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She cannot remember the leaving, only the coming home.
For nearly a year she had prepared for this journey. She’d saved enough money to buy a Eurail Pass and a round trip airline ticket. Her vague plan was to tour Europe on the cheap. There was no itinerary, except to keep moving forward.
Her family and friends listened silently as she told them her plans, looking at her as if she had lost her marbles.
She was not running away from her family but toward something she knew she must have: an adventure beyond the kitchen wall, the neighborhood, the playground, Food Town, Mothers Day Out, and middle school fundraisers. She had found a nanny, a cheerful, red-haired college girl to bathe and dress and cuddle and comb her three little boys, all under five years old, and keep track of her vaguely unhappy, brilliant and beautiful 13-year old daughter. Her husband would do the rest between studying and caring for patients at the university hospital.
One shatteringly bright day in early October, she boarded a plane in Nashville and landed in Amsterdam 13 hours later, a city of water and ancient stone, sepia and gray. That night, her first night abroad, she learned that the world is a friendly place filled with interesting, curious, helpful people.
She sat at a corner table in a quaint, brightly tiled restaurant, nursing a glass of white wine and diligently reading her paperback novel to avoid looking up. Across the room, a boisterous group of round, balding middle-aged men called to her to come and join them. They puffed on cigars and were shrouded in smoke. They waved their hands invitingly. She shook her head politely, blushed, and returned to her book.
“Where are you from?” one of them called.
“Nashville,” she said. Spontaneously, their voices rose in a twangy, Dutch-inflected rendition of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” She put her book down and joined them.
They were a group of art teachers, professors who met once a week to drink and eat and talk. They asked her where she planned to travel and she said she wasn’t sure. They told her where to go and what to see, scribbling names of cities and museums on tatters of paper. They toasted her with a shot of herb-infused gin and sent her off.
Every day she sent postcards to her four children: from the Van Gogh Museum where she saw Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, preserved under glass with their fine pencil drawings of the paintings in his head; from the Picasso Museum in Paris with its haunting series of self portraits, from youth to old age; from Vienna, where she ate chocolate all day and watched music students lug their heavy instruments through the cobblestone streets; from Padua where she stood in awe before the Giotto frescoes and dodged the flying booksack of an angry teenager at the neighborhood bus stop; from Florence where her room in a musty pension looked out at the bell tower of a 12th century cathedral and rattled each time the massive iron chimes marked the hour; from sleek trains, the first trains of her life, from crowded compartments belching exotic languages as she stared silently at the passing landscapes: neat green vegetable plots along the tracks, a startling array of sunflowers stretching to the horizon..
Finally, she returned home, arriving well before the last batch of postcards made their way across the Atlantic. As she remembered it from the far middle distance, more than twenty years later, the homecoming was bittersweet. She had expected a rousing welcome of hugs and wet kisses from her gaggle of little boys. Instead, her silent husband met her at the airport, no children in tow.
She packed away her memories and, what seemed a lifetime later, found the box of postcards she’d written to her children, chronicles of a faded dream.
Many years after they had divorced and finally become friends, she told her former husband how lonely that return home had been for her, how sad that cold reception. He looked genuinely puzzled. He didn’t really remember that day, or even that month, except that he had arranged the oldest boy’s birthday celebration and the children had adopted an abandoned baby squirrel while she was away. They laughed and apologized and shared one more round of forgiveness before he died, just a month later.
Once he’d said he couldn’t picture himself at 60. She closed her eyes and tried to conjure 70, a woman bent with age, barefoot and wild-haired, walking through a sea of sunflowers.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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