Movies, plays, novels, and even memoirs, follow a plot structure known as the “hero’s journey.” There are seventeen steps divided among three main parts: the departure from the ordinary world and the return there as a changed traveler, and the large unknown chasm of the extraordinary world in between.
It’s been ten years since I drove out of Raleigh with my cat, my used Rand-McNally atlas, and my AAA Gold Plus membership card in my 14-year-old Honda CRV. I knew what I was leaving: a house I loved, good friends, family—including two grandchildren—and my adult history of place. I had no idea what I was arriving to as I moved into my childhood home with my 96-year-old mother, other than it would challenge me to the core.
I wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest when I was still young enough to begin a new chapter in my life, rather than wait until I was swimming upstream toward life’s end. I had just turned sixty. Even as I looked forward to the adventure, I was dreading what it meant and I almost backed out. But I didn’t.
On July 7, 2012, I arrived at my new old home, utterly terrified by what I what I had committed to, but grateful for the helpers I knew would be right beside me: my sister, my daughter, my daughter-in-love.
I chose this adventure, and I had a plan. I would stay with my mother for one year, cleaning out fifty years of her life in the house and finding her next home. Then I would move on: different town, different life. Most journeys don’t follow the plan.
I knew it would be hard. And it was harder than I could have imagined. I knew it would be wonderful. And it was more wonderful than I’d dreamed.
I did not know my mother would live so many years, or that I would spend most of them so intimately with her. I didn’t know I would still be taking care of this old house ten years later, or that I would be operating an Airbnb in it. (I’d never even heard of Airbnb.) I did not know I would become such an intrepid adventurer, hiking solo in Washington’s national parks and forests, and writing down the stories. I didn’t know I would call a circle of women and inspire them to write their own stories. I did not know I would compile 1500 letters written by family members during WWII and self-publish a legacy work. I didn’t know I would write a memoir, now on the brink of professional publication. Though I have struggled to match my group of close friends in Raleigh, who knew I would have friends across the country met at writing retreats, and virtual friends met through my blogs? Doors close, windows open.
I hoped there would be grandchildren in Washington, but I didn’t know I would figure so largely in their lives when they came, providing weekly infant care for each of them and hosting them all in my family home for eight months during a pandemic no one so coming—speaking of unchosen changes.
The first half of the extraordinary part of my hero’s journey was personally challenging and I plummeted into the lair of the dragon. The second half was universally challenging. When I returned to the ordinary world, it was with unimaginable reward.
Though it was hard for Mama to say so, I know my presence was a blessing to her, and that she was grateful to be able to stay in her home a few more years. Whether or not she was able to express either seems less important in the past tense than it did at the time. But for my part, I can’t imagine having made different choices, either to come or to stay.
And now, beginning my 71st year, I feel stronger, wiser, and more excited about the future than I did a decade ago. Will there be another hero’s journey? It’s not how it works in novels and movies, but then both do have sequels, so time will tell. For now, I am enjoying these remarkable years of my once more ordinary life.
To keep up with all the hoopla around the publication of my memoir about my years in the extraordinary unknown time—including in the pit of dragons—subscribe to my e-letter on my website: gretchenstaebler.com. (You will also get the first two chapters of Mother Lode to read immediately!) The next edition will be zooming out to inboxes next Sunday, with a fun contest to get your name entered in a drawing for a free book come October.
Or use this cool QR code. Don’t know how? Neither did I. There are several ways, but the easiest for the uninitiated is to open your camera app and point it at the code—don’t click. In a second or two, the link will pop up to click on. It will take you right to the book page on my site. So fun!
And one last note: The deleted-from-the-memoir chapter about my last days in North Carolina and my trip across the country is on my website now. Right here. (And while you are there, you can subscribe to the e-letter!)