Christmas Day 2018 is now in the memory books. The incense from last night’s midnight service has dissipated, the stockings and presents have been opened, and Christmas dinner is digesting. Everyone can sit back and take a breath, especially the mail delivery workers and Christian clergy.

For military kids, today’s celebration probably didn’t happen in the place where they were born. They’ve either moved from one house to another, from one state to another, or from one country to another.

Wherever they are, cheers to all the young military kids of today and a heartfelt hope that their parents are either with them, or are safe where they are.

Cheers also to those who grew up following their parents around the country and the world and for whom Santa didn’t arrive in a sleigh, but by camel, in a tank, riding in a half-track, being driven in a deuce and a half, flown in courtesy of the crew of a C-130, or landing on a Naval transport by helicopter.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and season’s greetings to everyone.

 

Christmas collage

A variety of Christmases. Top row: three places shown; five altogether. Two middle rows: three different homes in one place. Bottom row: four homes, not including my Army assignments.

 

During this holiday season, I’m missing the at-home sights and sounds of not only an American Christmas, but also those of my other-cultures, traditions given to me through my nomadic military travels (in countries with Christian traditions).

In watching my grandkids, I think it must be nice to be grounded in one’s life, to know who and what you are and not to miss parts of your own life with a sharper pang than that generated by ordinary nostalgia. I don’t know if a settled life is ‘better’ and a nomadic life ‘worse’ (or vice versa) but being from one place might have less existential angst.  Or maybe not.  Hard to tell from the vantage point of having had just the one childhood.

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I’m in luck concerning my first culture, English, the one I think of in my child’s mind as ‘the way it’s s’posed to be.’  At a young age, you don’t know you’re not living where you’re nationally-assigned to be living.  You also don’t know that what you’re experiencing as ‘normal’ is a mix of two cultures, that of your parents, and that of the country in which you live. All you know is that you’re home, and that’s that.

I’m lucky that crackers, as one element of my early Christmases in England, are now readily available.

 

23 christmas crackers

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Another part of my other-culture heritage is seeing the Gombey dancers from Bermuda.  When I was a kid, the dancers didn’t seem to be as well-organized or to have as good P.R., as they do today, but again, that observation may be a result of the childish attention span.  Still, they’re something I remember seeing on the island around Christmas.  I think we could do with some Gombey dancing around here.

23 Gombey men

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From the decades I spent with my husband in Europe comes the memory of Christmas markets.  Everywhere we went during December we found Christmas markets.  Some were big and some were small, but they all contributed to the seasonal spirit. One of the items commonly found at the markets are figurines for the household Nativity scenes.  The items are expensive and collections are often added to one piece at a time over the years.

A French-culture specialty are santons.  Where Americans limit their Nativity scenes to manger-scenes, the people of Provence have the tradition of making an entire village to host the Nativity.  One display we saw in the city hall of Strasbourg, France filled the entire lobby and the scene was a multi-room panorama as visitors moved through the ‘town.’  Butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers, old men playing boules (like bocce), mothers in houses bathing their infants, beasts and birds and houses and scenery.  C’est magnifique!

The last Christmas we spent in Europe, we visited the Marché de Noel in Mons, Belgium.  The marché (market) was small with little huts selling thick waffles, utterly scrumptious frites (fries should be called Belgian fries rather than French fries),  hot drinks, and little gifts. The main hut displayed a Nativity scene. In the Mons market, the chief attraction was an ice-skating rink.

If we made a video recording of our visit, I haven’t the slightest clue how to get it off our last-century video tape and make a computer file of it, but I’m in luck — other people have recorded their visits and uploaded them to YouTube.  This video ends with a left-handed caress for good luck of the little brass monkey outside the city hall of Mons.

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The biggest, and to me the best Christmas market is the Christkindelsmarkt in Nürnberg, Germany, a market that takes place under the gaze of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), a city symbol memorialized in a clock that I sent to my parents from Germany, many years ago.  With coddling, our clock still ticks away and plays its tune.

