I first tasted Haagen Dazs coffee ice cream when I was eight years old, sitting at an outdoor table overlooking the ocean, everything seemingly whitened by the sun. It was one of those small moments that children tend to remember, the cold metal bowl with perfect round scoops, the lovely taste from something that seemed like it should be bitter and strange, the mid-level resort which felt designed to pamper us. We were in Hawaii for the first time. Grammy and Bob paid for most of everything, which meant that we could afford to fly first class, with soft wide leather seats. When I think of my childhood, I think of the bright sun—the Texas sun, the Hawaiian sun—and the water, the clear blue of chlorinated pools or the darker ocean.
We lived in San Antonio then, which had all my favorite childhood memories—the long backyard where we had sack races, and pinatas at birthday parties; the classroom full of kids I had known for three-and-a-half years, which at that point seemed like all my life. We wore maroon plaid uniforms to school, with matching knee socks and white shirts. My shirts and uniforms were invariably wrinkled, my socks rolled down to form perfect, big tubes around my ankles. My handwriting sprawled. I got B’s and a couple A’s and thought that was really fantastic. Susan, with her white-blond wavy hair always got the straight A awards, which seemed ridiculously over the top. One of my best friends, Diane, wrote as perfectly as the examples in the book and even then seemed more put together than I would ever be. We had crushes on the cute boys and passed them notes during class to see if they might happen to return our affection (to which they remained determinedly aloof).
The elementary kids had races every year in a huge field beyond the playground. In second or third grade I won the 400-meter with my big brother running alongside me the whole way cheering me on. Beyond that was an old drive-through that made strawberry milkshakes with real strawberries where we walked after school while mom was working on her lesson plans. And then there was dance class, and the stage, where I thrived on small recitals in big auditoriums with huge lights and applause. I loved every minute of performing. It made me happy in a way nothing else did.
My brother played in endless weekend basketball games, in small gyms where there was nothing to do but be bored and sit in the girls bathroom talking to my friend Jeanene. And there were sleepovers at Diane’s with her neat, organized, put-together house; or Jennifer’s, happily crowded with smaller children; or Jeanene’s, out in the country, where sometimes scorpions came up through the drains—enough to keep a small child awake at night.
I knew that Diane and I, our families were about the same. And that Jennifer’s was poorer, maybe a level below us, but it seemed wonderful to me, all those children in their small house, all eating together around the thin kitchen table, with bowls and plates and cups that didn’t match. And Jeanene’s family did not seem to care about church so much. Her mother had big hair and wore thick makeup; she gave us green-apple chewing gum and taught us the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny bikini song.
We were in a new house in a suburb, with white sheetrock walls and maroon shag carpet. My brother and I had bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, and for some reason, although I had never seen Psycho, I was afraid in that shower. (What is there to be afraid of when your parents are there to protect you? But still I saw shadows and made them into evil men, and was always rinsing my hair in a panic.) The narrow lawn sloped up behind the house for what seemed like ages. Thick, menacing-looking spiders popped out of small holes in the metal swingset from time to time, so I covered the holes with Scotch tape before I went on swinging.
Hard Texas rains brought with them threats of tornadoes, cooling and softening the air, releasing all the backyard scents just beyond the sliding kitchen door—the yellowing sod struggling to put down roots, the dirt splashing into mud—where we sat eating our occasional Saturday-night steaks and salads.
The pool went in after my first-grade year, I think. I lived in bathing suits, smelling of chlorine and Coppertone, my skin getting darker and darker until I would be the only girl in dance class who didn’t need to wear hose for our pictures. I’ve always been lighter than my father whom I take after most, who seems to be somewhat lighter than his father, whom I never met but they say could have passed for an American Indian.
Vacation always meant the beach. We camped under the pines at Myrtle, hunted sand dollars in the wide expanses of Corpus Christi, went back to Hawaii a couple times.
But there was no stability for us, no quiet village. We were plucked up every two to four years, moving from one Air Force assignment to the next. In Phoenix, where my brother was born, my mom fell in love with the smell of the orange blossoms. I made my grand entry at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, when all the leaves were changing and the sun had assumed its October intensity. After six months in Virginia Beach, where I always avoided the ocean for fear of sharks, we headed to lovely Hispanic San Antonio. And then when I was nine, we moved to barren, tornado-alley Wichita Falls, where my dad was squadron commander of a NATO training unit.
I didn’t grasp the craziness of this life. It was normal to me, what happened to so many families we knew. I understood at a young age that my friends could only be friends for a couple of years, and then I’d be moving on. (In some ways, when you live like that, you become adept at building temporary friendships.) The only permanence our family had was our love for each other, and our faith—both of which, however imperfect, left me with a sense of great abundance.