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It happened on a day etched forever in my mind.
I had gone back-to-school shopping for my children at J C Penny’s. A small furniture display on the way to the checkout caught my eye.
No. It stopped me short in my tracks.
Heart racing, I rushed over. I ran my hand across the smooth, gleaming surface of the object before me. I had dreamed of this moment for years and years.
It was love at first sight.
I had to have it.
There it was, the dining table of my dreams.
You see, in my then ten years of married life, I had never had my own. I was a British mum of three married to an American. When I emigrated from the UK to California, my mother-in-law loaned us a green, glass-topped cast iron table, a ton in weight and meant for the garden.
A lifetime loan, it turned out: she didn’t want it back.
I covered it with a tablecloth made with blue, floral material and lace edging I purchased from another of my loves: Wal Mart’s fabric section. Pretty enough and a good-sized table, but it had its problems.
Not least of all, when a friend brought her little boy over to play and he bumped his head on the corner. He screamed, blood dripped (as head wounds do) and our friendship, if you can call it that, was never quite the same…
It had to go, but we couldn’t afford a replacement.
That table at J C Penney’s was everything I wanted: light oak and oval with a pedestal and removable centre panel. It had six matching chairs and a matching glass-fronted dresser. And best of all, when I dared glimpse the price tag, I could hardly believe it.
Two words and large letters in red danced before me: On Sale.
I enquired at the counter. They had an interest-free payment plan on offer. Numbers bounced around in my head. We could afford it, just, by my figuring. I had it all worked out and presented my case to my then husband.
‘You should be a lawyer,’ he said.
And so my beloved dining set arrived at our home and reported for duty.
Children’s birthday, tea, and Tupperware parties, baby showers, pancake breakfasts and pot-roast dinners, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the everyday of family life filled its chairs and space for years to come.
It hosted family games, silly and serious, a fair share of debates, good moods and bad and much rib-cracking laughter. Cheers with a raised glass of bubbly or two with those I have loved and always will.
And honouring those forever lost, remembered still.
My table has graced every one of my homes. It came with me to England when I left California many years ago. Sadly, and due to lack of room in one house, it sat in the garage for a few years.
My eldest son brought it out of storage for a brief time for his house share, post-university. It was already a bit rough around the edges by then, I figured a few more knocks wouldn’t hurt.
In fact, the thought of it with him brought me comfort.
My table came home when he moved again, none the worse for wear. Unlike a certain futon and mattress pushed around from son to son, leant to friends and like the bad situation where it landed, better left behind.
And when I moved house again four years ago, my table left the garage for a dining room once again. Thirty-two years since that star-studded day at J C Penney’s in California, and there it sits today in my home in England.
The top part of the dresser has long gone, damaged by its time in storage, but the lower part now belongs in my living room. It keeps candles, wine glasses and Christmas brandy.
Not only food and countless elbows have graced my table. A table is a table, after all. Kitty loves padding across it, especially this time of year. All those Christmas delights just for her, and a quick pose for her trouble.
She will have a wait this year, however. My table is presently loaded up with numerous kitchen parts as we undergo a major renovation.
But that’s the beauty of photos. They don’t show the clutter.
Which leads me to ask: if furniture could talk, what would my table say?
I think to you it would say Happy Holidays.
And to me, I hope, thanks for the good times.
Now let’s make some more.
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 black cats. She is working hard to bring her debut memoir to publication.
Various People Affected by War
The founder of my local veterans’ writing group, Lt. Col. Timothy Hansen, retired Army, invited Maj. Gen. Mari K. Eder, retired Army, to speak to the Rochester Veterans Writing Group during our ZOOM meeting on July 10. What an honor and privilege it was to share a conversation with her.
Tim read the following bio to introduce the General:
I had the privilege to meet her when she was the Deputy Chief of Army Public Affairs back in 2007. She has served in key public affairs positions in the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, theater media relations for NATO in Kosovo, and at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Eder published her first major work on communication, Leading the Narrative: The Case for Strategic Communication in 2011 and followed with American Cyberspace in 2020. Her articles in the communication series, Information Apocalypse, have been used from Appalachian State to the University of Tokyo. She has written several papers on leadership, military ethics, and strategic communications. She has even published two children’s books.
Her forthcoming book, The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line: The Untold Stories of the Women Who Changed the Course of World War II, covers the lives of 15 exceptional women who served or supported WWII while purposely staying out of the limelight. This historical work is a break from her case studies and technical writing on communications.
Tim had told us she would give a 45-minute talk on her career and publications, then allow time for questions. To our surprise, she only talked about her new book due out in hardcover and Kindle at the beginning of August (pictured above) then asked us, as writers, what we wanted to talk about. We weren’t quite prepared.
