Are We There Yet?

According to last Sunday’s New York Times, the heyday of the family roadtrip was in the 1950s and 1960s as the expanding system of interstate highways resulted in quicker driving times across the country. Long summer car trips remain a rite of passage in the US and during the July 4th weekend, when Mike, Mattie and I embarked on our own road trip, over 30 million American families did likewise (although the average 730 miles clocked up was somewhat less than the 6000 we undertook…)

We began our journey on Texas Highway 90, driving westwards from San Antonio through a landscape of scrub and mesquite interspersed for miles with the glorious pink-purple blossom of Texas sage. At the Mexican border we then drove through part of Texas that is flat, empty and quite otherworldly; at Seminole Canyon State Park, an area first inhabited 12,000 years ago and where we stopped for a picnic, we were the sole visitors in the July heat, the only sound that of the wind which kept blowing our picnic cups and plates away. We continued north-westwards on Highway 90, briefly stopping at the tiny town of Langtry, by the Rio Grande, where the infamous Judge Roy Bean practised law at the end of the 19th century (he named the small town after his favourite actress, Lily); and late afternoon at the splendid Gage Hotel in Marathon where a white buffalo head adorns the bar. Marathon, once the cradle of the west Texas cattle business, lies in rolling prairie land, at the foot of the Davis Mountains, where antelope roam. ‘I feel as though I’ve had a holiday’s worth already,’ I told Mike as the three of us sat in the hotel bar. ‘Wait till you see the rest of it,’ he chuckled.

The following morning, after overnighting in El Paso, we crossed the border via New Mexico into Arizona and on our approach to Tucson, in the Sonoran desert, the landscape became filled with ocotillo trees, organ pipe and saguaro cacti. Tucson, the second largest city in Arizona, is most gloriously surrounded by five mountain ranges; at the foot of one is the cactus-filled Tucson Mountain Park and after lunch in the old quarter we had a stroll around the park before our onward journey to Flagstaff, gateway to the Grand Canyon. The altitude became higher and the terrain gradually changed to mountains covered in pine forest (though it was dark by that time, and stormy, and only when flashes of lightening illuminated the sky were the pines visible).
The morning of our second wedding anniversary was spent at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. What must the native Americans, and the first settlers, thought when they first saw the Canyon? I wondered. Its impact was even more striking when we left the tourists and drove along the eastern end of the Canyon. We then continued further into northern Arizona on a fabulously beautiful road which skirted the edge of the Navajo Indian Reservation and gave onto breathtaking vistas of the aptly named Vermillion cliffs. The landscape was just as breathtaking all the way to Utah.

Our first night in Utah was spent in an adobe hotel in the town of Kanab, and in a nearby restaurant we enjoyed smoked Idaho trout and Mike and I, a glass of fine Washington State wine. The following morning, at the supermarket, where we replenished our picnic supplies of turkey, bread and fruit, Mattie was fascinated to see several women from a Mormon sect, all sporting long Victorian-like dresses and Sarah Palin-like hair. On our onward journey, we stopped at a German bakery for some delicious croissants and a loaf of rye bread stuffed with olives, then drove for a couple of hours through lovely, gently undulating farmland pasture. This changed abruptly as we entered the Red Canyon, in Dixie National Forest, an arid desertscape of red sandstone pinnacles. Just 30 or so miles further on was the Bryce Canyon National Park, an isolated area which contains thousands of fantastically shaped, pinkish-red carved spires and pinnacles (or hoodoos). Violet-green swallows and ravens flew in and out of the canyon as we walked around, taking photos, and Mattie was particularly thrilled to spot a couple of chipmunks. We spent the night in northern Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, and following her sighting of the Mormon women in Kanab, Mattie was looking forward to visiting the Mormon Temple the next morning. After a brief (and somewhat underwhelming for Mattie) viewing we picnicked at a pretty lakeside beach and bird reserve and worked out the route to take through Idaho.

