By Kathleen Siddell
The air conditioning hummed white noise throughout our 15th floor apartment. My boys zoomed cars on the slick marble floor. “We’re going to move back to Connecticut,” I announced to everyone and no one. One cannot make such an announcement to a four and five year old who are busy driving in an imaginary world. I asked them to put down their toys and sit with me on the couch.
“We’re going to be moving from Singapore back to Connecticut.” I tried to read their faces.
“Oh, to our home country,” my five year said. “Jens’ home country is Denmark.”
“Connecticut is where we go for Christmas, right?” My four year was trying to read my face.
“So it will be snowing,” they cheered.
In the next few weeks, I fielded many questions about the logistics of toys traveling halfway around the world (what if they get broken), the realities of seasons (it won’t snow in July), and the abstract concept of time (will we live there forever).
I didn’t grow up traveling to faraway lands. My parents always chose the roads well traveled. When we left our Southern Connecticut home, we’d drive up I-95 through New Haven, cross through Rhode Island and land in Southern Massachusetts to “the homeland.” (My mother’s homeland, to be exact.) “Going West” meant a trip to my other grandparents, up I-91, through Hartford, landing in Springfield. Once a year we’d make our way up the familiar eastern route out to the elbow of Massachusetts on Cape Cod.
My parents always kept several maps in our coffee table drawers. None of these tangled roads reached further than the New England states. Even then, I could find our usual spots by the way the map folded, almost instinctively, into well-worn creases. Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine made up the untouched, barren abyss of places we might go.
I liked to unfold the maps and spread them out on the floor. I’d trace my finger along the snaking highways and byways and guess how long it might take to cross each state border all the way to the grey of Canada. I liked to read the names of towns I’d never visit. The web of lines, colors and various symbols felt like a secret key, even if I had no idea what it might open.
For almost the entirety of their lives, my kids had lived in Asia. My husband and I struggled to know when was the right time to tell them we would be moving. I spent weeks worrying how to answer questions about when they might see their friends again, what their new school would be like and what would happen to our Singapore home. Those questions never came. Instead, I packed my unspoken worries and the memories my kids were too little to carry.
We settled back in Connecticut like leaves drifting through an autumn sky. We landed softly but I was unsure if we’d till back into the soil or blow away to another season.
We found a preschool for my youngest that appealed to my belief that preschool shouldn’t be much like school. They placed a heavy emphasis on nature so when we were invited to an outdoor ceremony for the Winter Solstice, I wasn’t surprised.
While the kids prepared inside, the parents stood in two parallel lines. We stretched our arms overhead and joined them with the hands across the aisle to make a human tunnel. Barren trees clawed into the dusk.
Our children emerged from the glow at the entryway to the school, each carrying lit lanterns. They followed a path around the yard, illuminated by even more lanterns, crunching their way through leaves and under our arms. The teachers recited poems.
It was all deeply symbolic I’m sure — darkness, lightness, and the slumber of life in the coming winter — but I was too focused on the cold air and impending inferno. The early winter chill rippled down my spine into my limbs while candle flames bounced. I seemed to be the only one ready to shout, “Four year olds walking with fire?! We’re all going to go up in a blaze of tragic irony!” We didn’t.
Our parting gift was a bulb, to be planted as a reminder of life that returns in Spring. As we walked hand in hand to the car, my boy and I talked about planting it. I thought we might put it in the pot that boasted a wig of disintegrating mums.
I intended to, but the bulb sat, slowly dying on our kitchen sill, as good intentions are wont to do. For a while, I thought the hearty bulb might still blossom even after all the weeks that passed. Then one day, in a rare fit of Marie Kondo organizing, I rolled the bulb, slightly brown with peeling skin, around my palm. Did it bring me joy? It did not.
My son has never asked about it. If this should bring me comforting reassurance or a questionable lack of attachment, I am not certain. At 4 years old, how can I know if a more nomadic life will suit my son or if he’ll want to feel rooted.
By all measures, a nomadic life is not one that should appeal to me.
“China? Who the hell would want to go to China?” My grandfather’s voice echoed from behind his newspaper.
My mother’s friend was planning a once in a lifetime trip to China. I think what followed was a conversation about how long, expensive, useless, tiring, inconvenient such a trip would be. What if you couldn’t communicate? What if you didn’t like the food? What if you got lost?
Even though she had not lived in Massachusetts for decades, in her distinct Boston accent, she often talked of places outside of the greater Boston area as foreign lands. There was the dismay of ordering a lobster roll only to have it appear warm and buttered, the wonder of touring Pennsylvania Dutch country or the confusion when asking if someone was going “down Maine.” Whether her attachment was more for old New England or for a bygone era, I was never really sure. The two seemed to easily conflated for her.
