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The Distance Between Us
Twenty years ago this Friday, I went out for a meal to celebrate my birthday with my family. My eighteen year old had graduated from high school that spring and was looking forward to starting college. My two other children had just started their new school year in 4th and 7th Grade.
We enjoyed a light-hearted and happy evening together.
The next morning the phone rang early. My default was oh no. A thud of dread. When you live in California and your relatives are in England, that ring at that hour will do that.
It was my mother-in-law calling from Los Angeles, panic high her voice.
‘Have you heard the news?’
‘Put CNN on, a plane’s crashed into the World Trade Centre.’
A what? Where? I’m not a morning person. Her words jumbled around my foggy brain.
It was a school morning, but with time to spare before rousing the children. I padded over to the living room, clicked the remote and turned on the TV.
Breaking news from New York flashed across the screen. A reporter was interviewing a firefighter, smoke and flames billowing in the distance. A plane had crashed into the North Tower. I barely had time to register this unimaginable disaster as what sounded like another plane in the background, the engine hum growing louder. It sounded low, too low. Something about it…something ominous. There, in full view on the screen, flying towards the South Tower.
My God, it’s going in…
One might be an accident. But two? Two is an attack.
My hands flew to my mouth. My audible gasp brought my children running. Their world, our world, forever changed. I sunk into the sofa, overcome by what next. And with wide-eyed horror we watched the unthinkable when one tower, then the other, collapsed.
The phone rang again. This time it was my mother calling to wish me a belated happy birthday, as arranged. It was afternoon in the UK, she had been out with a friend and hadn’t heard the news. I broke it to her.
Then I remembered; my brother worked for Virgin Airlines and was piloting a Boeing 747 from Gatwick in London to Orlando, Florida that day. Families with children heading excitedly to Disneyworld.
We figured he was probably half way there by then. Concern for his whereabouts and safety dominated our conversation.
We had no contact after that phone call for three days. Our phone lines and internet went down, I was cut off from them all. All I could do was hope and pray that my brother, his crew, and passengers were all safe.
When communication was restored, he called me and relayed his story.
He got the call from air traffic control not to enter US airspace under any circumstances. He was not told why, only that he should divert to Canada. He gleaned from London what had happened, and factoring in the amount of fuel they had left, made the immediate decision to turn the plane around and fly back to Gatwick.
Nobody knew what other attacks might be forthcoming. His primary concern was to get everyone safely back home. And that’s exactly what he did.
Turn off satellite communications on board and keep everyone calm, he instructed the crew. If passengers got wind of what was going on in New York, they might panic. Children cried and parents demanded an explanation, but a riot was averted,
Once back on British soil, he gave an announcement to his passengers. Relief and gratitude swept over them. Their holidays at Disneyworld would have to wait. It wasn’t important right now.
But that day took its toll on my brother. I saw a change in him, after 9/11.
I emigrated from the UK to the US in 1986. For many years, handwritten letters were my main form of communication with my family. There were no international calling plans, the internet, emails and face-time. Twenty years since 9/11 and my experience is meagre in comparison to the incalculable carnage and tragedy suffered by too many. Yet, those three days cut off from my family not having any news of my brother is something I’ll never forget.
It is always the not knowing that is the worst, I find.
The two decades I lived in California seem fleeting now. That birthday dinner was long ago, yet my children remember it clearly because of the day after. We all live in the UK now.
To say I am grateful spending my upcoming birthday with them is an understatement.
Sherri’s non-fiction, flash fiction and poetry are published in magazines, anthologies and online at her blog. As a young mum of three, she emigrated from the UK to California and stayed for twenty years. Today she lives in England’s West Country with her family and two beautiful black kitties. Her 2021 entry to Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize was shortlisted and also received a special mention at Spread the Word Life Writing Prize. She is working hard to bring her debut memoir to publication.
The Silent Ones Who Change A Life
We hear a lot these days about the courage and sacrifice of our key workers forefront in the fight against Covid-19. It is right and proper to applaud them with hearts of gratitude.
And we do.
But what of those who work tirelessly, silently, and behind the scenes for years. A lifetime? Unpaid carers we don’t notice so much, taken for granted, thanked by few?
Some years ago, I worked as a legal secretary for a law firm in the high street of a small, Dorset town. One client, an elderly gentleman, would pop in for a chat before heading off for lunch at The British Legion. He enjoyed regaling us with stories of “The War” and his two wives, both sadly deceased.
He also lamented the absence of visits from his stepdaughter, sad that she seemed so busy. All the time.
But he raved about his “companion”. The woman, his neighbour, though busy with her own family, cooked, cleaned and shopped regularly for him. She even took him out for drives. ‘I’d like to pay her,’ he would say, ‘but she won’t hear of it.’
