Homeward Bound

By Elizabeth Smith 


The Pensieve Editor's Note: This personal essay was originally published in Auroras & Blossoms Creative Literary Journal, Vol. 1, in December 2020.


I yawned as I pulled a large blue T-shirt over my head. Tiana, my colleague and roommate, sat at the edge of her bed and changed socks before we shuffled to the living room to do some jumping jacks. 
    “When I’m back home,” Tiana smiled when she spoke, “my family is going on a trip to Mexico.”
    “Sounds fun,” I half-heartedly puffed at the top of a push-up. We were missionaries living in a suburb of Lisbon and were keeping to a strict, exhausting schedule. Tiana often spoke of her list of what she wanted to do when she arrived back to the States. Her service was ending in a couple of weeks. I wasn’t going home for another three months.
    “You studied abroad in Madrid, right?” Tiana asked as she stretched her back, her long, white-blonde hair draping over one shoulder.
    “Yeah.”
    “So you think you could help me learn a little Spanish?”
    “Sure. It’s pretty similar to Portuguese anyway,” I replied even though I had no idea when we would squeeze Spanish study into our jam-packed routine.
    After our workout, I climbed into our slimy shower. I closed my eyes and stood under the hot spray, wasting a couple gallons.
    “I wish I were home.”
    I was shocked I said it aloud. For over a year I didn’t let myself think much of home or my parents; I thought it best to ignore the fact that I was from another hemisphere and to focus all my attention on my missionary work. After all, my time in Portugal was limited.
    The words slithered out of my mouth without permission, and homesickness floated among the steam.

***

Mom rummaged through the top drawer in her vanity. I swung my legs as I sat on the edge of the tub. She pulled out a green comb and rinsed it in the sink.
    “Turn around, Lizzie.” Mom sat down next to me.
    I twisted away from her, and she began parting my hair. After some uncomfortable tugs, Mom brought me to her small mirror, which extended on a brass bar.
    “What do you think?” she asked.
    I ran my fingers along the thick braids.
    “Can you put flowers on them?”
    She searched again through the drawer for two white synthetic flowers, which she tied to the end of my hair.
    “You look cute,” she said as she nestled her face next to mine.
    I gave her a chubby grin through the mirror.
    “You know,” Mom began, “Grandma’s first job as an angel was to make sure you came to me safe.”
    She pulled up my bangs.
    “Look.” She pointed in the mirror at a birthmark between my eyebrows. “She kissed you right there.”
    I leaned closer to my reflection.
    “She must’ve liked red lipstick,” I replied.
    As I grew older, my birthmark slowly faded from red to pink. Now that I am an adult, it has almost entirely disappeared, resurfacing only after a rinse of hot water or a vigorous cardio exercise. Yet I still feel I am somehow connected, however vaguely, to the grandmother who died before I was born.

***
If you find it’s me you’re missing,
If you’re hoping I’ll return,
To your thoughts I’ll soon be listening,
In the road I’ll stop and turn.
Then the wind will set me racing
As my journey nears its end
And the path I’ll be retracing
When I’m homeward bound again.

***

When I returned to the US, I stayed with my parents for a month—it was Christmas season. Since I had little to do, I followed my mother like a dog. We shopped for onions and leeks at the local supermarket. We got haircuts. We made Grandma’s recipe for peanut brittle while listening to Dean Martin. We vacuumed the wood floor before the family party. All the while, we chatted of everything from the weather to neighborhood gossip.
    Perhaps it was by leaving to preach the gospel on another continent—which limited our correspondence a great deal—that I realized the strength of my bond to my mother.

