September 29, 2010

Thanks for coming, Mom.

For some reason, my husband and I always seem to make the cross-Pacific journey separately. In this case, his work contract did not finish until after I was expected to be at uni starting my PhD program. So my mom saw an opportunity: accompany me to New Zealand and help me get settled. Without James around, it seemed like a good time for her to stay for 3 weeks, a little longer than she might otherwise. Personally, I think she could stay as long as she’d like regardless, but she values being what she thinks is a considerate mother-in-law. In addition to helping me cart all my things from North America to New Zealand, and the opportunity to watch reruns of the Gilmore Girls without annoying my husband, what my mom perhaps didn’t realize was that by coming with me, she was also my little piece of continuity, a thread to sew my two worlds together.

Up until the age of 18, I was a serious home-body. When I was too scared to spend the night at my friends’ houses, she let me use her as an excuse: “Sorry, my mom won’t let me spend the night.” I got horribly homesick when away from home well into high school. When I left my family’s then-home-state, Missouri, for college in Colorado, it was an enormous step. Mom and I drove in separate cars jam-packed with my things. We cruised along I-70 for 14 hours over two days stopping for meals, bathrooms and a hair-dryer from a Kansas Wal-mart. My mom describes how I would occasionally lag far behind her causing her to think, “That’s it. She’s not going to make it.”

The first day on campus, mom suggested we go to the presentation about study-abroad options. I said simply, “No thanks.” Getting myself the 800 miles to Colorado was hard enough. I wasn’t ready to go any further. She went without me and an hour later returned with a glow, a pamphlet about an exchange program to London and a passport application. “Just have a look at these when you feel up to it.” I went to London the next year. And that was it. I was hooked. My nomad habits started with a “ka-bang” and haven’t stopped since.

Over the years, she’s accepted countless phone calls, that were charged to her, from a crying 20-something daughter, homesick or heartbroken or both. Or from a daughter over the moon after a play at the Globe Theatre, an awesome language lesson in Prague or an exciting day of hitch-hiking in Chile. She’s been worried. She’s been proud. She’s printed many of my emails to help me document things. She’s laughed at the different sounds over the phone line behind my voice: accented people, sirens, a call to prayer, church bells. She’s visited me in every place that I have been for longer than 3 months.

But for as much traveling as I have done, I never really thought I’d live overseas with any sort of permanency. I love my country. This move to New Zealand was less a transient wander and more an emigration. This facet of my life has come as a surprise to me and most likely to her to. If I were to guess, I think she must feel happy that I’m happy and genuinely interested in my life unfolding. And a little sad that the twists of fate have taken me so far away. And since I’m not a mom yet myself, I know there’s probably a whole range of emotions that I can’t quite fathom.

My great-great grandmother, Kate, set off from Ireland for New York City with her family, including her daughter, my great-grandmother, Jenny. Jenny’s daughter, Kay, my grandmother, moved from the urban East Coast to a small, Iowa town at a time when that was a significant distance and a different culture. Later, she’d take her three teenage daughters, including my mother, to Europe for several months and I’d grow up hearing about that trip. Kay would send her daughter, my mother, off to college, travels and work, moving about with her VW bug. Then my mother would meet and accompanying her military husband, my father, all over tarnation, eventually with three kids in tow, none of us able to answer the question, “Where are you from?” without a list of about ten places.

As young adults, my sisters kept moving about. One decided to up and follow her dream to San Francisco. When she couldn’t squeeze all her things into her car, I packed it for her and waved goodbye. On another day, my other sister came out from her bedroom and into the kitchen to announce which college she would like to transfer too by holding up a bumper sticker. “University of Virginia,” it said. And she drove off across the country in the opposite direction. Like my mom, they’ve been to visit me in my random locations. One has kayaked to a glacier with me. The other sat with me and watched Australians playing strip-Jengo in an Irish hostel on Christmas day. They both ate Indian food with me on Thanksgiving in New Zealand four years ago.

As for me, though it is not set in stone, I have to wrap my mind around the fact that I might live here for the long-haul. Or at least for a good portion of my life. That’s different than travelling or any of the moves I’ve made before. I might raise my future children in a country that I did not grow up in myself. I won’t know the songs they learn at school, I’ll have a different accent. They’ll grow up thinking of Christmas with barbeques instead of snow shovels. Money that I save for travelling with go to buying tickets home, not for the next adventure. And what can I say – when it’s more permanent, the distance feels a little further sometimes; the small challenges, a little bigger.

But I find consolation in remembering that I come from a long line of wandering and pioneering women. Though it sometimes feels as though I’ve broken off and turned a different sort of corner, I haven’t. I’m not breaking tradition, out on my own, at all; I’m living the tradition set by so many women in my family.

That’s why my mom’s visit to New Zealand this time offered a bit of continuity between here and there, that life and this one. We watched the New Zealand news on TV and read the local paper, but listened to NPR over the internet. We ordered a “long black” at the cafĂ©, bought umpteen bottles of NZ wine, ate our ‘chips’ with ‘tomato sauce,’ and yet baked American chocolate chip cookies.

Her trip to settle me back in New Zealand this time was a showing of solidarity. The world is small. And we’re in this together.


  1. I found your blog via Jenny (Practically Perfect). I have been living in New Zealand for eight years, and I still haven't *really* admitted to myself that I am living here for the long haul.