|MsCaroline and her mother before moving from Thailand to Taipei, around 1972|
When I started this blog a little more than a year ago, one of my intentions was to explore the differences between life as an expat child and life as an expat adult.
What I didn't realize was that almost every step I took would give me new insight into the life that my own mother had led - and a new and deep respect for the courage and aplomb she displayed even as she gamely packed our family up every few years for parts unknown. What my mother did when I was growing up is what expat mothers all over the world do on a daily basis, and is something those of us who haven't ever done it (or haven't done it very long) can only imagine.
Being a mother in a foreign country means separation from the support of home and family. It means coping with homesickness while still trying to create a sense of belonging for the children you are raising. It means trying to instill a sense of national pride in a child who doesn't remember the country of her nationality. Being an expat mother means trying to keep family ties strong with a family that is thousands of miles away. It means trying to wind your tongue around the names of your child's friends that you can barely pronounce, trying to make a birthday cake without the right ingredients, trying to explain national holidays back home when no one around you is celebrating them, and reminding your children that not every family has a maid, a yardboy, and a driver. Being an expat mother means stepping out into uncharted territory - learning how to bring up children in an environment completely different to the one in which you grew up, and making up the rules as you go along. It means trying to impart a sense of security to your children when you don't know the language or the culture yourself. It means making new friends quickly who become like a second family - and then saying goodbye to those friends much sooner than you'd expected.
And millions of women across the world - like my own mother and mother-in-law -have done it.
What I know now- a year into my own expat journey- is that my mother had exactly the right combination of courage, optimism, enthusiasm, and humor to weather the many twists and turns that would come her way over the course of her life. And that, just possibly, those experiences would give her a strength and a perspective that would help her to face even greater challenges once she was 'home' again.
|MsCaroline's mother, circa age 3|
Over the course of the next 30-odd years, she moved house many times - sometimes in as little time as a year and a half - to many cities, and several countries.
What must it have been like for her, packing up and moving every few years, never having a real home of her own, and never knowing how long we might be there? According to her, that's just the way it was, and she made the best of it. (Having weathered only 4 major (interstate/international) moves during my own 20-year marriage, I suspect that's a huge understatement.)
I can only imagine how she felt being so far away from her large extended family (she is the youngest of 9) in a time before Skype and the cheap long-distance phone call, when slow-moving letters and snapshots were the primary means of communication, and a phone call was a rare event. It was a time when air travel was still very much a luxury, so the idea of a yearly flight home to see friends and family was out of the question for military wives. She knew it might well be years before she saw her family again.
Despite these challenges, I can only say that she has seized every opportunity and met every obstacle with tremendous faith, courage, optimism, and an enthusiasm for life that have been a wonderful example for me, especially as I began my own expat journey.
|Snake handling in Bangkok. Or Taipei. Or Panang. Or somewhere.|
A petite redhead, she is referred to by MrL as 'The Red Tornado,' a reference to both her red hair and her fast-moving, high-energy demeanor (although she insists that, at her age, she should really be downgraded from 'Tornado' to 'Zephyr.') Yet she is a sensitive and thoughtful person who loves to garden, and enjoys nothing more than telling me about the nests the birds are building next to her patio. She is an avid reader who brought me up saturated in the written and spoken word (the poetry she read to me as a child is still deeply ingrained.) Early on, she instilled in me a love for music, and one of my earliest memories is of her playing the piano for me in our house in Bangkok after she had put me to bed at night.
Of course, for every soft and gentle story I have about her, I have another that illustrates her zest for life and her willingness to try something new. The fact that we bought her an iPhone for her 70th birthday - and that she took to it immediately- is just one example of the way she meets life head-on. To this day she has a penchant for fast cars, long road trips, and new experiences. I still clearly remember her coming home when we lived in Germany and complaining to my father that her car had an annoying shimmy on the Autobahn 'Whenever I go over 100."
Of course, my mother is nothing if not a realist. One of the best illustrations of her highly practical nature is an oft-related family story about her killing a snake when we lived in Bangkok and I was about 4 or 5. It was evening, she was alone, and she had encountered a snake on the doorstep of our house. Worried that, if she simply shooed it away, it might lurk in the garden and bite me, she decided that the only reasonable course of action would be to kill it, which she did (quite neatly, I might add) by dropping part of a heavy stone hibachi on its head and crushing it. The next morning, upon finding the deceased reptile on the doorstep, the maids and houseboy came to her in great consternation, asking if she had killed it. As it turned out, the snake she had so creatively dispatched (and come well within striking distance of) had been a Banded Krait, also known as the 'two-step' - the number of steps one could reputedly take before dropping dead after being bitten. My mother (who hadn't known this) simply pointed out that she was concerned about me and to this day I'm sure that she believes that anyone with a child would have done the same thing.
But her courage wasn't limited to facing reptiles in Asia: later, back in the U.S., in the space of just two years, she battled breast cancer and coped with the heartbreaking death of her husband. Instead of the happy retirement she had been looking forward to with my father, she found herself facing a life as a single woman after 34 years of marriage. But with her typical no-nonsense, no self-pity attitude, she set about living a full life: making new friends, volunteering in her church, traveling extensively, enjoying her grandchildren and her family, and reveling in new opportunities as they came along. She saw glaciers crumble in Alaska, admired the grandeur of New Zealand ("I think I need to see this Lord of the Rings movie they keep talking about."), traveled to the Grand Canyon.
|Visiting Son#2 at Summer Camp...of course she had to try out the rope suspension bridge.|
Thirteen years after my father died, she met a lovely man, a widower himself, and, in her 70's, remarried, adding new children and grandchildren to our extended family and beginning a new chapter of her life with her typical energy and enthusiasm.
After all these years, not much that she can say surprises me, which is why, when I last talked to her about our plans for my Home Leave this summer, she suggested that, instead of just 'sitting around' her house in Ohio, we consider a road trip to see some of the New England family. It will give Son#2 a chance to see his Boston relations, she said, and really - it's only a few days' drive.
Just a few days' drive. Sure.
Let's just hope I can keep up with her.
Happy Mother's Day.