Getting Packed

Mattie and I are going back to the UK for a visit in a few days. ‘The thought of going back feels surreal,’ she said today, as we ate the barbecue that Mike had prepared. ‘Whenever I think about it, life in the UK going on as usual without me there seems surreal, too,’ I replied.
Mattie has now entered my study, where I am writing this blog, wearing her swimming suit – I had suggested that during our trip, she might want to go swimming with her cousin Mei, and Mattie wanted to ensure that it was still a good fit. Not only is Mattie’s cousin high on her priority list of people to see, but her birth sister as well. It was only when Mattie said she wanted to see her sister as soon as possible after our arrival that I realised how strong that bond still is.
We are both excited about going back to England. Our holiday of two and a half weeks will certainly be a trip down memory lane. The two guys who bought my old house have invited us in to see it. Mattie particularly wants to see her old bedroom, in the attic. I am interested in how the house ‘feels’. How will it feel to be in the kitchen, or up in my old bedroom, looking out over the Downs? I have many good memories of my time there and a few not so good, too. I do know that the handsome old brick wall separating my old house and the neighbouring one recently collapsed. Now that is something I am glad to have avoided.
‘You’ll probably find everything seems very small,’ my elderly father said to me on the ‘phone when he first heard we were coming over, and I remembered a friend of mine once comparing Lewes to Enid Blyton’s Toy Town. I do know that things are never the same when one returns after a long time away. Several neighbours in the high street, where I lived, have since moved – to nursing homes, other towns, or downsized. My parents, too, are in the process of moving within Worthing, having decided that they no longer wish to look after a house with a large front and back garden at the foot of the Downs. It feels like the end of an era when one’s parents indicate their preference for a ground-floor flat in the town centre rather than the detached houses that they have lived in for most of their lives. During our stay with them, I shall therefore ensure that I walk up to Cissbury Ring as often as I can, for of all the Downland walks I have experienced in my life, that one tops the lot. I just hope it won’t be too muddy after the recent rains. Dare I even look at the weather chart before I go?

A Happy New Wrist

Yesterday, I went for a check-up to the Orthopaedic Institute and was thrilled to hear the surgeon announce that the bone in my wrist had completely healed and I no longer needed a splint. Hooray! Afterwards, to celebrate the good news, Mike took me to the steakhouse next door to the Institute. Neither of us are big steak eaters but for a while now I had had it in mind to celebrate the big day by cutting through a steak with my ‘new’ wrist.

Today, I have also been doing a little light pruning in the garden. Happily, most of our plants have survived the recent severe cold spell that hit Texas along with the rest of the US – some plants such as the native cherry sage even blooming merrily throughout. Taking a tentative walk around our garden, I was relieved to see green shoots on the fig tree and that the latest addition to the fold, the desert willow (a gift from my mother) was in good shape, despite my planting it only a couple of weeks before the first onset of frost. Our neighbour’s garden on the other side of the road, however, which, instead of a conventional grass lawn, sports a dense mass of what are called spider plants back in the UK, is almost completely black. I actually find this contrasts better against the tall clump of bamboo and the deep green sago palms than the original lime green, though I do not think our neighbour, Margie, would appreciate the comment. I imagine that come springtime there will be an army of little spiders re-emerging in the sun.

Whilst I was out pruning, Mike was busy cleaning the pool and heaving loads of ash leaves into paper sacks for collection by the local council. Most winters, the ash trees in the back garden retain a great deal of their leaves, but this year the garden and pool were practically drowned by them. Looking at the newly cleaned pool, I anticipated my first swim this year which, weather permitting, will be around mid-March.

The fact that we were both working in the garden meant that the sun was finally shining today! ‘This is how winters are supposed to be in south Texas,’ Mike said. He comments on the weather more than any English person I know. Chilly mornings and evenings, but daytime temperatures in the low 70s with blue sky and a light breeze is what he meant. And after such a relatively long period of cloud and cold it was with a feeling of surprise that I realised that spring is round the corner. In my former garden in Sussex, it was the buds on the Judas trees that had the same effect.

Christmas Thoughts

I received a joyful email the other day: a fellow adopter, in her 40s, wrote that she had read my book Dear Mummy, Welcome a couple of years ago during the adoptive process and now she is the proud mum of a teething ten-month year-old on her third reading: I just felt compelled to write to you to say how absolutely wonderful your book has been for me as a single adopter…it has become something of a bible during all the different stages…

Whenever I learn that my book has been of help I get a huge sense of satisfaction, and I was particularly appreciative of this email because it arrived whilst I was recuperating from an operation to mend a broken wrist (I slipped on a concrete jetty whilst we were enjoying a few days at Thanksgiving on the Gulf coast). What a boost the email was! I even decided that day to make scones, prompting a friend here to recall her great-grandmother who lost an arm in a train accident and continued rolling out pie crust dough.

Mike told me that there can be advantages to a change in circumstances and he cited the example of Robert Louis Stephenson who, if not for his melancholia associated with consumption, would never have written Treasure Island. I don’t expect to write a blockbuster but I have, I think, benefited from an enforced period of relaxation, allowing all those books that had piled up over the months to be read. And during a period of cold weather here – often only in the 30s during the day – it has felt deliciously cosy lying on the bed with the sun streaming in through the patio doors.

The house became even cosier yesterday after Mike and Mattie fetched the Christmas tree, a lovely tall bushy one which, as Mattie keeps reminding us both, was her choice. But the proud 13 year-old no longer, it seems, has the same sense of excitement at dressing it, leaving me to do the bulk. This I found to be an additional therapy for so many of the baubles have a history behind them. Hanging them up I thought of the person, or event, that had brought each one to us: that little chimneysweep from Mattie’s former foster mother (now sadly deceased); the set of Victorian cats from a neighbour in Sussex; the little cowboy boot that Mike gave to Mattie during her first Christmas in Texas; the pink ‘sugar mouse’ she made long ago from flour and water; the painted tin animal shapes from Mexico; the grey knitted mouse that my youngest sister Caryl made for me over 40 years ago; and the little decorated wooden spoon from my other sister, Molly… The only thing missing was something to go on top and after hunting through Mattie’s memory box I found the golden-curled cardboard fairy that the two of us had made for her junior school Christmas tree when she was eight. Now that sets off another train of thoughts …

Saturday Stuff

On Saturday everyone in the family got up early – Mike had agreed to take Mattie to a charity run on the other side of town whilst I awaited a phone call from BBC Radio Sussex: Danny Pike wanted to interview me for a programme they were running as part of National Adoption Week. One of the objectives of the programme was to quash misinformation about eligibility for adoption, including age limits. I cast my mind back and recalled that I was 47 when Mattie first moved in with me, and although she has now just turned 13 – we celebrated this birthday with my parents who were recently here visiting – I often see the big dark eyes of that little four-year-old I first met outside the foster parents’ farm cottage.

Mum and Dad seemed to have really enjoyed their visit here, mosquitoes aside. We, too, enjoyed having them and it was very sad saying goodbye at the airport last Monday afternoon. ‘We miss the warm weather’, both told me when I rang them after their return home. Our next visitors will be Mike’s daughter, Courtney, and her two small children, in early December. We saw Courtney, briefly, in Austin recently; she was there with her husband whose film was showing as part of the Austin Film Festival. With any luck, we should still be enjoying blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70s by the time she and her children visit us.

I had mentioned the weather to Danny Pike on his radio programme when he asked me about the differences between Sussex and San Antonio. I also told him that I missed the Downs when we first emigrated, ‘though San Antonio is beautiful in other ways.’ I thought of my words when I went out on a bicycle ride following the interview. I was travelling along one of the many greenways that the city has built alongside its creeks when a brown and white mottled hawk swooped down in front of me. The bird flew in front of my bike for a second or two before disappearing. I looked up but there was no trace of it, though a little later I spotted about a dozen vultures circling above the creek. I stopped cycling to watch them and was then thrilled to see thirty or so more fly out of the live oaks and mesquites to join them. It was utterly peaceful watching them fly against a perfectly blue sky, with only the sweet sound of the nearby mocking birds and cardinals breaking the silence.

