January 16, 2012

That powerless feeling

Filed under: Canal,family,misc — Duchess @ 11:53 pm

I arrived back on Pangolin on New Year’s Eve. I had only intended to be away for two or three days, but in the end I was gone a full week. Whenever I started to say it was time for me to go home, someone asked what was for dinner, and all eyes turned to me.

It was alarmingly easy to slide back into jobs I thought I had long ago shed, and once again I found myself in charge of the total nutrition for three overgrown children and an ex husband, along with his mother and uncle, who at the last minute made the almost unheard of announcement that they were joining us for the holidays.

The rules of engagement were particularly complex with the latter two, because they have officially not spoken to me for more than ten years (since I divorced son and nephew) and we exchanged neither gifts nor cards.

Nevertheless, when Uncle Bob stumbled and tore his nonogenarian skin I was elected (by acclaim) to clean and dress the wound.

The cooking, cleaning and nursing fest were over just before the old year was out. My Ex drove his mother and uncle back north. My younger son drove himself south. Five thousand miles away his brother (my eldest) was holding a new baby daughter, born two weeks early, trailing extra festive, tax deductible cheer. My own Baby, still a teenager (just), had already gone back to work in London, which left only my elder daughter.

My car complained of neglect, and barely started, but it cheered up, even if I did not, on the run to Cowley, on the dodgy side of Oxford, where I dropped her for a New Year’s Eve party. Then, all alone for the first time in days, I drove back to Wolvercote, the northest of north Oxford, where my boat is now moored.

It was a remarkably warm night for the dead of winter, and I slid on mud, not ice, along the dark bridleway, over the lift bridge, and past the line of deserted boats to Pangolin. I ducked inside the engine room (too low to stand up with the hatch closed) and stooped to try the ignition key. The engine coughed weakly but refused to turn over. After two or three more tries, I resigned myself to darkness.

Without an engine to recharge the domestic battery bank I couldn’t afford to waste any power. I had already turned off the fridge some weeks before (I keep the milk on the gunnels outside the kitchen window and other chilled provisions in a cool box on the front deck), but no power also meant no indoor water:  drawing water from the tanks requires electricity.

With enough charge left in the domestics I might be able to jump start the engine in the morning. Otherwise, only a borrowed generator or the charge from a passing boat could do the job.

Attentive readers might remember the Young Archaeologists from my old mooring. I had always thought of archaeology as a rather exotic, academic, and mostly foreign profession. Years ago I knew a pushy mother who demanded that her daughter become an archaeologist. At the time I thought the mother was simply insane, but I now know that in the UK planning regulations require that archaeologists give the all-clear to every major building project and many minor ones. It turns out archaeology is a pretty secure job prospect.

Nevertheless, the Young Lady Archaeologist of my boaty acquaintance decided she had quite enough of not finding Roman remains under potential multi-storey carparks and is re-training as a publican. To that end she has a barmaid job about a fifteen minute walk from my new moorings, and she and the Young Gentleman Archaeologist brought the boat south to Oxford, convenient for her holiday hours. I happened to see them as they cruised by. They’re nice kids, young enough to be my children, and he is very handy with electrics.

After I lit the fire and found my head torch, I scrambled in the dark for some more festive clothing, shut up the dog, and strode off down the towpath toward the centre of Wolvercote to a pub I had never visited.

The Young Lady Archaeologist Barmaid was very busy serving drinks and only just had time to promise, while she poured me a glass of wine, to let her boyfriend know my engine wouldn’t start.

It was nearly midnight, and the bar was getting louder. I took my glass and found myself next to the only other person I recognised, a woman who twice each day walked her large German Shepherd dogs along the towpath. At first she had seemed unfriendly: she scowled, and I scowled back, daring her to let her dogs take a shit in front of my boat.

After a month or two, when they didn’t shit and I didn’t shout, we moved on to nodding. Because once or twice recently we had even managed a smile with the nod, I pulled up a chair next to her and her fellow in the pub on New Year’s Eve.

We shook hands and introduced ourselves.

“How are you enjoying Wolvercote?” Jan asked. “Wolvercote is certainly enjoying you,” she added generously. “We love your towpath garden!”

A few minutes later midnight sounded, and I was kissing these people I had only just met.

On New Year’s Day the Young Archaeologist came and and jump-started my boat, and the Scary Dog People waved and grinned extravagantly as they went by.  All is well.

