My fear was that I would never find home. I didn’t know that, of course. That unnamed hole had been there so long it just seemed like a part of me.
I had been abruptly taken from my grandparent’s home in the Appalachian Mountains, the only home I had ever known, at five years old. From there we moved into a boarding house in a run down part of Sumpter, South Carolina, where kids stole my Easter basket and called me a “soda cracker.”
So began my life as the “other,” always from somewhere else. My stepfather was in the Air Force so we trekked across the world, usually moving every three years. Virginia, where we would watch the shrimp boats come in at twilight and boil lobsters in a big pot, shrieking if one escaped. We had liver and onions every Wednesday night. That was where I didn’t have money for a school program and the teacher slipped me a dime and let me attend anyway.
I endured a terrifying flight across the Atlantic Ocean where we hit turbulent weather and I embarrassed my mother by wailing. I loved the pond and ducks in our little village of Finchingfield, England. I didn’t like being made fun of and being put in the scary basement of the cold, old house for laughing and “acting up” during dinner.
In California, I remember teasing Jerri Lee because she was Mr. Johnson’s pet. I remember my Mom getting me a beautiful satin dress to go to a party with my neighbor only to get there and find out everyone else was in shorts and jeans and giggled as I walked into a “Coke party” in a frilly party dress.
In Texas, I began to “come into my own” and was elected Captain of the Pep Squad. I remember standing in the hall with one other girl, thinking they had forgotten us outside, only to find we were the two finalists and I had actually won! I still thought of myself as an outsider and not a winner of popularity contests.
In high school in Goldsboro, NC., I really “came into my own.” I was the first girl from the military base to become a Varsity Cheerleader, which was royalty in a small Southern town. The high school football captain Eddie and I went together for four years, the first and only boy I ever kissed in high school. I was chosen Best Personality in the Senior Class. Then it happened again. In the middle of my senior year we were abruptly moved from the place I had finally begun to feel I belonged and transferred to Ankara, Turkey, where I graduated from high school and once again felt like a stranger.
This was the way of things. As I earned accolades and honors during college and graduate school, I felt like an imposter, like it was really happening to someone else. The parts of being an “other,” of working too hard to fit in and excel felt normal to me. There was not comfort in my soul. There was always the feeling of Sisyphus rolling the stone up the mountain and then starting again at the bottom. I was deeply religious, but in my later years, I realized that even there I was always trying to earn God’s love by being a “perfect Christian” rather than resting in the unconditional love that was always there.
Several years ago I came across the book Third Culture Kids (Pollock, Reken and Pollock) that absolutely floored me! Much research had been done on kids that lived among different cultural worlds and had moved often during their childhoods. They could have had parents who were in the military, diplomats, missionaries or international corporate workers. They could also be preacher’s kids, oil company kids or kids from impoverished families that moved often looking for work. They did not have to live in foreign cultures because isn’t moving from rural Louisiana to New York City a move between cultures?
There are many gifts in this kind of life, but the gifts do not cancel the challenges. The authors found two main challenges among the TCK’s (Third Culture Kids): finding a sense of personal and cultural identity and dealing with unresolved grief. Why unresolved grief? Because having to say good-bye all the time with chronic cycles of separation and loss leads to grief, which usually goes underground. When parents are serving noble causes (military, missionaries, preachers), kids are reluctant to admit grief or fear as that would seem selfish. Their grief is often discounted, “Don’t worry. You’ll make new friends quickly, once we get there.” There was usually no transition time. You went to bed in one bedroom and the next night you were in a different bedroom.
Appropriate grief is healthy, but unresolved grief is toxic. TCK’s often go thru the stages of grief never knowing that is what is happening. We are often in denial, admitting pain but claiming to have gotten over it. One of the results of this can be creating a wall around ourselves preventing close relationships to others (including spouses and children) because in some corner of our heart we always felt they would never last. Anger, another stage of grief, can often be sublimated into “righteous causes.” In my case, it was civil rights and fighting for the underdog. Unacknowledged sadness or depression can turn into feelings of powerlessness as the moves were always beyond our control. Often we transfer focus from our personal grief to others as a way to express unresolved grief. I think, unknown to me, my beloved profession as a therapist was partly chosen as a way that vicarious grief could find a more active, long term expression. My excessive involvement with clients was perhaps unconsciously trying to make sure they would never feel the same pain. The thing about being a rescuer is that we may be so involved in rescuing others that we may never rescue ourselves.
So, part of my journey in finding my own identity and putting disparate parts of my story into a cohesive whole has been to name and feel the pain of my own unresolved grief. It is only in my seventh decade that I am beginning to feel true comfort in the magnificent person I am! And I can say that as are we not all truly magnificent creatures born out of Divine love in the image of God?
There have been many parts and many paths to my coming to this place of joy in who I am. One unexpected piece has been the healing of living in a small Texas town. Unbeknownst to me, I was still living in the piece of unresolved grief that manifests in an independence and individuality that looks very strong as it denies need for support in crises. It is actually based on the fear that what if I hope and acknowledge my need and I once again end up going it alone?
It is interesting that Grace gives us healing in just the way we need, although it may appear just the opposite. Since moving to this little town almost ten years ago, I have gone thru three times of crisis in which I was physically unable to care for myself. I have had a hip replacement, broken my hand and had a very serious automobile accident. As I went into panic mode and a feeling of being powerless each time, I was surrounded by friends, my sister and barely known acquaintances. They brought delicious food and homemade bread (left on my porch during Covid times), ran errands and took me to appointments or interesting small outings. They kept saying, “We take care of our own.”
Something is being healed inside as I receive their loving help. Just as the moves were unbidden, so were these times of physical powerlessness. But this time, I don’t have to go it alone and stuff my grief inside. I have found home.