In less than a week, it’ll be almost two years since we returned to the States. A lot has happened in that time: lost teeth, piano lessons, graduations from preschool and fifth grade, karate, piano recitals, some pretty major home renovations. At times it’s easy to forget that there ever was a Hong Kong year, we’re so buried in the heres-and-nows of Virginia. Which means at times it’s easy to think that none of it mattered, that we shouldn’t even have bothered.
But still . . .
Here’s a short list of what, two years on, remains from that year:
1) There are, of course, the objects: the Hong Kong flags hanging in the kids’ rooms, the tin wind-up toys Jamie got for his birthday when we were in Vietnam. There’s the red salad bowl made of finely-grained wood, the fancy brushed steel flashdrive I received as a party favor at one of the conferences I attended. I still have my nice suit from the tailor down in Central, and Ellen has two or three skirts and a few shirts from Hoi An. Over our mantel is a fancy porcelain carving of gold fish swimming around a lotus plant, and opposite it hang a pair of paintings from Hanoi and Xi’an, respectively. We also have a neatly embroidered baby carrier over one bookshelf, not too far from a trio of fantastical paintings from Bali showing brightly colored dancing beasts and magical women.
I’m pleased to note that my beautiful, six-million dollar hand sewn rug from Beijing is still beautiful, and worth every damn penny, thank you very much. This bears mention, because just after I bought it I was one of the guys on the trip—a Canadian whose family had just joined for the day—was teasing me about spending so much money.
“What you should do,” he said, “is buy a stop watch. Then when you get home you can time yourself whenever you stop and look at the rug. That way you’ll know how much all of this cost you per minute.”
For what it’s worth, not a day goes by—okay, not a week goes by . . . okay, not a month goes by where I don’t pause, look at that rug, and say, “Dang. That’s purty.”
As all of this probably makes clear, we bought a lot of souvenirs when we were in Asia. Enough to decorate the entire house, actually, so that, stepping into our living room before actually meeting us, you’d assume “Hanstedt” was some sort of weird name from an obscure ethnic group in China.
Seriously, we’ve pretty much decided we can never live abroad again simply because we don’t have any rooms left to decorate. That, or we’ll just have to buy a second house next time we return to the States.
That said, the objects we actually notice—the ones that make us pause for just a millisecond, our hearts suddenly warmer than they were before—aren’t necessarily the expensive ones, or even the big ones: there’s the silk embroidery of a lotus flower on the wall by the front door, for instance, almost an afterthought when we were in a small shop in Vietnam, but now something that I’ll pause and . . . just look at for maybe half a minute every other day or so. Or the small wooden plates next to the cookbooks, thrown in with the aforementioned salad bowl and a half-dozen other things we got in a shop near our hotel. They’re beautiful—one green, one red, one natural wood color, the grain showing in all of them—and they catch my eye almost every day when I walk into the kitchen.
Or when Lucy comes down in the morning for breakfast, and she’s wearing her blue and white sport uniform from the international school. Mornings where that happens, both Ellen and I will pause, watching her make her way to the table. Sometimes we’ll look at each other and grin, sometimes we won’t, just watching her, both of us smiling, the little red Norwegian flag flashing on her shorts—and we’ll know it was all real.
2) Then there are the memories.
Some of them are prompted: the first Christmas we were home, for instance, we made photo albums for each of the kids. For Will and Lucy, this meant culling their nearly 5,000 pictures (each) down to 400 or so that we put in separate albums, customizing each one to reflect the experiences of the child, what they valued, what they’d want to remember. For Jamie this meant picking at random from Ellen’s thousands of pics, trying to choose images that would somehow capture key moments for a little guy who was barely half-way through his third year when we returned.
We gave the albums to them on Christmas eve, halfway through the present opening. For twenty minutes everything stopped. All three heads were bowed, all three pairs of hands were flipping the pages, flipping, flipping, scanning from side to side, taking it all in.
“Look! Will! Remember?” and then Lucy would point to picture of the bird market and tell a story.
“Hey, look! Remember?” and then Will would hold the book up so we could all see a picture of the kitten we found in a park in Shanghai.
“Look! Remember?” Jamie would then holler, and hold up a picture of a—what was that? A cat turd? A dead bird? Hard to tell. Not really even sure that he knows . . .
But a lot of the memories are unprompted. We’ll be sitting at the table eating dinner, and out of the blue Lucy will say, “Remember the time Jamie shook his fist at a monk?” And we’ll burst out laughing. Then Will will say, “Remember when he ate his dinner so fast that he threw up?” And we’ll laugh again. Then Ellen or I will say, “Remember how Eldon use to love playing with Jamie, how he would come over and shake his fists at him and Jamie would shake his back and the two of them would keep doing it until they burst out laughing?” And we’ll laugh again, even louder. And it will go on like that for ten minutes maybe twenty, sometimes half an hour: “Remember?’ “Remember?” “Remember?”
3) And then there’s something else, something that’s harder to explain:
I see it when Will and Lucy come home from school, and I find them in Will’s bedroom, their heads together, lost in some game they’ve made up, involving marbles, beads, or three kinds of glue and miniature Leggos.
And I see it sometimes on Saturday mornings, when Jamie is fussing about some thing or another and later I’ll notice that he’s turned quiet, and discover him in his room, being read to by his older brother.
And I see it on nights when Ellen is gone or out with her friends, and instead of cuddling with all of the kids separately, I’ll stretch out on the big bed in our room and the four of us will lay there, telling stories about the day, about school, about burping and farting, and our friend Lilianna who talks in funny voices.
And I’ll see it sometimes when we go on a trip, a short trip to Charlottesville, maybe, and I’ll give them a heads-up when it’s five minutes until departure, then we’ll all climb in the car, no fussing, no complaining, just a sense of, “This is who we are. This is what we do.”
I’m not sure how to describe it, really. But it’s very real. It’s like a river that’s cleared, all the dirt and debris settling to the bottom, firming down into sediment that will be solid for years to come, leaving everything above clean and pure. It’s as though we’re utterly content with ourselves, with who we are as a family. And with our place in the world.
That’s what it’s like. That’s what remains.