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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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