Seven years ago, my husband and I moved to Japan when he took a job teaching at a university. We assured family and friends that it wouldn’t be for long. “We’ll only be gone for one, maybe two years,” I said to my father, trying to ease the worry I saw in his face, surprised to find it there. We packed up cats, paintings, family heirlooms, books, towels and blankets. The brown and white china from Grandma Gail, the pink vase from my mother all went into labeled boxes that went into a barn or to the homes of family. House plants went to a friend, and my canned goods – jams, pickles, sauces and chutneys – were distributed equally about the neighborhood.
Two years turned to three, then four, five, six. We found meaningful work in Japan, good friends, a lifestyle we enjoyed. Each day presented a new curiosity, a new puzzle of language or custom or culture. We realized that we had been bored in America. We needed adventure and challenge. We stayed.
Each year, though, we return to America to pay homage to the place where we no longer live, to the people we left behind. The journey is long and short, easy and hard, happy and sad by turns. We will visit the old and the young, the dead and the living. We tell stories that we have told before, hear stories that we have heard before, and eagerly listen to new ones. It is an act of remembering, of renewing, of filling and emptying ourselves all at once. We go full circle, although it isn’t always clear where the circle begins and ends. “We’ll be home for a month,” I tell friends in Japan. “We go home just before Labor Day,” I say to friends in America.
We make lists and perform various rites and rituals to prepare ourselves. We arrange for plants to be watered, the cat to be fed. We eat all the leftovers in the refrigerator, turn in grades and set auto-responders on email. There is limited internet access on this trip. This journey is about real people and places, not the electronic versions savored in short sips of Facebook and Twitter and email. It requires us to focus on the actual person – their voice and breath, their shape and visage – as they will focus on ours. We will be received with open arms and will tear ourselves away with a mix of relief and sadness at the end. Even as I type this, I feel the knot of sadness in my stomach. My mother’s eyes, pale blue and glistening with tears are framed by her thick white hair as she waves from the other side of the airport gate. Her smile bent with the sob she will not release until we are gone. This annual voyage is as physically and emotionally exhausting as it is gratifying.
Along with comfortable clothing and shoes, we prepare ceremonial wear. Often there are weddings, church services, landmark birthdays or anniversaries. Once, there was a double funeral, an aunt and grandmother departing almost simultaneously, bringing cousins and children and grandchildren together for a last farewell.
Other things will appear as we need them. A friend will lend a jacket, an uncle a pair of work gloves. A mother will offer up a toothbrush, a cousin a scarf. We will not be without. We trust this road to provide as it has done before. We will be grateful.
We will stay with my mother in Wisconsin, in a small town just north of Madison, where my family will gather on plastic lawn chairs to eat the blessed Sunday Chicken Dinner in the shade of the maple tree my grandfather planted forty years ago. Sunshine will whisper through the white pines, and down by the garden, a deer may emerge to eat my mother’s green beans. Rain will seat us at the dining room table, its dark wood covered with a white tablecloth. My grandmother’s cross stitch samplers hanging on either side of the kitchen doorway. “Life is fragile, handle with prayer” is paired with a colorful bouquet of wild flowers in 1970’s shades of yellow, pink, and orange.
We will baptize ourselves in the early mornings at Silver Lake where I swim with childhood memories of Holly, Karri, Julie and Julie, Brian, Mike and Mike, and Susan. We will drink pure A&W Root Beer and eat the holy sacrament of Friday Night Fish Fry at the Trail’s Lounge. We will commemorate this part of the journey, too, with a bottle of Spotted Cow or a brandy old-fashioned. I will loosen my pants in the way of my people, surreptitiously and just before getting in the car, gazing up at the stars that fill the sky over my hometown, the place where I was born.
I will visit the graves of ancestors, friends, and a niece who unexpectedly left just this past year. I will pause to picture them, rifle through favorite memories as I plant flowers in front of their gravestones. I will thank them for being part of my life, for passing down recipes and stories that ground me here in the rolling hills and green farm fields but also let me blossom wherever I stand.
Our path will lead us on to southeast Michigan. We will sit on a hill by a fire as the sun sets over lakes and forest and prairie grass to sacrifice marshmallows. We send their sweet scent up to the heavens in thanks for a clear sky, cousins, old neighbors, and Uncle Bob’s bad jokes. I will visit Grandma Gail, who at 99 no longer speaks, but only looks on in pleasant wonder, a cannula in her nose for oxygen. So talkative for so long, I wonder if she can no longer find words or feels she has simply said enough. Should we recite back to her the tales of her childhood, of reading the Sunday comics on the floor while her father sat in his armchair reading world news, of gregarious family dinners where meanings of words were debated and finally “Quick the dic! We’re having another!” was called out to settle the argument.
We will weep when we leave her, hugging each other in a corner of the nursing home next to a cart of afternoon medications. We are grateful and sad, stunned again at the beautiful fragility of life, of the breathtaking scope of it hemmed in by horizons of birth and death.
We will drive four hours south to Dayton, Ohio to sit quietly through an afternoon of Fox News, a test that requires measured breathing and cup after cup of bad coffee. Thankfully, a multitude of house cats will play with our feet under the table. We will scratch between their ears and under their chins, soothed by their purring warm in our laps. The dog will inevitably barge in, tail wagging precariously close to cups and glasses, disturbing the cats. Perhaps he senses our discomfort or wants the channel to be changed. We will smile and nod our thanks as we wipe up spilled beverages, aware that angels and blessings appear in many guises. We will eat the hallowed Snickerdoodles, still warm from the oven before taking our leave.
My mother-in-law will take us to the restored wetlands where she will recite the plant names and describe the seasonal changes. Later, we will eat the holy minute steak still sizzling from the grill with a green salad and the microwaved jambalaya. We will solemnly wash it down with Diet Squirt as she and my husband and sister-in-law recount family lore – the Great Ketchup Incident, the Sugar-in-the-bed Trick, and Selected Vignettes from the Family Vacation Out West – before contemplating the Boggle board or prostrating ourselves before an episode of CSI.
We will trudge back to Wisconsin, ending where we began, this time embroidering friends in the last open spaces: Pat and Brenda, Karen and Thor, Kris and Kirby, Michelle and Greg. We will walk past our first apartment, recounting to each other our own part of this story. We will recall members of our group now far east and far west – Mark and Vanessa, Scott and Cindy, Pete and Annie. We will remember Fitzie, Gooby, Cloudy, and Yezick – cats who dipped their paws in our coffee, slept curled at our sides. We will meet with my father and step-mother to play a solemn game of Euchre, the cards holding divine powers of trump and not trump. When the last card is played and we stand at the door, my father will say his usual blessing, “Be good. I love you.” We will hug, leaving both of them framed in the door as we drive away.
We will repack, tucking in gifts and souvenirs for friends in Japan, new clothes, and things we cannot find easily there – a favorite tea, a friend’s handmade soap, seeds. We will retrace our steps, Wisconsin to Tokyo, a bus to our other home. We will be happy to be back in our lives, refreshed by this renewal of connection, satisfied with the fulfilling of obligation. We will sigh and laugh as we retell tales of this latest trip, as we put fresh photos on the refrigerator. A new year will begin.