Going Home: Looking to the Past to Move Forward

Going Home: Looking to the Past to Move Forward June 14, 2024

I nosed my Camry slowly towards the Palos Verdes Peninsula on a bright afternoon this week, my three children squeezed into the back seat along with boxes and bags of our belongings. We had just popped in “Meet Kirsten,” an audiobook of historical fiction from the American Girls collection. The day before we had finished the last story in the Josefina collection, which detailed the life of a 9-year-old in 1824 New Mexico, and it had resonated powerfully with us because the Montoyas spoke Spanish and were Catholic. We wondered if we would connect as strongly with a Swedish girl who emigrated to Minnesota with her family in the 1850s.

As I navigated our heavily-laden car along the winding, hillside Peninsula roads overlooking the Pacific Ocean towards our new home, Kirsten and her family completed their journey across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Eagle, docking in New York City. We listened, rapt, as she traveled toward her Uncle Olav’s farm with her family by way of Chicago. Out of money, the Larsons left behind their two large trunks – which contained all their belongings for a family of five (just like us!) – and walked the last 20 miles. Had Kirsten not moved, the narrator informed us, she might have spent her entire life within a 20-mile radius of her home village in Sweden. But because she emigrated to the United States with her family, she experienced wonderful adventures not many children of her time would share – an ocean-crossing sea voyage, bustling New York City and Chicago, a stifling train ride, a sorrowful river paddleboat ride, and new landscapes.

My parents are more like Kristen than I am. Born in south Texas, when they married, they settled within a few miles of their hometowns. If a family land dispute had not prompted a move out of state, they might have remained in Texas all of their lives and I might have grown up in the small Texas town where I was born, possibly marrying and settling nearby.

Listening to Kirsten’s prolonged journey to her new home this week perfectly reflects our current reality: my husband and I have purchased our first family home.


Moving is exhausting. It’s not simply the very physical acts of packing, transporting items to your new home, and unpacking, but it’s also mentally exhausting – shall we keep this? Do we need this? What is this?

Moving is a historical process. It’s a time to review the archives of your life. The items I’ve been sifting through chronicle not only the 12 years in our apartment, but reach back to my years in graduate school, college, high school, and my youngest years.

Moving is a journey forward with a look backward. I was reminded of my early desire to be a published writer by an envelope stuffed with delightful illustrated stories I wrote in fifth grade. My daughter, who is almost the same age as I was at the time, insisted on pausing our packing long enough to read all of the stories aloud. The boys and I laughed at my mistakes and at my creativity.

Moving reminds us who we are. Growing up I wrote stories first about talking animals, and then about “normal American families,” that is, I made my characters white because I thought they had to be. Finding the thick, folded pages of notes I wrote while reading The Cypresses Believe in God in my Senior Seminar in college transported me back to my excitement about discovering that a family like mine could and did exist in literature – Catholic, Spanish-speaking, and with a mother who anchored the family. My stories changed after that, and eventually led me to specialize in Mexican Catholicism.

Moving is painful. Not simply the bodily aches of packing for hours on end for weeks at a time, but for the reminders of our past. Emails from my sister to a former boyfriend to discuss a contentious issue in our relationship. A book published by a former boyfriend who broke my heart. A letter I wrote to my mother when she was in the hospital in danger of dying from Covid. The little ceramic box from Puebla decorated with a brightly-painted Lady of Guadalupe containing the remains of my fourth baby lost in utero.

Kirsten knew, according to the narrator, that she would be a wife and mother like her own mother, just as her brothers, Lars and Peter, knew they would be farmers like their father. I did become an educator like my mother, but my journey was far more circuitous. I was reminded of this by finding seminar papers with comments from my Penn State graduate school professors, chapter drafts with suggestions from my UCLA dissertation advisor, a folder of notes about landing my first academic position, and orientation paperwork from my first academic position.

Moving is also a story of faith – was I called to the convent? Was I called to be single? Was I called to be a wife and mother? I laughed the day I packed up my little ceramic figure of St. Anthony of Padua wearing a historically-accurate colonial Mexican indigo robe (there was no brown dye in the Americas in the 16th century) that I bought in Puebla. Carrying the Christ child in his arms, below him was written: “San Toñito, haz el paro y mandame un novio,” which means: “Dear Saint Tony, stand on your head and send me a fiancé.” San Antonio was dutifully, and very cheerfully, standing on his head. Why? In Mexico, there’s a tradition of praying to St. Anthony for a spouse and then turning him on his head as punishment until he complies. Coincidence or not, I met my husband a few months after bringing this adorable santo home with me.


Glancing in the rear-view mirror as we rounded the final bend in the road to our new home, with Kirsten’s story captivating us, I thought about what lay ahead for my children. We might only be moving 13 miles south (45 minutes with traffic; this is LA after all!), but already my husband and I have seen the difference – the children’s laughter reverberates throughout the house as they play in the boys’ room, kick a soccer ball in the backyard, or chase each other on the city-owned grassy hill right outside. The air is fresher. The neighborhood is safer. We are happier.

So yes, the past few weeks have been exhausting (and we still have a few more carloads of boxes to bring over!), but it’s been a gift as well, particularly for me as a historian. We can’t really know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been. The historical evidence indicates that the Lord has given me a rich life. God has clearly guided me, guided all of us, to this moment.

Moving is an act of gratitude.

[N.B. I apologize for not having more images, but everything is packed. When I find my San Antonio figure, I’ll add a photo]

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