The importance of place

On the ferry Malaspina coming, home from Alaska, most of the passengers were military families being moved from Alaska to some other place. There were single men and women and couples but a lot of the military families had children — from babies to teenagers.  I wonder how often these kids will have to move before they grow up.  How do the frequent moves affect them?  Do people need a place to be from?

I talked to Jerry about this.  He said: “I was born and grew up in Eureka CA.  I went to high school there, and when I graduated I went into the army.  I didn’t care if I never came back, never saw Eureka again.”  But in the army he was stationed in Alaska: ever since Alaska has had a hold on him.

After the army he went back to California and enrolled in California Polytechnic Institute.  But Alaska called, and back he went.  I asked him why.  He is not an introspective man and he had to think for a while.  “In the army another guy and I used to get a military vehicle and go fishing or hunting.  He was from Texas, and he didn’t like crowded places either.  I used to hunt deer in California, and he used to hunt deer in Texas.  We didn’t hunt much together, but we fished and hiked a lot. We never went to bars or stuff like that. I liked the seasons.”  Northern California has two seasons, rainy and more rainy.

Jerry and his friend, whose name he can’t now remember, and another guy built a boat out of scrap materials.  They used it for fishing.  They got someone to take them and their boat to Delta, then they floated down the Tanana river to Fairbanks.  They had no motor, just two oars and a stick.  They did not have life jackets.  They were young and foolhardy.  In going around Fairbanks Jerry got to know a man who built houses who hired him to do the wiring.  The man said he liked having Jerry work for him because he could just turn him loose and let him do it.

One day Jerry and his Texas friend got some ice skates and went up to the University skating rink where there was nobody else, but they skated and Jerry noted the University.  While he was at Cal Poly he finished his pilot’s license and took the test — in those days, he says, the FAA actually had pilots.  He bought a plane and flew it to Fairbanks where he applied to the University to see how many credits they would accept from Cal Poly.  They accepted everything and he lived in Alaska for the next 30 years.

Taylor craft BC12D, Jerry and his first airpland in Fairbanks, 1957

Taylor craft BC12D, Jerry and his first airpland in Fairbanks, 1957

In Haines, where we boarded the ferry this week to take us home, we met the sister of the Malaspina’s bar tender.  Christy Tengs runs the Bamboo room restaurant and bar there.  She lives upstairs.  She has lived there all her life.  On the walls of the restaurant there are pictures of her mother (who lives there with her) as a pretty young woman, dancing a hula, and her father as a handsome young devil who crashed one airplane after another.  Christy’s two children live there with her.  It is hard to make a go of a business in a place like Haines, Alaska, where you make all the money you can in the summer, because in the winter expenses are high and business is slow.  She may have to leave with her 2 children.  What then?  How will she feel, leaving that place which has held her all her life?

I was born in Washington DC and lived there off and on for a few years, and also in New York.  My parents moved to a new house every couple of years, and I never developed a feeling of continuity.  I connected to another place.

When I was 3 years old my mother left for a year — my parents’ marriage was faltering; she had another man.  I was taken to the house of my aunt and uncle in Andover, Massachusetts for that year.  Although after that I lived for a time with my mother and step-father and I spent time with both of my parents and their new spouses, Andover became home and haven for me for all the years of growing up and for many years after that.

The people were important; my aunt was like a mother, my uncle, though more distant, was certainly an influence on me as I grew up and my cousins were like annoying little sisters.  But the place itself had a hold on me.

The house was built around the end of the 19th century.  It was big — 3 stories, 10 bedrooms.  Verandas wrapped around 2 sides.

My son, Stevie, playing on the veranda by the living room bay window.

My son, Stevie, playing on the veranda by the living room bay window.

The large front hall had a fireplace and a wide stairway to the second floor with a landing where a big bay window was ornamented with 2 huge Ming Chinese vases on the wide window seat.

The stair and window seat

The stair and window seat

The telephone was in the front hall.

Front hall and stair

Front hall and stair

The picture over the front hall table was signed by Corbet, but when the estate was finally settled Southebys said it was by a student of Corbet.  He used to sign student pictures as a favor.

