Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Where I'm from: Oct. 27, 2002

Growing up an Army brat, I never imagined I'd end up so settled and suburban. It certainly has its perks. Sometimes I still daydream about pulling up stakes and starting over somewhere else. But I'm also pretty sure my stakes are sunk too deep for that.

Realizing that this is home
    In the first 17 years of my life I lived in Alabama, two places in Germany, two places in Virginia, Arizona and New Jersey.

    That’s seven places in 17 years, courtesy of my father’s career as an officer in the U.S. Army. But I recently answered the question "Where are you from?" with a shrug and a casual "Oh, here, mostly."

    My internal hall monitor snapped to attention. "That’s just not true," it scolded. "You go back and amend that answer."

    But the conversation had moved on. There was no graceful way to backpedal and elaborate on a topic that had passed.

    "Besides," I snarled silently at that pesky voice, "I AM from here, mostly. I’ve lived here for 13 years. I became an adult here. I got my first driver’s license here, went to college here, got married here, had my son here, my parents live here, and if I want to say I’m from here, I will."

    My internal hall monitor shut up and went back to waiting for me to eat something fried or chocolate so it could berate me on a safer topic.

That left me to wonder when, exactly, I had decided to be from here.

    I certainly didn’t come here planning to end up here. My father retired from the Army, my mother got a job teaching English at UTC, and we landed in Chattanooga.

    I needed to go to college but hadn’t made any progress in deciding where. So I went to Chattanooga State while I waited for a better idea. I liked it. Then I went to UTC, where a journalism professor told me I ought to work in newspaper writing. I did, and I liked that, too.

    Meanwhile, I learned that all the people around here from Cleveland are not transplants from Ohio. I found out that saying LaFayette the wrong way is actually the right way. And I discovered that you should only use your turn signal during a lane change if you want every other driver in Tennessee to hit the gas in an attempt to block your move.

    I met my husband, landed a job I’d spent two years angling to get and bought a house. I was, for the first time in my life, getting comfortable.     

    Then, the Monday before Thanksgiving 1998, my editor called me at 8:30 a.m. to tell me there would be a meeting at the newspaper in an hour to discuss the future of The Chattanooga Times.

    I hung up and looked at my husband. "I’m about to lose my job," I said. "What are we going to do?"

    Jim and I have both lived a lot of places, and we had both grown to love Chattanooga. He’d even weathered his own layoff, trading his career as a mechanical engineer at DuPont for one managing stores for a local outdoor retailer.

    Talking quietly across the breakfast table that morning, we never did decide what we were going to do. But we decided what we were not going to do: We were not going to move.

    I was scared, but I also felt oddly safe. That, I think now, was the first moment I knew this was home. It was the first time I had ever felt that way, anywhere.

    The newspaper where I worked was sold and, by some combination of luck and mercy I still do not fully understand, I kept my job. Now I’m part of a finite group of staffers at the Times Free Press that remembers when half of us spent our days trying furiously to beat the other half. We laugh about it now. Mostly.

    Walking in my neighborhood recently, I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen since my days at Chattanooga State nearly 12 years ago. The feeling was tremendously disorienting, and it took me a few minutes to figure out why: I have never lived anywhere else long enough to run into someone I haven’t seen in years.

    The other places I’ve lived and the people I’ve known simply disappeared in a cloud of dust kicked up by the tires of a moving van, and I never was much good at keeping in touch. But there I was, 12 years after community college, chatting happily with an old classmate on a North Chattanooga sidewalk about our kids and our houses and our jobs. It felt good.

    I realize, of course, that roots come with their own hazards: My son, because he was born here, will probably hate this place by the time he’s 16. And all the stupid things I do, say and wear will live on in the memories of folks I’ll run into 12 years later.

    But it’s worth it, I think, to feel this sense of belonging and connection that comes from finally being able to answer the question "Where are you from?"

    In all the ways that matter, I’m from here. 

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