Memoir Monday: Home Leave Territory is Still Sacred Ground

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.

The World According to Jane, Embassy Kid, publication expected 2023

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.

Baker Medlock sculptor
Baker Medlock sculptor

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.

Amerson family reunion St. Paul MN
Amerson family reunion in St. Paul MN

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.

Cousin Shannon, sister Sue, and me
Cousin Shannon, sister Sue, and me

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!

Polkaing with Elaine

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.

EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR. Episode 3: How My Mother Got Our Family Through A Revolution (1958, Caracas)

[This is a condensed version of my memoir about my childhood in the Foreign Service during the Cold War. EMBASSY KID is being evaluated for publication by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training]

Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving

Episode 1: The Dictator Flies Over Our House

EMBASSY KID: Preface


My parents watched the procession of looters shuffled by, the sounds of their humble slippers, the Venezuelan alpargatas, mimicking the sound of prairie wheat blown by the wind. The parade disappeared into the night. In just hours, dawn would peak over the Andes, ushering in the first day of Venezuela’s freedom from tyranny.

“It’s going to be a long day,” my father said. ”Might as well get a little sleep.”

My mother lay at his side, eyes shut and mind wide open. Never in a million years had she imagined while growing up in Winona, Minnesota that she’d be a 30-year-old part-time diplomat, mother of two bilingual kids, and boss to a live-in maid, trying desperately to figure out how was she going to her household through a South American revolution.

Dad muttered something in his sleep, and Mom rested her hand on his shoulder. The baby-faced blond GI who’d wooed her at Macalester College had charmed her with his intelligence, wit, and gift of gab, and she knew that her smile, chestnut hair, and dancer’s grace made them look elegant wherever they were. He’d been looking for adventure, and boyohboy they were in it now.

The pitter-patter of little feet told Mom that I was up and in search of Fina, leaving Susie to sleep in for another hour. Slips of quiet Spanish made their way from the maid’s room beyond the kitchen. Mom roused herself to get the coffee water on, an old habit. 

Josefina and Janie, Caracas 1955
Josefina and Janie, Caracas 1955

Fina had become my world when she rescued me, wailing, from the spot between the bed and the wall I wedged myself into the day my parents and I were at the home of another Embassy family. In short order, Fina had moved in with us, and I had my first full-time playmate. Spanish was my first language. After my sister arrived, I knew I could still steal my Fina time first thing in the day. 

I danced into the kitchen in my pink robe and Venezuelan alpargatas sandals. Like baby Susie, my fair hair and blue eyes revealed my parents’ Norwegian heritage. “Buenos días, Mommy!” 

Mom scooped me up. “Good morning to you.” She kissed the top of head, remembering our first year in Caracas when my scant hair and lack of pierced ears had caused caraqueños to think I was a boy. She gave me a squeeze before depositing me onto my regular chair at the little kitchen table. 

Josefina walked in, smoothing the skirt of her cotton dress and tucking back a strand of her black hair. She had on one of the flowered dresses Mom had insisted she wear instead of the head-to-toe black outfit Fina had worn when she first came to work for us. Mom would have no mourning clothes here. To my mother’s midwestern sensibility, somber clothing was appropriate for funerals but not for the everyday wardrobe. Cheerfulness would be the order of the day.

“Fina.” Mom nodded with what she hoped was confidence. There was no need to get her going again.

The living room phone rang. Dad spoke into the receiver briefly. 

“Well, looks like we’ll make it,” Dad called out.

“That’s good,” Mom said, waiting for more.

Fina tied on her apron. “Señora.” She smiled, holding her lips tight over her bad teeth. “Yo me ocupo.” I’ll take it from here. “¿Geni, Corne Flex?” The Kellogg’s cereal was a staple in our house. She poured me a bowl.

Mom smiled to herself, remembering Fina’s first days with us, when she’d carried the box of Betty Crocker cake mix to the breakfast table thinking it was cereal. “Gracias, Fina,” she said, and joined Dad in the living room.

“Well, things are settling down,” he said, “but the communists are emerging. The Boy Scouts, in fact.”

