Home Leave to the Heartland

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. 

My Coming Out Party

Two months ago today, my husband, Ray, and I flew home to Florida from Amsterdam, where I’d become critical ill during a vacation. OLVG Hospital was my home for many weeks: the ICU saved my life and the 7AGastroenterology Unit helped me become familiar with myself again. We miss that amazing community, and this note from my doctor shows you why.

In the past two months, after being cleared by the University of Florida’s Shands, my new go-to hospital, I have made steady progress in holding up my own weight and walking: from a rented Rollator, the sturdy walker similar to the one my mother called “My Cadillac;” to a no-seater; to a cane; to no assistance most of the time.

My basket of home-gym tools is no longer dusty, and my workouts at FYZICAL physical therapy are encouraging and wonderfully exhausting. My body lets me know when I’ve done enough. Sometimes all that means is that I need to stop reading and do nothing for a bit. Sometimes I’m plain tuckered out. One rotten thing about lying in a hospital bed all day is that you don’t have the “ahh” moment when it comes to relaxing into a bed for sleep. I was never a napper; I am now!

As I make progress, I am frequently thinking back to the wise advice I got from one of my OLVG doctors: don’t stress about making it “all the way back” to however you were before your illness; aim for small goals and enjoy the process of being able to recover; and there will be days in which you will feel you are going backwards, rather than forwards.

I had one of those days on Friday. The most I achieved was watching recorded episodes of Dr. Who (we became BBC fans while in Amsterdam) and about six hours of House while lying in bed eating crackers and sipping milk. It wasn’t until I stopped feeling sorry for my sad self that I realized being able to watch a show about hospital life meant that I am indeed making progress. Even if it still hurts to roll over.

I wasn’t at all sure I would be strong enough to carry through on our Colombian neighbors’ invitation to lunch, and I knew it was a stretch for my husband, who is battling his own way back from being a shocked spouse in a strange city hoping his wife will live. We’ve kept to ourselves most of the past two months.

Ajiaco, pandebono and empandas, and avocados were yesterday’s luscious lunch

But, my friend was serving ajiaco, the stew made in Bogotá that I had last tasted in 1971, when my parents, sister and I made a return trip to the city we’d called home in the ’60s. We were treated to orchids and ajiaco by very dear friends, Luis and Andres Cárdenas, boys who had grown to be handsome young men in the five years we’d been away. Their sisters Mai, Isabel, and Teresa and a cousin joined Luis and Andrés for photos in our old house.

The Cárdenas and Amerson kids reunited in Bogotá, 1971

We went. We had a wonderful time eating delicious food in Bogotano hospitality. It is like a miracle to have a friend down my street who knows that the furniture in our entryway is not just a bench but a Colombian escaño, just like I know that our delectable lunch was not a chicken stew but a Bogotá ajiaco.

Magic from the past, like a path back to childhood.