Coming Home 11


On Boxing Day morning, Stellar burst into the bathroom as Thalassa was finishing brushing her teeth.

“Oh, Sis!” he said. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to interrupt your privacy.”

She laughed. “I’m a mother. I’ve been a doctor at camps where the bathroom is an outdoor spigot. I don’t even know what privacy means anymore!”

“My sister the adventurer,” he said.

She pulled out her phone and showed him pictures she’d taken from her various posts. They weren’t the standard touring photos one might expect. Each of these was of a tiny detail: a garland of marigolds on a street in Calcutta; a gargoyle’s grimace on a stone eave in Brussels; street art lining an alley in Rio. It was like looking at the world through his sister’s eyes.

“You’re really doing it,” he said, “what you said you’d do when we were kids. Helping people all over the world.”


“I know it’s selfish of me,” Thalassa said, “to put everything aside so I can follow my dream. But it feels right, so it can’t be all bad, right?”

Stellar chuckled. “The doctor who faces danger and hardship to help out others in places where most people wouldn’t dare to venture complaining of her own selfishness,” he said. “Now that’s a fine contradiction!”

“It’s just that I’m doing what I want to do,” she said, “in spite of everything else. In spite of other obligations.”

Tomas had joined them and stood patiently waiting for an opportunity to ask his uncle something.


“I wouldn’t give it a second thought,” Stellar said. “Dreams come to us for a reason.”

He turned to his nephew.

“Uncle Stellar, do you remember that you said you might maybe show me where the owl sits up in the big pine tree overlooking everything?”

Stellar did remember. “Let’s go after lunch!”

“Just you and me?” asked Tomas.

“Yes! Just us! Next to me, you’ll be the only one to know where the owl sits!”


Thalassa looked at her son, nestled in her brother’s arms. Why should she feel guilty thinking about leaving him here, when he’d have Stellar with him every day to take him on walks and wrap him in hugs, when her mom would fill him with cookies and stories?

That afternoon, while Tomas and Stellar hiked in search of the owl’s pine, Thalassa sat with Kumar.

“Are you having a good time here, Kumie?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Would you like to stay here longer? Would you like to stay while I left on assignment for a while?”


“Where would you go?”

“To Turkey.”

“Could I come?”

“No,” she replied. “It’s not safe for children.”

“Is it safe for moms?”

“It will be safe enough,” she replied. “I will be careful. And there are people there who need me.”

“If I stayed, would Marshie and Tomas stay, too?”

They would.

“And would Grandma and Uncle Stellar be here?”

They would.

“And would you be back in time for my birthday?”

She would. If she could. She would do her best to be back after three months, which really wasn’t so very long, before his birthday, certainly.

“I suppose so,” he said. “It would be OK.”

Thalassa cleared the table and carried the dishes into the kitchen as Cinnamon came in.

“Grandma!” said Kumar, as he leapt up to give her a hug.


Thalassa found Marshmallow downstairs playing with Princess Spirulina in the doll house.

“I’m thinking of going away for a little while,” Thalassa said. “Not for long. For a job. It’s to help people who are far away and who need a doctor.”

“OK,” said Marshmallow. “Can Princess Spirulina stay here?”

“Yes,” said Thalassa. “Does she want to?”

“Yes, but only if I stay with her.”

“You can stay,” said Thalassa. “Is that OK with you?”

“I guess so,” said Marshmallow. “Are my brothers staying?”

They were.

“Will Grandma and Uncle Stellar be here?”

They would be.

“And do you need to go?”

“I don’t know that I need to,” said Thalassa, “but I feel that it is the right thing.”

“Then I suppose you should,” said Marshmallow. “You always do the right thing, and it always works out right.”

Marshmallow turned to the doll. “Now don’t be sad, Princess Spirulina. You know that I will be here to look out for you. And who knows? Maybe Mom will come back with a little sister for you!”


Thalassa went upstairs and turned on the computer. Why did doing the right thing have to be so hard? How could it be so confusing to even know what the right thing to do was?

If she looked inside, if she listened, what did her heart tell her to do? Go, it said. What was easy and what was hard, and what was right and what was wrong? And did any of it even matter? And if lives were saved and lives were lost, who was responsible and who was to blame?