The dear old gentleman, upon his death, left his house to his stepdaughter but he didn’t forget his companion and left her a generous legacy. I could be cynical. Working in probate does that. Nothing swivels the neck faster than the whiff of money.
But not this time.
A sweet old man who lived a quiet, honest life enjoyed the simple joy of friendship in his last, otherwise lonely, years.
His neighbour, his friend, gave him that.
My maternal grandmother, Madeline Dorothy (“Granny” to me, “Maddie” to others), lived a carer’s life without fanfare or material reward. The daughter of a Baptist minister, Maddie was expected to stay home and look after her mother, Ethel.
But Maddie was a rebel with a cause.
She heard the call and answered: at seventeen, she ran off to London and trained as a nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital. It took Ethel twenty years to talk to her daughter again.
Maddie carried on nursing until she married and had children. By the time my mother was a teenager, both Ethel and her sister, Carrie, widowed and unmarried respectively and both of reduced means, moved in to the family home.
Many years later, my grandfather, a gifted but complicated soul, left Maddie for her best friend. Maddie lost her beautiful home and moved to a flat in Chichester with Ethel and Carrie, whereupon she looked after them both until their dying days.
I could not even contemplate how life must have been for Maddie at that time. I only saw her through my little-girl eyes as the playful, wonderful Granny I knew and adored. But even as I entered adulthood, I never heard one word of complaint or bitterness from her.
She got on with her day, chatted with everyone and kept up with current affairs. She loved people.
Through her seventies and eighties, she joined a flower club, attended church, and pedalled like the clappers through Chichester’s bustling streets on her adult-sized tricycle.
Maddie travelled to Canada to visit her brother and at eighty, she visited me and my family in California, her first and only time in America.
And she made the best lemon curd in the world.
Maddie also loved to iron. I called her “Mrs Tiggywinkle” for her love of linen and starch. Above all, she owned a trouser press.
‘Why are you ironing men’s trousers, Granny?’ I would ask on my visits, perplexed by her massive pile of ironing.
‘They’re for Frank’.
‘He lives down the road and can’t manage with such things. I offered, poor man…’
There were others. Not just Frank, but men, women, neighbours, friends. Elderly. Housebound. Alone. Maddie, by then in her 80s, was older than them all.
The only time I heard Maddie mutter annoyance was in her kitchen. It was narrow and cramped with old-fashioned cupboards hung unevenly on the wall. She used a pressure cooker for everything which blew like a steam train. What went on in that kitchen I could only guess.
Mealtime arrived but before she served ours, she would dash off with a covered plate in hand.
‘Back in a minute, dear’, she would call as she disappeared down the road with Frank’s supper. He couldn’t cook.
Frank asked for Maddie’s hand in marriage.
‘Why don’t you marry him?’ I teased, already knowing the answer.
‘Oh my dear,’ she said, her face alight with the humour that kept her young. ‘He only wants me as a nurse maid! I don’t mind cooking his meals, but to share his bed too? Never!’ Then she leaned in and smiled conspiratorially. ‘There’s only ever been one man for me.’
Maddie wanted to drive a sports car. She mused about being a farmer’s wife. She wished she could dance like Ginger Rogers. Maddie wanted to do a lot of things, but she never wavered in her call to serve others. And she loved my grandfather until the day she died at ninety-four, forgiving him everything, regretting nothing.
These are the Silent Ones who change our lives.
Thank You, Maddie. Thank you all.
I would like to thank Ann Edall-Robson’s Quiet Spirits and our resulting discussion that inspired this post.
Sherri is a writer and photographer bringing her memoir, Stranger In A White Dress, A True Story of Broken Dreams, Being Brave and Beginning Again, to publication. She is published in a collection of national magazines and anthologies. Sherri blogs at A View From My Summerhouse and contributes as a columnist to Carrot Ranch, an online literary community. In another life, Sherri lived in California for twenty years. Today she lives in England, weaving stories from yesterday, making sense of today, bringing hope for tomorrow.
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com
Stand And Deliver
The title for this post should be ‘Drive and Deliver’. ‘Stand and Deliver’ sounds better, I think. It also reminds me of the song by Adam Ant, conjuring up a wonderful image of him in his heyday dressed up like a highwayman, all eye-liner, lip gloss and black mask. A good look, I thought. I can’t say I wear much make-up these days. But I do wear a black mask, though not for committing any crime. Then again, if someone coughs near me again at the supermarket, I could be tempted…
The theme of highway robbery ties in nicely with our present crisis and the ‘Unsung Heroes’ story I’m priviliged to share with you today at Carrot Ranch. Thanks for letting me loose, Charli!
The story ends well, thanks not to Adam Ant, but to a man called, Rob.
