I’m concerned about my money situation. Without any access to money, it’s hard to be a tourist! And ever since New York, when I typed in the wrong pin code at one bank, I can’t withdraw money from a bank with my credit card. Using the credit card to pay for purchases has worked, though – until now. Now I can’t get money with my debit card either for some reason. But I need some things desperately, like batteries for my battery-operated toothbrush.
I walk along Cane River Lake and a bit further to the local dollar store. I seem to be the only person on foot here! I have just about enough money to buy batteries, with only a couple dollars left over. I’m going to have to do something about my finances. I hope I can withdraw or charge today.
Then Robert and I do some more sightseeing. Today he takes me to the local historical museum. I learn more here about the history of Natchitoches. Of course, the folk artist Clementine Hunter is represented here, and there are some of her paintings on display. I learn that Natchitoches was the first place in Louisiana to be settled by whites. In 1714 the first French and Spanish settlers came.
I also learn other tidbits about the area. I learn that during World War II there were German prisoners of war in Louisiana. I learn that there was segregation in the military during World War II, and that the prisoners of war were treated better than the black soldiers. I learn that Robert’s university, Northwestern State, was segregated until 1960s. I’m impressed that the museum doesn’t gloss over the difficult, dirtier parts of Southern history.
After this we try to get money out of Robert’s bank. What an imposing building it is! It is spacious, with a stone floor and brocade armchairs for the customers to sit in as they wait. But they offer no way for me to get money. Even an officer can’t help me. This is one way to help stop me from spending money! I will have to call my bank in Germany first thing tomorrow, their time. That means I will have to stay up and wait until 2 am to call there, because of the time difference.
We do some window shopping. There is a cookware store with everything a hobby cook or even a professional could desire. We return to the chocolate shop. Robert has ordered some chocolates. There are lovely, creative chocolate creations here – chocolate-coated strawberries and pineapple, and even things like chocolate high heels! The owner comments about the banks in town. “There are so many banks no one has ever heard of anywhere else but here.” Could this be reason for the beautifully decorated interiors? They’re all privately owned. I am impressed by the charm and attractiveness of this town. This feels like America, and yet regional. No wonder tourists flock here.
Robert tells me there is a festival of lights along the lake every winter before Christmas. The downtown area by the lake is surrounded with lit-up Christmas displays and you can buy lots of goodies to eat. Sounds a little like the Christmas markets in Cologne!
We walk past a house – or is it a shop? The window looks looks like a shop display, but with an odd assortment of Bible verse and other inspiring plaques. teddy bears, plants, and knick-knacks. Why is Robert lingering here so long? Is this some sort of shop? Or a museum? Why are we here? Robert looks a little uncertain as to what to do next, but he doesn’t move. A woman opens the door and greets us. “Are you looking for something?” Robert says something about having been here a few years back with some European relatives, and that the owner showed them her home. We are in a private home, inhabited by a perfect stranger, and Robert is asking if we can have a tour! I have never heard of such a thing. The lady calls out, “Margie! Margie! There’s someone here to see you.” She asks us to come in, and there we stand – in someone’s living room. It is very inviting, but stuffed like an antique shop with various bric-a-brac. Statues are placed in various spots, there is a fireplace. I see a table with Christian books and Bibles, photos galore, silk flower arrangements, and huge plants. An old lady seated in the corner in a recliner chair, feet propped up, smiles up at us. She introduces herself as Margie. “You’re welcome to have a tour of my home,” she says, with a drawl so thick you could spread a slice of bread with it. It is as sweet as honey to my ears. She introduces the younger lady as Kim, her caregiver. “Kim, could you get these lovely people some iced tea?” She proudly announces that she is ninety-two years old.
I ask her why she is doing this. Her answer – we look like good people, and she does this as a way of sharing her faith. Robert tells her about my husband having been a pastor. I add that that I am a Christian, and she replies, “Well, then, we’re related.”
“Yes, we’re sisters in Christ,” I answer. She struggles to get up out of her chair, shuffles slowly to her walker, and proceeds to guide us through her home, room by room. Her home is immaculate, if full of trinkets.
“My husband was a banker,” she says. Aha! This home looks like something someone with money and a taste for old-fashioned comfort would live in. Her husband was the owner of a local bank, and they lived in a large old house in town. She grew up on a plantation. She must have been a Southern belle! I have never experienced such gracious hospitality. This must be what people are referring to when they talk about southern hospitality. The walls are a soft, pale mint green. Her bedroom is furnished with solid dark mahogany wood, and a delicate white lace bedspread is spread across the bed. There are photos and Bibles everywhere! Somehow with the pale green wall, reminiscent of my parents’ bedroom and the lacy bedspread, I am reminded of my own parents’ home. They also had original artwork hanging on the walls and trinkets here and there from their European and Asian travels. In some ways, this feels a bit like being in the home of my youth! But there is a portrait of President Trump hanging prominently on the bedroom wall too, right at the foot of her bed. My parents would never have had a portrait of him or of any politician hanging on their walls. We ignore the painting and Robert asks her about the photographs. Soon we are into her life story, hearing about all the children and grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. After the tour is finished, we sip iced tea in the living room, hug as though we were old friends, and leave.
We drive out of town to one of Robert’s favorite restaurants, “The Mariner’s”, on a lake. Since I can’t access money, this meal will be Robert’s treat. It’s too dark to see much, but we do see a pier where diners can walk on summer evenings after dinner. This is a beautiful, tasteful restaurant, furnished like some of the nicer places I occasionally ate at with my parents while growing up. But the food is very Louisiana. I try oysters for the first time. Not bad! These are not raw, but rather cooked in a creamy sauce with a buttery bread crumb crust. I have blackened tilapia, a sweet potato with brown sugar and melted butter on top. I even get a soup – a shrimp-corn chowder, spiced with Louisiana pepper sauce. We share dessert – a chocolate lush cake. We drink delicious wine. I have probably gained a kilo from this meal alone.
This is a dinner I could easily have shared with Peter, my husband. Sitting across from Robert, I am reminded of all those meals with Peter. Peter and Robert had much in common. Both are or were lovers of history and knowledgeable about a multitude of things. Both are/were intellectuals. Both are/were kind. I guess it’s no wonder that Robert was my first boyfriend and that I married someone with so many of the same qualities. I feel more and more comfortable with Robert. His being gay makes no difference to me, except that perhaps I can feel even more at ease with him. Just as with my husband, we never run out of things to talk about.
After dinner, we watch a video together. Robert goes to bed, and I wait up, writing and reading a book Robert has recommended to me. I am able to express my problem, I reach people with the competence to deal with the problem, and they promise me that my problem is now solved.
We are scheduled to depart by around noon. Rhett is sadly not up to the trip. Natalie will be driving over four hours to get me to Shreveport, Louisiana, sleeping overnight in some motel in or near Shreveport, and then driving back to Rhett. She rarely leaves him alone for more than a few hours. You never know with a lung condition like this. I feel some unease, putting both of them out like this. But this is Texas hospitality, I guess.
Before we leave, though, I have to get my daily exercise walk in. There is enough time for me to walk the mile loop around their home. The weather is spring-like today, sunny and warm. I don’t even need a jacket today! Finally, we’re getting the weather I had expected to find in the South.
Rhett and Natalie live in ranch country. Even it it is part of Georgetown, it feels far away from any cities. There are houses with large lots on the block, but it doesn’t feel suburban to me, I suppose, because there are no lawns, just scrubby brush. There are some horses grazing in fields, and each house seems to have at least one recreational vehicle in the drive. There is a large “RV park”, what they call a trailer park in Minnesota, and the largest number of mailboxes, all lined up, that I have ever seen!
A road trip with two like-minded retired women. Fun! It’s almost as though there weren’t a care in the world. We have plenty of food packed to eat along the way, lots to drink. We are relying on my Google Maps, which I have downloaded, and Rhett’s GPS, which is not entirely reliable. But for the most part, our instructions match up.