She was just one tiny person on a globe of billions in a universe so vast that a heartbeat seemed hardly to matter.

And yet, sometimes a single keystroke could put in motion a chain of events that would change the lives of hundreds, and if her fingers were the ones to press the keys, so be it.


Thalassa composed an email accepting the position in Turkey. She had faith. She had faith that she was offered the position for a reason, that her brother decided to move back home for a reason, that her children were so happy here for a reason, that her mother raised her to trust her heart for a reason.

She reread the email. She listened to the happy voices of her children playing in the hallway downstairs. And she clicked send.


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Coming Home 6


From the moment Thalassa called to say she and the children would be coming home for Christmas, Cinnamon had been longing for a heart-to-heart with her daughter. When Thalassa was very little, she and Cinnamon had tea parties every morning, and Cinnamon wished they could share secrets and tea again.

But Thalassa never sat down. From morning til night, she did the dishes, played with the children, prepared the meals, wrapped the presents, chopped the wood, and washed more dishes.

Cinnamon decided to settle for her grandchildren’s confidences. Marshmallow’s stories kept them all laughing.


Most of the stories were about Princess Spirulina and the Robber Bridegroom.

“Remember when Princess Spirulina went to the market in the town square and the Robber Bridegroom was hiding in the vat of oil, and then when he jumped out, he was so full of oil he burped?”

“Wasn’t that the time that his burp blew up the whole of Cincinnati?” Kumar asked.

“No, no! You’re thinking of when he lost the hot dog contest! This was the time when he caused the tsunami and everybody had to hold onto driftwood and broken pieces of skyscrapers to survive the disaster!”


“Is this a movie?” Cinnamon asked Thalassa when she came down to tell the kids to wash up for lunch.

“No,” said Thalassa. “It’s all their own making. Marshmallow’s been telling us Princess Spirulina stories since she could talk. It’s sort of their own folk culture.”

“And then the Robber Bridegroom raced out from the mosque, remember,  Kumie? Only it was time for Maghrib, and so when the bell rang, the Robber Bridegroom had to kneel, but Princess Spirulina kept on running and that’s when she escaped!”


After lunch, Marshmallow said that she and her brothers would do the dishes.

“It’s like penance,” she said.

“Penance?” asked Cinnamon. “Have you been bad? What would you need to do penance for?”

“Oh, nothing,” said Marshmallow. “It’s just a Spirulina thing.”

Thalassa shrugged. “Don’t try to figure it out,” she told her mom. “They’ve got all kinds of shifting rituals. I can’t keep up!”


“In that case, I’ll make us some cappuccinos,” said Cinnamon.

Tomas and Kumar giggled while they raced through the house collecting dirty dishes, and Marshmallow stood at the sink, dipping the plates into the sudsy water and chanting.

“Is she speaking Urdu?” Cinnamon asked.

“I think it’s her made-up language. Her brothers understand it. I don’t,” Thalassa said. “Let’s take our drinks outside, shall we, Ma?”


Cinnamon poured the foam into her cup. Her children had been mischievous and clever, but she didn’t remember them quite as wrapped in their own private worlds of make-believe as her grandchildren seemed to be.

She supposed it must have something to do with all their travels.


It felt warm outside for a late December afternoon.

“I ordered this for just for you,” Cinnamon said.

“What,” asked Thalassa, “the espresso beans?”

“No,” replied Cinnamon. “The weather.”


“Thanks, Ma. I appreciate it.”

“Not a problem. The weatherman owes me.”

“No, I don’t mean the weather. I mean everything. Taking us in. Having everything set up for us. The kids have never had it so good.”

“Your kids really are amazing, Thalsy,” Cinnamon said. “You’ve done good.”


Thalassa laughed. “I don’t think I had anything to do with it! It’s all in spite of, not because of.”

“Your dad used to say that,” Cinnamon said.

They fell silent as they sipped their drinks. How could Cinnamon express to her daughter what a miracle she’d been to her and Steve? One day, Thalassa must have been around seven, she wandered off while they were shopping in town. Cinnamon turned around to discover her daughter gone, but before she could even tell Steve, Stellar spoke up. “I know where she is, Ma,” he said. He led them outside where Mr. Benson, a man who lived in the park, leaned against the bakery. There was Thalassa, handing him a loaf of bread. She was always doing things like that.

