Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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The ties that truly bind

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A long-anticipated visit with my sister this month can’t help but bring me close to family history, as so many scenes in my novel do these days, too.

Born ten years apart, we were both “only children”, aside from the six years we actually spent together in our parents’ home. My arrival doomed her to a role of perpetual baby-sitter. In my little psyche, she was also a surrogate parent, an adult-like being – unfailingly elegant and unbelievably smart – who actually saw me, when the atmosphere in which we lived could make a lot of things seem invisible. More, she remembered me, and continued to accompany me, long after the early get-away she made when she was barely 18.

Though we’ve really gotten to know each other as “grown ups”, I feel as though I felt her company all of my life – before, during, and after my arrival here.

She has written of her own experience: “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.”

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Our first stop in 1960 as Army Brats in Germany.

But with the arrival of a younger sister, she notes, “I seized the opportunity to Be Older, taking charge of her needs, protecting her from my own tadpole experience. … I heard my orders from a Higher Power, beyond parents, to guide this little person safely past the treacherous shoals of childhood.”

“I decided that you’d probably grow up to be a tactful, diplomatic person,” our British mother once described of her when, on her very first airplane flight (from London to Bordeaux, France), my four-year-old sister made polite conversation with two travelers seated across from her and my mother. My mother describes them as “dressed in the full regalia of those who live in Arab countries”.

When my sister turned five, two military police arrived each weekday shortly before dawn to escort her to school via military staff car, a ride of an hour each way. It’s no wonder I’ve always perceived her as leagues ahead of me in worldly wisdom and experience, rather in the style of Jane Goodall or Agatha Christie. SKMBT_C28415052810290_0001

By the time I was four, she’d already won first prize in a national U.S. magazine’s annual writing contest. She was 14. Her teen-age years are the ones my child self remembers best, some of the sweetest in my memory, set in a fairy-tale German town, no doubt so sweet because she was there.

She’s given me more gifts than I can count, but one of the most meaningful came recently with her instant inner understanding of The Munich Girl, the novel I’ve been working on since our father died in 2007. Hearing her intuitively wise thoughts about the deepest intent of this book and its story was vindication that my soul, however much it aspires to write, hardly knows how to put into words.

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The ship that carried her away from Bremerhaven in 1962.

In my writing hours, when I want to evoke heartbreak, I think of how I felt on the day after she left Germany for America — or the day after she got married – when realization caught up with me that she wasn’t ever coming back to sleep in the room we had always shared.

I suppose it was inevitable that the book on which I’ve spent so much time, and love, would become a story of separations and reunions.

She tells a story of how, before she boarded the ship that took her away from Germany, I pressed a note into her hand with the instructions that she not open it until she was “home”.

Once in America, this 17-year-old military brat who had skipped not one, but two grades on her path to a scholarship at Boston University “suddenly felt as alone as I have ever been”. SKMBT_C28415052810300_0001

Then she remembered the note. At six, I was a writer of few words, none of them very neat, though pithier than I tend to be now. The note read: “Rite Sune”.

And, she says, she was home.

As I am, wherever she is in the world, whether I’m with her or not.

This, I’ve decided, is what “family” truly means. As a character in my novel observes: “So often, the ties that truly bind us the most have nothing to do with being related.”

But when they do, it is light upon light.

 


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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.