NOTE: I recently made a pilgrimage to old Home Leave territory. Here’s a look at why Winona MN matters so much. Excerpted from When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories: Growing Up in the Foreign Service, under completion. ~JKAL
Mom and Dad made their protocol farewell calls on the Ambassador and Mrs. Sparks and other senior diplomatic couples. They were fèted at our first “despedida,” a goodbye party routinely thrown by Embassy colleagues for departing friends; the “bienvenida” was the party counterpart to welcome new diplomats and their families into the Caracas Embassy.
Leaving Fina would be much, much more difficult. She’d become part of our family, and the bonds of love between her and us little girls were as strong as blood ties. She’d spoken of when she’d be with “mis niñas en Italia,” but my mother had made arrangements for Fina to work in Caracas for Canadian friends. All Susie and I knew was that we were going on a wonderful “Santa Rosa Boat.” My mother asked Fina to not make a scene when it came time to leave.
At dusk, the black USIS station wagon pulled up past our mango tree and stopped at the gate. My mother walked with me to the car, and Fina carried Susie, chattering to her about the wonderful Santa Rosa boat. Susie must have picked up on Fina’s tension, because she suddenly burst into tears and buried her head into Fina’s broad shoulder.
“No! No!” she blurted. “I don’t want to go!”
“Sure you do,” my mother said. “That wonderful Santa Rosa Boat!”
“No, no, nooo!” Susie sobbed. She clung to Fina, who by now had lost control and was weeping openly. As Mom ushered me into the back seat, Dad pried Susie’s limbs from her beloved Fina and carried her into the car.
My sister cried all the way across Caracas and halfway down the mountain to the coast, and then fell into an exhausted nap. She groggily walked up the ramp to the boat and to our stateroom. Just before dropping off, Susie stated that she still did not want to go on that boat.
The next day, the boat docked off Nassau in the Bahamas, and the four of us took a tender into shore for a bit of sightseeing. Looking out over the bay, Susie noticed the cruise ship bobbing gently at anchor.
“Oh, what’s that?”
“Why,” Mom said seizing the opportunity, “That’s the Santa Rosa boat.”
“Can we go on it now?”
We boarded the tender back to the Santa Rosa. America lay ahead.
The Santa Rosa dropped anchor on the Hudson River and we caught a cab to La Guardia for a plane to Boston. Mary Caldwell Mudge, Mom’s Macalester College roommate and her maid of honor, and her husband, Art, met us at the gate and spirited us away to their New Hampshire farmhouse for the weekend. After four years in Caracas’ eternal springtime, the bracing fall air and vibrant fall colors were a tonic: it felt like pheasant hunting season to Dad. My mother wrapped us in sweaters borrowed from the two little Mudge daughters, about our ages, and enjoyed being outdoors without looking over her shoulder. Mary had always made her laugh, and it was wonderful to chat without worrying about language or “representation.”
The three-day drive to Minnesota was longer drive than any the four of us had done together, and Mom invented games to distract us as the long miles rolled by. My father marveled at the improvements; the Interstate Highway System had been launched while we were in Caracas, and, although construction was slow, the smooth, wide road was a welcome contrast to the pothole strewn, hold-onto-your-seat mountain roads that Dad had driven in the course of his assignment in Venezuela.
The ground was sprinkled white by the time we pulled up to Mom’s childhood home on Wilson Street in Winona. It looked like the coating of powdered sugar from the Embassy commissary that Mom shook to over her Norwegian Christmas cookies.
No matter how Mom talked it up, none of this was familiar. We’d visited Winona during a summer Home Leave two years before, when Susie wasn’t yet one. And it wasn’t the breezy warm sleepy river town that I remembered. The bare tree limbs hovered like preying fingers, the dark trunks watchful sentries. The sidewalks were gray and empty. t was hard to believe that this was home to Mom, the place she’d married Dad and that Uncle Jim had married Aunt Beth not that long ago.
The air pinched my nose as I stepped out of the car, nearly colliding with Grandma.
“Hello, dear.” She made a bee-line for Susie, reaching out her soft fluffy arms. “Ooh, I could just eat you up!”
Susie began crying which created a whole scene for Mom. The lack of a structured schedule had really played havoc on our napping schedule. Somehow, Mom got some dinner into us both and had us tucked into the twin beds in her old bedroom before we could melt down again. A good night’s sleep helped, as did General Mills cereals we hadn’t seen before. Grandpa left for the Store, and Grandma tucked us into Grandpa’s corner chair watching television in English – Captain Kangaroo reminded me of Onk Otto, but he spoke in much softer English than my German nursery school driver.
Aunt Beth brought two of our cousins over for my birthday. We were shy with each other: Ricka was a year younger than me, and Becky a year younger than Susie. Grandma had made play dough and lined us up by her kitchen counter with rolling pins and cookie cutters. Becky forgot that it wasn’t real cookie dough and was sick on her play clothes, but
Aunt Beth had brought Becky’s bathrobe. She was ready for bed before the rest of us.
After dinner, Grandma brought out a special cake and party hats and tooters. It was my first American birthday party.