A thrush sang. “It’s so good to be home,” said Thalassa.

A raven flew from the pine to the cedar.

“Well, I guess I’d better go check on the kids,” Thalassa said.


Cinnamon sipped her cappuccino beside three empty chairs while the sun settled behind the woods and the shade stretched towards the house.

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Coming Home 5


“I like it here, Grandma,” Marshmallow said. “Everything is clean and the food tastes good and the sheets smell like vanilla.”

“You’ve lived a lot of places, haven’t you, Marsha?”

“Yeah. Brussels was the best, but Rio and Calcutta were cool because if we hadn’t gone there, we wouldn’t have picked up Tomas and Kumie, and they belong with us. But it’s too bad that both those places were so stinky and noisy. But sometimes, Brussels was stinky, too. Like in the alleys. And London! London smelled like a monkey’s armpit!”

With all that moving about, Cinnamon wondered about the children’s schooling. Not that going to a traditional school was necessary! Her own children were home-schooled until Stellar decided he wanted to play soccer on the Windenburg Junior High team and Thalassa decided she wanted to ride the ferry in to town with her brother each morning. But they didn’t learn much at school, except sports and how to get along with other kids. The real learning–the botany, geometry, algebra, literature, music, art–they learned at home from Steve and her.

Thalassa reminded her so much of Steve. It wasn’t just the shape of her eyes, those high cheekbones, and that beautiful nose. It was in the way her mind worked, in the turn of phrase, even in the pauses between words and the way she looked up and to the right while visualizing the solution she was about to propose.

She could read her children well. Stellar, she could read for he was just like her. One look at him, and she felt what he felt. Thalassa she could read by relying on the nonverbal lexicon that Steve taught her.


He would be so proud of her. He would be proud of both of them. He was always proud of Stellar, by default. Perhaps because Stellar was the first-born, but more likely because Stellar reminded Steve of Cinnamon, and Cinnamon had never had to work to impress her husband.

But Steve was always so hard on himself, and he naturally extended those impossibly high standards to his daughter, his tiny replica. Outwardly, she seemed to thrive under his expectations, rising to the top of her class her first year in school and maintaining that position through graduating valedictorian. Steve was thrilled when she received full scholarship to the medical school of her choice, and when she graduated, he pushed her to choose some arcane specialty. But he was gratified when her general practice brought her a position with Doctors without Borders.


Still, Cinnamon felt relived to have her daughter here, in this country, no matter how useful and humanitarian her work was.

“You remember the free clinic in town?” Cinnamon asked her daughter over early breakfast. “They do such good work there.”

“Yes, I’ve been keeping up with them,” Thalassa said. “I gave a presentation on their alternatives to vaccination, actually.”

“I heard they have an opening,” Cinnamon said.

“Right,” said Thalassa. “Dr. Barnes retired.”

“Ma, Uncle Stellar says he’s taking me to the beach after breakfast,” Kumar said. “We’re looking for sculpting stumps!”


When Cinnamon carried fresh sheets to the upstairs bedroom, she found Thalassa on the computer.

“Don’t let me disturb you!” she said, while she made the bed.

“Oh, it’s fine, Ma,” said Thalassa. “I’m just checking email.”


“Anything interesting?”

“There is, actually,” replied Thalassa. “About work.”


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Coming Home 4


Cinnamon brought her coffee and a dog-eared copy of Persuasion down to the basement where her grandchildren played.

Tomas had laid claim to Thalassa’s old red Ferrari.

“Drive like this,” he said, “up hills, down the ways, over the valley, round the curve. Don’t worry. You can’t crash because Master-Supremo-Driver-of-the-Year is behind the wheel! Together, we win!”

Marshmallow found Stellar’s pony, dragon, and princess doll.


“This is a friendly dragon,” she said. “You can tell because he’s got tiny wings and a little grin. You’re friendly, aren’t you, fella? He lives in the back with the swamp buckets, don’t you, Bug Puff?”


