Trusting the Wind

Author’s Note (January 2011): I wrote this piece in my ENG 617: Major Literary Modes – Women’s Autobiography class in my Master’s program in the Spring of 1999. It was a semester long project. Looking over it as a possible writing sample, I wanted to update it a little, as I realized a lot of the patterns have continued to repeat through the past 11 years, but I did not want to change too much of what I had worked on then without more time to delve more deeply into the issues. Therefore, if the voice seems a little uneven in places, it is likely where my 34 year old self has interjected over my 23 year old self, though I tried to even out a lot of what read as “young” to me, except where the child-voice was a clear, deliberate choice. I can see this piece expanding into a much larger work dealing with both memory and connection, past and present, and would anticipate the voice changing a lot more at that point–as it might seem to shift toward the end–with the change in my own maturity and use of voice and writing technique in the intervening time frame. However, it was a piece I was very proud of then, and am still pleased with now, and it seemed like one that would sit as a nice contrast to the critical piece, which is more recent.

Trusting the Wind

“The past scampers like an alley cat through the present, leaving the paw prints of memories scattered helter-skelter.” ~ Charles de Lint, The Onion Girl

Our duplex was yellow and sat on a spacious block. It was huge, and my bedroom was larger than any I’d slept in before. I was so excited to be moving in to a new house, now that I had very quickly made friends, of course. The woods stretched out behind it as far as the eye could see, much to my shivering delight. My new friends and I could play hide and seek for hours.

The duplex has now been re-sided. It’s green. The block isn’t nearly as spacious when viewed through adult eyes. There are a lot of houses, but they are still a pretty good size for captain’s quarters. I got that right, at least, and Mama assures me that it used to be yellow. We went down to Ft. Lee, about twenty minutes south of Richmond, on my twenty-third birthday. Actually we went down to tour Petersburg, but I begged to go by the old house and Daddy’s old chapel. It was amazing how I felt when I got out of the car. Physically, cliché as it sounds, it was if something leapt inside of me. As I ran ahead of Mama and Daddy to the back, to the woods, I felt something I rarely feel. I felt like I had, in a way, come home, but…

The woods shrank. That’s the only explanation I could find. I looked around in amazement. It had been fifteen years since I was here last. There used to be a huge, thick forest of trees in the middle of the triangle of colorful duplexes. Now there is a small space with thin trees growing out of it. My parents say it always looked like this. I think they are lying. I remember these woods. I spent hours playing in them. I was Princess Leia fighting off Darth Vader right over…there? Was that the tree that was my throne? Could this possibly be the Forest of Endor? Impossible. In the long summer evenings of a golden portion of my childhood we rambled here, playing games like ghost in the graveyard and keep away, and surely there was more to it than this echo.

I found my cat, Boots–now old and frail as I stood there staring blankly into the trees–at the other edge of the woods. It took a while to convince him to come out of the thick shrubbery. He was just a tiny kitten. I had to tell him repeatedly that he would have a good  home and lots of food and a warm blanket if he’d just come with me over there to the other side of the woods to my house.

“I know it seems like a far way away, but we can make it together.”

“Look what followed me home, Mama. A kitten! Can we keep him?”

Mama said that she wanted me to help her set my boundaries–where I could go without her or Daddy with me. I looked around. The playground was way down the street, at the other end of the block. Would she let me go that far? I doubted it, but I had to try.

“I think I could go to the playground by myself.”


Okay? Didn’t she realize how far that was?

“And to the back of the woods?”
“I think that’s fair.”

It was a huge area to play in with so many places to hide! I could disappear for days upon days. Weeks even. It would be like being grown up!

Standing there in the January chill, while my parents watched with a bit of amusement, I felt certain they had moved the playground. It was only two duplexes away from our old house. From the back patio, I could see the farthest piece of equipment, and through the windows of the house at the other side of the woods. Somebody came along and stole some trees or moved around the houses, clearly. Who would do something like that? Messing with people’s memories that way isn’t right. My outrage at the collision of memory and reality only served to amuse my parents more.

