Friday, July 23, 2010

"Where are you from, anyway?"

TK and I are in Iowa. Every summer, we travel to Colorado and then to Iowa to visit family. Every summer, our travel gets me thinking about home -- about where I'm from and where TK is from. Tonight, I sit on the stairs of my mom's deck in Iowa's hot humidity after everyone has gone to bed, watching the blackened sky flash with lightning, and I write to understand.

I am from this place. Iowa. I am from purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans, queen anne's lace, tiger lilies. I am from acres of undulating green corn and neatly rowed soybeans. I am from red barns and grazing cows, from green tractors with their enormous black rubber wheels. I am from brown-water rivers, toads in the mud, climb-able oak trees. I am from "Come in for supper!" and basketball games. I am from thunderstorms, billowing clouds, tornado winds.

No matter where I live in my life, no matter what experiences I add to this self, I am from Iowa. I grew here, from this dark brown soil, from these expanses of sky.

But what will my daughter say when someone asks, "Where are YOU from?" She was born in south-central Ethiopia, in the state of the SNNPR -- in a tukul shadowed by tall green false banana plants (enset). In her conscious memory, she is a southeast Alaskan girl from the temperate rainforest -- she dons her Xtra-Tuff rainboots and tromps through the forest searching for blueberries. In the summers, she is part Rocky Mountain girl, striding out up a rocky trail, collecting rose quartz, squatting to admire a paintbrush flower. She is also part Iowa girl, paddling at the front of a canoe on the Upper Iowa with a tiny paddle, munching on an immature ear of field corn, clapping at the "BOOM!" of thunder in a storm.

What other places will shape her? We may not always live in Juneau. Ali and I plan to teach abroad someday. In TK's heart, where will "home" be for her?

Last week, I stood in Gram's kitchen -- in Iowa -- stir-frying pork for dinner while TK perched on the counter beside me, concentrating hard on an avocado she was trying to chop with a butter knife. Mom and Gram sat in the next room in the rocking chairs, talking about the various homes in which they had lived when Mom was growing up. Suddenly my mom asked, "Sarah? What's your first response when you hear the question, 'Where is home for you?'" My emotions got tangled in my throat. I've been struggling to answer that question recently. All I could do -- in a true first response -- was gesture to Gram's kitchen. Here. Here is home.

But I didn't really mean that. If Gram sold her house today, it would be Gram who would still be "home" for me, just as it was my other grandmother -- not the farmhouse she traded for a condo -- who was "home" for me. My mother is "home", no matter what house -- or what city -- I need to go to find her. I'm from people, mostly -- more than places. I'm from Gram's full hugs, I'm from Grandma's sense of humor, I'm from Dad's observant eyes, I'm from Mom's listening ears.

I return from a walk along the cornfields' edge with my mom tonight, and TK (who had been playing with her grandpa Gerry) throws her arms around me in a sweet, full hug, "Mommy! You're home!" More than anything, I hope that is one way she answers when someone asks her adult self, "TK, where are you from, anyway?"

And maybe she will also say, "Ethiopia." Probably, she will also say, "Alaska." And maybe -- just maybe -- she will inhale and catch a whiff of Colorado sage; she will stretch her arms and sense the open promise of an Iowa sky.