Since it is only just past the first half of January, I hope it is not too late to wish you a happy new year. Apparently we need good wishes, this day of all days. According to the BBC, the middle Monday in January is officially the most depressing day of the year. Apparently we are sorry that Christmas is over (hands up anyone?) while all but winter seems a distant prospect.

Like Shelley, I choose to be more sanguine:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

May 3, 2011

Warning: contains scenes of nudity

Filed under: A long way from home,BBC radio addiction,family,misc — Duchess @ 9:08 pm

I have been away — that is, I have been away from England, from my boaty home, and from my own four foot wide, lumpy, boaty bed.

I left in late March, when the crocuses had already almost gone by, the daffodils were in glorious bloom, and even the odd tulip had risked opening to the young sun. I flew across the Atlantic and a few months backwards into a late winter that still lingered when it was almost May and time to think about heading home again.

In five weeks I slept in seven beds.

In Washington DC I was promoted to the guest bedroom.  My father, 86 and frail, insisted on carrying my suitcase up the stairs to a part of his home I suspect he rarely visits. The room was full of ailing houseplants and a large sealed box labelled “Open Immediately”, an unfulfilled spring bulb best intention of my stepmother (too young to be my biological mother) who breezed in after work a couple of hours later. The next morning when I awoke and scanned myopically the back garden, I thought, I must ask Cynthia about that lovely white ground cover that has bloomed overnight.

A few days later I moved on to New York where I slept in a newly designated guest suite, the former teenage occupant, now college graduate, having been finally, firmly ousted, but not soon enough that his mattress could be left on the street with the rest of his garbage. His mother apologised as we squeezed past the old mattress propped up against the wall outside his room: the city’s bed bug epidemic means that getting rid of any old bedding, however innocent it might be, is almost impossible.

But I wasn’t there to discuss infestations. My friend was celebrating the launch of her third book of poetry, The Kangaroo Girl

After the book party, where I air-kissed a slew of people I had barely seen in thirty years, and then a glorious afternoon at MOMA, I flew out of New York in a snow storm that made me miss my connecting flight to Seattle.  Eating shrimp in an airport bar in Philadelphia, I watched a chilly opening game of the baseball season, and couldn’t help noting, on all my accompanying electronics, the lovely UK weather.

When I finally got to Seattle I crashed on a blow up bed in my grandbaby’s room (my timing was bad and the baby had gone to Las Vegas). Every 20 minutes or so, there was a loud electronic beep. I prowled around all night long, disconnecting every possible device, but the beep was relentless. When I asked my son in the morning he said he thought it had something to do with their former cable TV and internet providers, but since they were former, they had no interest in fixing it. He shrugged as he added that it didn’t seem to bother the baby.

It’s my opinion that they have doomed my grandson to a lifetime of unemployment, since he has been conditioned to sleep through electronic alarms. I, on the other hand, woke every time the wretched thing went off.

The next times I slept in Seattle I had the sofa in the living room I shared with their dog. His noises weren’t electronic, but nonetheless effective. Apparently a West Highland Terrier can murder sleep as effectively as any of his countrymen.

Otherwise, to see my grandson, I travelled back and forth by car and ferry from Whidbey Island, where I slept in the barely converted garage of the Lawyer Sis. I like the soft bed and the cold room. I like the door opening on to spongy grass and brambles, the brackish lake, the beach houses and the Sound beyond.  The night I arrived the septic tank backed up and, since all flushes were in vain, just after dawn I squatted naked by the door and hoped I was startling only the local rabbits.

Almost a hundred miles, and another ferry, north is the island house my mother shares with her husband Jerry. There I can choose between a bed in a sleeping loft or a bed in the rental apartment. I usually choose the rental, though the walls are thin and my bed is painfully close to the shower in the main house and I wake every morning to ardent squeegeeing.

My seventh bed was unexpected.  Mother and Jerry bought a condo on the mainland, and the Lawyer Sis and I drove from Whidbey to celebrate the closing. After dinner, the Oldies went home to the island, and the Lawyer Sis and I stayed over at the condo. The packaging of the brand new queen size memory foam mattress, purchased earlier that evening, promised the “ultimate sleep experience”.  As ever I was grateful for the subtlety of English grammar, and hoped that it would not be quite the same as experiencing the ultimate sleep.

