By Nina Sichel
I have come full circle, and it is nearly time to leave. I arrived here two decades ago, just months from the birth of my first child, and now the youngest is ready for college, my husband has moved ahead of me into a new job and a new city, and I am left to stem the flow of twenty years in Tallahassee. I want to contain our time here neatly in a cool, clear bowl. I want a lake we can return to, and gaze into, and see, in the depths, ourselves. I want this tumble of remaining time to pause, so I can make sense of its passing, so I can choose and gather the markers by which to remember our years here. But time rolls perversely on, and it carries me dizzily along. I pan for memories, trying to net the flow, but everything rushes out of grasp, and all I gather are glints of time past, not its essence.
I look at my children, grown into adulthood now, and think of what this move must mean to them, how it will affect them. This has always been their home. This is where they were born and raised and their ventures out have always led to returns. There are whole lifetimes to be sorted through and wrapped up, identities redefined as we slip into new skins, evolve into new creatures, our circumstances and surroundings and self-images shifting with time and the need to move on. And I wonder, what will my children keep as they find their new places in this world? And what will cling to me?
I feel a creeping nostalgia for what might have been, sorrow and loss for a place I might have allowed myself to become attached to. But I was raised with no real roots, an American child in Venezuela, growing up moving from house to house all through my childhood. I believed I’d find home in another place, another time. Resistance to settling became part of who I am. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in my life, but I still won’t root, and for all these years, I’ve been ready to leave.
Until now. Now I find myself unprepared, and questioning this turn in feeling, this wistful desire for belonging I never had. It is only now, knowing I am leaving, that I begin to wish I had sunk more of myself into this place, lived more fully and deliberately in the time I had here. Is nostalgia anything more than an attempt to hold on to a place or time that is being pulled away from me? What am I afraid of losing?
I know there is much I will miss. I love the languid lift of Spanish moss on a balmy breeze, the magnificent spread of live oak branches, their generous shade. The rhythmic rise and fall of the land, and its gentle slope to the sea. The slow-moving tannic rivers, flashing sunlight, the egrets starkly white against the dark brush. The transparent aqua springs, so cold on torrid summer afternoons. The beaches, with their wide and blinding sands, unpeopled, the dolphins arcing the waters, the hot salt air. The sky, constantly rearranging its constellations and its clouds. Floral palettes, picked from my springtime azaleas and placed on our round oak table. Nostalgia is a gentle pull, though its hold is strong. I am as wary of entrapment as I am of letting go.
Fiercer attachments bind me here, too, heartholds which are ripping apart as the time approaches for my departure — my children, splintering away to different colleges and new lives, the friends I’ve grown to love as family, the people I will leave behind, histories I have shared.
The births and deaths and cycles I’ve been a part of, forever tied to this place, receding into memory. Mothering. Nursing my babies, watching the stars move through the trees as I rocked, rocked, rocked. The warmth of my infant children, bundled close, their slackening mouths, their drift to sleep. As they grew older, the splash-pool, the tree house, chickenpox, Girl Scouts, soccer practice. Music lessons, art lessons, summer camp. Stitches, broken bones, fevers. Formal dances, broken hearts. The pets we’ve buried. The crisp air at the Christmas tree farm, where each year we have brought the children and the dogs and stomped through row after row of trimmed Virginia pine, looking for just the right tree. Returning to the car for spiced apple cider while the tree is shaken to free loose needles, and then wrapped and tied onto the roof. Driving lessons, the first time out alone, the first time in a storm, my held breath till they were safely back in the driveway. The way I still ache with the memory of their long walk down the hallway to kindergarten, alone. Their slow move toward independence.
This is a yearlong transition, and another one will follow. This year my husband is gone, starting his new life while I try to wrap up our old one. We meet on occasional weekends and fake normalcy. Days and nights spin on.
If I tell you that I wrap myself around his pillows at night, and that I won’t wash the pillowcase he slept on till he returns, will it seem sentimental and silly? Overblown? If I tell you that his worn shirt is hanging on the hook by the door, and that I sink my face into it when I pass, breathe in the scent he left — if I tell you that I tried to wear it once, but something twisted inside me, and I couldn’t — will I seem obsessive? If I tell you that I store up my anger and my stress till it explodes on his few weekends home, will I seem selfish, mean, unbalanced?
