Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details

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You CAN go home

 My thanks to writer Tracey Edgerly Meloni for this glorious journey of a Guest Post. Photo thanks to David Campbell of GBC Tours. While the shots may not be Bordeaux, I think they embody the atmospheric rightness, just the same.


Photo: David Campbell / http://GBCTours.com

You Can Go Home Again

by Tracey Edgerly Meloni

I am driven to return to the far-flung places where I lived so briefly, first as an Army brat and then as a Navy wife. Going back to childhood homes has become a quest, to see if the things I “remember” are my own memories, or if I’ve just heard my parents tell stories so often that I believe I remember them.

Even when dealing with my adult memories, I’ve learned that nothing ever stays the same.  Barbers Point, in Hawaii, felt obscenely festive in the late ‘60s when I waited there alone during Vietnam. It took returning to realize that we “Wanda Warbrides” were working hard to maintain morale. The quarters at Riverview Village in Indian Head, Maryland, where my husband practiced not blowing himself up in EOD training, had vanished like Atlantis when I re-visited.

So I was anxious about going back to Bordeaux, where I began school when my Dad was assigned to the 529th Transportation Depot. I already knew that my childhood home outside Pessac was long gone, and that any American military presence had disappeared from French soil years before – what did I really hope to find?


Photo: David Campbell / http://GBCTours.com

We sailed up the Garonne River, past some of France’s most celebrated Chateaux and vineyards. I squinted at the glorious passing scene, searching for puzzle pieces to trigger memory. Suddenly we were there, gliding up to dock directly in front of the Place de la Bourse and the wonderful 18th century limestone buildings lining the Quai. Our shipboard verandah looked right up the narrow pedestrian Rue Saint Remi, where long ago my parents shared a peculiar little bird for dinner while I munched happily on bread and cheese.

I need not have worried. The memories of a six-year-old are carved in bedrock, and they flooded back as the landscape around me unfolded.


Photo: David Campbell / http://GBCTours.com

From there it was a short mental hop to the school, where all students were divided into two rooms, with only four teachers. I was the sole first grader. The harassed lower-grade teacher looked at me sternly and demanded, “Can you read?” I nodded solemnly. “Good,” she said, “you’re in second grade.” Thus my very first school challenge became fathoming the making of change using American coin references – nickel, dime, penny, quarter – while all we had to practice with was “pretend” Scrip. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we had franks and beans for lunch. Tuesdays and Thursdays featured Franco American spaghetti, all washed down by “vin ordinaire” diluted with fizzy water brought along by French children invited to join us.


Chateau Grand Barrail

I remembered that Bordeaux was my introduction to a less than perfect world. There were mice living in the mattresses at “Tu et You,” the whimsical name applied to our odd little gatehouse by the Frenchwoman and her American officer husband who lived there before us.   Huguetta-the-maid scraped snails off the walls of the well and crushed them under her heel to eat. And, alas, that well was foolishly located downhill from our dubious cesspool, leading to repeated bouts of dysentery for all of us.

Bordeaux also was my introduction to an exciting world. My mother insisted that we learn to speak the language wherever we were, and I learned terrible gutter French from orphaned children I befriended along the waterfront. I used it to order wonderful marzipan candies shaped like vegetables in the marketplace. With my mother, I would order meat from the butcher with the horse’s head over the door, not realizing until years later what it was. And I spent what seemed like hours debating which pastries to select at our favorite patisserie.

On my recent return, I let the memories rule. I erased the hideous architectural monstrosities growing up among Bordeaux’ gracious historic buildings and concentrated on the soaring spire of St. Michel’s church. I stayed away from horsemeat and had lunch in Chateau Grand Barrail, a highly acclaimed hotel once built to house the mistress of a nobleman. And I went back to the site of the Officer’s Club where Christmas dinner was served to everyone in those divided mess trays, with gravy on your pie.

tracey_edgerly_meloniWhat did I hope to find? Just my memories, but I got much more. I got reacquainted with my early self, made sturdy by my Brats experience.

Not only can you go “home” again – you really should.

Writer Tracey Edgerly Meloni won first prize in Ingenue Magazine’s short-story contest when she was 14 and just kept on writing. Her most recent award is a first place in feature writing from the Virginia Press Association. Formerly press secretary to three California Congressmen and Virginia’s senior Senator, she contributes regularly to several magazines, writing about food, health, the arts, and travel.



Setting down the burdens

photo-12As I traveled in Europe this spring, and in my childhood home of Germany, I had all sorts of plans for what I designated as writing time.

And Life, smiling, laid waste to them with its wise, gentle love. It led straight to pieces of a book’s story I would never find on my own. And each time, as if a soft chorus echoed it, I’d feel the inner words: “Because now is the time. Because now, you are ready.”

I also heard my mother’s voice, which used to warn with a dire tone, “You can’t go home again.” Today, I can well understand her motivation, as a military spouse. Certain kinds of setting yourself up to believe and hope are a ticket to pain no mother wants to see for her child. Other wise words had reminded me, when I’d tend to set my my inner child’s nostalgic hopes on a place I’d loved so well: “Don’t mistake geography for your Reality.”

