All winter long Charles had talked of Kansas, its free, level land and bountiful game. Even Mary and little Laura could repeat his reveries of the mighty jackrabbits and treeless acreage… The West was a song Charles wanted a hand in composing…

Sarah Miller’s recounting of Charles Ingalls’ pioneer dreams in Caroline: Little House Revisited could have been written about my father’s Foreign Service passion. My father felt the excitement of extending America’s democracy across the globe; he wanted nothing more than having a hand in composing the future. Through grade school, my sister and I were swept along without protest, eventually promised a dog or something else thrilling each time we moved.

A subtle tightening, as though she were taking hold of the cabin and everything in it, passed over her…Charles always saw the beginning of a new start, never the loose ends of the old one that must be fastened off.

Each time my father announced the next assignment, he saw opportunity awaiting, a new job ready for him to land into, a new Embassy mission to carry forward in the next country. Their twenty-year journey started with a surprise picnic dinner on the tar roof of my young parents’ apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota: Dad was aquiver with the opportunity of serving America in somewhere called Venezuela; Mom was uncomfortably pregnant with the family’s first grandchild, and no doubt very uncomfortable on that hot night. She negotiated to “fasten off the loose ends” of their life, agreeing to jump in but only when the baby (me) was six months old. Life in Caracas was warm and sunny and welcoming (well, except for the revolution…and the attack on Nixon), an adventure for both of them. When Dad was next assigned to dark, cold Milan, Mom sunk into what she called “the blues,” a depression that disappointed her over and over as she played the role of upbeat partner.

She kept it to herself. Maybe it wasn’t a choice but a requirement of the job. Caroline kept it to herself.

“Don’t worry about the furniture,” Charles added. “We’ll leave all that. Once we get settled I can make more.” Caroline pulled her shawl to her chin, stricken. Over and over again she had imagined her things arranged in the new place Charles would build, until the picture felt familiar, almost beckoning. All at once there was no place to spread the red-checked tablecloth, nowhere to prop the pillows in their embroidered shams. Even her cozy vantage point – her rocker before the hearth – now vanished from the image.

Family tradition was everything to Mom, and she carried it into the Foreign Service journey: furniture, photographs, and family histories; the routine of Sunday noon dinners; books like the Little House series; tinsel from her father’s general store saved in tin foil between one Christmas and another, the holiday decorations carefully packed away in January, ready for the inevitable next leap into the future. Touching the past made the future easier.

So, here’s to the women who make a home, keep it solid, pack it up, and remake it as often as necessary to carry a family through life. They are the quiet heros.

7 thoughts on “The Foreign Service Pioneer Wife

    1. I just ordered your book. Sounds like we’re about the same age (I was born in 1954 in St. Paul) and know the same American geography: my extended family is in Minnesota! Sure hope we meet one day. ~ Kely

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