***



The Christmas when I was twelve was a memorable one. My oldest siblings, who were married and had small children, came into town from California, and as is the tradition in my family, we drove to a lake-front home in the mountains. Of course, there were too many of us to fit into one vehicle, so a two-year-old niece came in the Suburban, which also seated Mom, Dad, my brothers Pete and Mike, and me.
    Soon after our departure, my niece’s sock fell off.
    “Oopsy daisy.” Pete bent down to pick it up. He quickly slipped it onto her little foot.
    The toddler immediately began to scream.
    “I want to do it!” Huge tears spontaneously emerged from her eyes.
    “Oh.” Pete gently pulled the sock off. “Uh, now you can put it on yourself.”
    “NO!” She kicked her chubby legs so hard that the car seat rattled.
    “Um.” Pete quickly put her sock back on her flailing limb.
    “NO!” She sobbed.
    The five of us glanced at each other.
    “Let’s try singing that Christmas song you know,” Mom suggested.
    “Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jing—”
    “NO!”
    “Need a snack?” I opened a pouch of fruit gummies.
    She grunted and swung her chin from side to side.
    “Why did you have to put the sock on her?” Mike whined, looking at Pete, who laughed and shrugged.
    “Maybe she just needs to cry this one out,” Mom whispered.
    The babe howled for an hour. By that time we were in an icy canyon. My ears throbbed. Like a stereotypical teen, Mike wore earbuds, which played pop songs loud enough for me to hear from the back bench. Mom’s eyes were shut; her chest heaved. Dad tapped the steering wheel and pulled over.
    “HUSH!” He yelled, with no effect.
    “HUSH!” He yelled again, but the child defied our expectations and screamed louder.
    “Like that’s gonna help.” Mike pressed his head against the cold window.
    Dad put the car in gear and merged. Pete chuckled silently and looked at the carpeted ceiling.
    “What?” Mike snapped.
    “I bet I know what you’re thinking.”
    “And what’s that?” Mike popped one earbud out.
    “You don’t want kids.”
    The two laughed.
    “How did you know?” Mike jokingly punched him in the arm.
    “Hey!” Pete attempted to trap Mike in a headlock.
    “Don’t you add to this noise,” Dad warned. He dangerously sped through the twists and turns of the canyon.
And, as was expected, the child did not stop screaming until we reached our destination and reunited with her mother.
And, thus, my fear of having children began the Christmas I was twelve.

***

Bind me not to the pasture;
Chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling
And I’ll return to you somehow.

***

After my Christmas home from Portugal, I decided to live the paradox of a young adult: I moved out of my childhood bedroom once again to a cheap apartment, which my parents paid for, where I could make a healthy twenty-minute walk to my university classes. During the day, I wore a beige pencil skirt, read in the library, and applied for internships. But in the evening, I wore a pink robe, called Mom, and cuddled a fuzzy bear. 
    Partway through the semester, as I was washing my hair in the shower, the forbidden sentence leaked out again.
    “I wish I were home.”
    How could I think such a thing? No, I wasn’t in my hometown anymore, but I was less than two hours away. Although schoolwork was challenging, it was simple compared to my missionary duties. My energy was back, and I couldn’t detect anything significant that would make me long for home—while I was home.
    This began a series of debates within me. Logic argued in favor of scratching out “young” in “young adult.”
    “Perhaps the home I yearn for doesn’t exist,” she said.
    “But how can I miss something I never knew?” Sentiment retorted.
    “Home could be like the unicorns you read about as a child,” Logic explained, defending its position. “They are majestic and beautiful in the stories and pictures. That’s why fairytale characters hunted them. But they probably never existed. And even if they did, they aren’t around anymore and certainly will never return.”
    She added, “Home is a foggy dream. Come back to reality.”
    “Or, maybe,” Sentiment argued, “I simply haven’t discovered my home yet. Yes, that must be the case. Once I have a true home—one that I do not share with roommates who come and go each semester—I could finally be rid of this horrible homesickness.”
    Logic pursed her lips. “I will wait and see,” she said.
    “In the meantime,” Sentiment concluded, “let’s simply enjoy my classes and new friends—not to mention the luxury of calling Mom every night without paying long distance.”
    A year later, my ticket away from homesickland arrived: I married a handsome, curly-haired computer programmer named Skyler. We moved into a cozy two-bedroom apartment. No roommates. No stuffed animals. No financial burden on my parents. Now I truly was an adult, and I truly had a home of my own.
    But after a few months of our sweet marriage, I woke up early and hopped into our scummy shower.
    “I wish I were home.”
    After a brief slumber, the debates resurfaced.
    “No. This couldn’t be possible!” Sentiment gasped. “What is home if not a place to wear pajamas after a busy day? What is home if not a place to serve hot soup to a loving husband? What is home if not a place to laugh or cry without being seen?”
    The steam smelled of homesickness once again.
    “Unicorns are elusive, aren’t they?” Logic smugly gloated.