We drive for ages along stretches of countryside like where Rhett and Natalie live, interspersed with lots of churches, strip malls, huge parking lots and chain stores like Best Buy and Home Depot. We pass chain restaurants like McDonald’s and the southern Chic-fil-A. Natalie tells me about the good Chic-fil-A does, how they went out to drivers stranded in a snow storm in Alabama once, donating hundreds of sandwiches. “They get a bad rap from the liberal press, though, because the owners are Christian.” She tells me a story of how some atheist went into a Chic-fil-A restaurant on a dare and came out, surprised at how normal everyone was. This is painful for me to
listen to. I can feel her pain. The pain of not being understood, the pain of being intentionally misrepresented. Why can’t people talk to each other anymore? Aren’t they even trying to understand one another? Do they only have pejorative clichés to lash out at each other? I thought tolerance was one of the definitions of liberalism. Aren’t the liberals the good guys I always thought they were? The reasonable ones? Except for the subject of abortion, I seem to always side with the liberals. But how much of this is simply due to the media I read and watch? Things don’t seem to be as simple as we make them out to be.
I wonder what it is going to be like staying with Robert. He is a good friend of mine who has visited Peter and me several times in Germany, but I have never visited him. He invited both Peter and me several times to his home in Louisiana, but we never made it. He is, like Rhett, Natalie and me, now retired, but he was a professor for over twenty years at a college in his town. He is gay, so there will be no tension because of my being suddenly single. But very liberal politically and culturally, probably much more so than me. He knows that, though, and he likes me, and I like him, so at least we have that.
Robert and I met at Macalester College as undergraduates fifty years ago. At that time we were going out together. I certainly had no inclination when we were dating that Robert would turn out to be gay. I suspect that Robert and I are more aligned politically than my Texas cousins, but I have spent the past week having stereotypes popped like bubble padding, one after another. Where do I stand, after all? Am I only a product of liberal propaganda? But I truly am appalled by the words I hear coming out of our President’s mouth. I believe most of what I read in the New York Times. Does that make me a liberal? On the other hand, Robert no longer claims to be Christian. This is an essential part of who I am. Will we get along? I’m planning to spend an entire week with him! Tiny feathers of anxiety flit around in my stomach.
Eventually, we leave the churches, strip malls and parking lots and drive past mile after mile of relatively flat terrain, scrub and live oaks. “Watch for the landscape to change,” Natalie says. “It will get flatter and flatter, and the trees will turn to pine. That is the landscape of Louisiana.”
Every few miles there is a gigantic billboard advertising some casino or other in Shreveport. “Gambling is illegal in Texas, so people drive across the border to gamble in Shreveport,” she says. “It’s a big business there.”
Gradually, the countryside flattens even more and the oak trees yield to pine forests. And with only a road sign to mark this event, we slip almost secretly into Louisiana – for me, my first time in what I would call the deep South.
We are to meet at a Burger King near a junction of the freeway with a major highway. We are late. Robert wanted to take me to an art theater to see a specific movie, but by now we won’t make it in time for that. I text him as we drive along. No problem, he says, there is another movie showing later that also looks good. Or we can skip the movies altogether. A movie sounds good. It is a neutral way to mask my anxiety about spending a week as a new widow with her gay ex-boyfriend.
Natalie will look for a motel nearby in Shreveport to spend the night. Shall we eat a meal together? We don’t know any restaurants, but there is always the Burger King, where we’ll soon be meeting.
How will it be between Natalie and Robert? She’s not as conservative about the subject of gays as I had imagined. She’s told me about their gay choir director at church, so I guess their church isn’t opposed to gays working there. But Natalie is conservative politically. Robert isn’t sure about any faith anymore, and he’s very liberal, from all I’ve ascertained from talking to him. Well, we’ll soon see.
We drive into the Burger King parking lot. I see other cars parked there, but assume Robert is waiting inside the restaurant. We get out of the car and walk towards the entrance. Suddenly a car door opens up and there is Robert, rushing toward us! I haven’t seen him in years, not since at least a year before my husband had his stroke, so it must be over five years. He has that big warm smile on his face and the bouncy, almost clumsy, vulnerable walk I had forgotten about. How could I have forgotten? I’ve always felt safer with Robert than just about anyone else! We run towards each other and give each other a big hug. Robert turns his head towards mine. Oh, no! He’s going to kiss me on the lips! I have only kissed Peter during my entire marriage! What’s this? I turn my head away, and the mouth kiss becomes one on either cheek, very European, sophisticated. The other side of Robert.
But he has a warm smile and handshake for Natalie. We exchange pleasantries for a few minutes. We talk about how to pronounce the name of the small city Robert lives in, Natchitoches. Natalie says, “There’s a town in Texas with almost the same spelling. Nacogdoches. There they pronounce it , “Nack-a-DOATCH-es.”
Robert laughs. “Yes, that’s the way you’d think they’d pronounce it here. But here they say, NACK-a-dish.” We all laugh. Yes, I remember. Robert is a very warm, hearty person. No wonder we’ve been friends for so long.
He says, “We missed my first choice for movies, but that’s OK. There’s another one showing now that I also wanted to see. ‘Green Room’. Have you heard of it?”
I have never heard of it and have no idea what it is about. “Oh, that’s a movie I’ve been wanting to see!” exclaims Natalie. “I saw a discussion about it on TV. A sort of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ in reverse.”
“Yeah,” answers Robert, offering her his charming smile. “Natalie, would you care to join us?”
“Robert, neither of us has eaten,” I say. “Shall we eat somewhere and then go to the movies?
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Robert says. “I haven’t eaten either. Natalie, how about coming with us for dinner AND the movies?”
“Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass on that,” Natalie says. “I’m pretty tired after that drive. I think I’ll just find a nearby motel and rest.”
“What about just dinner then?” I ask. “We could eat here at the Burger King. That’s really close! And fast.”
Robert turns up his nose a little. Well, I don’t usually eat at Burger King either. But, in a pinch…And sometimes in Germany, I’m just in the mood for junk food. I give in to my urge, and really enjoy my junk food burger.
“I think we can find something better than that,” he says. “There’s a restaurant right in the cinema complex where we’re going to the movies. You can bring your food into the theater if you’re not finished by the time the movie starts.”
Natalie interrupts. “Look – I’m really tired. Why don’t you two just go on ahead, and I’ll find something around here.” She’s so sensitive and thoughtful. Actually, all the people I met in Texas were very warm and friendly. But Natalie has that grace – and a Texas twang – that feels sort of Southern, as I imagine it to be. And she had a copy of “Southern Living,” a magazine that I studied while with her and Rhett. Natalie is from East Texas, also considered, at least by Texans, as part of the South.
A few more minutes of cajoling, and “Are you sure?”s. And then Robert puts my luggage into the trunk of his car. More kisses and hugs and thank yous, and it was nothings, but it really was a huge thing Natalie did for me, and then we’re off.
Robert has never driven into Shreveport from this location, and we have to drive around a bit before we find the Robinson Film Center, where “Green Book” will be showing soon. I look out my window at the buildings. Shreveport looks a little like a smaller version of some medium-sized city, like St. Paul, perhaps. There are a few tall buildings, but not that many. I don’t know what a Southern city should look like, so all I can tell is that this city looks American.
We enter the building, buy tickets for our movie, and head for the restaurant.
“They have some Cajun-Creole things on the menu you might like,” Robert says. He orders a jambalaya and I order Cajun pasta. It is delicious! But there isn’t enough time to finish our meal. The food is definitely different than food I’ve ever eaten in the North, and much better than the food at Burger King. But the restaurant has that trendy industrial feel you see in many restaurants in the North. Sort of casual hip, with young servers of various colors but no southern accents. So far, the South doesn’t feel that much different from anything else I’ve seen in the North. There isn’t enough time to finish our meal. We take our food into the theater and finish it as we watch the movie.
We both enjoy the film very much. The subject, racism in the North and South, is exactly what I’d like to find more about while here. We discuss the film during the hour’s drive to Natchichoches.
“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a green book blacks had to go by in the South,” I say. We agree, even if there is still inequality in the South, at least the legal oppression has ceased.
