Fear #29: putting down roots; fear #30: uprooting: I just renewed the lease for my studio. May 1 will mark the beginning of my third year. I can't remember the last time I lived in the same home for more than two years. I've cycled through different residences every year or two like cheap dresses from H&M. Each move makes sense at the time--rent hikes, roommates, grad school, pests, restlessness for a better space. But now, as I approach an unprecedented third year under the same roof, my itchy feet (incongruous with intense hatred of actually moving) suggest other causes for my chronic moving syndrome.
One possibility? I moved--or was moved, with my father at the helm--ten times in the first ten years of my life, continent to continent, coast to coast. I've asked my mother if moving with two small children was difficult; her vague answers depend on her mood. In a good one, she'll say, "Oh, your father was adventurous, I was happy to go where he wanted to go," or "We were young." In a bad mood, she becomes defensive, as if the question were absurd, an accusation.
The most tumultuous period is the relocation from Japan to Oregon to Ohio, a span of only two years. In 1978 my parents, baby sister and I fly from Tokyo to Portland, the city Papa's chosen as the ideal American home. We live in the Mallory Motel for two weeks while he finds a house. The first, a two-story rental in nearby Tigard, turns out to be impossibly smelly. Family lore goes that the previous tenants had owned pet snakes which roamed freely through the rooms. I can't recall the stink, but I remember fragrant blackberry bushes in the yard; I remember walking with Mama to the giant grocery store, where she lets me pick out Brach's candies, each kind--butterscotch, cinnamon, peppermint--heaped in its own dazzling clear bin. We move from stinkville to a ranch house set deep into woods. The entire house is carpeted in wall-to-wall shag, each room its own vivid disco hue: lime, pink, orange, aqua. One night, my parents see--out of nowhere--the owner of the house standing in the living room. The next day, they learn that he had crashed his motorcycle in the night and died. Convinced they've seen a ghost, we move into an apartment, where we finally settle down for a year. Our neighbors include a Hawaiian family, and I make friends with their daughter, Bufferin.
One May afternoon, ashes sprinkle from the sky and dust our picnic table. With the side of my hand I scrape ashes into a jar, a souvenir. It's 1980, and a furious Mount St. Helens has erupted.
We're leaving again--because the volcano chased us away, I believe, but in fact Papa's bankrupt. We're going to move in with his parents in Ohio, he says. And we're going to make a vacation out of it. We pile into our rust-red Toyota hatchback, the back seat folded down where my sister and I lie on blankets. As if he hasn't a care in the world, Papa drives us through the Pacific Northwest into Yellowstone National Park, where we stop for several nights to see geysers and wild animals--moose, elk, buffalo. We meander across Montana, the Rocky Mountains, North Dakota, we drive and drive until the land flattens like the underside of the glacier that scraped it clean.
We move in with Grandma and Grandpa Heck, into their log cabin overlooking Lake Erie. Sassafras Lodge, as they've named the house, with its fireplace, toy-filled loft, and sprawling yard overgrown with mint and ivy and bluebells, is the ideal home for two girls age 5 and 9. That is, unless they are stuffed into it along with four tense adults and one jumpy Boston Terrier.
After five months of play, church-going, and overheard arguments, we move three doors down into a furnished two bedroom beach-rental. Ninety-seven creaky wooden stairs descend from its back patio onto the beach. Despite Papa remaining unemployed and Mama suffering from cabin fever and insomnia, the place is fun for us kids. I traipse over to Grandma's to eat graham crackers with cold butter, and to read my favorite book, an illustrated encyclopedia on gnomes. One of my favorite chapters details a gnome's house, showing a map of the interior--cupboards, sleeping quarters, cellar. I tell my grandma: "I think I saw a gnome, behind some ivy." "Yes, yes," she says, "I'm certain he was there."
As the economy sinks and gas prices soar, we kids canoe, fish, swim, and build castles and miniature lakes in the sand. My family lives off food stamps for a while, government-issued cheese, canned peaches, peanut butter. Finally, my father lands a job at the local nuclear power plant, and he buys his first--and last--house, the three-bedroom, split-level home my mother resides in now.
She is the opposite of me, deeply rooted into her space, with her hoards of newspapers, knick-knacks, books, the appliances and furniture of my childhood grimed with dust and memory. Her belongings carry the weight of gravestones.
My one-room studio remains a little too tidy, the walls blank, impatient white, as if they are holding their breath to see what will be nailed down, who will stay. I'm eyeing a loft bed at Ikea, and thinking robin's egg blue for the walls.