Three days after I became a Midwesterner — according to my driver’s license, at least — my husband and I joined his colleague and her family at our new town’s annual Memorial Day parade. As I lowered my pregnant belly onto the alley of grass between the sidewalk and the town’s main avenue, an advertisement for our new life played out before us.
Parade floats mingled with marching bands and dance troupes, their bedazzled little girls pausing every few blocks to move in time to the music being blasted from the stereo system of a pick-up truck. On one trailer, 4-H kids beamed alongside their prize-winning goats. On another, a different tableau: a young woman dressed all in black with a dark veil over her head was seated on a chair. Plywood headstones sprouted around her like funeral lilies. “A war widow?” I wondered. The hush that fell over the crowd suggested that she might be.
Soon a neatly dressed young man, his khakis and button down shirt incongruous in the sea of scarlet Ohio State jerseys and cut-off shorts, approached us, offering a colorful flyer advertising his Nazarene church’s upcoming VBS. We thanked him, our smiles and nods matching his.
“VBS?” I asked my husband after the man was out of earshot.
He shook his head, and then turned to our companions. “VBS?”
“Vacation Bible School. You know, religious summer camp?” came the response.
“Oh,” we answered in chorus, smiling and nodding again. We turned to each other, my husband’s eyebrow just starting to creep upward before the parade called us back to applaud its next group of marchers. This one was made up of veterans, some fitting comfortably into decades-old uniforms, some showing their pride with street clothes and steely expressions.
And then the kids started throwing candy.
Groups of children darted among the dancers, the “Nobody Undersells Connor’s” sedan, and the veterans, whipping candy at the people assembled to watch the parade. Tootsie Rolls, Dum Dums, and Atomic Fire Balls flew through the air and everyone in the audience seemed to spring collectively from their lawn chairs and beach towels to collect their booty, calling “Over here!” and “Got one!”
Everyone, that is, but my husband and me. We stayed seated, years of not talking to strangers and inspecting Halloween candy before eating it gluing us to our blanket.
Our new friends looked at us and, sensing our confusion, explained that this happened at the end of every parade here. Some people threw candy and other people picked it up and ate it.
“Oh,” we said again, smiling and nodding. Smiling at their kids who clamored for a stray Jawbreaker, tumbling in the grass like puppies. Nodding at this strange sight, this new ritual that might come to be ours too.
But the truth was that I didn’t feel like smiling, and it was all I could do not to shake my head “No” at the novelty of this place and its Vacation Bible Schools and its candy throwing, at the ways it was different–and different in a way that felt worse, not just unfamiliar, like a pair of jeans before they’ve been broken in.
After the parade, we waved to our new friends and walked to our car. Eager to debrief with my husband, I opened the car door too quickly and scraped its bottom on the curb. Over the sounds of my husband telling me to wait as he came around to my side of the car to help free the door, I yanked it toward me, popping the bottom panel loose in the process.
Perfect, I thought, as the heat came into my cheeks.
I squeezed my belly between the curb and the car and lowered myself in, slamming the door shut behind me.
My husband got back in the car and looked at me.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Sure. Sorry.” Smile. Nod.
My tears came in the line at Kroger, where we’d stopped on our way home. After assessing the damage I’d done to the car door — minor — we headed in to grab some groceries and new home essentials, like toilet paper and coffee and maybe even some wrapped candy to throw at passers-by.
When I got to the front of the line, the man at the register asked me for my customer loyalty card. Something about his kindness, his guileless smile, the simultaneous familiarity and magnitude of this routine — you only grocery shop in a place where you live — triggered a response I’d felt, but hadn’t vocalized, all morning.
“I don’t have one,” I told him. “I’m not from here.”
And then I felt a telltale fullness at the roof of my mouth and the furrowing of my brows. I started to cry.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Sure. Sorry.” I smiled and nodded as he swiped my credit card.
We’ve done a lot of smiling and nodding as we’ve learned a new vernacular since moving here four years and three kids ago. Tennis shoes? Pop? Suckers? Frozen custard? Smile and nod.
And for a long time, even through the smiling and nodding, this new place didn’t feel like home. This rural county seat with its cornfields and soybean crops, its county fairs and deep-fried elephant ears, its llama farms and Bob Evanses felt like that too tight pair of jeans. Its candy throwers felt like strangers, their gesture like an assault.
But I’ve also come to realize that the place I always thought of as “home” isn’t really home anymore, either.
That home still exists, in a small, historic Connecticut suburb with a town green, tidy white churches, and classic colonials with picket fences. It’s the place where I grew up, where I roller skated in the basement, where my bike was my chariot as I explored our hilly neighborhood. Where I wore my brown and yellow plaid Catholic school jumper and my L.L. Bean backpack as I scrambled for a seat in the last row of the bus. Where I dressed as Strawberry Shortcake for Halloween, my breath hot under the plastic mask as I waited for my mother to check my 3 Musketeers and Snickers bars, laid out like fallen soldiers on the caramel-colored shag carpet, for signs of tampering.
My childhood bedroom is still there, but now it’s a guestroom, a queen-sized bed replacing the canopied twin, my mother’s off-season purses filling the drawers instead of my Princess Leia Underoos.
That house is still there, but I’m not. I’m not from there anymore. I’m not from here — yet — either.
But, the thing is, my kids are. All three of them were born and raised here. I was a New Englander. My husband was a New Yorker. But now we’re a composite: a typical American family with roots elsewhere, but blossoms here.
And my kids have proven to be my ambassadors to this new place. On each visit to the playground or that very same Kroger, they negotiate a peace treaty between their hometown and their mother. My kids have helped make entrees I never could have made on my own, emotionally stuck as I was in the land of Volvos and Saabs instead of Amish buggies and combine harvesters. They are my advance team and my armor. They chat up strangers and make new friends; they bat their eyelashes and break down barriers.
Watching them lately, I’ve been thinking about a saying I’d often heard, but hadn’t always taken to heart: “Bloom where you’re planted.” That’s what my kids are doing. And I’m trying to do it too. Trying to put down new roots for us in this rich soil and make this house, this place, a home.
Last summer, we found ourselves at another parade — this one celebrating July Fourth. Our kids, clad in a hodgepodge of red, white, blue, and popsicle drips, sat with us on the curb of that same street and listened as our mayor honored one of our fellow citizens for service to the community. We saw a group of friends, waved, and giggled as our two-year-old called out to them over the crackling drone of the speaker system.
Soon the parade began in earnest. Kids rode by on their colorfully decorated bicycles. Fire trucks and ambulances from neighboring towns inched past, their flashing lights prefiguring the fireworks that would come later that evening. Cheerleaders, dancers, Scouts, and veterans filed past in turn.
And then more kids — younger siblings, perhaps, of those candy throwers who had once seemed so foreign to me? — appeared, tossing sweets toward the wiggling arms in the crowd.
Turning his attention away from the fire trucks and toward this new attraction, our almost four-year-old son squealed in amazement at his good fortune, at the splendor, abundance, and generosity of this gesture. He looked at me and pulled my arm toward a flying mini Milky Way.
“Can I go, Mommy?” he asked.
“Sure, Baby. Go ahead,” I said, smiling, nodding, and meaning it.
I let go of his hand and off he went, one of them.
One of us.