For whatever reason I have found it difficult to write this blog post. And yet I knew I had to write it for if there were a Part 1 there had to be at least a Part 2, or in this case if there is a beginning to the Home Leave there then needed, eventually, to be an end. Perhaps it is because this second part of the trip felt so much longer than the first? From Charleston, SC we continued on with our trip – traveling from SC to Orlando, Florida, on to Lexington, Kentucky, then to Salamanca, New York, and returning to northern Virginia – all told some 2,500 miles by car. Or maybe because all of these miles driven have provided me ample opportunity to think on so many, many topics ranging from career trajectory, life choices, the meaning of family, an appreciation for things in the US often taken for granted (such as our incredible highway system or our extensive candy selections)? Or because we have wandered through so many states, and different climates, and interacted with so many people?
Following Charleston, SC I drove us south to Orlando, FL. It was time for more mother-daughter time. Although I had of course made sure to include C-friendly activities in Charleston (the aquarium, the children’s museum, the horse carriage ride), it was on the itinerary more for me than her. So I booked six (yes SIX!) days at a very kid-centric Waterpark Resort hotel. Our room included a small kid’s room with bunk beds, bean bag chair and even a TV where C could watch Disney Jr–and I could actually watch my very own shows and news in the other room. Be still my heart. As C watched the giant bucket fill with water spill over the massive water slide center she jumped up and down and hugged me. I had done good.
Our days there were filled with sleeping in and staying up late, playing games in the arcade, frolicking in the pool, playing a round or two of miniature golf, and challenging one another to races to the bottom of water slides. We only left the resort twice — once so I could attend a timeshare presentation (oh indeed, I got suckered in, again!) and then the second time to SeaWorld to use those free tickets I had earned fending off the timeshare professionals. It rained once briefly but afterwards C breathed deeply and declared the air even fresher and more beautiful than before. The joys of not having to check the Air Quality Index! We even had wildlife encounters with C delighting in spotting the anhinga (waterfowl) and turtles and fish that made their home on the resort’s pond. Together we found a baby orange ringneck snake near the pool and a raccoon crossed our path one night as we walked the resort grounds.
I did realize one glaring mistake – the lack of child care! I was sure when I booked this family friendly place that it included parent-friendly child care. It did not. As a single parent it meant I was “on” all the time. C swims well but is still too young to swim or hang out in an hotel arcade unattended. I thought back to the glorious resort we had stayed at in Thailand where C was finally old enough to play at the Kids Club without me. I had all that free time to myself. I was envious of the dual parents who could split child minding time.
From the waterpark resort we drove just a few miles down the road to the Art of Animation Disney hotel for more Florida fun. My long-time (nearly a quarter of a century) friend CZ and her son met us there for single mom and kid fun at Disney. It was at times hectic. Despite us being two adults with two children it still sometimes felt we were outnumbered. And yet we were able to tag-team parent in ways we on our own are unable. One could get lunch while the other watched the children. One could take the kids on a kiddy ride while the other could sneak off to enjoy a ride where the height restrictions were over 48 inches tall. During a very brief moment both children were wiped out asleep in strollers and we grabbed a drink together at a poolside bar – my one drink of the year.
After five days we said farewell to CZ and son and we turned back north. After an incredibly long and frustrating drive we stopped in Suwanee, GA to stay the night with my friend SG, who had been one of my roommates in Singapore where we had both been graduate students over a decade before. This was not initially on our itinerary but SG had reached out to see if we would be passing by and when I checked our route I found it worked. I struggle to describe how extraordinary social media can be to maintain linkages with friends from across one’s life. But the ability to see someone in person and meet their family, even if for a short time, is unparalleled.
Our destination after Florida though was Kentucky, just south of Lexington, where C’s father lives. C would spend four days and nights with him and his wife. C was so incredibly excited, chanting “daddy! daddy!” the last few miles in the car and bouncing from one foot to the other as she stood on his front step after knocking on the door. For me it was a little bittersweet. Four days is the longest C and I have been apart, yet I know it is important for her to have the connection with her father. After thirty minutes of catching up C desperately wanted me to leave so she could have her dad to herself. I drove to a nearby hotel lobby to figure out what in the world to do with all of my free time.
Over the course of the next few days I visited the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park and Mammoth Cave National Park. At the latter I took a two hour very non-5-year-old-friendly historic cave tour and 45 minute surface walk and talk. I watched a non-animated film at a movie theater. I went to a spa for a facial. I toured Ashland, the Henry Clay estate. I stayed in a historic hotel. I listened to NPR in the car as I drove around and did not once have to hear how my backseat driver was tired of listening to all that talk, talk, talk. I watched adult television shows without hearing a complaint about how boring it all was and could we now switch to kid TV? On Facebook I took pictures of myself for a change and my friends noted I looked refreshed. I missed my chatterbox and caught myself numerous times pointing out cows and horses alongside the road to an empty backseat, but I also savored the quiet. As an introvert I can say one of the things I miss most as a single mom is silence.
