Shut Away Breaking Free

Written by Sherri Matthews

Sherri is a writer with work published in print magazines, anthologies and online. As a young British mum of three, she emigrated to California and stayed for twenty years. Today she lives in England's West Country, a full-time carer within her family. Her current WIP after completing her memoir is a psychological thriller.

May 25, 2021

California is hot. Sun-blazing, earth-baking, dry-dusty hot. I came there from England and I didn’t know what hit me. I held my breath from May to November until the rains came.  

Except they didn’t.

‘When will the hills turn green?’ I naively asked my neighbour a few months after moving there in 1986.

‘Around November time,’ she replied, neither one of us knowing a seven year drought lay ahead.

I had moaned about the rain back home. Now I longed for it. Was it true it never rains in California? I started believing it so. Decades hence, how I wish now I could send over our rain.

But at the time, the novelty of being able to plan a barbeque or a picnic without worrying about a cloud burst felt almost decadent.

As a girl, I went camping with my family, once or twice. Long before “glamping” was a thing, we used my grandparents’ canvas tent which I suspect, given Granny’s penchant for recycling everything, dated back to the war. It had flaps for sides you could roll up for airing and a separate groundsheet. Not the warmest of places.

We once hired a static caravan (trailer) in Cornwall on a bluff overlooking the sea. But done in by the constant lashing rain and buffeting winds, we couldn’t sleep so went home early.

As I said, we camped once or twice.

Boating on the Norfolk Broads, England, Summer late 1960s – me with my brother and Granny

Most often, we hired a boat on the waterways of the Norfolk Broads.

And I think of those halcyon summer days in England. When the breeze drifts soft and warm and everything feels lazy and slow.

Those days when I hopped off the school bus, walked down our drive and found that Mum had laid a blanket and cushions out on the grass.

She appeared from the kitchen, tray in hand.

‘Let’s have tea in the garden.’

Whatever the weather, I treasure all those childhood memories.

I raised my own family in California. Tent camping in the summer for my children brought an entirely different experience for them. Instead of shivering cold and damp to the skin trying to keep warm as I had, we flopped about, too hot sleep until dawn’s gift of fresh, cool air.

Nestled among the grand sequoias, we watched out for bears. And on one sultry, sleepless night we indeed had visitors: not a bear but a family of wild pigs. The cutest tiniest piglets of spots and stripes snuffling around while we observed from the window safely snuggled inside our tent.

And a cheeky racoon who stole our Cheezits. Before our eyes, it jumped up on the picnic table, grabbed the bag with the crackers inside and made for the trees, loot in paw, leaving the empty box behind.

Campsites in California allow an open fire pit. This was the kind of camping I had dreamed of. As the sun went down and the sky turned inky-black alive with stars, we gathered around the glowing embers and roasted hot-dogs and marshmallows and made S’mores. We told ghost stories and kept guard for mischievous racoon’s cousins, eyes darting at each tiny rustle.

My heart is joyful for the memories I hold dear of those experiences with my children.

My dad was a sun worshipper. If he was in the garden at the weekends pottering about, sleeves rolled up, and the sun came out, he was ready. He’d whip off his shirt, grab the deckchair from the shed and bask in the sun until the clouds stole it back again. Five minutes or fifty. There he’d be.

‘He only has to look at the sun to get a tan,’ Mum always said.

But in California, I hid from the sun. Summer and our neighbourhood was deserted. Windows shut tight, blinds down. Not a breath of air in the noonday sun. Too hot to sit outside in the shade.

Too hot for mad dogs and Englishmen and women at any hour.

Early days at the beach in California with my eldest son

Of course, summers with my children called for days at the beach and the outdoor pool, maybe the store and a diner. Blips of heat bursts of 100 plus degrees so avoided by hopping from house to car to destination, all conveniently air conditioned.

But a large portion of the hottest part of the day was spent confined inside our darkened, shut-up house, ceiling fans whirring in every room.

