A Military Brat Finds a Place To Hang Her Hat

When I was about 13, I wanted a bedroom with blue walls, the color of the sky when it's faintly tinged with gray. I dreamed up the curtains to match, and a whole bedroom suite to furnish my own small corner of life. But I never asked my parents' permission to color my plain white room. It wouldn't have been worth it to paint a room that you're just going to leave in a year or two.

That bedroom, with its blank walls and old linoleum floor, was in a standard housing unit on an air base in Zaragoza, Spain. I lived there for about two years, one of the many stops in my father's military career. Germany, England, Georgia, Maryland, New Mexico - all of them were our home for some span of time.

Now, 10 years later, I live in Lancaster, Pa. Here, in this city with its 250-year-old history sunk deep in Pennsylvania farmland, I've discovered what I never knew I was missing: the chance to belong somewhere.

Lancastrians ask me all the time, "Are you from here?" which is subtly, yet significantly different from what people asked me on the military bases where we lived. They asked, "Where are you from?" because they knew I wasn't from Georgia, Germany, Spain, or wherever we were at the time. They knew I couldn't be from there. Nobody was from there.

But in Lancaster, with its bustling farmers' market and lovely Victorian architecture, they ask, and I say, apologetically, "No, I'm not from here." Then I try to explain, in a sentence that doesn't last too long, that I was born in New Mexico but I really consider Maryland my family home because that's where both my parents grew up. Sometimes if I don't feel like launching an explanation, I say two short words: military brat.

I used to pride myself on not belonging anywhere. I thought moving all the time made me more worldly than my peers, and wiser, and I used to wrap that otherness around me like a cloak when I needed it. Even now, I don't exactly regret my military life, because it was exciting and it helped me learn and grow.

But in a thousand tiny ways that I'm just beginning to realize, not belonging has changed my life.

Friendships, for instance, were usually relationships of convenience, rather than growth. I envy my fianc when he laughs with his friends, remembering some joke from fourth grade. Watching and accepting as another person changes over the years deepens a friendship in a way that can't be matched over a short period of time. The friends of my childhood are scattered all over the world.

I never had time to learn the back routes and shortcuts home. No street was ever truly familiar. The people on either side of our house were just that. In temporary base housing, there are no neighbors.

And always, in the back of my mind, there was an emotional escape hatch: I don't belong here, so it doesn't matter what I do or say.

But here, when a great winter storm came, I helped my neighbor dig her car out of the snowbanks. I walk to the neighborhood meetings, I pay attention to the city's crimes. And births. And deaths. They all have something to do with me. My response to them will shape my relationships not for a year or two, but for the future.

It seems odd to me that this small city, with its narrow streets fenced in by row houses, should have drawn this emotion from me. But I find myself reveling in the smallest things, the occurrences that people who are "from here" would think nothing of.

At the farmers' market a few days ago, the standholder presented me with my regular lunchtime order of three stuffed grape leaves already neatly tucked into a brown paper bag. He'd seen me weaving in and out of the crowd, heading toward his stand as I do every Tuesday and Friday. "There's an extra potato in there for you," he said.

AT the beauty parlor, Denise remembers that I'm growing my layers out. "When should I schedule your next appointment?" the lady at the counter asks me, and I happily jot the date down in my book, thinking with satisfaction that I could find 10 of those appointments noted if I flipped back through the pages.

Most people probably think I'm crazy to make a big deal out of a hairdresser remembering me from one visit to the next. But to me, the formerly rootless and unattached, it's as though I'm discovering a whole world created and defined by familiarity.

Of course, I've belonged before - to groups like the student newspaper in college and the Historical Society. Here in Lancaster I belong to a set of friends. We have potluck dinners, we go to hear local bands play, and we talk about our jobs, houses, and parents. I've found these groups deeply satisfying, too. They're communities of a sort, communities of common interests and backgrounds.

But they're not the same as the community of place I'm discovering for the first time here. This community is not created by shared characteristics: We're not all white or black or Hispanic. We're not all wealthy or poor or middle class. We don't all like potluck dinners, and a lot of us probably don't like to go out to listen to bands. In short, we're not all anything. What we have in common, what makes us a community, is place.

Ironically, at the same time that I'm discovering community, authors and politicians talk about how we've lost it. The automobile, the suburbs, and the television have segregated us, they say. Perhaps they're right. I know too many people who view the world through thick automobile glass or the giant dulling eye of the television set.

They may have forgotten what I'm just discovering now. But although fewer people may take time to notice their communities, they still exist just under the swift currents of our lives. I don't mean to say that they're easy to find; we live in a world where it takes courage simply to smile at a stranger on the street. But for the first time in my life I know what it means to belong somewhere.

And now I know how much it's worth.

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