The following is an exploratory essay written at the beginning of the “Themes in American Literature” course at the University of Washington Tacoma (Winter 2014). We were examining the idea of our own personal sense of place in relationship to the articles we were reading near the beginning of the course.
“Placed and Displaced in My Place”
In his essay, “The Sense of Place,” Wallace Stegner talks about the difference between placed people and displaced people in America. He compares the placed person to Thoreau and his deep connection to Walden Pond and its surrounding environs in contrast to the displaced—or migratory—person who is “cousin not to Thoreau but to Daniel Boone, dreamer not of Walden Ponds but of far horizons.” This idea of placed versus displaced people resonated with me as I have been discovering my family’s immigrant roots as well as the multiple generations of my ancestors who have called the Puget Sound area home since traveling West on the Oregon Trail. Seven generations of my family have lived their lives here in Western Washington with roots running deeply into the historical fishing and boat-building industries that have been key to the development of this region of the world. I would say my family is currently made up of placed individuals who are directly descended from displaced pioneers. My personal sense of place is tied to the town of my childhood, the social hierarchy of the community I lived in, and my adult desires of reconnecting to the places of my childhood.
Although I have always lived in the Puget Sound region physically, there have been times in my life when I have felt displaced in the more metaphorical, social dimensions of my sense of place. I grew up in Bellevue, Washington the daughter of a Boeing engineer and a housewife. Throughout my years in school—preschool through my junior year in High School—I was surrounded by the children of wealthy medical doctors, high power attorneys, and business executives. In a town where it was common for families to go to Hawaii on long weekends, my family stayed home and barbequed in the backyard or drove to visit extended family in West Seattle. In any other community, our family would have been considered comfortably well off, but in Bellevue, we were considered the “poor family” that lived on one of the only streets of small three-bedroom ramblers rather than in one of the three-story mansions complete with a built-in pool and waterfront moorage for the yacht. Although my father was college educated with a good job at Boeing, in the world of my peers, he was looked down on as a working class man, maybe one step up from the local butcher at Safeway. The ever-class-conscious Bellevue children were quick to exclude anyone who did not measure up to their (or more likely their parents’) view of being successful. Although my family was not poor by any means, the place where I was growing up had a warped sense of wealth and poverty and I never quite felt like I fit in with my peers—and they never let me forget that I was different from them. The funny thing was that although my immediate family lived in a small house on a modest street, my father’s parents had a big house on Lake Washington complete with a horse pasture in the backyard, beautiful and expansive lawns sloping down to the shores of Yarrow Bay, and a dock where they moored their custom-build wooden yacht and my grandfather’s seaplane. If I had been raised by my grandparents in their house in Bellevue, I would have been considered more acceptable in the eyes of my classmates.
My sense of place in the more literal geographical sense revolved around my small neighborhood, and also around the waters of Lake Washington. My first word was “boat,” which I evidently uttered while my grandmother held me up to the front window in her living room looking out over the lake. When I remember my early childhood, it brings to mind an episode of Mad Men—my friends and I were the children of the Mad Men of the early 1960’s. While our parents had cocktail parties and played Canasta or Bridge, we played old-fashioned games like hopscotch, freeze tag, and Barbies. Living on a cul-de-sac, the kids all learned to ride bikes on our small street. We had bike races, and in August when the sound of the SeaFair hydroplanes on Lake Washington roared in the background, we would make small wooden hydroplanes of our own that we would drag behind our bicycles. When our mothers would go shopping in Bellevue Square—a small shopping center back then and not the huge upscale indoor mall it is now—we would all beg to go to Kiddyland, a small collection of pint-sized carnival rides that lived in the parking lot of the Square for many years. Back in those days, our mothers would drop us off at Kiddyland with a handful of change for rides and cotton candy. Stranger Danger was something not even thought about in our safe little suburban enclave. Not until the mid-70’s when Ted Bundy began his terrorism of the Eastside did it ever feel unsafe to be a young girl walking alone anywhere in downtown Bellevue. There was a freedom brought about by safety in my childhood hometown that I know my children never really experienced much in the areas where they grew up.
As soon as I was able, I moved away from Bellevue. The Eastside with its snobby rich people was a place I could hardly wait to escape. It was funny, though—I left Bellevue but that city continued to haunt my life even after I had left it behind. Whenever someone in the Seattle area would ask where I grew up, as soon as I said the dreaded B-word, their facial expression would change and they would say something to the effect of, “Oh. So you’re a rich snob.” That often repeated question became one of my most dreaded moments. It felt like every time I met someone new or started a new job, my childhood in Bellevue would label me as someone I had never been. It was hard to shake the labels and judgments that came with being a person whose entire childhood had been spent in the Land of Bill Gates and surrounded by families like the Nordstroms (yes, those Nordstroms).
Recently I connected with a group online called Retro Bellevue where people share old photographs and memories of growing up in Bellevue during the 60’s and 70’s. At first I was concerned about reconnecting with my past, but I surprisingly discovered that as people reminisced about this place we all had in common, the walls that had separated many of us as children came down. Cheerleaders and jocks were suddenly making connections with the outcasts and the stoners, because we all had this one important thing in common: Bellevue during an era that is now long gone. Our sense of place from our childhood has brought us together as we share memories that only others who grew up not only where we did, but also when we did, can share: Our first job picking blueberries at the Overlake Blueberry Farm, the water fountain outside Frederick & Nelson with the sign “Dog Bar” where all the town’s dogs would stop for a drink as they wandered around town (no leash laws back then), the Bellevue Ice Rink where everyone took skating lessons or played hockey, the Olympic Swim Club with the removable roof that was taken off each summer where everyone learned to swim, the “wild” raccoon that lived in a cage in the middle of the roller coaster at Kiddyland, the monkeys on display in the front window of Nordstrom’s Shoe Store, the radio station at KFKF-FM where kids could stop to make faces at the DJ’s through the window while they were on the air, the helicopter pad on top of Thompson Drugs, and Woodland Park Zoo birthday parties at Farrell’s Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor.
For those of us who spent our childhoods in the Bellevue of the Mad Men, it is almost a magical time. The memories of those familiar places and shared experiences give us a connection to each other that passes class distinctions, social hierarchies, and even the always-present cliques of our junior high and high schools. Many of the people I grew up with have moved away, and Bellevue is a place from their past with little connection to who they are now, but all it takes is a simple question like, “Remember the smell of the freshly ground coffee at the A&P?” and we suddenly become one people, now known collectively as The Retro Bellevue Peeps.
by Deborah Taylor-Hough (Winter 2014)