The Impossibility of the Past

If you are a military brat, you probably have some weird ideas about home. We all do and each idea comes from years of practice. I’m not sure if this is the case with other brats, but my particular problem is with the idea of returning. Of course, none of us really have physical homes.I claim a small town in southeastern Wisconsin as my home, and genealogically, it is. My family and their forebearers (minus the more recent German and Irish immigrants) had moved to Wisconsin from back East.

Recently, I had the fortune to dig deeply into my past and my roots go back to the Mayflower. Even for me, a patriot at heart, I had never assumed I could be so rooted. It turns out, I do have roots.

Those roots stretch from 49ers in California to politicians of New York. My familial history spreads to all parts of the US, which helps me think of my own personal history as just an offshoot of American history. I’m much more likely to swell up with pride when someone tells how great some state’s (two exemplar histories) history is and my response is always, “I know. I’ve lived there!” I’ll gush over Virginia history a lot sooner than Wisconsin history all thanks to my only state history class in all my moves.

In many ways, American history has always surpassed my own in personal significance. I revere the stories and legends of our early nation as those of a religious text. As many brats probably do themselves, the national anthem brings tears to my eyes. I can never teach American history to my students without getting teary-eyed. I have always believed that America, unlike any other nation, offers the most hope and good intentions and I handle American history books very gently.

For the most part though, I try to keep out of my past. Naturally, my mind darts back to fleeting memories and odd reminders. The immense craving for Maltesers, the memory of Italian ferries and smelly, sweaty, old men, the sensation of standing atop a hot black submarine in flowery canvas shoes whose plastic soles burned on the searing back of the ship. How it felt to be out in the foggy, overcast British winters where there wasn’t much of a difference between the gray day or the gray night. The chest gripping sensation of sadness when I realize how impossible it is to access these memories again.

I know what happens when you go back places. You will feel disappointed to realize just how much smaller everything is. You’ll get that feeling one day that everything was actually kind of terrible and eaten away by mice and insects.

Perhaps these are just snapshots from a depressed mind unreconciled with the past. I want nothing more than to go back to amazing camping trips on cold Corsican rivers and to school trips around Germany for “regionals” since there wasn’t anywhere else for us to go.

One of our favorite places: Porto, Corsica

I don’t like talking about these things because my own words always sound like bragging and none of these things are really reclaimable.

Sure, I can buy Maltesers at World Market and I can go buy cheap sandals and stand on asphalt during one of these scorching Albuquerque summers. It definitely gets hot enough and sometimes it even feels like a different country around here. The city has a great history and wonderful people who can make any poor wayfaring stranger (cue the music) feel at home.

My own history is linked to these banished memories and I generally avoid reminiscing because of the impossibility of any return.

If I went back to England, barely any of the kids I knew in school would be there, let alone the teachers. The entire base command would have turned over by now and renovation and building projects would have changed even superficial appearances.

Feltwell, England near RAF Lakenheath

If I went back to Bremerton, Washington where I lived until the summer after second grade, I would not step back into the idealized memories I have of camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, running, and busting up knees.

To this day, camping and hiking are the ultimate, coolest activities ever because those are what I did with my dad when he was finally back from being “out to sea.” Those are the memories that shine the brightest from my entire childhood. Just the thought of how well salmon scales stick to the backs of your fingers even after multiple washes. I feel my eyes begin to ache from the glare of the sun on the water and I hear the slosh of the water sloshing from below. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I would make when it was still dark out, thrilled to be up so early on a mission and careful not to wake up anyone else. I’d watch alertly as we drove in the night of the morning to whichever spot felt right that day and we’d cast and chat the day away, always dreaming of salmon dinners for all.

One of the many pictures of me making a weird smile and holding a fish or two.

My dad has since relocated to a city we lived in previously. Once, we drove past the townhouse we lived in for a few years. It was jolting to see such a place and know that it existed. Although I left, it remained and that means all kinds of strings left untangled throughout my life. It was like standing in the past and the present all at once. We didn’t get out to look around.

