Amy Choate-Nielsen: Knowledge of family history helps fish-out-of-water find a place to belong
I was almost 11 years old when my family moved from Oklahoma to Connecticut.
It was quite a rite of passage for me.
My parents had been anticipating the move for what seemed like years. I remember all of us sitting around, looking at a map of this funny little box-shaped state with a tail, trying to pronounce the names of the cities in its boundaries.
“Green-witch,” I said, when my parents once looked at a house there.
“No, it sounds like ‘Gren-itch,’ ” they told me. We all looked at each other and laughed at such a silly name. I had grown up in a city called Sand Springs, outside of Tulsa, and I had family in Ponca City and Seminole. Those were the names I knew.
Not Greenwich. Not Stamford.
I remember jumping on a tiny little exercise trampoline my parents kept in their master bedroom shortly after, just trying to imagine what those places looked like. It felt so exciting.
I’ve always had a case of the travel bug in my system, mixed with gut-deep curiosity and a tinge of the grass is greener on the other side. I was bored of our one-story rambler on a sprawling lawn in the middle of nowhere, and I looked forward to the thrill of moving on.
Now, when I think back on my childhood, I remember how the window in my bedroom lit up with the last rays of the day after I’d been tucked into bed at night. I remember orange carpet and a big basement full of books and toys. I remember our sliding glass door off the side of the kitchen and plenty of room to run and play. What I wouldn’t give to still climb my favorite tree next to the driveway.
But, the idea of moving was exciting.
My classmates wrote me notes and had a going-away party.
And they all wrote me for a few months after I’d arrived at our new home.
The boy I liked had kissed a girl. One of my classmates had a new best friend. They had parties and projects and were getting along just fine without me.
I felt like a fish-out-of-water.
My new school was OK, but I felt like a stranger. They had all known each other since preschool, and here I was, the new kid who hadn’t even lived in the state for five minutes. I hadn’t even lived on the same coast. In fact, I hadn’t even lived in a state they’d ever heard of — “Oklahoma? Where’s that?”
When my mom came to pick me up from school, the gym teacher, who was always on bus duty, would holler, “Oklahoma — your ride is here!” And then she’d start singing the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “OOOOOOKLAhoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plains,” until I got into my seat and we drove away.
It was embarrassing. But it was part of the passage. And looking back, I have grown fond of the memories I have of the awkwardness of adjusting to a new place, new friends and a new state.
Yet, I always thought I didn’t belong. I always thought I lacked that Yankee blood that made New England so proud. I always felt a little bit like I was squatting in someone else’s heritage, not my own. I felt a little bit like a bumpkin in the big city, no matter the size of Stamford.
So now, decades later, when my brain finally registers that my ancestor, John Choate, immigrated to Massachusetts in 1643, I finally feel justified in all of those years of displacement. I might not have lived east of the Mississippi for very long, but my roots are decidedly part of the magic and history and establishment of New England. My ancestors lived and worked and built there some 90 years before George Washington was born, almost 100 years before Benjamin Franklin flew his kite and 130 years before the Boston Massacre.
I moved again after I graduated high school to come to college in Utah. My move evoked some of the same feelings, but not as much. Now, however, when I look around the room and feel like I don’t fit in, I think of my ancestors.
Through them, through their accomplishments, I can belong anywhere.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.
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