They say guilt is a staggering burden, but I think change is the heaviest load of all. All my life I had faced it head on, and I’m surprised that I was older when I finally decided that all of the wandering wasn’t fair.
I still remember driving into the tiny, midwestern town in Iowa. The sky looked troubled and angry, and I recall that it looked formidable and opposing. It was November, and I was sure that the bleak landscape would soon be covered with a blanket of sparkling, white snow.
I sat with my brother Rob in the back of the old VW van. We were both sullen and cross, angry with our parents for dragging us to yet another town. We glared at them from the back seat as they bubbled over at every little thing like ecstatic children at a birthday party.
“Look at that adorable little house!”
“It’s so darling!”
“And all the little shops! Oh, how exciting!”
I had heard it many times before as we entered a new place when roaming about the country on my parents’ vagabond trip. Our vagabond trip. They called themselves wanderers, but I referred to them as middle-aged hippies.
This was the thirty-second town I had lived in throughout my life. I was thirteen, adaptable and, most importantly, accepting. Too accepting. Inside I was sick of the traveling and the wandering. I wanted a place of my own.
My parents loved the traveling. They had been real hippies back in the sixties. They had attended rowdy rallies, smoked one or two joints in the hope of reaching an astounding level of intellect and insight, and had tramped around Woodstock in baggy bell-bottoms. They had married at twenty, gone to college, earned degrees in philosophy, and hopped in the old van. Thus began their life on the road.
I was born at their sixteenth stop, in a tiny little town in Vermont in a red barn filled with fragrant hay. It was October, and my mother says that the trees were all boasting their brilliant fall colors of red, orange, yellow and brown, creating a dazzling sight visible through the open door. She says that I was born with my eyes wide open, as if the vibrant colors shocked me into silence. That’s why I’m so observant, she says, because I was born gaping at the world in awe and wonder.
My mother was born in a New England state too, New York. She was born in the Catskill Mountains where the air is crisp and fresh. I went there once to visit my grandparents, and spent most of the time running through the little town of Cooperstown, marveling at the clear air and the abundant wildlife of squirrels, deer and countless others.
I’ve never lived in a house; the van was always home to us. We slept and ate in the back of the van where my father took out the seats and nailed in a soft couch, an old wooden table, two cots, a refrigerator and a stove. I never knew what I was missing out on until I went over to a friend’s house when we were camped out in Alabama. It wasn’t a Georgian mansion or a Victorian painted lady, just a normal, suburban house. But it made my heart ache to see each person’s room, the tiled bathroom, the orderly kitchen. The privacy of a house made me want one desperately.
I saw plenty of other houses. I saw cheap duplexes in Newark, enormous mansions in Beverly Hills, unoriginal ranches in Nebraska and Wyoming, beach houses in North Carolina and Maryland, even long houses in Washington State. I wanted all of them.
As we drove past charming bungalows and farmhouses I grew miserable. I knew that I would forever envy the people who lived in them, and would always be jealous of those that lived here simply because they had a home.
I hadn’t wanted to leave our last home in Wisconsin. It was in the northern part of the state, a place called Boulder Junction. There were thick forests of tall, straight pines that stood like a regiment of dignified soldiers. There was a main street of prim shops and little houses. The school was small, the people were friendly, and finally I was accepted as an individual. I had friends, I had good grades, and, for once, was content with who I was.
And then my parents announced that we would move again. “We haven’t been to Iowa yet,” they explained. “We ought to experience the sights and sounds of the Hawkeye State!”
But Rob was on many of the athletic teams, and I was on the honor roll and the student council. We cried and sulked for three days until Mom and Dad pulled us into the van and started up the engine.
“Look at those little buildings!”
“Aren’t they precious!”
“This is such a darling town, don’t you think?” Mom turned and smiled her bubbly smile at us. We just stared back. Mom’s smile faded and she turned back to the window to gawk at something else.
We stopped at a dumpy little place for Chinese take-out for dinner. I squinted at the menu. Though we had always taken out Chinese, McDonald’s or Pizza Hut for meals, I had never become familiar with the exotic names on the Chinese menus.
I pointed at a dish and held it out for the waiter to see.
“I don’t know how to pronounce this name,” I told him apologetically. He mumbled something, scribbled onto his pad, and shuffled into the kitchen to get the food.
We walked back to the van with our little white cartons of chow mein, dumplings, beef and broccoli, or whatever we had decided upon.
“This is good!” Dad exclaimed after tasting his chop suey. “We’ll have to come here more often.”
I sighed. I had heard the same thing about the Thai restaurant in Santa Fe, the Wong’s Wok in Annapolis and the Taco Bell in Detroit. I had had my share of greasy food from run-down restaurant joints.
Rob smiled feebly at me over his bowl of won ton noodle soup. “Sure, Dad,” he muttered, “this food’s great.”
Dad looked up, not knowing whether to smile or frown.
On the first day of school, I wandered throughout the halls to my various classes in a misty haze. Everything was vague and fuzzy through the walls of my little bubble. I was ahead of this school in math, but behind them in history. I already knew about cell biology, but was still struggling with the types of adjectives. It was different at every school, and I never fit in, like a piece from a forgotten jigsaw puzzle. I could never blend into the puzzle anywhere.
The kids at this school were no different from most others. There were about three cliques, the popular kids, the nerds, and the freaks. Then there were the misfits, who fit into none of these categories. I had seen them all before, not them actually, but their personalities, their treatment from others. The nerds were friendly, they always are, ready to reach out to another. The freaks were clammed up and silent in their gothic clothing, dark and gloomy. And the popular people were all scared like they are at almost every school, scared of being creative, frightened of originality. And petrified of anything different. They snickered at me when I walked by, they giggled at me when I turned my head. They mocked me and teased me throughout the day until I finally closed my ears to everything but the teacher.
“Don’t you think that as much as Mom and Dad wander, they’re really the most scared of change?”
Rob looked up at me. We were seated on the floor of the junky van, struggling with a crossword puzzle. He thought for a minute, his mouth pursed in a pout of concentration. “Yeah,” he said finally, “I guess they always were.”
We were silent for a bit. Silence can be marvelous in the middle of chaos. And even when nothing is hectic or frenzied, silence can be delicious. It’s certainly better than talk when you’re angry, and sometimes it’s silence that helps you to your feet when you’re stumbling with sadness. Silence was truly needed that night.
Mom strolled in carrying ice-cream cones from a nearby ice-cream parlor. Rob looked doubtful.
“Ice cream? In November?” he asked skeptically.
“Why not?” Mom shrugged and handed me a cone.
The ice cream fell from the cone and landed on the floor of the van where it splattered a little and began to melt, the melted ice cream flowing in little streams along the floor.
And oddly enough, I began to laugh. Soon we were all giggling, though afterwards I felt as if I had cried off the sorrows of thirty-two towns. I still don’t know which is better, laughing or crying.
I guess I’ll just have to have a good laugh now and then until my parents have had enough of Iowa and we’ll all pile into the old van and move on.