This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 8)

VIII.

I cannot escape my Americanism. I’ve got that flat, American accent. American pragmatism and optimism inform how I approach the world. Though here I’m, “So, Where are you from? Certainly not from here.” Abroad, I was always gringo. Any disavowal of the nation that took in my immigrant ancestors from Scotland centuries ago, even though it then forced the children those ancestors had with southeastern tribes to uproot to Oklahoma, would be disingenuous. And even though, as the story goes, my father’s great-grandfather walked off the reservation as a teenager to become a West Texas cotton farmer, this was not a story we were told. Not, at least, until I was fifteen. Where you are from, West Texas, the Nation West, Puerto Rico, Scotland, southeastern Virginia, these places never really mattered.

What mattered was if you were on that train, heaven bound.

Despite my discomfort with the U.S., like a good American, something at the core of our national experiment attracts me. At the end of the 18th century, Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan land-owner and intellectual, traveled the original 13 states. How courts followed the rule of law, how the nation was structured around the small family farm, rather than the large plantation, amazed him. Neither rule of law nor small family farms existed in Spanish Colonial America, where large plantations were the norm and money and power bought you rights and privileges and placed you beyond the law. I think of de Miranda’s travels and think if only the cultivation of one’s garden were the national virtue, if rule of law was not a privilege principally afforded to the powerful, if all races, all creeds, all nations were always welcomed and given home.

After a life spent wandering from place to place in service of the church, my wife, kids, and I now live an hour from Cane Ridge, the very spot where our movement began. For four years we’ve called Kentucky home. I’ll always long for the Caribbean, always feel like moving after a year or two, always think the only real mountains in this world are the Sangre de Cristos.

But I’m happy to be here and know people who still cultivate the land for sustenance rather than profit.

I’m happy to eat vegetables grown here in this soil, on these rolling hills.

I pledge allegiance to the small country, to this earth that feeds me and to which I will return as dust.

Two years ago we planted asparagus root in our backyard. For two years, we’ve weeded and watered the plot, waiting for the root stock to establish itself. Anticipating that spring when we can harvest them.

Next year, when those first shoots appear and grow tall, we’ll have a feast.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 6)

VI.

Home, if I had to choose one place, would be a tract of land, just north of Santa Fe on Highway 84. A few miles beyond Camel Rock runs the Pojoaque arroyo, soon after crossing the bridge, there on the left, on a hill, the adobe house. A long eastern wall of windows faces the Sangre de Cristo mountains; the western wall, the front porch, looks toward sandy barrancas that rise up five hundred feet above the spruce and sage brush. My grandparents lived in that house from the early eighties until my paternal grandfather’s death in 2000. We went there as often as we could. Maybe the landscape, so beautiful, so hard to live in, sank deep into our souls because its beauty, its harshness, are at once of this world and at the same time remind us that our time on earth is not for long.

The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I lived there. Having changed my major three or four times, I had, just that spring, finally declared English. I was lost. I went there to help my grandparents, to be their handyman and gardener – though I am neither. I went there because I had nowhere else to go and needed family.

Santo Domingo, Rep Dom. I’m 19. Home on summer break. It’s the end of another medical mission tour.

I didn’t go to high school, nor did I home school in the traditional sense. Instead, halfway through the tenth grade, I began to work as my Dad’s personal assistant – patient triage, pharmacy, running national and international errands for him. When I wasn’t working for Dad, I translated for work groups. On the side, I was to have kept up with my studies, reading an old college history textbook, working through geometry on my own. Instead, I spent that time reading CandideMoby DickCatcher in the RyeHuck Finn and studying German. After two and half years of this, any inkling of self-discipline was gone. Any facility with math sloughed off. Though we should’ve known my dream of becoming a doctor, like my father, was but a dream, I marched confidently into chemistry and calculus and embryology. Further complicating things, the summer after my sophomore year I’d decided that I couldn’t be a missionary for the church of Christ in Latin America, I didn’t see the point of trying to get people to switch to my brand of toothpaste in the hopes that with it their pearlies would be pearlier.