In answer to our questions, she explained when she submitted the proposal, as you have to for a non-fiction book, the response was a “ho-hum, not another war book.” But, when the publisher looked at the content, they got excited and asked her to have it ready in two months. General Eder explained it was at the peak of the pandemic lockdown, so she was sequestered at home with her three dogs and was happy to have a project. The frustrating part was trying to do research with libraries closed and no one answering phones. She said she wrote the chapters she liked or could easily collect facts for first, then worked on the others. She also shared that she would read poetry to take herself out of the project when she needed a break and then returned to it with new and focused eyes.
Changing gears, we talked about reading for personal pleasure. She suggested making it a practice to delve deeper, search for what a piece has to offer that you can learn from, and thus change you as a person, even if only in a small way.
Before we finished the ZOOM call, we agreed we would reconvene after having had a chance to read The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line.
While on vacation in Richmond, Virginia, over the Fourth of July weekend, I enjoyed a tour of the historic St. John’s Church (https://www.historicstjohnschurch.org/) where I bought the book Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons, The story of Phillis Wheatly, by Ann Rinaldi. It’s a historical fiction novel about how the first book of poetry by an African-American woman came to be published. I eagerly turned page after page to experience Phillis’s extraordinary life while still being a slave.
Ann Rinaldi has brought history alive for me by giving historical figures personalities and describing what might have been their day-to-day experiences. She is careful to note what is factual and what is not. I have to admit my weakness for reading YA books. They are often quick, easy reads that leave me thinking about the characters for many days.
I am looking forward to reading more of her novels, though not all war-related, which will give me a clearer picture of events I have heard about since my early school days.
It’s also interesting to become acquainted with the people who experienced a war on the other side of the earth. I have just finished reading A Ghost and His Gold by Roberta Eaton Cheadle, a regular contributor at Carrot Ranch. This historical fiction novel is about the Second Anglo Boer War in South Africa, where Robbie resides. She has come up with a unique way to tell the story by using ghosts as three of her key characters. Roberta masterfully shares the history of the war by having her main character Michelle unravel how the three ghosts were connected in the past, why they are haunting her home, and why they have been unable to move on to the afterlife.
I developed the same empathy for the people I had the privilege of getting to know in these books as I have with the veterans in my local writing group. War is war, no matter where it takes place or for what reason. Humans, animals, and the terrain suffer from the event, and it changes lives in diverse ways.
Do you have any books on the subject of war that you would recommend or futher advanced your understanding of a past event? Feel free to share in the comments section.
Sue Spitulnik is an ex-Air Force wife who stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has recently published an anthology of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. If you would like to contact her directly you can do so at her blog, susansleggs.com
Mighty Real: The True Story of Sylvester
When choosing what to write for the “Into the Past” column this month, I felt conflicted. With Juneteenth so close to the writing date and Pride month ongoing throughout June, I didn’t know what I should focus on.
I decided I wasn’t going to skimp on either Black history or on LGBTQ+ history: there’s plenty that clearly fits into both categories. I chose one of my favorites.
Also, up front: I’m going to apologize for the lack of pictures, but I had difficulty finding royalty-free images for this.
Why Should I Care About Sylvester James?
The first time I finished listening to the seminal disco hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and saw the accompanying music video, I turned to my husband and said, “That may have been the gayest thing I’ve ever witnessed.” So we watched it again, just to confirm. (Warning: the video tends to be on the loud side).
And I wasn’t wrong. It turns out that “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” has an enduring legacy in Pride month, and Sylvester was a gender-defying person who embodied a whole gamut of LGBTQ+ experiences. One of Sylvester’s friends, when trying to describe the singer, couldn’t put him in a box. His song, while not sexually explicit, still clearly describes a gay relationship as satisfying. He inspired many LGBTQ+ people to acknowledge the ways they “feel real” through “You Make Me Feel”, and he contributed to the long process toward LGBTQ+ liberation and normalcy.
When interviewing with NPR about Sylvester’s legacy, historian Joshua Gamson said:
“Embracing who you are, celebrating who you are, being as fabulous as you could possibly be, I think that’s the message that he’s preaching in the song. And I could’ve used a dose of that as a teenager.”–Joshua Gamson, for NPR
Even if you want to ignore the Pride elements of the song, the sound itself was revolutionary and inspiring. The electronic, synthesized sound and rapid beat were popular in dance music and – along with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Hot Butter’s “Popcorn Song” – could have been seen as the inspiration and start of electric music overall.