Whatever (as the children and the optimists say), the Lawyer Sis, seven years my junior, risked the mattress.  She’s got a chronic bad back and needed the foam.  I occupied the less comfortable, but potentially safer, single bed in the condo’s guestroom and office.   We both survived the night.

A couple of days later I was on a plane again, and my eighth bed was an economy seat home. 

Other than being away for the whole of the warmest UK April on record, and present for the coldest Seattle one, I think I timed my trip rather well.  I got a cheap ticket because I flew back in the middle of a Bank Holiday weekend, and missed the Royal Wedding (though British Airways at Seatac flew, as it were, the patriotic flag).  

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

In Seattle they have the new nude-y scanners (the ones where the security guy gets to see under your clothes).  Just to make it extra fun (and presumably so your breasts look extra pert) you have to put your elbows in the air and your thumbs on top of your head.

I mentioned that I recently had had a flare up of a shoulder problem, and would they mind diagnosing it while they were checking me out for weapons of mass destruction, because an MRI is jolly hard to get on the National Health Service?  But they only looked puzzled and said I could have a PAT DOWN if I preferred.

I was tucked up safely, my first night back in my boaty bed when, jetlagged and sleepless, in the early hours I turned on the BBC World Service to hear that the USA’s most wanted man had been “killed and captured” (though I was awake enough to wonder if there was any irony in the BBC’s inversion of the more conventional phrase “captured and killed”).

Then, though it was not my first thought, sometime as the day dawned, I admit I was glad that I had flown in hours earlier.  You think a middle-aged lady might find it inconvenient to pose for a naked scan with her thumbs on her head?

I’m betting you ain’t seen nothing yet.

March 21, 2011


Filed under: BBC radio addiction,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 9:52 pm

My third child, who invariably begins all our phone conversations with the words, Mother!  It’s your favourite son! called a couple of weeks ago to congratulate me on my new mooring (of which more later) and to prepare me for his appearance as the Chevalier Danceny in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

My son is finishing his final year in drama school, a time when all young aspiring actors hope to find an agent.  To that end the school puts on a series of public performances to give its actors exposure.

Just a Parental Advisory Warning about the performance, said my son, On account of nudity.

My nudity, he added, just so I was clear.

I hesitated a moment and then asked, Are you (pause) decent?

I have a cushion, he replied, his voice rising cheerfully to confirm the helpfulness of soft furnishings.

His father and I debated as we booked our seats.  The website wanted to put us in the front row. Eventually, however, we managed to get tickets for a discreet half dozen or so rows back.

My son did not have the leading role – most of the characters are women – but his was the second most important male part, with a critical plot element, since he kills the leading man in a sword fight.   I thought, well, any agents around will remember him – he’s the bare bottomed one, handy with his épée.

Before the sword fight, he makes love to the leading man’s lover.

In the end, for reasons of artistic integrity (and public decency, no doubt) the director abandoned the cushion idea in favour of breeches, and since his parents were going to be in the audience, my son had permission to hitch his breeches higher than usual as he rose from his lady love.

Nevertheless, even from row i we had a pretty good view of his bare bottom.

His father and younger sister disliked the play, but I found it interesting and disturbing, despite clumsy anachronisms.  Even a weak 20th century adaptation didn’t obscure the point of the original text:  sex was all about tactics and power.  Love mostly interfered with sex, and no one lived happily ever after.

On the drive home we watched the moon rise above the horizon, wonderfully large and glowing red.  I remarked to my daughter in the back seat that I had heard this was the closest to the earth the moon had visited in 19 years – exactly her whole life.  I guess I was too distracted with my new baby in March 1992 to notice the last perigee.

The Crow reminded me of that grown up word (and I instantly mentally replied with apogee).  Brits are astonishingly ignorant about the most basic science, and though BBC radio did tell me the moon would be nearest, the p word never crossed their lips.

July 26, 2010

Captain’s Log day 8: Lost and found

Filed under: Canal,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 12:28 pm

The crew and I meant to spend the day at Hampton Court Palace, but as we were waiting for the ticket office to open I took a phone call that changed my plans.

My younger daughter, ever the Baby of the family, though she is 18, has given me some of the worst moments of my life (lovely creature though she is), and she started very early.  When she was less than a year old she took up that toddler trick I had heard about but never before seen – holding her breath until she went rigid, turned blue and shook as if convulsing, and then holding her breath some more, until her eyes rolled back in her head, and she passed out.