That summer I read Whitman, played bocce and drank beer with my grandfather, sat on the front porch and had conversations with my grandmother, dug fence posts, watered his pear trees, built a retaining wall, linseed oiled the wood on the adobe house, drove up to Chaco canyon to tour the ruins. I worked the land every day: hoeing, weeding, watering the trees. Both my grandfather and I ignored the hard fact that his pear orchard was a chimera. They never produced fruit; and, now, they are not there. But it was a lesson in tending a plot of land, in living in a place with a contentious history, in learning how to be both of these United States and something other.

After all, the First Peoples and the Hispanic of the southwest have been working out their relationship to the larger nation for centuries.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 5)

V.

Many missionaries deal with culture shock by pining for the golden land of the mother country, dreaming of a place that no longer exists. It is a potent mix of nostalgia and present discontent. Back home everyone’s always on time. The lights never go out.  The water’s always potable and cold, straight from the faucet. The roads. The police. The cellophaned meats. Back home it’s not rice and beans every meal. Everything’s better and all the food you ever loved as a child is there.

True and real civilization.

When we lived in Nicaragua one of my Dad’s best friends was a salesman. I don’t remember if he sold meat before the ‘79 Revolution or if “the government” decided that his product would be meat. Because he refused to pledge allegiance to anything but Christ, he got poorer and poorer product. We hated his hot dogs. They tasted like rancid fat and sand. Dad, though, would buy them. We would spit them out.

He took us once for supper to The Purple Cow, a diner with coke floats and hot dogs. We were certain it wouldn’t have those nasty red sticks Omar peddled. This was a fancy place. We drank our floats and fidgeted about the booth, talking of nothing but hot dogs. They came. We sniffed. We whined, “Omar.” Eventually, Omar was given only bones to sell. Soon after we left Nicaragua, he found his way to Mexico, crossed the border into the U.S., and worked to bring his family north. Sometime in the mid “80s he was granted amnesty and residency.

Parental memories form so much of a missionary child’s sense of home. This inheritance of myth and nostalgia mixed with growing up in another country explains the dislocation of so many missionary children.

If Dad longed for anything, though, it was Italy. He didn’t share much with us, however. His mother died of cancer while he was in college. Childhood memories were hard. And, though his dad remarried, his mother wasn’t there to pass-on family history, to tell us stories of his childhood. When the family gathered, however, siblings would reminisce. Most had to do with “the family mission,” like how he, his siblings, and his cousins torched a roadside shrine in some northern Italian village, thinking they were advancing the cause of Christ.

Mom hardly ever spoke of her childhood. In part, I suspect this is because she too grew up out of place. Her mother, a Puerto Rican war bride, desperately tried and quite succeeded in raising her two children as anything but Puerto Rican. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, and black-haired in Texas, she was terrified they might be taken as Mexican. Mom did tell us, though, that her own father had her trained to come on a whistle. And, once my wife and I had kids, she told me she was quite headstrong until three, when her father finally “beat it out of her.” At times I’ve wondered if this is why she doesn’t speak of her childhood. Then again, I’ve never asked.

As children we were not fed a diet of Halcyon days in the U.S.A. Our parents spoke of college in Texas and California and those first years of marriage in Italy. We, too, worked hard to keep our scraps of memory: prancing about a Milan apartment with underwear in our butt-cracks pretending we were Sumo wrestlers while Dad studied, the time it snowed and he made a sled out of cardboard and plastic trash bags and pulled us all the way home from preschool, walking down a street in Milan with Mom on a winter day looking for a lost car that had fallen through a hole in her coat pocket, a woolen rust and brown and beige plaid coat.