The picture over the front hall table was signed by Corbet, but when the estate was finally settled Southebys said it was by a student of Corbet. He used to sign student pictures as a favor.

The living room was lined with book shelves where there were complete sets, leather bound, of the Waverly Novels by Sir Walter Scott, all of Dickens’ works and all of Kipling‘s works; there was a grand piano and fireplace where brass lions guarded the andirons, and a big ornately carved mirror hung over the mantle.

Waverly Novels were behind the Morris chair.  A corner of the bay window shows.

Waverly Novels were behind the Morris chair. A corner of the bay window shows.

A long three panel bay window, one step up, eventually came to hold my aunt’s collection of potted plants.  Worn oriental carpets covered the floors and glass front cabinets were filled with curios my uncle’s grandparents had collected on their trips around the world.

There were 3 pantries off the ballroom sized kitchen, and a hallway to the back stairs which led to the servants rooms.  When I was young there was one, Mary Stanton, the cook.  The other servants’ rooms were filled with trunks, more stuff collected by my uncle’s grandparents.  My aunt and I sometimes amused ourselves by going through those trunks; she called doing that “domestic archeology.”

Many acres of field, orchard and woods surrounded the house.  My uncle’s sister and husband owned a house which had been recently built on a large adjacent property connected by a path that went by the chicken house and yard.  The barn was as old as the main house and was where my uncle kept his car (he always drove a convertible when I was a kid.)  There was a room in the barn where Mike, the gardener, lived.  Pigs were raised in the barn, and there was always a side of bacon hanging in the pantry.

All of this says money and privilege.  There was money, but it was not my uncle and aunt’s.  His parents financed the household, and when they died they left him the house but no money, so gradually the house fell into disrepair.  Railings fell off the veranda, the roof sometimes leaked and rats sometimes died in the walls, making parts of the house smell terrible.

The house in last stages of decay before it was sold to a TV actor.

The house in last stages of decay before it was sold to a TV actor.

As a child I roamed the woods, climbed trees in the orchard, looked for bird’s eggs, and built a platform in an old cherry tree where I took books to read.  I read a lot of Kipling.  I picked flowers and the scents of lilacs and phlox bring sudden stabs of memory of that lost world.

I have not become attached to another place in the same way.  I love the island where I live, but I don’t belong to it.  I often go back to New Zealand, and there I have a partial sense of belonging.  My mother was a New Zealander and I have a much loved cousin there that I have known since childhood.  I went to school there as a teenager for a short time, and that gives me a rootlet there.  But Andover is my real home, and when people ask me where I am from the answer is, Andover, Massachusetts.

When people ask Jerry where he’s from he says, “Alaska.”

We each had a place in the world that was ours.  I feel as if I needed that grounding.  I take the memory of it with me where I go — I know I belonged somewhere.  Jerry is sitting beside me as I write, reading a scholarly book translated from the Russian about the purchase of Alaska from the Russians.

Perhaps human beings need a a piece of the earth that is theirs, a place to go to even if only in memory, that anchors them in the world.  Even tribes of nomads cover familiar ground.  But it seems that such a place can be acquired after childhood.

I wonder what the kids of these military folk will say when asked the question, “Where are you from?”

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15 Responses to The importance of place

  1. Freda says:

    Looking back, I wish it had been possible to raise our four boys in a stable place, unfortunately, all sorts of things made that impossible. On the other hand, Forces children moved around often show extra confidence – they have to. Thanks for the lovely pictures and stories of your youth.

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh this speaks to me Anne of so much. I came to my “home” late in life and live here now. I had thought other places (West Cork in Ireland, the Burren in Ireland) evoked that feeling of my place but not till I came to Newfoundland did I have that sense of profound belonging I had never experienced before (or since).
    I find I identify as a Newfoundlander now. Extraordinary.
    Maybe it is cellular memory – who knows.
    I love the pics of your house and I am so glad you found a place to call your own – a place of kindness and trust.

  3. Jan says:

    It is so sad when grand old houses are allowed to decay. I always daydream about bringing them to their former glory.

    A few years ago I went back to my old home place in Indiana. A house belonging one set of grandparents was in total disarray. It had been a show place, but it was ready for a wrecking ball when I saw it. A house belonging to the other grandparents had been tastefully remodeled with love through the years.

