We were always moving—from my birthplace in Toledo, Ohio, to Kentucky: Westwood, Rush, and Cannonsburg, back to Ohio: South Point, Proctorville, Burlington, Scottown, Chesapeake, Burlington again, Chesapeake again. We lived in a house that leaned so hard it looked about to collapse, several trailers past their prime, two-bedroom townhouse apartments, a few drafty houses (one supposedly haunted), and a nice big place with a bomb shelter on the Ohio River, then back to another broke-down trailer. I attended eight different schools before sixth grade, and would have added more to that count had my mom not completely ignored school district boundaries and kept taking us to the same school every day, something they didn’t catch her at until I was ready to graduate high school. It never bothered me much; I liked the adventure of it, and would re-create myself, re-tell my story as I made new friends. No one knew anything about who my people were, and I wasn’t related to anyone they knew. I didn’t always like the new school or the new home, and so knowing a change was always around the corner was a comfort. New homes smelled of bleach, paint, and pizza for dinner. New homes meant a race to claim the best bedroom or best corner of a shared bedroom, a race to meet the new friends and find the best hiding places.
I continued moving in my adult life, as have my brother and sister. In three years of college, I had eight homes; in the last of these I took in my brother Daniel, who’d left school to go from couch to couch, hitchhiking and bumming change. He was there long enough to graduate before moving in with other kids, with nothing more to his name than a Hefty bag full of thrift store clothes and a used mattress on the floor. Soon after, I was determined to leave Ohio forever; my partner and I sold everything we owned in a yard sale—including my car—for a grand total of $650. We packed what remained of our belongings and drove, singing all the way, to Washington, D.C. We came back to Ohio, singing the blues of being “homeless and unemployed,” moving from Fremont to Columbus to Indianapolis to Lexington in the next few years. My sister, Laura, once moved six times within one year, or maybe it was two years, but there was a lot of packing stuff up and down stairs, for sure. She moved to Columbus to go to school, dropped out and moved to Cincinnati with a boyfriend, then moved back to Columbus when they broke up, then back to Chesapeake when our mom died, then to Somerset, Kentucky, with a friend from high school, then to Clarksville, Tennessee, to marry a military man, the promise of future travels ahead of her.
When we were kids, Mom always talked about when she spent summers riding with “Aunt Betty’s Show,” the traveling carnival owned by her aunt Betty and uncle Homer. My brother, sister, and I listened to the same stories a hundred times. My favorite was the one about the Cherokee boy that operated the Scrambler; Mom was so enamored of his smile and long, shiny black hair that she rode it 27 times in a row and couldn’t walk anymore. The three of us wanted to be carnies, to follow the bright lights, cotton candy, and rigged games at every little town from Sandusky to Valdosta. We practiced our tricks as we got older. I ate and blew fire, Daniel dislocated his shoulders to fit through a tennis racquet, and Laura contorted her body. Once, Daniel decided to really do it, and I drove him from my apartment in Columbus to meet a man in Pickerington, who told him to be back at 7 a.m. tomorrow to leave town. Daniel chewed his nails and furrowed his brow for a long while before deciding to take the Kirby job instead, and he was whisked away in a van to Chicago, left in a Polish ghetto with a 100+ pound blue vacuum cleaner. Instead of dragging it to doors that wouldn’t open for him, he sat on it and smoked until they picked him back up, then he hitchhiked back to Ohio the next day. From there, he floated from job to job to job, until the birth of his daughter anchored him more to home. His last roving job was during the 2000 Presidential campaign, when he rode around the Midwest in a van with our mom and grandparents, following the candidates on their speaking tour and selling buttons to anyone who’d buy.
My grandmother, Betty, spent the first 7 years of her life shuffled between the homes of her mother’s family members in the hollers near Denton and Hitchens, Kentucky, while her Daddy, Frank, was “out hoboin’ around.” Frank would take off on a whim, riding trains anywhere they went, washing up in the creek, and doing odd jobs for hot meals, leaving his family behind. When the family moved to Hamilton, Ohio, for some unremembered factory job, there wasn’t often the means to make the monthly trips back to Kentucky. If the car broke down or ran out of gas, they just walked the rest of the way or caught a ride. If they didn’t have enough food or money, Betty was sent to ask for some bread, bologna, milk, or gas because girls could bum better than boys. One time, Betty went with her daddy from Ashland to Hamilton, hitchhiking. They had to sleep in a cornfield along the way, and it was so cold, she thought she’d freeze to death before morning. I picture her, about 9 or 10, her auburn curls dirty, her pretty brown eyes frowning, her lips pursed, standing alongside the road holding her daddy’s hand, wearing a dress made from an older brother’s old shirt or an old flour sack, kicking the toes of her Oxfords at the gravel and wishing hard for penny loafers with two shiny new pennies to put in them, having no choice but to deliver a timid knock on a stranger’s door to ask for some cornbread, some milk, some extra something to fill their bellies. Betty’s family moved back to Ashland when she was 14, and she met my grandfather, Billy, and married him to escape the life her daddy had made for them.
My great-great grandfather, Silas, otherwise known as “Boone,” moved the family across the country to pick apples in Washington, dig potatoes in Maine, set tobacco in Kentucky, or any other work available to feed them all along the roads in between. When his wife, Mary, died, Boone signed the papers to marry off his three girls as soon as he thought they were old enough: Berty in Carter County, Kentucky, Besty in St. Louis, and Marie in Columbus, Ohio. Boone traveled with Frank for years, hopping freight trains to get from one place to another, and walking where the train didn’t go. On one late fall trip back toward Michigan or Illinois from Washington where his people were, Boone was trying to rest, watch the land go by, and relax. Another hobo on the freight car got to drinking and talking some big talk, then started in on Boone. Boone was quiet; he just stared, didn’t say a word one to that man, who kept going on and on. Miles and miles and miles went by, and that man kept talking. Somewhere in Montana, Boone stood up, picked up that man by the collar, and threw him right off the train as they were crossing a trestle. Then he sat back down, put his hat over his face, and took a nap.
A few years ago, my partner, daughter, and I took ten days to drive out to Yellowstone from our home in Lexington. Though our original plan was to drive straight out, stay there several days, and then drive straight back to Kentucky, we ended up driving almost the entire time, detouring to crawl BIA highways and state and national park roads, on the lookout for Mustang ponies, sudden snow-capped peaks, elk, bison, and grizzly. On about day six of driving, we ended up getting lost in the dark in the Sawtooth Mountains. Though it was barely 10 p.m., the small towns through which we passed were dark. We stopped at hotel after hotel, but the only one that did answer the bell did not take credit cards, we were short on cash, and there wasn’t an ATM that didn’t stand behind padlocked doors in the whole town. Eventually, we just decided to drive to the last town before the Bighorn Mountains, and then nap a few hours in a parking lot. The sudden amber blade of the sunrise woke me. I looked in the rearview mirror to see my daughter, Aedin, sleeping in the back seat, the sunlight glinting through her tousled hair. She hugged her stuffed monkey close under her chin, its tail tucked in her fist, her thumb poised on the tip. I roused her with a tap to the knee. “Time for breakfast,” I said, and got out of the truck to stretch my legs.
This essay was originally published volume 4, issue 1 of Nantahala Review, in 2009. I mentioned this essay in my post How to Get to Twisp, WA: Or, There and Back Again.