My grandmother instilled much of this kind of nostalgic thinking. As a young girl, my grandmother had outlived all her siblings and became an unplanned only child. As a result she was completely devoted to her parents. Whether she felt grateful or burdened or some combination of both, she never said. For me, this legacy manifest into a deep attachment to staying close to home. The measure between love for family was directly proportional to distance one strayed from home. Closeness begets closeness.
These are the legends I use to navigate the map of my family’s history.
My parents are delighted to have us living back in Connecticut. We visit them on a Saturday morning. They live a few towns away, in the same house where I grew up.
My eldest loves that our regular FaceTime calls have been replaced with regular visits to their house. He asks if we can move into their neighborhood. He loves riding his bike up and down our winding driveway and running outside in our suburban playground. When prodded he says that he misses living in Asia, but without saying it, I know he is happy here. I know it in the same way I know, without him saying, he still fears dark rooms and too much attention.
Sitting in my parent’s living room, I’m struck by how small this house I know so well feels. The rocking chair I once wasn’t able to rock with my feet, the shelves that once seemed so high, the room itself feels like a miniature version of where I grew up. Im unable to settle snuggly here.
My kids find the familiar yellow Lego carrying case. It clicks open to reveal a sea of battered mini bricks. These relics from the past dot my parent’s raised ranch. “You played with these when you were little?” I can’t tell if my son is more surprised that I was little, or that we have the same toys. “I wish we had these flowers in our Lego cases,” he whines. I remember building miniature houses, making sure the colors were evenly matched and the windows were symmetrical. The flowers were always the last detail.
My parents planted. I flew.
I was 20 when I first traveled abroad to France. While most of my peers were in their junior year, I was a senior. Shy and uncertain, I had listened to friends talk about their study abroad trips in a way that made me feel not only like I could do it, but like I had to do it. It was the first time I’d associated risk with reward.
My parents drove me to Newark airport. We wandered the international departure gate and filled the mindless noise with more noise. We used small words to try to quell big emotions. I’d never been that far from home. On the wings of a Boeing 767, I flew into the cloudy unknown.
“You are very quiet,” my host father said at dinner one nights, “do you not like it here?” My French was not good enough to explain that he was right, and he was wrong.
I walked barefoot in the cool grass of a Parisian park, saw a bullet hole in the wall of a cement building in East Berlin, and breathed the thick air in the Sistine Chapel feeling that though billions of molecules separated me and Michelangelo, we are all connected.
I wrote letters to my parents and grandparents. Partly I wanted to assure them that flying across the ocean hadn’t severed any familial ties. Partly I wanted them to know It was precisely because I had gotten lost, had trouble communicating and sometimes didn’t love the food that made me love the experience.
Distance hadn’t pulled me away, it helped to give me perspective so that I could see myself more clearly. Six months later, I flew back feeling like home is everywhere and nowhere.
I met my parents at the arrival gate amid halls decked in holiday greens and reds. “You look different,” my mom said. I was 21 and just beginning to understand traveling was an inevitable character trait. I’m sure I shrugged sheepishly though I wish I had responded, “so do you.” It was the first time I’d see my parents as the North Star.
Traveling hadn’t made me feel lost, it made me feel found.
We’re entering the Spring thaw — one last icy cool breath in before a warm exhale out. There will be no sturdy stems sprouting from buried buds in our pots (still prickly with dead stems). Instead, in this seasonal shift, new worries sprout. I worry I would have killed the bud from that December ceremony regardless, but I didn’t even give it a chance. I worry that my reluctance to plant it is a not-so-subtle metaphor. I worry that my oldest son will never want to leave. I worry that I will never want to stay. I worry we might not share the same view of the world.
And yet the earth softens, like it’s made to do.
It is in the softness of Spring that I watch my son playing on a grassy field with his friends. We are at a birthday party. The host gives us a small gift to thank us for coming. My son holds it up. It looks like a plant without soil. It is tagged with instructions on how to care for an “air plant.” The instructions are minimal: once a week submerge in water for 15 minutes.
It’s growing long and sturdy, with leaves like thick blades of grass. It currently sits in a small jar where the skinny green fingers reach upward.
I think back to that December ceremony. I can still feel the way my son’s tiny fingers intertwined with mine, rooting us together with the North Star shining above.
Kathleen Siddell is a teacher and writer living (for now) in Connecticut. She and her family have returned from Asia but are feeling ready for the next adventure. You can find her drowning in the Twitterverse @kathleensiddell.
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