There are piles of papers to go through — children’s artwork, old bank statements, letters, Christmas cards — fragments of a settled life. Where to begin? Each drawing carries the memory of the time in which it was made, the life-stage of that child, that parent, the family. I think, this is silly emotionalism, it isn’t the real thing. But it might be. Without those markers to bring me back, will I be able to remember? I find a series of mermaid pictures my daughter drew with her bright, erasable markers, each one slightly different, each telling a different story. How do I choose only one, to be representative? And what, exactly, can one picture represent? I look at them and see my daughter’s mind at work, her playfulness, her inventiveness — which aspect am I asking myself to sacrifice? Can there be any part of her that does not deserve memorializing?
There is a book of basic numbers. My daughter taught my son to add and subtract before he attended his first day of school, because she already knew how to do that and thought it was important. They are only numbers. They are an entire relationship, frozen in a place and time that I do not want to forget.
Here are mementos of trips we’ve taken, here are the games we played, unused craft supplies, musical instruments. A toddler’s rocking chair, a puppet theater, the gown I made for my daughter’s eighth grade dance. A softball glove outgrown, cleats left to gather dust in the back of a closet, jewelry and trinkets. Junk. The sand dollars we collected once, at sunset on St. George Island, as the water calmed in the shallow places and the sky shimmered and my husband peeled shrimp to boil.
How do others do this? My mother periodically ransacked our closets, cleaning them out, keeping them organized. I’d come home to find my clothes or toys had been given away “to the poor children,” she’d say, so I could feel good about it. But I missed them. What is there now to trigger memories of my childhood? The only thing left are photographs. Albums and albums of them, organized chronologically, and my mother and I pore over them every time I return. But they only tell part of the story of my childhood. And they tell it from my parents’ point of view.
Will my children miss their things? Do they mean more to me than they do to them?
How, in the midst of such confusion, such conflicting emotions, all the daily obligations — how can I make the decisions that bring order and sense to all this? There is my son’s prom and graduation to plan for, a new apartment to rent for my daughter, the dogs need their shots. I don’t have time to stop and figure all this out.
I decide I can’t do this, I won’t, I’ll pack everything up and take it with me and sort through it before putting it away in the new place. Wherever and whatever that might be. I am brought up short by the fact that there is no new place, not yet, and whatever new place we find will surely be much, much smaller. After all, there will only be two of us, most of the time. I cannot contemplate that thought too closely.
Here are years of calendars, with the doctor and the dentist and the orthodontist appointments penned in — with reminders to myself about meetings, reunions, trips — with quickly jotted notes to remember the cute things they said — it’s only another box, it won’t take up that much room. Baby blankets, stuffed animals, bedtime books. It isn’t the item, it’s the memories it dredges up that I’m afraid I’ll lose if I discard these totems.
And if I do? If I lose the memories? Am I afraid I will lose myself with them, my family? What is it I am clinging to?
What do we owe our memories? How much of our souls do they contain?
Our listing realtor tells me I should leave the house when prospective buyers come to look it over. They will feel more comfortable, she explains, they will look in your closets, they will feel free to comment. In all my moves, so many before the children were born, it has never occurred to me to peer into someone else’s private space, not while they’re still using it. I feel invaded, forced to flee my home and give up my time for someone else. I am made foreign in my own space. I put away the pictures of my children. I did not teach them to smile at strangers.
Another realtor tells me it is fine if I stay home, I can share some of the problems of the house. Problems? This has been my home for twenty years, this is where my children had their birthday parties, this is where they were raised, I want to scream. I hurt mental missives at the realtor — the house has character! It has quirks! It has personality! It has no problems!
I strip wallpaper. I paint. Neutrals, I am advised, stick to plain, unexciting colors. Clean your counters, get rid of the clutter. Wash out the bathroom stall, it has mineral deposits. Oh, yes, and get a good rug deodorizer — the dogs, you know.
I am doing more for strangers than I ever did for us.
My home is beginning to retreat. It is becoming a house again. I try to be cool and distanced. I try not to judge the people who come to look. I have no control over their decisions. I have no control over the sales process. I have no control over its outcome.