Later in the day, we picked up Mattie from her charity run and in the afternoon Mike made a barbecue to which we invited Brooklyn, a girl of Mattie’s age who recently moved into the neighbourhood from Tennessee. Mike cooked beefburgers (or hamburgers as they are called here) and I made pinto beans, guacamole and salsa. It struck me, as we were eating by the poolside, that we were all newcomers to San Antonio – Mike moved here from north Texas, then Mattie and I came over, and now Brooklyn. I later thought how well she and Mattie seemed to be getting along as they enjoyed a long game of monopoly though Mattie seemed particularly pleased to be winning. Fingers crossed, their friendship will continue…

Healthcare and Kitchens

On Friday the Homes @ Gardens Editor of the San Antonio Express came to interview me for her Sunday column entitled ‘Cooks and Cocinas’ (Cooks and Kitchens). The timing was good for I would anyway have had to give the kitchen a good clean in advance of my parents’ imminent visit to San Antonio! The editor and I were soon chatting about all sorts of things for it turned out that she had adopted two children herself; one is now the same age as Mattie. She asked me if I had faced resistance in the adoption process because I was single and I replied that my sister, a health visitor at the time, had greatly helped my cause. When I then explained what a health visitor was, she responded, ‘How terrific!’

I had the same response from a neighbour who recently gave birth to a baby boy and who said she would love a health visitor – if only. Her husband added that the delivery of their baby, which entailed a short stay in a local hospital, had cost them several thousand dollars. As self-employed lawyers, I imagine they will be checking out their options on the new healthcare exchanges under the Affordable Healthcare Act, or Obamacare as it is more widely known. Mike and I will be doing the same for me and Mattie.

It has been a revelation to hear via the radio and TV of the millions of Americans who have thus far been excluded from health insurance either due to prohibitive costs or because insurance companies have refused those with pre-existing conditions. Some of the examples I have heard on the TV and radio have been pitiful. One hopes that if the Democrats get back a Senate majority in the mid-term elections and/or Obama’s successor is equally progressive, then Bills will also be passed to ensure equal pay for women (!) and to raise the minimum wage.

My parents arrive tonight and apart from the fact that we have just noticed water coming through our hallway ceiling (a plumber is on his way!) we are greatly looking forward to their visit. Mike has been doing some DIY around the house these past few weeks, including painting the stucco on the back of the house; as usual his work is immaculate. Happily, my parents will be here for Mattie’s birthday. She has already decided that we are to eat at Paesano’s Italian restaurant and for dessert I am to order an ice cream cake from Brindle’s, her favourite ice cream parlour. Hard to believe she will be a teenager in less than three weeks …

The Last Day of Summer?

September 1st was not only Labor Day in the US but officially the last day of summer. So tell that to the weather! In San Antonio, since the start of August, we have been experiencing temperatures that frequently touch on the 100s – though the mornings have just started to be cooler, there is a fresher smell in the air and distinctly more cloud cover during the day.

We enjoyed a respite from the heat during a recent holiday in San Francisco, visiting Mike’s daughter and family who live in the mural-covered Mission district. This is a largely Hispanic area that reminds me of a mixture of Southtown San Antonio and New York. I had forgotten, since my first stay in San Francisco thirty years ago, how lush a place it is – lemon and peppercorn trees laden with fruit, shocking pink passionvines with saucer-size blooms and an abundance of shrubs and flowers of every shape and colour. What I had not forgotten was how chilly the city can be, especially in the mornings when low lying mist can take a while to clear. On the plane back to Texas, Mike, Mattie and I all at various times muttered how we welcomed the summer heat of San Antonio!

The foliage in this city can be just as stunning as San Francisco. The mainstay of the south Texas garden is, or should be, the drought-tolerant Texas native plant. I say ‘should be’ because only recently have native plants and xeriscape landscaping come into favour here. Indeed, a charming old South Texas gardening book that I found in a second-hand bookshop sports a picture of daffodils on its dust cover! I have to profess a real admiration for the native shrubs and perennials that take such a battering from the summer heat and later, the odd days of freezing temperatures in winter. With the help of a gardening book that Mattie and Mike bought me for Mother’s Day and some advice from the Botanical Garden where I volunteer on a weekly basis, I have very much enjoyed planting out our garden. The latest native plant to go in is called ‘chocolate soldiers’ which has lovely brownish green floppy leaves and tall violet spikes. I have planted it close to a lime coloured squid agave and a bluish-green twist leaf yucca in the bed under the ash trees outside my study (there are currently a couple of squirrels scampering around it). On the other side of the garden (or ‘yard’ as they say here), in the bed that runs the length of the swimming pool, I have planted a variety of Texas sages (blue, white, cyclamen, coral and scarlet), Mexican marigolds, milkweed, some prickly pear cactus and grasses, amongst others. Many of these plants are dormant during this hottest part of summer and the colours of the foliage therefore less intense than in San Francisco. Two days after our return, Mattie, togged up in new school clothes and smart new trainers, started Grade 7 at her middle school and Mike and I took the opportunity of some time to ourselves to see the new, and very enjoyable, Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine. Some of the scenes were shot close to the area where we had stayed in San Francisco. And the chilly air-conditioned cinema reminded me of those cloudy mornings of our holiday!

Childhood Pastimes

We recently travelled to Missouri to visit Mike’s brother and sister-in-law. On the morning of our departure, we were somewhat bleary-eyed having hosted a neighbourhood drinks party the night before, but soon we were packed and headed in the direction of east Texas and Arkansas. We spent the night in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a spa town once frequented by convalescents, baseball players and gangsters alike. The main street comprises an elegant collection of bathhouses that sit directly over the springs. The town was once called the Baden-Baden of the US and interestingly, what I saw of Arkansas, with its tall pine forests and lakes, did indeed remind me of Germany.

The next day we reached Springfield, Missouri, an area once inhabited by the Kickapoo Indian tribe. Much of our time was spent visiting places that Mike and his brother had frequented as children – springs, creeks, a trout farm and the hillside spa town of Eureka Springs. We also drove through Fair Play, where the two boys had grown up and where their father, the local doctor, had kept cows. Though the town is now somewhat neglected, most of its inhabitants having either long passed away or moved on, it was not difficult to imagine the Huckleberry Finn type of childhood that one would have experienced in a place where everything – church, school, hamburger joint, bank, general store, hardware store – were situated within yards of each other.

Later that week we moved on to Kansas City, Missouri, a large elegant city famous for its jazz and cuisine, including Kansas City-style barbecue. The main purpose of our visit was to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where we not only saw several paintings of Mike’s favourite painter, the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, but also an exhibition of Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo. Later that day, Mike was keen to try Arthur Bryant’s legendary barbecue joint and although he was somewhat disappointed, not least with the quality of the barbecue sauce, I have to say that when we left the place all of our plates looked as though licked clean.

The following morning we crossed the Missouri River into Kansas and drove alongside miles of golden wheat fields followed by soft green prairie land dotted with black Angus cattle. Several hours later and we were in Oklahoma, formerly known as Indian Territory; part of our journey was on the so-called Trail of Tears, referring to the forceful removal in 1838 of thousands of native Americans from their homelands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Apart from the occasional oil jack, the flat landscape was quite bland and when we later drove into Texas, everything immediately looked more cared for. We spent the last night of our trip in Fort Worth, Mike’s former home, and where, until four years ago, Mattie and I spent many summer and Christmas holidays. It was a thrill to be back, not least for the wonderful restaurants and world-class museums, which put Fort Worth firmly on the map as the cultural centre of Texas. Mattie particularly enjoyed re-visiting the old stockyards area where twice a day a cattle drive is re-enacted through the streets, and I remembered her, as a five year-old, attempting to ride the mechanical bull, just down from the rodeo building. After a delicous meal at the El Salvadorean restaurant, Gloria’s, we headed home. The only downside of our trip was the traffic on the I35 headed south but a forced detour onto some side roads led to our buying some local cantaloupe melons from the back of a truck. A sweet end to a sweet trip.