It was hard to believe I hadn’t been back since I was eight years old. We had driven through the area, visited friends in Hopewell and Disputanta, but none of my family had set foot on Ft. Lee in fifteen years. Mama and I moved to Colonial Heights, just outside of Ft. Lee, in 1980, when I was four years old. My father had joined the Army in 1978, resulting in a move to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. In 1980, he was sent to Korea for a year without us. I’d never been away from my daddy for more than a couple of weeks, and I remember not liking the sound of a year at all. The Army promised him a tour at Ft. Lee upon his return to the States. Mom wanted to get her Master’s of Social Work and Virginia Commonwealth University had an excellent program. She couldn’t start until I was in school, of course, but we went ahead and moved our stuff to an apartment to wait for Daddy to come home, at which time we’d move yet again, this time onto the base.

One of my most vivid memories of our time in Colonial Heights is one of pain. There were several townhomes, all in a row, going down a hill. Concrete patio led to concrete patio in a cascade of terraces to the landing below. We were in the townhouse at the top. One of my favorite games was to ride my Big Wheel down the hill, dropping off of each step with a bone-jarring thud. The neighbors all knew me and no one minded. One day I got the delightful idea to ride my Big Wheel down backwards. If forward was fun, this would have to be the best. I sat down and took a deep breath, then started pedaling backwards as fast as I could. The Big Wheel followed the instructions my feet were sending, rolling backwards in a surprisingly smooth motion for plastic wheels. The first steps went beautifully. The third step started out well, but then the rear wheels decided that they were no longer going to cooperate. The front wheel, however, was in no mood to stop, and hopped right over the rear wheels. Backwards, of course. The fact that I was in the middle of the two didn’t make any difference at all. It wanted to do a back flip, and it didn’t care that I was in the way. My head hit the concrete and bounced off. The Big Wheel landed on top of me, not being a very good gymnast at all. I started to scream, and the people whose patio I had landed on came running out. They helped me up and took me home where my mother dissolved into frantic worry, checking my eyes to see if I had a concussion when I disclosed that my head hurt.

“Not the front,” I told her. “The back.”

I was wearing a blue jacket with a hood. I don’t know why I remember that, but I do, though maybe I’m remembering it because I am wearing a blue jacket in a picture from the winter before. It couldn’t have still fit, though, so perhaps this is a point where invention and memory intertwine, as it seems they so often do when filling in the gaps of my childhood memory. Either way, it had a hood, because I remember my mother taking it off, and gasping as something wet and sticky ran down my neck. Mama grabbed a rag, holding it tight to my head and when she pulled it away, it was stained red. The next thing I remember, I was lying on a table in the emergency room, and people with cold gloves were pushing a needle through my scalp. They didn’t even numb the skin around it. I remember that pain more clearly than anything else from that year. I screamed so much my throat still hurts when I think about it. For the next few days I couldn’t lie down on my back because of the pain. Mama was always holding the ice pack–blue with purple flowers–on the back of my head and the cold made my head hurt worse.

I vaguely remember my father coming home to be with us for Christmas. I remember the excitement, and that we waited until December 26th to open presents so that he could be there. That’s it. That’s my whole recollection of that momentous occasion of seeing my father again after nearly six months. Daddy says, though, that it wasn’t nearly as serene as I would like to remember. The way he tells it, I went out to ride my Big Wheel (going forward) one afternoon. When he saw how far I was going, he told me to come back, that I was going too far. I knew I wasn’t. I knew my boundaries, and I was well within them. I didn’t disobey my father, however. Instead, I went on back and told him that I was, too, allowed to go that far. Mama said so. Mama confirmed this, and Daddy apologized, but I was not appeased. Who was he to come marching in after months of being gone and tell me what to do? I didn’t appreciate it at all, and I told him so. I told him he could just go right on back to Korea because Mama and I were doing just fine without him. I cringe now when he tells the story, wondering how that must have made him feel, to be told so clearly he wasn’t needed, even if it was by an angry four year-old who had been denied what she wanted and was pitching something of a fit.

On the flip side, when he was gone, I missed him terribly. We had an 8-track of Bobby Goldsboro’s hits. I must have played it every day. There was one song in particular that I loved to listen to. It was called “Honey.” The chorus goes:

And Honey I miss you

And I’m being good

And I’d love to be with you

If only I could.