It began just before lockdown, which in the UK started March 20th. Anticipating weeks, if not months, of isolation, I rushed to order the treadmill I had planned to weeks earlier, but never got around to. I got my online order in just in time; it sold out the next day.
Delivery was confirmed at the end of the following week on Friday. The only time the tracking facility could give, due to extra pressures caused by Covid-19, would be anytime up to 8pm. No problem. After all, it wasn’t as if I had plans to go out anywhere…
But my treadmill didn’t arrive by 8, 9 or 10pm. Nor the next day and the one after that. Tracking had no updates. It just stopped. Disappointed but not too surprised with early lockdown in full chaotic flow, I was, however, concerned. And so began a two-week long flurry of emails back and forth between me and the third-party seller, Rob.
It seemed my treadmill had come as far as the nearest depot, gone back up north hundreds of miles to Wolverhampton or such, and disappeared. Great, I thought, I bet someone nicked it. Everyone wants a treadmill now, and this one was a great price (cheap), so I bet it got “re-routed” somewhere… Memories of my laptop getting “lost” in the Czech Republic a few years ago didn’t help…
Rob, the Customer Services Manager of the sporting goods store that stocks the treadmill, apologised and assured me that he would look into it. Full of scepticism, I figured he would fob me off, I would have to chase (and oh, how I dreaded the energy-suck of all that) and would have a fight on my hands for a refund.
Dear reader, I love it when I am proved wrong.
A couple of days later, Rob emailed me back. In touch with the courier, he told me they were trying to track my order. Yes, it looked as if it had been re-routed, but he could not tell where. He would let me know as soon as he heard.
Sure enough, he got back to me the next day. As part of an entire missing delivery gone astray, he reported, the courier had now traced it and would hopefully find mine. But alas, the news came back that all had been traced… except mine. At that point, we both felt it highly unlikely that my treadmill would turn up.
Rob had one more avenue to check, he said, but if no luck, he would make arrangements to process my refund.By then, several emails had passed between us, and I noticed something. The tone of them.
Rob told me was sorry for disappointing news in these “challenging times”. I expressed my understanding of the immense pressure couriers face meeting their quotas.
We signed our emails with “take care and keep safe”.
As much as we sought to resolve my missing order, our messages acknowledged one simple fact: we all are doing our best in extraordinary times.
Believing the matter at an end, Rob emailed me with a surprising glimmer of hope. Another customer had ordered the same treadmill as mine at the same time, but upon delivery, had changed his mind. Would I like him to send that one to me, provided it passed his inspection once back at the depot? Yes, please, I replied, that would be great!
Easter on lockdown came and went, a few days went by when nothing happened and then, at last, a van pulled up outside my house. A young, bearded and cheery chap bounded out. He offered to bring the heavy box inside, self distancing of course. I relayed the story as we chatted for a few minutes.
He nodded, chuckled. Yes, their work load is huge, he said. A massive increase in online shopping. They run out of the time set by government guidelines, get re-routed, drive hundreds of miles each day.
He asked my name so he could sign me off once back in his van (no touching of any electronics).
I’m glad you got your treadmill, he said, as he left with a smile and a wave.
I looked up the courier service online and found their Facebook Page. Complaints about late deliveries filled the comments. Then I read their “Covid-19” update. They apologised for the problems some customers had experienced. They had cut back on their staff due to sickness and isolation from Covid, no longer delivered on Saturdays, and had taken on extra work for the NHS (National Health Service).
I left a message of support and thanks and vowed never to complain about White Van Man again. Even when he tailgates.
My treadmill delivery woes seemed trivial, but walking for my daily allotted exercise outside has become a challenge of its own. With narrow lanes used as “rat-runs” by local drivers and many now out walking, cycling and jogging, it’s more a hazard than a pleasure.*
When my weekly exercise class ended abruptly at lockdown (and I was just in the swing of it too, darn it,) I knew I had to do something for my mental and physical health. So my treadmill serves its good purpose. And it even has a Bluetooth link for music. A good time as any for some Stand and Deliver.
I salute you, cheery delivery driver. And I salute you, Rob.
Thank you, my not-so unsung heroes.
*From tomorrow here in the UK, we are allowed to exercise as many times as we want and travel to parks and who knows where to do so. Hmmm. Think I’ll keep to my treadmill, for now.
While bringing her memoir, Stranger In A White Dress, to publication, Sherri’s articles, short memoir, personal essays, poetry and flash fiction are published in national magazines, anthologies and online. Sherri blogs at A View From My Summerhouse about her travels, nature and wildlife, Asperger’s Syndrome and her life as a Brit ‘Mom’ in America. She also contributes as a columnist to Carrot Ranch, an online literary community. In another life, Sherri lived in California for twenty years, but today, she lives in England with her family, two black kitties and a grumpy Bunny. You can connect with her on her on Twitter, Facebook Page and LinkedIn.