    I now live in northern California. We have two seasons, a little rain and hoping for rain.

  4. Duchess says:

    When people ask me where I am from I usually ask them what it is that they want to know, because I don’t know how to answer that question. Where was I born? Where did I grow up? Where my mother lived, where my father lived? Where I call home?

    Alas, I am constantly asked where I am from, because I am easily marked by my accent as an outsider. I wish I had an answer!

  5. Tabor says:

    The survivors are adaptable. It is a luxury to live in one place your whole life. It also makes you have an inaccurate perspective on the world. My opinion, anyway.

  6. Children moved about often may have a feeling of placelessness. That’s me. Their answer to the question “where from?” probably will be to change the subject.

    If there’s an internal something that anchors them, they may believe their story is the real one, that everyone else needs to get a life. As Tabor says, always in the same place gives a skewed view of the world.

    Your pictures and text feel like a very special house tour combined with a child idyll. Thanks for taking us along.

  7. pauline says:

    I like WWW’s suggestion of cellular memory though I don’t know how one would set about proving it. My true “home” is the house in which I grew up. I loved it, it loved me – I’ve always sensed this mutual pull. It is where I belonged and where I will always belong. It is where I have always said I am from. Having said that, I made another home in Vermont as an adult. The moment I stepped onto that property I felt “at home” and felt that way for the 12 years I lived and homesteaded there Now I live in the same town in which I was raised but in a small cottage some three miles from my old homestead. I love my little house and its surroundings but we don’t belong to each other. It’s hard, when talking of emotional pulls, to put the feelings into sensible words.

  8. What a beautiful house! I love the old photo of Stevie too. What a treasure!

  9. Marja-Leena says:

    I love the stories of your life, so many interesting phases and experiences. What a wonderful big old house to have been able to call “Home”. Thinking back on my own life, I’d say my childhood home was wherever we lived in Winnipeg (we moved a lot) including a loved summer place that wasn’t really ours but that of dear friends, so it’s more ‘place’ rather than a house. Here in Vancouver, this house is ‘home’ as is this community where we’ve lived the largest portion of our adult life. Yes, I do think it’s important to have a sense of place where one has set down roots. At the same time, I don’t forget my family roots back in Finland – and that’s an immigrant’s story so common to most living elsewhere than their birthplace.

  10. Darlene says:

    I think you were very fortunate to grow up in such a beutiful house, even though your family was breaking apart. I think we absorb so much of our environment when we are small, without really being aware of it.

    I was fortunate. I was born in the place where I lived until I married. Even after that, my husband and I stayed in several houses on the property. So I will always say I come from Colorado Springs, even though I have spent more years in Arizona.

  11. What I loved the most about your essay was the microscopic approach. You went from a very specific situation (the people you saw with their young children moving to other places0) to your very own family history. Loved the photos. They gave me a sense of perspective. Many thanks. It’s my first time on your blog. It shan’t be the last one.

    Greetings from London.

  12. dale says:

    I couldn’t live anywhere but Oregon. Oh, I suppose I could, if I were forced, but I’m one of the most place-bound people I know. The six years I spent away from Oregon I pined for it, and dreamed of it.

    Even though, even though the forests have been butchered and the Coast built up into one long string of beach towns and the valley threatening to conurbate. Still it’s home, home, and the rain & the sky & the doug firs are like my own body to me. I don’t understand how people can just move about. Always amazed by you rolling off to Alaska & back every year 😉

  13. ernestine says:

    I would say where I am at this moment is home. Took me a number of years to return. This is where my heart is. Lived in many homes but this is home and I would say this is where I am from.
    Nature, gardening, books, photography and family visits.
    I love reading about your life. Usually at a loss of words in how to respond. The old home was beautiful – what memories you have and you are so gifted in the way you share.
    Your Jerry so similar to you and to think you met each other in this last part of life. What a gift
    Your lives could be a film or a novel…

  14. Hattie says:

    We are lucky to have choices about where and how we live. It’s a blessing, not a curse.

  15. Every former military dependent I’ve ever asked the “where are you from?” question invariably answer the same way: “I’m a military brat.” They even pause briefly and smile the same way before they answer.

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