Cinnamon pretended to read while the children played.

“Do you like this house, Princess Spirulina?” Marshmallow asked the doll. “It’s huge, isn’t it? And everything is clean and it smells nice and it’s very warm, isn’t it? But don’t get too attached. You never know when there might be a new assignment and you and the pony and Dragon Bug Puff will have to move. But it will be OK. Because even if you move to some place crowded and smelly, and even if there’s no water and not much food and you have to pee in a bush, and everybody is standing around looking sad, it will be OK because you will all be together. And besides. You’re strong.”

“But I don’t want to leave,” said Princess Spirulina in a very high and sweet voice. “I want to stay here forever and always.”


Jacques stopped by to see if Cinnamon needed anything from the store on the mainland, for he was heading in to do some shopping the next day, and he ended up staying the afternoon to play with the children.

“Your house never used to be so messy,” Jacques said. “You’ve got toys laying everywhere!”

“That’s because before you were the only one playing with the action figures,” laughed Cinnamon. “Now you’ve got to share! That’s what you’re really complaining about, isn’t it?”

“We’re good at sharing, aren’t we?” said Thalassa.

“I am not so good at sharing,” said Marshmallow. “I only pretend to be when people are looking. But when I’m by myself, everything is mine, mine, mine!” She laughed and Cinnamon had to join in with her.

“Well, as long as you’re honest with yourself!” she said.


The children talked all through the evening meal. Tomas told the entire plot of a movie he watched before supper, where a mouse went to space and founded a colony until they discovered that the planet they lived on was made of cheese, and then he ate it, and they all fell into the sea. “But it was OK for there was a friendly sea monster who only pretended to eat them, for in reality, he spit them out onto the beach, and everyone was happy for ever and never went back to space.”

“But they did look up at the stars,” said Kumar.

Marshmallow was full of ideas for a puppet show that she wanted to put on the next day with her brothers, but the show was intended to be a surprise, so she spoke in riddles that nobody understood.

“It’s for the spoon!” she said, winking at Tomas. “Which rhymes with… ”


“Agh! No! The Moooo… ”

“Like a cow?” said Kumar.

Marshmallow buried her head in her hands.

After supper, the family moved into the living room. Tomas found Stellar’s modeling clay.

“What’s this for?” he asked his uncle.

“Sculptors use it,” Stellar said, “to make studies.”


Cinnamon gazed at her two children. It was quiet. Tomas worked the clay. Kumar and Marshmallow lay on their bellies on the rug, coloring in a Santa coloring book. Thalassa had put on Bob Dylan’s Christmas CD, and she sang along under her breath.

Cinnamon had so much she wanted to talk to her children about, and so much she didn’t want to talk to them about, and most of what she wanted to say and what she didn’t want to say revolved around the same subject: Steve. Or rather, the space that Steve used to occupy, which was now glaringly empty.

“I notice that Jacques’s been around a lot,” Thalassa said.

Stellar shot a quick look at his mom, then turned his attention back to the clay that Tomas was forming into what looked like the bust of an archaic military dictator.

“Who is that?” Stellar asked his nephew. “Castelo Branco?”

“Napoleon,” said Tomas.

“Mom?” asked Thalassa. “I said Jacques seems to be by a lot.”

“Oh, yes,” said Cinnamon. “He’s been a good friend. You know, he always was a good friend, even when you and Stellar were littlies. Do you remember his wife, Edie? She was lovely. Anyway, he’s been helping around, doing things that need doing, and sometimes, I return the favor and help around his place, doing what I can do, too. He seems to find comfort, knowing that Luna has a woman she can talk with, even if it’s an old woman like me.”

“You’re not old,” said Stellar. “And I’m glad you’re not alone.”

“What’s that you made?” Thalassa asked Tomas.

He handed her Napoleon.

“The ruler of the free world,” said Tomas. “Napoleon Bustanut.”


Soon it was time to tuck in the children. When Cinnamon finished brushing her teeth, she heard Kumar and Stellar on the landing.

“Where do you live?” Kumar asked his uncle.

“I used to live high in the mountains,” he said, “where the wolves sing and the pines moan.”


