Some Foreign Service kids feel disconnected from the country of their parents’ birth. Not me. Long before I ever lived in the United States, I was a Midwesterner, tethered to family and ancestry by virtue of my parents’ efforts to stay connected to what would always be their home.
My mother and father identified first as Midwesterners.
Mom, Nancy Robb, was from Winona, Minnesota, a Mississippi River town about two hours south of the Twin Cities where her father was his generation’s owner of the the family business, Robb Brothers General Store. She expected to live out her life in the shadow of Sugarloaf, raising a family with a summer cottage above Lake Winona, shopping at the Piggly Wiggly, and supporting the YWCA.
Dad, Bob Amerson, was the eldest son on a hardscrabble South Dakota farm a few miles west of the Minnesota border.
Education was the way out for him — and the GI Bill gave him Macalester College, where he met my mother — but his love for the land, the people and the history of the prairie ran deep in him. He wasn’t going to be a farmer, but he was always going to be the son of pioneers. His memoir, From the Hidewood ( on Amazon at http://a.co/2rIEtat) includes his sketches of scenes that still resonate.
Dad designated the Twin Cities as his “home address of record,” in the parlance of the Foreign Service, the place to which the State Department would send us for a summer month every few years to “undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States” (Foreign Affairs Manual and Handbook). For Mom and Dad, Home Leave that meant connecting with family and college friends. For my sister Susie and me, Home Leave meant experiencing an exotic world in which butter was salty; children could play alone on the grass; and people lived in the same house forever. Our Robb cousins and us could walk around the block for ice cream without grownups. The Robbs, Amersons,and Marsdens (Macalester family) were perpetually assembled to eat, laugh and sing.
These people anchored us. They still do.
In August, my sister and brother-in-law (who were married by Dave Marsden), my daughter (god daughter of Betsy Marsden) and I spent some time with Mary, Brian and Annie Marsden. The next day, we spent the morning with cousin Becky Robb. That afternoon, Amerson cousins from Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Massachusetts, Oregon and Wisconsin (and the Twin Cities) gathered for a reunion on the “new” farm on the bluffs of the St. Croix.
We hope next year’s reunion will be with all four Robb cousins. It’s been a while since we posed in Grandma’s dress-up clothes!
Mom and Dad also identified as the descendants of immigrants. Mom’s ancestors were the Robbs from Scotland — a clan of poets whose notebooks line my study — and the Kilis from Norway, a name changed to Kelly at Ellis Island. Dad’s family were the Norwegian Amundsons –who became the Amersons– and the Casjens from Holland/Germany.
Like hundreds of thousands of others who crossed into America through Ellis Island, these brave souls traveled for “seven weeks in a sailing vessel” without hope of ever seeing home again. My parents reconnected the American-born and Norwegian-born branches of our families. Dad found cousins for his two older sisters who had lost their Norwegian mother, and their extended family, to scarlet fever when they were toddlers. Mom traced family way back, including a glass factory in Jevnaker, where a dish she’d inherited was created by an ancestor in the 1800’s.
So it was no wonder that I felt at home during the Scandinavian portion of my husband’s and mine Baltic Sea cruise last summer. After the dreariness of St. Petersburg, the ease with which my husband and I blended into the ports of call across the Baltic was heaven.
We wandered unescorted through Helsinki, enjoying lingonberries (served by an Amerson look–alike) and reindeer antler crafts (I did confirm that they shed their antlers every few years).
We floated down the waterways of Stockholm past greenways filled with energetic walkers.
We sat in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens enjoying the laughter of children on the gentle summer wind.
Although our ship plied the waters on which my brave ancestors traveled all those years ago, Norway was not on the itinerary. We hope to visit Oslo another time to see cousin Erling Odegarden, a Facebook friend.
Travel abroad connects me with my past. It’s nostaglic to revisit the venues of my Foreign Service childhood as we did a year ago in Venice, Naples and Rome. This year’s Baltic cruise included crossing paths in Berlin with my father’s visit to that city some 55 years before. Stopping in Russia meant entering the Communist realm against which Dad fought by holding high the banner of democracy.
But spending time with my extended family reminds me that although I was raised in the Foreign Service, I always had an American home, the place where, every few years, they let us in as easily as if we’d come from around the corner.
This is where I’m from.