“But that’s an American organization, isn’t it?” Mom said.

“International, but this region is headquartered in good ol’ Havana. So these kids, commie-trained maybe, have seen an opportunity to be helpful, and, damn it if they aren’t doing just that. They’re directing traffic all over town.”

“Well, the craziness of last night could hardly continue,” Mom said.

“It’s been months brewing, Nan, so, no, it’s still crazy,” Dad said. 

Fina brought in their coffee. “¿Algo más?”

No, gracias, Fina,” Mom said. 

The maid nodded and returned to the kitchen where I waited to chat away about our day’s plans. I had no idea anything was going, and Mom wanted to keep it that way. Happy and normal.

“So,” Dad continued, “Things will be more crazy as Caraqueños realize the shackles are gone. Best we stay off the streets for a while longer.”

Janie, Susie, Fina, Caracas 1958
Janie, Susie, Fina, Caracas 1958

And so our little family spent the rest of the day indoors. While Dad kept the telephone tree information flowing through the Embassy, Mom worked up a batch of Grandma Amerson’s lemon bars, and Fina oversaw Susie and me playing in the aluminum washtub next to the cement laundry sink behind the kitchen, keeping an eye out for the rats that lived in the drain. A poison-laced banana had kept the varmints away during my grandparents’ visit. 

The day limped along. Mom typed her weekly letter to her parents. Susie and I played store with Fina in Spanish, had lunch, napped, played dress-up in Mom’s old modern dance costumes and Fina’s Sunday shoes, had dinner. After our baths, we cozied into our hooded towels while Mom read us a bedtime story. If you ignored the radio, it would have been just another family day at home.

But it was my father’s job to stay tuned in. As the press attaché, Dad had developed a wide network of contacts among journalists and newspaper editors, academics, and political players. The American press included trusted contacts as well, like Tad Szulc of the New York Times, who covered the growing resistance to Pérez Jiménez. Many of the Venezuelan journalists and professors Dad first met in 1955 had become involved in clandestine work against the military dictator. Periodically, things would come to a head in their conversations, the Venezuelans questioning how America, beacon of democracy, could support the tyrant. Dad’s personal sentiments bled through his official response. 

Now that the reviled Pérez Jiménez had been overthrown, Dad would be able to celebrate the success of the revolution with his contacts.

If they survived. The radio blared the latest: shots had been fired as a mob surrounded the headquarters of the dreaded national police.1

Footnotes

1Pérez Jiménez’ Seguridad Nacional enforced press censorship, restricted organized labor, and banned political opposition. (Amerson, Robert. How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, The American University Press, 1995. p. 4)

Family Friday: When COVID Hits Home for a Reporter

Micaela Watts has spent the year of pandemic tracking the mounting data for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, part of the USA Today Network of newspapers of which my daily, The Palm Beach Post, is part. Her work meant understanding the virus better she ever wanted to know and listening to more heartbreak than she ever wanted to hear. Then, it came for her 100-year-old grandmother, and Ms Watts’ own heart broke.

The two worlds I strive to keep separate came crashing together: my job and my family. I was face to face with COVID-19, a set of genetic codes contained in a virus strand that brought the modern world to its knees. And now it had my grandmother, my Mimi. I had dutifully avoided seeing her for a year, even as I worried it would be her last. She was, after all, 100 years old.

Micaela Watts, Memphis Commercial Appeal

Here is a portion of the article Micaela Watts wrote about her grandmother’s final hour. I found it so touching that it needs no more words from me. Please read through to the end, as the final line broke my heart, too.

The COVID-19 unit was bright and clean. And though Brett had warned me I might hear a lot of different alarms and beeps, it was eerily quiet.

As my gaze moved toward the top of the bed, I first became aware of the dull roar of her oxygen supply. It reminded me of the closed-air system on airplanes, the hiss they make when planes are idling on the runways. I went up to her. Underneath the oxygen mask, her lips were dark. She took a ragged, gravelly breath. I heard her drowning in her own body.

