One of the first questions that comes up when you’re meeting someone new is, “Where are you from?” This is a perfectly reasonable question and it usually requires a simple answer. Except for people like me. When you’ve lived in roughly seven states over the course of your childhood and you are not an Army brat, it can be a tough question to answer.
To avoid a long explanation, I will often tell people that our family moved around a lot though no, we were not a military family, and that Wisconsin is home because my folks still live there. I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but my family moved several times within the state, then relocated to Madison, Wis., Minneapolis, Minn., Louisville, Ky., Bellingham, Wash., Butte, Mont., and finally, to Eau Claire, Wis. These transfers were all directly related to my father’s career in newspaper journalism, academia and public relations. Some of the moves were by choice and others were not. All were challenging in their own ways (the ones I was old enough to recall), and I know they placed a huge burden on my parents and took an emotional toll on us all.
Reflecting on it now, I would say moving has probably been both a positive and a negative force in our lives. But it is as much a part of me as the cowlicks in my hair or the nail-biting tendency I still harbor.
When considering where one is from, several possibilities come to mind. “From” could indicate where one was born, though if you didn’t live in this location long, how could it have the power to shape or influence you? Then there is the argument that where you are from is where you’ve lived the longest, which in my case would be Bellingham (nine years). That is where I graduated from high school as well. However, having no family members there nor any real estate or other tangible claim, it is hard to say it is “home” now.
Finally, one could argue that where you lived the most recently is your base. Since that is also where my parents continue to reside (Wisconsin), this likely makes the most sense. Yet when I return there for visits, I have no sense of childhood history to return to — no high school or friends from that era to look up or sense of nostalgia about my youth. I was 21 when we moved there — technically an adult. Which complicates this issue even further. Can you be “from” a place after the age of 18?
My husband never hesitates when he is asked about his origins. With nary a hem or a haw, he confidently states “Yorktown, Va.” I recall his pride in saying this when we first met and wished I had the same sense of surety.
A friend and I recently discussed this conundrum and I asked her if where a person is from is more a “state of mind” (pardon the pun) than anything. If you love a place and feel at home and at peace there, can’t you claim that as your home? I like this theory.
In my case, considering where I am from conjures the image of a beautiful quilt interwoven with many colors and patterns. I am a Midwesterner by birth, a Southerner by marriage, a Pacific Northwestener and Rocky Mountain denizen by preference, and so much more.
As anyone who moves frequently or just travels, each place you go can leave an indelible mark. Living in Washington state may have triggered my love affair with salmon, and the ocean, for example. My slightly nasal accent and traditional values can be attributed to Ohio and Wisconsin, and the appreciation I hold for the outdoors is largely a result of living in Montana.
Through my own travels as a service member and later, the spouse of one, I am also pleased to claim Arizona, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Germany, Kansas and Texas.
These places are also part of the slightly wacky but ultimately lovely fabric that comprises my life story “quilt.” Maybe it’s OK that I am not from one city and state but from many.
Next time the inevitable question arises, instead of trying to explain, I should just say that I’ve had dozens of “hometowns” and each has been special in its own way. Aren’t I lucky?
Gail Dillon, an Army spouse, journalist and Air Force veteran, lives at Fort Hood with her husband, two sons and a Goldendoodle.