Going Home

There’s a quote that goes something like, “You can never go home again”, which I’m guessing to mean that once you leave home, things will never be the same again if you try to return. I left home when I was nineteen, just before I turned twenty. Yeah, I had gone away two years before that for college, but I always came back for Christmas and summer breaks. Coming home back then meant coming back to our little upstairs apartment in Bethel, Alaska. It was small, but very cozy. My mom had bright colorful pictures all over the walls, and house plants on every available surface. I had my little spinet piano, and my bedroom had all my memorabilia displayed on my bookshelves.

I finished two years of college, but now I was dropping out and going to Haiti for an open-ended visit. I remember getting on the plane to leave, saying goodbye to my mom, fighting off a panic attack. My mom asked me what I was most worried about and I remember my answer was, “I don’t know when I’m coming home.”  As it turned out, I never did. Not really. I went to Haiti for four months and then went to Chile for five months, came back to the States and got married shortly after in the Lower ‘48 without ever making it back up to Alaska.

The next time I walked into my parents’ little upstairs apartment in Alaska, I had a husband and a ten-day-old daughter in tow. In many ways it felt just like coming home from a term at college, and in other ways it was completely foreign. My husband had graduated from the University of Tennessee and we had stuck around Tennessee until I could give birth to our firstborn, then we had planned to go straight to Alaska. The idea was to stay with my parents until my husband could get a job and we could save up enough to get our own place. My mom had reorganized my old bedroom so there was now room for my new little family. It felt like home in that my mom was in full-blown mother-mode. I had just gone through the stress of giving birth and moving from Tennessee to Alaska with a newborn. Some mothering was exactly what I needed. It was foreign because I was now heading off at bedtime to my old bedroom with two extra people, and these people were now my first priority.

We stayed in Bethel for a year and half. During that time my parents’ apartment was a place of rest. We would go over and hang out on Sunday afternoons, eating lunch, taking naps. I enjoyed those brief moments when I could relapse to just being a daughter again and take a short break from the new “mom” role I was in. Then we moved, and later my parents moved out of that apartment into a different house. A later visit to Alaska had us staying at my parent’s new house and it did not feel like my home at all. It was where my parents lived. It was inviting, but I had no childhood memories there, and my role had solidified as mother to my own children. I never really relaxed back into the daughter role. My parents stayed in Alaska and we settled in Tennessee and for the next eighteen years (aside from two visits to Alaska) we only saw each other when my parents flew down for their yearly visit.

About a year and half ago my parents retired and moved down to Tennessee, about an hour away from us. We have really enjoyed having them closer. The kids love going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and we try to get out there as often as possible. It’s a wonderful house, but again, I have no childhood memories there, and my role, when I visit, is mom to my kids, keeping them out of trouble. It simply where my parents live.

This week is my kids’ spring break from school. I was trying to think of fun things we could do on the break so I called my mom to see if we could come out and spend the night and a day with them. She said yes and we made our plans. Since they’re only an hour away, spending the night is not necessary, but the kids love it. It makes it feel like they’ve gone on a holiday somewhere. I’m not so keen on spending the night, only because my youngest doesn’t sleep well in new surroundings which means I don’t get to sleep well. But, a visit to my parents sounded really nice and who knew, maybe the little boy would sleep better this time.

Well, he didn’t. I didn’t get him to sleep till closer to midnight and then he slept fitfully all night and kept me up. In the morning my mom looked at me with concern. Are you feeling ok? No. I was tired and on top of that I had a bad cold. I had actually wondered if I should go see my parents with this cold hanging on me, but when your children have been counting down the days before they can go to Grandma’s, there is no way you want to change your plans. Also, being sick at Grandma’s sounded like a good idea. I had this vague notion that maybe my mom would help me feel better. Sure enough, Mom pulled out the cough syrup, urging me on as I choked down the vile liquid. My dad brought me a cup of some kind of fizzy drink that was supposed to boost my immune system. Then my mom told me to go back to bed whenever I wanted, the kids would be fine. I finally took her up on it and crawled back into bed for several hours. When I woke up around noon the house was silent, they had all gone outside apparently. I browsed through my mom’s cupboards, looking for lunch. My parents are vegans and so their house was fully equipped to handle my new diet which just entails fruits and vegetables. I found a can of lentil soup and then threw in some frozen vegetables. More exploration in the cupboard found some plantain chips. Perfect. I sat in the silence and ate my lunch, feeling rested and relaxed. And at home.

