After a number of days of power outages and telephone disconnects, I finally got through to our son, Hart, whose 21st birthday was in early May. He has been studying at The American University in Cairo this year and communication with him has been a challenge—disruptions in the techno/electro grid made the birthday call a week late. We tend to stick to email and, even then, I don’t get the full picture. We live in an instant message, twitter, sound-bite world.
It’s a pity, because Hart is a clear-eyed, poetic writer and I know that, however he chooses to document his Egyptian adventure, he will convey eloquently his intellectual curiosity and rattle his readers with the beauty of his words. Dust, camels, poverty, heat…all slouching towards sainthood in his mental daily diary.
When Hart finally answered his cell phone, it was approaching midnight Cairo time and he was at a party. Music and conversation and high spirits dominated the background, normal college activity — except for the fact that he is in a Muslim country and speaking Arabic with his friends and socializing with people from all walks of life from all over the world.
For our early-morning rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” we found our oldest daughter, Hart’s twin sister Colbern, who joined us via telephone from France. She is studying in Paris this year. and is beginning to sound like a native Frenchwoman. She spent her spring break exploring Egypt with her brother, following through on her decision to say “yes” to opportunity.
At one time Cairo was called the “Paris of the Nile” –proof of that claim is well-documented in old black and white photographs–although by all accounts, our son and daughter have had vastly different experiences in their respective locations. Now, in a city known for its beauty and cuisine and love of love, Colbern has also been living la vie quotidienne of the typical college student but sees most everything through the lens of a camera, practice for her future career as a filmmaker.
It has been hard having them so far away, physically unreachable and in different time zones. But, even more difficult was leaving our seventeen-year-old daughter Everett on the East Coast when we packed up and sold the house and moved to southern California, after my husband opted to make a drastic change in his professional life.
I was not prepared for this. My husband Robert was thrilled to be offered a change in responsibility and venue, the highly sought after second career to replace his stressful, exhausting and successful 25 years on Wall Street. I supported that change. It was an incredible opportunity. Robert had commuted weekly for 12 years, maintaining an apartment in Manhattan (and Boston and Washington) and our permanent home in Raleigh, and we had had enough. But I thought we would take it slowly—he would begin his new job on the West Coast and I would stay in North Carolina with the children, downsizing with great deliberation, packing in an efficient and organized way, and keeping the house in good shape for the many months we were sure it would be on the market. I needed to ease into this stranger.
The house sold in three weeks and closing was about a month after that. Robert began work with his new firm and I was left to deal with everything else: going through the souvenirs of our 25-year marriage—ten of which were spent in our beloved Saint Mary’s Street house—and orchestrating the transcontinental move.
We had a lovely old home set among towering oaks and ancient dogwoods and framed by a curving stone wall that welcomed our friends and relatives. It felt organic and sophisticated, the classic Georgian house with Southern sensibilities. The air was filled, always, with birdsong and the buzz of garden life and perfumed by the annuals and perennials I had nurtured on hands and knees. Our children had grown and evolved here—although Henry, at 13, still has some growing to do. My sister and her family lived within walking distance. I had established myself as a decent photographer, an expert in the local educational scene, a vocal supporter of the arts, someone who cares about her community. I worked as a literacy tutor and editor. We had many friends whom we adored. The house was set up for entertaining and we regularly had couples over for cocktails or dinner and threw a huge Christmas party nearly every year. Our lives were rich and full. It was a lot to leave behind.
It was hardest for the mother in me to abandon Everett, who had been attending a private boarding school as a day student, and did not want to leave in her senior year. She moved into Smedes Hall, the dormitory built in 1837, and was on her own a year too soon. She is a compelling vocalist and accomplished performer, but I would not be witness to the on-stage displays of her talent; I would not meet her date for the prom or host the dinner beforehand; she and I would not sit together by the fire in our library, brainstorming for college essays. We were thousands of miles from her world, and I had her younger brother Henry to care for, the only one of our four children to come with us and the one whose upbringing would be forever changed by alternative geography.
It has been nearly a year since the moving vans deposited our lives in this arid, stucco-walled, tile-roofed, palm-treed Pacific coastal city. We are renting an old house in a desirable neighborhood—I am not yet willing to commit the funds or effort to make the move a permanent one. Our English and French antiques look awkward in this Spanish mission styled space: We came equipped with East Coast furnishings—the inherited family sterling, voluminous window treatments, down-filled settees, elegant portraits of the children painted in oil. Am I supposed to purge these things and embrace the New World casual, the antagonist of the traditions and treasures that link one generation to the next?
Henry bikes to school each day, which is really quite charming, and we have made a few friends but it’s hard to start over. I had no idea that the East Coast/West Coast differential, in all respects, would be so extreme. We’re used to embracing new adventures and encourage our children in that direction, but there is no comfort for me here. It is not home. And I have yet to give up the club memberships in North Carolina and New York. I’ll never be a West Coast woman.
We tend to think of home as a place and, of course, in many ways it is. It’s where our ancestors settled, or where our children grow up, or where we feel the most loved. Over Christmas, when we all came together from far away cities and gathered in an unfamiliar living room with a fir tree from Oregon instead of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was surprised that, somehow, it felt a little bit like home. Perhaps it was the old holiday reliables that soothed me–decorating Christmas cookies, velvet Christmas stockings made long ago by Robert’s mother hanging on the mantle, the requisite chocolate cherry torte.
Yet that same feeling of home was there this past March, when Robert and I and the four children spent a week together in Paris. We reconnected through explorations in food and wine and art, and it felt like home even without the touchstones of our family traditions.
In that brief birthday conversation last week, Hart told me he’s ready to come home. Colbern and Everett have said that they are anxious for home-cooked meals and clean sheets and fresh flowers in their bedrooms. But when they yearn for these things, they are not thinking of the rambling old house on Saint Mary’s Street. They are longing for the soft place to fall, the open arms of loving parents, the safe haven of familiarity.
After a short stay, they will set out on their respective summer journeys: Hart to UCLA to study Arabic; Colbern to her internship in New York; Everett to Tanzania for a wildlife conservation tour before heading to Boston in the fall, and Henry to a new home in a new school district, just in time for the adventure to be found in a California public high school.
What is my place in all of this? I am the compass rose—the symbol on our family map, the common center from which roads radiate in all directions. No matter where Robert and I live or how far the children roam, home is where we all come together…not a physical place, but a place of spirit and connectedness, of authenticity and kindness.
And, as Dorothy learned, there is no place like it.
Ainslie Jones Uhl is a freelance writer/editor and photographer. A native North Carolinian and former New Yorker, she holds a B.A. in English from Sweet Briar College and a Master of International Business from the University of South Carolina. She recently relocated to San Diego, Calif., with her husband of 26 years and their four children. From now on, The Compass Rose will appear monthly at WVFC, as Uhl reflects on Southern California, her family, and her heart.