I spend hours every day poring over electronic listings in the metropolitan Washington area. Costs are four or five times what they are here, and the competition to buy is vicious. I select some interesting-looking sites, and my husband visits them on evenings and weekends. Nothing suits us, everything is too expensive. We panic, retreat, worry. The real estate market has spiraled out of reality, the prices are fantastic, but, we are assured, this is no bubble. This is the way it is. We imagine another year of a commuting marriage, and quickly reject that option. We will have two children in college and we are already stretched beyond capacity.
People come and go. Our realtor assures me the house will sell, but this only leaves me feeling more pressured, more stressed. We need to locate something else soon. My husband has spent every weekend riding the metro, walking the neighborhoods, trying to find something affordable.
I travel north to spend a few days with him in Virginia. We visit houses well above our budget, hopeful that something might miraculously become possible. They are matchboxes, crowded one next to another with hardly space to breathe, a strip of lawn for the dogs. This is a market of escalator clauses — you put a bid on a house and the price climbs and climbs and you tell your realtor what your absolute limit is as you enter a bidding war. What kind of way is this to look for a new home?
We know we will have to downsize. We begin to consider a townhouse. We cannot duplicate what we have here, our three bedrooms, our deck, our woods with their wildlife, quiet nights broken by the call and response of barred owls.
I fill the back of the SUV and bring another load of household goods and clothing to the Goodwill. I stop replenishing the cupboards of food. I don’t stock for this year’s hurricane season. When I drive by the places that meant so much — the children’s schools, parks, playgrounds, the library with its Tuesday toddler time, the bagel place where my writer’s group meets — I wonder if it’s the last time, if I should bid farewell. I am in a strange limbo; I have no idea how long we’ll be here, I have no idea when we’re leaving.
One day, the house sells. Our bid on an Alexandria townhouse is accepted. The pace picks up as our time here draws to a close. Months of preparing for this, but it still feels strange. The remaining days become disjointed, dreamlike. Soon, my Florida life will be only a memory.
Packers come to box up our lives. All those books, all those papers, all those souvenirs. We are told not to let them take our valuables — birth certificates, passports and other documents, jewelry, silver. I stuff our photographs into containers and decide to take them myself. They hold memories beyond value. They are more precious to me than those documents, that silver.
Our memories are the part of life we get to keep and take with us. They inform us, shape our characters. These pictures are a gateway to memory, one of its languages in translation, and I want them safe and close. They are a fixative — of time, of place, of history. One day, they will help me remember the stories of our lives. I can’t face the thought of losing them. Who would I be without them?
My friends plan farewell lunches, last get-togethers. I tell them not to. I do not like parting. The world is full of too many goodbyes. I tell them I’ll be back. I tell them to plan a reunion party instead.
They are good friends. They ignore me. There is a lovely last non-farewell dinner. My daughter comes, and brings her close friend. It is our last night together in Florida. My son and his girlfriend are there, and several people I have grown close to. The party goes late into the night, with much wine and laughter. Next morning, a surprise breakfast send-off. Feted with song, surrounded by friends I love, I am captured crying on film. We hug and weep and they trickle away, into a rainy morning.
The cars are loaded. There is nothing left to do. The papers have all been signed, the keys turned over. We’ve said our goodbyes to this place and this time. There is nothing left to do but leave.
We have one last and lingering moment, arms wrapped around our hosts, and then we buckle ourselves into our seats and drive away. The rain pours down in thick, heavy sheets. Canada geese crowd the grassy slope on the ramp that leads to I-10. I try to find them in my rear-view mirror, but the rain has swallowed them up. There is no looking back. I fix my sight on the road ahead and drive.
Nina Sichel is co-editor of two books about cross-cutural, international childhoods, Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global (2004) and Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011). They include her reflections on growing up American in Venezuela. Her work has also appeared in The American Journal of Nursing, Among Worlds, International Educator, The Children’s Mental Health Network, and elsewhere.
She currently resides near Washington, D.C., where she is a freelance editor and writing coach. Her memoir workshops are offered through the Northern Virginia Community College and at community art centers and other settings in Virginia and Maryland.
Photo credit: Mark Silva