Something shifted. Something inside of me. I think I allowed myself to just be a daughter again. Mom, I’m sick, take care of me. And that felt like coming home. It’s not a place I can stay. I’m a mom myself now, I’ve got my own house full of children who look to me to hold their lives together. It’s a heavy responsibility, a full-time job. But, it was really nice to just go home for a short break. Feel like a kid again. Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad.

Car Trips, Broken Ice, and Laughter

Today we drove about an hour north to go visit my parents. My youngest daughter had a birthday and we were going to celebrate with Grandma and Grandpa. We had seven kids in the car, our oldest three off living their own lives. We were traveling on a small country highway and I was looking outside enjoying the view: farmland, creeks and rivers, pretty little towns. We were driving along and I noticed a pasture covered in puddles which had then frozen over. I suddenly had a memory of living on my grandparents farm in Eastern Kentucky, maybe ten years old, stomping around on a cold winter day. I was wearing my old light blue tennis shoes, full of holes but wonderfully comfortable, my old worn out blue jeans, hand-me-downs from my older brother, my pink puffy jacket with decorative flaps on the front and secret inside pockets, an old knit hat and a worn out pair of gloves. I remember stomping through my aunt’s pasture where her ponies lived. The ground was covered in muddy indentations from the ponies’ hooves and each indentation had filled with water from the earlier rains and now had frozen over. I remember the sensation of the thin ice cracking under my feet, my foot bending with the frozen ridges in the ground. Stumbling along as I tried to find more ice to break under my feet. I remembered all this and then felt a pang. My children would not have those country-living memories. They were city kids. And I felt this overwhelming longing to just uproot my family and move to a farm so my kids could know the joy of running through fields in winter, breaking ice under their feet.

We spent the day with my parents and then loaded up the van to drive home again. I love car trips. I love just looking out the window and thinking about whatever random topics pop into my head. I love looking at the houses that we pass, wondering about the people who live there. Watching the sky turn colors until it’s just the stars making tiny dots of light. Seeing the dark hulk of hills looming in the distance. As we drove tonight I thought about all the roads I had traveled on in my life. I remembered driving home from Cap Haitien, Haiti to our little house on the mountainside. Laying on a bench in the back of our truck, watching the moon chase us down the road, marveling that we could never outrun the moonlight. I remember driving on sandy gravelly roads in the bush town of Bethel, Alaska, looking out from the road into pure darkness, no lights to interrupt the horizon, only our little island of a town, floating on the tundra. I remembered driving the Alaska Highway, the vast forests of never-ending trees. And all the other roads, highways in Chile, cross-country road trips out West. I felt melancholy. I couldn’t share these things with my children. I couldn’t give them these experiences.

As we drove along I started tuning in to what was happening in the car. In the very back seat my eleven and nine year old boys had made up their own little game. The eleven year old was singing favorite Disney songs, but he would stop at key words, MadLib style, and then the nine year old would fill in a random word. In the next row up were my two little girls, seven and six. They were giggling and laughing their heads off at the antics of their brothers, sometimes offering a suggestion of a word here and there. Lots of singing. Lots of laughing. In the next row up my four year old and two year old were strapped into their carseats, the thirteen year old sitting next to them, trying to ignore them. The four year old was holding up different shells from a little container of shells that his grandma had given him. He was explaining that if you held up the shell to your ear,  you could hear the ocean. Then he held up a different shell and said, “In this shell you can hear a crab playing rock and roll on his guitar.” He studied the shell thoughtfully for a minute and then pulled out another shell. “In this shell you can hear a turtle biting a fish.” And on it went, each shell with it’s own story. The two year old was fussing and wanted to hold my hand, but his carseat was a bit too far back and so in order to hold his hand I had to bend my body backwards, stretching as far as I could. It was a position I could only maintain for a couple minutes. I would finally feel something snapping in my back and I would pull my hand back and he would instantly start fussing again. My husband started making up a lullaby with silly words for him in an attempt to distract him. And it occurred to me. My kids have these memories. These are good memories. They are worth having. Memories of outings with the family. Memories of singing and laughter. Memories of talking to Mom and Dad about your shells. Memories of being loved.

I am so happy that I don’t have to replicate my own childhood for my children in order for them to have happy, fulfilling memories. They’re writing their own stories, and those stories are good.