In recent discussion with my husband about decorating our kitchen, I asked if we had enough paint for the base boards. Base boards? For the life of me, I couldn’t think what we call them here in England. Skirting boards. Yes, that’s what I meant.
This August will mark eighteen years since I left California. Eighteen years and it still won’t be as long as the time I lived there. I am British born and bred, but I left in my twenties and lived in America until my mid-forties. Those years shaped me into who I am today. They shaped my American/British children. And our heritage is richer for it.
My family is a blended mix of traditions and learning. My eldest son taught me what Thanksgiving meant when I volunteered in his first grade classroom. My middle boy taught me the story of Johnny Appleseed planting apple trees. My youngest gave me a tour of a ruined Spanish mission. Together, we learnt about California’s history.
In turn in England, I gave them fireworks on their first Bonfire Night in November. In the summer, I bought them 99 ice cream cones with chocolate flakes from a van by the sea. In between I took them to Hampton Court to show them where Henry VIII once lived.
In America, I did this: I got married, worked in downtown Los Angeles and moved to the Central Coast. I gave birth, raised my children through the American school system. I took college classes. I rented houses, bought one, lost one and bought again. I drove a Camaro that leaked power steering fluid. I switched to a family-friendly Windstar and got pulled over by a cop for a “moving violation” at a four-way stop sign on my way to church. I travelled the length and breadth of California and marvelled at Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
I camped at Mount Shasta and watched a racoon steal our Cheezits.
In America I found joy and heartbreak. People I loved died. I got divorced. I moved back to England with my children and the remnants of our American dream in a shipping container. But America and our life there did not leave us. My husband has observed the unique way, as he puts it, that I interact with my children when we are gathered. I am not aware of it, it isn’t obvious. But it’s intrinsic because it’s who we are
I liken it to a friend from my school days growing up in Suffolk. She would invite me to her home for tea, and one afternoon her grandmother called for a quick chat on the phone. She lived hours away in Birmingham, my friend’s original home. My friend chatted away, oblivious that she had broken out in a strong “Brummie” accent. We laughed about it afterwards, but she hadn’t realised she’d reverted to her childhood lingo. She had slipped into it naturally, without thinking.
Expressions with words used differently once gave me pause. The first time an American asked me, ‘What’s up?’ I was taken aback. Nothing was wrong, couldn’t he tell? I soon realised he meant it in friendly greeting. Today in the UK it’s common knowledge, but in 70s Britain? Not so much.
As a “Resident Alien” in America, I retained my British citizenship with my rights of permanent abode. I could work, pay my taxes, but I could not serve on a jury, nor vote. This got more frustrating as time went by. I remained close to my family and roots in England to the point of homesickness, which never went away. But as time passed, I aligned myself more strongly with American politics, schooling and life in general.
My British accent stuck out in California. My American children stick out in England. It will always be so, but home is where we make it. And though our lives are different now, distant reminders are never far away.
Not so long ago on a typical food/grocery shop, I placed my bags in the boot/trunk of my car. I returned the trolley/cart to the shop/store entrance. I got in my car, closed the door. Where’s the steering wheel? The ignition? My mind had drifted. A fleeting thought in my subconscious, a distant memory of another day and not much to tell. But enough to plonk me down in the wrong seat. The passenger seat.
I smiled to myself and felt like a right twit. The driver’s side once-upon-a-time ago, but not now. I hadn’t driven in America for many years. A simple matter of getting out and going round to the driver’s side. Except I sensed eyes on me. That feeling you get when someone’s watching. A case of goose pimples/bumps? I turned my head and met the stare of a man in the car next to me. He had a sandwich to his mouth and too a chunk out. Of all the empty cars in the car park/parking lot, I had to get this one
I ducked down on pretence of rummaging through the glove/compartment box. Stupid when I think of it. I wouldn’t give it a second thought now to hop out of my car and walk round to the other side. Covid has definitely changed me. But that’s another story. For this story, I will tell you that I kept my head down. I slid my right leg over the gear/stick shift and hand/parking break into the driver’s seat. I heaved the rest of me into position and took off. I didn’t stop to notice if the man had finished his lunch.
A few times hence this has happened, but the gap grows longer and longer. Life goes on but we don’t forget. The lyrics from a song play on a loop in my head…you know the song, you know the words. Hotel California.
My life in America showed me where I belong. Home, I discovered, isn’t always a place, but it resides in our hearts with those we love most. And love is a word we know on both sides of the pond.
Until next time then, I bid you cheerio and have a nice day.
Sherri has published a collection of non-fiction articles in magazines, anthologies and online at her Summerhouse blog, diverse guest features and a memoir column at Carrot Ranch, an international online literary community. A keen walker and photographer from the UK, Sherri raised her family in California for twenty years. She has worked in the legal and medical fields and is now carer and advocate to her youngest on the autistic spectrum. Today Sherri lives in England’s West Country not far from the sea, hard at work on final edits of her debut memoir.