“You’ll see a lot of African Americans in Natchitoches,” Robert says. “It’s about 80% black. I have a black cleaning woman. There’s a story behind that.” And he tells me the story of his black cleaning lady. There is a sort of caste system in Louisana, Robert discovered after he moved there from the North. He was told that he should get a Creole cleaner because they were supposed to be better and more reliable than blacks. A Creole, says Robert, is anyone who is mixed-race. They can be black, Native American, Asian, whatever – with white mixed in. There are a lot of Creoles in Louisiana, he says. You can recognize them because they are lighter-skinned than the people they call black, or African American. Robert dutifully hired the Creole cleaning lady recommended to him. But she was lazy and often didn’t show up for work, or did her work sloppily. He had to let her go. He found the black cleaner he has now, and they love each other. She often brings her grandchild to keep her company as she cleans, and everybody is happy.
As we enter Natchitoches, Robert explains things as we drive past. I see a river sparkling from the light of street lights and lamps illuminating it. “That’s the Cane River,” he says. And, “That’s the house where they filmed ‘Steel Magnolias’. You’ve heard of that, haven’t you?” Well, yes, on the plane to Texas someone talked to me about what to see while in Louisiana and she mentioned the film. Julia Roberts stars in it. I like her. Maybe I’ll have a chance to see the film, I think to myself. My cousins had also mentioned the film. But I can’t see anything – it’s been dark for hours, and now it’s going on midnight.
Robert’s house appears to have been built just after the second world war, perhaps in the late nineteen-forties or fifties. When we enter the house, it feels much more spacious than it looks like from the outside. It smells of lilies. Robert says, “You noticed! My boyfriend brought them here to me last weekend when he was here for a visit.” I love the color themes Robert has chosen – brightly colored walls in every room, with furnishings to fit the color of each room. The floors are all hardwood. I have never been Robert’s houseguest, and I am delighted to discover his taste. There is a distinct feel of Italy here. Robert is an expert on Italian history and has been there countless times. Occasionally his travels have taken him to Germany, to Peter and me.
The guest room, my room, is painted a deep aubergine shade, with a big poster bed, a gorgeous Tiffany lamp and a potted plant. It is very late. I brush my teeth quickly and flop into into bed. I’m too tired to worry about differences between Robert and my cousins, or between him and me, for that matter. Seconds after my head touches the pillow and I have found a comfortable sleeping position, I am dead to the world.
I lie in bed this morning a little longer, listening to the strangely comforting drone of the oxygen machine. We have no plans for today. Today it’s family time. It will be an up-day for Rhett, and there is time for me to read some of the magazine articles Natalie has written, chat with Rhett and Natalie, and share photographs of my family over the past year. Perhaps I can show them a little of my life before Peter died. I can show photos of family members who traveled across the world to attend his funeral. Perhaps I can go for a walk in Rhett and Natalie’s neighborhood, exercising off some of all that delicious food I have consumed in the past five days.
I think about Rhett and Natalie’s life. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have a terminal illness and be sick, year after year, wondering when the last breath will be. It has always my worst nightmare thought, as an asthma patient who suffered horrifying asthma attacks in younger years, to think of inhaling less and less air until you finally suffocate. Thank God I haven’t had one of these in decades. Still, the fear lingers. Rhett tries to reassure me, telling me he feels no pain. His oxygen machine can always adjust, giving him the level of oxygen he needs. Still. What a life. To have ever-diminishing energy.
I find in Natalie a kindred spirit and an inspiration. I have always found her to be gracious, calm, even-tempered, kind, and able to joke about some of the less pleasant things she is forced to endure. For me, she is the epitome of the devoted Christian wife, as I also strove to be. She has to constantly adapt her life to the ups and downs of her husband, as I had to do after Peter’s stroke. She has to find a way to live a life of her own, while always being available for whatever could befall her husband. And she does this with apparent ease, at least as far as I, an outsider, can see. She sees people. I have already met some of them – her cousin and her dear friend, both of whom she is close to and sees regularly. She does get out and take part in interesting things of life. She is active in their church, she sees the grandchildren whenever possible; she talks to her friends, her kids and grandchildren on the phone when too busy to get together. She reads and watches television sometimes. Natalie is beginning to feel more like a sister-in-law than a cousin-in-law. I guess that is only fitting, since Rhett was the brother I never had until I was six. In spite of the hardship each of them has to face, I find myself a little jealous of one thing. They are both of sound mind. They can carry on an adult conversation. This was hardly possible for me after Peter’s stroke. He was often in an entirely different world and unable to grasp his situation. It was a gift from heaven to have a husband I could care for and share some things with, after the agony of watching him in a waking coma for months, but I often felt lonely not being able to talk about my life with him in a way he could respond to. I missed my husband, even as he sat before me, even as we sat at the dinner table together, eating meals he helped me prepare.
I get up and walk into the kitchen, where Natalie is preparing breakfast. I share some of my thoughts with her. She laughs. “I’m no hero,” she says. Exactly what I told people who told me the same thing.
Rhett joins us for breakfast. It feels almost normal.
They tell me about a cruise they took to Alaska last year. Rhett would like to be able to travel with Natalie to Europe and go to England with me, where we could visit the homes, farms, churches and towns in Cornwall our ancestors dwelt in. Could he do this? They tell me how they traveled to the West Coast with oxygen machines, apparatus and all equipment necessary for survival, in addition to their suitcases. “A cruise is a great way to travel when you’re disabled,” they assure me. Rhett slept in the berth in their cabin on his down days, and on the up days he could participate fully in life on board. They met and became friends with another couple – it was wonderful! But could we do this? Rhett assures me he could, by flying first-class to England. Natalie’s expression reveals skepticism.
We look at family photos and then chat about this and that, and various family members. Eventually we get down to the subject I’ve been hoping to talk about – their view on the political scene in America.
“What do you think about Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border?” I ask. “You live in a border state. You see how many Mexicans and Hispanics are here.” Knowing that my cousins are politically conservative, I assume they will agree with Trump on everything.
“We don’t need a wall,” both chime in with one firm voice. “Even our Republican Governor doesn’t think we need one.” I feel reassured again. Maybe we’re pretty much on the same page.
I mention that I have downloaded the audio book Becoming, by Michelle Obama, onto my cell phone. I know my cousin doesn’t think much of President or Michelle Obama. This leads to a discussion of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. I have read a little about it and about police brutality, but I must admit, I am not very well informed. Here I get a very different response to the one about immigrants and the wall. “I think Michelle Obama has been a divisive force on this subject,” they say. “She approves uncritically of everything this movement stands for, and this movement is divisive. They have spread outright lies about some of the stories you hear in the news.” They go on for a while about how divisive America has become.
“Why can’t people just listen to each other, even when they disagree, without tearing each other apart?” they say. I heard the same thing from my sister when I visited her at Christmas. I decided while visiting her and her family that I would ask my questions of everyone I talked to on this trip, whether it raised hackles or not. I would express my opinions as well, in as kind and inclusive manner as possible. Why be part of the silent, frustrated masses, afraid to open their mouths because they have been shut down the few times they dared to talk about the issues that matter to them? Surely it is possible if we remain polite and respectful. I will not keep silent. I say to Americans, keep speaking. But even more than that, keep listening, and always stay respectful. I hope this culture of mutual respect and honest sharing of opinions while listening to one another can grow in the land I am proud to be a citizen of. I may not live there anymore, have questions about where home is, and been influenced by my life abroad, but I am still a loyal American. And I want to see our country’s people open up to each other! I am sure we have more uniting us than dividing us.
Rhett tells me about one of the favorite causes of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the killing of black man Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson. He defends the policeman, who he says was terrified for his own life, and did what anyone would do in self-defense. I haven’t followed the story carefully, living in Europe, so don’t really have an opinion one way or another. But I tell Rhett and Natalie that my black relatives have told many stories about how they have experienced racism. We are listening and speaking respectfully to each other.
For the record, here is what former President Obama has to say about “Black Lies Matter”. I found this quote in an article in the online publication “The Undefeated“.
