I’ve heard that where you’re born is just a fact; it’s where you’re from that defines who you are. I’m from a military family. Liminality defines me. Even when traveling the world, nothing feels new. Every country and city viewed from the insular stagnation of a fenced-in base. But I find some places hover in my memory more vividly than others.
I was born in a paper town. It now exists only as a placeholder on decades-old maps. Like the towns submerged by floods in Indiana, all that’s left is the whispered memory of a name. Those ghost towns reemerged in the summer drought. So too do my origins appear, in moments of unexpected calm. The harsh language is loving in my mind. ish lee buh deesh, loodia. I remember Germany in glimmers. The slick texture of a nylon windbreaker, crisp autumn air, breezes chapping cheeks, the whirring autobahn, a view of the world from the height of ceramic garden gnomes, bread driven in a truck through village streets- too hot to hold and steaming when broken, chocolate too decadent to eat alone- rich and sweet Kinder Eggs with puzzles and toys inside, castles rise in the landscape of my mind. I remember this place as magical.
The fog clouds every morning of my memory. Dense enough to consume us all, the yellow bus tears through it with a polluted wheeze. When my father is not overseas (which is often and for years at a time) he is Presidential Security. Air Force One is smaller than the movie made it seem. The lawn of the White House is more green and lush than the postcards show- I know from rolling slimy, peeled hardboiled eggs across the chemically fertilized lawn on Easters.
I will never forget the lancing of the live crab. My grandmother’s apartment, filled with clowns and cacti. Me, speared by their spines then laid down on the kitchen table while aunts hover above my body, pressing Scotch tape onto my legs and ripping it away, full of plant needles.
Though there is an active war now, my father is rarely sent overseas. The best days are when he is gone, underground guarding missiles for weeks at a time. When he is in our home, our lives are shaped by his violent outbursts- he is manic depressive and bi-polar- raging disorders that flood our house with fear. It is the first time I am aware that adults are fallible and imperfect beings. The wind never stops screaming here. There is no greenery. Dust buries itself in my eyes. I am always tangled. No one, it seems, is happy here. Seven kids from my high school kill themselves my senior year. The nuclear unit of my family dissolves, gusted out on the wind. Life improves.
Half-sisters, twenty years older than me live here with their children. I am an odd aunt to nieces and nephews twice my age. We retreat here in the summers, searching for sea glass. The ocean curls my hair, fills it with the buoyancy of the waves. The dampness never leaves my clothes, the sand is always in my shoes. There are forests to run through. Ticks burrow into scalps, their blood-fattened bodies are coaxed out with hair dryers and tweezers. We catch toads, try to store them in the sandbox overnight but they’re always gone by morning. There are blueberries to pick and lobsters to boil. There is a ladybug festival. Millions, maybe billions of ladybugs released in a city park. We leave with freezer bags full of writhing bodies. You can keep ladybugs in a freezer through the winter. They’ll unthaw when spring arrives, ready to inhabit gardens.
When I return to the good places, I am certain I am home. This, I’ll think, is where I’m meant to be. But in a moment the yearning will return, for ocean foam or snowcapped peaks, the rain that moves in for days, or the sun that never stops shining, My home, the place I’m from, is intangible. Where I’ve been is always creating who I am- an anxious nomad constantly reaching for place. My origin story is complicated by a lack of heavy anchors. Simultaneously a desired and reviled life, I propel myself forward, always looking for the place I am from.