“That sounds interesting,” said Kumar. “And where do you live now?”

“Now I live here,” replied Stellar.

“I think you are very lucky,” said Kumar.


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Coming Home 3


The grandchildren walked in as if they lived there. First came Kumar, the boy from Calcutta, followed by Tomas, the boy from Rio, and last came Marshmallow, the girl Thalassa conceived during her final year of med school.


With the uncanny sense that children possess for finding the play things, the three young ones descended the basement stairs into the spare rooms which Cinnamon had filled with the doll houses, toy chests, and picture books from her children’s childhood. She and Jacques lugged them all the way down from the attic and set them up in the basement during the days of preparation for the family’s visit.

Jacques had directed the placement of the toys. “Don’t put the doll house in the corner!” he said. “It is too dark. The dolls will grow sad. Put the toy box there, beside the desk. Under the desk is the soldiers’ fortress, you know.”

On the morning of Thalassa and her children’s arrival, Jacques and the rest of the light-stringing team stopped by to welcome them. It had been years since they’d seen Thalassa and Marshmallow, and they had never even met the two boys.

“The world traveler returns!” said Bjorn.

“The doctor who cures the world!” said Joaquin.

“My high school crush,” said Sergio, under his breath.


When the neighbors left, Cinnamon gave her daughter the welcome that had been growing in her heart for years.

“Such a miracle,” she whispered. Thalassa felt so tiny in her arms, but she was strong with the resilience that comes from seeing the worst life can bring and still showing up the next day, for whatever might follow. Cinnamon didn’t know how she did it.


When Stellar came in from his rambles along the beach, he pulled his sister into the tightest embrace.


Cinnamon replayed scenes of her two children–making forts on the beach, building driftwood rafts to launch into the bay, rescuing storm-fallen nestlings, sharing secrets, and hatching plans. It had been years since they’d been together, not since Steve’s funeral. But now it seemed like they’d never been apart.

While her children caught up with each other, Cinnamon headed to the basement to become acquainted with her grandchildren.

Jacques was there already, playing with Tomas.


“Are you my grannie?” Tomas asked. “I’ve been waiting to meet your for five years!”

“For five years?” Cinnamon replied. “That long?”


“That long!” he said. “That’s how long I’ve known about you, since I was just a little guy and Ma came to fetch me. She said, her ma was a funny lady with big stories who lived on an island, and I knew you were really a fairy godmother grandmother, and so of course I wanted to meet you! But of course we had to wait because we were in Rio, and then we were in Calcutta, and then we went to Cairo, and then we went to Belgium, and we thought you might come to see us in Belgium, but you never did, so now we had to come here!”

It hadn’t been that long, of course. It had only been three. But for a young child who’d seen so much and traveled so far, Cinnamon suspected that time took on a different sense. Her heart ached that she was only now meeting this small boy, and her heart ached more that he had suffered so much when he was a tiny thing, and her heart ached more–with happiness and gratitude–that her daughter had found him in the orphanage in Rio and had adopted him. She couldn’t speak for a moment, with the fullness that clutched her chest. So she closed her eyes and breathed.


She had three young persons to get to know, each with their own histories, dreams, wishes, sorrows. It might take more than a holiday to get to know each one. But she loved them all, fiercely, already.

Kumar had ventured upstairs in search of cookies and discovered his uncle instead. He’d heard that his grandmother was called Cinnamon because she made the best oatmeal cinnamon cookies, and Kumar loved cinnamon. But before he found the cookies, he found a man that smelled like salt spray and pine who called his name, knelt down on his knees, and wrapped him into the biggest hug.


“You must be Uncle Stellar!” said Kumar. “I know all about you! You’re the one who saves the birds that fall out of the nests! And you sail on logs across the bay!”

Before Stellar could answer that yes, he was that one, Marshmallow bounded up the stairs, calling out “Uncle Stellar!” at the top of her lungs.

She remembered her uncle from when she was a teeny girl, and her mother had kept the memories alive through stories.


“Why, I’d recognize you anywhere!” Stellar said.

“Really?” Marshmallow asked.

“Of course!” replied her uncle. “Once a Marshmallow, always a Marshmallow!”


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