“I know that there’s some who have criticized even the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ as if the notion is as if other lives don’t matter. We get ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter.’ I understand the point they’re trying to make. I think it’s also important for us to understand that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African-Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability and so we shouldn’t get too caught up somehow in this notion that people who are asking for fair treatment are somehow automatically anti-police or trying to only look out for black lives as opposed to others. I think we have to be careful about playing that game because, obviously, that’s not what is intended.”
Rhett then goes on to tell me a story of something that happened in his own childhood, while living in Virginia. His father, my uncle, was a US Naval officer and the family was continually on the move. They lived in Brazil, Portugal, and various parts of the United States. I believe travel broadens one’s perspective on life, and so it was with my aunt, uncle and their family. At this time, my uncle’s navy career had brought him and the family to Virginia. My aunt and uncle didn’t believe in school segregation, so they sent their all their children to public desegregated schools. Almost everyone they knew was sending their children to private, segregated schools, but they courageously chose a different path for their children. One evening the family looked out their living room window to see a cross burning on their lawn. The Ku Klux Klan had targeted their family. The children remained in their public, integrated schools.
We go out that evening for dinner, oxygen machine and all, with a family friend of theirs. Over dinner I learn that this friend, a stranger to me, prayed for my husband with Rhett and Natalie faithfully for four years after he suffered his stroke, until he finally passed away last year. Something melts inside my heart. This is family, here in Texas, so far away from the northern State I grew up in, but we are tied together. Their lives are very different from mine, and we don’t always agree about everything. But here are people I can truly count on. I feel more settled and relaxed than I have felt in a long time.
Today is a “down day” for Rhett, but Natalie has it all planned for me, and it sounds good! I am opening up more and more to life in Texas. Natalie has written articles in a local magazine about various aspects of life in Georgetown, and from what I have read in snippets here and there, Texan life as it is lived in Georgetown sounds wholesome, a quality that appeals to me very much. I like the fact that the Christian faith is presented in this part of the country frankly, unapologetically and naturally. Of course it isn’t the only religion in America, but this faith and life philosophy is represented by a huge number of Americans. Why not be matter-of-fact about it, not overly defending it, but not castigating it either? Of course, in New York City, where I’ve just come from and where I lived for so many years, most people I knew don’t go to church, and there are probably many more non-Christians as well as people who practice different religions in New York than in Texas. Maybe for that reason, faith as expressed in organized religion seems to get pushed into the background of conversation and in the pages of newspapers and magazines.
We meet Natalie’s cousin Sandy for lunch. “Here we are – at Dos Salsas – the best place in all of Goergetown for chicken tortilla soup,” she suggests. The soup is delicious. My Peter would have loved it. I wish for a moment he could be sitting with me here eating chicken tortilla soup. We chat while eating, and I learn a lot about life for the retired in Texas from Sandy, who is taking courses at a “senior university”. She is taking one course in memoir writing and another on espionage during the Cold War. All students and professors at this senior university are senior citizens. I have never heard of such a thing – a university for senior citizens? “Oh,” Natalie and Sandy chime in together, “Georgetown is a mecca for senior citizens. You should see Sun City. This is a part of Georgetown where only senior citizens are allowed to live, and they have their own university.” I feel a pang of longing tugging at my heart. How I would love to take a creative writing course in English. Courses are offered in German here. But I don’t write in German. I could take an online course – I have a friend who has done this. But how nice it would be to have classmates you could share your writing with, people you could interact with face-to-face. Sandy says there are courses on all sorts of subjects. I’m not sure, on the other hand, what the big deal is about all these courses for senior citizens. I have no problem being in a learning environment with younger people.
Natalie and I leave Sandy and drive into the Georgetown town center. There is a main street in this town, and charming little shops and boutiques. I am reminded of Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent, where he travels from one small town to another, all over the United States, finding an appalling dearth of charm. The town centers, he says, have all disappeared, giving way to strip malls, chain food restaurants and shopping malls. He would be happy to discover Georgetown. Unfortunately for me, the day is rainy, so we have to walk through the streets with umbrellas.
Natalie is an expert on Georgetown, having researched and written so many articles about her town. She tells me that in 1976 an ordinance was passed in order to protect all the historic buildings in the town center. The roads and many buildings were also restored during this time. In 1977 the historic district was placed on a National Register of Historic Places.
Natalie takes me to the courthouse. What’s so special about a courthouse? I wonder. But I dutifully follow her into a splendid wood-paneled courtroom. “This is the room where the first trial against the Ku Klux Klan was won,” she says. “This trial took place inthe 1920s, and the room has not changed since that time.” She recounts the tale of what were actually several trials. The Ku Klux Klan practiced hate crimes against more than black people, she says. In this particular case, there was a white traveling salesman, Robert Burleson, who happened to be in Georgetown when the Klan targeted him, flogging and tarring him. Perhaps he held more liberal views than those of the Klan members. They were prosecuted by the young District Attorney, Dan Moody, who won a series of trials against the Klan. The jury gave the Klan members the maximum possible punishment in all cases, and from that time the power of the Klan in Texas was weakened. Moody went on later to become the Governor of Texas.
We stroll along Main Street. Natalie takes me into a consignment craft shop. It is beautiful, with tasteful objects like quilts, pottery and gifts sewn by artisans from around Georgetwon. “This shop is run by senior citizens,” she says. “You have to be over fifty years old in order to display or sell your work here.” Even the women working behind the counter, volunteers, are over fifty.
I find a bib someone inscribed with “Spit happens.” This is just too cute. I buy it for my future grandson, who will be born in a few months, along with another small item, a cotton flannel padded burping cloth with a pattern of old-fashioned locomotives. I chat with one of the volunteers at the cash register, a German woman who now lives in Texas. It’s fun speaking German in this strange setting!
We continue along Main Street, browsing for a few minutes in a chic boutique. There seem to be no chain stores in this town. Everything is local and tasteful. We stop in a toy store/ice cream parlor. “You know how you were just speaking German? This place is run by Germans,” Natalie says. The toys are the kind I would see in a German toy stores, wooden Brico trains, wooden puzzles, and plenty of Playmobil and Lego. “The ice cream is a big drawing factor,” she says. People love to shop here and the kids get to combine it with ice cream.” There are unusual flavors here, like amaretto cheesecake, and more traditional ones like chocolate or strawberry. We each order a dish of ice cream and sit down and enjoy being kids again for a few minutes.
I am impressed with Georgetown. Yes, I could imagine living here!
The laundry worked out – sort of. I had to buy detergent from a vending machine. I poured the powder into the washing machine, as the instructions said, but when I went to collect the wash, I discovered that all the detergent got clogged up in the detergent receptacle. I should have just thrown it in with the wash! Now I have rinsed clothes, probably not clean. Oh, well.
We go to church today. Today is another of Rhett’s “up” days, but he’s feeling too down to go to church. Natalie says this has been happening a lot these days. I find out it is black history month. This is something that was never observed when I lived in the States. How is that going to play out in this almost entirely white Methodist church?
I don’t recognize a single hymn we sing. Later I learn that each of the hymns sung was written by an African American. So that’s why I don’t know these songs! Discrimination is not a stranger to the Church, sadly and unsurprisingly. A soloist sings a couple of spirituals I do know.
Natalie and I go out to lunch in another chain restaurant in the town the church is in – Georgetown. It turns out, Georgetown isn’t a small town at all. The population here and elsewhere in Texas has exploded in the past decade, and here it is now somewhere around 70,000 and growing every day. In 2010 the population was 47,000. People are talking about “Sun City”, a new housing development in Georgetown where only senior citizens live. Before I even arrived here, Rhett mentioned that I might want to consider living there.
We return home, and Rhett is feeling much more chipper. We sit around over dinner and exchange stories. Rhett is even funny, just like before! It’s good to be able to laugh. He even jokes about rednecks. Obviously, he doesn’t consider himself or Natalie to be a redneck. I have had the feeling talking to Northerners in America that they think every Texan is a redneck! Maybe he’s not as conservative as I thought. I find myself agreeing with most everything we talk about. He and Natalie went on a cruise to Alaska, with his oxygen mask a prominent feature of their trip. He still had his up and down days, but also got to see a lot. Now Rhett says, maybe we could go to England together – Natalie, him and me. He thinks he could do it if he flies first class, and Norwegian Airlines is offering cheap first-class tickets to England. Could we do this? Could I travel to England, to Cornwall, the land of our mutual heritage, with them?
