Finding Our Place

I’ve left bits of myself all over the country. My roots are in Tennessee, but my heart resides in North Carolina. There’s a chunk of my soul in Georgia, another sliver in Kansas, and a chip on Pikes Peak. If someone asked me right now, where I want to live the rest of my life, I’d have no answer. I love something about everywhere I’ve lived. Whenever I visit Tennessee, driving over Monteagle Mountain always makes me cry. The rolling foothills of the Appalachians that embrace my hometown are the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen. Every time I look at them, I see the ghosts of the Cherokee and Chickasaws, and the white pioneers who first built cabins among them. It’s an ancient land, proud and strong, with good earth and clear, clean streams.

Then, there’s North Carolina where I first settled at the tender age of 20, halfway through college and newly married. The ancestor to Tennessee, which shares our mountains, but has that lovely antithesis, the beach. From the Outer Banks to the Piedmont, the Sandhills, on down to Fort Fisher, North Carolina has something for everyone. You can hear the Scotch-Irish influence of the first settlers in the cadence and music of the mountain people today. The tempestuous weather of the coast belies the serenity of its inhabitants. The remnant of the band of Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears still live there today in their town of the same name. The modern urban centers of Charlotte and the Triad fly in the face of the old clichés about the South. I always feel at home in the Tarheel state, and I run to the mountains every chance I get to relax and rejuvenate my spirit.

Ah, but what about Kansas? Kansas is wholesome and good. The nicest people in the country live in Kansas, straight talking, “salt of the earth,” “give you the shirt off their back” kind of people. The soil is black there, it’s so fertile. No wonder we call it the breadbasket of the world. We used to joke that all you had to do was plant a seed, look at it, say, “grow,” and it would. We lived in a town where everybody came to every school event, whether they had a kid in school or not. No exaggeration, the whole town came to the elementary school’s fall festival. At least half the town travelled with the high school football team to away games. I’ve never seen a more invested, caring community, and one that was by no means affluent. But when a bond referendum was issued to pay for the expansion of the elementary school to accommodate fifth and sixth grades so that they could move them out of the rundown, older intermediate school, the bond passed overwhelmingly. I’m not even sure anyone voted against it.

We left Kansas for Colorado. Now, there’s a state that is complex and heartbreakingly lovely. The weather can be a tad schizophrenic, though. It snowed on May 14 one year, and then the pool opened on Memorial Day. You can see all four seasons on any given day. You can’t grow anything in Colorado by just sticking it in the ground. It’s too sandy and arid, but the landscape is awe inspiring. When I first saw the Rockies, I thought they were the ugliest mountains I’d ever seen. Brown and rocky with nothing but pines and Aspens, I considered them against my native Appalachians and found them pale in comparison, but the Rockies woo you. They wear their snow like a white mink and sparkle and shine, drawing your eye to their peaks and making you long to see what’s up there. Just take an oxygen mask when you give in and accept their invitation. Their beauty is deceptive. They’re as dangerous as a femme fatale. The idea of people settling and surviving in that landscape with the primitive tools and privations of the 19th century boggles my mind. Those pioneers had to have been made of granite as hard as the mountains themselves. While we lived there, we experienced wild fires, drought, blizzards, and floods, and yet, I’d go back in a heartbeat. It’s where the sunshiny, happy people live, and it suited our active, outdoorsy lifestyle.

While we lived in Colorado we vacationed twice in Taos, New Mexico. “Land of Enchantment” is the motto of New Mexico, an apt description if ever I’ve heard one. New Mexico is bewitching. You pass miles and miles of sagebrush fields and red rock formations with tiny, sad towns in between. The people are quiet and dark, advertising their Spanish and Pueblo heritage through large, brown eyes, and straight, blue-black hair. They are kind, generous people, and proud. More than once, while Jay was out mountain biking, he received directions or help from someone because they recognized his affiliation with the military and befriended him because they’d served or someone in their family had served. They are storytellers and warriors. When you ask one of them a question, you must wait patiently for the answer and listen to the story that precedes it. We took a couple of day trips to Santa Fe, but it’s pretty much like any other big city, just more colorful. I fell in love with the idea of living in the green Taos valley or up on Angel Fire in a pueblo style house with satillo tile on the floors and colorful Mexican ceramics in the bathroom, and miles of sagebrush all around.

It’s a hard choice, deciding where to stay. Maybe we’ve been gypsies too long, but I don’t think it’s the idea of permanence that’s the problem. I like the thought of having my own home where I can paint the walls and renovate the kitchen if I want, but where do we find the house? What if there’s someplace marvelous out there with the perfect house and a kitchen that doesn’t need renovation? After all, there are still a lot of places we’ve never been.



The Cousins Visit

We had some cousins come for a week-long visit at the beginning of summer. They are Jay’s first cousin’s children, which makes them his first cousins once removed and our children’s second cousins; or it may make them Jay’s second cousins and our children’s third cousins. To whatever degree of kinship, they are cousins, and they came to visit for a week, accompanied by Jay’s father.

