Now, after a yearlong ordeal to revise a hip replacement gone wrong, my priorities for travel have shifted. This is why.
One of my early childhood memories is of my Uncle Raymond and Aunt Joan coming from Vallejo, Calif., to visit our small Missouri farmhouse. At the time, we did not even have running water, though we had just acquired electricity.
To Aunt Joan, the farm must have seemed primitive. Uncle Raymond, though, had grown up sleeping with my father, Charles, up in the loft where their family dried apples and corn for meal. Daddy used to rustle the drying husks of corn to torment his brother. The two boys and their two sisters carried school lunches of leftover biscuits or cornbread doused in sorghum molasses, in lard pails. Raymond had known hardship and could cope.
Raymond and Joan did not come all those miles to have a rustic experience. They came to visit. They came to tell stories, and hear them, about those boyhood days.
To "visit" used to have more meaning than it does now, in these days of texting, Twittering and social networking by Internet. Then, it meant to tell stories and spin tales, to converse in a leisurely way.
The evening my aunt and uncle arrived, I stayed awake in bed as long as I could, listening to the music of all the voices sitting around the big, oilcloth-covered kitchen table. They visited. Far into the night, they caught up on the stories of each other's lives.
Recently, on a visit to a large city, I thought about that time. I wanted to lead my husband on sightseeing expeditions and to museums. Ambitiously, I planned far more than we could do, even given that my second (same side) new hip held up remarkably well.
What I craved, though, was the company of friends. At lunch, one told a story I'd heard before, and I listened patiently. Others walked with us through a botanical garden so that we could talk. We made time for dinner without obsessing about going to the latest place or making the dinner itself count; the talk counted more.
Still, there were many friends we didn't get to see, and "next time" became more important.
Now that I am back on my feet, I might in the past have put a trip abroad I have not yet made — London, say — at the top of my wish list. Now, I think about my cousins in Missouri, and it is more important to see them and hear their stories than it is to go there at the right season for wild morels and the blooming of my grandmother's yellow roses. I have those beloved things in my heart already, if not in my mouth and in my sight.
Years ago, when I tried to surprise my relatives with an unexpected visit, the reaction was laconic. When I asked Weston if he wasn't just a little surprised to see me, he replied in his familiar Missouri drawl, "Well, Sylvia, we always expect to see you, and we're only surprised when we don't." I belonged, still.
I don't need to see sights there. The cottonwood tree beside the creek in our pasture means that "home" is just up the hill, and in my mind it will be so, long after the tree falls down. I go for the stories.
I go to hear words that I don't hear in the word-poor conversation of city folks: loblolly to describe a shallow place that catches water, sultry instead of merely hot to describe a stifling summer day.
I think, too, about a tiny speck of a town in France where good friends live part of each year. I've been to nearby colorful markets, wineries, castles. Next time, it will be the stories we tell that are precious. I think of Italy's Le Marches, where friends visit family each summer; I went once and might again. My Italian is inadequate, but I can understand a pig fattened on "slop," which means kitchen scraps in Missouri and in Italy, too.
This fall, I hope to visit good friends who live in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M. I have already been to those places, and to the famous, Hatch, N.M., chili festival. I've taken the "High Road" to Taos. I may take that road again, but mostly, I will go to visit.
Sometimes, I realize the day will come when there will not be a chance at a "next time."
This time is what we have. It is all we have.