Until you’ve moved to a completely different area of the country, you might not realize the nuances you’ve become accustomed to in your home region. If you’ve lived your entire life in Alabama, for instance, grits are as much a part of breakfast as orange juice. If you’ve lived your whole life in Minnesota, grits are something you make your children at least try (“Just one bite, and if you don’t like it, you never have to eat it again”) at a quaint diner with home cooking because you want them to like ethnic food. If you are a military family, however, and have lived on both coasts and many places in between, you and your children likely are a patchwork quilt of the dialects, acquired tastes and experiences of the whole United States and maybe even the world.
Some people perceive military families to be sheltered, uneducated and less worldly than their civilian counterparts, when in fact military families have lived in small towns, big cities, overseas, across the United States, and in almost every socioeconomic and cultural environment you can think of. They take those experiences with them to their next duty station. Think of them as cultural fairies, if you will, spreading in each new place the dust of all of the places they have visited and lived in.
Having been a military dependent my entire life, I thought I was your average, generic American. I thought I had no distinct dialect or habits tying me to a particular region of the country.
Then I moved to Maine.
“Excuse me, do y’all have a public restroom?” I asked an employee at the local supermarket.
The man looked stunned. He didn’t answer. He just scratched his head and stared at me.
“A public restroom?” I said again.
“Ayuh,” he said.
It sounded like he had coughed. So I said, “Bless you.”
“Excuse me?” he said.
“Yes, God bless you. So, do y’all have a public restroom?”
The man pointed to the back corner of the supermarket, where there was, of course, a large sign and an arrow pointing to the restrooms. “Ayuh,” the man said again.
I guess I should have known that my family would stand out in this new part of the country the moment we put on sweat shirts and pants in 79-degree weather. Still, I clung to the hope that we might remain inconspicuous.
I especially hoped that our children would blend in. I bought Boston Red Sox shirts and New England Patriots jerseys to replace their blue and orange Gator clothes, which I thought pegged Ford and Owen as being very much from Florida. But the new team shirts didn’t help this week when Owen, who just started kindergarten, went to his orientation wearing a ski hat and said, “They have big heels [Southern for hills] in Maine.”
On the first day of school, it was hard to watch my children struggle to fit in with the other kids on the playground before the school bell rang. Like my incident in the supermarket, Ford and Owen misunderstood their new peers just as much as their new peers misunderstood them. Owen talked about his “Star Wars” action figures, hoping it would earn him some friends, then quickly realized that unlike our old neighborhood, Pokemon, not “Star Wars,” seems to be all the rage here. Kids in Maine play ice hockey more than they go to the beach, and no one except my two boys was wearing tennis shoes with built-in air-conditioners.
But the first day of school was hard for me in a different way, too. Like my boys, I arrived at the playground with no friends. I watched other moms stand in circles and talk about their summers. They marveled at how each other’s children had grown. No one knew that Owen had grown 1 inch since May or that Ford has lost two teeth. No one knew the Smileys at all. Then I thought about our friends in Florida, how they might be standing around saying, “Have you heard from the Smileys yet? Are they liking Maine?” I knew that someday I would be part of the new circles and so will my boys. And then we will leave this new home, too. Which is the blessing — and the curse — of being a military family.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Sarah Smiley’s new book, “I’m Just Saying …,” is available wherever books are sold. Read more about Sarah at www.sarahsmiley.com.