And that is how I discovered something else about my new way of life: going to “the movies” on a bright sunshiny day. The idea of it was at first unthinkable – nobody goes to the cinema on a hot day in England (yes, we do get them when it’s humid and sultry but we don’t have much cooling when it does) but I soon understood the appeal in California.

What better than sitting inside an air conditioned movie theatre with an ice-cold drink and a bucket of popcorn watching the latest blockbuster with your children? I could almost forget the punishment waiting outside when we emerged, blinking, like bats from a cave.

The heat went on and on and I longed for the turn of “fall”. I yearned for that first gust of wind and smell of damp in the air. The first drop of crisp, orange leaves on the fading grass, pulling jeans on for the first time in months.

In California, summer shut us away. I waited with my children for autumn’s escape.

Today in England, we are shut away because of a virus. But this time, I am without my now adult sons.

The year is almost half-way through, and this interminable separation is too much. Too many cancelled plans thanks to tiers and lockdowns. Yes, I am grateful we are all safe and well, but when the heart of your way of family life is stolen from you, the toll is great. It brings its own brand of loss and sorrow.

Dare I say our reunion is imminent? Yes, I dare. I wait to hug them soon, counting down the days.

Raise the blinds, throw open the windows, embrace the light.

We’re breaking free.

We’re coming home.


Sherri has published a collection of non-fiction articles in magazines, anthologies and online at her Summerhouse blog, and a memoir column at Carrot Ranch, an international online literary community. A keen walker and photographer from the UK, she raised her family in California for twenty years. Today, she lives in England’s West Country, hoping soon to publish her debut memoir.

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  1. pendantry

    I understand that California gets a mega-flood every couple of hundred years; the last was in 1862.

    PS Hoopy Towel Day! 🙂

    • Sherri Matthews

      Floods do happen there, no doubt about it. In fact I remember two, one in our town and one not so far away during the twenty years I lived there. Bad enough, but not “mega”. Back in England, I remember our house flooding when the local river burst its banks. Strangely, my mother’s memory and mine (I was five or six) are quite different of that day… And that’s a whole other story! Thank you for reading 🙂

  2. Jules


    I camped on weekends on some summers (the tents stayed up in a rented spot). I don’t remember much though – I think I blocked a lot of it out since I wasn’t a happy camper. 😉 Some bugs and plants don’t like me. I do remember one time getting very lost on a trail and climbing a tall pine for direction back to camp. Obviously – I made it back.

    I’m thankful that the adults in our ‘pod’ have had our vaccines. So we are having a reunion at the end of the month. It has been hard only speaking over the phone, sketchy zoom calls. I think though that with all the folks who don’t want to be vaccinated – we still have to be cautious.

    There is always some crisis. Our state and some near us have a new ‘bug’ problem. An stow-away from another country is infesting our fruit plants.
    The nasty nymphs have returned with the warm weather.

    I hope for you wonderful and wonder filled reunions. Be well and healthy!

    • Sherri Matthews

      Aww, thank you so much, Jules. Yes, it does always seem some crisis or other. I was so close to seeing my boys at Christmas, but the “UK” virus circulating since September (when we had a very brief respite between lockdowns) and by December, we were all clamped down again. For months, it walloped us, but all I can say is thank God for the vaccination roll out. They did the top priority groups here first, starting by the over 80s down to the 50s and over and all clinicially vulnerable whatever age, and of course all key workers in medical and social care settings. They also started increasing the gaps between 1st and 2nd jabs to 12 weeks to get as many first in people’s jabs as fast as possible. Now they’ve shortened it down to 8 weeks with the worry of the Indian varient circulating here. Age wise, we’re down to my middle boy’s range, 32, then to my youngest soon, late twenties. There’s been a big push here to encourage those who didn’t take up the offer first time around to do so now, and it seems to be helping. But as you rightly say, we do all need to stay vigilant. After so many disappointments and cancelled family plans, I admit to battling anxiety. I am finding navigating my way back out of this almost harder than first entering lockdown. I am processing it all and plan to blog about it at The Summerhouse soon. I’m not sure at the moment how I want to go about it…but go about it I will. I know I’m not the only one by a long shot experiencing this…
      And as for camping, yes, I am not keen on bugs either! I loved it in California. Happy days… Those zoom calls serve a purpose, but nothing like meeting up in person and so I wish you the same for a wonderful happy reunion with your “pod” and I will be following fast in your footsteps! Take care, Jules, keep safe and well! 🙂

