Amy Choate-Nielsen: Family history roots have fruit for generations

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 5:35 p.m. MDT

It's amazing how a place can play a role in defining who you are as a person, and amazing how that process starts long before we are born.  (Shutterstock) It's amazing how a place can play a role in defining who you are as a person, and amazing how that process starts long before we are born. (Shutterstock)

When my family moved to Connecticut just before I turned 11, I was awestruck.

Gone were the brown Oklahoma plains dotted with oil wells, the long stretches of freeway we drove on to get anywhere and the endless views of blue sky overhead. Instead I saw towering trees, stone fences that were centuries old and the outline of world-famous skyscrapers as we came into town.

I came from a tiny neighborhood that was so remote we didn't have city water or trash collection. Cable companies didn't service the area so we only received one or two television stations with our antennae. And the closest town, which was also pretty tiny, was about 15 minutes down the highway.

In Connecticut, 15 minutes down the road was a different state, with three cities in between that were each much bigger than Sand Springs, Okla. My old school in Sand Springs was a small, one-story building where all the teachers stayed the same for decades and the principal used a wooden paddle on the bottoms of naughty students.

My new school in Stamford, Conn., was big and sprawling, and I'd never met so many people from so many different places. My classmates were first-generation immigrants from Russia, Poland, Turkey, Haiti and Jamaica. I was fascinated they had lived abroad.

My teachers and fellow students were equally fascinated that I had lived in Oklahoma. They teased me about it for months. When my mom came to the pickup line to drive me home from school, my gym teacher would bellow, "Oklahoma! Your ride is here!" Then she'd burst out in Rodgers and Hammerstein's trademark "Oklahoma!" chorus in a way that made me want to disappear.

The students were a little milder, saying I was inbred or ignorant, but it didn't last long. Eventually, the jokes grew old, and by the time I was in high school, hardly anyone knew or remembered where I had come from.

I hardly remembered, too. In fact, so many years had passed without me returning to my home state — the only place where the majority of my relatives lived — that it no longer seemed like home.

But then again, living in Connecticut for 10 years didn't make me a New Englander, either. I never had the same accent or the same pre-school stories as my friends. I didn't have the heritage in my blood or the example of my ancestors pounded into the streets. I loved my time there, but, looking back, it was temporary.

As long as I have lived in places since then, the feeling is the same. I've been in the Beehive State for more than a decade, but I wouldn’t say I'm a Utahn. I felt more like an orphan, drifting through spaces, never quite belonging.

That is, until I went back to Oklahoma for the first time in more than 20 years for my grandmother's funeral. There, in that short trip, I saw the memories of my childhood. I talked to strangers on the airplane and in restaurants that made me feel like family. I heard the stories of my great-grandfather who stole a piece of property in the Oklahoma Land Run and I visited the cemeteries where my ancestors were buried.

It's amazing how a place can play a role in defining who you are as a person, and amazing how that process starts long before we are born. A century ago, my grandfather's father packed up the family wagon and walked to Oklahoma. The roots they planted have spread to California, Virginia, Connecticut and Utah — where my children and the children of my siblings are now shaping their own sense of self — but they haven't disappeared.

They probably didn't realize their choices would ripple through generations. They probably worried and agonized over where they should live and what would be best for them now, not later. They probably had a hard time moving, and maybe even struggled to fit in.

Through their actions — the simple act of living their lives and raising their children — my ancestors created a heritage that gives my life stability and identity, even centuries later. They gave me a place to call home.

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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