For the first twelve years of my childhood, America was not home, but rather the place that we visited every few years from Europe or Latin America and the cities that WERE home: Caracas, Bologna, Rome, Bogotá. Foreign service officers like my father was during the Cold War, are required to take what the State Department calls “home leave” — travel to their designated home and 30 days within the USA — to refresh their allegiance to the country they represent.
The background on the home leave rule is the concern that diplomats might become overly sympathetic to whatever culture they’re in and forget about their American roots. Those 30 days were designed to re-Americanize those of us who’d been overseas.My father, Robert C. Amerson, United States Information Agency
For my midwestern family, home leave was travel to the farmland of eastern South Dakota, where my father was born and raised. Along the way, we’d also visit Winona, Minnesota, the Mississippi River town that my mother came from, and the Twin Cities, where my father’s siblings had settled.
Home Leave Territory
These locations—where we had grandparents, aunts and uncles, and scads of cousins—became to me Home Leave Territory. It was a world in which it was always summer, our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in the same homes year after year, and we were the celebrated visitors. Here’s how I described a 1962 trip.
Home Leave Territory takes up most of my childhood mental map of America. My memoir EMBASSY KID (coming in Spring 2023 from the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and New Academia Publishing) includes this telling illustration.
My home leave connection remains in my 68-year-old marrow. Postponed for three years—first, by my 2019 illness and, then, by the pandemic—I traveled with my sister to Minnesota in mid-July to for a weekend of family time, an echo of the huge gatherings that would erupt when we visited “the home sod” every few summers from 1957-74.
My 2022 visit
Our first stop was at Firefly Farm, my cousin Ricka and husband Josh’s tranquil retreat amidst acres of sweet corn and soy fields, where her sister Becky at This Old Horse manages Wells Creek Wild Mustang Sanctuary, an awesome forever home for these rescued horses. Ricka and I are the oldest cousins on my mother’s side of the family, and we still huddle when given a chance.
The very cool horse sculpture is by nephew Baker Medlock, cousin Eve’s son. You can find more of Bake’s work here.
Then, we were off across the farmland and big open skies of Minnesota to see my father’s side of the family in the Twin Cities.
Seated in the St. Paul backyard of Uncle Carl, we raised a glass to Aunt Jeanie, who passed in 2021, and to her daughter Shannon, whose birthday my sister and I celebrated with her in Colorado just days before.
On Sunday, we got one-on-one time with Dad’s surviving sisters, Aunt Snooky and Aunt Elaine, both in their nineties and sharp as tacks. Snooky leads the book club and takes calisthenics at her senior living facility in Minneapolis.
Elaine, who lives alone in St. Paul, does a daily workout routine she created 20 years ago. We felt her strength as she whirled us through the polka. My sister and I come from good stock!
Family ties that bind FS kids
I feel very lucky to have known these people my whole life, and to share memories with my cousins that go back two generations. Although it’s not nearly the same as having family down the block, or even in the same country while you’re growing up, the State Department’s home leave paved the way for longterm relationships with the people who I treasure.
A current Foreign Service family recently wrote on their blog that they are sad that their children have so few opportunities to be with their extended family.
And the truth is that our kids do not spend enough time with their cousins. They should be engaging in the kind of cousin hijinks that form lasting familial bonds and undergird close relationships into adulthood. This is part of the price we pay for serving overseas.Towels Packed, Will Travel
My Amerson cousins are still laughing about the time in South Dakota that we kids hopped off the hay wagon into the corn field, leaving one cousin driving the tractor alone. Silly prank. Meaningless, really. So why does it bring us all so much joy?
It isn’t the amount of time together. It’s recognizing that any time together is precious. And that Home Leave Territory is still sacred.