I am the only person in my family who did not spend early childhood living overseas. It’s not something I think about very often unless reminded but I’ve been reminded quite a bit lately.
A few months ago, when we told Will we were moving to a new apartment, he cried “No! But I don’t want to go on another journey!”
When we explained that we were moving across the city park rather than across the world, he stopped crying instantly. Compared to a move across the world, moving across town barely registers apparently.
The other day, inspired by an episode of the Dinosaur Train, he asked me why my husband and I never take him and his sister on a “world tour” vacations. I had to laugh. He’s four years old and has either visited or lived in nine different countries already.
And when I asked Will if he wanted to dye Easter Eggs this year, he looked at me quizzically.
“You mean, make them so they are no longer living?” he asked worriedly.
We cleared up that mix-up but he still looked at me confused.
“But they aren’t real eggs right?” “You can’t eat them right?”
After a few more back and forth exchanges it became clear that this would not be the year to take on the all-American tradition of drowning hard-boiled eggs in a cocktail of oversaturated food-coloring and distilled vinegar. And then I remembered that our local grocery store doesn’t carry white-shell eggs. And brown eggs–while infinitely more delicious–don’t take dye. So really, why bother?
I don’t remember the first time I ever dyed Easter eggs–maybe I had similar questions–but I also don’t remember ever not knowing that such a tradition existed. Just like I don’t remember ever learning what the American flag looks like or why kids dress-up on October 31st and go door-to-door begging for candy. It was impossible not to know those things in the culture I was born into.
But growing up, I also thought castles were the stuff of fairy tales and that perfectly clear green-blue seas and waves as tall as houses existed only in story books. I found it inconceivable that whole countries could exist in the same amount of space on the globe as one state in the American union.
My kids don’t really know about dying Easter eggs or handing out Valentine’s–they read about those things in books but they’ve never seen them in real life. Just like they’ve never seen a neighborhood full of trick-or-treaters or a 4th of July parade. Will sometimes thinks he’s a citizen of United Airlines, not the United States.
But they know that castles and aquamarine seas and ancient towers of gleaming white marble and snow-covered mountains are real, not the stuff of fairy tales. They’ve seen them, up close–and our oldest isn’t even five years old.
I wonder sometimes whether all of the sweeping vistas, the hide-and-seek games played in the patchy grasses around ancient ruins, whether it’s wasted on them in a way. When you are a kid, every single little thing in the world–from rocks to bugs to fake plastic flowers in curbside flowerpots–everything is so new and different and interesting. What makes that sweeping vista that makes Mommy feel so small–why is that so special? After all, as a kid, you feel small all the time. From that perspective, plastic flowers that never die and never need water are infinitely more unexpected and thus intriguing.
I wonder but I don’t regret because I’m selfish and the joy my husband and I get out of taking our kids to these places, the scrapes we get into, the crazy roads we drive, the songs we all sing, the jokes the kids make–that joy is some of the greatest I’ve ever known.
Inevitably there are tears and plenty of whining. Our oldest pukes every time we drive on windy roads for too long at a stretch. Our youngest screams to stop and nurse when what we’d really like to do is press on to our destination. I tell the same made-up stories about toy dragons over and over. We play the same three songs over and over and over again. I keep bars of chocolate in my bag at all times to force-feed my family when everyone gets a little too hangry to accept my offers of whole-wheat zucchini muffins or apple slices with peanut butter–so essentially 99% of the time.
For all of the whining and crying and hair-pulling though, our kids are also usually game for the many times Mommy and Daddy pull the car over into the gravel and leap out for photos, for a quick walk down a little trail, for a short hike to a waterfall or down a not-quite-public-path to a giant primordial-looking lake. They love “hiking” even if we end up carrying them most of the way. They love seeing new rocks, new trees, new animals, new puddles and lakes and oceans. They might not appreciate sweeping vistas or the five hundred year old ruins the way we do, but they make us look at leaves and rocks and tree bark we would otherwise miss all together. They give us reasons to laugh, to be silly, to stop and think about things like how giant boulders end up where they do and why sheep poop so much. Doing these hikes, these road trips with the kids makes the very air we breathe feel rich and velvety and alive with meaning. It’s not just a walk in the woods when we get to do it with the kids. It always feels like something more.
Our first few years out of the US, right after Will’s birth, I clung to my cultural touchstones–Halloween costumes, Christmas trees, Easter decorations–as if they were lifebuoys intended to keep me from drowning in a sea of strange, unknowable, unfathomably exotic depths.
I think I thought that if I couldn’t provide for my children those little bits of culture and tradition that made me feel safe and secure as a child that there would be nothing else to fill the gap. I feared for them to feel as unmoored as I have at different times overseas–flailing around in search of a sense of security and familiarity that they might never find.
But the older the kids get, the more I realize that–for as much as I insist on hosting giant Thanksgiving dinners and carting boxes of Christmas decorations and holiday-themed cookie cutters around the world–these traditions may not make the memories that will shine most brightly for our children as they grow older. It might be all of these road trips and day hikes we get to do together instead.
Holidays on the calendar will not be the keepers of our family’s bonds. We cement those things elsewhere and in ways I couldn’t have dreamed possible when I was growing up as a kid in the middle of America. And that’s amazing. Different yes, but amazing.