The cousins are Anne, 14, Robert, 12, and Emma, 9. When Jay and I first married, we thought we wanted four children. After having five for a week, I see why the Lord denied me that particular blessing. I do not possess the organizational or arbitrational skills to handle more than two children, and that’s saying something because I am pretty doggone organized. At any rate, the afternoon they arrived they were content to tour the house and play outside with the horde of neighborhood kids. Actually, we spent most of the afternoon fetching them water, shooing them back outside, and assuring them that it was “really not that hot” and that they would “get used to it.” They’re mountain children. The morning they left their home to come visit us it was 45 at their house and 80 at ours.

I’d made a list of things to do during the week, but had no set schedule since the weather was forecast to be a bit sketchy here and there. One thing I’d not taken into account was the difficulty involved in getting five children to agree on an agenda.

Tuesday was sunny and hot, perfect pool weather. We made all the required preparations: suits, sunblock, towels, goggles. The older kids elected to ride bikes there, which solved the seating problem in the car. They left before me and were all standing outside waiting when I got there. Something wasn’t right. There were no cars in the lot and the gate was closed and locked. Uh oh. I gulped, got out, and went to read the sign on the gate. “Closed for lifeguard training.” I turned around to five dejected faces. “I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t know. You can run in the sprinkler instead.” I said this brightly and hopefully, as though running in a  sprinkler is just as much fun as the pool. No dice. I cast about in my mind for an alternative and remembered the smaller pool at one of the adjacent housing areas. I ran home, located the pool pass, and hoped it was open. It was. Salvation was at hand!

Wednesday dawned cloudy and rainy. I’d known this to be a possibility and thought they’d just enjoy spending the day together at home with board games, crafts, and maybe popcorn and a movie. But Brianna awoke with no appetite and running a fever. She went back to bed for the rest of the day, and I ended up with four shadows who nixed every entertainment idea I suggested. They ended up seated on my basement stairs, playing music on my phone, and watching me chalk paint a large bookcase.

Thursday was our second target date for the big pool. We, again, went through our preparations and, with the addition of Brianna’s two best friends, drove over with bated breath. It was open! I gathered all seven kids, made sure they had everything, and strutted into the entrance to show my military ID, patting myself on the back for pulling the plan off. The lifeguard studied my ID, then surveyed the children. He pointed at Brianna, her two friends, Anne, and Robert. “Where are their ID’s?” I proceeded to explain that although Brianna and her friends did indeed have ID’s, we hadn’t brought them to the pool (obviously!) because they might get lost. Then, I added that Robert and Anne were visiting relatives and had no ID’s. I could tell by his face this was going to be a problem. He informed me that I am only allowed to bring six guests to the pool. I inquired as to whether returning with the ID’s of the three children who had them would alleviate the issue, and he assured me it would.

We returned to each of the respective houses and retrieved the required ID’s. Back to the pool we went in a slightly less jovial mood. When we re-entered, there was a different, younger lifeguard on duty at the check-in stand. We presented the requisite ID’s and waited, sweating, to be released to the water. “Uh, ma’am, you have too many guests.” I looked at him through my Ray Bans, with the stern face of the field grade’s wife who’s had just about enough of the run around. “Are you telling me that if all seven of these children were my dependents we wouldn’t be allowed in the pool?” “Well, uh, your husband would have to be with you.” “My husband is at work. Where is your supervisor?” Enter stage left the lifeguard who’d sent me in search of the illusive ID’s. The young lifeguard explained the issue, as I stood watching the exchange in absolute stillness, posture erect, arms crossed, authority oozing from my aura. I’d seen Jay do this many times, and it always worked.

The head lifeguard mulled over the situation and finally told the young man to admit us. I spent the next two hours either standing in four feet of water, repeatedly throwing dive toys for the kids to retrieve, or treading nine feet of water, keeping a watchful eye, as they went down the slide at the deep end. We all went to bed at about eight that night.

The most interesting event of the week happened during an impromptu baseball game with the neighborhood kids. One of the older boys from a large family down the street was pitching. As your typical 10-year-old boy has a tendency to do, he was taunting the batters, especially the ones who struck out. Emma got up to bat. She quickly struck out, and James started his taunt. Now, Emma was already fed up with James who’d teased Grace, my 5-year-old, earlier that day for crying when the chain came off her bike. Emma is particularly attached to Grace and became her self-appointed defender. When James started teasing her about striking out, he dropped the last straw on the camel’s proverbial back. She charged at him with the bat and gave him a solid whack across the upper arm. James’ mom went running to the scene at the sound of the yelling. I appeared a bit later after one of the kids came to get me. After questioning all the witnesses and examining James, we determined he wasn’t seriously injured, just a bit bruised. Thankfully, his mom has a common sense approach to parenting and decided he’d learned a valuable lesson about the potential consequences of being unkind. I, in turn, had a lengthy chat with Emma about not letting your anger dictate your actions, only using physical violence for self-defense, and how she could get in huge trouble at school doing such things. Then, I gave her a big hug to let her know there were no hard feelings.

Our last two days were spent touring the local military history museum and with a zip lining trip across the river. All things considered I think everyone enjoyed the visit. The kids did ask to come back next year, which is always good sign. As we watched them drive away, Jay put his arm around me and asked if I still wanted four. No, I think I’m cured.