It Wasn’t All Dancing and Stardom
Sylvester James was born in Watts in 1947. Though Watts has been considered an impoverished area of the Los Angeles metropolitan area since the 60’s, in the 1940’s it was an area where working class black people were allowed to live. Until the 60’s, L.A.’s laws limited what property you could buy depending on your skin color, not just the size of your bank account.
Sylvester gained his love of singing the same way many American singers do: through church choir. Unfortunately, churches contain people, and many times people don’t necessarily treat LGBTQ+ folks right. Though we often conflate black and LGBTQ+ issues today due to the way party politics have aligned, churchgoing black folks often have the same misgivings churchgoing white folks do. Sylvester eventually left the church. Unfortunately, too, is the fact that parents are people, and people don’t necessarily treat their children – especially LGBTQ+ children – right. Sylvester left home at 15, living instead with his grandmother or friends until he moved to San Francisco in the late 60’s.
Though Sylvester had several experiences in niche, LGBTQ+ bands like the Disquotays and the Cockettes, neither of these bands made the mainstream. He sang soul and what was, at the time, considered “Black Music” (what is now known as the R&B/Hip-Hop chart was known as “Hot Black Singles” from 1982 to 1990, and at one point was called the somehow even worse “Race Records”). According to a profile in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the music industry at the time wasn’t interested in selling “black music” to white people or “gay music” to black people. Sylvester and his music failed to fit into the industry’s pre-defined labels, and his bands floundered in what could have been eternal obscurity.
Then: Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” happened. Electronic music with Black vocals was viable.
Disco was all the rage. Sensing that he needed a hit, Sylvester worked with James Wirrick, who wrote the start of an R&B song called “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. Sylvester decided it needed to be disco-fied, so he took it to Patrick Cowley who introduced the electric elements inspired by “I Feel Love”. Despite any of the R&B band’s misgivings, the song became a smash.
After “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, Sylvester continued to stick around with other modest dance hits, all without sacrificing who he really was. It was a pretty big deal to manage that in the 70’s and 80’s as a black, genderqueer person, and yet he did. He even managed to land a spot on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (American Bandstand was a TV show and the white version of Soul Train) and an interview with Joan Rivers in the 80’s. (I found this video through the aforementioned NPR article).
But being fabulous, openly gay, and sexually active in San Francisco during the late 70’s and early 80’s came with a terrible, unknowable, unpredictable risk: HIV had just appeared on the scene. Despite many early warnings and cries for help, the government, several doctors, and many other important people who could have otherwise done something failed to protect the people most at risk. At his shows, he encouraged safe sex practices and brought awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Yet, it wasn’t enough to escape.
Death and Legacy
On December 16th, 1988, Sylvester died from complications due to AIDS. He was buried as requested, in a red kimono and a pearl-colored casket. His estate’s future earnings would go to help the AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand.
Despite making hit dance music and doing so much for the LGBTQ+ community and combatting HIV/AIDS, Sylvester only got a small obit in the New York Times. If you click on this link, the NYT will ask you to subscribe and get a better image, but you don’t need it. Right above the tiny block announcing Sylvester’s death at 41 is a bigger block and a picture for a white football player, and right below is an ad saying “buy more NYT” or something equally stupid.
Only as LGBTQ+ issues have become more mainstream has Sylvester been remembered more fully, more fondly, and more accurately.
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.
Family. That word conjures up images or thoughts. For some, they think of those they live with, others may think of parents or loved ones outside of their household, while some immediately focus on children and grandchildren. There are living family members, and those we’ve grieved. Whomever or whatever comes to mind, family has a lasting impact.
Our world has undergone an unthinkable health crisis with the COVID pandemic. Lockdown kept us in the safe confines of our homes with social distancing imposed, as fellow columnist, T. Marie Bertineau, shared in her column, isolation was not the hardest part, to which I agree. My retired parents are social and enjoy their daily outings. This apple fell far from that tree. I worried that they wouldn’t be able to sustain a lockdown as well as I could.
In the early days of the shelter-in-place, I remember thinking how grateful I was that my grandparents were no longer living to endure this crisis. They each battled enough in their lifetimes: wars, illnesses, poverty, and racism. Days rolled into weeks and weeks turned into month after month of uncertainty. Soon, I found myself longing for the wisdom of my grandparents.
My abuela would have undoubtedly helped us stretch our pantry items into delicious and comforting meals so we wouldn’t have to leave the safety of our home for groceries.
My abuelo, a WW II veteran, would have remained updated with what was being reported globally, nationally, and locally. He would have advised his seven children, nine grandchildren, and fifteen great-grandchildren on what he gathered from various sources of media and perceived to be the truth.