  3. denmaniacs4

    Lovely memoir, Sherry. I used to do a fair amount of camping but a desire for comfort overtook me a number of years ago. Cubs, Scouts, a few family trips and oodles of camping experiences with street kids and a few excursions with communards…all great fun…

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you very much, Bill. I know what you meant about desiring comfort! Both my older boys were in Boy Scouts for years (may I beam with pride and share my eldest is an Eagle Scout? 🙂 I was a Cub Scout leader for a couple of years, stepping in when no one else could do it, and got my middle boy through his Arrow of Light ceremony. They both did a huge amount of camping, but I didn’t go along for those trips. My part meant dropping them off and picking them up, ever grateful to their leaders, such as yourself, enabling them those wonderful experiences. So I doubly thank you for all those young lives you’ve influenced on those many excursions…

  4. restlessjo

    How cruel a year it’s been, Sherri. Funerals by Zoom! But how lucky we are, that they, and we, have survived to deliver those hugs. I’m still waiting. 🙂 🙂

    • Sherri Matthews

      So true, Jo. Cruel is the word…and grateful is the other. So grateful. I hope the wait isn’t too long for you. We need those hugs and June beckons!!! Thank you lovely for reading as always 🙂

  5. Susan Joy Clark

    I enjoyed looking back at all your happy memories. I hope the day is coming soon that you can see your sons again.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Many thanks, Susan, I really appreciate knowing you enjoyed the read 🙂 A couple of weeks and counting! 🙂

  6. petespringerauthor

    I’ve lived in California since 1973. The climate has changed dramatically since the time I’ve lived here. I live in the northern part of the state, fairly close to the Oregon border. It used to be raining for weeks at a time in the winter, but we’ve had droughts four of the last five years, which also adds to our wildfire problems that keep getting progressively worse.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Pete. Yes, it has definitely changed in that time. I am in constant touch with my best friend there and my heart breaks when I get her first hand accounts of the endless droughts and horrific fires. We lived on the Central Coast, there were a few fires, one bad one on the main road out of town. I will never forget the miles and miles of blackened skeletons of once lush trees along the road side. But that was nothing compared to the fires today. I know how badly you need the rain there, it’s relentless 🙁

  7. Norah

    I enjoyed reading your memories, Sherri – not all joyful at the time, but treasured anyway. The comparisons between your UK and your Californian homes are interesting. I think where I am in Australia must lie somewhere close to centre between them.
    This pandemic has been a killer of persons and joy. I do hope you and your boys are reunited for those hugs very soon.We didn’t need a pandemic to remind us of how precious they are. Stay well. Seek joy. Find love.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Norah, I’m so glad you enjoyed the read 🙂 Yes, I do often think of your part of the world in the middle! When our way of life and being with those we love most is stolen away, it takes a huge toll the longer it goes on. Here’s to better days ahead…and more memories in the making. Thank you so much, Norah, and I wish for you the very same 🙂

      • Norah


  8. robbiesinspiration

    HI Sherri, this is such a lovely post. I really enjoyed reading about your memories. We never camped overnight, but my dad used to take us out for a day of camping and we’d have a fire and he cook meat and sausages on the grill. He’d even make tea. My dad was always a bit of a boy scout.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Robbie, thank you, so glad you enjoyed it. What fun with your dad! As Mum to two boy scouts, I relate! And tea, too. Along with the hamper and rug on our picnics, we took a bunson burner and camping kettle. I did it with my children in California. Anything for tea, right? You can imagine the strange looks we got from passers-by… 😉

  9. Sherri Matthews

    Reblogged this on A View From My Summerhouse and commented:

