Monday, December 17, 2007

A Daughter is Forever

A daughter is forever. Tired as I am of travel, when my second daughter, Erika, needed help to drive her car from Minnesota to Texas before Christmas, I agreed to go.

(Picture: Somewhere in Missouri in the remnants of an ice storm)

We made a road trip together once before. When her husband Dan finished army basic training and was sent to California, her father and I didn’t want Erika making the thirty-four hour drive on her own. We figured three eight-hour days with a ten-hour thrown in somewhere along the way would work. (My British friends, who consider a four-hour journey to be a major undertaking, are shaking their heads in dismay.) Erika, who was eager to be reunited with her husband after ten-weeks of separation and only eight hours together at his graduation from basic, talked me into two fourteen-hour days and one six-hour final sprint.

We took a picture before setting off from Indianapolis. When we got in the car, Erika turned to me and said, “Mom, I want you to know that no matter what I say to you between here and California, I love you.” I agreed that any tension between us was travel related and not to be taken personally. In return I told her that any music she chose would be fine for one CD, but no repetition without mutual agreement and no two successive CDs that were not my style.

We had a ball. We alternated music with audio-books and took a picture in every state to commemorate the journey. I drove mornings while she dozed, and she drove into the evening as long as her wifely heart pulled her west. Of course the further west we got the more widely spaced the motels, but we always seemed to be approaching the last chance by 9 or 10 P.M. We marveled at the gleaming Bonneville Salt flats; gaped at the deep valleys and green forests around Lake Tahoe; and both fell in love with Monterey Bay at first sight.

The trip from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Killeen, Texas was not so far—only seventeen hours according to Google, but Google didn’t allow for snow and ice in Kansas. We did it in two days with a couple cats who spent more time curled up in their nice soft litter box than in their carriers. Once again we listened to audio books and took pictures of ourselves in every state. This time Erika SMSed Dan in Iraq several times a day and sent an e-mail from the motel outside Wichita. Killeen is not Monterrey; I can’t say that I fell in love with the strip malls at first sight. But Erika (and the cats) are glad to be out of Minnesota's December cold and back in their own house.

My older daughter, Katie, has a daughter of her own now. Isabella toddles toward us with big smiles and extended arms. She says ‘kitty’ and pages through her board books. She climbs the stairs and descends on her belly. Katie cuddles her, plays with her and stays up in the night with her when she fusses. I watch and think back on Katie and Erika at that age. How much is still ahead for my daughter and granddaughter as their relationship grows through the years. It is just beginning, because a daughter is forever.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What is a home?

Those of us who have moved from place to place often struggle with this question. For the Hardys home has been where the four of us were together, but as the children have grown up and established their own homes, that definition falters. I hate the modern obsession with the accumulation of ‘stuff’, but…

In the autumn of 1977 we purchased a piece of property together with Steve’s parents in Northwest Wisconsin. We called it ‘BI” because of it’s location on Birch Island Lake. We found a local builder, and my mother-in-law and I picked out carpeting, paneling, appliances, etc, in the weeks before Steve and I left for Brazil. That house has been the still point in our frequently changing universe.

Christmas 1980 I saw the house for the first time. Katie was almost two. Erika was a baby, and I was still suffering from post-partum depression. I remember standing in the paneled dining room, looking out the large front windows into a snow-covered woods with the thought in my mind, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend time in a place like this.” At the same moment something inside whispered, “You will spend time here. This place belongs to you.”

What a gift from God it has been! We lived here for almost a year when we returned from Brazil in 1982. Steve spent that winter in a cast to his hip, having torn his Achilles tendon playing racket ball on New Year’s Eve. I spent it playing ‘Pioneer Woman’, caring for two small children and hauling wood since the primary heat was an Earth Stove in the basement. (We have since installed a furnace!)

The house has been a vacation home for the rest of the family when we are out of the country. There is an annual Hardy reunion on the beach in summer, and we always choose Christmas here over my family home in Indiana because there is a greater chance of snow.

During our years in Indianapolis, we didn’t get up here nearly as much as we would have liked. When we did, I always felt torn. As much as I travel, I am really a home-body. I hated to have to pack and leave Indianapolis to drive to northern Wisconsin. But once I was here, I hated to leave. When we returned to Africa in 2005, we sold our house in Indy and consolidated. Now that our possessions in South Africa (mostly borrowed or temporary) are packed in boxes, we have only one home.

Here at B.I. is Steve’s baby-grand piano, a wedding present that was practically the only furniture in our first apartment. A carved coffee table my aunt brought back from India in the 1950s sits between the couch from the graceful old house we had in Cambridge, Minnesota and the dark red, wing-back chairs I added in Indiana. My great grandmother’s china cupboard stands in the corner next to the oak dining table I finished myself. Over the fireplace hangs the lighted stained glass window from the house where Steve’s parents lived more than fifty years. The rug we brought home from Ethiopia is in the bedroom. A Swazi weaving hangs near Janet Wilson’s painting of the hen protecting her chicks from So That’s What God is Like and Grandma Larson’s oils of where she grew up in Door County, Wisconsin. My daughters’ wedding pictures are displayed opposite the needlepoint I was working on when we lived in Mozambique. Everywhere I look are items that remind me of people and places that have been important in my life. It’s ‘stuff’, but its value cannot be measure in dollars for an insurance company.

We have had to call the volunteer fire department for chimney fires on two occasions in the past thirty years. I consider those incidents God’s little reminders of how easy it would be for him to take this place if I let myself get too attached. Instead, he has surrounded us with guardian angels. We have never had a break-in, despite the house standing empty much of the time. Mom and I have lived quite happily with the choices we made thirty years ago, even though the girls think the paneling is unbelievably retro. We did replace the carpeting when Erika started sneezing because the rubber matting had disintegrated to dust, and I’m shopping for a new refrigerator while I’m here.

Home. A still place between the worlds. Thank you, Lord.
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Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Last July (winter where we lived in mile-high Johannesburg, South Africa) it snowed for the first time in twenty-six years. My friends called each other in the middle of the night. “Look outside! It’s snowing!” Long before morning the wet, white stuff had stopped falling. The children at our church’s Holiday Club made muddy snowmen imitating the ones they had learned about in books. When I first saw the dusting on the ground, I thought it was heavy frost. On closer inspection, I realized, “No. That’s snow. I knew it was cold in my house!”

Now I am ‘home’ in northern Wisconsin (with central heating.) Saturday morning I skated on our lake. Even though the ice was thick and solid, it was disconcerting to watch the sandy lake bottom glide by a meter below my blades. Late morning it began to snow—not a couple centimeters, but inches and inches of white powder that draped the pines and made our woods look like we had just stepped through the back of a magical wardrobe.

Last year it never snowed until we had returned to Africa, so I was very out of practice Sunday afternoon when I clamped on my skis. The sky was a deep blue-gray with the promise of more snow to come. The only sound was the swish, swish of my skis along the trail and my verbalized instructions to myself when my inexperience landed me in a heap. (I’m a librarian by training. We all talk to ourselves.) I came home to colored lights on the porch, a glittering tree between the windows, a fire on the hearth and the promise of Christmas to come.

Several years ago I wrote a book entitled Between Two Worlds. Will I ever stop feeling caught in that place? In Johannesburg now it is warm and sunny, and my friends sip coffee outside Mug and Bean and plan their Christmas braai (barbecue, to my fellow-Americans.) In Wisconsin the snow is falling again, adding another three to five inches to Saturday’s unmelted six. My greedy soul wants both worlds. Whichever continent I am on, I feel perpetually left out of what I am missing on the other side of the world.
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