Furthermore, Mom had learned to cook in Italy. Home food was always homemade Italian. Also, she dutifully learned a repertoire of national dishes wherever we went. Thus, in Nicaragua our fare was Italian and Nicaraguan; in Costa Rica, Italian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican; in the Dominican Republic. Neither our food memories nor our deep family memories ever linked back to the U.S., unless it was a family reunion.

In which case, we were singing about heaven.

I’m around two and we are visiting London, it seems. I’ve always thought this was in Italy. But, the sign on the tower says, Bloody Tower.

For the Love of Family by Lisa Lewis Smith

Being the youngest of four and the only girl, Lewisburg helped open my eyes up to the kind of family that we were.  We moved around a lot.  We lived life with great enthusiasm.  We took it all in.  We were not the “armchair” Smiths.

My Uncle Bill would drive with his two young children over from Charleston on most weekends to stay in his log cabin in the woods. He built this cabin single handedly and with great pride (this fact was listed in his obituary many years later).  It had, and still does have, an outhouse and no running water.  My cousins Margie and Will would stay in their zip up pajamas all weekend.  They lived and enjoyed the simple things in life.  (By the way, I was devastated when this man we so lovingly called “Uncle Bill” died.  He was a special force, a gentle giant, a kind soul that you dreaded to see leave this world.  We all miss him to pieces.  He was one of a kind.)

The writer's father (2nd from left) with his 3 brothers, 1950s.

My other uncle once drove to Lewisburg for Thanksgiving (for one night) with his four young kids from Jacksonville, Florida.  They made the long, thirteen-hour drive in their two-door white 1970’s Cadillac Eldorado.  This was the first time my cousin, Curly Caroline, ever saw snow.  She and I were both in the 3rd grade.

These are our people…living life fully – driving from Florida for a family meal and keeping your onesies on.  Living life to the fullest, taking it all in.  I try to practice this today.

My dad’s passion for Lewisburg spilled over onto his children.  He always talked about this “sacred land” and, being of the Scotch-Irish descent, how the “land was the soul of the man.”  Mowing grass on my granddad’s red 1948 International tractor was his peaceful infatuation.

Sometimes we’d spend Sunday nights and my parents would drop us off at Fernbank just in time to start the school week on Monday morning.  Sometimes we slept in our school clothes for the next day, so we could easily be carried to the car early the next morning and make our way to Charleston to start the school week.

If we weren’t there to stay, then we were en route to and from that place that we loved so much. We were always on the run, going to football games in the fall, lacrosse games in the spring, and wrestling matches in between.  It was almost like we lived and traveled with Lewisburg constantly on our radar screen. It was our hub.  We came and went so often, and I’m so glad we did!

“I’d rather be in Greenbrier County” – that was our family motto.

With four kids, there was always some kind of chaos taking place.  Disorder was the normal way of life.

My parents hosted many gatherings in Lewisburg.  Lots of Bloody Marys and bluegrass music. I remember one particular party when my brother Lyle showed up with smut on is face… “Would you tell my mom I need her…my motorcycle just blew up!”  I will never forget the look on that lady’s face.

The writer's father with 5 of his 10 grandchildren, Thanksgiving 2011 at Smithover

When I was about five, we arrived to Lewisburg late one night following a Virginia college basketball game with some close family friends whose oldest son was playing. We pulled into our dark driveway after the long travel.  Our woody station wagon was full with two sets of parents, two of my brothers, two of our friends’ sons, and the only girl (me) sat up front between my mom and dad.  We were all talking about where we were going to sleep…”I want the top bunk”…”I get the couch.”  “I get the comfortable bed.”  All the boys declared their sleeping location.  My dad, being protective, grumbles loudly…”Lisa, you sleep with me and your Mama!”  I proclaimed confidently that he did not have to worry…that I was a lesbian!  Our friends like to bring it up often with a laugh, and I am proud of my quick thinking strategy at five years old.  It worked.  I got the bottom bunk that I loved so much.