I had no preconceptions of Idaho. ‘It’ll be very pretty,’ Mike said. In fact, it was truly gorgeous – not flashy like Arizona and Utah with their stunning shades of reds and pinks: Idaho is more subtly beautiful, a land of blue-greys and soft purples. On first entering the state we drove through a vast, quite awe-inspiring plain, which we learned was the birthplace of the nuclear navy and site of many nuclear reactor experiments. The plain is 900 square miles in total, completely flat, and so open that at one point the wind pushed our (rather large) vehicle rather frighteningly into the opposite lane. The scenery and colours changed as we left the plain and began our drive through the Salmon River mountain range, stopping in the early evening for a picnic at an idyllic lakeside setting with a sandy beach; several people there were fishing. On our approach to the hamlet of Challis, where we were to spend the night, the sun was setting and we were thrilled to spot a mountain lion cross the road before us. Later that evening we enjoyed the motel’s outdoors jacuzzi that gave onto the mountain range, and the next morning a delicious country breakfast of poached eggs, locally made sausage and hash browns. Invigorated, we drove on through northern Idaho, tracing the canyons of the Salmon River, and during one photo stop marveled at the sight of two golden eagles on a low branch of a tree. By early afternoon we had crossed the border into Montana, our destination Missoula, a university town where Mike’s eldest daughter, husband and two grandchildren live.

The afternoon of our arrival in Missoula, we enjoyed catching up over fish tacos and quesadillas, a walk on the nearby mountainside that can be seen from Courtney and Andrew’s kitchen window, and later, a gin and tonic, watching the sun set from their balcony. Mattie loved spending time with her two small step nieces. During our stay, we decided on a trip to the Glacier National Park, situated in the Northern Rocky Mountains, just south of the Canadian border. The Park consists of more than a million acres of forest, alpine meadows, lakes, rugged peaks, glacial-carved valleys, mountain lodges (which reminded me of Switzerland) and lots of grizzly bears (unfortunately we didn’t see one). In 1850 the park had 150 glaciers but now, sadly, there are only 25 active ones. Looking back, our visit to Glacier Park must come close to the top of all the highlights of our road trip, though Mike, who insisted on doing most of the driving, including along the hairpin bends with sheer drops, would probably disagree – especially as we had miscalculated the distance and it took five hours to get back to Missoula after departing the east end of the Park. Eek! Even so, the scenery was gorgeous every mile of the way and as I looked over the vast plains to the south of Glacier Park, I imagined them full of buffalo and Indians on horseback. After arriving back at midnight, whilst everyone went to bed, Mike I shared a glass of wine and had a chuckle about our epic trip.

On departing Montana and re-entering Idaho for a while, we drove through the Bitterroot and Clearwater mountain ranges, an area where, in 1877, the Nez Perce Chief Looking Glass and his tribe had camped on their way to seek refuge with Sitting Bull across the Canadian border. (Looking Glass was shortly thereafter killed by a Cheyenne army scout). Later, we briefly crossed into Washington State, where rolling hills were covered literally from top to bottom with golden wheat, then across the border into eastern Oregon, spending the night in Pendleton, famous for its woollen mills founded in the late 1800s and as a maker of fine Indian trading blankets. The following morning we bought some handsome cushions and a saddle blanket for our sofa back in San Antonio then drove along the beautiful Colombia River, which separates Oregon from Washington State. Turning southwards, I spotted, to the west, the huge snow-capped peak of Mount Jefferson, one of the major volcanos in the Cascade mountain range.

