Plainly said, Global Mom was my favorite book of 2013. It is a stunning memoir of life abroad, as well as an exquisite treatise on life itself; a redefining of the word home and how well we love those that live there.
There’s no need to be modest. The subtitle of Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s book is impressive: Eight countries. Sixteen addresses. Five languages. One family.
Melissa is a devout Mormon, a mother of four, a singer, an actress, and one of the most gifted writers I have ever met. She calls herself a pilgrim, a nomad, having raised her four children in places like Norway, France, Germany, Singapore, and most recently, Switzerland. But, “No matter where I might find myself,” she says, “home, quietly, yet quite remarkably, always seems to find me” (274).
Aptly touted as a “brilliant hero,” Melissa is as captivating as her story. Her prose is clever, humorous, and at the same time saturated with honest emotion. She is a wordsmith, a weaver of wit, poetry, and puns, and a lover of truth. Pay attention as you read. What she has to say matters. Words are important to her and she wields them expertly.
Most compelling, however, is her firmness of mind. It ignites the story – runs like a charge below its pages. Who she is, and her ability to harness heaven’s light, even in the blackest of moments, is extremely inspiring. Her strength and grace are remarkable. Particularly when you realize hers is a family of beautiful survivors who have journeyed into unthinkable heartache.
Her Table and Treasures
Melissa’s story begins in Paris, with four Frenchman trying to hoist her ten-foot long, three-foot wide, four-inch thick Norwegian table into their new apartment… through the window. The Frenchmen are bellowing at each other, wondering why she didn’t leave the large slab of table in storage, or back in Norway. But Melissa handles the situation with perfect puissance. A bit of polite taunting rallies the men, and they finally land the table safely in the middle of her parquet floor.
The Bradfords don’t go anywhere without their table. Yes, there are the dispensables – the things they leave behind, throw out, or give away. But the table? That is their one constant. The one thing, Melissa says, that stays stable while forever on the roam.
Before their expatriate life, Melissa was an aspiring professional musical theater actress working off-Broadway. She was also working as an adjunct English professor, grading papers at night, and living in New Jersey where she cared for their two small children.
One evening, while waiting to go on stage for the second act, Melissa received a phone call from her husband, Randall. It was a call that changed their future entirely. On a backstage phone she heard him ask, “How does Norway sound?” There was quiet on the line as she searched through her “gray matter and the matter which matters more, [her] heart” (8).
Without lifting my eyelids, I see what we’re supposed to do, what I’m supposed to do… A month later, I’m scouring New Jersey Burlington Coat Factory sale racks for winter outerwear for four… and remind myself that “foreign” isn’t really so foreign (9).
But it was. Melissa discusses feelings of isolation, ignorance, and desperation to simply communicate in a new country. Her stories prove that foreign living is exciting, adventurous and full of unparalleled delights, but not without discomfort or challenge. “One can’t have it all,” she writes. “The global life and someone else’s picket fence” (13).
So she puts down roots wherever they go – deep ones – “sucks the marrow out of life” as she says, until they are asked to uproot and transfer to new ground. It is not easy to say goodbye and start again. But that is why the table is such an “essential friend.” It means people. Her people. The ones she married and birthed, as well as the new friends she meets in each new city. At her table meals and conversations are shared, tears and milk are spilled, and friendships are formed while elbows lean and voices laugh.
“My people… they are my indispensables,” Melissa writes. And it is true. Throughout the book she constantly adds new friends to her story, genuinely cares about those around her. With each acclimatization we see her immediate family relationships steeled. And chapter after chapter, Melissa also welcomes the reader to pull up a chair.
In one especially tender moment, the Bradford family is leaving Paris, where they raised their children for a number of years. This was hard. They had dug some “serious grooves.” Carefully, the crates were packed and the truck loaded.
As that leader clamped shut the massive lock on our container packed in teeny Rue du Colonel Combes, he raised his voice and arms in a dramatic flourish, smacked the hind end of the trailer and pronounced, “Madame, vos trsors!!” Madame, your treasures. In that very same instant Randall rounded the corner in the Renault, kids hanging out windows, wielding baguettes, waving, whooping, “Bonjour, Maman!” like a chorus of French school children. “Non, Monsieur,” I responded, an eye on the family van, “Voici mes trsors.” No, sir. These are my treasures.” (198-199).
Speak My Language
How does one assimilate again and again in a new place with new people? “Language,” Melissa says. “Until you speak another’s language you will never truly reach their heart.” So Melissa learned French, Norwegian, Mandarin Chinese, and bolstered her German. She devotes an entire chapter to the importance of language, that it is the “critical key to entering any new culture” (143).
One of the most hilarious chapters about language is titled “Toot-A-Loo!” in which Melissa is strolling along the Seine, walking her dog, Josephine. Having lived in Paris for some time, her French was getting good. So good she decided to test it in the inverse – pose as a real Parisienne speaking English.
