One of my best friends was about to become a mother, and I wouldn’t be there. Oh, we still had e-mails, phone calls, visits, but I would miss the small events—like visiting her in the hospital or leaving a tray of lasagna in her fridge—the mundane participation that is the true meaning of friendship. She was over there and I was here, and the circles of our daily lives overlapped less and less, until they barely touched at all.
I knew it wasn’t her fault, or mine, just the natural consequence of distance. And yet recently the distance had started to loom unforgiving and unmanageable, shadowing almost all my relationships. I felt it when I saw photos of friends’ new boyfriends-turned-husbands, with my baby nieces who were suddenly young girls weaving me pot holders, with my parents who grew a little grayer every time I visited. The people I loved most in the world were living the most important moments of their lives without me, and I was living mine without them. It took me a while to recognize the emotion, unfamiliar as it was, but when I did, it scratched at me with thorny immediacy: I was homesick.”
—Ann Mah, Mastering the Art of French Eating
(My mom and my sister, in my parents’ kitchen at Christmastime)
I devoured Mah’s lovely, warm memoir of the year she spent alone in Paris while her husband was on a diplomatic assignment in Iraq. (He was originally posted to Paris, but when he was called away, she had to stay behind.) I savored Mah’s descriptions of Parisian cafés and her accounts of trips to Lyon, Brittany, Provence and other locales, as she researched the origins of such classic French dishes as crêpes, cassoulet and boeuf bourgignon. But this passage about love and homesickness made my breath catch in my chest.
Because I know. I know what it’s like to stand on a city street corner, the wind whipping my hair around my face as my sister tells me over the phone, from two thousand miles away, that she’s pregnant. I know the mingled ache and joy of receiving texted pictures of a friend’s sparkling new engagement ring, and the unmitigated ache of not being able to travel to a family funeral. I understand the annual balancing act of splitting my vacation time between exciting destinations (like our recent trip to San Diego) and booking plane tickets back home, squeezing out a few extra days here and there to play with my nephew and quote old movies with my dad.
All of us who have moved away from the places we grew up, or the places where we have lived and made friends as adults, know this particular kind of homesickness. We wish we could gather all our loved ones in one place, so we could be there for all the important moments instead of seeing them on Facebook, or drop in for dinner instead of making do with phone calls and emails and tweets. We do our best to put down roots where we are, digging deeply into a few new relationships, but we miss the everyday joy of the “mundane participation” Mah mentions. We know we are lucky to have friends in multiple states, sometimes even on several continents. But our heartstrings get sore from the constant tugging in so many directions, and we wish it were simpler, but we know it never will be.
I don’t have any answers, and Mah admits she doesn’t either, other than the tried-and-true remedies of spending time with loved ones when possible, and aiming to be present in the life she had, rather than wallowing in nostalgia. (Though sometimes the wallowing is unavoidable.) But I wanted to share this passage because this is what I love best about reading: the shock of recognition when someone else’s words express an emotion or a thought so perfectly that all you can say is “Me too.”