    Greeting, dear friends, and a long, dark stretch this has been. This interminable separation from my children. Where are our friends and visitors? Are we… okay? We are safe and well but loss takes many forms. Anxiety is real, sorrow lies deep, the toll is great. But we are here and we are grateful. Thank you, special ones, let’s keep those fires burning <3

  10. Mary Smith

    A great piece of memoir, Sherri. Hope you get those hugs soon. Unfortunately for me my boy is in Glasgow which is still level 3 so we can’t visit, let along hug. One day 🙂

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you so much, Mary. They’re coming this weekend…I can hardly wait. Oh I do so hope you will soon see your boy for those long overdue visits and hugs. There is great hope, but I worry about the Indian variant and everytime I read about a third wave, my heart sinks… but this time we have the vaccination roll out, so we just have to keep going, keep vigilant and keep safe. Be well, Mary… <3 🙂

  11. Diane

    Sherri this was such a treat to read. The differences of our countries but finding the enjoyment of life each one. Simply loved it!! Throw open those windows my bestie! How sweet the reunion will be with your boys!! And oh that photo of your eldest! ?

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you so much, bestie and we will indeed! Remember, remember? That photo was taken in Cambria…home sweet home… ahh 🙂 <3

  12. Pat

    We can all relate, Sherri, wherever we’re at in the world. It’s affected all of us in some way. But, here in the US, I feel we’ve turned the corner on some horrible nightmare in 2020, with the pandemic and politically. Not over, for sure, but I feel hope.

    We’ve gotten our shots and able to move about a little more. Got flowers to plant this summer. I missed them last year. And, we got to see our first great grandson! They’re little glimmers of love carrying us through as I’m sure for you that you draw on.

    Won’t last forever and think we’ll all have realized something profound on the other side for having gone through it and perhaps more beautiful. Love and hugs, my friend. God bless.

    • Sherri Matthews

      How wonderful you got to see your first great grandson, Pat! So much missed this past year and counting, as you say, waht a wonderful sign of hope and love. Always though the anxiety with the threat of some other variant it seems, at least here in the UK. This time, we have the great vaccination roll out. Really can’t handle another lockdown…
      I have a great nephew born six weeks ago I have yet to see, so very much looking forward to baby cuddles. But first, I will get to hug my grown children this weekend and I simply cannot wait! It’s been a long time coming. Thank you for your lovely comment, my friend, always lovely to share our lives from across the pond! Love and hugs to you, Pat! 🙂 <3

      • Pat

        Truly a long time coming, my friend. But, we’ll be there soon. Hug them real tight. <3

      • Sherri Matthews

        For sure, Pat…and I hugged them all as tight as can be and it was the best feeling in the whole wide world! Love to you, my friend! <3

      • Pat

        Me too. ?

  13. TanGental

    My camping was as a scout. My mother liked beds too much to camp. As for scouting it was eye opening what you learnt. Terrifying too. And being England if it wasn’t lashing down it was unfeasibly hot and humid, never just right… or is that my memory playing tricks?

    • Sherri Matthews

      I would say you are spot on with your memory, Geoff. My boys were both scouts and loved their camping trips in California, but not so much for my middle boy when he was an army cadet over here and camping in bitter cold and rain. Still…as you say…what they learnt… Thanks, Geoff!

  14. Hugh W. Roberts

    When I think back to the summers of the 1970s and how refreshing they were, Sherri. Back then, it always rained during the night accompanied by thunder and lightning. Now our summers are not something to look forward to because the heat, humidity and damaging sun harm us, so we choose to go inside. The first signs of Autumn are always welcome in my books. They often remind me of what summers were once all about.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Ahh…those first signs of Autumn. I’m with you there, Hugh. Our summers have definitely changed. The images of my dad whipping off his shirt to grab some sun in the back garden every chance he got, because it was so rare! And those late afternoon building storms and listening to the thunder at night, hiding under the bed covers. I could handle the dry heat better than the humidity, even though it was so darn hot at the height of summer in California. But last summer at 30 degrees here in the UK was way too humid…let’s hope we don’t get that this summer and can enjoy those more mild temps we love! Thanks for reading, Hugh 🙂

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