Three Celebrations

Our dear former neighbours from the UK, Jo and Ann, have been to San Antonio and gone!
Those of you who have read Dear Mummy Welcome will remember that they became particularly close to Mattie when we lived next door to them in Sussex, and it was lovely to see that relationship continue on this side of the pond.
Jo and Ann were the first visitors to stay in our newly renovated home in San Antonio, and how exciting it was to greet them at the airport on the Monday evening and whisk them off to our favourite Mexican restaurant, Sol Luna. ‘I remember you mentioned this restaurant in one of your blogs,’ Ann exclaimed, on arrival. Happily, they didn’t find the salsas too overpowering.
Later, at home, I pointed out the various paintings and pieces of furniture that had been transported over here – though the furniture looks somewhat different: the sofa and chairs have been covered in brightly coloured southwestern prints and the ink and food-stained kitchen table and chairs have been repainted and resealed.
During their stay we visited the Missions, the Alamo and the River Walk, the Mexican quarter, the nearby German towns of Gruene and Boerne, the botanical gardens and the McNay art museum; we also enjoyed a barbecue or two on our patio, a swim in the pool and an evening at The Scenic Loop, a patio restaurant just out of town where there is live country and western music on Saturday nights. As I looked around the table, it struck me that it was only because of Mattie coming into our lives that we were all together in San Antonio on that lovely evening.
Good sports as they are, Jo and Ann even watched some of the finals (best of 7 games) of the NBA basketball championships with us on a couple of evenings – San Antonio Spurs were playing against Miami Heat. (Back in England, suffering from jet lag, they would even check the score of one of the later matches at 3am in the morning)
The only downside to Jo and Ann’s stay was that they brought the English weather with them! We are used to the odd rainfall in June but not a whole week of it. It was rather like monsoon for the rain would start late afternoon and then bucket down for an hour or two.
We experienced even stranger weather conditions last week when it became blisteringly hot, hitting 108 degrees on Saturday – the highest temperature ever recorded for June in San Antonio – and who says global warming is a hoax. Happily, it rained the next day and temperatures are back to norm.
We have three celebrations coming up – Mike’s birthday on Wednesday, July 4th on Thursday and our first wedding anniversary on Saturday. My parents celebrated their 60th anniversary in June and I remember from my blog, ‘How to Get Married in Texas’ that last year they had just missed out on an invitation to a garden party from the Queen. This year they were thrilled to receive a telegram of congratulations from her, and we look forward to celebrating the event when they arrive as our next set of guests in the autumn.

Enchanted Rock

During Memorial Day weekend at the end of May Mike, Mattie and I travelled northwards from San Antonio to visit Enchanted Rock State Park, in the middle of the Hill Country. It rained during the morning – as it has done a lot lately – and on our approach we could hardly see anything of the surrounding hills. ‘It reminds me of North Wales,’ I said to Mike, looking up at the clouds – ‘and I never thought anything in south Texas would remind me of North Wales!’ We decided to have lunch first, after which hopefully the weather might have improved. We popped into a little barbecue joint called Cranky Franks, just outside the German town of Fredericksburg. Mike and Mattie chose brisket and I chose the pork ribs; both were delicious and they were combined with the usual sides of coleslaw, potato salad, gherkins, jalapeno peppers, pinto beans and – much to Mattie’s delight – chocolate or vanilla pudding for dessert. Just as we left the little ramshackle building and headed towards Enchanted Rock the sun came out, and later the sight of this huge pink rounded rock formation was stunning. We now enjoyed perfect weather for the ascent, about 700 yards up a steep granite hillside dotted with yellow-blossoming prickly pear cactus, sprinklings of rusty pink and bright yellow wildflowers, and tiny flowering sedum. My only complaint was that I forgot the camera; the panoramic views of the Hill Country were just lovely and there was not a building in sight. I can’t wait to go back and do the four-mile hike that skirts the bottom of the Rock. Back in the car, we followed some empty winding roads in the direction of Johnson City and were thrilled by the sight of a roadrunner that crossed our path. The roadside verges and stony fields were completely covered with wildflowers of all colours, a particular delight as our last trip to the Hill Country, in April, specifically to view the wildflowers, had proved disappointing. The recent rains no doubt have been the reason for the late emergence of these gorgeous but short-lived blooms.

In Johnson City, named after the family of Lyndon Johnson (the former president’s wife, Lady Bird, was responsible for establishing Enchanted Rock as a State Park) we enjoyed a glass of local white wine before heading back to San Antonio. This week marks the end of Mattie’s first school year and Mike and I are so pleased that she has made such a seamless transition from her junior school in England to her middle school here; the school has proved to be a very good one and thankfully Mattie has found her niche. I was surprised, on first arriving here, to find so many private Christian and Catholic schools in existence, which sprang up in the mid-1960s when Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, thereby ending legal segregation. For me, the greatest shame of the abundance of private schools is that it splits up the children in our neighbourhoods, but in this part of the U.S. it seems to be an accepted fact.

Fiesta, Fiesta!

It is Fiesta week here and according to the San Antonio Express, more than 3 million people have come to the city to celebrate.

The first Fiesta parade was held in the late 1800s, to honour the heroes of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto; groups of women decorated horse-drawn carriages which they paraded in front of the Alamo whilst pelting each other with flower blossoms. The (later) Battle of San Jacinto spelled the defeat of the Mexican army, freeing Texas to become a sovereign country. It remained so for ten years, before joining the United States. One is reminded of this brief period of independence by recent bizarre calls to secede from local Republicans, unhappy at the presidential election result.

The opening day of Fiesta still takes place before the Alamo and Mattie recalled that last year we had only been in the US a week or so at the time. When I look back to those somewhat disorienting early days of our emigration, I remember Mike and I filling in forms and taking Mattie to get jabs before she started her new school, as well as searching for a new home. This year, things have been a lot less frenetic during Fiesta week and Mattie and I attended a ‘Night in Old San Antonio’, held at La Villita, a small historic village situated on the riverwalk in downtown San Antonio. La Villita was once home to native Americans, Spanish colonialists and then Mexicans and this annual event highlights the impact of various cultures on San Antonio and Texas.

The little Czech town of West that was partially destroyed last week because of an explosion at a fertiliser plant was already well known in Texas for its bakeries, and particularly kolaches – Czech pastries filled with fruit, meat or sometimes vegetables. Mike reminded me that on Mattie’s and my first visit to Texas back in 2005, we stopped at one of these bakeries, ‘The Czech Stop’, and I recall Mike buying several fruit kolaches for us at the time. I was pleased, on glimpsing a local newspaper in Starbucks the other day, that ‘The Czech Stop’ had not been damaged in the explosion; in fact it remained open throughout the night serving pastries and acting as a shelter. (Articles like these would have been on the front page of national newspapers if not for the other horrific event last week, in Boston.)

Apart from the word ‘kolache’ the Czech language has had little impact here, unlike Spanish – San Antonio is fully a bilingual town. Though it struck me the other day that Mattie and I have more than one language to learn now: I had asked for an ice lolly in a shop downtown, only to receive a blank look from the Hispanic lady on the opposite side of the counter. So I pointed to the fridge. ‘Ah, you want a paleta,’ she grinned at me. ‘What do Americans call them?’ I then asked. ‘Popsicles,’ she smiled.

Mattie speaks another language of sorts, too, at school. I recently gleaned that one doesn’t say, ‘What’s Up?’ now, but simply ‘Sup?’ ‘So what do you say back?’ I asked her. ‘I just toss my head and point upwards,’ she grinned. Once, when she announced a high mark in some school tests, I, in the spirit of things, announced, ‘I think that deserves a High Five!’ But Mattie looked at me over her glasses and said, ‘Mum, I think we need to talk about limits.’

Memory Lane

I recently received an envelope with a Canadian postmark from a childhood friend, Sian, with whom I last had contact more than 40 years ago. Sian’s Mum, who is still in touch with mine, had mentioned to Sian my book Dear Mummy, Welcome, which caused her to write.

I used to assume that if my family had stayed in Wales, I would never have travelled, would have married early and had children. From Sian’s letter I found out that she did indeed marry early, she and her husband moved to western Canada soon after and she never had children. Following a divorce and a very happy second marriage, Sian wrote, her life, far from civilisation, is very different to the one she had envisaged, yet she loves it. Mike mentioned that when he, Mattie and I made our road trip from Texas to Montana in 2007, we were only a short distance from Alberta and might have visited her had we known she was there. Perhaps that chance will come again.

Sian wrote, ‘I remember my friend Beth across the road. How I envied her, her dark skin and dark hair, so very pretty.’ Funny, I envied Sian her fair hair and curls, and her pink bedroom full of things that I would have loved to own! Sian recounted memories of our childhood. ‘Playing cricket in the street or hide-and-seek, time spent in garden sheds and in dens at the back of our gardens where we spent countless hours, listening to stories of Winnie the Pooh at school…’ She enjoyed identifying family members in the book, too, recalling how my younger brother David would go round to their house to visit their Dad ‘who had him convinced he was an astronaut, his hard hat being his helmet…It was a sad time when you moved to Wolverhampton. You were missed.’ For me, looking back, that time resembled something from an Enid Blyton book.

I was just nine in 1966 when my father’s new job took us from Wales to England. Years later, during the adoption process, I recalled that move as a significant loss. Yet only after reading Sian’s letter did I realise that for both our families that idyllic childhood froze the same year: Sian’s father (most likely everyone’s favourite Dad in the neighbourhood) died just before we left, her mother re-married and she had to adjust to living with a new step dad and step siblings in quite a different part of the city. I told Mattie about Sian’s letter and she asked me to read it to her over tea. I have to admit to shedding a few tears.

