Grandpapa Hank lives in Hilo now in the house that he renovated for his mother as she was dying. He is surrounded by literally hundreds of uncles, cousins and other family members. Hilo to him is home, and has been ever since his father left during World War I to return home to Okinawa, leaving Hank’s mom with seven kids to raise on her own. When she got sick, Hank knew he had to return home, so he turned to Grandma Janet and told her what he felt he had to do. She said, great, go, but I hate Hawaii and all the family being around, and the lack of privacy, so you go, but I like D.C and my job at the Pentagon.
So Grandpapa Hank left. He rebuilt his mother’s house and when she finally died, he stayed, safe and happy, surrounded by family. He knew where he belonged.
I have always envied people who belonged, for I never seem to. When I was growing up, we had 15 acres in Connecticut, and our neighbor had 200 in an L around us. I spent all my free time wandering around that land. I pretended I was with Yoda on Dagaba in the shelter of bushes that grew in a dome near the marsh. I climbed the large rock formations and imagined I was on Everest. I walked through miles of carpeted Pine forest and imagined there were elves around every corner. It was all easier than sitting in the house and taking etiquette lessons, or voice, or piano or ballet. But while I escaped there, I was too little to know whether or not I belonged there.
It seems like so many people have an immediate sense of belonging, they get it from their families, their church, their community. My family was warped the first half of my life being led as it was by the Wicked Witch of the West Marcelle and her evil flying monkey Julian and for a long time after that it was just Mom and Lexi and me. With Mom working several jobs, she tried, but it’s not what she wanted for us, and for a long time there our family unit was not rocky so much as jumbled together, it was hard to figure out what went where and who did what. We didn’t go to church regularly, although Marcelle had us baptized twice, which either says something about her or us. As for community, we were not part of it. As I grew older we had an extended family on the Outer Banks that consisted mostly of my mother’s best friend, Grizelle and her family. However, even there we were outsiders. We were transplants, not locals, as people who can trace their ancestors back 300 years were glad to inform us. Then when Mom and Dad got married, Grizelle stopped talking to Mom, because Grizelle’s long term boyfriend wouldn’t marry her. Crazy but true. We lost a whole family in a day. Twenty years of shared dinners, movies, birthdays, graduations and Christmases were gone in the blink of an eye. Even after having lived there for almost 15 years, we are as much outsiders as you would be if you suddenly moved there. I had hoped that returning home would be about belonging, but it wasn’t.
Mom was adopted off the Navajo reservation when she was only a few days old. She was raised as an Army brat, and has never gained any insight into her background as New Mexico has closed adoption files. It seems she too, has never found a place where she belongs. Perhaps that is part of our gypsy-like wandering. For years, we moved every three to six months. Never got a place to call our own, always having to pack up and move on. Moving halfway through school years and having to try and start all over again. Public school, where I was on the front page of the local newspaper, to small southern school where everyone had known each other since birth. Never a fit, never belonging. I went to a prep school for a short time, the wonderful Wooster Academy where we had chapel every day, and I got to Murphy’s oil the floor as my work rotation. Just me for hours alone in the chapel. It was a place of peace to me. A place where I was told I was good at sports, and should continue playing lacrosse- words I never heard again as I returned to the south where kids started playing sports in 1st grade and there was no time to include someone new. Wooster skipped me several grades so I never sat in a class bored and I was never made to feel bad because I read faster than everyone else, or translated Latin better, or raced ahead. They made me feel like I belonged. Perhaps the reason I think of Wooster this summer is because there’s a guy here who I see in the dining hall every day who looks like my crush from Wooster. His name was Dylan Eamon O’Neill and he was the headmaster’s son. He’s the reason I learned to play guitar, and his name is forever engraved on multiple pages of my Latin textbook. Then again, perhaps I think of Wooster because it was a place where, only for a short time, I belonged.
Dad is Japanese, raised as an Air Force brat, most of his time in Hilo. While he had a place where he belonged, a large family, something happened one day and he cut off all contact with his family and they didn’t speak for 15 years, until Mom contacted them. We used to kid him that he was in the witness protection program. So now I have a Grandpapa Hank and a Grandma Janet. I have yet to meet either of them. They are still married and Hank travels over about once a year, but I haven’t met them yet. I also have an Uncle Lynn and Lon and an Aunt Lori. I don’t know them either, so I don’t know whether they would impart any sense of belonging. I know I belong to my family, but I have never belonged to any other group. I have looked to belong amongst New Yorkers, traveling theatre techs, inner city teachers, touring roadies, and Southern teachers. But I am nervous around new people and stutter when flustered. It takes me a long time to make friends and I get my feelings hurt when I am nothing but nice to people and they take their shit out on me. I have been told I am loud and opinionated once you do get to know me, or even if you’re just in the immediate vicinity. I’ve been known to clear rooms just by being honest, and frankly, am always a little surprised when it happens. I always have my nose in a book. I am a practicing witch. Maybe it is these things that keep me from belonging. Maybe not.
My sister has never had a problem belonging, but then again, I’m still convinced she was left on the doorstep as a small babe, probably by something not human, or at least weird. She is nothing like Mom, or Dad or me. She is vivacious, outgoing, she doesn’t read unless it’s a fashion magazine or a text on psychopharmacology. She doesn’t have the strong family ties the rest of us have. She coordinates her outfits for the week. She’s getting her MRS degree, I mean she’s majoring in French and Psychology. Her B.S, has been a lot of BS for 9 years. But I hear she’s graduating next year, so here’s to her. I have no sphere of reference for her and never have. I don’t know if she really feels like she belongs, or whether she just got good at faking it. Either way, I figure she’s ahead of me.
I don’t have the answers, and a while ago I came to peace with that. I may never belong, and I made my peace with that too. Perhaps it is harder for those of us who have constantly been shifted, constantly moved, always having the rug torn out from under us. Perhaps not. Sometimes there are places that almost feel like belonging. Maybe one day, I’ll find a place that truly is.