Having just come from an important appointment, she was dressed in a linen suit of seafoam green, a silk scarf, heels, and black sunglasses. Despite the mass of tourists, she suddenly heard loud American voices. Speaking “foghorning English,” she wrote. Two grown women were approaching her. Arguing because they couldn’t find the Eiffel Tower. The story in her own words:
“Ello?” I make my voice small and perfumy. The two stop bickering into their map and look up.
“I am zo zorree,” I sing. “But I am zeeing you are een…trubbll? I may elp you, non?”
“You… you from here? You French?” one woman asks, quieted.
“But oui,” answers la Parisienne, who smiling, extends her hand, stepping lightly in heels and pulls her Cockr with her. “Just ovair zair! Zees ees my, ow you say? neigh-bor-ood? I zink? We are veree, veree luckee, are we not? We find each uzair?”
One of them smiles.
Joey tilts her head. Seriously?
You see, I had this French thing down pat. I’d practiced this accent every time I’d found myself at a dinner table where language acquisition came up in conversation, and friends occasionally gave their light jabs at the typical broad, American accent with its cardboard corners and vowels as vast as the prairie (185).
And on she goes, flawless. La Poseur Parisienne. Happily gabbing along the way in her faux accent as she leads them right to the Eiffel Tower. “Toot-a-loo!” they call, as they turn the corner. And Melissa is still standing there, her scarf draped just so, waving and singing to the women of Detroit, “Toot-a-loo! Toot-a-loo!”
Gobal Mom skips along like this with colorful anecdotes and generous exposure to world culture. You find yourself running past Versailles, being jostled in a Norwegian Christmas parade, or shopping the boulevard in Singapore next to parasoled ladies in platform shoes. It’s enchanting.
Some of my favorite images from these chapters are Melissa’s young boys tacking up their own paintings in the Louvre museum shop and laughing that their art now hangs in the Louvre. Her excessively bundled children trundling through the barnepark like tiny Norwegian trolls – sledding down the hills, making snow angels. And the moment Melissa finds compassion in a German hair stylist who asks her to sing for him. This tender exchange will bring you to your knees in a gush of tears.
Global Mom teaches us the value of language and communication – of speaking to someone in their language. Her perspective and experience encourages us to look beyond our Americanized blinders and understand that wherever we are, learning and appreciating a native tongue will contribute to the feeling of home.
The Land of Loss
In chapter 19 the book splays wide open, takes a wrenching plunge into, what I believe has to be life’s most painful experience. Melissa’s oldest son, Parker, drowns in a traumatic incident trying to save his friend who was trapped in a churning vortex of water in a rural Idaho canal. Parker, age 18, was able to save his friend, but not himself. Melissa writes,
Being a “Global Mom” goes far beyond being a globe-trotting lady with kids, although I suspect that’s pretty much what’s awaited from a memoir wearing this title. True, facing and then falling in love with many cultures is a chief part of being what we call “global.” It’s a multi-colored part of it, a demanding, invigorating, humiliating, and sometimes, as I’ve shown, a downright hilarious part of it… Still, there’s this crucial thing that I can’t possibly underscore enough. Of all the borders I’ve crossed, of all the addresses I’ve inhabited and of all the lands I’ve been privileged to call my home, there’s but one terrain that’s defined me more than any other: that is the land of loss. The very soil that no soul wants to visit. The one topography no parent ever wants to feel underfoot (291-292).
One moment you are thoroughly enjoying Melissa’s adventures, including her family’s last night in Paris, where they find Parker playing his drum in the middle of the city – charmingly, gorgeously alive. The next you are in the hospital room with her, counting the gashes on Parker’s forehead, watching her family sing him out of this life. The competent, intriguing Melissa you’ve come to know is suddenly reduced – changed in an instant to a babe you want to cradle in your arms so you can take the pain away. In a matter of one page she is no longer the confident, regal woman in stilettos. She is raw and unshelled. Her heart sawed open for all to see.
And by now you’ve also come to know Parker. So well that his absence is hard to accept. In the remaining chapters Melissa intimately shares with us the kind of grief most people cannot begin to understand. It is staggering, shattering. A blow that yanks the world off its axis.
Melissa writes, “There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words” (205). But she does share enough of her awful reality, of being unable to sleep, of waking from dreams where she has been dragged by the suction of ice-cold water beneath a bridge and is gasping for air, that her story never leaves you. Here she describes the day of Parker’s funeral:
The day was brilliant – brilliantly excruciating and brilliantly exquisite – like the sun affixed stubbornly at its peak, a sun that wouldn’t be dismissed from early morning until early evening, perched there on the topmost rung of the sky, like the high sounds of a bugle’s call, punchy, relentlessly scorching, and brassily happy. All those things at once. That was the day (214).