Mattie, Mike and I took another trip down memory lane last week, on the eighth anniversary of Mattie’s Adoption Day. This was only the second time that the three of us were all together for this special day. After giving Mattie cards and gifts in the morning (a metronome from Mike and books and hair accessories from me), we had lunch on the patio at Paesano’s Italian restaurant. Mattie chose her favourite Chicken Alfredo followed by chocolate pudding. During the meal, I reminded Mattie that on that first adoption day we almost missed the court hearing when a court clerk had waylaid us by mistake. ‘Typical’ grinned Mike. He had been back home awaiting the return of all the family members for celebratory eats and drinks. ‘I remember that cousin Mei ate some food from the table as soon as she arrived back and you told her off,’ said Mattie gravely and I smiled at the thought that Mattie, who liked to be the little boss back then, no doubt enjoyed that particular event. Later in the afternoon of her eighth anniversary, Mattie and I went to see a film and then do some shopping, during which she bought me a little gift. ‘It’s your adoption day, too,’ she smiled at me.

Spring Has Sprung

Spring, it seems, has sprung! Outside Mattie’s school, the grape-like blossom of the mountain laurel fills the air with its bubble-gum fragrance; and last week I had my first sighting of wildflowers: clumps of rust-and-gold Indian Blanket, and bluebonnets, beside the cycling path along the San Antonio River, south of downtown. Further north, at the Botanical Garden, the pomegranate trees now bear tiny green leaves – though it will not be until July or August that they will bear their luscious fruit. During my last visit to the Garden, I noted that the great white egret had disappeared. I first spotted it in the autumn when it was contentedly ensconced on an orangey-rust branch of a cedar tree, haughtily gazing down upon a gaggle of geese at the lake edge; later in winter, when the cedar had shed its leaves, it was poised on an upturned log in the middle of the lake. Now, only turtles occupy that log and I imagine the egret flew further south, to the Gulf coast, during a cold front. When Mike, Mattie and I made a day trip to the coast last weekend, I noted the odd splash of pink phlox here and there on the roadside and Mike pointed out that the mesquite trees were beginning to sprout leaves. The old timers, he said, used to say that spring had arrived when the mesquite trees became green. As we approached the coast, the mesquites became greener, finally giving way to dark alluvial farming fields, punctuated with the occasional oil jack. The large oil refinery near Corpus Christi is always, for me, the sign that our journey is almost over.
Instead of staying at Corpus, this time we took the small car ferry a short distance over the ocean to Port Aransas, situated on a long spit. Last time we did this, dolphins ducked in and around the ferry. This time I imagine the water was too cold for them. It was for me, too: though I got as far as putting on my swimsuit, in the end I only had a paddle. After lunch, and a long walk along the beach looking for shells, we spent a while watching cormorants and teal at a small bird preserve. There was an alligator, too, lurking somewhere in the waters though during our visit it failed to reveal itself. Mattie spent most of her time looking through a large telescope – a peregrine falcon was perched on a telegraph wire in the near distance – and I was reminded of our very first trip to the West Country back in the UK when Mattie, then only four, loved to look out at the sea through telescopes. Then, Mike had to lift her up to do so. Now, eight years later, she is of course tall enough to manage herself.
We drove back to San Antonio in the early evening. The sun hung low in the sky like a large burnt-orange ball until just before seven it disappeared from view. Only the odd electric light now dotted the countryside until, finally, the bright lights of the city appeared. During the journey, Mattie had kept wanting to hear one of my Nanci Griffith albums. I mentioned the Texas singer/songwriter in my book, Dear Mummy, Welcome and it was back in 1997 when by chance I first heard Griffith, at the Royal Albert Hall, singing about Texas bluebonnets. Funny to think that all these years later, Mattie has become such a big fan of hers.

‘One Weekend’

Last Saturday our former workman, Jorge, came to finish off some odds and ends. He was last here in the summer, and I think both Mike and I felt rather nostalgic seeing him again. ‘Wow!’ Jorge said, on entering our house, and I recalled that in those days the place had been a mess. Since then, our Saltillo tiles have been restored to their original peachy-brown, the walls have been ‘re-plastered’ and painted white, the fireplace in the main reception area tiled in creamy-beige Mexican stone, and the garage converted into a rather handsome family room.
Mike and Jorge worked all morning long, and during a lunch break of sandwiches and beer, Mattie remarked how much it seemed like the old days – ‘except that Nico [Jorge’s workmate] isn’t here!’ I am not sure whether Jorge is in the US legally, but I do know that his son, who was born here, is. Over lunch, Jorge announced proudly that his son will go to university this year to study engineering. Though Jorge has not had the chance to do more with his own life, he is one of many poor Mexicans in the US doing all they can for their children.
The following morning Mike, Mattie and I set off for an area south of Downtown San Antonio, for Sunday breakfast at Mirador, a charming old Mexican restaurant decorated with Diego Rivera prints. Afterwards, we drove round some of the Spanish Missions, built by Indians in the 1700s. There are five of them: the Alamo in the centre of San Antonio; the remaining four in gently sloping fields to the south. Around each, there is an unexpected air of tranquillity.
Monday was Martin Luther King Day, a public holiday that coincided aptly with Barack Obama’s inauguration. I quickly finished preparing the pizza we were to eat for lunch then settled down with Mike and Mattie to watch the ceremony. The main thing I took from Barack’s speech was his emphasis on equality for immigrants and minorities – and I thought of the likes of Jorge. The highlight, for me, of the whole ceremony was the recital, by an American of Cuban descent, of a poem entitled ‘One Today’. I felt the poem was an anthem to America and found it quite emotional, especially his reference to the ‘impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever.’
Judging by the hats and coats, it was obviously colder in Washington that San Antonio, where we are currently enjoying temperatures in the early 70s and the sky is a ski weather-blue. During my walk in the park a couple of weeks ago, I saw thirty or so black vultures sitting on the low branches of a couple of leafless trees by the creek; against a cloudless blue sky the sight was truly one to behold. I had never before seen vultures in such close proximity and with their short hooked beaks, black plumage and wrinkly skin they reminded me of feathery versions of Fagin. I am not sure whether they migrated here for the winter but it struck me that many of us in the US are migratory birds of some sort!

Feliz Navidad!

A few days ago our container of furniture arrived. I felt a little emotional as the first box was carried off the truck: not only have our paintings, crockery and clothes made a long journey but I feel as though the pair of us has as well.

The arrival of the container also signified something else: the renovation (at least the inside) of our house is finally about done. Luis, our electrician, has put up the last of the light units and ceiling fans, and our painter, José, has touched up the remaining bits of internal paintwork. We are now able to arrange the newly arrived furniture where we please, place books on freshly painted shelves and knick-knacks in appropriate places. There were some unexpected stowaways in the boxes: a piece of sash rope from my bedroom window in Sussex; the handle to the grill pan that should have remained on its hook on the kitchen wall, and a carefully wrapped container of slug pellets (a neighbour has confirmed that we do get the occasional slug here when it rains!). At one point during the unwrapping Mike called me over and said, ‘What on earth’s this?’ I looked down at a piece of paper covered in what looked like tiny black eggs. ‘An insect must have got in there,’ I replied, with a shudder. Mattie then approached and exclaimed, ‘They’re not eggs, they’re poppy seeds!’ Mike gave the paper a shake and, sure enough, hundreds, if not thousands, of seeds fell back into the box. Gathering them up, I spotted the poppy seed heads that once had filled a vase in my old study – never dreaming that they would have been wrapped up, too. I have not seen mention of poppies in any of the books or magazine articles I have read about Texas wildflowers, but as San Antonio lies on a limestone escarpment I imagine they should do rather well. We shall see. Funny to think that something of my old garden might be replicated here. Remarkably, the seed heads, along with every other item in the container, suffered no damage at all.

‘It’s just like home!’ Mattie said that night when she got into her Victorian iron bed. In many respects, Mattie’s bedroom and adjoining ‘study’ do now have a feel of her old bedroom and adjoining playroom. Mattie and I loved that house – ‘I could walk around it blindfold and know exactly where everything was’, she recently told me. And seeing all our things here in Texas brought back many memories, perhaps made a little more poignant at Christmas-time when one thinks of family and friends left behind.

Many of the houses in our new neighbourhood have beautifully decorated front gardens – live-oak tree trunks covered in tiny blue lights, candy-stick edged lawns, twinkling leafy wreaths on front doors… What I find touching are the tiny houses owned by ‘poor folks’ as they’re called here, where they have hung up little ornaments, scraps of tinsel and hand-painted signs wishing all a ‘Merry Christmas’.