Right now, Rhett has to do some heavy lifting. Furniture in the basement had to be shoved and carried into its rightful place, so that he and Natalie can have a bedroom again. Can he manage this? Natalie thinks it’s too much. She speaks to him about it, politely but clearly. No, he believes he can do this. They don’t want me to help. “It’s enough that you have to put up with this mess,” Natalie says. “I’m sorry you couldn’t even do your laundry here.” But I do some pushing and hauling, too, and they don’t stop me.
While we are pushing and shoving, Rhett’s cell phone goes off. “Check on that, will you,?” Rhett asks me. I run upstairs to the phone. It is an alarm. I turn it off. It says, “Take time out to pray for five minutes.” I run down to Rhett with the message. Apparently, he stops whatever he is doing, several times a day, to pray for people. I know he prayed every day for my husband after he fell ill. I am humbled. I don’t pray for anyone every day.
When we have finished all the work we can do for the day, we sit down in the living room. Rhett looks over some news site on his cell phone. “This is interesting,” he says. He reads about a new law in New York State that allows a woman to have an abortion right up to her delivery date. We are all shocked. I can’t believe it. Is this really true? Why haven’t I read about this in the New York Times?
Later, I check my New York Times website. There is an article about this law, but it makes it sound as though it were something only used rarely, and only when the mother’s health is at risk. I tell Rhett and Natalie, and they nod. I am somewhat reassured.
I go to sleep in the guest room of their home, feeling much more at home. I hear the drone of the oxygen machine. For me, it is somehow comforting, reminding me of the inhale-exhale sound my Peter made while in the hospital for months after his stroke. It is comforting to hear this sound of life, even if it is coming from a machine.
Texas. The name evokes an uneasy feeling among many Northerners – those who grew up in the northern States. It’s funny how people nurse their prejudices and pass them down onto their kids, their friends and loved ones. But my cousin Rhett does it too – he has teasingly called me a Yankee. The first time I was called a Yankee, it was in a very different, derogatory tone, in Scotland. I was waitressing for the summer in a hotel and restaurant, and a couple of the servers went out of their way to make me feel unwelcome. What is a “Yankee”, exactly? I, who have been called one, can’t say I know. But I know how I feel when someone calls me one. I guess Texans must feel the same way when people talk about them.
I was in Texas once several years before with my husband, staying with Rhett and his wife Natalie. We had a wonderful time, and I learned a bit about the history of Texas during that visit. Did you know that at one time it was a country? It was a sovereign country for nine years – from 1836 until 1845, when it joined the United States. Actually, during its history, six flags have flown over Texas. Hence the name “Six Flags” for the amusement park chain, whose headquarters are in Texas. Texas has belonged to Spain, France, Mexico, been its own country, then the United States, then one of the Confederate States, and after the Civil War, part of the United States again.
This visit to Texas will be much different from my light-hearted last one. This time I am alone, with only memories of my Peter. And Rhett is very sick with pulmonary fibrosis. This is one of the reasons I’m visiting Natalie and him. It’s only a matter of time before Rhett also leaves us, and I want to be sure to make a visit before it’s too late. I wonder how the visit will be this time? Will it be depressing? Will we be able to really talk?
I fly into Austin on Southwest Airlines, an experience unlike any other airline experience I’ve had. I like the way they run things – first come, first serve for the seats. You can begin signing in for your slot exactly twenty-four hours before departure. Unfortunately, I was in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City yesterday, and missed the opening gong and stampede following by two hours. All that is left by the time my number comes around is a seat in the middle. Oh, well, it’s only for a few hours.
We arrive in Austin in the early evening, and I find that I’m not too exhausted. But how will Natalie find me? She’s picking me up. The first problem is that one of my bags is missing. I check and recheck and check baggage claim again. In the meantime, I keep looking over my shoulder for Natalie, but she’s nowhere to be seen. I would assume she’d be in the arrivals hall at the baggage claim section, the most logical place to meet. I try to text her on my German cell phone. No connection, although I’m getting wifi. Why can’t I reach her? It takes me a while to figure out that I need to put a +1 prefix onto my American phone numbers, not the old-fashioned 001 I’m used to typing in. I go back and look for my luggage again. By now everything is off the belt, so I look at the luggage standing around. My suitcase is not among them. So I walk over to the claims desk and fill out a claim.
“Before I hand my claim in to you, let me check the pile of luggage one more time,” I say. I walk back to the luggage pile, and there is my suitcase! One problem solved. But I’m not reaching Natalie. Maybe she’s in the cell phone lot? My sister does that in Oregon when she picks up someone at the airport. What is a cell phone lot? They don’t have them in Germany. I sit down on a bench and start typing out a text message. As I type, an airport employee walks up to me. “Are you Noreen?” he asks. “Yes, I am. How did you know?”
“Your ride is waiting outside the door for you,” he says. “She asked me to give you this message.” We walk outside with him carrying my luggage, and before long, Natalie drives up. I notice that the air is warmer than in New York City, but not that much warmer. I heave a sigh of relief when I spot Natalie, and thank the employee. Natalie hops out of the car to help with the luggage, but the employee has already put it into the trunk for her. “Can I give you something?” Natalie asks him. “That was so kind of you to find my cousin.”
” I don’t do these things for money,” he says. “I just want to help when I can.” He smiles, wishes us a good evening, and leaves. Are all Texans so kind and friendly?
I am so relieved to see Natalie. Other than Rhett and her, I know absolutely no one in Texas. What would I do here without them? We start talking as though we had just finished our last conversation half an hour ago. She is caught up on my news because I’ve been writing round robin emails ever since my husband suffered his stroke. We chitchat about the time in New York, how Rhett is doing, then Natalie says,
“We thought we could put you up in our house from the beginning, but the house still isn’t ready, so I’ve booked you a room in a nearby motel.” She and Rhett had flooding in their home when they left town for a funeral in another city, and their sump pump broke down. That was weeks ago, but the house is still not ready. “Don’t worry, ” Natalie says. “I’ve packed you a care package to tide you over until tomorrow, and then I’ll pick you up. Now we’re going out to eat. It’s my treat.”
We go to a very Southern-style restaurant, the Cotton Patch Café, https://www.cottonpatch.com/, a chain restaurant that’s only in the South. It turns out it’s really Texan – it began in Texas, and the headquarters are there. One thing that makes it unusual for me besides the menu full of strange things like chicken fried steak, okra and catfish, is that it has a gift shop you can shop in while you’re waiting for your table or your food, stuffed with toys and all sorts of clothes and scarves, all very cute and American-looking, country-style.
After eating our meal, Natalie drops me off at the motel, just down the road. I am alone in Texas. I feel like I’m in another country that speaks English, except nobody in the motel looks like an English-speaker to me. The receptionist looks like he flew in from Pakistan. I see a couple of guests at the reception area speaking Spanish. Maybe I am in another country.
Sunday, our second full day in the City, we go to church. We are all committed Christians, and finding a church we may have heard about as far away as Germany becomes as much a part of our touristic experience as any other. In preparation for this trip, Johanna mentioned a church I had been to once before with Peter, Redeemer Presbyterian Church https://www.redeemer.com/ on Park Avenue. It has the reputation for having good, solid theology, a church that thinking people can go to and be challenged by. I opt for the classic service because the time works well for us, so we go there together. Timo wants to go to a church where young people would feel more comfortable, so he and Patrick go to Hillsong Church. https://hillsong.com/nyc/manhattan/
At Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I notice that there is not a single black person in the entire congregation, but there are many Asians. There are also a few families there. The music is definitely classical, with a string quartet and old church hymns. It is the first Sunday of the month, so there is communion. For the communion, ushers come to us in our chairs, serving first bread and later grape juice.