The song is rather sad and sweet about a man’s wife who dies and how much he misses her after, with all his bittersweet memories. After my Mamaw died, I have never been able to hear it without associating it with my Papaw, and his grief at losing her. He just wasn’t ever the same. To this day, I still see their farm in my head when I hear the song–even when someone sang it at karaoke the other night, of all things. However, at the time I first heard it, we were in Colonial Heights, no one I knew had died and I didn’t fully understand the song anyway. Even so, I would sing along and I knew every word. When it got to the chorus, though, I sang, “And Daddy, I miss you, and I’m being good, and I’d love to be with you, if only I could.” Such dramatics, but it’s one of those memories that still makes me tear up and one that holds a crystalline moment in time from a childhood that sometimes seems blurred and far away.

Eventually, Daddy came home from Korea and we moved out of the apartment and into military quarters on Ft. Lee. I cried all the way, convinced I would never make friends again. How could my parents do this to me? Would we always move away after I was just settled in? “It’s not fair!” became a familiar refrain through the years up until the last involuntary move I made shortly after high school graduation. Perhaps I should have taken Jareth’s words to heart sooner, when Sarah keeps protesting in Labyrinth that so many things aren’t fair: “You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is.” Either way, a few hours later, I was to be proven wrong, as I was to be so many times later in life. The moving van was unpacked. I’d been down to the playground, per Mama’s agreement on boundaries, and was back. I ran through the screen door into the living room piled with boxes.

“Daddy, Daddy, can you put my swing set up now? Please?”

“Why now?”

“‘Cause the playground’s crowded and me and my new friends need a place to swing.”

I stood in that backyard in January of 1999, and I was forced to look back on my childhood. For the most part it was a happy one. My parents are still happily married, and they are loving, supportive, kind, wonderful parents. We’re hardly the Stepfords–we’ve had our problems, but we are able to deal with them healthily for the most part and move on. But for all that happiness, there has been pain for all of us that has grown out of my father’s military career. In many ways, the military life is a rewarding one. I got the chance to live all over the eastern United States. I spent four of my most impressionable years in Germany, traveling around Europe on weekends. Some kids go to a zoo on a field trip. I went to Salzburg and got to learn about Mozart. We spent some of my summer vacations in Switzerland and Scotland and made trips to Bavaria over Christmas or long weekends.

Yet, for all this, there is the feeling of loss that haunts a military child’s life. Every three to four years, the papers would come and then the movers, and we would be off to somewhere new. We would say good bye to friends and hope that the military would reunite us some day.  Sometimes it did. Most of the time it didn’t. I haven’t heard from my dearest friend in Germany since my sophomore year in college and don’t even have the first clue how to find her. Internet searches have done no good. She isn’t on Facebook as far as I can tell. I miss her, but I don’t have any idea how to find her anymore.

Only one place truly felt like home to me growing up, and that was Kentucky. We bought a house there, and I went to high school there. I fell in love there for the first time. For years after leaving, I still went back at least once a year. Each time I did, I had to drive by the house we used to own. I picked out my window, and looked for the place I used to swing with my boyfriend. I went to all the same restaurants I used to eat at and saw movies at the same theaters, and through it all I questioned why I had to leave–the place, the friends, the boy I loved–even while realizing that I would never have been there if not for the Army.

In the end, though, it was my choice to go. I could have gone to college in Kentucky–chosen a school close to my friends, gone to the University of Kentucky, or University of Louisville, or any number of other schools. I could have looked at schools not 700 miles away, at least. I was the one who applied to schools in Florida, Oregon, Connecticut. That I did so before I fell in love, before I realized how much “home” might mean is one thing. I didn’t want to stay when I was sending out college applications for early decision. I was sixteen and ready to be moving on. When the time came to leave Florida, after my college graduation, I was ready, as well, and the pattern I had despised as a child seemed somehow to have become one that I was setting up for myself as an adult.

And yet…it is a cyclical one that finds me ever returning to the places of my past, because when I finished up a year of teaching English in Korea and was pondering what to do next with my life, it led me back to my past, back to the place my education started. I knew I wanted to pursue acting, but how to feed myself while doing so was a good question, and graduate school presented itself as an answer. I didn’t realize what it would mean in my life, ultimately–at the time it was a means to an end.

My decision to go to Virginia Commonwealth University was almost a spontaneous one. I had applied to several schools, choosing VCU among them because my mother had gotten her MSW from there and I had heard good things about their English department. I was offered an assistantship, and I balanced a few offers of school, looking between the areas. Somehow, the symmetry of moving back to the area where I had started my first years of school appealed to me in a sort of whimsical way, and I accepted VCU’s offer. My parents had been assigned to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and so we left Korea and headed for the East Coast once more. Daddy had to stay behind, so Mama and I came ahead to try and find a house for them in Fayetteville and an apartment for me in Richmond.