Christmas for me began last night when a cold front arrived and Mike lit a fire in the grate for the first time. The three of us sat in front of it, chatting, and Mattie then recited a story she had read at school and played Jingle Bells on her flute. Reflected in the glass of our patio doors were the mauve, red and green lights of our Christmas tree, and it occurred to me that this was our first Christmas together when we could truly call ourselves a family.


Perhaps appropriately, the start of Thanksgiving week was marked by the next stage in our emigration process. Early on Tuesday morning Mike drove Mattie and me to a nondescript building in the north of San Antonio to have our fingerprints and yet more photos taken (our fifth set of photos so far, I think, since Mike initiated the process two years ago.) So, all being well, at some point in the next few months I hope to receive my ‘green card’. Even then it may still be a year or so before our emigration process is officially over, but at least I will be able to work, if I wish, and Mattie and I will be allowed to leave the US – currently we would not be allowed re-entry if we did so.
The next day Mike, Mattie and I set off excitedly to spend a few days in Galveston on the south Texas coast, about 50 miles south of Houston. Galveston is actually an island, and like so many seaside towns it sports that mixture of history, decaying elegance and gaudiness. ‘It feels as though there are a lot of ghosts here,’ I remarked to Mike, and indeed a hurricane decimated much of the town in 1900, killing several thousand of the islanders. Without means of burial, the bodies were dumped in the sea – only to litter the beach the next day when the tide carried them back in. Fearing an outbreak of disease due to the sultry weather, survivors were forced to burn the bodies in funeral pyres where they lay.
Before the hurricane Galveston had been the main port of Texas – and the most important shipping and financial centre west of Wall Street. This was mainly due to the cotton trade, most of which was exported to the mills of northern England. A contributing factor was that Galveston was the principal port of entry for hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving from all over the world. Luckily, the town still sports a large number of beautiful Victorian gothic-style buildings once constructed for banks, merchants and as private residences, though many of these have been turned into museums, restaurants and curio shops over the years. I would have loved to step back in time to experience the town as the bustling major commercial centre it once was – complete with opera house, ballrooms, pleasure piers and coffee and peanut butter processing plants.
We ate our Thanksgiving meal in a charming century-old restaurant called Gaido’s on the seafront. The grilled shrimp dusted in light cornmeal, the ‘blackened’ scallops and the pecan pie for dessert were exceptionally good. Mattie, having a penchant for turkey and ham, instead chose the buffet, occasionally dropping on Mike’s and my plate a fried oyster. During the meal Mike looked at us at and said with a smile, ‘Well, it’s our first Thanksgiving together.’ It did indeed seem like we had passed another milestone in our story. Perhaps my sweetest memory is when earlier that same day Mattie had come up to me and said ‘I’m thankful for you, Mum’.

Trick or Treat

On Halloween, our neighbourhood was pretty busy with lots of mums, dads and children in fancy dress going from house to house for candy. I was in fact surprised by how many there were because our neighbourhood is not exactly flush with kids. Then I found out that many of these ‘Halloweeners’ were in fact Mexican families from poorer districts who had come by. I found this quite touching: it was sweet to see the glow on the children’s faces as they were given a treat.
When I and Mattie returned from ‘trick or treating’ later that evening, Mike announced that the candy bowl he had been dishing out to children was empty. We therefore ‘encouraged’ Mattie to put half of her loot into it for late evening callers; she grumbled a little but did so and it was gone in 15 minutes.
At my Spanish class the following evening, our teacher brought yet more goodies left over from a Halloween party she had attended. Each time we asked a question, or gave a response, in perfect Spanish we were offered the candy bowl! I like our teacher, Rosalinda, very much. In her early sixties, this tiny Mexican woman has a big booming voice and a very engaging personality. During the classes she often relates an amusing anecdote about her (much younger) American husband, and to me the pair (he comes in at the end of the evening) make a good double act. A few weeks ago, Rosalinda revealed that her ambition, when she shortly retires, is to babysit for her first grandchild. The problem: her only daughter (who lives in San Antonio) is forty and has just completed her final IVF treatment. Rosalinda asked us to pray for good news. If it is not, I have it in mind to give her daughter a copy of my book, Dear Mummy, Welcome. Who knows – out of bad news might come good.
That is the way I have viewed the recent hurricane disaster that has hit New York and surrounding areas. In a long and extremely divisive election campaign we have finally seen Republicans – in the form of New Jersey Governor Christie, and New York Mayor Bloomberg – come together with Democrats: in recent days, Christie has praised Obama effusively for his handling of the crisis; and Bloomberg, believing Obama to be a better option than Romney to tackle climate change and women’s rights – has endorsed him for the next term. One can only hope that this last-minute coming together will not only convince undecided voters next Tuesday, but that it will endure throughout the following four years.

The More Things Change…

2 October was National Night Out in the US, its aim to promote neighbourhood spirit and police/community partnerships. The head of our own San Antonio neighbourhood had planned a get-together at Mamacita’s restaurant, a short drive away. It is a popular Tex-Mex eating spot, though I am surely not the only person who finds the life-size Davy Crockett figure, playing a fiddle on an overhead stage set, bizarre to say the least!
The highlight of this fun evening was the appearance of our own San Antonio Mayor, Julian Castro, who, as well as wishing our neighbourhood well, urged us to vote for his proposed 1/8% increase in city sales tax for improved early school teaching. A popular, highly articulate Democrat in this mainly Republican state, Castro literally sprung onto the national stage this autumn when Barack Obama invited him to make the keynote speech at the national Democratic Convention in Colorado.
Mattie was particularly thrilled to see Castro at our gathering, and at the end of his short speech raced to get his autograph and photo.‘I know your brother!’ she excitedly exclaimed.‘Do you, how come?’ he asked, with a big smile, and Mattie replied that he had visited her elementary school to talk about careers. Castro and his identical twin lawyer brother (who is aiming for Congress this year) come from a poor, single parent family, but worked their way through the San Antonio school system to gain scholarships to Stanford and Harvard. ‘Where are you from?’ Castro then asked Mattie. ‘From England,’ she beamed, and he informed us that David Cameron had invited him and a team of businessmen to the UK in November. I then told the Mayor how much we had enjoyed his keynote Convention speech, at which point Mike turned round, with a grin, and announced: ‘You do realize I’m the only one of the three of us allowed to vote?!’
The 38 year-old Hispanic mayor is of a far more diminutive stature than one would have guessed from his Convention appearance, but this is compensated with a big, rich voice and plenty of enthusiasm. On Saturday evening, Mike pointed out to me the former mayor of San Antonio; Henry Cisneros was standing in front of us in the ticket queue at a local cinema. Much taller than Castro, the chisel-featured Hispanic had once also been the darling of the Democrats, working his way up to Clinton’s Cabinet. An extra-marital affair, Mike said, put an end to his career; and I remarked, quietly of course, how many high-flying political careers finished that way.
The former mayor sat on the opposite aisle to us during Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’, a film about the CIA attempt to free six of the US Embassy hostages in Tehran. Not a particularly good film, in our opinion, though its timing was apt, given the recent attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. One had a certain sense of déja-vue.

All Kinds of Everything

The other day I noticed an Asian supermarket as I was driving home. Curious as to what they might sell, I decided to stop and take a look. Inside was a treasure trove of goodies: apricot jam from Armenia, small bottles of Egyptian mango juice, Turkish delight and other sweetmeats from Istanbul, fresh goat meat, jasmine teabags from Iran … to mention but a few – and not forgetting a wonderful array of flours, grains and spices.
Asians represent just 2.3 percent of the city of San Antonio’s 1.3 residents, although more live in outlying areas. Many of them come from India, Turkey, China and Bangladesh. Amongst other things at the supermarket, I bought some freshly made wholewheat pitta breads and gave one to Mattie when she arrived home from school. I grilled the pitta first and then filled it with cheddar and tomato. It reminded me how, back home, Mattie’s Aunty Molly often used to make these as a snack. Funny, the things that remind one of home! I thought the same thing on Saturday night: I was listening to the radio and someone requested Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I had bought the CD not long before emigrating and remember discussing it with my friend, Wei Ping. Suddenly, it was as though Wei Ping were actually there with me. I remembered her exact words. If someone had asked me, before emigrating, what might recall England I would never have suggested pitta bread and Bach!
Earlier on the same Saturday, Mike and I had watched a program about John Lennon and his fight with the Nixon government, back in the 70s, when he lived in the US. I had forgotten about how much a protest figure, and bastion for peace, Lennon had been. Not surprisingly, he had a long battle with the Nixon government and immigration services about his right to abode in the US. This was finally settled only after Nixon resigned. During the program we saw a copy of Lennon’s passport and I discovered his middle name was Winston.
This evening, I am about to start Spanish lessons at the Winston Churchill High School, not far from our house. With Hispanics making up about 60% of the San Antonio population one hears Spanish almost everywhere – in restaurants, the post office, on the bus. I asked one of our Mexican workmen whether it feels like home here and he said it was indeed like living in a little Mexico. Mike and I passed by Churchill school today. It has a large Union Jack on the building. I recalled that the Asian supermarket also sells Bird’s custard powder, Brooke Bond tea and mint sauce! One comes to realize what a truly cosmopolitan city San Antonio is.