 

12 23 01 Clock

In Nürnberg, the Christmas market spectacle is magnificent as the church rises above the ‘streets’ formed in the market square by row upon row of red and white striped tents. In the tents, innumerable glass ornaments on the counters and hanging from the ceilings in the tents sparkle under the spotlights.  The visual feast is accentuated by the aroma of the small bratwurst (never called “brats”) grilling in the open-air, little sausages that tease the nose and make the mouth water. Mingling with the smell of grilled wurst is the wafting scent of Glühwein (mulled wine) for the grownups and Kinderpunsch (mulled punch) for the kids.  The Christkindlesmarkt is a sensory delight.

 

With your feet frozen from hours of wandering on the cold cobblestones, it is an absolute treat to find a Konditorei (a German café specializing in coffee and cake) and sit at a linen-draped table sipping hot chocolate and nibbling a slice of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest cherry cake) with your boxed gingerbread house at your feet.  The event is a lasting memory.

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I suppose I wouldn’t be missing all the kinds of Christmases I’ve known if I were in a festively-decorated house, watching the twinkling of the lights on my Christmas tree.  But no, I have cats, specifically, two young cats whose mission is to investigate anything and everything in the house. I’m waiting for them to grow up some more before introducing them to a Christmas tree.  Until then, I have my memories and the entertainment of watching the cats chase through packing paper from catalog orders and jump in and out of empty shipping boxes.

01 Audrey after candycanes

Happy Holidays!

Apropos of nothing more than needing a subject about which to write, the dilemma of where I’m from came to mind. Not having a well-defined place of origin is one of those small social inconveniences like having eyes of two different colors, a haircut for the wrong gender (too long or too short), or very out of date eyeglasses frames. None of it matters, but people find a way to comment on it anyhow.

I have a slight, non-standard American accent. No matter where I live I don’t sound like I’m “from around here.” Of course, people understand me but some vowels are “off,” or I’ll use a word in a wrong way. If, after a few moments of talk, the people I’m speaking with have any curiosity about it, I’m asked where I’m from, and I hesitate. It seems like an easy enough question to answer. After all, how can you not know where you’re from?

If I’m being a nosy parker, most people to whom I’ve posed the same question will usually say where they were born, or where they grew up. They know where home is. Maybe they moved around the area, perhaps from house to house in the same town, so they know the local roads, the television stations, the sport teams and famous players, the old restaurants and high school hangouts, and not only the weather but the long-time weather forecasters as well. They can say, “I’m from …” without any hesitation.

When I am asked where I’m from, I usually say, “The Air Force.” It often takes my questioner a couple of beats to figure out what I said and my reply usually gets a half-hearted laugh. I should probably just pick one place that I’ve lived before, but then I get asked something specific about it and I hesitate again while explaining how I only lived there a few years a long time ago. Either way, people look at me as if I’m making stuff up.

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I was born in a “temporary” WWII-era military hospital on an Air Force base on the east coast of the U.S., and for three months lived in the city of my birth, which wasn’t where either of my parents were from. Just like everyone else I’ve carried my birthplace identifier with me as long as I can remember, carefully writing it on any form demanding the information, but not having any feeling for what it was like there other than what I’ve seen in the few photos in our album from those three months, or from impressions given by newspaper pictures (it’s a famous city). I often feel like a fraud by claiming I’m a native daughter because my knowledge of the place is that of a person who has read a tourist brochure. I can describe famous landmarks but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I know more about Paris, the one in France, than I do about where I was born. It’s a trait I share with all my children, none of whom remember where they spent the earliest days of their babyhoods.

While I was still a babe in arms, my dad sailed away on a Navy ship to England after traveling with me and Mom to St. Louis so she and I could stay with my godparents, my dad’s brother and his wife. We have pictures of my cousins playing with me, but it’s like looking at old photos of them playing with a neighbor’s baby.