By the time she was two or three I was in danger of being reported to the Social Services for gross neglect.  Onlookers who witnessed this performance (I am telling you, it is scary) shouted Do something!  Call an ambulance!  How can you just sit there?  And I would answer casually, Oh don’t worry, she’ll come round in a minute or two.

The first time she did it, however, I thought she was dead.   I thought something like that today.

I spent much of the day on the telephone.  Everyone agreed there was nothing I could do by returning immediately to Oxford, and in any case the boat would have to be got back to its home mooring somehow.  The crew were very sympathetic, and when they came back from their day at the palace, they urged me to do whatever I thought best, and they would help in any way they could.

By evening the situation was more stable, no one was dead, and it was quite clear that nothing could be gained, for the time being at least, by turning the boat around and heading back.  In fact, after I had discussed the alternatives with the Baby’s father, we agreed that the best plan would be for me to get the boat to London as soon as possible.  There I would be able to catch a fast train to Oxford.

Day 8 statistics: 0 locks and 0 miles, except for the many miles I paced.

March 24, 2009

This post is not about shoes

Filed under: family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 3:18 pm

Silverbridge (Trollope fans will recognise that as code for The Duchess’s Elder Son) phoned from Seattle just over a week ago.  I was on the boat, where I have recently sorted out internet access, but cell phone reception is a still a little dodgy.

Pangolin is 62 feet long and 6.5 feet wide, and I only get phone reception at either end, with a long dead zone in the middle. Late Sunday evening I was just emerging from the engine room at the back (where I was fussing over my batteries) when the phone sprang into life and registered a missed call. 

I opened the hatch, and standing on the little stern deck, picked up my voice mail.  A quarter moon shone on the canal and on the large, round hay bales in the fields on the opposite side.  The farmhouse’s windows gleamed in the distance, and, from along the tow path, a quarter of a mile away, the lights of the pub beckoned steadily.

I don’t usually make international calls from my cell (because they cost a small fortune) but I had a feeling that I wanted to return this call.  I hadn’t heard from Silverbridge for several weeks.

My son, child who first made me a mother, told me that sometime in the early autumn or late summer he was going to make me a grandmother.  When we finished talking I trundled up the towpath to the pub and shared the news with a batch of people whose last names I don’t know.

Then I played a couple of games of pool.

A long time ago I thought I would feel ambivalent (at best) about becoming a grandmother. When I was a very little girl my friends and I used to play a competitive game about how old our grandmothers were, each of us making more and more extravagant claims until the biggest liar of all shouted, MY GRANDMOTHER IS A HUNDRED.  To be a grandmother was to be old.

A couple of decades later I remember my mother, quite a lot younger than I am now, demanding to know when I was going to make her a grandmother (and complaining that my dog was interfering with the prospect).  I was still surprised that she would want such a thing, except as a deeply abstract idea, far into the future.  My mother wasn’t old; how could it be possible?  How could she want it?

I understand now.  I don’t feel old at all, even though my own grandmother really was a hundred when she died three years ago.

I do feel like someone who, one afternoon at work, might get up from her desk and ask, Anyone fancy a cup of tea? 

And then when several faces (some middle aged) look up and answer (in their British way), Go on, why not?  I might also just be the sort of person who would add, Oh, I forgot to say!  I have some exciting news!

And then, apparently, it would be perfectly natural for the others barely to blink before smiling and suggesting (empty tea cups still expectantly out raised), Could it be that you’re going to be a grandmother?

I’m not sure how I got to be that oh-so-obvious progenitor, but it seems I am. 

Do you think it’s the sensible shoes?

January 4, 2009

12th Night

Filed under: family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 4:30 pm

It isn’t quite 12th Night, but as this is getting close to the last time one can decently use the c word until next November, I bring you, “Catching up: Christmas chez Duchess.”

One week before Christmas, The Piper’s Son fetched me from the airport.  I was coming back from a further month’s visit to the US, making 2008 the only year I have spent more than weeks in my native country since 1983.  I was glad to be home (England home) and not thinking of travelling again for awhile.  

A couple of days later I was again at Heathrow Terminal 5 to pick up Elder Daughter and her boyfriend.  Terminal 5 is the brand new state of the art way to fly long haul into London.  Here are the brand new state of the art fountains outside the door:

Terminal 5 fountains

Inside there are brand new state of the art baggage handling systems that didn’t work at all when T 5 first opened last spring, so they solved the problem by putting all bags, wherever to or from, on a bus to Milan.

