Please welcome Eleanor Parker with her lovely guest post based on her memoir-in-progress titled, Home in Three Acts.
ACT I: 1957-2005: Military Housing
By my eighteenth birthday, I’d lived in four countries. This Army brat’s idea of home was a temporary place, where my roots had grown accustomed to remaining shallow, but with strong runners that grew horizontally outward and downward. As far back as I can remember, every three to four years, I was carefully uprooted, tenderly cut from the main plant, and transplanted at the family’s next duty station, where again I’d thrive as best I could.
My mother’s habit, which later became my own habit with my children, was to set up the children’s bedrooms first to make us kids feel comfortable, safe, and secure in a new place. Invariably favorite curtains wouldn’t fit the new windows of our next military quarters, the bathroom colors had changed, which meant new towels were added to an already large mismatched collection, or I was forced to share a bedroom with my youngest sister, but I was a flexible child. A house didn’t mean all that much to me—leaving new friends was an expected part of the life my parents had chosen. Besides, I loved meeting and making new friends at new postings, vacationing in exotic places, and traveling back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean with stops in Puerto Rico to visit my family.
I graduated from college and worked in the Washington, DC area as a single woman for seven years, where I met and married an Army officer. At our wedding reception on Fort Myer, overlooking the Potomac River, I thought my new husband was my soul mate. Maybe he was, and with him came the promise of more travel and exotic vacations–a lifestyle I wanted for my children. When the kids were nine and seven, my 57-year old mother died suddenly, shattering a lifelong dream of living close to her. She was the epitome of home to me, where love, safety, fun, and warmth lived. Home and the world no longer felt safe, fun, or warm without her.
With my mother gone, the Army sent my little family on one more Army tour and we moved from Northern Virginia to Brussels, Belgium, where we lived in a vibrant ex-pat community for the next thirteen wonderful years. Our stay in Brussels was the longest I’d ever lived in one place, and it was a great place to raise children. I was again responsible for creating a home for my growing family.
In our ninth year in Brussels, when my oldest child left for university in the United States, early stresses in our marriage were no longer shrouded and were impossible to ignore. We bought un mas in the Provençal village of Uchaux, in Southern France, the way some people believe a new baby can ‘fix’ a broken marriage. For the next four years, we were blissfully happy. Plans were made to turn the mas into a B&B, where I would lead art workshops in the French countryside and write a novel. My husband would relax under the platain tree in the garden, watching the farmers next door till the soil for new grapevines after nearly thirty years in the Army. The word idyllic was a close description to what I planned for us in the home where we’d retire in a few years time. But sometimes you can’t see what is coming toward you at warp speed.
ACT II: 2006: Abandoned Home
Standing on the balcony of a rented townhouse, overlooking a black-topped parking lot in Syracuse, New York, I stared blankly at the white geraniums and variegated ivy plants I’d planted in three green plastic pots. How in the hell had I ended up in this place? I pushed an exposed root deeper into the dirt and wondered what happens to our past visions. The kids were now at their respective universities, friends and family were happy to see me ‘stateside,’ but I wasn’t so sure. There had been no time to assimilate, make concrete plans, or weigh the options of leaving Europe. It had happened quickly—I’d been a healthy, thriving plant and was yanked out of the ground and thrown onto a musky compost heap amidst other debris. One morning, I was married and by that evening I was separated from my husband of twenty-five years.
A year later the contents of the rented Belgian house and our French home were packed into an enormous truck and before I knew it, I was on a plane bound for the US with my worried teenagers and two freaked out cats.“Everything will be fine. Don’t worry; we will be fine,” I told my kids, but I didn’t believe my thin words. I had no choice—I was now mother and father to two children who had known HOME for thirteen years. As Brussels became a tiny spot thousands of feet below, I wondered if my husband, who’d remained behind, would come to his senses. My throat threatened to choke my shallow breaths and I prayed. Hard.
Another errant root pushed back into the soil, I watched the neighbor park his car, and struggled to remember the garden in Provence with the lavender-lined walkway and how sweet the morning air smelled when I pushed open the blue shutters of our bedroom. It would be time to cut back the lavender and rosemary soon, but I knew the house and grounds sat abandoned. An abandoned home. I realized how close to the edge I was; how close I felt to losing myself, so I chose anger because it was always safer than sadness. No one would know of my secret pain, but I dreamed of France—the palm trees in front of my daughter’s bedroom, the kitchen counters and sink hewn in the same stone as the custom-made, floor to ceiling fireplace. Memories of picking plums, nectarines, figs, and peaches in the orchard to the right of the in-ground pool with the stone surround that Thierry, the maçon had lovingly installed using old tools so the house would appear older than it was. I remembered night swims with the deafening sound of the cicadas’ songs around me. Let it go, I told myself as tears stung my eyes.
