Sunday, June 11, 2006

Two Hamefaring Ghosts

As an expatriate, the first loss is for what one of my friends dubbed, familiarity: the ability to turn on lights and walk across streets without having to actively remember physical details. In the first few months I struggled not only to know how many digits were needed to make a phone call and which coin was worth how much, but also experienced what I called "breakthrough." I would think that I could walk out to my old garage and get the flashlight out of the glove compartment of my car. Sometimes I missed those things once I remembered that I no longer had them, but mostly I was disoriented and disconcerted.

Just once when we were jangled out of bed by the police to retrieve cattle loose on the main road, I actually wished for a McDonalds. Not that I have a particular fondness for the golden arches, but if it could have materialized for an instant so I could lean out the window and pick up an Egg McMuffin and a Diet Coke without skipping a beat, I would have been a happier cattle wrangler.

Some times the most prosaic things are the ones I miss the most. A few weeks before Morris came to the States to finalize wedding and travel preparations I drove past a corn field under a harvest moon. It was a warm evening and the window was down, so I heard the rustling of the leaves and the amber globe shone down with a benign intensity. I knew that no matter what wonderful things I saw I was never going to see that again, and hot tears streamed down my face.

My normally frugal husband was content to let the return portion of my ticket to the US expire in April. I believe he was afraid that if I went back I might stay there. He may have been right. Leaving home and family far behind are best done quickly. If you thought about it for too long, you just wouldn't do it. I understand now why some American families have Scottish ancestors who never spoke at all about the home they left behind.

By June, however, Morris and I were both comfortable enough with my going back. I wanted to go to an Indian Market with a friend as we had done for several years. I wanted to be warm again. I wanted to wear cotton clothes and sandals. I wanted to eat a real tomato and corn fresh from the field. I needed to finalize taxes and tie up loose ends. Mostly I needed to say a proper goodbye to family and friends and to an entire life.

When I was back in Indiana, Morris asked me in a phone call what I missed most. The question landed with the force of an ocean wave. Not gale force, but strong enough to rock me back. My logical mind thought that I would have to think of all the things I missed and then rank them. I did not want to open that Pandora's box. In retrospect I think he just wanted me to say that I missed him. Not the first time in my life I missed the easy answer, but during the first year of my life in transition I was often much more fragile than I realized.

I have met many expatriates now from a variety of other countries. Often the conversation meanders into variations of the question: "What do you miss?" The answer is always the same: "Family of course." Even more interesting than the common refrain is that those words are always accompanied by a movement of the speaker's eyes into some private place, a memory icon. The glance may last for only a moment, but it is universal and intense.

When my mind's eye wanders, sometimes I am in my daughter's living room where she and my grandson bustle around and the cats watch. Sometimes I am on the upstairs balcony of my brother and sister in law's house. The trees are always in full summer and there are newspapers and cats and the smell of coffee. Sometimes I am back in my old house, watching a sunset from the deck or listening to the red winged blackbird singing on the locust tree at the edge of the yard.

Folktales from Orkney and Shetland tell of wanderers who decide suddenly to go home. When no one recognizes them as they make their way home, they realize that they have died and it is their spirit making its way home. They are hamefaring ghosts. I believe that my fellow expats and I are latter-day hamefaring ghosts. If my brother and sister in law happen to be sitting on the balcony as my mind's eye wanders back, I am sure that they will feel something just slightly different or perhaps think of me just in that moment for no apparent reason at all.

When I had Morris take this photo in New Harmony, he objected that our shadows would be in it. "That is what I want in the photo," I insisted. Only now do I realize that the photo was meant to capture that sense of a connection to a place stronger than time or physics. Overlooking the stubble of a cornfield in the rich dark earth of Indiana I was acknowledging the real and cultural soil that nourished me.

Down an unprepossessing road to the right of this photo is a spot very near where the original boatload of knowledge landed. The boatload of knowledge was a handful of intellectuals with a vision to create something new in the wilderness of Indiana. Robert Owen and the Scottish enlightenment floated down the Wabash to New Harmony, Indiana. Thus, it was a homegoing in a sense for both Morris and me. We could merge our own lives along the banks of the Wabash. We have vowed to go back for our fifth anniversary, but if we don't, we will still be part of that spot and it will be part of us.


At 6:22 PM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

I am huffing and puffing with the heavy emotions your article evokes. I think your blog appeals to many people--at least to those over, say, 40 or 50--because people (especially people of some years) are aware of having lost or of currently being in the process of losing something. Your blog is helping me on some level accept and understand some facets of my own life.

At 10:49 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

So glad it helps. When you come over here, I'll be curious to see if the age of some of the things we visit helps put things in perspective.


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