They’ve sorted that now, it seems.  Elder Daughter was arriving with boyfriend.  In the distance, through the NO ENTRY doors I spotted a young, bearded man pushing pink suitcases.  I pointed him out to my ex husband, and, a moment later, we watched our daughter, swinging her violin, emerge through the doors.

I don’t have any pictures of that lovely, grubby, travel weary, grown up child whom I had not seen for one long year.  I simply cried and held her and then shook hands with boyfriend, a new acquaintance.  The suitcases, so clean, pink, and Legally Blond when she left for Uganda 15 months earlier were filthy.  Rats’ piss, she said casually.  The violin was the only item of value we sent her away with that hadn’t been stolen, because no one knew what it was or what it was worth.  Oh, guitar?  people would ask.  Yes, she answered.  A very small guitar.

My daughter worked for the VSO, the British version of the Peace Corps, posted to a small NGO, the Peace Education Trust, in the corner where Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo meet.  While she was there she looked after some of the most vulnerable people on the continent — deaf and blind children and HIV/Aids orphans.  Incidentally, she also set up youth volunteering options for much shorter periods — two weeks to several months — so get in touch if you have a young person looking for something worthwhile to do between high school and college, or college and grad school.  My daughter promises me it is safe, though readers of this blog will know I have fretted.

Meanwhile, back to Christmas with newly home Elder Daughter placing the dove that always sits on top of our Christmas tree

I admit it is a haphazard Christmas tree.  There are clothes pin and silver foil angels made by the children, felt snowmen and paper and glue stocking decorations.  Little wooden ornaments sent from Germany and glass ones from America carefully stashed in Granny’s suitcase.  There are unlovely, but loved, plastic ones meant to be hung on low branches, safe from babies, kittens, puppies.

My younger daughter is rather proud of our tree.  Her friends, she says, have Trees with Themes.  Unlike ours.

The Piper’s Son was eager to show me that five years at Fire Lighting School had not been spent in vain.

All the children grumbled when I said we might do without the knitted nativity (a Duchess hand knit original) so I put it on the windowsill as usual.

They never fail to remark on how fat Mary is, compared to poor little Joseph (in green next to her), but I deny this has anything to do either with my inability to knit to gauge or to Joseph’s weakness of character. All women who have just had babies are larger than life, I say, and husbands are naturally subdued.

Over the years the shepherd, poor thing, has lost his lamb and one of the kings has lost his gift. When I am a grandmother, my grandchildren’s parents will know more about fat Marys and I’ll knit up celebratory frankincense, myrhh and a whole stable full of lambs.

The presents were finally wrapped and Santa did come at last.  The cunning disguises in everyone’s stocking were a great hit.

So were the ping pong ball shooting guns (oops not politically correct, but I’m pleading years of a dove topped tree in mitigation)

The Piper’s Son gave us all bean seeds and a potted plant, according to our characters and gardening abilities.  His father got broad beans and a cactus.  I got runner beans and an orchid.  He gave his older sister and her boyfriend climbing beans and an olive tree, his baby sister dwarf beans and a jade plant (the jade plant is nicknamed “money tree” — the Baby has expensive tastes; her friends with themed Christmas trees may provide a hint).

After presents everyone pitched in to Christmas dinner cooking, especially when the cooker (=British stove, not the cook) broke down and dishes had to be shuffled oven to oven.  Everyone, that is except the Ex, who was busy enjoying his Christmas reading

Elder Son normally makes the Christmas pudding (from scratch!) but he was 8000 miles away, so this year’s was a store bought, out of date, emergency item I had picked up a few years earlier in case Elder Son’s plane didn’t arrive in time for heavy duty chef detail.  I shoved it in the cupboard and was too embarrassed to give it to the local old people’s home once it went out of date, but not at all embarrassed to resurrect it this year and serve it up to my family. 

Holly stolen from the neighbours over the road spruced it up nicely.  We did pour flaming brandy over it, but the ensuing excitement, what with the table also catching fire, means the before picture is all I’ve got.

And very nice the pudding was too, even after.

Crumbs!  I haven’t got to Boxing Day or New Year’s Eve at the Rock of Gibraltar pub on the Oxford Canal.  But I think that is all I have energy for, for now.