After picking C up at her dad’s we headed for Ohio. We were on our way to New York but I had discovered in looking at our route we would pass by my cousin Lucky’s place. I had messaged her and she was glad to have us stay with her for a night. Lucky and her husband are accomplished artists and extraordinary people. Their home, for lack of a better description, gives off an aura of happiness and positivity. We enjoyed dinner out and breakfast in, and an impromptu art session on the living room coffee table.
Our next stop was upstate New York where C’s paternal family lives. I again struggle for the right words to articulate how fortunate we are that they embrace us as they do. Her father and I were never married, our pre-C relationship rocky and short-lived. But his family welcomes us–they welcome me–openly. We met with her grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin, whom we had met before, but also met another aunt and cousin for the first time. Her grandmother’s brother stopped by to see “the girl” he had yet to meet.
From New York we returned to Virginia, to my aunt’s home for a few more days. We collected the rest of our things and the cats and then moved into an apartment in Arlington to stay in through the end of my training.
I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to take a journey like this – to have both the time and the means. All the gushing about Home Leave in the beginning piece is very much how I feel. Not to say that somewhere around 2.5 weeks into this I had just about had enough. I did, at times, find the driving monotonous. I tired of hauling around our suitcases from one hotel or home to another and longed for some semblance of continuity and routine. Yet for every thought about how nice it would be to just get some place and stay more than a few days there were ten or twenty thoughts about how I wish we had more time to see more of the country, to spend an extra day or two or three with a friend or relative. Home Leave is the closest I get these days to my former backpacking self, who would spend weeks on end traveling around a country or from country to country, moving every day or two, sometimes deciding the next destination on a whim.
Still this home leave did feel more difficult than my first in the summer of 2012 for three reasons: child care, the timing, and politics.
In 2012 I, smart cookie that I was, arranged child care for then-2.5 year old C at most of our locations. This included taking C daily to the Sheraton Waikiki daycare while we were in Hawaii, to the incredible drop in child care center in New Bern, NC, a community gym with child care in Pigeon Forge, TN, and friends and family who minded C so I could run in San Francisco, South Dakota and New York. For some reason I neglected to work out anything this trip except when C was with her father or the one night she spent at her grandparents in NY. This was a mistake. I needed more downtime.
My first Home Leave lasted an amazing eight weeks after which I started 19 weeks of language training, then a week of consultations/pack-out/administrative tasks, to prepare for heading to Shanghai, where I would continue visa adjudications as I had in Juarez. This time I had seven weeks of home leave, five of which I spent traveling, two I am spending in the DC area, before either seven to nine weeks of functional training, and then head to Malawi to take up a completely new position. During the course of my home leave I fielded emails regarding the maritime shipment of my newly acquired car from Japan to South Africa then on to Malawi, the air delivery of my UAB (Unaccompanied Baggage) from Shanghai to Virginia, and reviewing advertisements, contacting references, and interviewing for child care in Malawi, among other things. Truth be told I sometimes felt resentful these things encroached on my Home Leave.
Finally, this time the political climate is also different. At this point I will remind the reader that my blog comes with a caveat – that the viewpoints expressed here are mine and mine alone and do not represent the State Department or any office of the Federal Government. My blog is not political; I have strong opinions on things but I rarely state my views on social media. Yet it would be disingenuous to say the current state of affairs does not directly and indirectly affect me–it does. I have never been so attuned to political news in my life as I am now. During my Home Leave I have consumed news and political commentary at an alarming rate. It has been stressful. And also strange because I am not currently at work. But what I did do was to introduce myself and what I do to people I met along the way. Not out of the blue mind you, but when asked “where do you live?” I answered honestly: That is not such a straightforward question. I am a US Foreign Service Officer and currently between assignments. I just returned from Asia and will soon be moving to Africa. I am on my Congressionally-mandated Home Leave traveling around the US with my daughter. And this opened the door to some incredible conversations. Some did not know what a diplomat is or what they do. Some thanked me for my service. Some asked how they could become one themselves. Outside a restaurant in Charleston I met a young man, waiting for a table with his wife, mother, and infant child. His dream is to become a diplomat. I gave him, a couple from New York I met at the Disney hotel pool, and a waitress at a pizza place in Bowling Green, KY my contact information. At each National Park I thanked the Park Rangers for their service. At Mammoth Cave I discovered one, a former Army Officer, also spoke Chinese.
It was an extraordinary five weeks. Stressful. Fun. Tiring. Eye-opening. So many things come to mind. Having now written out the trip I think the biggest thing I feel is gratitude.