Snowflakes In Fall

It seems that autumn is upon us. Last Monday, when Mattie and I opened the front door to walk to school, she yelled out, ‘It’s freezing!’ and rushed for her hoodie. In fact, it was probably only in the late 60s, but having been used to morning temperatures well into the 80s throughout the last 2 months, it did feel pretty cool.
The first signs of autumn occurred a couple of weeks ago, when large flurries of seeds from our Texas ash began to fall onto the back garden and pool. At times, the seeds resemble large, golden-brown snowflakes, and there have been veritable drifts of them on the patio, causing much exasperation from Mike who has been extracting them from the pool filter.
Fall in San Antonio is lovely. Mike noted this week that the light is different: the sky is a deeper, clearer blue and everything seems to enjoy a golden tinge. With the lower temperatures, we are not so reliant on air conditioning, keeping our patio doors open for most of the day, which means that I now can hear those noisy cicadas, and chattering squirrels, from the kitchen. There are more butterflies around now. In our garden I spotted the beautifully-marked orange Monarch butterfly, millions of which will fly through Texas to northern Mexico over the next couple of months. And along the creek, situated a short drive from our house, are other varieties, some with large flapping wings of pale apricot; others are lemon or shimmering black and midnight blue.
Several pathways run in and about the creek. Slightly undulating and stony in places, these pathways enjoy dappled shade from mesquite, live oak, persimmon and juniper trees. All of San Antonio’s creeks are stone dry except when there is a rainfall and then they rapidly fill up. We are lucky here to have avoided the drought that has affected much of the US. During my walk along the creek this morning, I came across a pond sheltered by a high bluff, and startled a bright-red crested cardinal, as well as a family of five white-tailed deer that cocked their heads at me through the tall grasses before running away. I stayed a while to observe the bright-orange and scarlet dragonflies hovering over the pond – Texas has the largest variety of dragonflies in the US, as well as the largest bird population in the world, many of which use the state as a stopover whilst migrating north or south. I have to brush up on my knowledge of south Texas birds, though during my walk I did recognize a humming bird hovering above the scarlet blossom of a scarlet Turk’s Cap shrub; white-winged doves; a mocking bird; and a flurry of lemon-yellow breasted warblers. But the pair of larger, clay-coloured birds sporting burnt-orange stripes on their wings will have to await a check on the internet for me to find out what they were.
Earlier in the summer, I was thrilled to see a large red-shouldered hawk sitting nonchalantly on a rock before me. At that time of year, the vegetation is more colourful, with wildflowers in abundance. Even now there still remains the odd splash of shocking-pink mallow blossom, and clumps of Texas lavender which look particularly lovely set against golden daisies and the prickly pear cactus, now bearing its maroon-coloured fruit. What I particularly love at this time of year are the grasses; the most common variety in this particular creek sports beige-coloured seeds which dangle daintily in the breeze, reminding me of tiny Christmas trees.

Building New Roots

A beautiful wooden plate, finely painted in the German naïve style, lay for weeks gathering dust in the charity shop where I used to work back in the UK. I pondered whether to buy it, but Mattie and I were in the middle of the emigration process and I could not imagine how something so German would fit into a south Texas home. In the end, I decided the plate was too lovely to be taken back to the charity storehouse, along with all the other unsold items, and my plate now lounges somewhere in my container in Houston.
During a recent trip to the Hill Country, I learned that most of the 19th century pioneers who settled in this region between Austin and San Antonio, hailed from central and northern Germany. Mike, Mattie and I were travelling along a remote, undulating road and I spotted a row of mailboxes. I looked around but could hardly see the houses tucked far back from the roadside, hidden by trees. A little later and another set of mailboxes appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The mailboxes are exactly the same as the one at the bottom of our front garden, which Mattie likes to empty every day. That letter from Mum, or a parcel for Mattie, are always a treat. How different it would have been for those early German settlers; and as we continued our drive I wondered how they felt having to leave their homeland knowing they would never return, and building a home and community from scratch in a region that was not only extremely isolated but rife with warring Comanche Indians.
The Sunday before Mattie and I left for the US, the vicar at our local church spoke about the importance of roots. ‘You’re losing your roots,’ he announced to me after the service. ‘I can build new roots,’ I replied, and he agreed. But does one ever lose one’s roots? In comparison to those early Germans, Mattie and I were lucky: we left the UK knowing we would see family and friends within the year and could call home whenever we wished. I brought a clutch of favourite photos, too. Photography had barely been invented when the Germans arrived in the Hill Country. They had been told they were coming to good farming land and instead found themselves on shallow, rocky soil, sandwiched between high plains and desert. But they buckled down and set to, building orderly, efficient farms, and churches, houses and shops that would not look out of place in an elegant Duesseldorf suburb today. The German language is still prevalent: ‘Willkommen’ is written on the sign that greets you at Fredericksburg; in Boerne, the main street is called ‘Hauptstrasse’, and shops have German names. For better or worse, German cuisine has penetrated the Tex-Mex menu via the Wurst. And the hand organ, which has a surprisingly melodic and haunting sound, is played by south Texas rock bands and Mexican Mariachi bands alike. Though when I saw a poster advertising an Oompah band, I decided that was one to miss …


One early evening last week, Mike and I went again to ‘Sol Luna’, the restaurant we visited with Mattie the day we got married. The patio of ‘Sol Luna’ is always beautifully shaded, assisted by large hanging baskets of lush green foliage. At this hour, the restaurant was heaving and a happy din of chatter rang around. A smiling waiter brought us blue corn tortilla chips and delicious salsas made from serrano and chiplote chiles. Mike and I ordered the same dishes that we had eaten on our marriage day – small tacos filled with bean, cabbage and avocado; enchiladas stuffed with lobster, red snapper and shrimp. Mike drank his favourite Dos Equis beer and I a Margarita, of which Mike had a sip. ‘It has too much tequila in it,’ he remarked. ‘It’s still good,’ I smiled, though I noticed that after just a couple more sips I found it difficult to enunciate my words and my voice sounded very loud in my ears.
The best Margaritas in San Antonio are actually made by Mike. They have just the right amount of tequila and they are neither too sweet nor too sharp. He occasionally makes them when we are having a barbecue. Mike got his well-thumbed recipe from an acquaintance in Austin. I’m usually the one who hand-squeezes the juice from the limes; Mattie used to do this until she became bored by the procedure. Mexican limes are much sweeter than other limes but if the finished result is still a little sharp, we add a few drops of agave nectar to our drinks, which Mike pours into recycled Mexican glasses that have a band of navy blue around the rim. I like a little salt on the rim of my glass.
Whilst the chicken is grilling, Mike and I sit down with our drinks and pass the time of day with Mattie. It is a nice way to wind down after a day making the inevitable trips to Lowe’s – the DIY store up the road – and overseeing our workmen, Jorge and Nico. Last Saturday, we invited Jorge and Nico to have a drink with us before they left for home. These Mexican men are two of the nicest people you could meet. Jorge hails from a town called Musquit, close to the border. He is quite tall and handsome, wears a small beard and a baseball cap turned backwards, and speaks excellent, heavily accented English. Jorge goes to church with his wife early each Sunday morning, is sensitive, well read and learns German in his spare time. He also has a small terrier whom he dotes on and even equips with small boots during rainy weather. I like to think Jorge would be a poet in another life.
Nico has one of those faces I think Robert Capa would have liked to photograph. It is a timeless face. His skin is dark and sun-roasted, he has big white teeth, a perpetual smile and always wears a straw cowboy hat. Nico hardly speaks English even though he has lived in San Antonio for many years, so Jorge translates for him; Nico’s six grown-up children are all perfectly fluent. Nico’s smile is broadest at the end of a working day, when Mike offers him a beer. He was thrilled with an old sixties wine cabinet we were about to throw away. He said he would store his tequila in it. Tequila, Nico grins, is his religion.
When the two later left, Mike said he feared we would likely lose touch with them once their work on our house is done. It struck me that neither Jorge nor Nico has much money; they live very simply on the Mexican (poor) side of town – and yet they always seem pretty happy and contented with their lot. The same goes for the other Mexican workers who pass through our house – the tiler, the plumber, the glass and mirror man … What a good antidote these Mexicans are to our over-commercialised western world.