My paternal grandma was a single mother of eight, having outlived two of her children and a spouse, a grandmother to twenty-something, countless great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren, and now, great-great-great grandbabies. She would have reminded us that this too shall pass, but not without some lasting effects. She would have said that fear is always an option, but not to expect something beautiful to come from living in that state. Similarly, my grandma would have reaffirmed that no one is invincible, and ignorance never wins. The entire family would have had homemade sets of masks sent to them. Most of all, my grandparents would have expected our family to look out for one another and our neighbors.
I recall going into summer longing for some respite, but seeing hate and racism take center stage. As I stated earlier, these were the things my grandparents endured as Mexican Americans. In an instant, I saw the fear in my children’s eyes as local protests clogged city streets and freeways. Then, unexpectedly, we received word that my mother-in-law died. She was just here and then she wasn’t. My husband lost his mother, and my children lost a grandparent. I knew abuela would have pulled out her prayer candles and kept them flickering from morning until night.
Throughout the pandemic, I learned how easy it is to become mired down in doom and uncertainty. It is strange how these events can change everything that we thought we knew about ourselves and our family. This was not the time to run, but instead, be still and listen. My comfort with being distant was no longer acceptable. I could hear my grandparents telling me to connect.
My children and I have made it an evening ritual for the past year to video call my parents to see them, their dog, and so they can see their grandchildren. Our calls are so expected now that even their dog meanders around them in the evening anticipating the ring of the phone.
Placing a call to my parents on speaker as I drove or accomplished another daily task, was how our conversations previously occurred. They often worked when I phoned them, and it was easier for us to converse without stopping our daily grind. Now, we all sit and actually take the time to see one another, albeit through a screen. Initially, I thought the connection was for my children and my parents, but I make them laugh and I look forward to that each day. That heals my soul too.
I wholeheartedly feel the pandemic has some lessons in it for humanity. As an educator, I teach my students about social awareness by looking inward first, then using that self-awareness to bond with one another. As a strong family of classmates, we are then able to bless our greater community with our unconditional love and respect. I realized I gleaned that outlook from my grandparents and how they approached life, despite adversity.
It’s been decades since I hugged my grandma, and over a decade since I laughed with my abuelo. Next year, will mark ten years since my abuela left us. I would love a phone call with my grandparents again. The pandemic has reminded me that despite the years, I still remember their wisdom and what it felt like to be in their presence. I miss my grandparents tremendously and the days of being called their grandchild.
Anna Rodriguez is a wife, mother, and elementary teacher. She is completing her first contemporary novel set in California’s Central Valley. Family and friendships are important themes for Anna’s work because of the influences they have had on her life. When Anna is not writing or hanging out with her family, she can be found reading or searching for music to add to her eclectic playlist. She will complete her MFA in Creative Writing in the summer of 2021.
More than an Apparition: A Little Intro to Our Lady of Guadalupe
One day, back when we lived in California, I went to Catholic church with my spouse (I’m Baptist, so I have an excuse not to go all the time). As soon as I walked in the first door, I detected that sweet and yet overpowering scent of roses. Upon entering the second door, the freshness of greenery hit me – even over the scent of the incense – and my eyes feasted upon a mountain of flowers unlike anything I’d ever seen before (and I’ve been to true Southern funerals!). The mountain flowed from the bottom of a painting of the Virgin Mary. From beneath a statue of the Lady’s feet spilled another mountain of lush blooms, and the floral collection tumbled all the way across the dais on which the altar sat.
Being the shocked protestant I was, I leaned over to my husband and asked, “What is THAT?”
“It’s the Feast of Guadalupe. It’s very popular in Mexico.”
From that, I’ve learned a bit more about the feast and the story behind it. So pull up a chair, smell the flowers, and let’s dig in.
A Quick Rundown on Mary, Mariology, and Marian Apparitions
Mary: Mother of God.
If you ask me, that’s a pretty big job, and that should make Mary pretty important to religious folks. There’s not many details about Mary, however, present in the Bible. How do we study someone who, other than the details presented mostly in Luke, has mostly been erased?
The study of Mary is known as “Mariology”. Catholics and Orthodox parishioners include things such as Sacred Tradition and other, post-biblical doctrines as part of the information to be studied as part of Mariology. From this, aspects of Mary and her life have been more fully derived and defined for the faithful. As a protestant, I was most surprised to find out about the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is part of Catholic tradition.