***


“This must be Eden,” I remarked as we slowly strolled among glorious rosebushes. Skyler read the plaques with their names as we passed: “Peace, Orange Creamsicle, Dolly Parton . . .” Perfume mingled in the spring air. Butchart Gardens was packed with tourists, but it didn’t matter to us. We had moved to Victoria, British Columbia, a month prior and could visit again. The journey along the path was our destination.
    A German family passed us while I stopped to smell a curly white rose. As I caught a glimpse of the daughter’s wispy, blonde ponytail, Skyler’s question from the previous night ringed in my mind: Do you even want kids? After waiting patiently for us to graduate and get settled with a stable income, Skyler was eager to start our family, but I was still so casual. In reaction to his question, the hundreds of tantrums I had so far witnessed sprang to my mind. I was left in hesitation.
    I sighed and turned my attention to another rose. It smelled like Fruit Loops.
    “Last is the Sunken Garden.” Skyler took my hand and guided me through flowering archways until we reached a zigzagging descending staircase.
    The view of the garden below was unlike any I had ever seen. Everything was so well manicured that there was not a single weed in sight.
    “I can’t believe this used to be a quarry,” I marveled as we took to the steps.
    At the bottom, we passed flirtatious geraniums and fuchsias. I smiled at my husband.
    “I’m so lucky,” I said.
    “What makes you say that?” Skyler asked. We walked between two tall arborvitae.
    “I’ve got you!”
    “Uh, no,” Skyler playfully disagreed, “I think I’m the lucky one in that case.”
    And so began our ongoing banter—full of imaginary witnesses, research, and lawyers—of who was, in fact, lucky.
    Soon our conversation disintegrated, and I stopped suddenly. The lawn was a perfectly shorn green carpet, rolled out for an unexpected star: a lonely plum tree. The leaves were a bold black, as if the tree were dressed in a tuxedo, its hair combed back and its patent leather shoes glimmering. Instead of acting sheepish for not coming in green as the memo directed, the plum tree proudly stood with perfect posture and beckoned me.
    I was intrigued and enticed. How I longed to step off the pavement!

***

I entered the kitchen with a tray of lemon squares.
    “Oh, it is so fun to see you visiting from Canada,” Ann-Marie hugged me from the side. She directed me to the counter.
    “You’re still so tiny!” she exclaimed.
    “I know,” another cousin chimed in. “When I was five months along, I already looked huge.”
    I laughed, unsure if they were complimenting me. Aunts and more female cousins poured in, carrying gifts and platters of food. Even though not everyone could attend, we still filled Ann-Marie’s home with chatter and giggles. It felt good to be with my family again.
    Once we had eaten and cleared the tables, we went to the parlor. I sat in a chair in front of the fireplace while everyone else sat on the gigantic sectional facing me.
    “I thought it would be appropriate,” Mom addressed the group, “to have an advice circle. When Lizzie opens your present, tell her something useful.” She was beaming. It was tricky to get me back home for a baby shower. Finally the day she had been planning had come.
    The girls nodded, content to share their knowledge with their younger, less experienced cousin.
    I unwrapped a white-noise machine: “A little sound and a soft touch can lull the baby back to sleep.”
    Next was a thick blanket: “Nap time is sacred time.”
    No-tear shampoo: “Don’t neglect yourself.”
    A parenting book: “Don’t hesitate to get professional assistance.”
    Cardboard picture books: “Never say no to help when you haven’t slept in three days, your breasts are engorged, and your fridge is empty.”
    Three onesies: “Take a picture when she colors the piano with a Sharpie.”
    A pair of burp cloths: “Don’t eat dairy till she’s weaned. In fact, stop now. You don’t want her to have an allergic reaction.”
    After a deep inhale, I picked up a large bag and looked at the tag. It was from my two single cousins, Rachel and Rebecca, who had been longing to start families of their own for several years. As close sisters, they sat side by side, their thick blonde hair perfectly brushed. This was probably the fortieth shower they had attended thus far. Inside the bag were two colorful, comfy outfits for my daughter. Rebecca’s lips were tight, and Rachel sighed. 
    “I don’t really have anything to say,” Rachel admitted as she rubbed her thigh.
Of course, they were most likely as bothered as I was overwhelmed. But then, ironically, the best advice came from Rebecca.
    “Just enjoy it.”