December 26, 2008

The food chain

Filed under: family,misc — Duchess @ 4:30 pm

I’m back in England after a month’s visit to the US.  The Piper’s Son (child no. 3) picked me up in his little red VW with his brand new driving license.  I knew I would miss our hours in the car together while I supervised his practice, but I was sure he would pass his test, scheduled for while I was away.

I had left the little island on a cold, stormy Sunday, fetched by Silverbridge (child no. 1 who lives in the US) and he drove me to the airport early the next morning.  By the time I arrived in England it was Wednesday morning, and I was tired of travelling, and tired.  I began to think children with cars and driving licenses were fine things.  Two down, two to go.

The Piper’s Son is a pretty good driver, and on the way back from Heathrow to Oxford, though I did still give the odd bit of driving advice (I’m not suggesting the advice was odd – I’m speaking Brit, so I am just saying it was miscellaneous and occasional), we mostly just chatted.  I hadn’t seen my son in a month and he was filling me in.

We’ve got a mouse, he said, meaning at his father’s house, where he and his younger sister mainly live. 

Dad set a trap.  It’s a humane trap, he added. We’re not savages.

Later, his father elaborated.  It seems the humane trap has caught a mouse several nights running.  The trap provided an excellent dinner for the mouse, and then in the morning my ex husband released the mouse in the garage, so it would be somewhere warm, of course, leaving it with another snack.  The additional snack was to encourage the mouse to stay in the garage, my ex husband explained.  Meanwhile, in the kitchen, he reset the trap.

My ex husband was still cheerfully wondering whether he might have been catching the same, persistent mouse over and over the night he caught two mice. 

I said where there are two mice there are a lot of mice. 

Also, since I had recently been visiting my father I mentioned that my stepmother likes to feed the birds, but sometimes the food she throws attracts other creatures. 

Besides birds, my stepmother noted, snakes and rats ate the food she put out.  There was an incident with a snake in the basement, and she began to see rats scurry around the back porch.  Soon, the occasional hawk, spotting the snakes and rats, circled, dropping in for the kill. 

Then my stepmother put out leftovers for the hawks. 

While she was telling this story my father interrupted to say that then the Husband said he would kill the Wife if any more Hawks ate any more Rats who were eating Food for any more Birds.  And that put a Stop to it.

Processing allegory is a family skill.

My ex husband considered this for a moment.  He is an economist.  It’s part of his job to think about unintended consequences (economists call them externalities).  He meant to be kind to the mice.  But now he is worried that the food he is putting out for them (to compensate them for being removed from his house) might attract birds.  And birds might attract cats.

And cats eat mice.

September 14, 2008

Update on dry dock

Filed under: A long way from home,family,misc — Duchess @ 9:42 pm

The ferry’s been out of service for just over a week.  People who live here (like my mother and her partner) are settling into the routine of staying mainly on island, walking or biking everywhere, chatting to their neighbours.  These three weeks of purdah, when the island is cut off from all vehicle access, is the annual divide that separates the busy, touristy summer from the long, rainy winter.  The sun is still shining, but we know its days are numbered.  The nights are drawing in.

I’ll have returned to England before the car ferry’s back in service, but meanwhile, like a good islander, I’m enjoying the forced privation that keeps me mostly off the mainland.  I’ve baked bread (twice) and (twice) walked – that’s hiked to Yanks, who take these things seriously and have poles to prove it – up the island’s mountain, all of 1000 feet high.

Today, the second time on the mountainside, I met a girl I went to school with 35 years ago and 3000 miles away.  There were 85 kids in my high school class; the population of this island is about 900.  Both of us come from east coast families, and when we were in class together neither of us had ever been west. 

It’s a little weird that we should both turn up here, but not quite as weird as a discovery my mother made when she was first living on the island and introduced to another recent arrival.  As they talked it gradually emerged that they have the same great grandparents, making them second cousins.  Neither my mother nor her long lost cousin have any roots in this part of the world – I think the shared great grandparents were from New York – yet both my mother and her cousin retired to the same tiny, relatively unknown, island in Puget Sound (population then about 800).

If there are any mathematicians out there I would be interested in what the odds against such coincidences might be.

August 13, 2008

Going to the CIA by accident

Filed under: A long way from home,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 9:23 pm

The Baby and I were talking about my father, her grandfather, whom she barely knows. I was trying to remember when she had last seen him, but she was very clear.

The last time I was there, she said emphatically, was when you went to the CIA by accident.

Right. I had almost forgotten that.

I had taken the two younger children, my son the Actor (then about 15) and the Baby (10), on holiday to the USA. Among other places, we went to my father’s house in northern Virginia, partly to visit with him, and partly so I could show these British children some of their American heritage.

One morning I borrowed my father’s car just to drive it as far as the underground – I guess it was about 20 minutes. I wanted to take the kids into Washington DC.

About five minutes down the road I remembered I did not have my driver’s license with me (in England you are not required to carry it when you drive, and because it is large and doesn’t easily fit into a wallet, I usually don’t).

Oh, don’t be silly, Mother, said the Actor. You are not going to get stopped!

A few minutes later I remembered I hadn’t brought the map either, but once again my son took charge. Not a problem, he said, I’ve memorised the directions.

So we carried on. I spent the day dragging the kids to every monument and memorial in the Capital. It was post 9/11. Visits to the White House were suspended and trips up the Washington Monument had to be pre-booked, but otherwise we saw and did pretty much everything a good tourist is meant to do: we trooped up the steps of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, wandered in the then fairly new sculpture garden at the Roosevelt Memorial, and walked sombrely past the names of the Vietnam dead (which I found deeply moving, and no doubt the children found dull, but they humoured me).

At the end of the day we rode the train back to Virginia and the Actor directed me as we picked up the car and headed toward my father’s house. We were nearly there when the Actor told me to take the next right.

Here? I asked.

I think so, he hesitated, and I turned. The sign, invisible from the main road, said, CIA. Authorized Personnel Only Past This Point.

Oops, said the Actor.

I looked around in a panic. The road was designed with a thick hedge of trees and bushes entirely separating the lane heading towards the CIA from the lane heading away. There were no turns to the right or left and no way to go back.

I had no choice except to carry on and eventually stop in front of a speaker on a post rather like the ones where you order at drive thrus. Only I didn’t think they would be selling me a latte. We were still a long way, I guessed, from any building.

A stern voice asked me to state my business with the CIA.

I said I didn’t have any business. I had taken a wrong turn and just wanted to get back on the main road.

The voice ordered me to continue forward into a parking area, stop in front of the chain link fence and follow the instructions of the officer.

I said, Please can’t I just turn around?

The voice bellowed, Follow the instructions of the officer!

I pulled in and parked.  Through the rear view window I saw a man in combat uniform sporting a machine gun almost as tall as he was saunter towards the car. I rolled down the window and waited for the inevitable question.

Can I see your driver’s license?

I explained that I came from England where it was not necessary to carry the license.

Okay, he said, Can I see your passport then?

I regretted that I did not have my passport with me.

He strolled around to the back of the car and examined the number plate. As he did so the Baby asked, in a whisper, What does the CIA do?

Without hesitation my son answered, They kill people.

The officer returned and said, in some exasperation, Well, can I see some kind of picture ID, please?

I said I thought I must have something… I shuffled wildly through my wallet and in a moment produced the only one with my photograph on it.

Reader, I handed the officer my Bodleian Library card.

A look of real sadness came over his face as he turned it from front to back. Ma’am, he said, I’m trying to help you here.

Well, anyway, things went from bad to worse and the officer pointed out I wasn’t giving him much to go on when I couldn’t find either the registration or insurance documents in the glove compartment. Nevertheless, he finally let us go after running the number plates to see if the address I gave him matched. You’ve got a couple of kids in the car, he said, by way of explanation, but I think it was the Bodley ID.

Back home, my father found the story hilarious. The turn towards his house is right after the CIA turn and it seems it wasn’t the first time that mistake had been made. His new house cleaner had also gone to the CIA by accident, only because she was Hispanic and driving an old beat up car, the disembodied voice directed her to pull into a spot where swords came out of the ground, surrounding the car and creating a cage. She was scared out of her wits. My father laughed until he cried as over and over he threw up his arms to demonstrate just how the swords had come up.

I guess, compared with your average encounter with the CIA, we came off pretty well.

August 12, 2008

The way we live now

Filed under: A long way from home,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 6:25 pm

The Baby and I spent a couple of days with Lawyer Sis, about two hours’ drive south, before Baby was due to join her beloved cousin, Buggy, Lawyer Sis’s middle child, in LA.

On the first evening we had barbeque on the deck. Lawyer Sis and Brother in Law are on a low carb diet, but they cheerfully provided everything required for anyone who still believed in sampling the major food groups. We all ate on paper plates.

After dinner we made popcorn in the microwave, climbed into the SUV and went to one of the last drive-ins left in the state. I hadn’t been to a drive-in movie for thirty years, and definitely not since they’ve abandoned those speakers on poles in favour of tuning in your radio. It was a lot warmer with the windows rolled up. The movie was dumb, but at a drive-in I guess the movie isn’t really the point.

The next morning Brother in Law put on a suit and went to work, while my sister, in her pajamas, fielded emails and phone calls from the office while entertaining me and coordinating her kids’ arrangements.

Late morning she drove me to the near-by holiday town where our brother bought an investment property a few years ago and has since then been in litigation with the former owners and the realtor. We got back around noon to find the Baby had just got up and was casually eating cereal out of a paper bowl. I had assumed the paper of the previous night was in honour of deck dining, but Baby, who makes herself at home here, knew it was the house norm.

In the afternoon we rode a ferry, bought a hostess gift for the Baby’s upcoming visit, reclaimed my youngest niece from her Greek grandmother, and smuggled my little dog under my sweatshirt into the ferry passenger cabin on the return ride, because it was way too cold to follow regulations and sit with him outside. Fellow travellers who spotted my subterfuge only smiled.

Home again, and very tired, we ate cold cuts off paper plates and cancelled the bowling alley we’d booked, though my energetic sister was keen to introduce me to “cosmic bowling”. I think that’s bowling with music and moving lights, but no doubt I’ll find out eventually.

Instead we turned on the Olympics, and as I watched the first American tele I have seen in many years, I was struck by the prescription drug ads. We have nothing like that in the UK and I wondered how British GPs would respond to the repeated suggestion “ask your doctor”. I was quite taken with the drug that stops you needing the loo when you’re on an outing and thought even Her Majesty could use that one (I once heard that royal protocol dictates she has to be within a hundred yards of one at all times). Alas the side effects, which apparently they are required to mention (they start speaking very fast at that point), make it sound not really worth it: among others, dry mouth, headache, stomach cramps, liver damage.

It turned out to be pretty much the same with all the drugs they were recommending. As soon as one looked like it would just fix me up there were threats of heart palpitations, strokes and dizzy spells, not to mention the assaults on my poor liver, already well dosed with red wine. Since they announced that women shouldn’t take the drug for reducing prostates I guess they are required to list all possible contraindications too.

Meanwhile the Lawyer Sis and Buggy’s father exchanged breezy emails about Baby’s travel arrangements.

Now I know it is not polite to make fun of someone who has invited your sixteen year old daughter to be a houseguest for a whole week, but I’m making an exception, not just because his name is St John (pronounced, quite correctly, Sin Jin – and trust one of us to find the only guy this side of Jane Eyre called that), but because he denied his child until the Lawyer Sis slapped a paternity suit on him. (And when I tell you that in divorcing the father of her first child she got him excommunicated for good measure, you probably won’t be messing with her.)

Baby thought St John’s (Sin Jin’s) email about her upcoming visit was very funny:

Our place is an old Spanish house built up in the hills with a great view. It’s hot in Los Angeles and we have palm trees everywhere, so you’ll get to wear sunglasses and a cute dress when we head out to explore Hollywood. Don’t have sunglasses or a cute dress? Save your pennies and we’ll take you shopping. Vicki knows all the best places, whether you like the latest thing or really old grungy stuff. You’ll live like a rock star for a week! Well, maybe like a back-up singer anyway.

The next day we were up early to dodge the Saturday traffic. In the ferry line my sister and my daughter applied their make up. I felt a little underdressed next to them and fumbled in my bag to see if I had remembered the lip coloured, almost invisible, lipstick I sometimes wear. Nope. As usual I had forgotten it.

By the time we got to the airport Baby had all her gels, blushes, lotions and creams packed into a clear plastic bag, her British passport stowed and her American one ready to display for a picture ID and a note of her booking reference for her e ticket. Once again I was impressed with the poise and maturity of a child only just sixteen who travels all by herself so easily across oceans and continents.

We left her in the security line. She was in LA, almost a thousand miles south, long before her aunt and I, fighting Seattle traffic, were home.

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