Mission Possible: Finding Home


Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, the last of the California missions, built in 1823

I still recall, with great annoyance, the week, or maybe two, that I, as a California resident and elementary school student in the fourth grade (or was it third, or fifth), had to build a replica of one of the California missions. I can't recall which one I chose, maybe the one to which we took a seemingly endless field trip. Nor do I remember what building material I used---was it starched newspaper? Tooth picks? Clay?  But I still remember having to do it, and so do generations of Californians that followed. Even now, I don't understand the purpose of this seemingly busy work.  Did I, as a child, really learn anything about California history by erecting a model of one of its historical sites, made from cereal box scraps?  

My daughter Chloé, though born in California, missed this statewide crafting rite of passage. Phew!  We moved to Florida when she was 18-months old, then to Belgium when she was six years old. She attended school there from first to seventh grade and thus avoided the Mission Project (hallelujah), while, from afar, she watched her young cousins build replicas of San Juan Batista or Santa Barbara, or one of the other 19, just as I had done. 

Moving around and living as an expat had valuable built in lessons ---tolerance, appreciation for new cultures and languages, travel, adaptation, patience, and mostly, learning to say goodbye over and over again. I wouldn't change a moment. But what it lacked, at times, was a sense of belonging to somewhere. Home was where ever we were together creating  a personal history, no matter how temporary---a house in Brussels, an apartment in France, a hotel room in Greece. "I don't know what to say when people ask me where I'm from, " my daughter once said when we first moved back to California three years ago. She now says San Francisco, but calls herself a citizen of the world, even though, by the time she finishes high school, she'll have lived an equal amount of time in both Belgium and California. But I can see she is detached from both, pulled reluctantly from the former, an outsider in the latter, tethered to neither.

This is the antithesis of my upbringing. I lived in two houses, one across the street from the other, until I was 18 then moved into university dorms, also in California. Growing up, we rarely, if ever, traveled out of the state, let alone the country. My parents are from California, my grandparents too, and their parents before them. I am a native, a rare breed I'm told. Even though I have come and gone for the last two decades, California welcomes me back with open golden arms. It's where I grew up, where learned to drive, had my first kiss, took my first French class, rented my first apartment, had my heart broken, earned a degree, learned to fly a kite, broke my toe, got married, had a baby---it's home.

Now that I am back in California with my family, I am keen to give my daughter some semblance of a history before she takes off across borders again, as I am certain she will.  Chloé may not have as emotional or historical of an attachment to the Golden State as I do, but it's a part of me and that makes it a part of her.

To this end, I've decided to take some road trips to see a few of the missions. Chloé rolled her eyes, pleading with a whiney wwwhhhhhyyyyyy? when I told her.  "Don't worry," I said.  "I have no desire to see all 21."   I really don't.

But since California's history began with the Spanish missions, and since her history and mine began here too, I think it's a good parallel and a place to start. California's missions tell its story, its history, and I'm hoping  that before she leaves for wherever she's going, Chloé writes a few chapters of her own that root into California's soil, in a place where she can always come home.

And if she wants to build that model mission, a few years late, I'll help her do it.

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Kimberley Lovato

Kimberley Lovato has written about travel, lifestyle and food for national and international publications and websites including National Geographic Traveler, Executive Travel, American Way, AFAR, Condé Nast Traveller (UK), Ryan Air, b.there, Easy Jet Traveller, leitesculinaria.com and frommers.com, among others. She is the author of a Michelin Guidebook on Brussels, where she lived for six years Her culinary travel book, Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, about the Dordogne region of France, won the "Best Travel Book" nod in 2012 from the Society of American Travel Writers, as did her personal essay, "Lost and Liberated," which also appeared in Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 8. When she's not plotting her next trip or her annual pilgrimage to France, she resides in San Francisco where she is a correspondent for BBC's Passport Blog, a student in Stanford University's Creative Writing Certificate program, and a brave mother of a teenaged girl.