Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Bloom Where You’re Planted


Three days after I became a Midwesterner -- according to my driver’s license, at least -- my husband and I joined his colleague and her family at our new town’s annual Memorial Day parade. As I lowered my pregnant belly onto the alley of grass between the sidewalk and the town’s main avenue, an advertisement for our new life played out before us.

Parade floats mingled with marching bands and dance troupes, their bedazzled little girls pausing every few blocks to move in time to the music being blasted from the stereo system of a pick-up truck. On one trailer, 4-H kids beamed alongside their prize-winning goats. On another, a different tableau: a young woman dressed all in black with a dark veil over her head was seated on a chair. Plywood headstones sprouted around her like funeral lilies. “A war widow?” I wondered. The hush that fell over the crowd suggested that she might be.

Soon a neatly dressed young man, his khakis and button down shirt incongruous in the sea of scarlet Ohio State jerseys and cut-off shorts, approached us, offering a colorful flyer advertising his Nazarene church’s upcoming VBS. We thanked him, our smiles and nods matching his.

“VBS?” I asked my husband after the man was out of earshot.

He shook his head, and then turned to our companions. “VBS?”

“Vacation Bible School. You know, religious summer camp?” came the response.

“Oh,” we answered in chorus, smiling and nodding again. We turned to each other, my husband’s eyebrow just starting to creep upward before the parade called us back to applaud its next group of marchers. This one was made up of veterans, some fitting comfortably into decades-old uniforms, some showing their pride with street clothes and steely expressions.

And then the kids started throwing candy.

Groups of children darted among the dancers, the “Nobody Undersells Connor’s” sedan, and the veterans, whipping candy at the people assembled to watch the parade. Tootsie Rolls, Dum Dums, and Atomic Fire Balls flew through the air and everyone in the audience seemed to spring collectively from their lawn chairs and beach towels to collect their booty, calling “Over here!” and “Got one!”

Everyone, that is, but my husband and me. We stayed seated, years of not talking to strangers and inspecting Halloween candy before eating it gluing us to our blanket.

Our new friends looked at us and, sensing our confusion, explained that this happened at the end of every parade here. Some people threw candy and other people picked it up and ate it.

“Oh,” we said again, smiling and nodding. Smiling at their kids who clamored for a stray Jawbreaker, tumbling in the grass like puppies. Nodding at this strange sight, this new ritual that might come to be ours too.

But the truth was that I didn’t feel like smiling, and it was all I could do not to shake my head “No” at the novelty of this place and its Vacation Bible Schools and its candy throwing, at the ways it was different--and different in a way that felt worse, not just unfamiliar, like a pair of jeans before they've been broken in.

After the parade, we waved to our new friends and walked to our car. Eager to debrief with my husband, I opened the car door too quickly and scraped its bottom on the curb. Over the sounds of my husband telling me to wait as he came around to my side of the car to help free the door, I yanked it toward me, popping the bottom panel loose in the process.

Perfect, I thought, as the heat came into my cheeks.

I squeezed my belly between the curb and the car and lowered myself in, slamming the door shut behind me.

My husband got back in the car and looked at me.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Sure. Sorry.” Smile. Nod.

My tears came in the line at Kroger, where we’d stopped on our way home. After assessing the damage I’d done to the car door -- minor -- we headed in to grab some groceries and new home essentials, like toilet paper and coffee and maybe even some wrapped candy to throw at passers-by.

When I got to the front of the line, the man at the register asked me for my customer loyalty card. Something about his kindness, his guileless smile, the simultaneous familiarity and magnitude of this routine -- you only grocery shop in a place where you live -- triggered a response I’d felt, but hadn’t vocalized, all morning.

“I don’t have one,” I told him. “I’m not from here.”

And then I felt a telltale fullness at the roof of my mouth and the furrowing of my brows. I started to cry.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Sure. Sorry.” I smiled and nodded as he swiped my credit card.

We’ve done a lot of smiling and nodding as we’ve learned a new vernacular since moving here four years and three kids ago. Tennis shoes? Pop? Suckers? Frozen custard? Smile and nod.

And for a long time, even through the smiling and nodding, this new place didn’t feel like home. This rural county seat with its cornfields and soybean crops, its county fairs and deep-fried elephant ears, its llama farms and Bob Evanses felt like that too tight pair of jeans. Its candy throwers felt like strangers, their gesture like an assault.

But I’ve also come to realize that the place I always thought of as “home” isn’t really home anymore, either.

That home still exists, in a small, historic Connecticut suburb with a town green, tidy white churches, and classic colonials with picket fences. It’s the place where I grew up, where I roller skated in the basement, where my bike was my chariot as I explored our hilly neighborhood. Where I wore my brown and yellow plaid Catholic school jumper and my L.L. Bean backpack as I scrambled for a seat in the last row of the bus. Where I dressed as Strawberry Shortcake for Halloween, my breath hot under the plastic mask as I waited for my mother to check my 3 Musketeers and Snickers bars, laid out like fallen soldiers on the caramel-colored shag carpet, for signs of tampering.

My childhood bedroom is still there, but now it’s a guestroom, a queen-sized bed replacing the canopied twin, my mother’s off-season purses filling the drawers instead of my Princess Leia Underoos.

That house is still there, but I’m not. I’m not from there anymore. I’m not from here -- yet -- either.

But, the thing is, my kids are. All three of them were born and raised here. I was a New Englander. My husband was a New Yorker. But now we’re a composite: a typical American family with roots elsewhere, but blossoms here.