***

In the quiet misty morning
When the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing
And the sky is clear and red,
When the summer’s ceased its gleaming,
When the corn is past its prime,
When adventure’s lost its meaning,
I’ll be homeward bound in time.

***



Skyler opened the bedroom door.
    “The cavalry has arrived,” he announced in a silly, deep voice. 
    “Very good,” I yawned. 
    I could hear Mom take her shoes off in the hallway.
    “How do pancakes sound?” Skyler asked.
    I replied with my thumb up.
    A golden autumn sun beam shone through the curtains. The bedroom was still dark even though it was past ten o’clock. 
    “Good morning,” Mom whispered and poked her head through the door.
    “Hi Mom,” I rolled over to greet her. 
    There was a rustle in the bassinet next to the bed, followed by a little grunt.
    “She probably needs a change.”
    Mom took a diaper and change mat from the bag on the dresser and set it on the bed.
    “Hello, Camille.” Mom smiled and took the baby from the basket. She tickled Camille’s tummy and replaced the old diaper for the new one.
    “You don’t need to put her clothes back on just yet,” I said as I lifted my shirt.
    Mom set the baby next to me and left to wash her hands. I faced Camille, and as I gave her some milk, I dozed off.
    A few minutes later, I awoke. Mom was sitting on the bed. It was now the baby’s turn for a snooze.
    “How did you sleep?” Mom asked
    I chuckled. “It was a long night.”
    “Oh, looks like she’s got day and night confused.”
    I picked Camille up, rolled onto my back, and set her on my chest—something the hospital staff promised would bring health benefits. I looked down at my child. Her black hair swirled around her scalp; my breast was her pillow. The tiny fists were stretched toward my neck, and her balloon belly rested on my deflated one. My daughter melted into me, and she began to snore with her small lips parted. Thankfully, she had no angel’s kiss from her grandmother. Mom and I smiled at each other. There would be plenty of kisses going around in this life.
    The debaters inside of me looked at the three of us on the bed.
    “You know, everything that Camille is so far has come from me,” Sentiment marveled.
    “Well, except for one half of the first cell,” Logic corrected (and Sentiment rolled her eyes).
    “A few days ago, her world was inside of me, in a warm bath,” Sentiment continued.
    “And now it is outside of you, in the cool air.”
    “Yes, but I am her only frame of reference right now. And I will still be her main source of nourishment for several months.”
    “And?”
    “And that makes me her first home.”
    Logic stood dumbfounded. She thought for a moment and began pacing the room.
    “What if,” she began, “I have been longing for my first home this entire time?”
    “You mean Mom?”
    “Yeah. I mean, we still love chatting and hanging around each other.”
    “Camille, me, Mom,” Sentiment reviewed.
    “Mom, me, Camille,” said Logic.
    I stroked Camille’s velvet back. She stretched her legs and pushed her head to my chin. I gave a breathy chuckle and pulled her a few inches lower.
    “She’s a beautiful baby,” Mom remarked. “Like her mother.”

Comments

  1. Your writing moves me as I watch you go through so many stages in your life and then emerging with a beautiful family of your own.

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