“more than nostalgia…less than exile”

by Alissa

There is a line about a long-ago home community in an essay on migration and loss by journalist Gary Younge that has lingered in my mind since I first read it months ago:

“… they not only knew my mother but they knew me when I had a mother.”

Younge laments the loss of history, of personal context, that comes with even voluntary migration and articulates some of the grief that comes to each immigrant life.

“Migration involves loss,” he writes. “Even when you’re privileged, as I am, and move of your own free will, as I did, you feel it. Migrants, almost by definition, move with the future in mind. But their journeys inevitably involve excising part of their past. It’s not workers who emigrate but people. And whenever they move they leave part of themselves behind. Efforts to reclaim that which has been lost result in something more than nostalgia but, if you’re lucky, less than exile.”

So much of Younge’s essay rings true for me; it will become a part of my perpetual reading list. In that liminal space between nostalgia and exile, I’ve had a beautiful visit from my old friend Emily. She came to see our corner of Australia and help me with the kids for a few weeks while Ace went on the road for work conferences in the Northern Hemisphere, and it was almost like going home.

Emily is a living fossil from my childhood–she still has the same philosophical streak, the same obsession with finding the perfect rock or taking the perfect photo; she still has the same braids. We grew up a few blocks away from each other on the East side of Kalispell and for a while lived across the hall from each other in a dorm at UM. Her house, the one O and I stayed in before we moved to Australia, shares a raspberry-, lilac-, and hollyhock- laced alley with the houses where we lived as children. She is one of a handful of friends who knew me when I lived with my parents and siblings, before we moved abroad and scattered. She has visited me in Hungary, Macedonia, Canada and now Australia, linking these places to my past in Montana, and keeping her in my present. To a degree beyond anyone else I know, Emily has chosen loyalty to family and place. Lucky for me, I count as some kind of cousin.

A few mementos of our visit:

The first day Emily was here, we took our first walk down the beach and her perpetual delight with the water, the shells, the foam, the birds, the stones, began. Showing her around made everything new again, in the best possible way.


Family portrait

Family portrait. We don’t get many of these.

Thanks to Emily, we now have a current stock of photos of us, and photos of me, since I am usually the one holding the camera. We printed photos for the first time since moving here and hung some around the house so S will get to know what she looks like. Up until now, she has assumed (correctly) that the girl in our few photos is who she calls “NiNi!”.

Our big chance for a nice family portrait happened to be on one of the stormiest days of the winter.

Our main chance for a nice family photo happened to be on one of the stormiest days of the winter. Windspeed, 48 knots. 88.9 km/hr.

Emily made many new friends while she was here, particularly among the small people and the wildlife. Probably the best thing about her coming was having her listen to my kids and play with them without bearing any of the pressure of Ace’s off-to-work urgency or my sharing-sleep-with-a-teething-baby fatigue. She made time and space for creativity and elaborate projects.

Emily with her new friends.

Emily and her fan club.

We even staged Vivid Newcastle, our own miniature version of the massive art/light show that takes over Sydney this time of year. When our attempt to attend was foiled by disrupted train service, O had the brilliant idea of just having our own. After about eight seconds of consideration, we decided it would yield at least as much pleasure as the real thing and spent an entire day transforming the living room into an interactive glowing wonderland.

Harbour Bridge

Harbour Bridge for Vivid Newcastle in Lego and glow sticks. This is probably the best thing I’ve made all year. It spanned the bathtub. This exercise also gave me a new appreciation for the actual Harbour Bridge–a small [plastic] kinship with the people who built it.

Me and my new favourite bridge.

Me and my new favourite bridge.


Ginko leaves

Ginko leaves at the Botanical Gardens

We went to several places I haven’t visited since we first moved here because they reminded me of the rawness of arrival, when everything was exhaustingly new and overstimulating. Now they are just places I’ve visited with my old friend Emily.

So thanks for turning up in Oz, Em. Thank you for loving my kids. Thank you for the gift of a month-long conversation about where we have been and where we are going. You remembered things about me that I had lost track of. You reminded me of who we were at 14, 17, 20, 28. We are still the daughters of our mothers, from that town.

Together again

Together again.