Moving on, Moving Up

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Moving on, Moving Up

The first time it happened was in the middle of my freshman year of high school. It wasn’t the first move we’d undertaken at my father’s seemingly cavalier whim, only the one that came after the longest stretch we’d lived anywhere. From even before I was born, my family moved roughly every two years. Eight times in fact by the time we arrived in Chappaqua, NY. I was in third grade, my older siblings spanned into high school. Two years came and went, still we remained. We lived there for a luxurious seven years, until I was 14, knocking around town with a gaggle of close friends, trying new activities, never running out of new boys to flirt with or date. Then our captain—my father—once again steered our family ship onto a moving van.

He and my mother did what caring people do when they are about to break your heart: they took us to our favorite restaurant. Surely the spare ribs at Ho Yen would soften the blow and inspire us to Not Make A Scene. I don’t remember making a scene, unless teenage sniffling is remarkably attention-calling, but I do remember feeling stunned and sunken. I had actually found a hometown filled with friends, we were finally in driving distance to our extended Philadelphia family, and my siblings would all be away at college, forcing me get used to a new place by myself for the first time. And that place was Minnesota, no less. From the land of leather boots, jean jackets, and bleached Levi’s. I was headed to pearls, flats, and Laura Ashley.

The three years spent in suburban Minneapolis were hard ones for me. I lost my footing, unsure of who I was in this different cultural pool, and I wasted a lot of energy trying to find some persona that fit. I foundered, messed up time and again, and dug myself a hole of confusion and loneliness it would take years to dig out of. Deep down I never stopped being angry about it.

The anger makes perfect sense. One of the biggest complaints from childhood, based on anecdotal evidence from my own kids, is lack of control. Early bedtime is enforced, nutritious but bland-tasting food is unfailingly prepared, outings are chosen no matter how little you want to attend. Even on your most mature day, you may not be able to negotiate your way out of grocery shopping or into the all-you-can-eat fro yo shop. It’s hard to not be the captain of your own ship: “It’s not fair! You’re not the boss of me! When I grow up, things will be different!” While I didn’t express those feelings to my parents, they were underneath the compliant exterior. I had all the uncomfortable symptoms of being a child: blaming, petulance, self-centeredness. Immaturity.

My next major move developed a lot differently. My husband, two kids, and I lived in Oak Park, IL, just one block from Chicago proper. We had lived in our sweet yellow house for two years, and loved our burg and the friends and traditions we’d made in it. John and I were settled into our late 30s, enjoying monthly poker tournies and Moms Nights Out. I walked the kids two blocks to a town-run preschool, and looked forward to the time when I could walk them to elementary school and reclaim days for myself. More than anything, I felt a deep connection to Chicago, clocking nearly 20 years in and around the city since I first arrived for college. I had long surpassed my previously-held record of seven years, I was into “more than half my life” territory. Chicago was as much as part of my life as the friends within it or the random memories that were sparked on any given day.

One evening after work, my husband reported his boss in California requested a quiet time to talk, without distractions. Hmm, seems like it might be something serious. John waded carefully into the touchy subject: “I think he might ask me to move to California.” Without hesitation I observed, “You’ll tell him you want it, right?”

His desire to accept the offer came as a surprise to both of us. Working in Chicago for a California-based company, John had faced the topic of relocating before. Just two years prior, when the department head left, John and I both hoped it would happen. I started fantasizing about starting fresh, furnishing a cool hillside bungalow amid eucalyptus trees and sprawling vistas. We had visited the area enough to admire its beauty; Chicago winters had also lost their charm long before. But the company restructured and John was expected to remain in Chicago for the foreseeable future. Hopes dashed, we returned to our lives and fell back in love with our adopted hometown. Friendships deepened and we envisioned our kids starting a garage band or heading off to prom with theirs. My sister moved to Chicago with her daughter and fiancée; for the first time in nearly two decades I lived in the same region as a family member. We sank our roots down farther than I thought they could go. No moving, we are raising Chicago kids!

The spring before our son was to start kindergarten, John’s boss did indeed ask him to move to northern California, to increase his current contribution and expand the horizons of his future career. They would assist with the move and pad his salary for the cost-of-living jump. No one could be expected to say no. John was ready for it.

I was not, but I had to get ready, quickly. The request came in May, and kindergarten would start in mid-August. We had to ready our house for sale, research where we were headed, and arrange for the physical move. I became the captain of my family ship in short order: interviewing movers, weeding piles of stored possessions, finding housing until we could sell our house, all while maintaining the normalcy of summer for two kids. I wanted them to be excited by the move, to face it as an adventure, but also to soak up every last Chicago experience. In between pool visits and play dates, I updated my tasks, fighting off the sadness I feared would arise.

Of course the sadness came, at the last minute. During our last days in Chicago, we set up evenings with different friends. There was the college crowd, among the oldest friends I have in the world. People I had been friends with through job changes, apartment changes, break-ups, weddings, and children. Women I had dined with monthly since the birth of my son and our nascent Mother’s Group. The dear friend I met during Linguistics class our first semester at school: Someone who can appreciate the infix would be missed sorely in Califuckingfornia.

I had to say goodbye to my sister, after a paltry six months living in the same city. I had to leave a block of neighbors who reveled in daily sidewalk play, providing camaraderie, babysitters, and hand-me-down clothes. I had to part with a strong handful of mom friends who boosted my spirits on the darkest of days, who could make me laugh and share a bottle of wine, and reassure me that I don’t have to always have it all together. I knew those friendships were golden, and recognizing that modern technology makes it easier to stay in touch did not ease the pain of leaving.

The pain of my last move was a sharp and searing as the first, the feelings of loss compounded by remembering that first excruciating school day in Minnesota. It’s never easy to be the new face in a crowd, but to be in an alien situation because someone else put you there? The very definition of childhood: lack of control can make anyone feel small. But I did experience this last move differently; I wasn’t the same kid who reacted with narcissism and resentment. I didn’t choose this either, but I could choose to be adult about it. I needed to, for my husband and kids.

I marvel now that I was able to remain mature throughout. No petulant acting out, no underhanded blaming of my husband, no self-centered wallowing in the suckiness and unfairness of life. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it was so subtle that it’s taken me a year to see it. Faced with one of the biggest stressors on Life’s List of Crap That Happens, I was grown-up about it. I focused on my children, ensuring their spirits were steady even if mine dipped. I took on the minutiae of making the move happen, even as the to-do list threatened to overwhelm me and my stomach cramped with unspoken grief. I supported my husband’s brave decision, never condemning him as I had my father for making the same choice. At the ripe old age of 38, I finally became the adult I want to be.