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A New Home, a New Life

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It starts with the poppies. All of a sudden, here they are, part of the landscape I take for granted. Like the Bay Bridge view of San Francisco. Like earthquakes, fresh tortillas, crab season, like the Pacific Ocean itself.

Earthquakes I can do without. But the other stuff?

“Where are you folks going?” the mailman says, nodding at the “For Sale” sign.

“Virginia,” I say.

“You’re--leaving California?”

That’s just what I think to myself a hundred times a day.

We’re not so much going to one place as we are leaving the other. We’re uprooting, taking the things we own but leaving the things that made us.

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We’re going to a better job, safer streets, a place without 911 buttons on the automated teller machines. We’re leaving aging parents, comfortable back roads and baseball teams, a lifetime of people we love, or know, or at least can call on if something goes wrong.

But America’s migratory history tends to deny the idea of loss. To complain, to drag your feet, to be depressed, to achingly miss your friends and family, is somehow seen as the height of self-indulgence. It’s anti-opportunity. And by extension, un-American.

“Aren’t you excited?” someone inevitably asks when I describe our future home.

“It’s great,” I say. “Just great.”

*

I’m not sure my 4-year-old son understands what it all means. He knows about the boxes in the basement and the real estate people. He knows we’ll be together again with his father, who has been back east for several months at his new job. But as far as he can see, Virginia is only 10 inches away from California in his “Child’s Atlas of North America.”

“Mom,” he says one day, “when we move to a new state, will our friends move with us?”

I should find solace in the massive group experience of it all, in the fact that each year, about one in six Americans moves somewhere--across town, upstate, to a different region, another country, even to Virginia. But the numbers don’t help. No matter how many other people move, I’ve always assumed I would live out my life on the West Coast, where my great grandparents came a century ago to find their own version of better jobs and 911-free banks, where I’ve been connected to the tiniest ripples of life since day one.

“I’ve been thinking,” I say one night to my husband. “If I die in Virginia, who will come to my funeral?”

*

In the beginning, people moved on.

“It’s a deeply rooted tendency in American culture,” says Peter Morrison, Rand Corp. demographer. “Our society is one built out of the migratory experience.”

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Like Canada and Australia. Scratch the surface of any of these three countries and you find millions of what California writer Bill Barich calls “Elsewherians.” They strip the cupboards, stash the toys, grab the truck and ride off to the Promised Land, taking part in what Morrison describes as “a fundamentally healthy process, akin to the human circulatory system--our way of maintaining the economic life of the nation.”

He’s right. If we all stayed in one place forever, the country would have a monumental economic heart attack. So we go to Texas, Denver or Silicon Valley when they’re booming. We go elsewhere when they slip. We leave California, in droves these days, with the same single-mindedness that Steinbeck’s Joad family came here. We uproot for the good of the family, and in the end, for the good of the country.

Outwardly, it makes perfect sense. But still, I know there must be hundreds of thousands of uprooters, my immigrant great-grandmother among them, who tape the boxes shut, say their last goodbys, and then begin to die inside.

“The diaries of women coming across the Great Plains, following their husbands, are filled with lament and regret,” says John Bodner, professor of history at Indiana University. “They ask themselves, ‘What am I doing . . .?’ ”

Three weeks after we arrive in Virginia, my son and I are watching his “Dumbo” video. Dumbo’s mother gets locked away in the cage. My son crawls onto my lap.

“I think being in jail is better than being in a new state,” he says. “When you’re in jail, you just pay money and you can get out. But when you’re in a new state, you have to wait till your mom or dad says you can go home.”

*

“It’s similar to the grieving process,” says Stephen V. Eliot, a Ridgefield, Conn., psychologist who for 12 years ran a relocation counseling service.

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“Once the decision to move is made, people can have a profound sense of loss. It starts with the very basic things, the familiarity of the everyday. The sense of security you have from knowing a place. It moves to deeper relationships and support systems, to friends and family.”

The people who recover, who can turn uprooting into transplanting, are the ones who feel the sadness to the bone, Eliot says. They accept it. They admit it. They acknowledge that losses have their own time frame, that you can’t stop feeling them by willing them away.

Suddenly, random moments of feeling connected turn into days. Then into months. And that’s when the real new life takes hold.

Those who don’t make it through just go through the motions. Moving? A cinch. Pack up the house, send out new-address mailers, sign up for some pottery classes, get new curtains, a few new friends, and, presto, you have a new life.

Sort of.

“Sometimes the separation is so painful, people block it out altogether,” Eliot says. “They say things like, ‘These friends weren’t so great.’ They also struggle with the unreasonableness of their sadness: How could I possibly feel this way if what we’re doing is best for the family? They can withdraw. And then they’re not able to make new connections.”

At midnight I call a friend in California. “How did we get to know each other?” I say. “I don’t even remember.”

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“I think it was just chemistry,” she says. “When you have a lot of people in your life, you can afford the luxury of chemistry. It just happens. When you’re desperate, it’s like you’re looking at everyone you meet, wondering, ‘Is this the one?’ It’s a double bind. You can’t just go up to people and say, ‘Hi. I just moved here and feel terrible about it. Wanna be friends?’ ”

*

Four months after we arrive in Virginia, my son announces that he loves his new state and wants to stay forever. He loves his school, his karate class, and most of all, Virginia’s trees.

“They don’t have any trees in California,” he says. One day I pick him up at the home of a preschool friend. The friend’s mother greets me at the door.

“This whole move must have been hard on you,” she says.

I force a smile. “It’s been OK. . . . To tell you the truth, it’s been kind of awful.”

“I know what you mean,” she says. “We came here from Boston two years ago. Coffee?”

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