Tag: personal history

personal history

Where are you from?

Inspired by my post yesterday in which I discussed where I was from, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors about where they came from and how it’s influenced their writing. I got a lot of wonderful responses: Alexia: “Where are you from?” is a loaded question for a Southerner. You have to decide if someone’s asking “Where are you from right now?”, “Where were you born?”, or “Where are your people from?” You have to consider how far below the Mason-Dixon line you’re located when the speaker asks you that question to decipher what they really mean.Above the Mason-Dixon Line: “I’m from Lake Forest, Illinois. I moved up from Texas a few months ago.” I haven’t been here long enough to write about it but it’s the mid-west version of the English villages I love to read about so I will, eventually.Below the Mason-Dixon Line but north of the Carolinas: “I was born in Virginia but grew up in Maryland.” Further conversation narrows “Virginia” to “Fredericksburg” (the hospital)/”Dahlgren” (the house) and “Maryland” to “Clinton near Andrews Air Force Base, just across the bridge from Alexandria, about 15 miles south of DC.” I’ve recently added, “near National Harbor” to Clinton’s description because the harbor’s now a well-known landmark but, when I grew up there, National Harbor was nothing but trees. My protagonist, Gethsemane Brown, is from Virginia and her family still lives there.From North Carolina down to Florida and as far west as Texas: ”  My mother’s family’s from South Carolina, we traced them back to the 1870 census. They were adults then so they were there sometime before 1870. Mom grew up in Dillon [Insert surnames of several generations of relatives.] and her sister still lives in Columbia. [Insert surnames of in-laws.] I went to college up north [mention Vassar–it’s not a Southern school but it dates back to the 1800s so some have heard of it], and I went to medical school at what used to be Medical College of Pennsylvania but now it’s Drexel and I did my residency at University of South Carolina and my first job was at Fort Jackson and I lived in Columbia for 13 years and I still have a house there.” An inquiry about my father’s people usually follows, to which I reply, “Dad’s from Oklahoma by way of Alabama and Mississippi.” Depending on who’s asking, I may add, “The story goes they left Mississippi late at night a step ahead of the Klan.” Gethsemane’s mother grew up on a farm in the rural South.(BTW, this really is how you answer a Southerner who asks “Where are you from?” They want to know if they know any of your “people” or if you might be related. So don’t speak ill of any third parties to anyone you’ve just met. There’s a chance you’re connected. The interim pastor at my church in Lake Forest grew up about 20 miles from where I grew up and is friends with the husband of a woman I met at a retreat center in South Carolina and I met a couple at a Lake Forest Library focus group whose brother-in-law worked with my parents in Virginia. Consider yourself warned.) Tracee: I’m with Alexia on this answer. My mother’s family were in Arkansas pre-statehood and if I’m anywhere in that region (meaning contiguous states) then the Snoddy/Taylor family lines get discussed. I’ve also had people far away from that patch of land say, Oh, your mother is from Arkansas and then we discuss the family tree and realize we share a great great great grandfather. The point – people in the South have done their genealogical research and can cite it from memory. I had the same experience while living in Europe. When traveling in Vienna with my soon-to-be mother-in-law she asked me where my family was from. She knew my parents and where they lived…. but we were in a taxi on the way to drinks at the home of her old friends, so this was different. I gave her the quick spiel – Huguenots who immigrated to England then to the Carolinas pre revolution, then onto Arkansas and other parts of the South on my mother’s side, Germans who came to Illinois and then Missouri on my father’s. Lo and behold shortly after our arrival my host asked where I was from and my mother-in-law gave a concise though detailed answer. People like details, at least in certain places! Robin: Wow, and I thought my answer might be complicated. Hat tip to Alexia 😉 My family moved around a lot for the first few years of my life. Also, given my background as a cyber criminologist I’m loathe to publicly answer a question that’s a typical security question :). So I’ll default to where I’ve spent the most time which is the San Francisco Bay Area. I love San Francisco and I absolutely set most stories there unless there’s a compelling reason *not* to. On the one hand, as one of the top tourist destinations in the world, it’s relatable. On the other, it’s constantly changing with so many multicultural nuances to its history, neighborhoods and geography that it makes it appealing to treat it almost like a human character. It’s also fun to challenge myself to showcase parts of the City that people don’t typically write about.  Cate: I am from New Jersey. I thought I would escape for college, and then went to University in NJ. I thought I would escape as an adult–and I lived in NYC for a few years–but then moved back to NJ. I have since realized that, as much as I might romanticize other places and enjoy traveling, I love NJ. It’s home. Paula: My dad was in the army, and I went to 12 schools in 11 years, and lived in so many places I have a hard time recalling them all, so I’m from everywhere and nowhere. I tend to think of home as wherever my family is, and now that my family is scattered from California to Las Vegas to Massachusetts to Switzerland, home is a moving target. But I’ve lived in the little cottage on the lake here in New England now for a dozen years, far longer than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. So it’s as close to home as I’m ever going to get. Michele: Loving my fellow Miss Demeanors responses to this question. I was born at the Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain, Boston, delivered by Dr. Eugene McDonough, Sr. Seventeen years later, I had my admissions physical for my entrance into the Faulkner Hospital School of Nursing in the same room I was born in (the maternity ward had closed and was replaced by an employee health clinic) done by Dr. Eugene McDonough, JR.! In the meantime, I had lived in West Hartford, Connecticut, so it felt a little circular. The stand alone book I have been working on is set in – Jamaica Plain, Boston. I didn’t plan returning to my birth place. My character just found herself there, which has revived in me a keen interest in Jamaica Plain. Home for me must always be near the ocean. Even as a kid, I thought I would suffocate living in the Connecticut River Valley.

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Long Island, 1963

Lately I’ve been thinking about the place and time where I grew up (inspired, in part, by Paula Munier’s fabulous book, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings.)  My home town was a large suburban community right next to Levittown, which came to be seen as the epicenter of the Baby Boom. I grew up among road after road of ranch houses. All the streets were named after builders’ daughters. (My street was Cynthia Drive.) The few trees were mimosas and they were stunted. There were no historical markers. Years later I found out that Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood home had been within walking distance of my own and there was no sign. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, and when I was 16 I went to college and never moved back. However, as I think about it now, I’m struck by how many fascinating things were going on in those quiet little houses. The place I thought of as bland and boring was actually a hotbed of drama. For one thing, almost all the men, and some of the women, had served in World War II. By the time my childhood rolled around, twenty years after the war, the repercussions of combat were starting to bubble up.  There was pride in service, there was grief and occasionally violence. Memorial Day was an emotional time. The VFW hall was as solemn as a church. There were also a number of concentration camp survivors. It was not unusual to talk to a friend’s mother and notice she had a tattoo on her arm.  I sensed a gratefulness to be in our country, along with a skittishness from having survived. It was absolutely forbidden to teach German in my school, and no one drove a Volkswagen. To do that would be considered a traitor.  Then, of course, there were all the social changes bubbling underneath. One of my most vivid memories is of a neighbor playing baseball with his son. His son was gay, though we didn’t use that word then, but his father must have suspected his orientation and decided to try and change it by teaching his son to be a pitcher. For hours the two of them would be out on their yard, father and son getting more and more upset, because the son was not much of an athlete. That went on for a long time. And then, around the corner from me, lived a boy who went on to become the worst serial murderer in Long Island’s history. Though at the time my brother and I knew him, he was just a kid who was always trying to play basketball with my brother.  So many stories! Seems like there would be something to write about!   

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