That Three-Month Milestone

Earlier this month Mike, Mattie and I celebrated my birthday at Paesano’s, an Italian restaurant in north San Antonio. Paesano’s is a very pleasant and restful place, with a bubbling fountain, a pond full of goldfish – and usually at least one large, wealthy Mexican family chatting at a long table, which always reminds me of a scene out of ‘The Godfather’.
After the waiter had brought our drinks, Mike smiled at Mattie and me and remarked, ‘Well, you’ve all been here a little over three months now, what do y’all think of it?’
Mattie promptly replied that she definitely wanted to stay, and that there was no way she wanted to go back to school in England. She added, later, that she wished she could have brought cousin Mei with her, and Nannie. I said words to the effect that if we were half-way through a house renovation project and still getting along, then things must be going all right!
Mike’s words reminded me of a passage in ‘Dear Mummy, Welcome’, when I noticed how Mattie, three months after moving in with me, seemed to be so much more settled. I have just managed to find a copy of my book, in amongst all of our still unpacked bags, and turning to the respective page, I read how Mattie’s confidence in her new situation grew back then, how by three months she became more confident, and that although she still would bring out her clutch of photos of life at her foster home, it was less frequently.
Strangely, all these years later, I see some parallels in my own situation in coming to the US, with those of Mattie coming to live with me. I realize how my own confidence in my new situation has grown since arriving; how, at almost exactly the three-month mark I felt more settled and my pangs of homesickness diminished. There had been times – opening bank accounts; obtaining social security IDs; dealing with unfinished administration in the UK; the ongoing emigration process; finding a hairdresser and dentist, etc – when I would think how much easier in some ways it would have been to have stayed put. But just because something is easier does not mean it is necessarily the path to follow; and I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss book that my sister, Caryl, gave Mattie as a farewell gift:
‘You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.’
Turning back to ‘Dear Mummy, Welcome’, I remember, too, the words of Mattie’s lovely play therapist, Fiona: ‘There’s been a lot of change in your life. A big change, but it’s only a change.’ An obvious thing to say, but sometimes it’s the obvious that one overlooks. Emigrating is nowhere near as big a change as adopting a child on my own, but much change there has been … and for all three of us.
I read on a little further: ‘Mattie is like a flower that’s blossomed,’ smiled my neighbour, Jo around that three-month milestone. And Mattie is blossoming yet again! At a recent get-together at a local restaurant, one of our new neighbours complained that Mattie hadn’t been by to see her recently. And yesterday, when Mike and I went to pick up a piece of furniture we had put aside in a shop Downtown, the shop assistant asked, with a disappointed look, ‘Where’s your little girl? … She’s too cute!’

Feeling Spooky In Downtown San Antonio

I was recently in Downtown San Antonio, taking photos for my website, and found myself outside a Goodwill (charity) shop. Deciding I needed a bag (several are packed away in my container somewhere in Houston so I didn’t want to spend a lot) I entered the store and immediately, took a double take. There, on a bag stand, hung a shocking-pink, woven handbag – exactly the same as one I had pondered whether to buy back in England. Call me obsessive but I had had a few regretful thoughts about not purchasing that bag since arriving in San Antonio – how lovely the colour would be in this hot climate, what a perfect size for my camera and glasses, etc, etc. Why had I not bought the bag then? I don’t know, but here I was, thousands of miles away, staring at the exact same one. Feeling a little spooky, I carried the bag to the cash till and stood in line behind a black lady carrying a huge box of Christmas tree lights.
‘Are you buying early this year,’ I smiled at her.
‘Yeah, if you don’t buy somethin’ straightaway you never find it later,’ she drawled.
Outside the shop, my new bag tucked under my arm, I entered ‘Marti’s’ next door, one of the most expensive shops in San Antonio, and asked the owner if I might take photos of their gorgeous Mexican fabrics, glassware and furniture for my website
‘Yes, of course,’ he beamed. I then spotted the lovely Mexican pine rustic dining table I had seen the last time I had been in there. Mexican pine is a different colour to English or American pine, it’s like a mud brown and this piece was beautiful but there was a hefty price tag on it. After checking with the owner I was told there was a third off.
‘It’s a period piece,’ he said, ‘and we can transport it to England.’
‘Oh, my husband and I live here,’ I explained. (Married less than a month, I still find the sound of the words ‘my husband’ quite strange to the ear.) ‘We’ve visited your shop several times before.’
‘Then did you ever visit our branch in Nuevo Laredo?’ he enquired.
‘No, sadly I didn’t,’ I said, though I had heard that ‘Marti’s’ had been forced to close their Nuevo Laredo branch some years ago because of the border drug wars.
‘Nuejo Laredo is just like a ghosttown,’ the owner said. ‘But Laredo on the US side of the border is worth a visit. Lots of Mexicans cross over to Laredo to buy US goods. It used to be the other way round.’
When I arrived home, later that afternoon, and showed Mattie my shocking pink bag, she exclaimed, ‘Oh that’s not just spooky, it’s scary!’ She then announced proudly that she had made lemonade while I was out and had taken some round to the neighbours. ‘I wanted them to buy it from me but Mike wouldn’t let me,’ Mattie grumbled.
‘Oh, were you intending to put the money towards a charity?’ I asked.
‘No, I would have kept it for myself,’ she grinned, and it occurred to me how well Mattie suits living in the US!

How To Get Married In Texas

Mike and I were married on 6th July – one month after my parents’ 59th wedding anniversary; Mum and Dad just missed out on an invitation to the Queen’s garden party this year for all those celebrating their diamond weddings. Mum was 18 when she got married and her outfit, a grape-coloured, pleated crepe suit, hung in the wardrobe for years before she eventually donated it to a jumble sale.
Mum had probably had a while to select that wedding outfit. In contrast, I had about half-an-hour. We were (and still are) in the thick of renovating our new home in north-central San Antonio, in a leafy suburb called Colonial Hills; and when, on the morning of the 6th, our head carpenter announced a delay in some work he was carrying out for us, Mike suggested we get married instead. (Under the terms of the emigration process, our 3-month window for getting married was up the following week!) At the time of Mike’s suggestion, I was dressed in shorts, my nail varnish was chipped and my legs needed a shave. I hurriedly glanced through my makeshift wardrobe in Mike’s ‘office’, tucked amongst all the boxes of stuff still to be sorted, and finally decided on a long silk cotton dress in pink, peach and ochre stripes that I had bought in Whitestuff the previous summer. Thankfully, the dress looked lovely on, and I added a pair of pretty cream pumps, diamond stud earrings and a silver necklace with a pink stone that Mike had bought for me in Puerto Vallarta. Whilst Mike was urging Mattie and me to hurry up, I quickly applied some turquoise nail varnish, and finally my grandmother’s Welsh gold wedding ring: my aunty had given it to me some time ago for this very occasion. Mattie then rushed down in a chic dress and leggings, and some new white-patent shoes bought for her at Walmart on the occasion of her elementary school graduation ceremony.
After checking that we had all our passports and identity cards with us, Mike drove us downtown to the San Antonio County Courthouse.
This was our second visit to the Courthouse in a week: the first had been to obtain a marriage license, a precursor to our being allowed to marry here. We had then entered a large office on the ground floor and had sat before an overweight, middle-aged Mexican woman with pageboy haircut and glasses. After checking our ID cards the bored-looking clerk asked Mike for $60 – if you want to get married in Texas, you have to pay in cash! Mike handed over the money and she handed over the license. Then, as we arose from our seats, Mike grinned at her and asked, ‘So do you think it’ll work?’ The clerk glanced up at him through her glasses and, po-faced, replied ‘I don’t know.’
On this second occasion, Mike was dressed in his navy-blue Guayabera shirt and best Lucchese cowboy boots as we arrived at the Courthouse on the main plaza of downtown San Antonio. I asked Mattie to take a picture of the handsome, red sandstone building, built in the 1890s in Romanesque style. Looking up at it, I felt quite excited; yet at the same time, I had no idea what lay ahead.
‘Where do we go to get married?’ Mike asked the security guards as we entered the building, all holding hands.
‘Up to the 4th floor,’ they responded without expression, as though they had been asked the same question a thousand times before.
‘You look like an English authoress,’ Mike smiled, appraisingly, as we made our way to the lift, along with a tall man in a sober grey suit.
‘What’s your job?’ Mattie asked the man immediately, after pressing the button to the 4th floor.
He smiled down at her and replied, ‘I’m a lawyer, what’s your job?’
‘I don’t have a job,’ Mattie announced, seriously, ‘but I want to be a lawyer when I’m older.’
‘Well, I’ll tell you something,’ the lawyer responded, ‘I’d rather be anywhere than in here right now!’
On emerging from the lift, we found the 4th floor handsomely clad with wooden wall panels and lined with benches where people sat waiting. Mike checked with reception and was told that a Judge in Room 44 was available to marry us; all the others were at lunch. It all felt quite surreal as we walked to the end of the corridor where, outside the designated room, a large Hispanic family sat with babies on laps; one of the mums beamed a big smile at me. A fair-haired, middle-aged female Judge, with long black robes covered with an array of sparkling brooches, then warmly greeted us and beckoned us into her office. It was small and packed with books and I at first found it difficult to find space for my straw hat. Mike and I stood by the Judge’s desk whilst Mattie stood at the back of the office, camera in hand. I felt as though I were in the middle of a movie whilst the Judge led Mike through his marriage vows. After I had read out mine, the Judge asked me to place Mike’s ring on his finger.
‘But I don’t have one,’ I laughed. It hadn’t occurred to me!
‘Then pretend that you are putting one on,’ the Judge urged.
Afterwards, she congratulated us. It was all very sweet.
‘So do you feel any different now you’re my wife?’ Mike said, as we all took the lift back down to the ground floor.
‘Actually, I don’t,’ I smiled. Though I did feel very content inside.
On getting out of the lift, we passed by a disgruntled-looking Mexican bride-to-be in long white dress; she was standing next to her much shorter father who was dressed in grey suit and tie and his trousers were belted around his portly belly. He looked rather agitated, perhaps because there was no sign of the groom.
To record our marriage, Mike, Mattie and I now returned to the part of the Courthouse where earlier that week we had obtained the license. I looked around for the bored-looking clerk but there was no sign of her. After making enquiries, we approached a counter where a smiling man recorded our marriage certificate.
‘Congratulations!’ he said, handing it over. ‘Do you want a certified copy of it, too?’
‘Yes, please,’ we replied.
‘Then it’ll cost you $8,’ he said, ‘though it’ll have to be in cash,’ he added.
Afterwards, we drove to ‘SolLuna’ or ‘SunMoon’, one of our favourite restaurants in Alamo Heights, just north of downtown. The restaurant has a beautiful patio and we sat at a table surrounded by terracotta pots full of lush foliage and apricot and scarlet flowering hibiscus.
‘So now I have a step dad,’ Mattie beamed, after ordering her chicken fajita taco with guacamole ‘Yes, I suppose you do,’ Mike grinned down at her, and he and I raised our Margaritas to make a toast.

On The Wagon Trail

Since emigrating to south Texas, I am reminded of the path which led to Mattie and my being here. In particular, I think back to my first meeting with Mike in 2004 in Oaxaca, when Mike brought up the possibility of our one day living together; out of the blue he suggested that I (and my soon to be adopted child) might want to move to the US. I remember the feeling of shock at his words, and inwardly I felt there was no way I would want to move away from England. But as time went by, the thought became more and more appealing, and whenever Mattie and I would travel to the US on holiday, the 3 of us would undertake a road trip to work out where we would one day like to settle. These trips included New Mexico, far west Texas and the Texas Gulf coast. Finally we settled on south Texas – and all these years later, here we are!
On departing the UK in April this year, a friend, in her ‘farewell’ card, wrote that emigrating was by far the biggest step of my life. I knew immediately on reading those words that emigration would in no way be as great as adopting a child on my own. Even so, it is still a big step to take – and perhaps like adoption it is only after the event that one realizes just how big that step is! Mattie has settled in beautifully and I doubt that she has looked back once. She spent one term at elementary school here and thoroughly enjoyed it – despite the earlier starting time of 8am. She once said to me, ‘Mum, I feel I belong here.’ I ventured that, coming from a mainly white town in the UK, perhaps that was because there are so many mixed races here (mainly Hispanic but Asian, Middle East, South American and others, too); and she agreed with me, saying, ‘Here everyone is different.’ Mattie is now on summer break, about to do a fortnight at summer camp with the girl scouts. It is her Mum who has suffered occasional feelings of homesickness! It occurred to me on writing this that the last time I experienced homesickness was in the diplomatic service – over 30 years ago. I remember, during those early months in Bangkok, writing letters home about how miserably lonely I felt and then tearing them up and throwing them in the bin! And although I have felt nowhere near as homesick as in Bangkok, I can still be taken unawares – perhaps by a letter from my mum, or a shot of the English countryside on TV. My hairdresser, a young girl with a strong southern accent and tattooed arms who recently moved to Texas from South Carolina in order to marry her fiancé, out of the blue mentioned how homesick she had felt here at the start. From talking to her, I realized that her move was bigger than mine – at least my accent is adored here!
And there are so many positives to our moving here. Not least, the fact we are a family and living together, finally. And there is the weather – today it is only in the early 90s and this is the hottest time of the year; even when it is hotter, there is usually a breeze and cloud cover blowing in from the Gulf coast. The rest of the year it gets cooler and in winter it is not unknown to light a fire – nearly all the homes have fireplaces. I also love the sounds – the sound of birdsong (I have seen painted buntings, humming birds and blue jays in the garden); the mesmerizing sound of crickets echoing around the garden from late afternoon onwards; the sound of the freight train as it wends its way northwards to Oklahoma. I love the leafy boulevard-like streets, the huge live oaks that spread their long branches to give us shade, and the blossoming myrtle trees – pale and mid-pink, cyclamen and purple. And then there is the friendliness of the people. When I walked Mattie to school for the first few days I noticed how even the teenagers smiled at me – an unknown back home! And last, but not least, in this state that once belonged to Mexico and where 60% of the population of San Antonio is Hispanic, one enjoys some of the positives of living in Mexico – but happily without the poor plumbing system!

Feedback: The Joy And The Unexpected

If, before writing ‘Dear Mummy, Welcome’, I had been asked to document the stages in writing a book, I would have mentioned the editing, of course, seeking a publisher, dealing with rejections, the publishing, the PR – but I would not have included ‘feedback’. And yet this has proved to be such an unexpectedly joyful, sometimes poignant, and often thought-provoking part of the whole process.
I now realise that readers of my book have been impacted in so many different ways – and when I talk about readers, some of these are adopted; some were fostered; some have adopted themselves; some are birth mums and dads; some have no children.
The emails, letters (what a luxury to receive a handwritten note!), phone calls and people seeking me out to pass a comment – all have been overwhelming, and I take pleasure in publishing some extracts below:
‘It made me cry and laugh in equal measures and I had to write and say how much I enjoyed it as I made the journey with you …’
‘I just wanted to write and tell you how much I enjoyed your book. I was totally gripped from beginning to end. It struck a chord with bringing up my two – they may be my flesh and blood but their personalities are still very much their own!’
‘Thanks so much for sharing your uplifting story so honestly.’
‘I have read the book cover to cover and found it un-put-downable. It was very moving in parts and also very personal…It is well written and bodes well for your novel.’
‘We think this book is marvellous and uplifting as well as extremely helpful to many …’
‘It’s great! I read it right through on Saturday, didn’t get anything else done. Congratulations!’
‘I have enjoyed how your book has evoked the most wonderful memory of my parents … a Christmas blessing.’

Why I Wrote ‘Dear Mummy, Welcome’

I started to write ‘Dear Mummy, Welcome’ as soon as my daughter, Mattie, started school at the age of 4. I decided to write for 2 hours a day during weekdays and it took me 18 months to complete the first draft.
The main reason for writing this memoir was for my daughter to have a record of our first year together and the leadup to it. I also wanted to share our experiences with others, believing the book might be useful to those wishing to adopt or who had already adopted. Though the book will resonate with all women.
I recently worked out that the publishing process – since submitting that first extract to my publisher until publication date on 17 November – has been four years in duration; or the same time it took to adopt! And yet I think the timing of its publication is perfect. Not only because the current government is now making adoption such a high priority but because Mattie, at the age of 11, is mature enough to be thrilled with the book. Although she has not read it herself – and I do not expect her to want to do so for some years – I have read several extracts to her, especially the funny ones and she finds it very amusing. And when she opened the first copies sent to us by the publisher, she said ‘Mum, this is amazing!’