November 19, 2008

seeing the world with a traveling dad

A dedicated, long-term Army National Guard soldier, my husband loves the adventure and the challenges he’s found in the experience of serving his country. As his wife and the mother of two young children, I have been relegated to our home for much of this time as a single parent, accepting the vicarious window to the world he provides… but sometimes toting a baby and a backpack for a distant rendezvous with our soldier!
National Guard families do not live on military bases and, as a result, we don’t necessarily live in an environment where there is support or understanding of a lifestyle that regularly pulls families apart and throws them back together.

My main task in raising our little citizens of the world is to create this sense of community for them in the Midwestern college town in which we reside. At the same time, I try to extend this sense of community to the world and explain how, while their dad is not always able to be with us, he is representing us as Americans wherever he goes. His role as a soldier requires that he work closely with soldiers and civilians of other nations, that he is good at both teaching them what he knows and listening to their needs, in order to build a more peaceful world for all of us.

Our kids’ first impressions of the world come from us, their parents. And even when their own feet aren’t touching far-away soil, the impressions their dad shares with them help them understand both the similarities and the differences between people everywhere. Every time we find ourselves “left behind,” we are simultaneously given the opportunity to learn about another corner of the world to which our soldier is flung. Germany, England, Poland, Afghanistan… the list continues to grow.

The trinkets Daddy brings home, the photos, the stories of unique experiences (marching 100 miles with Polish soldiers on an annual pilgrimage, sharing a field breakfast with British soldiers, shopping at a bazaar, and even throwing sandbags along the banks of the Mississippi River in the USA) keeps our children’s eyes wide open. We are reminded constantly that while we all need food, shelter, and clothing, those things come in a huge variety of forms. And being reminded that so many of our counterparts around the world live with far less than we do begets gratitude for our home and simple, but comfortable, life.

At home, I find that there is nothing quite like being a single parent to force one’s wings to stretch. Leisure time may take a backseat for a while, but the qualities of independence, strength, and resourcefulness only grow. Staying close as a separated family takes extraordinary effort, but that pays off in resilience. I have a basket, manila envelope, or box on hand nearly all the time, in which artwork from the kids, mementos of their accomplishments, newspaper clippings, cards, and letters are deposited for Papa; in return, we receive email, phone calls, and occasional packages from him, through which we remember who he is, how much he loves us, and learn about what he’s encountering. We visit the library and attend diverse cultural events on our local university’s campus to learn more about the people and customs of places where Daddy is working. When we have the opportunity to meet somewhere as a family in the middle of a lengthy training or deployment, we are willing and ready to pack a few bags and snacks and print the driving directions or make the plane reservations to make memories for all involved.

When our daughter was nine months old, she and I met her dad in Frankfurt, Germany for a week spent traveling the Romantic Road. The first breads she nibbled were hearty European rolls, given to her at every restaurant (along with the German proclamation “Sie ist laut!”—“She is loud!”—in response to her happy squeals) and she woke with us under eider-downs to the tolling of church bells in small villages. We held her on our shoulders to walk cobbled streets, stopping to let her dip her hands in centuries-old fountains, and I nursed her on a hidden bench in a leafy public garden. The time changes were difficult, but reviving myself with strong, smooth German coffee was a pleasure. Best of all, I found my previous assumptions of Germany as a cold, industrial nation to be unfounded in the warm reception we received as a family vacationing in a place of Old World beauty and impressive efficiency and service.

That spirit of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and grace wherever it may be found provides a foundation for my husband, and for me with our children, to continue our travels, whether independently or together. Perhaps whatever place we find ourselves in will look especially bright when our company is found in its midst.