Above my desk hangs a framed black and white photo of two sets of feet. I took it on our first vacation as a family of three. My husband’s feet are covered in white sand and my one-year-old’s chubby toes sit atop. The vacation was paid for by parents and preceded our move overseas by one week. For nearly two decades, I have displayed this image on our walls to remind me of something I didn’t realize I needed to see. A marker.
This summer we took another family vacation and those chubby little feet are now the biggest of the bunch. Ten feet caked in sand and the feeling of something familiar, something so faint I barely recognize it, but I think it’s called carefree.
On the flight, I listened to podcasts, and if there is one theme that women of little children like to talk about most, I am convinced it is related to Cheerios. Tucked in cushions and crevices and corners, dotting the weeks of toddlers, they are synonymous with American childhood, with American motherhood.
But not mine. I did not know long weeks filled with Cheerios.
Our snacks were different. Our parks different. Mommy-and-me play group songs, different. An American mom in a foreign land, my memories of that season are linked to this place we find ourselves again on vacation.
As much as my oldest child made me a mother, so did this land: These jam-packed streets and little balconies and dangerous-to-drink water. The insane driving and call to prayer five times a day, echoing from mosques. Fresh bread delivered to our door each morning. Doctors who intervened without explanation and pharmacists who doled out antibiotics without prescriptions. The good and the hard and the different. Markers.
His chubby little feet mark the beginning of motherhood, the sand a picture of whimsy and play. A precursor to the burden of adulting and parenting, when only hope and possibility lie ahead. And if I’m honest, a precursor to the hard work of ministry, the stress of being a foreigner, of living in this place.
The pressure of those chubby little feet as they grew. The weight we bore to nurture them. The stress of developing our own two feet. The proverbial shoes he would have to fill. Parenting and foreign missions and expat-living forever bound, the tension heavy and real.
I can almost feel it, but instead there is that familiar feeling I wrestle to name.
We stand at the edge of the Bosphorus Strait, with the sun setting over ancient Constantinople, and we know in our bones, this is it. The final chapter of our family story in this exotic land has come to an end. We have held on all these years for this moment of closure. And, if I’m honest, this marks the end of this season of mothering my son.
Who knew I needed to return with the one who had made me a mother? Who knew my heart needed the bookend of parenting this man-child? And who knew the weight of growing those feet would lift as he walks away from us, moves out this month, and embarks on his own journey?
My feet are not the ones in the picture that hangs above my desk, but they are inches away. They have always been just behind the camera. Orchestrating the trip. Planning the details and packing the shoes and stashing away the money. They have held the dreams that make sand on our feet happen.
As we walk away from the edge of the water, my son slings his arm around my shoulders and offers an unexpected benediction:
“Thanks for being an adventurous mom. You’ve changed my life.”
God’s final words to me in this well-spun, meandering story of mothering and ministering overseas. It’s the blessing I did not know I needed, the blessing I’d been waiting to receive. A new marker.
We walked to the train that would take us deep beneath the Bosphorus, under the ancient city walls, to two more trains and a taxi and a long walk to the airport hotel. The messy exit a picture of all the feelings inside. Nostalgic and sad. Relief and peace. And carefree.
Beth Bruno is passionate about issues of injustice and a global sisterhood. Often, this looks like curating the stories and work of incredible women and calling her two teen daughters at least once a day to “come watch this.” Married for 23 years, she and her husband share a love for dark chocolate, dark coffee, and bold wine, among other passions. Their son is headed to college so Beth is not thinking about it by nursing an obsession with Turkish hot air balloons and European villages on her Instagram feed.