After the service, Johanna asks if the way communion was served is the American way. It is not necessarily, but it is the reformed/dissenting church way, the way they usually do it in my Baptist church in Cologne too. But Johanna belongs to a Lutheran church, where everyone walks to the front of the church, and they stand in a circle together. “I don’t like this passive way of doing communion,” she says. “It’s so impersonal, perfunctory.” I ask her how much she understood of the sermon. “I got the gist,” she says. This was not a good choice of church for Johanna. As for me, it also feels a bit dry, but at least it is not offensive to me theologically. I have heard many cringe-worthy sermons in my life.
Johanna meets Patrick and Timo, and I separate to do some shopping. But we do talk on the phone before we part. Patrick and Timo loved the services they attended.
I have arranged to have dinner with my sister Beth and niece Gillian. I want my German friends to meet more of the English-speaking people in my life. Beth is the sister my sisters and I adopted, and she adopted us, at the time of the marriage of my sister to Beth’s brother. Gillian, living in Australia, has never been able to meet Beth, who has never been to our big family reunions, although most of us we have met up at smaller gatherings. But Gillian just happens to be in New York on business this week, and we have arranged to meet. The logistics aren’t all that easy. Beth has difficulty walking for more than about a block. Gillian has celiac disease and can’t tolerate gluten, but she is hoping to eat Italian food. The Italian restaurant Beth recommended has no gluten-free options – I went there and asked. So I go online, looking for restaurants in the neighborhood that have gluten-free pasta. I find one, the Serafina Osteria. https://serafinarestaurant.com/serafina-italian-restaurant-osteria-new-york
This is good news, but Beth tells me she can’t walk all the way to the restaurant. I call the restaurant and find that they deliver. We eat in, “at home”. After all, we are staying in a sort of apartment, complete with dishes, cutlery and wine glasses. Gillian brings wine. Beth brings us beautiful long-stemmed roses.
I organize more dishes, cutlery and glasses. Beth and Gillian, and my Germans all meet for the first time, in our apartment. We eat a delicios meal at home in peace and quiet, a rare thing in New York City restaurants, and laugh and talk, communicating in a language that doesn’t come very easily to Johanna or Patrick. Timo blends right in. After dinner, we watch the super bowl together on TV, the same activity millions of Americans across the country are doing in their homes too. American football is not a German sport, but Patrick loves American football. I am no football fan, and know very little, so my German friend Patrick explains the moves of the game to his American friend.
We wake up to another day of frigid temperatures in New York City. New York is much colder than Cologne! But we will not let a bit of cold weather deter us from our plans. My friends enjoy a breakfast of bagels and coffee. I eat cooked oatmeal, the same breakfast I always eat in the winter. We put on our long underwear and head out for Central Park. Central Park turns out to be my favorite part of the day, perhaps the highlight of the week, because of a couple of wonderful discoveries. We see lots of squirrels scurrying throgh the park, but one in particular catches our attention. It runs back and forth between the ground and its burrow in a hole in a tree. I love it – nature in New York! This squirrel knows nothing about rental prices in the city or gentrification. He lives the same lifestyle squirrels have been living for thousands of years, and it’s comforting for me to see this in Central Park.
The other discovery is a community of cardinals in the park. My last trip to New York City I saw a cardinal and thought it must be a rare occasion, because the only birds I usually notice are sparrows and robins. But here there must be twenty of them flitting around. What a wonderful aesthetic experience to see flecks of red hopping around the ground, then darting into the air and back down again!
On we march southwards, through the city. It is only noon, and my feet are already tired, and all we have seen is Central Park. We glimpse at the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and walk into St. Thomas Church and witness a wedding in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I love St. Thomas Church and walk in there almost every time I am in New York City. I once went to an unforgettable Christmas Eve choral service there. I love their boys’ choir and the liturgy of the service. But it is my first time in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I am not Catholic, so never found a need to be inside this church, but Patrick is. I am impressed by its size. Surely it must be the larget Catholic church in America, I think. It isn’t, but it is the largest in New York City. We walk past the New York Public Library. This is another place I have never set foot inside, but I have been told it is a worthy tourist attraction, its lobby so beautiful, you can rent it for weddings – for upwards of $60,000! https://www.nypl.org/space-rental/your-event
If only my Peter had seen this place, is the main thing I think, walking around the beautiful rooms with carved oak walls, golden molded ceilings and gorgeous masonry. This would have been heaven to my husband, who loved books – and maps – so much. He used to spend hours at a time, just studying maps. Once visiting friends in England, they drove us to visit a town none of us had been to, but they thought they knew the way. We would have gotten lost, had we followed their directions, but Peter assured us, he knew the way. He did, and they marveled at his sense of direction.
The NY public library has a room dedicated to maps. I mourn my husband as I marvel over the most amazing globes I have ever seen.
On we go, southwards on Fifth Avenue ever since Central Park. By now it is a bit late in the afternoon, and we are all feeling the effects of our long hike in our legs and feet. Now we are headed for our last destination, the Rooftop Bar at 25rd Street. A friend of mine in Germany told me about this place, not written up in the tourist guides, but known by many young people, including her son, who spent a semester at a language school near New York City. It turns out that there are several rooftop bars in New York, but this one seems to attract mostly young people. That’s what we see at this one at 230 Fifth Avenue. https://www.230-fifth.com/ The interesting thing about this place, to me, is the heated plastic igloos where you can sit and enjoy the view.
We drink a cup of hot chocolate for $10. We have to hurry, because the bar closes at 5 pm. The hefty price is worth it. We leave, inspired and strengthened for our return home. We have seen enough for the day.
Two hours later, friends of mine join us at our suite. We have a drink together, and head out again for dinner at Der Krung, a tiny Thai restaurant only New Yorkers would know about, it is so far west of Fifth Avenue. Because of its location and tiny size, the prices are reasonable. It’s fun exploring New York with New Yorkers. I enjoy introducing my German friends to friends from New York. I am in the middle, part of each culture. This must be symbolic of who I am. Am I a bridge between cultures?
Prologue “What do you think you’ll do, now that Peter has gone?” My sister Jenna had flown halfway around the world, all the way from Australia to Germany, to keep me company, and to say her last good-byes to my husband Peter. I had done the same in reverse when her husband died. Our son and his wife arrived from their home in Korea in time to be with Papa for his final hours on this earth, and stayed for the burial. August 24, our wedding anniversary, was the day we said our final farewell to him. Now my kids were leaving, tearing another hole out of my heart. Why does my family have to choose homes impossibly far and fantastically expensive to reach?
My family of origin, which consisted of seven children, now down to six still living, is literally a micro-United Nations. We have all married or live with people from different cultures, races and countries. I went to Germany and married a German. There’s Australia, where Jenna and her family live. Japan, where my brother Simon lives with his Japanese wife and family. One brother is living in America, but with a woman from Bangladesh. My brother Jason, who also lives in America, married a Malaysian. Naila’s Sam is African American. Their son Blair longs to go back to Asia to live, where he went to music conservatory. Knowing my family, that is what he will end up doing. My son went to Korea to study, and met and married a lovely Korean girl, and settled down with her in Seoul.
Because my family is so spread apart, there are many places for me to go to. “Go on some long trips and visit all the people I love,” I answered. I had already been to Korea and Japan last summer, so I wouldn’t go there just now. I would go back to America, the land where I spent the first thirty-six years of my life.
I’ve been back “home” so many times over the years, but there are people dear to me whom I haven’t seen very often, some not in years, who live in America. Besides people, there are also places in America leaving holes in my heart, just like people. Places like New York City, where my soul seems to be drawn, like a magnet to its pole. The aching hole in my heart keeps finding reasons to go back to New York City and be filled again. There are a couple other places I love too. The Boundary Waters of Minnesota, too, where I was conceived and kept returning to, year after year during my childhood. The wild coast of Oregon, the State where my sister lives. She brings me back to the coast each time I visit her. Other places I’m not so familiar with, and there are still one or two others where friends live, but whose homes I have never seen. There is plenty for me to discover in the land of my birth. Where to go on this long trip back home?
