Confessions from a real-estate brat

Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - 2:47pm

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Design by Christine Jegarl

“Where are you from?” is a hard question for me to answer. 

“Do you mean, where do I live right now?” is usually my most common rebuttal. I don’t mean to be difficult, I just want to provide an honest response. For me, it’s tricky to stick to a consistent story, and I try not to get too bogged down in the details. Before I turned 18, I had already lived in 12 different houses and attended eight different grade schools. 

I am jealous of my friends who can so easily whip out a response to the same question. “I’m from X city in X Midwestern state. I’ve lived in the same house my whole life.” The most straight-forward answer I can provide is that I’m from Charleston, S.C., which is where my family and I have resided since 2012. But the reality is I’ve lived all over the Southeastern coastline. 

I was born in Orlando, Fla., and lived there for probably a grand total of three months before my family moved to South Carolina for the first time. From there, we circulated Virginia for a decade, moving towns about every four years, first living around the Norfolk and Virginia Beach areas in the Chesapeake Bay before then heading upstate to Charlottesville in the Blue Ridge Mountains before eventually relocating back to Charleston, S.C., when I was 13. 

When I returned, it had been a decade since I last lived there. My mom pointed out to me that many of my classmates were kids that I had also been in preschool with, only I had no recollection of them. It made me wonder how many potentially fruitful and long-lasting relationships might have been thrown away due to my family’s constant relocation. I was furious. What was the point of moving so much if we just kept coming back to the same places? My parents eventually started calling me a “real estate brat” to our new neighbors at housewarming parties, as an obvious play on the term “military brat.”

Two years later, in 10th grade, I ended up heading back up to Virginia to attend boarding school. The school itself was all-boys, all-boarding and had a strict dress code. I rarely left campus on the weekends, and the consistency of attending boarding school gave me a little bit of geographic security, even if it made my backstory even harder to trace. As I would walk to class along the brick walkways of the lush, Jeffersonian-style campus, I would ponder: Am I from Virginia or South Carolina? Neither answer felt right with my identity, and I couldn’t decipher which felt more like home, let alone answer it in an icebreaker or to a new acquaintance.

The reason for all this moving around was my father’s occupation as a real estate developer. In the business of neighborhood development, there’s always a new project. For my dad, that meant acting as a land management consultant for a Virginia winery or designing the street layout of a new community in suburban Charleston. The liquid nature of his job meant that every couple of years my family would have to haul our belongings to my dad’s new workplace — a new city, a new house, a new school. 

My dad grew up as a military brat to my grandfather, who was a fighter jet pilot in the Navy. Having moved from Texas to California to Italy, my father had lived across tens of thousands of miles across the nation and globe by the age of six. I often wonder what imprint this left on him as he transitioned to his adult life. Was a consistent nature of moving something that never bothered him? Or did my father learn to view moving around as being financially pragmatic? I wonder if his seemingly casual stance toward moving ended up having a bleeding effect on me.

I remember playing SimCity on CD-ROM and oftentimes having my dad inspect my computer model town complete with art museums and universities. I had him double-check for infrastructural errors with traffic patterns or commercial zoning. Afterward, I would destroy everything I’d built with a click of a button, whether it be a nuclear weapon, a tornado or a robotic Godzilla. Little did I know it, but I was quickly learning to let my deep-seated feelings and attachments go. 

Anything I could create or become invested in could disappear. My Tee Ball League, Cub Scouts, teachers and friends from school could all vanish in an instant. I was slowly becoming an incredibly hard-bitten child. I had developed no concept of geographic permanence as I internalized the hit-or-miss tendencies of the real estate industry. This habit only grew when my family’s financial security collapsed along with the entire housing market during the 2008 recession. The financial meltdown also left my mother, a freelance architect, out of a job. I knew we’d soon have to move homes to supplement our losses, but I wasn’t so shaken since I was no stranger to dropping my obligations on a dime’s notice. 

Even years before the market crashed, when I was eight or nine, I was playing with my toys when I realized I lost a Playmobil figure somewhere in my bedroom. Instead of crying and complaining to my mom, I remember thinking “It’s fine. It’s somewhere in here. I’ll find it when we move again and all the furniture is packed.” I can’t even remember in which house this occurred, but I can remember that feeling of knowing we were going to need to move again, eventually. 

I even acquired a sleep tactic that I still use fairly often, passed on to me from my father. It’s a popular old wives’ tale that if you’re having trouble going to sleep, you should resort to counting sheep in your head in order to drift off. I learned to do things a little differently: Instead of mindless counting, I try to remember every wall of every room I’ve ever lived in. I’m pretty certain this little trick works because I usually doze off before I can reach the room where I currently sleep. 

I start by trying to remember the placement of the windows, the closets and if there was a bathroom attached. I try to remember desks and picture frames and where my toy chest or lacrosse stick might have been placed. Where were the Dell computer console and the chalk easel? What clothes might have been left on the ground or tucked into my dressers? Before I can get into the detailed specifics, I’m fast asleep. 

But moving to 12 different houses was in no way all for naught. Over the years I naturally learned how to be charismatic by repeatedly being dropped into new social settings. I survived new classrooms and sports teams by learning to be funny. I also learned to be quiet when it was strategically necessary for me to make a good first impression. 

My time in Ann Arbor has been the best of my life so far, but I know I won’t stay here much longer. I’ve told many of my friends and family that the first place I move after graduation — though I’m not sure where, yet — will be my home for the next 20 years. I’m hoping New York so I can be there when the Knicks eventually turn things around and win a championship. I know long-term residency will be difficult to accomplish along with the looming uncertainty of our national economy and the volatility of the job market for young people, but I’m going to try my hardest to stick to one place for continuity’s sake. 

I know I have lived in enough childhood bedrooms to keep me counting them in my sleep for an eternity. However, I think there’s some emotional strength I could develop from staying in one place. In the past, I’ve always looked forward to new beginnings as a way to reset my personality and start over. Instead, I need to learn how to ride the emotional ebbs and flows that come with living in one location for a long time and seeing I’ve been able to grow over time. Being able to say you are from somewhere speaks volumes to your identity and comfort as an individual. In the future, I hope I can answer “where are you from?” a little more simply.

Maxwell Barnes is studying Communication and Media in LSA and is a Daily Staff Writer for Arts. He can be reached at mxwell@umich.edu.