Few reviews have talked about Melissa’s loss. They have not mentioned the way the book hinges on this experience. A life with Parker on one end of the pulley, a life without him on the other. Balancing and tugging on each other. To me, it is this open confession of grief and utter devastation that makes the book so credible, so gripping, so inestimable.
Melissa reminds us that we do not live in a rational world. We live in a world where sons dropped off for their first year of college get sucked into river vortexes and die trying to save their friend. Once you love a life that is cut off like that, you are shaken forever. You stop living as if everything is predictable, honorable, and okay.
Coming to terms with their new reality would take months and months and months of long nights of the soul. Eventually, she said, they felt a gradual enveloping.
Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance, like when you dig holes in a beach to stand in, hip deep. You step in and the sand, packed wet and heavy around your flesh holds you firmly, buttresses you, and you know you cannot be knocked over” (205).
Melissa threw herself into the scriptures. She read all of the standard works cover to cover. She read every book she could find on survivors. She immersed herself in the lives of those who had not just survived, but survived well. And over time she grew a new layer of “tender, breathing skin.” She writes,
This was not “healing.” It was transformation, and it did not simply happen with the passage of time. It was the result of great isometric effort, the synergistic gathering of friends, old and new, and – how else could I say this? – the ministrations of Parker himself (238).
Surviving the death of your beloved is a radical learning experience.
It drags your living heart along a cutting edge that causes the kind of spiritual injury that either destroys inch-wise or teaches endless much (253).
Melissa poured that learning into her writing – giving us access to some of her darkest places, teaching us what she came to know in those moments that nearly consumed her. Her observations and insights will help anyone better understand what it means to mourn with those that mourn.
What Melissa hopes to transmit to the reader is what life does to the innocent in all of us:
How lightness, cleverness, laughter, and an untethered voice lilting along can stumble or slip but with a swift brush of the pants, return to its carbonated spinning. And then, with a page turn, that possibility is gone forever. The untethered voice disappears, the metaphors, sentence length, tone, they all change. And the pages feel heavier, and harder to heave.
Melissa told me, when this happens, we’re obliged to pretend, at least on some level, for the comfort of those around us, that we are intact, not dismantled. For if we exposed how dismantled we were by major loss, we might never survive being with each other. All of humanity would be in a big heap of helpless bones. Pulled apart from former solidity.
When you enter the land of loss, like the Bradfords, you realize, grief like this is never over. But with divine assistance, you can take your place among the survivors, among those who have learned endless much – those who have been transformed.
In Medias Res
Melissa’s last chapter is perfectly titled, In Medias Res. Here she returns to the midpoint of her story with a dramatic flashback. She and Randall visit Parker’s grave alone for the first time. She cannot hold it together, her knees buckle, and she collapses onto them sobbing, splaying her palms into the wind-hardened snow.
Heart flat against the heart of our son’s grave, I lay there…I lay. I could not, I would not move… Let me be here with him. Let me be here. Let me be (291).
They leave the cemetery in silence and Melissa takes us back to her Norwegian table, where she wonders if everyone that sits around it will know the truth about her. That she feels a counter-weight to being bereaved:
And that is that the story we’re writing with our brief lives can never be told in its entirety, neither its length nor its fragility nor its density. We’re all born into the middle of a perpetual narrative, and our simple strand of personal story does not begin when our life does… Whenever we leave this place – be it eighteen or eighty – we are always, inevitably leaving in the middle of our story… We go on. We are always in the middle of the Great, Infinite Story (292).
And there we are, with our chair pulled right up to her table, realizing “in medias res” is for all of us.
Melissa received some editing feedback that encouraged her to end the book on a cheery, lighter note. Something with resolve. Because the reader, they thought, would need her grief to be over. But a different chapter “pulled at the seams of her soul, had to get out.” A chapter that didn’t sweep up her grief and set it aside. A chapter that spoke Parker’s name. And when it did, it tumbled out at hyper speed.
The book ends with Melissa fingering the table’s imperfections – the everyday scratches and scars, the watermarks, the burned spots. And she remembers that Parker will always be with them wherever they are on this globe.
Global Mom is global indeed; it ought to be read by everyone, everywhere. It is haltingly beautiful and written in such a way that Melissa’s faith, which underscores the entire book, feels truly accessible. A heartfelt thanks to Melissa Dalton-Bradford for letting us sit at her table.
You can purchase Global Mom on Amazon or at any national bookseller. Melissa’s second book, Loss and Living Onward, will be available in May 2014 through Familius publishing. And don’t miss this Global Mom promotion video created by Michelle Lehnardt: http://vimeo.com/74399962.
More at Melissa Writes of Passage: http://melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com/
Catherine Arveseth is a part-time writer, full-time mother of five, including two sets of twins. She blogs at www.wildnprecious.com.