feel claustrophobic and landlocked. A Chicago friend became testy, pointing to the prized blue-green enormity of Lake Michigan, ‘But you ARE near water!’ I smiled apologetically, while thinking, ‘It’s just not the same!’
While I was growing up, my father was stationed in Newport, Rhode Island five different times, for a total of about ten years. In the 1960’s and 70’s, Newport was home to a fleet of ships and the town was crowded with transient Navy families, renters of small bungalows and ramblers in modest neighborhoods; their children like flocks of geese flying into and out of the public schools every year. What was left of Newport’s aging Gilded Age wealthy seemed to hide behind their high Bellevue Avenue hedges, rarely sharing space with Navy people. Dad’s longest stint was an unheard-of three-year span covering my time in high school, but in the middle of my senior year, he received orders to the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
To spare me the agony of changing schools again, my parents let me stay with family friends and graduate with my class. When it came time to choose where to attend college, I convinced my parents to allow me to pass up a scholarship from a more prestigious college in Boston and attend the University of Rhode Island instead. At the time it seemed to be a decision based on teenage rebellion, now it strikes me as an attempt to secure my roots in what had become the closest thing I had to a real home.
Ironically, as I settled into my dorm at URI, I was once again the ‘new kid,’ surrounded by cliques who moved to college together from high schools in Rhode Island towns like East Providence and Cumberland and Cranston. Many of them had never been outside the state; most had never gone further west than New York City. I was different and I didn’t quite fit in, having traveled by car and camper across the country twice. I had been to Niagara Falls and Boot Hill, Toledo and Omaha and Albuquerque and Portland; I had traveled through Snoqualmie Pass in a snowstorm, swum in the Pacific, seen Mount Rainier from the Space Needle and rode up and down the hills of San Francisco in a red cable car. I hadn’t realized that these experiences were unusual.
After college I settled into an entry-level job and a crummy apartment in East Greenwich, but my Rhode Islander roommate and I soon decided we weren’t going to stay. Perhaps life as moveable feast had settled in my bones. Like the script of some corny movie, we were going to save some money, pack up her Volkswagen and drive across country, chasing a new life in California. We dreamed of waitress jobs in Hollywood, visits to Disneyland, learning to surf, California guys with sunbleached hair. But our plans fizzled when a great job and a boyfriend came into her life. Not long after, a very special guy entered my life, too — someone who had lived in the same town, on the same street, attending the same schools all his life.
On a bright September day, with ocean winds sending my hair and veil flying, I got married at the foot of the massively graceful Newport Bridge (now the Pell Bridge) in the Chapel by the Sea on the Naval Base. We talked of our future in terms of buying an affordable little house and raising an army of Rhode Island kids.
But my personal tug of war between pack-up-and-go and ‘stay-put-edness’ continued. Shortly after we married, my new spouse’s lifelong fascination with politics and the Potomac led to his being offered a job in Washington. No problemo! It was easy for me to pack up and leave Rhode Island; I’d done it many times. A true Rhode Island girl might have persuaded him to pass it up and stick to the plan — that wasn’t me. This was a job opportunity of a lifetime, and being young, adventurous, childless and broke, we decided to try it — for one year. Then we’d return to the Rhode Island life we’d planned.
Thirty years and four grown kids later, we are still in Washington. This is no surprise to many who have come to DC from other places who, years later, find themselves totally dug in. Over the years, we have done a lot of traveling — all over the world, but every summer we have visited Rhode Island to savor in a few days a year’s worth of the local seafood, salt air and sunshine. Our DC friends would ask us why we would pack four kids and a dog into the minivan for a nine-hour drive up to Rhode Island every year, when there were great beaches only three hours away in the Delmarva. Our answer: because we wanted our kids to feel a New England connection, we had a ramshackle cottage on a small island, and because — pssstt! 400 miles of Ocean State shoreline is the best-kept secret in the Union. For our kids, just as we hoped, New England stuck. They are as devoted fans of fish-and-chips and the Boston Red Sox as any kids who grew up in Providence or on Cape Cod.
This spring, after enduring a record-settingly brutal winter and dealing with several pressing family issues that were driving me crazy, a friend advised me to ‘get out of town for few days; you need it.’ At first I resisted the idea of going off by myself, but my husband pushed me to consider all the places where I could go. There were many options; familiar places, fun places, places where frequent flyer miles and vacation club points would make it an inexpensive trip. Finally he said, ‘Go to Rhode Island. It’s home.’
Home? Really? My husband’s home, surely, but home for me? What about that whole homeless Navy-brat thing?
So, during the first weekend in May, I found myself happily looking out an airplane window as we glided over Narragansett Bay on a clear, unseasonably warm day and I got a first look at those familiar and beloved islands and beaches and bridges. As I drove my rental car high across the Pell Bridge into Newport, the sky was so clear I swear I saw Boston and the Cape in the distance; I know I smelled the salt. The bay sparkled and so did I. Over the next four days, memories washed over me as I visited familiar places from my past.
I took walks on the deserted beach and put my toes in the icy surf. One foggy morning I drove out to Ocean Drive, where as a kid we’d join dozens of Navy families to watch and wave at the ships taking our dads out to sea. I sat on a sea wall and listened to the breakers crash on the rocks, remembering those gray behemoths gliding down the channel and my dad, the captain, signal flashing ‘1-4-3’ (‘I love you’) before they passed out of sight.
With a high school friend, I savored chowder and clam cakes at Quito’s on the dock in Bristol; had dinner and too much wine at Ristorante Pizzico on Providence’s East Side with a dear old friend; and I made sure to get a coffee-flavored Awful-Awful milkshake at the Newport Creamery. When it was time to return to Washington, refreshed, I was wishing fervently that I could stay.
Why is Rhode Island home? The comfort of nostalgia gave me my answer.
Because home is where you first heard the Beatles. Home is where you fell off a swingset and broke your arm; where in winter you could go sledding down the perfect hill on the golf course. Home is where you got the braces off your teeth. Home is where a boy first broke your heart. Home is where your dad taught you to drive, you got your license, and within days you hit your neighbor’s mailbox. Home is where you drank your first beer. Home is where you lost your virginity. Home is where you can still giggle with girlfriends from high school. Home is where you go for your high school reunion and you know everyone there, and sadly, learn that several classmates died young. Home is where you had your first job, at Dunkin Donuts, where you learned how to make change quickly and experienced the secret joy of eating a hot honey-dipped donut before it cooled and was put out for the customers. Home is where the brilliant future father of your children first made you laugh, where his family immediately welcomed you as a daughter. Home is where you see the Prudence Island ferry leaving the dock in Bristol, and wish you were on it. Home is where, someday, your headstone will be planted.
Yes, I have finally dispelled that little bit of dread when people ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I wasn’t born there and I have reached middle age having lived more years out of the state than in it, but the answer is Rhode Island. It took me far too long to see it.