As Mama and I drove up I-95 from Ft. Bragg, we passed Colonial Heights, Ft. Lee and Hopewell. We entered Prince George County. I had started elementary school at Harrison Elementary in Prince George. A fluttering feeling started in the pit of my stomach, and my poor mother was subjected to a barrage of questions. Was that were our apartments were? How far to post from the exit? She couldn’t remember exactly because of how much the area had grown up, but she tried her best.

After an apartment was achieved, a friend of my mother’s came down to see her from D.C., and I absconded with the car and headed toward Williamsburg to see an old friend of my own. I drove through a pretty bad thunderstorm, the crashing sounds and flashes of lightning engendering more nervousness than the delight I usually take in such things. I didn’t know this route; none of the signs were familiar. Somehow I had expected it all to fall in line, but the fourteen year gap in memory was deceiving me and I hadn’t ever actually driven the road before. Somehow, I made it to my friend’s home, though, just as the skies cleared, but my nerves were jangling. Willing them into some sort of calm, I opened the car door and stepped out.

We met in kindergarten: two little girls assigned to the Talented and Gifted Program (TAG). We both knew how to read and write already. She had the most beautiful hair–long, thick, shiny and brown. It was hair like a princess would have. I wanted hair like that, but mine was short and fine. Unlike me and my feisty stubbornness, she had a personality that was as sweet as could be. That’s one of the things I remember best, how nice she was. I loved her right away and hoped we could be friends. Her name was Beth.

They put us in the same class in first grade. Our teacher was Mrs. Budd, who was very excited to have me in her class. Most children’s parents came in every now and then to help out the teachers. My mom was going to school full time, so she could only help sporadically, but my dad had every Wednesday afternoon off–which was very unusual in the military. So, all through kindergarten, he came in every week and helped my teacher, Mrs. Stables, put up bulletin boards, do all the heavier work, and keep us unruly children entertained. The story goes that when Mrs. Budd got her class list and saw my name on it, she ran up and down the halls, yelling in glee, “I got the daddy! I got the daddy!”

After a year in kindergarten wishing we could be together all day, Beth and I were finally in the same class, and the friendship that had begun in TAG was allowed to blossom as we sat next to each other. We ate our lunches together and played together at recess. Sometimes, we had sleepovers, and got to ride home together on the bus and play in the giant woods behind my house, or in her pool. We went to each other’s birthday parties and spent the night telling our childhood dreams and secrets. We used to pretend that we were cats, and I think the only fights we ever had was over who got to be the mama cat. I always thought it should be me, because I was older by a few months, but Beth usually ended up being Mama. Maybe it was her nurturing side. We did fight one other time, about a boy we both liked–Matt, I think his name was. We didn’t speak the whole way home, which was not an auspicious start to what was supposed to be a fun sleepover. After the long bus ride without speaking, though, we figured we’d punished each other and ourselves enough, and the fight was forgotten.

I loved going to her house, because it was a real house, not military quarters. It was different than the houses all my other friends lived in. For one thing, it stood by itself, on its own land–not hooked together with somebody else’s so that you had to be quiet when you played. And she had that wonderful, amazing pool.  With a slide. A slide that had water running down it so that you didn’t stick to it like you did the one at the pool on post. I loved going to her house in the summer and playing in that pool. The only pools I’d ever been to were the big community ones and swimming in a private pool was so much more fun. You didn’t have to worry about all the other kids and the bullies who liked to push you under the water. She had inner tubes that we floated on for hours. When we got hungry, her father cooked hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill.

I cried when we had to move to New Jersey. We came back through one summer when I was fourteen. Beth and I spent the night at her house and stayed up late talking. We’d exchanged letters and cards pretty faithfully for children, but it was different being together. Six years is a long time. We still had a lot in common, but other things were different. She’d stayed in Disputanta, and I’d recently returned from four years in Germany. The same easiness was missing for me. I loved being with her and talking to her, but the same uneasiness that accompanies most fourteen-year-olds through their days and nights haunted me. The next day she had a party for some church friends. She was very attentive and loving and introduced me to everyone, but playing hostess took up a lot of her time, and I didn’t know those people. I felt like I didn’t fit in, like I was the outsider, which is a feeling I am all to familiar with. All in all, I would say it was a good visit, but I left feeling that I’d lost something very precious somewhere, and I wasn’t sure what. Looking back, I don’t think it was lost, just delayed and put on hold by the concerns of being fourteen and insecure.