One should never grow attached and accustomed to HOME. One couldn’t trust it. If I hadn’t loved my home so much, this sickening, intense homesickness and the stabbing pains in my heart at having realized a life dream only to lose it, would subside. I didn’t miss my husband; I missed my home, my life overseas. Never again would I be attached to home, I told myself.
ACT III: 2011 to Present Day – Fear and Freedom.
Despite repeated, tiring attempts of pushing the idea of home out of my head in the weeks and months after my divorce, I unpacked dishes, a few of my mother’s knickknacks, photographs of my children, but I vowed never to unpack my writing journals or family photo albums from 1994 to 2006. Forget about watching films and reading books set in France, especially Provence; that life was over. A good friend advised me to think of my time in Europe as a goal achieved rather than a vanquished dream. I agreed, but told my friend to convince my heart; it wouldn’t listen to logic.
Once again, my roots were thin, delicate, shallow, just beneath the surface as I roamed from New York to Maryland to Virginia, trying to find a place to call home. Hell, not even home; a couple of years in one place so my children had a home to return to during summer and holiday breaks from university would have been nice. Instead, a year here, two there, and I divorced, but with every move, I was closer in distance to my beloved children who lived in Virginia. When the French house was bought by a French lawyer, a single woman with no children, I cried for days.
No more soul mates; only endless first dates, job interviews, and the same dull Washington, DC conversations of the high cost of living, the Redskins, and the ridiculous traffic—stories I’d heard in 1994 when we left for Belgium. I nodded politely at the man, my dinner date. He insisted I select a bottle of wine for our dinner. I decided on a bottle of Saint Emilion I could no longer afford, but he was buying, and I slowly sipped the blood red nectar until I began to feel myself uncoil. As he spoke about his football glory days, I remembered a beautiful evening in France feasting on oysters, a tagine of lamb, couscous, and grilled vegetables. Suddenly, the harsh words of my expensive divorce lawyer rang in my ear, “Most women never recover from divorce because they refuse to change the lifestyle they led as married women. They end up in one-bedroom apartments with no money in the bank. Be smart.” What did he know? Jerk.
Four years later, it was the same routine—work, home, dinners out, work, home, dinners out. The idea of home seeped into my consciousness once again. I felt more settled, but not settled enough. My children graduated from college, found good jobs, and my work, though rewarding, didn’t feed my soul. I longed to paint and write again. Why not? That’s what I loved, that was my life’s passion, but how could I make that happen? I pulled out a map, tied a string to a straight pin and taped a pencil to the end of the string. I inserted the straight pin into the map, in the city where I stood and drew a circle. I would search for an available home within the circle, which would be two hours from my kids. West Virginia. According to the young man at the bank, that was where I could afford to buy a house. My pain-in-the-ass lawyer had been right.
All signs pointed to West Virginia, where I knew one person, a good friend. I didn’t hesitate. In three months time, I’d quit my job, bought an historic house with good bones—not my forever home, but a soft place to land and rebuild my life. My kids with their busy lives and my family visited me in the new, old home for family holidays and weekend visits. I was happy again.
Sitting in a French country armchair in front of an oak table bought at a Brussels flea market, amidst family photos in old silver frames, French and Dutch oil paintings on the walls, with my memories and thoughts of family roots and home, I finished that novel. And then my son moved to the Netherlands just like I’d always known he would: in search of home.
ABOUT Eleanor Parker Sapia
Puerto Rican-born novelist and painter, Eleanor Parker Sapia was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Her passion for travel and adventure, combined with her careers as a painter, counselor, alternative health practitioner, and a Spanish language social worker and refugee case worker inspire her writing. When Eleanor is not writing, she enjoys facilitating The Artist’s Way creativity groups and has taught creative writing to children and adults. Eleanor shares her passion for telling stories at her blog, The Writing Life and her website,http://www.eleanorparkersapia.com
A DECENT WOMAN, Eleanor’s best selling historical novel, has garnered rave reviews and is July 2015 Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club. Eleanor is a proud member of PEN America and the Historical Novel Society. She has two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia.