Our tickets have been booked. Back to the U.S.of A. we are going. I would say it’s bittersweet because only Baby K and I’ll be leaving but it’s mostly not. With an end date firmly in place, maybe we’ll all make it through the next two months — a short time anywhere but Haiyang.
We, this little family of three, don’t have a home of our own to go to. We don’t even know where to start looking for one. Things are up in the air. A known constant of this expat lifestyle we willingly signed up for, and something I normally do well with. I like change. I used to switch jobs every couple of years. I never aspired to home ownership or even staying put in one town, city, or country. Since I left for college fifteen years ago, I’ve pinballed between four East Coast locales. Including China, I’ve done three stints abroad. Not counting the college years, I’ve inhabited 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, yes, five apartments. I spent my last months in the U.S. in a big old farmhouse I helped remodel. I’ll never forget it for both the sense of accomplishment and the permanent neck injury it left me with. With free labor comes free rent and sometimes, as in our case, a bond that won’t be broken. (In this lifetime at least.)
Now here I am, on the verge of another transitional phase. I’m more than ready to slam the rickety door on my China chapter and rush blindly into a new one whose — pardon the small detail — actual setting is unknown. Answers to other questions — will we rent an apartment or buy house, will I get a job or remain a stay at home person, will I find life with a kid as challenging back home or will it be easier outside of China — will come soon enough. It’s not like these are things I don’t think about regularly. I do. But it’s easy to be cavalier about big life stuff when there’s always the same place to return to.
I’ll be taking Baby K back to where it all began. My childhood home. This was never part of any big plan but it’s a nice twist of fate. I thought the house would’ve been sold years ago but my mom’s still there in the house she designed and furnished. In the one my dad proudly paid for. There’s a lot of good memories there for me, and I hope to make some more with Baby K.
I can picture us eating breakfast at the appropriately high for tall people kitchen bar. The Today Show will be blaring in the background as it used to on all those mornings of my senior year when I preferred watching my mom’s favorite “news” show to arriving on time for first period. I see Mom, Baby K, and I lounging in the afternoons watching Mr. Rogers. On the same couch in the same living room we used to laugh at my dad from when he’d imitate Robert Redford’s famous “fine figure of man” line from Jeremiah Johnson. Thanks to TNT that was about every other weekend.
I predict we’ll follow the always curious Baby K as she explores the rest of the rooms that have mostly stayed the same. The framed albums and band posters that used to decorate my room are no longer on display, but it’s still full of the antique furniture my mom hunted down on weekend trips I suffered through as a young kid.
It’ll be a relief to be back in a familiar place. One that comes with worry-free living for the most part. My dad’s old joke about visitors needing a tetanus shot before entering comes back to mind as I think about what living in a non-baby proofed house will be like. My mom’s mish-mash collection of old, should’ve-been-thrown-away-by -their-original-owners’ knickknacks from rusty scissors, to grimy kitchenware, to photos of country scenes of yesteryear still adorn the white plastered walls and dangle down from wrought iron light fixtures and rustic wooden beams. But as long as Baby K can navigate around the dangerously placed brick fireplace corner, I expect our days to be carefree. There won’t be mold or peeling “paint” or falling shower tiles to think about. Hot, even clean, water will be a-plenty. We won’t have to plan our days around power outages. Best of all, we’ll be able to walk right out the door without checking pollution levels. A good thing since we’ve got a lake in our backyard (with water you can actually swim in), plus quiet safe roads to walk on that prioritize pedestrians over cars.
And there’s our little tourist town to rediscover. It’s a place that’s boring for all of us teenagers who grew up there, but one that now seems ideal for anyone looking for a good place to raise a family. (It’s true: add a kid into the mix and the way you look at the world changes in more ways than one.) I wonder what remains of “my” hometown and how it’s changed? My favorite ice cream shop still exists but I doubt I’ll know most of the restaurants. I know the draw for visitors is still there — the historic battlefield and its pivotal role in the Civil War gets more popular with each passing year. Millions of people crush upon our town every summer but they probably don’t think twice about us locals, who equally love to bitch about their presence and celebrate the financial boom they bring.
There’s some heartache waiting for me, too. Like most kids, I couldn’t wait to leave our house and, more so, sleepy town behind when I left for college. But it’s a place I’ve always come back to during periods of the unknown. Some were happier than others. Years ago I returned after my final semester of college abroad in London and just before I landed my first job in a big city. The last decent chunk of time I spent there was after my dad died, a somber occasion that in some ways was less about me being there for my mom and more about needing to be there myself.
As much as the house is an anchor, my Mom’s been the real grounding presence in my life, and I suspect in my siblings’ too. These days she’s often the one flitting around between us and the families we’ve created in places far from home. She even made the trip all the way to China to be around for me, for Iggy, and for Baby K when we needed her most. But here I am returning once again to her and the home she and my dad built for me, for my sister, for my brother. And, as it turns out, one of their grandkids. There’s no place I’d rather kick off our U.S.-based life in or with. Well, it’d be nice if Iggy could be there too, but he’ll join us soon enough. By that time, let’s hope we have some concrete answers to those big life questions.