When I was a little girl with two brown pigtails and bangs cut straight across my forehead, home was a grey-blue ranch-style house situated in the middle of Michigan’s palm. It was also a musty-smelling blue canvas tent, the sweaty brown vinyl backseat of a station wagon, and the open road, always leading to someplace new.
* * * * *
If “home” is defined as a specific place, then my answer to “Where are you from?” is clear: I’m from St. Johns, Michigan, a town of about 12,000 people with a two-stoplight Main Street that’s anchored on the south end by a classic Midwestern courthouse. My parents still live in the house they bought when I was just five, and when we visit today, my own daughters sleep in my childhood bedroom.
All the kids who went to my elementary school lived in town like me, but by the time we were in middle school, our classmates were pretty evenly split between “town kids” and the “country kids” who grew up on surrounding farms. (My best friend Rhonda was a country kid with horses we rode on the weekends.)
Besides sleepovers and football games, there weren’t many parent-approved things to do for fun, at least not until we were old enough to drive the half hour to Lansing for date-worthy restaurants, movies, and malls. But St. Johns was a good place to be a kid. Growing up in a sheltered town meant plenty of freedom to bike everywhere—the city pool, friends’ houses, the library, and the bakery for custard-filled long johns. We didn’t wear helmets or lock our bikes—the only requirement was a wristwatch so we wouldn’t be late for dinner.
But even with such deep roots in a single place, I also grew up with an understanding of home that was nomadic: Home was wherever you stopped and pitched the tent when it was time to cook dinner.
My parents were both teachers, which meant summers offered more time than money. Flying from Michigan to visit relatives on the West Coast wasn’t in the budget, so each summer we packed up our wood-paneled station wagon and hit the road for about six weeks.
I was prone to carsickness, so there were just two ways I rode in the car: sprawled asleep across the backseat or awake and perched dead center, leaning forward until I was almost as much in the front seat with my parents as I was in the back. Luckily, my big brother was never the sort to draw a line down the middle of the seat and enforce it with punches or pinches. Besides, I think he was happy to let me chatter away to my parents, leaving him in relative peace with his books.
The ultimate destinations we drove toward—a visit with our grandparents in L.A. or our favorite cousins in Portland, a week spent hiking in Glacier National Park, or a few days exploring San Francisco—were well-worth the 5,000-or-so miles we covered each summer. But so many days were devoted to just getting there, driving through endless-seeming states like Nebraska or North Dakota, only stopping for gas, bathroom breaks, and to eat the sandwiches Mom had made at the campground that morning.
After a full day of driving, as the sun was lowering in the sky and Mom’s voice was hoarse from reading aloud Little House on the Prairie books, we pulled out a thick campground guide and chose a place to stay—with a pool, if my brother and I were lucky. At the campground, Mom pulled out the camp stove and started dinner while the rest of us got to work setting up the tent and filling it with sleeping bags and pillows. The next morning it all came down again, was packed back into the car, and we drove some more—to the next place we would call “home” for a night.
* * * * *
Now, when I think about where I come from, I still envision that ever-present grey-blue house, first. I am very much a small-town Michigan girl. But it occurs to me that my rootedness in that place has always been filtered through an understanding of other places—of treeless plains and impressive peaks, of rugged beaches with magical tide pools, and of Chinatowns and subways, operas and contemporary art. I knew where I was back home in Michigan because I also knew where I wasn’t.
And in that sense, I come from places that protected me as well as places that exposed me—from a small Michigan town and big Montana mountains; from the inside of a station wagon, where my entire family was always close enough to touch, to a crowded San Francisco sidewalk where strangers pressed in as I absorbed glimpses of the world.
Photographs by William E. Tennant
Thank you for the delightful reminder that we can be both rooted and yet not, belong in one place and yet belong in many places, be in a tight family and yet at home among strangers, etc. Great life story.
Ron, thank you for reading and commenting! I am loving the experience of writing about these ideas, because it pushes me to reflect on the small details of my story as well as the big truths. We all have those truths in our stories, but we don’t always articulate them!
Jonathan, I envy the trips of my youth in a way, too! I guess what I envy, as an adult, is that my parents had the time and commitment to make them happen. There’s a part of me that regrets I couldn’t (for a whole collection of reasons) do that sort of extensive exploring with my girls when they were little.
I learned to parallel park in a station wagon with brown “wood” paneling – a Country Squire…Can’t help envying the road trips of your youth, but I love how these figure into your notion of where you’re from. A number of my students will often have no clear sense of where they’re from b/c mom or dad (or both) were in the military, and you – maybe b/c you had a base in Michigan – have made all the places you passed through part of the puzzle of where you’re from, and that’s a unique perspective on this otherwise buggering question…
I love it! Beautiful storytelling. You had me from the first sentence.
Thank you, Lisa. If only the last few sentences had been as easy and fun to write as the first few! (As a writer, you can probably relate to this!)
This is such a great piece. Makes me homesick for my own childhood. And that photo of you is priceless.
Do you ever feel like photos and memories like that can be at once familiar enough to make you homesick and distant enough to make you wonder “Is that really me there, in that little body, in that place and time?” That’s how I feel when I look at that photo… (Thanks for reading and commenting, Shawn!)
This is beautiful.
Thank you for taking me on this journey today, friend.
Thank you, Cara. (I can even imagine you up in WA, thanks to my childhood journeys to visit a great aunt there! 🙂
I love this idea of our rootedness being informed by where we weren’t! My sense of place was certainly about where I grew up, (the middle of Chicago in the 80s/Evanston in the 90s) but also about camping in Michigan/Wisconsin, Christmases on the South Side, the rare awkward trip to Sacramento and the even rarer visit to our churches sister community in El Salvador. Experiencing those places did change my sense of home by showing me where “home” was in the broader world.
Yes! We each had our own away-from-home experiences growing up, and I suspect they shaped us more than we ever realized at the time. As kids, each experience away was simply “fun,” “boring,” or “awkward.”
The photos in this blog are stinkin’ AWESOME!!! Your writing provided a great image and the then the photos took it up a notch! Great piece!
I know—when my dad emailed me those photos last night (along with about four others—it was SO hard to choose) I was super excited. Thanks for enjoying the journey along with me.
Kristin, knowing you just a little bit, this post says so much to me. It sheds light on how you can be this rooted Midwestern woman who is also so much aware of the bigger world. No wonder you became friends with Gail and Oliver!
I also love your opening paragraph. Beautiful.
Thank you, Jen. I often move through my life as if I’m small-town and not very cultured—I think it’s because my childhood travels weren’t exotic or glamorous. But when you add them all together they certainly gave me a very broad understanding of life in America, and I’m different because of it.