I recently shared a post from the American Foreign Service Association about summer travel in the diplomacy business. It’s the time of year when Foreign Service officers and their families typically move to their new post and/or return to the United States to reconnect with their country and visit family. This periodically required family vacation is called Home Leave. This year, Home Leaves and transfers to new posts have been upended by the Coronavirus.
Similarly, my summer travels to reconnect with family — a connection grown even more dear after the death of my mother and father — must be postponed. I suffered a loss in immune protection when I became ill last year, and we both fear returning to hospitals. Still, just looking at the photos of family and flowers from our last visit to Minnesota — for my cousin’s wedding — fills me with longing.
My sister recently negotiated a road-trip from Colorado to Minnesota, visiting with family at a distance. She snapped the cover shot — a classic South Dakota view — for this post on the trip home, and inspired me to share what Home Leave felt like in 1962, when I was seven, my sister was five, and home was Rome. This is an excerpt from my current work-in-progress, EMBASSY KID: AN AMERICAN EMBASSY FAMILY MEMOIR.
By the summer of 1962, we were overdue for a month’s home leave. We’d been in Italy for almost three years — moving three times in eighteen months — and we were nearing the statutory requirement by which a Foreign Service officer must return to the United States for a month’s reorientation. The State Department would pay for roundtrip travel to Dad’s address-of-record in South Dakota.
We follow the Mississippi north to the Twin Cities, the road high matching the river like soprano harmony following an alto melody. Dad sisters, Aunt Snooky and Aunt Jeanie, and their husbands, the uncles, laugh and hug and eat and sing. I watch Mom re-do her French twist, bobby pins in her mouth, licking her finger to slick back a few stray pieces and smooth down Susie’s bangs. Dad’s laugh mingles with the happy chaos of being with kid sisters. We barely make a dent in bowls of potato salad and bean salad, platters of fried chicken, piles of steaming sweet corn, and baskets of those wonderful American roll with salty butter. Aunt Snooky gets out her guitar and the party shifts to the living room. I settle into Mom, feeling the gentle rise and fall of her ribcage. Susie wanders over to the couch as Dad flips through the songbook for another cowboy tune.
We caravan west on a ribbon of gray sunlight splitting the endless deep green cornfields. Somewhere in front of us is South Dakota and more family. The tires bump a rhythm like a heart beat.
The sky arches overhead and to every horizon much wider than ever you could see at home, though just as blue. Ragged columns of clouds in various stages of puffery parade by. Shimmering silos and red-painted barns, twinned like Romulus and Remus, appear here and there, the pop-up cluster of trees hiding the farmhouse completing the set. Dad says the trees protect the houses from being covered by the winter snows, but that a summer tornado could uproot a tree and drop it right onto the house. I check the sky.
At our boy cousins’ farm, we eat again — fresh-picked corn, jello-mold salads, layered fruit bars — and Susie and I put on their jackets that smell like grass and smoke. We shovel green food pellets out of a little wagon for the sheep, and balance on the wooden fence slats watching enormous grunting pigs slurp slop. Aunt Marie shows me how to reach under the sitting hens for their warm eggs, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get pecked.
There is a bar of soap in the bathroom that grinds the dirt right off. The stairs leading to the boys’ bedrooms are like the steps to the loft where Laura and Mary lay on their straw-filled mattress. Aunt Marie makes bread and pie while Uncle Eugene sits at the kitchen table smoking his pipe and making conversation as the Farm Bulletin plays on the radio.
It is heaven.