The youngest generation of Smiths "clearing land" in Greenbrier County, Thanksgiving 2011

Some other specific memories:  rustling in the leaves in the fall, riding motorcycles, sled riding, bluegrass music, and “clearing land” at Thanksgiving, driving up for the new oasis on Snowshoe Mountain.  (My mom still has her awesome full body ski suit.) Our dog Muskin running into the woods as soon as we arrived…often not coming back for hours, but always returning with the strong smell of spring woods or the pungent stink of going into battle with a skunk (still today, that smell evokes wonderful memories of my childhood in Greenbrier County).

Chaos is not uncommon in a big family.  During a televised football game at one of the many Thanksgiving holidays we spent at Smithover, my older brother surprised us all during the half time show.  He pulled out his shotgun (safely, but without warning) and struck a buck from our back deck, out of nowhere.  The younger kids jumped for joy.  Once the gun was locked away, they ran to inspect the kill.  It was not a customary family event. One of my cousins left with her young child and did not return on that trip.  But she did eventually return.  Your family can really turn you off…but it always amazes me how you come back home for the holidays.  That is the beauty of family.  They say you can’t pick your family….but I sure would pick mine if I had the chance.

Dysfunctional, but fiercely loyal and never boring.

The writer (front row, blue scarf) with layers of Smith family.

Tomorrow:  For the Love of Food

Fly Away Home

I was born in Charleston, West Virginia, over four decades ago. Before I was fourteen years old, I had been to Bermuda, Quebec, Denmark, Paris, Switzerland, and Germany. I attended college in North Carolina, and before I graduated I had back-packed Germany, Scotland, and England. I worked on Capitol Hill my first year out of college, and lived and worked in the international university community of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill for 10 years before making a conscious choice to move back to West Virginia.

Simply put, I’m a big fan of West Virginians getting out before they lock it in.

I’ve puzzled for several years since my return over the hungry – yea, desperate – plea from some contingencies here to create an environment that children don’t leave. “If we only did this…….if we only changed that……if we had a…………then our kids wouldn’t have to leave home.” This is one of the most misguided philosophies I’ve ever encountered on two fronts.

First, kids are supposed to leave home. When you reduce it down to its barest elements, the whole ideal purpose of parenting is to raise children to a level of maturity where they can take care of themselves in their developing social, physical, intellectual, and spiritual spheres. Even when children have special needs, there is a feeling that the maximum level of independence and autonomy possible should be the goal.  To suggest that there is something unnatural or undesirable about leaving the nest is a bit smothering and insecure. One of the best things that can happen to a young person is to explore the world on his or her own terms. Whether you grow up in West Virginia or Tuscany, you need to deliberately depart the confines of your small, childlike world, and put yourself in the environment of newness, diversity, challenge, and change.

Second, from an economic development standpoint, we need less a climate of existing jobs than a climate of innovation to draw the people our state needs to blossom now; and yet we still have a strong dialogue here that centers on former West Virginians coming “home” to fill job vacancies that await them. The people I have in mind that will come to make their lives in our state are looking for opportunity to build, create, and innovate. I am interested in the minds that seek an environment that supports new business creation, not simply seats for warm bodies.

I propose we give the clutching after our offspring a rest. Let’s stop worrying about getting former West Virginians back, and start strategizing about creating a place where smart, motivated people who have grown through diverse life experiences want to work and play. With all due respect to those of us who grew up here, our birth certificates do not automatically make us part of West Virginia’s bright future. What will make us part of that future is our willingness to engage the world; to embrace new people and cultural elements from outside our borders; and to stop asking for jobs and start making them.

Oh yes. And our willingness to kiss our children on the cheek and wish them well on their own journey to whatever place – maybe ultimately here – that creates a sense of home and identity for them and their best lives.

This post is adapted from the original composed for “A Better West Virginia Challenge.”

Image credit: Jamie Gaucher