My wonderful, strange friend “Serendipity” had already stepped in for me, months before I had any thoughts of going back to America. I had just come back from the States, where I attended both my sister’s funeral and that of my friend’s father. I wasn’t really looking to return to the States. But Serenditpity came in the form of a phone call a couple months after my return. My timeshare company wanted to know if there was some location my husband and I would like to travel to. “What? Didn’t you know? My husband had a massive stroke over three years ago and can’t travel!”
That was one of the biggest losses I have had to face since Peter’s stroke. He and I were such good travelers, and he was never as interesting or stimulating as when traveling. We fed off and nourished each other’s curiosity with our contrasting insights and information.
“Oh – I’m so sorry,” the voice on the other end said. After a pause, “Maybe YOU would like to get away somewhere. Is there anywhere you would love to travel to?” I couldn’t think of anywhere. All there was now was family, and I didn’t need a timeshare for that. A twinge of self-pity threatened to tug at a corner of my heart. Then, just as I was about to hang up in disappointment, I remembered New York City. “Well, there is New York City, but you never have any openings there.”
me just check,” the agent said.
“Ah, there is an opening at a hotel called The Manhattan Club for
the first week in February. Would you
like that? It is a suite that can sleep
“Yes!” I said, with no questions or doubts in my voice. So, months before Peter died, the seeds of a trip to the US were planted. I would be a tourist again in the city I spent ten years of my life in. As soon as Jenna asked her question about what I would do, I knew I would make a long trip out of this week in New York City. I also knew just how I would do it. I had already found friends, people who had supported Peter and me throughout Peter’s entire illness. These friends had recently asked if they could travel with me to New York City sometime. And the rest was there, sitting in front of my imagination like a trayful of goodies.
America seems to be slipping away from me, the longer I spend away from it. People watch TV differently. Now at least those of us with internet have Netflix and Prime, no matter what country we live in, but what do people in America watch? They eat different things too than they used to. What would I discover in the culinary landscape of America? New words keep creeping in, new expressions, new fads, new phobias. I am way out of touch with the bureaucratic side of America. I don’t have to deal with Obamacare or group health plans, thank God. But I wonder how other Americans deal with getting sick. How do they face longterm illness like I had just spent four years dealing with, as I became acquainted with the German system? By now, I know more about how Germans live than Americans, the people Germans keep asking me about. The longer I spend away, the less I know.
And then there’s the political scene. What on earth is going on in America, that a man like Trump can be President? How could the evangelical Christians ever support such a person? I consider myself an evangelical, but I sure don’t share any values with this man. Or at least, I don’t think so, but then we don’t get Fox TV in Germany. Still, I get enough information to ask how myself how Christians can explain their support for the current President and administration. It was time for a lengthy visit.
February is a strange month to travel, one would think. It’s dark and deathly cold. But nothing beats the winter blues like traveling, and where do many Americans travel to in the winter? To the South! It was clear to me that since the week of my timeshare stay in New York City was the first week in February, I would follow that week up by traveling to the three peope dear to me who live in the South. Everyone was excited at the idea of my coming, so I planned a trip lasting five to six weeks. I would not travel north this time to my brother in Minnesota. I had seen him last year at our sister’s funeral, and Minnesota is infamously cold and snowy in February. It would have to be the South – and New York, which is cold enough.
From New York I would fly down to Austin, Texas and visit my cousin and his wife. From there I would somehow get to Louisiana and visit an old friend from college. And I would travel by some unknown means from there to Tennessee to visit my brother Jason and family, who recently moved to Tennessee from California and were having some problems with their adjustment. Then I would travel back to New York City from Tennessee and have plenty of time for family and friends. I checked Google Maps. The distances between each of these places were quite far, but doable, either by renting a car or traveling by bus. Why not? I could take the Greyhound bus, just like Simon or Garfunkel does with Kathy in that song about being lost and looking for America. That kind of fits me, I thought. I feel lost too, and am looking for America.
there was Christmas to get through. One
piece of advice I got after Peter’s death was, “Whatever you do, don’t
spend this first Christmas alone. Go
visit someone in your family.”
By the end of October, the days were getting cold and the nights long. I sat in my living room, imagining Christmas. Would I buy a tree? No way! Why would I lug a tree from my car, spreading needles and scratching myself, spreading pine resin on my fingers, just for myself? The idea of decorating a tree and then sitting there all by myself to look at it made me so depressed, I knew I could not spend Christmas at home. I also missed my only other living sister Naila, who had not been able to come to the funeral. I hadn’t had much contact with her since we’d seen each other in Minnesota after our sister’s death the December before. Soon after her return home, a double whammy of bad news came to her. Both she and her husband had cancer! Naila ovarian and Sam prostate cancer. And both would need treatment. Naila went in for six months of chemotherapy, and Sam radiation therapy. Naila was told she needed to take time out from the world and go into a long hibernation of several months. She was too vulnerable to infections. She was also exhausted from chemotherapy. We wrote, but she didn’t want to share her burdens over the phone.
I risked phoning her on that long, cold night in October. Chemotherapy would soon be over and she was feeling stronger. Yes, she was up to talking now. “I miss you, Naila,” I said. “I wish I could just fly out there and see you for Christmas,” popped out of my mouth.
“Why don’t you do that?” she said. “We’d LOVE to have you! I just saw a commercial on TV from Condor Airlines. It looks like they have cheap, direct flights from Frankfurt to Portland.” Naila lives in Portland.
And so I
booked another flight – to Portland, Oregon, but it wasn’t direct. I’d have to fly to Seattle first.
In November, my dear friend Miriam from Seattle came to visit me for three weeks. Unable to come to be with me for the funeral, she offered to come and keep me company for three weeks. What a wonderful buffer that was from the pain of being alone! We went on a couple of short trips to nearby tourist sites, did Thanksgiving together, another hurdle I needed to somehow clamber over. We talked and cried nonstop for three weeks. And then, before I knew it, it was time to fly to the States.
Going to Oregon for Christmas was the perfect thing to do. Both my sister and her husband were feeling pretty good by the time I arrived. I was a caterpillar cocooned in familial warmth. My nephew Blair, living for the time being with his parents, is a fabulous cook and we were treated each evening to feasts. The Christmas tree was decorated when I arrived, and everything was as I remembered a Christmas or two in the past, spent with my sister. But there were stabs of pain, too. Remembering a Christmas and other visits to Oregon with Peter stung. He loved Oregon. We had sat on the living room couch, opening Christmas presents together. Now I had to sleep alone in the same bed we both had slept in on our many trips to Oregon. Mornings, we would gaze together at Mount Hood, sometimes peeking through our bedroom window, sometimes hiding from view.
Together we discovered a popular Oregon activity – tide-pooling. On several vacations at the beach we would head for the rock pools formed at low tide, identification book in hand, identifying and marveling over the sea stars and anemones. Sometimes we would see little crabs climbing miniature rock cliffs. We had enjoyed the seagulls and pounding waves together. Sam and Naila’s home is our son’s American home, and Oregon became our home away from home, after my parents had both passed away and their house was sold.
But there is comfort in shared sorrow. There is healing in pain that is shared. I felt warm and secure, spending Christmas with my family. The warmth spread over the pain like a balsam.
I had asked Naila if there were any choral concerts in Portland during the Christmas season we could go to. I love the Christmas concerts in Germany, and was singing in several myself with my choir and vocal ensemble. It would be nice to partake in some of the lovely things of Germany in Oregon, I thought. “There’s the Festival of Lights,” my sister said. “For two weeks or so before Christmas, an abbey in Portland puts up loads of Christmas lights and choirs come from far away to sing in the chapel. We could do that.”
We did that. We went out in Portland drizzle to see the lights and hear some music. That was perhaps my first truly touristic American experience this trip. The abbey gardens were giddy with lights of every color and shape, everywhere you looked – overwhelming after years of pristine white lights in Germany. Almost all the Germans I know consider colored lights to be garish.
stations, like stations of the cross, with recordings recounting the Christmas
story. The choir we heard wasn’t very
good, in my estimation, but at least they were singing Christmas music. And I was doing something Christmasy with my
sister, who a month before this could not have left the house.