As I sat in the car, that summer in 1998, thinking back to the last time I’d seen Beth, when I was fourteen, the door to the house opened. A young woman with long, thick, shiny brown hair came out and waved. I got out of the car and circled around to the house.

“Oh my gosh, you’re really here,” Beth said, as she reached out to hug me.

We fell in each other’s arms and held on tight for a long, long time. Both of us started crying. I couldn’t stop. I had missed her so much, and I didn’t even know it until I saw her again. We pulled back from each other and laughed. I don’t think either of us expected such an emotional encounter. We’d slacked off on the letters over the years, until we sent yearly Christmas cards and the occasional birthday card and present. I don’t think we’d talked on the phone since we were fourteen. I had been so nervous just a couple of weeks before when I had called her parents. I had no idea how to even get in touch with Beth, now that she was married. I got her parents’ answering machine, and left a message that went something like this:

“Um, hi, this is Charity Fowler. Do you remember me? I was calling to say hi and see if I could get Beth’s new phone number from y’all, because I’m back from Korea and am moving to Richmond and will be there next week to look for an apartment and would really like to see her.”

It was a patently ridiculous message in some ways. Her parents had been like a second set of my own to me as a child. There was no reason for me to be so nervous, but I was. They called back later that night and were so surprised and happy to hear from me. Beth’s mom filled me in on everything that was going on and gave me Beth’s number to call, telling me what time she’d most likely be in.  When I did call, Beth was expecting me, because her father had called and teased her with the, “guess who called tonight…an old, old friend…” until she finally figured it out. I think we cried a little on the phone. We made plans to get together as soon as I got to Richmond and it was finally happening.

We spent at least an hour just sitting on her couch talking. She showed me pictures from her wedding, which I had been unable to attend due to being in Korea, and introduced me to her puppy. We finally decided that we’d like to go down to Colonial Williamsburg for dinner. We wandered the streets that were so familiar and at the same time so alien. I remembered the Governor’s Palace, but I thought the stocks were on the other side of it. I laughed when I saw the stocks, though. I have a picture of my father all locked up in those stocks. On a vacation to Williamsburg in 2007, a friend snapped a picture of me in them, and now the two pictures mirror each other across a 23 year gap in time. That night, Beth took me around, showing me the most important sights. She’d gone to college at William and Mary, so she took me to her favorite haunts. We decided the taverns were too expensive for not having planned this dinner out, but one of the taverns had a far lighter menu with their Gambols, an evening program with more soup and sandwich menu accompanied by entertainment. It started in about 45 minutes, so we decided to amuse ourselves until then.

It proved to be a good decision. We paid our $2 cover charge and entered the world of a colonial tavern. Feasting on bread and cheese and fruit and washing it down with good draft cider, we were entertained by a strolling minstrel and by a magician who used both of us in his act. Every magic show I had ever been to, I had raised my had to be a volunteer, but I’d never been picked before. After the entertainers were done, they brought out the board games, and we played with the other people at our table, betting with actual peanuts. I didn’t win. Actually I don’t remember who did, but I did have peanuts left at the end, so I felt successful. We left around midnight, feeling very relaxed from the warmth of the tavern and each other’s company.

When I officially moved to Richmond later in the summer, Beth and I got together again, with our families, and her parents were as warm and gracious as I remember–clearly the model from which she learned her own kindness. In the time I lived there, she became a frequent fixture in my life again, and someone who I counted truly as a friend once more. Our friendship grew from a childhood memory to an adult bond, which was a new experience for me. I suppose that would make her my oldest friend. A lot of people who grow up in one area have friends they’ve known since kindergarten, but I don’t. The Army life doesn’t leave much room for that. Being able to resurrect my friendship with Beth made me feel incredibly lucky.