A quarter of the way around the world, Dad settled in to postwar-London and after four months found a house to rent. Once my father had a place for us to stay, the Air Force allowed Mom and me to board a Navy ship to sail to Europe with a boatload of other dependents, including a family who would live down the street from us a decade or so later, but who, at the time, were just names on the ship’s manifest and of no more importance to us than the rest of the dependents trekking to other countries to be reunited with husbands and fathers who’d also managed to find apartments, houses or quarters.

1951 04 Apr dependents arriving in Europe

A few years after sailing to England, my parents and I sailed back to the U.S., with my dad stuck again in the hold of yet one more old Navy ship, while Mom and I were in a small cabin. Fed up with being shipped in steerage merely because he was enlisted and not an officer, Dad laid down good money for first class tickets on a train to St. Louis. There he bought a light green Chrysler station wagon and we drove the rest of the way to South Dakota where I spent my elementary school years. In the natural course of things, I acquired a brother and a sister.

To me, my brother and my sister were actual South Dakotans – they had memories of the place we lived when they were born — but I was from someplace else, a place more foreign to me than some actual foreign places. Reducing my sense of being from any one place, I couldn’t even claim the country where I’d made my own first memories.

Then we moved again, but this time it was wonderful and I didn’t care where I was from — I’d be from there.

I spent junior high and the beginning of high school in beautifully rainy and sunny Bermuda. It was like a permanent vacation, what with swimming from a friend’s back porch, sailing in St. George’s Harbour and water skiing, but eventually reality reared its head. Even though I wanted to be a minor league diddlybopper on a blue Mobylette from jus’ do’n de rood, b’y, I wasn’t from there. I could be made to leave. When we left England, I didn’t know what it meant to leave home and it was an adventure. This time, I knew, and the adventure wasn’t as exciting.

By that time, the military transport of people had switched to airplanes and these planes eventually took us to the town where I’d graduate from the remainder of high school, but not with any sense of belonging. While working on the senior class float for the homecoming parade, one of my classmates looked at me, cocked her head like a curious dog, and asked, “When did you get here?” By then, I’d been in that school two years. If Dad hadn’t retired, it would be almost time to leave and be the new kid again at another Air Force base.

Despite the wild, blue yonder coloring my entire life, by the time I graduated from school I was a civilian even though I didn’t feel like one. I still addressed adult men by rank and last name, and could sing the Air Force song as well as the songs of the other services. My natural vocabulary included words, phrases and acronyms such as: housing list, quarters, and civil engineers, which all had to do with where we lived, or rather, where we used to live. Getting to our (former) quarters often included front or side gates in the base fence, and the guard shack.

The traditional words about where my dad had worked included SAC and MATS, headquarters, bomb wing and bomb squadron, bivouac, NCOIC, AFSC, and my dad’s service number.

Recreational words, which as the dependent of a retiree I could still use, included service club, base pool and base beach, base library, snack bar, BX, Class Six (for Dad), and the all-important ID card. Grocery shopping was done at the commissary. Eating out meant an outing to the NCO Club. Going on vacation, which had meant furlough or leave, involved signing out and signing in, both of which invariably happened either just after or just before midnight to make the most of traveling time.

Traveling to other places involved TDY (Dad went by himself) or PCS (we went, too) and may have included a B-2 bag. People stayed in places called a VOQ, a BOQ, barracks or a guest house.

Airplane stuff was indicated by flight suit, flight line, prop-job, B-52, KC-135, C-130, C-141, fighter pilots, afterburners, Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds.

Scary things were alerts, sirens, and evacuation. Scarier things were loud booms out of nowhere, chaplains arriving at quarters, and Mount Kit Carson which was someplace in Washington state and the site of a fireball from a plane flying into a mountain.

Still, normal, everyday routine outweighed the scary stuff and my transition to civilian life didn’t last long because I joined the Army. My brother and sister chose the Navy and Air Force. Eventually, I became the wife of a soldier and passed along the legacy of Brathood to my children. I’m not “from” any one place, and neither are they.

I was born one place, lived the longest in another, graduated from school someplace else, and my favorite home was yet a different place.

Where am I from?

The Air Force.