John Denver plays over the stereo. The morning fire is down to embers now, and through the upstairs window all I can see are the dark arms of fir trees, calm and complacent in the autumn sun. On the counter sits a bear made of yellow cake, waiting for frosting, because tomorrow is my birthday.
Based on this set of evidence, it could be my fourth birthday, or eleventh, or seventeenth, or even twenty-fifth. But it isn’t. Tomorrow I turn thirty-one, and I keep remembering not because this is a different house than the ones I grew up in, or because the music is playing over a smart phone and Bluetooth speaker that didn’t exist for any of those other birthdays. From where I sit on the couch, looking out the window, you dance around every few minutes just below my ribs, a genial reminder that I’m a mother, not a child anymore. Maybe you’re excited about your own birthday, just a month or so away now. You’re clearly excited about something.
I’m excited, too, having never grown out of the anticipation of adding a digit to my age, but even more so to bring you back to this mountain house, your first home. In my daydreams it’s a perfect snowy November day, not enough to mess up the roads, but plenty to weigh down these springy green branches, pulling us into Ansel Adams’s photo album. I heard somewhere that newborn babies can only see twelve inches or so, lessening the impact of this late-autumn scenery, but maybe something in our white and green neighborhood will catch your tiny new eyes. Or maybe you’ll just be eager to get inside where it’s warm.
I’ve thought a lot about home while we’ve been together, Luci. Really I’ve been thinking about for the last five years, ever since I left the predictable world of evergreen trees and birthday bear cake for a land of fast cars, striped green hills, and words I understand about half the time. At first it was a foreign place of people and rules I hadn’t spent my life learning, but eventually it took on its own comforts. Years rolled around predictably, trips and parties making their march across the calendar, festivals reappearing to offer wurst and zwiebelwaie instead of elephant ears or fried Twinkies. So new at first glance, Germany became home, just as this chilly forest will for you.
But though this will be your first home, it’s possible that you’ll one day struggle, like many young people I love so very much, to explain where you’re from. Though there’s very little of the future that I can predict, I can tell you the plan, which will make you one of those kids who can say they moved somewhere when they were “just a baby.” Just a baby, and you’ll fly with us back to Germany next summer, learning to talk surrounded by new words, learning to walk on cobblestones as often as trails.
It won’t even be your first trip; you’ve already traveled the world. You’ve been with us hiking in Switzerland, book shopping in London, freezing in Iceland and strolling with fireflies in the South. You’ve stood on top of a mountain and swam in a lake. You’re a traveler, Luci. You’re from here, there, everywhere.
Then I see the bear cake again. That yellow bear, who followed me from San Juan Island to the North Cascades, to Seattle and now again to another mountain home, tells me that geography isn’t the most important question. Where I’m from isn’t as important as who I’m from. In this case, I’m from a mother who bought this cake mold somewhere, then pulled it out for special days—birthdays and graduations—because it made her three children squeal with glee at every age. No matter where we were, this never changed. I once thought the bear was the important constant; now I suspect that it’s the family.
I don’t know what your bear cake will be, Luci, what traditions we’ll carry with us across years and continents. But I can tell you who you’re from, the families and people who will make up some of your earliest memories. Your dad and I like to laugh and read and walk in the forest, and can’t wait to do all of that with you. Your great-grandmother crochets blankets for babies, and yours is already waiting for you. You have grandparents who want to hike in the Alps with you, who’ve already bought you your first outfit for the trail. Your grandma in Florida loves biking and finding you presents. Your aunts and uncles are real and adventurous, like you’ll be, musicians, artists, bakers and climbers.
Down in the city there are a dozen women who taught me to be a wife and a mother, women who bought you tiny clothes and threw you a party with pink cupcakes and cookies. Here in the mountains, everyone I see asks me how you are and when you’re coming, these neighbors who will be your first village. And your second, it’s filled with young people who have been asking about you long before you were even thought of. Your picture will make them smile from where they’re scattered around the world, these kids we loved and taught before we knew you, back when we were just getting to know each other.
So where will you be from, Luci? What mountain or village will you claim one day? I can’t tell you just yet, but wherever it is I know we’ll be there, too, celebrating birthdays and exploring. And I can’t wait to see it with you.