While I was in Richmond, I think I drove some of my new friends crazy with that wanting to resurrect old memories. Summer weeks in Kentucky were one thing, but that was only looking back to high school. In Richmond, I was discovering a past that had been hidden from me by my own limited recollection. I remembered snatches of things that I tried to relive in a sense once I was back where they occurred. I took my friend Ellen to Busch Gardens for a day. It was a beautiful day, and we spent it riding every ride we wanted to. The lines weren’t long, and there weren’t too many people. We had a good time, but I don’t know how many times I said, “Oh! I remember this!” during the course of the day. I made her ride every ride I remembered from my childhood, even the Loch Ness Monster. Luckily, she likes roller coasters.

The Loch Ness Monster was the first real roller coaster I ever rode. I was eight and we were getting ready to move to New Jersey. I had been waiting every time we went to be the minimum forty-eight inches tall that you had to be in order to ride Loch Ness. For the whole week before our final trip, I made my father measure me every night. He told me I was tall enough, but I had to make sure I wasn’t shrinking. The day arrived, and we went to the park. We headed straight for the Loch Ness Monster. The line wasn’t long, and before I knew it we were on the ride. It started its monumental climb upwards and I started thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. But I took a deep breath and hung in there. It wasn’t like they were going to stop the ride and let me off now. There was an infinitesimal pause as we reached the top. We hovered. We held our ground. Then we were gone. Down we swooped through the trees, following the bright yellow track as it soared and dove in ways that mythic road of yellow bricks never dreamed of doing, sending us looping through the air, doing somersaults in our car. The other car that was running hit the second loop as we hit the first, and everyone reached their hands out, struggling for human contact, aware that it was futile and knowing that their arms would be ripped from their bodies if they should interlock fingers with some other reaching hand, but doing it anyway, because it was the only possible thing you could do in such a situation. I reached as well, even though my head didn’t even rise above the shoulder bars. I reached and I screamed as I flew. The exhilaration ended far too soon, as our car jerked to a halt in the station. I turned to my father with shining eyes.

“Can we go again?”

We rode it four more times.

I have a tiny blue t-shirt with yellow interlocking loops on it that reads, “I survived the Loch Ness Monster.” It is worn so thin you can see through it in some places. It was my favorite shirt. I hardly wear t-shirts anymore, but I almost bought one after Ellen and I emerged from the ride, windblown and breathless, but grinning. I didn’t buy it, though. The one I have is good enough.

One of the pieces of my childhood magic I never got to recover while in Richmond was a summer day in Petersburg. Somehow the stars never quite aligned to make it possible. I took a trip down on a weekend one January, but it was so cold that I didn’t get out and look at much. Part of me still feels like I need to go back. The reason? The apple cider. My mother thinks it’s funny how important that apple cider is to me. Apple cider in general is one of my favorite fall treats, but the apple cider at Petersburg holds a special place in my heart. In the summertime, on the battlefield, there used to be this little Union encampment with soldiers running around to give the tourists the idea of what the battlefield would have been like. Since Petersburg connects through hiking trails with Ft. Lee itself, we went there a lot. In the encampment, there was a mess wagon. From that wagon, they sold apple cider. You could get it in a paper cup for a couple of dollars, but the best way to go was the tin cup. It cost more, of course, but the cut was very cold and the tin gave the cider a special flavor. The tin cup of cider always enchanted me. To this day it’s the first thing I talk about when someone mentions Petersburg. I only got the cider in the tin cup once. My Papaw was visiting us, and he was notorious for spoiling me. I wanted my cider in a tin cup and he said I was going to have it. I did. It was wonderful. Cool, crisp and inviting after the hot walk through the woods. As much as part of me craves the recreation of the moment, I’m almost afraid to find that encampment, to taste the cider and find it lacking, and the magic gone, as if somehow that will taint the perfection of the memory.

Papaw was my favorite relative as a child. Truth be told, even though he’s been gone since I was fourteen, he remains my favorite relative, beyond my parents. He never got cross; he always bought me little tows at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Glade Spring, VA, where he lived. He let me cuddle up in his lap, and he told the most wonderful stories about squirrels and rabbits and a duckling named Little Quack and the trouble they all got themselves into. I think my love for storytelling and acting must have come from him. He was a natural born entertainer, and I loved him dearly. More often than not, he’d swear his stories were true, and sometimes I believed him, because he told them so very convincingly. On this particular trip to Petersburg, he told one of those tales, but not to me. I knew he was joking, but the other children didn’t.

