“I’m a tiger Mama,” my 3-year-old, Eliza says as she crawls on all fours around the kitchen. “I’m from Africa!”
“Would you like to go to Africa one day?” I ask her, knowing that even to a 3-year old the question sounds forced.
“I’m a tiger and I bite,” she says and crawls away to chase her little sister, the question of Africa a passing thought.
As my two tiny daughters crawl around the coffee table practicing their growls, I pull an atlas of the world out of a stack of books in the next room. I open it up to Africa and trace my finger around the shape of the continent. I can only imagine what places with names like Dakar or Nairobi smell like. I can only imagine the feel of my skin under the equatorial sun. I can only imagine these things because I have never been to Africa. When it comes to world travel, I haven’t been to many places at all.
When I was a senior in college my best friend and I decided to go to Europe. Under the halogen light of my dorm room, we called a student travel agency and booked our tickets for the following June. We had both won fellowships with stipends large enough to cover our trip. We were both to graduate in May and a few weeks later we’d board a plane that would take us over the Atlantic. We bought our Eurorail passes next and hung up the phone, giddy. That night, we lay bellies to the floor, thumbing through travel magazines of all the places we might see.
We were in Europe for six weeks at the beginning of that summer. I had never felt so free. She had never felt so homesick. I remember lying on my backpack in Hyde Park in London the day before we left, trying to figure out how to stay. I knew my father would have a stroke if I tried, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I went back to South Carolina I may never get back out.
“You need to come home and settle down,” my mother said. I knew she meant “get married, find a job” and the thought of it all made me itch.
I grew up in the South. And anyone who’s from there knows a true Southerner never leaves. Leaving means you are walking away from the Promised Land, leaving the mother ship. Leaving means you might find something you like better than magnolias in your grandmother’s front yard in springtime or sticky summer nights down at the lake with your sweetheart. It means you, if you leave, are taking up with all those people in the world who weren’t lucky enough to be born in the South. If you leave, it means you are without a tribe because I can promise you no one is coming with you. Leaving means you are downright crazy and dead wrong.
Or, at least, that’s how it is in my family.
I went back to the South after that trip and swore I wouldn’t stay long. I had a long list of places I wanted to see. I wanted my passport filled with stamps, my bones tired from bumpy bus rides on backwood roads in some distant place. But it didn’t turn out that way. The pull to stay with my family, and in my place, was so great that the best I could do was go to graduate school across the country in Oregon.
I had been West before. When I was a junior in college I heard on a balmy Southern breeze the first whisper of go. I started looking for a way and found a student exchange program. I sold it to my dad telling him it wouldn’t cost him any more money than if I stayed in South Carolina. I would only be gone for a semester, I told him. He finally agreed.
“Go and get this out of your system,” my mother said. “This only happens once in a lifetime.”
In the exchange program I found Missoula. I had never heard of it and neither had anyone else I knew. I moved here in January 1996, away from family, away from the confines of a Southern girlhood, away from the expectation that I get married the following year – an act that would have shackled me to South for eternity. In Missoula, I kept to myself, breathed cold mountain air and wore three layers of clothes wherever I went. I had never been happier in my life.
So a few years later, when I got a scholarship to go to the University of Oregon to study literary nonfiction, I held onto it like the lifeline it was. Eugene wasn’t Missoula, but it would do. That scholarship was my ticket out and I knew it.
I spent so much of my early twenties finding an acceptable way to leave the South that world travel took a back seat. I saw all of this country, though, crisscrossing it several times in my old Toyota. But my passport remained buried under grad school applications and maps of the west. It expired in 2007. I was pregnant with my youngest daughter but I remembered. I dug it out of the tin in my writing desk where I keep things that I want to hold onto. Quotes and photos I’ve collected over the years, a curl of Eliza’s hair, the makeshift engagement ring Seth made me out of bailing wire because when we decided to get married we were poor, having just bought a five-acre farm where we thought we’d stay forever. I opened the slim blue booklet and looked at me at 21. The picture is a snapshot taken early one morning before class at a campus copy shop but I know the girl in that picture was twisting and writhing to get to a different place.
And I suppose she did.
I haven’t found myself in Africa or India or Finland or the long, long list of places I still want to go. But, somewhere, I found my way.
After a few years of making dear friends and seeing amazing landscapes in the American West, I married a man my grandmother endearingly calls a Yankee even though he’s from Oregon. I live in a town that’s felt like home since I first walked its snowy streets in 1996. I have two little girls who crawl around growling at each other talking about places I want to take them.
I hope we’ll see this world, wide and deep, together.
And when it is time, I want my daughters to know that it will be me, their mama, watching proudly as they go from place to place to place until they find their own.