And my kids have proven to be my ambassadors to this new place. On each visit to the playground or that very same Kroger, they negotiate a peace treaty between their hometown and their mother. My kids have helped make entrees I never could have made on my own, emotionally stuck as I was in the land of Volvos and Saabs instead of Amish buggies and combine harvesters. They are my advance team and my armor. They chat up strangers and make new friends; they bat their eyelashes and break down barriers.

Watching them lately, I’ve been thinking about a saying I’d often heard, but hadn’t always taken to heart: “Bloom where you’re planted.” That’s what my kids are doing. And I’m trying to do it too. Trying to put down new roots for us in this rich soil and make this house, this place, a home.

Last summer, we found ourselves at another parade -- this one celebrating July Fourth. Our kids, clad in a hodgepodge of red, white, blue, and popsicle drips, sat with us on the curb of that same street and listened as our mayor honored one of our fellow citizens for service to the community. We saw a group of friends, waved, and giggled as our two-year-old called out to them over the crackling drone of the speaker system.

Soon the parade began in earnest. Kids rode by on their colorfully decorated bicycles. Fire trucks and ambulances from neighboring towns inched past, their flashing lights prefiguring the fireworks that would come later that evening. Cheerleaders, dancers, Scouts, and veterans filed past in turn.

And then more kids -- younger siblings, perhaps, of those candy throwers who had once seemed so foreign to me? -- appeared, tossing sweets toward the wiggling arms in the crowd.

Turning his attention away from the fire trucks and toward this new attraction, our almost four-year-old son squealed in amazement at his good fortune, at the splendor, abundance, and generosity of this gesture. He looked at me and pulled my arm toward a flying mini Milky Way.

“Can I go, Mommy?” he asked.

“Sure, Baby. Go ahead,” I said, smiling, nodding, and meaning it.

I let go of his hand and off he went, one of them.

One of us.

Kristen Levithan’s writing has appeared online at Babble, BlogHer, and the Ms. Magazine Blog and in print in University of Dayton Magazine. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog Motherese.

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Lovely, Kristen. I, too, live in a weird in-between world of not being at home where I live nor where I came from. And I resist putting down roots (but they grow anyway, like weeds).
This is so lovely, and I can feel your despair in line at Kroger in the pit of my stomach. My children are my roots to my new home too. They are blossoming here, but it is sad that my childhood experience will not be shared by them. My experience, my memories, my context, are all foreign to them.
I completely understand this! Having lived so many years in the west, I find myself in a state of panic whenever I visit the East coast. So much non-stop movement, so many people walking down the street trying to ignore each other, the noise and the lights and the cabs honking. It's just too MUCH for me. I feel lost. How interesting that you had to make the opposite adjustment. Well done!
Loved this post, particularly the ending. Your words paint such a clear, colorful picture. I grew up about an hour away from where I live now, which is just outside the city. Despite the short distance between then and now, there are times when I feel like an outsider. Many of the parents grew up in the same area where our kids go to school, and they often reminisce about things that I cannot relate to, particularly since I grew up in a more rural area. Regardless, I love that my kid was born in the city and is a true Pittsburgher, even if the hubby thinks (incorrectly!) that pop is a "hick" word.
Wonderful images and contrast you painted in this post Kristen. I have always felt like a transient--growing up in a military family and then moving to a rural part of the NE a decade ago where I am still viewed as an outsider. My childhood home does not exist anymore, but I certainly have the loving memories impressed in my mind.
Such rich, vivid imagery. As you know, I often feel a float, too, out here on the east coast since I am, to the core, a midwesterner (who has lived in Maine, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Ohio, Illinois & New Jersey). I know pop. I know tennis shoes. I know the Big Ten and Ohio's hundreds of colleges. I've gained the perspective of living, even if for a short time, in places that I make my home even when it's fringes, faces, accents & foods are unfamiliar. I have a daughter born in KC and a son born in Arkansas. Often, they'll ask where they're from. I often struggle with the answer. Clearly your essay struck a chord with me! Beautifully written, my friend. xoxo
"I’m not from there anymore." Somewhere inside me I'm from a small town with four seasons and a Grandma Moses landscape, with plenty of brothers and sisters and cousins and grandparents, parents who don't fight, and summer nights where folk gather on the green and young couples steal kisses under the starlight. Beautiful, sweet essay.
This is just beautiful, Kristen. I went through something very similar when I was in Japan and became a mother. Although I had chosen to go to Japan, the experience took a different turn once we started a family. For the first time I didn't want new or novel - I wanted familiarity and I wanted my child to experience some of the things that I had growing up. The feeling is very unsettling and you described it so well and with such poignancy. I really like where we are now (back in the US), but it's a very different place from where I grew up. But it's our son's home, and because of that it is ours too. Lovely essay!
Lovely Kristen, Made me think of feeling oddly at home in western Ireland, even as a Jewish guy from LA by way of NY and Chicago... and I think about how we enter the year of the snake on the Chinese calendar while this coming St. Patty's day, in honor of the one who banished snakes from Ireland, will be the first birthday my dad doesn't celebrate on the earth I've lived on since I was born with a destiny of late-blooming spread out before me. You may live where you live, but in our virtual world we are surely close neighbors!
When my family moved from Boulder to Omaha it was with reluctance. But I left the land of spandex and welcomed a place where everyone is loved. It was an education for me. I dearly love the people of the Midwest. It took me many years...but I finally made it into a parade.
This evoked so many things for me I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I'm from upstate NY (but spent many years in Manhattan) and my extended family is ALL from the midwest. My bloom where I'm planted story is more ... "palatable" but the same feelings are there - if you get what I mean. Anyway, I think I would have felt a LOT like you in the same situation.
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