I still think of it as a white house, though for years it’s been gray. It’s a lovely house, brick, two stories, on a corner, and really an anchor of its block and blocks around, not only architecturally but because it’s inhabited by people who have poured their hearts into the life of the neighborhood year after year. I think during his infant and toddler days there were probably weeks in which Isaiah spent as many of his waking hours in that house as he did in our own. It’s the scene of Marisela’s first ever sleep-over and of many, many tea parties and makeovers. I’ve spent countless hours at the kitchen counter, or in a cozy living room chair, or on the front steps on a sun-soaked afternoon, sipping tea (or a glass of wine), and chatting, and watching babies turn into toddlers turn into children, and laughing. And now, close to two years after we sold our own Dallas home, and nearly a year and a half since we left, it’s the impending sale of this not-white-anymore house that has us all reflecting on the reality of our departure.
Our friends who live in that house are finally following a long-held dream of leaving the city and living a small-town life with a lot of outdoor space to enjoy. I wasn’t really aware yet of the depth my own feelings when I excitedly showed Marisela a photo of their new country home, nestled idyllically among trees, beyond a winding road and a pond. I had expected gasps of excitement and appreciation. Instead there was silence. Then shocked surprise. Then utter deflation.
Not long after that, Marisela had a Skype chat with one of her best friends in Dallas. They had exchanged letters since we’d arrived in Mexico but hadn’t Skyped since we left Falls Church. They had an animated, almost giddy conversation and Marisela carried her tablet around to show Sabrina our home and her garden and photos of some of her Juárez friends, but after their conversation was over Marisela was subdued and thoughtful. “Sabrina looks different,” she told me when I asked what was on her mind. “She looks really, really different.”
I can’t say our adjustment to foreign service life has been effortless up to this point. It’s certainly had its rough moments for all of us. We’ve missed friends, we’ve missed our close-knit neighborhood, we’ve struggled to keep up with the rapid pace and tremendous volume of change in our lives. But one thing that was quite reassuring was that Dallas, and our little Oak Cliff corner of it, seemed to be essentially the same. Sure there were a few changes: a couple of friends moved from one Oak Cliff neighborhood to another; middle school started and several of Isaiah’s pals left our neighborhood school for private schools or magnet schools. But nothing happened that was nearly as monumental as that gray house suddenly no longer being the anchor it once was.
As I sit here thinking about how disconcerting it has been for us to realize that life has continued in Dallas without us it occurs to me how very much our foreign service experience thus far has made me think about place and the meaning of place. I’ve written a lot about the strangeness of being posted so close to my childhood home, and in a city I had visited many times as a child. And I realize now that the feelings that proximity has evoked are the yin to the yang of our mourning over the loss of the familiar comforts of the Oak Cliff we knew and loved. Because what I’ve found in returning to this part of the world is how much it still means to me, despite decades of changes.
So while it’s tempting to say, as is often said in foreign service circles, that we take home with us, and that a true sense of home is about the people we love, who continue to be either physically or emotionally close to us, I think it’s actually far more complex. We come to value a place, at least in part, because people we love make that place valuable to us. We forge memories with particular people and in a particular geographic setting, and that setting becomes significant. And so it cuts deep when the people and the place don’t overlap anymore. It feels like something has toppled, tumbled down and pulled those memories along with it. Visiting Las Cruces, though, and feeling the warmth and melancholy and delight and sadness I feel as I pass through those familiar streets I realize that even with so many of the people who made Las Cruces home to me gone, the love remains. It was imprinted in me, waiting to be awakened.
I can imagine one day Isaiah and Marisela, grown, driving through Oak Cliff and passing by a once-white, maybe-still-gray house, and stopping, and knowing how much love they learned inside. And there will be a pang, and maybe even a tear, but their hearts will be full.