We had wandered down toward a stream that I wanted to look at. Two or three children were playing beside it. They were catching tadpoles, a pastime I found fascinating at six years old. Papaw followed me to the edge of the hill headed down, and then put on a show.

“What are y’all playing with?” he hollered over to the children.

Their muddy faces looked up. “Tadpoles,” one answered.

“Oh no!” He looked terrified. “Get those things away from me! I’m scared of tadpoles!”

I thought he’d gone insane.

“Mister, they’re just little things with tails. They ain’t gonna hurt you.” The children were desperate to explain, and a little uncertain how to deal with this grown up who was scared of something so little.

“Oh, but I’m scared of them.  Don’t bring ‘em up here,” he pleaded.

“Mister, I promise, they ain’t gonna do nothing. They’re just baby frogs.”

“Frogs!? You got frogs, too? Oh, Lordy! Somebody help me!”

Mama rolled her eyes. “Daddy, Charity, come on. We’ve got more to see.”

Taking Papaw’s hand, I guided him away from the dreaded tadpoles.

“Daddy, you shouldn’t have,” Mama scolded him with a laugh.

He grinned at her. “But think what a story they’ll have to tell. A grown man scared of tadpoles.”

Well, they did have a story to tell. The next day we had to go to the optometrist’s office to get my eye exam for school. There in the waiting room sat the children from the creek. They saw Papaw and their eyes got big.

“Mommy,” one whispered, leaning in close to the woman sitting beside him, “That’s the man that’s afraid of tadpoles.”

“Yeah,” the other one chimed in. “We told you he was real!”

Their mother looked over at us bemusedly while Mama blushed so hard she said later that she thought she would die. Papaw just chuckled. I had my mind on other things. When the doctor called us in, Mama and I went on back, while Papaw waited.

I sat down at the little visual machine and looked through at the pictures.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing,” I said in a weak voice.

He fiddled with the controls, making the picture disappear and then reappear. “Now?” he asked with concern.

“Nothing, doctor. It’s all dark. Everything.”

The doctor looked at Mama, who was blushing again. “Just a minute, Doctor,” she said. She leaned in to me. “Charity, this is not the time to be playing Mary Ingalls. This is serious. Now stop it and tell the doctor what you see. Then you can play.”

I shrugged and reported what pictures were popping up. But my way was a lot more fun.

This assuming of a character’s identity wasn’t a new thing for me. I did it all the time. From running around the forest behind our house as Princess Leia, to pretending to be the very blue Smurfette, I was always escaping into a fantasy world. I still do it in my daydreams, when no one else is around. When I’m by myself, I become someone else–generally a character in whatever piece of fiction I’m working on at the moment or my favorite character in whatever show or movie I’ve been watching most lately or whichever character I’ve been writing most in any of my writing games. It doesn’t really matter what. It changes depending on my mood. Taking it to a public forum, as I did with the Mary Ingalls incarnation, wasn’t even a new thing.

While we were at Ft. Leonard Wood, I went through a phase where I was Dorothy Gale. I insisted on calling Mama and Daddy “Auntie Em” and “Uncle Henry.” I wouldn’t answer unless they called me Dorothy. My white kitten became “Toto.” At first my parents thought it was cute. After a couple of weeks they were concerned. Mom took me to see the Family Life Chaplain, who dealt with family problems for military families. He told her not to be concerned, that it was normal for an imaginative child to go through these role-playing games. She took me home, and I eventually stopped the game. Now that it is still going on in my life, albeit in more socially accepted ways than insisting my friends and coworkers identify with me as a fictional character, I often wonder if an intricate imagination was the only thing going on, or if it was a way of connecting in a life filled with disconnects, a searching for roots in fiction and fantasy when real life provided only a rootless existence.

Dorothy felt like she never fit in. She searched for Oz because in Kansas she felt cut off and misunderstood. She was looking for a place over the rainbow where everything was perfect and people saw  her for who she was and people understood her dreams. When she got there, she realized she had that place and started seeking a way to go home. “There’s no place like home.” I know what that disconnected feeling feels like. I have been there, and find myself back there more often than I would like. No matter how good the friends or how much I fit in, there is always the sense that eventually I’ll be moving on and this–for whatever measure “this” happens to be at the time–will all end. I am left feeling that I am outside of every group looking in, even when in the midst of my best friends. Maybe that’s why I spend a lot of my time being someone else–whether by immersing myself in the stories I write and in my characters’ psyches for a while or in pursuing a career and then a hobby of acting on the stage. As the characters I usually portray onstage, I get to feel connected, with relationships that extend back more than a few months. When I write, I create those connections, build relationships and backgrounds, some extending back thousands of years when dealing with mythological creatures. Then, for a brief time, I am someone with a group of friends who have known and loved each other for years, friends I can trust with anything because I am that secure in their love and friendship. I’ve lost too many friends over the years for me to believe someone will stick around for a long time. Reconnecting with Beth in Richmond gave me a sense of that, but in the intervening years we drifted again, and though we’re still in contact, it isn’t as deep as it could be. Most of my friends of the past, even those I would have considered my dearest ones, have been reduced to friends who I keep in touch with via status updates on Facebook. There is little sense of real connection anymore. My high school and college friends are all in different places in their lives. Most are married, most on their third or fourth child. They are settled in their lives, while I am looking to uproot mine all over again.

As always, I feel like my roots are flopping in the wind. There is no solid ground beneath me. My family is there for me, but when I look back over my life, I see a chain of interruptions and disconnectedness. I find myself wanting to seek out the places I’ve been so that not everything is alien and strange, so that I have some sense of continuity in my life. In law school, I took a summer internship in Tallahassee, returning to my college stomping grounds for a precious three months. I hung out with college friends, walked my campus, went to my old church, ate at all the restaurants I’d loved. But the coffee shop I had sat reading in for so many hours was gone. And my friends had husbands and lives to keep them busy, while my marriage was disintegrating around me. But the past still compels me. As I look to find myself a doctoral program, three of the programs I am considering are in places that hold pieces of my past, one remains with the relationships I have finally built in the present, and two are a striking out “home” in the military sense–where my parents have ended up. That leaves only a few that are new territory, which tells me I am still searching for that place that I can call home, even if part of me knows that I will likely be ready to move on as soon as I have defended my dissertation, ready for spreading my wings and seeing where the job search takes me–whether that will be back to a place I have ties, or onward to somewhere completely new.

Yet at the same time that I know I’m ready to head somewhere new, I still want to go back to Germany, to Kaiserslautern. I know that the Army houses will be gone, as they’ve closed the post, but the town is still there. I want to go on a weekend and see the market, buy some Lebenkuchen, and wander through the toy store where I bought all my Barbie’s clothes. I want to head to Rothenberg ob der Tauber and sleep in a featherbed in a Gasthaus and eat a schneeball, and then journey down to Berchtesgaden and ski the slopes I learned on and hike to Kissimmee and have some Black Forest Cake on the little island there.

There is this continual balancing act of reaching back and running forward. Even as I seek these roots and connections, I am aware of my own choices and the restless spirit my life has engendered in me. I want to have a past I can remember, but even as I seek it out again and again, I don’t want to be held down by it, trapped in a way that makes me feel I cannot escape. I don’t want to settle down in a little town with a husband and a house and a couple of cats. My one attempt at marriage was a disaster, and while I’m not adverse to trying it again with the right person, it would have to be someone with my free spirit. And my poor cats have gotten used to cat sitters and my being gone often and being uprooted and hauled across the country. I don’t want an “ordinary” life. I look at updates on Facebook about playdates and soccer games and I shudder a little bit. It’s not for me.

The one thing my ventures into the past have given me, though, is a sense of peace underneath the restlessness. I know now that my childhood is not lost to me, as I often felt it was. It’s all still there, in every stone in Petersburg and every brick in Williamsburg. It’s there by the lake in Elizabethtown where Jason and I used to park and make out. It’s by the fountain in Tallahassee, and in each little park where I liked to study. It is held in the memories of my friends and my teachers, and all of those people–including my first grade teacher who went on to friend “the daddy!” too–who reached out when I did join Facebook and said, “I remember you. I’ve missed you. How is your life?” It is such a powerful feeling to know that I wasn’t forgotten like a tumbleweed that blows through town and is gone in a few minutes. I remember and others remember me, even if I sometimes get the details of our time together wrong. And maybe it is in the wind itself, in my restlessness, and my rootlessness, that I find my memories, myself and my strength. And maybe I’m finally ready to be okay with that, and trust in the journey the wind has planned, wherever it might be taking me.