Other sources of information are something called Marian Apparitions. These are times that Mary has allegedly appeared to people and sometimes given them help or direction. Through Mary’s continued actions, thoughts on what she supports have also built. These apparitions are often named “Our Lady of [Insert Location Apparition Was Seen Here]”. Our Lady of Fatima, for instance, was seen in Fatima, Spain.
And, most importantly, Our Lady of Guadalupe was seen in Guadalupe, a suburb of Mexico City.
Juan Diego Builds a Church
Our Lady of Guadalupe is based on a series of five apparitions, four to Juan Diego and one to his uncle, Juan Bernadino.
On December 9th, 1531, Juan Diego followed a call coming from Tepeyac hill. Once he reached the site, he discovered a radiant Indian woman dressed in Aztec finery. There the visage told him she was the Mother of God and all humanity, and she ordered him to build a house for her on the site. In order to fulfill her demands, he needed to ask the Bishop for help.
Juan Diego asked Bishop Juan de Zumárraga to build the temple, but he was dismissed. There are a few religious speculations as to why, but what I’ve seen points to a bishop that is ultimately blameless (if wrong). I think it likely that the bishop didn’t pay attention to a poor convert. As a Spanish conquerer, it makes sense the bishop would have (racistly and wrongly) ignored an Indian peasant. The humility, origins, and economic station of Juan Diego makes his story all the more important.
After having failed to obtain Bishop Juan de Zumárraga’s blessing and help, Juan Diego returned to the hill where the Lady told him to try a second time the next day. At the second telling, the Bishop found him bold and wondered why the man insisted a second Marian Apparition has appeared. He demanded a sign that Juan Diego is telling the truth.
Later that night, Juan Diego returned home to find his only family – uncle Juan Bernadino – so sick and ailing that he was surely dying. Juan Diego remained at his uncle’s bedside, caring for him for two days, but the man did not recover. He tells his uncle that he must leave to get a priest to prepare for death.
On his way, he runs into the Lady again. She rebuked him for not having the faith to return to her, but Juan Diego bravely asked her to give him the sign requested by the bishop. She told him to return to Tepeyac hill and pick flowers.
Juan Diego was confused because of the wintery season, but he followed through. At the top of the hill, the Lady of Guadalupe helped him pick the miracle flowers and placed them in his tilma. She told him to bring the flowers to the Bishop.
Upon giving the tilma to the bishop, the flowers tumbled out and reveal the image of the virgin.
At the same time that Juan Diego showed his faith to the Lady, she appeared to the uncle Juan Bernadino and healed him. After her church is built, it became known for its healing properties.
This last apparition, on December 12th, marks the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
A Travel Destination and Symbol of Mexico
The tilma (cloak) of Juan Diego was only supposed to last for a short time, but preservation of the image and a combination of miracles means that you can still visit it. While 2020 was of course an aberration due to the pandemic, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is otherwise one of the most visited religious sites on the planet (only behind the Meiji temple or the Kashi Vishwanath temple). People travel to this site for healing, to inspect the miraculous cloak, and to celebrate the December 12th feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The tilma and apparition has come to represent much more than a single set of events that took place during Spanish colonialism. It has come to represent Mexican heritage, social justice, healing, and hope for the poor and indigenous. As Mary appeared to a poor Indian, dressed in both clothes and skin of an Aztec, even the Church has declared her the patron saint of Mexico (even if there was controversy surrounding the authenticity of the story).
In addition to being a symbol for the downtrodden, she has become a symbol, rallying point, and part of Mexico itself. Starting with the war for Mexican independence from Spain, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla encouraged untrained peasants and common people to throw off the Spanish colonists. Because Mary, as the Lady of Guadalupe, symbolized hope and belief in the downtrodden, this helped in his rallying call and brought her image into politics as well as religion.
Since then, people of Mexican heritage have carried her image and importance all across the globe. She has seen Mexico through civil wars, popular uprisings, and battles concerning the separation of church and state. White, protestant Americans may not know much about the Lady of Guadalupe beyond her symbolism of Mexico, but she is important throughout all of the Americas and is an essential part of the world.
For More Information
I hope you enjoyed reading this – it ended up WAY longer than I’d intended! I also worry that people probably know more about this than I realize. I did, after all, grow up in a super-sheltered fundamentalist protestant household.
As I was reading up on this, I found that many sites included several details about the story that others did not. The main story in the “Juan Diego Builds a Church” section was my summary that took information from all of these sources. Be careful and discerning – a lot of sources are religious, so they have a certain agenda to fulfill.
From the Franciscan order of Catholics
Where my spouse looks up really obscure Catholic things
A blog/article/essay about someone’s personal experiences
And, of course, Wikipedia has a great summary.
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.
The Words We Know
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.