I baked their favorite Christmas cookies for them. We went to church together, and we watched TV together. We discussed politics. Here my sister and I were of kindred minds. Her entire family and I felt alienation from the current political situation in Washington. I discovered something in this alienation that I hadn’t expected. Naila and Sam, also evangelical Christians, feel alienated from the political attitudes of almost all the people in their church. They say this sense of alienation is not unique to them. Evangelicals all over America feel politically estranged from other evangelicals, something that never existed before the last election. The estrangement is so severe that people even feel unable to talk about their opinions with one another.
So Naila keeps company with Rachel Maddock. “Let’s watch Rachel Maddock,” she said. “She explains it all better than anyone else.” We watched Rachel Maddock and fretted together. Here, even on the political level, we were able to share our feelings.
I did get sick while in Oregon. I came down with sinusitis and by New Year’s Day really needed to be treated badly. “I’ll take you to urgent care,” Naila said. I had to ask what urgent care was. Another new development since I have lived in the States. A pretty cool thing, actually. You can go there at any time, even on New Year’s Day and be treated, generally by a nurse practitioner. There is no such thing as a nurse practitioner in Germany, nor are there urgent care clinics. Naila’s urgent care clinic accepted my German insurance card, so all was well on that front. And with medication, my sinuses were also soon healed.
I had booked an airline ticket I could change. Perhaps, if all worked well, I could also visit Miriam in Seattle at the end of my trip.
Things did work out, and I rode the Amtrak train to Seattle in the New Year. Miriam greeted me at the train station, just as I had greeted her at the Cologne train station just two months before.
Miriam lives on a island off of Seattle, which to me has always sounded very romantic. I was so curious to see how she lives! Of course,you have to ride a ferry boat every time you go to the mainland, but the ride is only fifteen minutes. Miriam tells me that the wait can be up to an hour and a half, however! This island is lush with majestic pine forests and huge ferns.
There are so many forests, human settlement feels like something of a rarity. On this island, Miriam and her husband live close to nature. I thrilled to see an everyday occurrence for them – deer grazing in their garden. Beautiful blue birds and squirrels came to feast on peanuts Miriam’s husband feeds them every day.
This is America too, the America I love, just like the Oregon coast. Here I saw the Puget Sound, dotted with so many islands, so peaceful it reminded me of a lake in northern Minnesota. When I am out in nature in America, I feel in touch with myself, with my family, the animals and all the other people living in America. Peter had never been here before, so for the last part of my journey I felt less pain, enjoying this beautiful landscape with my friends.
Watching the Puget Sound in Washington with Miriam, I remembered also having stood a few days before on the Oregon Coast. There, in contrast to the still waters of the Sound, I had experienced the foaming, turbulent waves coming from the same ocean. Even more than the calm water, tamed by the many islands in the sound, it was the surf that touched me the most. The surf, pounding and crashing onto the rocks, transforming into dazzling waterfalls, calmed my soul.
I had gone for long walks along the beach each morning, allowing the constant movement of the waves to move my turbulent heart. I would stop and feast my eyes for minutes at a time, gazing at the powerful waves. I missed Peter, but also felt the peace of sensing that he was perhaps somehow standing there with me. Perhaps he was also able to see the perfect rainbow given to me one morning, a promise of happier days to come.
Peter had a few good days after that day in the ice cream café. We had a magical day when he awoke alert and full of energy. His speech therapy session was good, and he was still alert afterwards.
My practice was always to look for “good days” and then do something outside that would stimulate him, something that I would also enjoy. The “good days” were relative. On these days, he was alert enough to be active, but he also showed more confusion. On the days when he was able to speak and move, he believed he was in Italy and needed to get back to Germany, so could only focus on packing a suitcase and getting out of here, his true home, to return to what he believed was home.
A few days before, on another good day that also happened to be sunny and warm, I finally had an insight into what all this was about. “When you say you want to go back home, Peter, do you mean you want to go back to your old life? The life you had before the stroke?” I asked. Peter nodded. I asked, “What is it you most miss about your old life?”
“Relationships ,” was his answer.
I couldn’t give him much in that way. He was receiving occasional visitors, but the number of visits had dwindled down over the years into his recovery. It is exhausting spending time with someone who can’t converse anymore, someone whose motto used to be “would rather talk”. One of his friends told me it was even depressing, agonizing for him to visit his friend who was unable to give him the stimulating relationship he once had. So he didn’t come very often.
What I could give Peter was a nice day in Cologne. Hopefully he would recognize what he saw and accept that he was indeed home. On this day, July 18, Maciek, Peter’s live-in caregiver, took him downstairs on the Scalamobil. If anyone reading this has someone living at home who is unable to negotiate stairs, this is the thing to get. It revolutionized our lives. There were months when Peter was even able to climb stairs on his own, with help, but since the medication disaster in January, he wasn’t usually strong enough for that. But with the Scalamobil we were able to get down the 20 steps to the street level and roll to the wheelchair-friendly tram stop, board the tram and whisk over the Rhine River. “Do you see that?” I pointed. “Do you recognize that? That’s the Cologne cathedral. You see? We’re in Cologne, after all.” He nodded his head. I felt relieved. He knew where he was.
We disembarked at the cathedral/train station, where I was able to push his wheelchair all the way to the river, where we bought tickets for the Panorama Rhine boat trip, an hour-long ride up and down the river. We were very early, and hungry. It was lunch-time. “How about a Currywurst and some French fries?” Peter nodded, so off we went in search of a hot-dog stand selling hot dogs with curry sauce and French fries. We found one, and bought them, and also a diet Coke. He wasn’t supposed to drink anything without a thickening agent, but today was a good day – why not? The boat attendants showed us a spot on the boat where we could get a good view and still be able to eat and drink in peace. We shared the hot dog, French fries and Coke. Peter swallowed perfectly and didn’t cough, nor did we spill anything. He spoke during the cruise, asking me the names of buildings he used to identify for me. So I gave back to him what he had first shared with me.
He had another good day on his birthday, July 26, a gorgeous, sunny day. On Peter’s 63rd birthday, he was awake and able to eat breakfast with me out on our terrace. We ate the cake I had baked for him. He opened his presents. Then he wanted to go into the bedroom, which is now my room. I anticipated what was coming – he wanted to pack his suitcase. I was alone with him because the caregiver was in the hospital, where he had had surgery. I was nervous about this, but we went into the bedroom anyway, in the wheelchair. Peter wanted to stand, to look inside his closet. I allowed this. He reached for clothes – and fell. I somehow managed to get him back up and into the wheelchair.
He was alert one more day, again ranting about “getting back to Cologne”. And then, on August 3, he came down with a high fever. I took him to the emergency room in our local hospital. The doctor wanted to talk about his living will. Should he be resuscitated if he should stop breathing? What was this, anyway? He was only in the hospital because his fever wouldn’t go down. Surely it wasn’t coming to this!
I told the doctor we had specified in the living will that there should be no precautions if he was unable to live on his own. “I want oxygen,” Peter said clearly.
They thought he may have a gall bladder attack. “I don’t want surgery,” Peter said. They did find a blockage in his urinary tract and did a minor procedure, placing a stent in his bladder.
The fever went down, and then skyrocketed, peaking at over 105°F. Only cold packs could get the temperature down to about 100°, when it would shoot up again. On August 10, I received a phone call from his doctor.
“Your husband went into cardiac arrest this morning,” He said. I screamed.
“Please don’t panic. He is still alive. We were able to resuscitate him.”
So he had received the treatment he had asked for, after all. The doctor had ignored the living will.
“I know you had told us not to do this,” he said. “But we did this in order to save his life.”
I phoned Jon, our son living in Korea. “I think you’d better come home now,” I said. He and Dayeong were with Peter in his room in the intensive care unit the very next day.
But Peter’s brain damage was so massive, there was no way to keep him alive without life-support equipment. We had to let him go. He died, while Jon, Dayeong and I sat at his bedside, talking, praying, reading Bible passages, and thanking him for his life with us. We said our final good-byes to him on my mother’s birthday, August 15.