I’m not used to being in familiar places. In fact, I kind of hate it. I would rather be somewhere new than somewhere old and it takes me time to trust a place. We learned to never settle in too quickly; you might be in a whole different country by the end of the month. Friendships end once that car door slams shut and you start over again at the next base.

Once it’s over, it’s over. I know how to cut my losses and run. I’m really good at that. That’s a brat thing, too.

At least that’s what I try to do. Every once in a while, something sneaks in unexpected.

For example, I was shopping at this flea market up the street from my house that has a decent horde.  I was on the hunt for a particular gift (which shall not be named as he has not received it yet) for my boyfriend having a quarter life crisis (you don’t die when you turn 25). I remembered spying the perfect item a few years ago during my last trip there, so I headed back to the same spot hoping maybe everything would have stayed the same in the interval. It had been in the furthest back corner.

Naturally, it was gone. The display was completely different and everything had changed. I took a turn down a pathway and looked back to double check that the item I was looking for wasn’t there. That’s when my eye caught sight of a painting partially hidden under a coat rack. There was a sunfaded, unwanted old picture of a mother and child picking flowers from their garden.

My mind darted back to some very early memory of me laying on a couch and looking up through the dust bunnies in the sunlight to these same flowers and dimensions. It startled me and I left out a “holy smokes!”  Other brats must know the feeling. We packed and unpacked the same pictures over and over again for every move. We only kept what we loved and I guess that this picture was something my mom loved.


Very rarely am I confronted with the presence of an item of the past in my daily life. I’m not sure when I last saw this picture, but it was a long time ago. I moved away from it to the hot desert, away from all the submarines and out of the dependent life.

Somehow though, my living room picture sat right at my heels. It had no price, so I did what I never do and tracked an employee down for help. While he hunted for the tag that he would eventually find under a coffee table, I tried expressing the significance of this piece. I told him, “I grew up a military brat and we had this painting in our house! I haven’t seen it in years!”

Naturally, he wasn’t as excited as I was. I tried my tale again on the cashier. She was glad I could find something I missed, but I don’t think she understood. In our arms was a true artifact of my childhood. We have a filing cabinet full of kids’ schoolwork and boxes of old children’s books in my mom’s house, but those are 1,400 miles away and haven’t been opened since before the last move (2003 at the latest). This never happens.

So, I called my mom. She understood. Of course, she did; she wrapped and unwrapped that picture with us and dusted and straightened it in house after house. She was shocked, but glad to hear I had found a piece of my past in my present.

It doesn’t really matter to me if other people understand. Sure, the picture is not my style. It’s a little too early 1990s and a lot too faded. It doesn’t fit with the theme of any of my other items, but then again, that’s the point. It is one of the only items that’s not new (even if it is to me).

This picture, all $10 worth, says something about my own personal history. I can’t even begin to put a price on that. Again, I will have the chance to stare into the depths on that picture. For the first time in my life as an adult, I have made room in my life for my childhood. That seems like a good sign to me.


Other military brats: have you ever happened upon something once lost like my picture?

How do you process the past? Do you spend a lot of time on memory lane or do you have to cut that part off?

I know some of my feelings are a little extreme, but I think it is important to share that since I know there are others out there who aren’t sure why they feel so on edge or alert. I haven’t processed my past in a healthy way yet and I’m not sure how to go about it since it’s been locked down for so long. If I’m lucky, someone will feel a little more respect for themselves after realizing they aren’t the only one.

For more information and help for military brats, please look at these links below:

Brats: Our Journey Home – The page for the documentary, which I have not seen. There are links to their Facebook groups, which allow you to connect with other brats. Start here! I highly recommend.

Military Brat Wikipedia Page – I know it’s weird to include Wikipedia here, but it provides interesting perspective from what seems like an outsider clued in by insiders. It let me think a little differently about things for a while. They frame being a military brat as being part of a subculture.

Military Brat Life – This might be one of the best ones to find information about other brats’ experiences moving, food, joining the military, and others.

Military Brats Online – You have to become a member to use this site, but it is free! There are forums, polls, chats, and more. It is very active and would be great for brats looking to socialize.


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