In these last nine weeks, a recognition finally came. You can’t return to the way things were. Yet you can come home to what you love about anything, right in your own heart. And the gateway, at least in this case, is grief, that wonderful, terrible angel of release, dogging us to face our burdens, to set them down at last. When we are ready, of course. photo-7

I had known that the remaining portions of the novel I aim to finish would lead directly through that no man’s land that I have been trained to avoid. It brings the most confounding mixture of joy and wonderment with it.

Who else but Mary Oliver could provide the words that sum up such ineffables? And there her poem appeared before me, the day my journey came to its end:


That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poets said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled—
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

“Heavy” by Mary Oliver, from Thirst: Poems. © Beacon Press, 2007.


A first teacher’s gifts

Mum     Remembering Peggy Wilson Edgerly

     My mother didn’t have a “real” birthday except during leap years, which means that when her death certificate recorded her age as 80, she was still technically only 21. 

     In the months before the sudden heart attack that ended her earthly life, there were beginning to be discernible signs of age, such as the slight bend in her slender frame. But the challenge her grey-blue eyes tossed back at the world, even then, always made her seem like a feisty young adult. And whatever her age, she was always an initiator of welcoming hospitality and reaching out to others.

     Mothers truly are our first teachers, which may explain why we can feel so inexplicably alone once they’re gone. With each passing year, so much of what I value can be traced back to my mother, a military spouse whose life didn’t turn out anything like her 21-year-old self imagined it would.

Buttermere Lake 13

Buttermere Lake, photo: Kathy Gilman

     During the years my dad was at war, my young British war-bride mother held down the fort in her family’s home not far from England’s Lake District. She cared for my newborn older sister, along with an elderly relative in the last stages of cancer, plus several children who’d been evacuated from London. Somehow, she also found time to hook rugs to generate income to compensate for the meager wartime rations on which her crowded household had to subsist.

     Having been a young mother myself, I now wonder how she ever found the time to do these things — that she took in those young evacuees at all. She knew, however, what kind of life they’d face back home in the city during wartime, because her young face already wore nasty scars from her service as a fire warden during the infamous “Blitzkrieg.”

     If anyone modeled for me how to welcome change gracefully, it was my mother, who came to a new culture to meet her Boston-Irish in-laws, then proceeded to make a home for her family — over and over — in locations all over the world. Her dedicated “nesting” efforts gave every place we lived that consistent feeling of home, however often we were uprooted and forced to start over.


Photo: Lara Kearns

     Life in a military family meant I had to keep making new friends, and my mother, as with most everything, encouraged me in this endeavor and did her best to turn it into an adventure. She made it easier to nurture friendships by always welcoming playmates at our house and utterly charming them with her warmth. (They usually loved her accent, too.) Friends still talk about how inviting it was at our house, while I grew up believing that’s how it was everywhere.

     Because she was such a canny yet unobtrusive ally in assisting our friendships, my sister and I now find it easy to make friends wherever we go, to be the one to go talk to someone standing alone at a party, as we often saw her do. With her lively mind, she always had friendly, interesting questions that would gently coax people into the nicest conversations, even if she had to ask them in a language she was struggling to learn.

     Long before the days of what the sixties would label Women’s Lib, military spouses like her were already demonstrating women’s versatility and capability, strong models for their daughters — and sons. When you’re so often the only parent on the scene, there’s simply no room for the kind of thinking that’s limited by gender bias.

     Among other invaluable gifts, she was able to listen in a way that made you feel that hearing you was the most important thing in the world. She also taught me how to value and use my own time — not just to be efficient and accomplish things, important as that is, but to also savor and enjoy something worth enjoying.

     It makes me more than a little sad that I recognize these things now that she isn’t here to thank in person. “A father and mother endure the greatest troubles and hardships for their children; and often when the children have reached the age of maturity, the parents pass on to the other world,” the Bahá’í writings acknowledge. “Rarely does it happen that a father and mother in this world see the reward of the care and trouble they have undergone for their children. Therefore, children, in return for this care and trouble, must show forth charity and beneficence, and must implore pardon and forgiveness for their parents.”

     After my mother’s death, the one thing I heard most consistently from the many who loved her was how much kindness she’d always shown them. Thus, it’s quite clear how I can best honor her memory. Her modeling of kindness and generosity is likely the most important lesson my first teacher ever gave me.

     So, thanks for everything, Mum. You’ll always be twenty-one to me. 51D7zcqZNML._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-62,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_


Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details.



On our way home


Photo: D. Kirkup Designs

Gleanings found here and there:

Never underestimate the power of compassionately recognizing what’s going on.  ~ Pema Chödron

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.  ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Doorway to the Past

Photo: Kathy Gilman

No matter how far you are from yourself, no matter how exiled you feel from your contribution to the rest of the world; as a human being all you have to do is enumerate exactly the way you don’t feel at home in the world, say exactly how you don’t belong, and the moment you’ve uttered the exact dimensionality of your exile, you’re already taking the path back to the way – back to the place – you should be.

