NOTE: Dad had received his next assignment and we were moving from Caracas, Venezuela to Milan, Italy. In the manner of the Foreign Service, we were routed through Minnesota to see family.
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 our Norwegian Christmas cookies.
No matter how Mom talked it up, none of this was familiar. We’d visited Winona on Home Leave two years before, and what little I remembered was nothing like this dark, cold place. The bare tree limbs hovered like preying fingers, the dark trunks watchful sentries. The sidewalks were gray and empty. 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 pulled away, crying. The lack of structure had really played havoc with our napping schedule. Somehow, Mom got us fed and tucked into the twin beds in her old bedroom before we could melt down again.
A good night’s sleep helped and General Mills cereals we hadn’t seen before made for a relaxed morning. Grandma tucked us into Grandpa’s corner chair to watch television. Captain Kangaroo reminded me of my nursery school driver Onk Otto, but he spoke in much softer American.
The traces of snow had melted into the fallen leaves by the time Grandpa came home from Robb Brothers Store for lunch, bringing us tricycles from The Store. He could do stuff like that since he was the owner. Family whose names I knew but not their faces came over mid-afternoon: Mom’s brother, Uncle Jim, Aunt Beth and our cousins Ricka and Becky. I was the oldest cousin.
“Jimmy!” Mom ran to hug him. “Beth.” Their cheeks touched. “And just look at how big you girls have gotten!”
While the grown-ups sat talking in the living room, Grandma overcame our collective shyness by inviting the four of us little girls to the kitchen for a Play-Do session.
Somewhere along the afternoon, Becky nibbled a little too much of the flour-oil dough and threw up on her party dress.
Aunt Beth took her upstairs, where Mom pulled out my bathrobe, and that is how Becky wore my bathrobe for my birthday celebration.
We drove north to the Twin Cities in the morning to see two of Dad’s younger sisters and their families. As we pulled up to a house, I practiced the names: Aunt-Snooky-Uncle-Bob, Aunt-Jeanie-Uncle-Carl. Carl’s beard felt soft and warm against my cold face. They talked and laughed all afternoon while I watched Susie play with another couple of cousins. I was still the oldest.
The next morning, a whirlwind of cold air swept us west across the South Dakota border to the family farm. Grandma Amerson, who everyone else called Ma, and teenage Uncle Terry were planning an exit to California. Grandpa Amerson, who everyone called CO, had died unexpectedly just days after Susie’s birth, so Dad’s last visit to the farm had been rushed and unhappy. Emotions weren’t much looser this time. Not much hugging here. The next morning, we swung by to see more grown-ups — Aunt-Clarice-Uncle-Glenn, Aunt-Marie-Uncle-Eugene — and there were cousins older than me. I didn’t understand how that could be.
As we drove back across the prairie towards Winona, snow began to fall. I tried to count the flakes, but soon it was a curtain of white. Mom’s hand was on the dashboard, her fingers curled. Dad drove with the confidence of a native. We made it to Winona as darkness fell.
By Thanksgiving morning, there were two feet of snow on the ground. Uncle Jim and Aunt Beth arrived with extra snow suits so that Susie and I could play in the backyard with Ricka and Becky. We knew each other very well now, and we made snow angels all afternoon. However, I discovered that cold air and wet snow brought out hot pee. I hobbled indoors, scooting into the little toilet next to the kitchen. The bottom of the snowsuit was wet and smelly so I put it under the tap. Just wet was much better. I folded it and tucked it under the sink. I was back in my own clothes before Grandpa carried an enormous turkey to the big table.
We were out of place in Winona. People in Minneapolis hadn’t experienced our home, Caracas. Out on the South Dakota prairie, we might as well have been on another planet. Mom and Dad cut our Home Leave short and soon we were on our way back to the Foreign Service.
I just wasn’t sure where that was.