By Janet Grace Riehl (Artwork and essay copyright 2013)
“Interesting path. Is it a bend or a fork?” reads a friend’s Skype signature line.
When I asked him about this, he said, “I just need a place to be, and right now this is it. A bend would be another place to live. A fork would be another career.”
(“Maze Map,” by Janet Riehl)
I felt something relax inside me. A place to be gives us space to be, and we can’t begin a new chapter in our life story until we have it. I’m in search of that space.
I’m 64-and-a-half-going-on-65. My life has followed an interesting path filled with bends and forks. My story so far?
I am a country girl who roamed the world, and then followed my heart back home.
Part 1: Country Girl. (First two decades) No matter where I go I’ll always be a down home heartland girl. I was born and bred in the Midwest on the bluffs above the Mississippi on a Homeplace our family settled in the 1860’s—in a family filled with legend and lore. Then, a fork.
Part 2: Roamed the world: (Roughly the next three decades) In my twenty’s I spent five years living and working in Botswana and Ghana—first with Peace Corps and later working directly with a village organization. My love affair with Africa has shaped every day of my adult life.
I’ve traveled to Asia (India, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan), Europe, Mexico, and South America. In the United States I worked in New Mexico and Northern California in training and development, project management, and whatever kind of writing (technical, educational, marketing, business) I could find that paid the bills. The heart of my work has always been to create connections through the arts and across cultures—as diverse as Native American pueblos, inner-city African Americans, Latinos, and—perhaps most foreign of all—the California computer industry.
When I turned forty, I once again chose a life of risk to focus on art, creative writing, storytelling, and music. Then, in my mid-fifties, I careened around a hair-turn curve in the road.
(“Round About,” by Janet Riehl)
Part 3: Came home. On August 16th 2004 my older sister Julia—just 61—was killed in a car wreck. Julia’s husband and our mother were severely injured in the accident. A Good Samaritan pulled Julia’s grandson out of the car just befoe the car burst into
flames. The woman driving the SUV had argued with her daughter, passed three cars, and ran the red light. The superior force of her vehicle creamed the driver’s side of Julia’s compact. The woman and her daughter crawled out of their SUV with nary a scratch, and sat on the curb stunned at what their car had done.
It’s been nine years since she died, yet it seems no time at all. I still hear my brother’s voice over the phone when he told me she was dead, and the silence that hung between us over the line afterwards. No. No. I’m sorry. Just flat-out, no.
That day began my journey back to the Homeplace. At first I commuted between Northern California and Illinois to help my father take care of Mother until her death on May 1st 2006. Then I moved back to the Midwest full time, where I remain today with my family, keeping our ninety-seven-year-old father company during his long, slow journey towards death.
In the last nine years I’ve reigned in my free-spirited ways to fulfill the firm (and sacred) commitment I’ve made to my father and my family. That’s the chapter I’m in. I can turn the pages, but not close that book and put it back on the shelf. For each of us on the family care team our choices are limited by my father’s health, and the needs of the people on the team. Our anachronistic family-only model of care harks back generations.
I wouldn’t glorify that. At my breaking point earlier this summer I begged for a new model of care that includes people outside the immediate family. I wanted to get back to the business of being a daughter. At last Daddy agreed to allow people outside the family to help him. With the care load lightened, my brother and I each have an extra day in our weekly rotation. That day lightens my soul and gives me hope that there will be life after daddy.
I’ve joked with friends about my dream of a simpler scenario. “If only I had a father who is just an ordinary guy,” I’ve said, “rather than the extraordinarily gifted and strong patriarch he is.”
“If only I had a father who lives in a two-bedroom ranch house (containing only a generation of stuff and memories) on a quarter-acre of land. How much easier that would be than being one of six generations who have lived on the land (now down to 100 acres) featuring a killer view of the river, with a cluster of family houses and 30 rental units. Our family has so much history and so many stories that we have archives in two major universities and several historical societies.”
“If only I had a father who I visited on Sunday afternoons—rather than living half my life in the Big Brown House as one of his primary caregivers.”
Of course if we lived in that simpler scenario, then we wouldn’t be the people or the family we are—stubborn and strong, ornery and resourceful. But, please God: Why did you visit us with such complexity?
My father’s death and what happens afterwards is a segue to a time when I’ll once again be able to make independent decisions about the course of my life. When once again I can contemplate forks—beyond this chapter filled with endless bends, mazes, and round abouts. After the estate is settled. After we begin to grapple with the loss of a man at the core of our lives and the huge shift in our life as a family. After we grope toward life after daddy. When all that calms down, then my world of choice will open. I’ll truly be able to identify what the bends and forks are in the path before me. Within that space I’ll find a way to be in that unmapped world—a new place to be.
(“A Bend in the Fork,” by Janet Riehl)
In memory of my sister Julia Ann Thompson whose work as a world-class physicist, coupled with her far-reaching efforts for equality and justice, made a profound difference in the world. You can read more about my sister, our family, and our father Erwin A. Thompson on Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century