You’re already on your way home.  ~ David Whyte


A sistership of only-child hoods

What a pleasure to share a Guest Post this week from one of my favorite writers, who just happens to also be my closet relative. 🙂

The Note and the Nail-Bite

by Tracey Edgerly Meloni

800px-Nail_in_a_block_of_woodBarefoot, I stepped on a nail the night my sister was born. To this day, the damned thing can throb like hell with little provocation.

We were both only children, she and I. Born ten years apart, we shared six pretend years together, me playing the part of long-suffering-if-resentful babysitter to my not-really mutinous barnacle charge. It wasn’t cool to let friends, or (God forbid!) parents, know that from the moment she arrived (late, as would be her course through life, a yin to my neurotically early yang), I was besotted. She had a little squished heart-shaped face and liked to head-butt. She was tawny, golden, trusting, with starfish-shaped hands, her eyes navy blue lapis put in by some god with sooty fingers. I heard my orders from a Higher Power, beyond parents, to guide this little person safely past the treacherous shoals of childhood.

I felt almost apologetic for my own childhood, which I viewed (correctly) as an enormous household inconvenience, something to be conquered quickly and forgotten, like chicken pox or diarrhea. With the arrival of “Phylsey,” as she was nicknamed, I seized the opportunity to Be Older, taking charge of her needs, protecting her from my own tadpole experience. 1244s-2T

Phylsey hardly ever spoke – she relied on me to interpret for her. “Mocha, mocha, mocha” meant “milk”; “Munga, Munga, Munga” meant “Morgan”, the forlorn, floppy and filthy stuffed dog toy that accompanied her everywhere.

But suddenly I was 17, ignorant of the havoc casually wrought by Life’s selfish mistress, Change. After graduation from Würzburg American High School in Germany, college and a scholarship beckoned an ocean away. Of course I went, and eagerly — I was even impatient at the sight of Phylsey’s sad little face on the dock in Bremerhaven, Germany, waving a tentative goodbye as my ship prepared to sail. Before I boarded, she pressed a note into my hand, with the solemn admonition not to open it until I was “home.”

Once at sea, I made a valiant effort to put them all out of my mind and have some fun. There were 22 of us going home to college alone, 11 boys, 11 girls, 10-day voyage – groovy!

USS6a00d834543b6069e20147e262b8ef970b-640wiMy memories of the trip are both clear and chaotic – some of them flow along in order and others are seen through a tumbling kaleidoscope.  Diane, one of my roommates, decided she had fallen in love on board with a guy named Dave. She gave him a copy of her graduation picture signed “Love, Diane.” Wouldn’t you just know he ended up rooming next door to her old boyfriend at Johns Hopkins – one of them broke the other one’s nose, but I forget who won.

Me, I met a guy named Ray, on his way to pharmacy school. How we were smart enough to know that we wanted to be just friends I’ll never know, but we did. There were teen dances every night in a little-used function room. Turned out Ray and I danced together brilliantly – we won every contest.

We also were the only souls who made it to dinner one night, as the ship crashed through the remnants of a tropical storm in the turbulent Atlantic.  Like me, Ray just got hungry. Our respective roommates were moaning below, and we quickly learned to stay away from them. th

We all played hearts most afternoons, a game I’d never played before and don’t remember now. But on that crossing into a new life, I could not lose.

On the last night, we had a talent show, a final, frenetic burst of bravado, none of us wanting to think about what lay ahead. I forget what my act was.

In the morning, no one said goodbye. We just drifted to our respective planes and trains. Ray took me to my train. On the way, we passed a sign for Würzburger Hofbrau Beer and had our picture taken by it. Then he waved me aboard, and was gone.

Suddenly I was as alone as I have ever been. Home to a “brat” meant wherever Dad’s assignment took us, whatever friends rotated in with us.  Thirty minutes after the movers left, Mum made wherever we lived home in a way that had nothing to do with neighborhoods and permanence. Now I, who graduated with a class of only 30 after more than a dozen moves, was going to be one of 25,000 full-time students, most of whom had spent their whole lives with the same friends in one town. Phyllistooth-2-233x350

The “nail bite”, as I called my foot-wound that ushered my sister into the world, throbbed, making me rub it and think of her little face, now wearing owlish glasses that magnified her already-huge eyes, her gap-toothed smile always at the ready for me.

I remembered her note and opened it. A 6-year-old’s unschooled scrawl said just:

“Rite Sune.”

And I was home.

tracey_edgerly_meloniWriter Tracey Edgerly Meloni won first prize in Ingenue Magazine’s short-story contest when she was 14 and just kept on writing. Her most recent award is a first place in feature writing from the Virginia Press Association.

Formerly press secretary to three California Congressmen and Virginia’s senior Senator, she contributes regularly to several magazines, writing about food, health, the arts, and travel.

Her sister, formerly known as “Phylsey”, happens to know that she’s also one fine cook of elegant, irresistible vegetarian cuisine.