The palliative care doctor, Dr. Blair, placed a hand on my back. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep her comfortable. She won’t be in any pain.” I burst into sobs. I looked over at Dr. Blair. To my surprise, I saw her eyes fill with tears. After a year of the pandemic and her career in palliative care, she was still moved by a granddaughter saying goodbye.

“If this is too hard, and you need to leave,” Brett the nurse said, “I’ll stay with her. I promise you, she will not go out alone.”

Over the next hour and a half, I held her hands and talked, loudly. Between her faulty hearing and the whoosh of the oxygen, I knew I needed to shout. I wondered if anyone passing outside her room could hear me yelling Psalm 23. “I love you,” I yelled. “I love you and it’s OK to go now.”

I watched as a single tear started to spill out of the corner of each of her closed eyes. She tried speaking, tried sitting up. She was already halfway gone. At 100, time was already coming for her, that was true. But did that make watching your loved one die any easier? Not for me.

When Brett next entered the room to administer her next shot of morphine, I knew it was time. “Brett …” I began, turning toward him. “You can turn it off now.” Brett nodded and pivoted toward the control panel for her oxygen. The hissing stopped. The silence that followed was the loudest sound I ever heard.

“She’s going to go quickly now,” he said. I nodded and kept Mimi’s small hand in my grip. She gripped back, hard. I watched her draw fewer and fewer breaths until there were none noticeable. Her grip went slack. I felt a hand on my back again. It was Brett. I looked at him, and he nodded. He didn’t have to say anything.

I slumped over in my chair, and he folded me into a hug. He reassured me that, since there was no intubation, no drawn-out fight, Mimi’s passing was one of the most peaceful he had seen in a solid year of watching people die.

At precisely 10 a.m. that day, the health department sent out their customary tweet with the day’s COVID-19 numbers as well as the daily press email. I opened it up.

There was one new reported death due to complications from COVID-19.

Micaela Watts, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Micaela Watts and her grandmother, Evelyn Watts

Family Friday: Does Your Family Yodel?

My Latino husband can yodel. He taught himself in the backyard of his Brooklyn house in the 1950s, while playing cowboys by himself, pretending he was sitting around a campfire with Gene Autry and his pals. I had no idea he could yodel until we were married and visiting my Midwestern family, when R chimed in with family yodeler Aunt Clarice’s refrain during an impromptu songfest while washing dishes. Wow, did this Brooklyn boy connect with my folks, you betcha!

Thanks to Aunt Snooky (aka Mavis Mildred Irene Amerson Voigt) for pulling together the Amerson family story that includes yodeling and lots more. Here are excerpts that show why we cannot wait to be back in the same kitchen, singing and laughing and maybe even doing some dishes.

We sisters sang harmony together, sometimes joined by Clarice, who could yodel, or by Ruby, who taught us hymns in hopes that we might go to church some day. 

Aunt Snooky

Irene loved singing, especially church songs, and told how she and Ruby or Clarice would often sit in the hayloft and sing. She and other family members also sang while washing dishes and listening to country music on the radio.

Jeanie Olsen (my cousin)

I was 3 when our family moved to a big house to a small one. Family lore is that when I saw the house at age 3, I said “I’m not going to live in this damn house.” I must have learned that from my mother, who cleaned, scrubbed and painted to make it more livable. It had no closets, but as my sister Jean said, “Luckily, we had no clothes.”

Aunt Snooky

When I was a teenager in the 1950s, my mother often said to me, “Don’t go hitchhiking. It’s dangerous. You could get kidnapped!” Fast forward to the year 2008 to the Amerson/Casjens family reunion in South Dakota, when I met up with a friend of my mother’s. When I was introduced as Margie’s son, she said “Oh, Margie. We used to go hitchhiking together!”

Jack Karsmeyer (my cousin)

I was the Middle Sister of three. Elaine was pretty, Jeanie was smart, and I was good-natured and funny. That was my role in life.

Aunt Snooky

We are so lucky that Aunt Snooky she was born the middle daughter, because her good cheer and people-connecting have carried our family forward during this very tough year.

Here, to close, is a Norwegian yodeling cows song by full-time yodeler Kerry Christensen. I’ll bet you won’t forget it!