The first thing I noticed was the green. Tall grass, big leafy trees. The scratchy dryness of Madrid in summer seemed more than a plane ride away as I got my first look at the United States in what seemed like ages. The last time we were here, Pedro was eight months old — now he was almost three, and his brother, Elías, almost one.
Both kids were strapped into car seats in the minivan, and our suitcases were loaded into the trunk. We had left JFK airport, and my husband was dozing off in the back as my father drove. All I could do was stare, bleary-eyed, out the window, as we made our way upstate. I breathed in the lushness like a soothing balm. Welcome home, it said.
The next morning, we woke bright and early — thanks to jetlag — at what Pedro had dubbed “Grandpa’s house.” It had been my house, too, on alternate weekends and holidays, and I lived here for a while after the Peace Corps to save money while I paid off student loans and prepared for the next phase of my life. As I sat down to a plate of fresh bagels with lox and cream cheese, it was as if I had never left. Meanwhile, my husband read the local paper, Pedro discovered the wonderful world of commercial-free children’s television, and Elías inspected the bin of toys in front of the fireplace.
Later, we walked to a pond and playground tucked away in a nearby residential neighborhood. Along the way, Pedro joyfully discovered the local fauna. “Squirrel! Chipmunk!” he cried. He had never seen them before except in books. “Look, a red bird,” my husband pointed out. “A cardinal,” I sighed happily.
And then we arrived at the pond. “Ducks!” Pedro shouted, taking off after them. Everything is so perfect here, I thought to myself. Everyone we passed had smiled and said, “Good morning.” The weather was hot but bearable — not like the oppressive, kiln-like temperatures of Madrid that made the playgrounds near us all-but-unusable in summer. There were other mothers with their kids at the park, and I imagined myself making friends with them, doing daily park excursions and trips to the local pool and maybe even to the state parks with lakes and beaches.
The visit seemed to fly by, a parade of everything I’d missed back in Spain. I baked cranberry muffins and ate rhubarb pie and drank cup after cup of coffee with exotic-sounding flavors: English Toffee Cream, Southern Pecan, Rainforest Nut. I listened to NPR and shopped in stores with endless variety, where everything was cheaper, better, and more convenient. I browsed in mega-bookstores and marveled at the racks and racks of magazines on every topic imaginable. I stocked up on supplies for our return: a new set of measuring cups and spoons, natural peanut butter, toasted sesame oil, Chinese five-spice powder.
Always before, once I had sated myself on American specialties of both the edible and nonfood variety, I would be ready to get back to our life in Spain. Sure, I would miss my family, but there was always email and phone calls and their visits to us.
This time, though, it was different. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just stay?” I asked my husband one morning. “Yeah, but we’re on vacation now,” he reminded me. “It wouldn’t be like this all the time.”
I eyed the Sunday paper on the living room floor, the classified job section somewhere in the stack. Don’t even go there, I told myself. Although my husband has expressed an interest in spending a few years in the United States at some point, I just don’t see how it could work. He has a good, steady job back in Spain, but it would be difficult for him to find work here. I never did get that Master’s degree, so while I could most likely find something interesting to do, it probably wouldn’t pay enough to support a family.
“My company is offering good early retirement packages,” he mused.
“You’re still a good 15 years away from even an early retirement,” I answered, and besides, the point was to be here now. In 15 years, the kids would be grown, and I would have no need for playdates. By then, I would undoubtedly be happily embarked upon some other life project right there where I was.
So the only thing to do was to make the most of the few weeks we had. A stint at “Grandma’s house,” with birdfeeders and a pool in the backyard, provided hours of fun, and our days were always full. We went to wonderful, child-friendly museums, visited relatives, rode restored carrousels, and watched the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Pedro’s English grew by leaps and bounds, and Elías mastered a new form of locomotion, the butt scoot. The kids were having a blast, though they took everything pretty much in stride.
“Drink it all in!” I wanted to tell them. “We’re only here for a short time!” Both kids thrived on the attention of new adults who were happy to spend time playing with them, and I loved watching their circle of loved and trusted people grow. This time it would really hurt to leave.
And then it was over. The flight back was a nightmare. It was an overnight flight but neither kid slept; instead they were both loud and cranky and irritable. As we drove home from the airport, everything felt unreal — flat and sterile.
Once home, we opened all the windows to let in some fresh air after our three weeks away. The refrigerator needed to be restocked, bags unpacked, routines reset. It all seemed so overwhelming.
The boys, however, bounced right back. Pedro kept smiling as he appraised the familiar contents of each room. He ran upstairs and climbed into his bed, fully clothed, grinning as he pulled the covers over his head. “Yep,” he seemed to be saying. “This is my room.” Elías gleefully explored his old stomping grounds from the vantage point of the newly mobile. I collapsed onto the couch.
That night, jetlagged and unable to sleep, I crept downstairs to the computer. There was a message from my father, sent while we were still in the air. “Missing you already,” said the subject line. This feels so wrong, I thought, as a flood of tears spilled out onto the keyboard. Why did we have to come back?
A few days later, Pedro had enthusiastically returned to daycare, but I had barely made a dent in the task of finding places to put all the stuff we had managed to accumulate on the trip. There were toys and clothes for the boys, books and magazines for me, supplies for teaching English, and kitchen gadgets and bakeware. Finally, I abandoned the effort and instead packed our bags again, this time for a weekend trip to the village. It would be cooler for sleeping there, at the foot of the mountains that separated the provinces of Madrid and Segovia. This was where my mother-in-law had grown up and where my husband had taken his first steps. His family had always spent their summers there, and now, with the old house completely renovated, we too make regular visits.
After a little more than an hour’s drive, we turned off the county highway and pulled into the village. To Pedro’s delight, we had arrived just in time to watch the evening parade of cows past our house to their barn. People stopped us to chat and to remark how much the boys had grown. I looked around at the bright blue sky against the yellow fields of dried grass, dotted with thistle and clumps of thyme. Barn swallows swooped and darted under the clay roof tiles where they would settle for the night. In front of us, a lone donkey grazed behind a stone fence. Behind him, a mountain of pine and bare rock rose up against the sky. I breathed in the crisp, dry air of the Castilian meseta, a different kind of beauty. Welcome home, it said.