Eastern Oregon is desert like, shades of yellow and pink, quite lovely, again quite empty and there always seemed to be a snow-capped volcano on the horizon. After a late patio lunch in the hip central Oregon town of Bend, where a film festival was in progress, we had a pleasant drive around the Cascade Lakes, which are surrounded by thick forests – mostly fir trees – and enjoyed lakeside views of further volcanos and marshland sprinkled with wildflowers and geese. At 7.30pm Mike became worried that we might find it difficult to find a hotel room in this much visited part of the state and we were indeed lucky to get the last room in the only hotel in the next town. After an hour in the hotel jacuzzi and a restful night’s sleep we headed the following morning for Crater Lake National Park. The glorious Crater Lake lies inside a volcanic basin and is the deepest lake in the US, filled almost entirely by snowfall, and when I look back at my photos, the lake’s colour (a bright blue with emerald tinges) and clarity are surreal. We then forged on to Ashland, to stay a couple of nights with my old friends Jim and Neil. (Those of you who have read ‘Dear Mummy Welcome’ will recall that Jim and Neil indirectly introduced me to Mike in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico). Ashland is a small town noted for its annual Shakespeare festival, and people flock there from around the US. It was fun to catch up in Jim and Neil’s lovely arts & crafts home and when we drank margaritas on their patio I was reminded of the last time we did so, all of ten years ago, in Mexico.

From Ashland we headed straight for the Californian coast, emerging at the small town of Crescent City which was disappointingly enveloped in sea fog. Luckily, the sea fog mostly cleared as we drove southwards along this rugged coastline where cliff tops and cliff sides are almost completely covered with wildflowers in shades of scarlet, cream, yellow, lavendar, pink and orange. The beaches, too, are covered in part with blossoming dark pink and yellow succulents and orange poppies, and many birds are flocked on the craggy rocks. Some of the coastal towns sport quite lovely Victorian buildings in pristine condition. And not to mention those magnificent redwoods preserved in the many State Parks up and down the northern Californian coast…Our first night in California was spent in the Victorian town of Fort Bragg, which was in fact founded as a military garrison, not a fort, prior to the Civil War. The next day we followed the coast as far as the lighthouse at Point Arena, then turned inland, through countryside roads lined with eucalyptus trees and blossoming wild fennel, and fields dotted with old wooden farmsteads, Jersey cows and the odd herd of elk. We then hooked into Highway 101, towards San Francisco, arriving there exactly two weeks after our departure from San Antonio.

Our time in San Francisco, in the home of Michael’s youngest daughter and family, was all too short but we did enjoy a few hours in the quite un-touristy coastal town of Pacifica, just a few miles to the south of the city. In the evening we ate at an excellent Italian restaurant on Potrero Hill where one can enjoy wonderful views of the San Francisco bay area and city skyline. Mattie again loved having time with her little step nephew and niece. On our day of departure, after a late Mexican breakfast in a local café in the Mission district, we said our goodbyes, yet again packed up the car and continued southwards along the Californian coast to Big Sur. We luckily hit the tourist traffic just right because there was hardly a car in sight as soon as we left Carmel, at the start of Big Sur. The scenery was simply breathtaking especially as the sun was gradually sinking in the sky, at times disappearing behind a low band of cloud, so that the coastline looked quite different each time we turned a bend. At around 8pm we had nowhere booked for the night and were getting quite anxious as there was hardly a sign of habitation. Then, around another bend, appeared the hamlet of Gorda (“fat” in Spanish) and the ‘Vacancy’ sign was happily illuminated. That evening, from our balcony, we watched the sun finally disappear into the Pacific Ocean whilst hearing sea lions bark on nearby rocks. It was all quite enchanting. The next morning I noted a well outside the inn and learned that the fresh springs in Gorda were once used by native American tribes; that the first white settlers arrived in 1878 when a stagecoach stop was built and that the place further expanded with the gold rush of the 1880s – interesting that such a tiny place, now sporting only a few gas pumps and a small inn, was once such a hive of activity.

The following morning we set out with the plan to follow the coast as far as San Luis Obispo – one of California’s oldest communities and about 200 miles north of Los Angeles – and then turn eastwards, towards Texas. We enjoyed a brief glimpse of Hearst Castle at San Simeon where, in the 1920s and 1930s, William Randolph Hearst entertained the Hollywood and political elite, including Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill. We also visited the nearby Hearst Memorial Beach where a poster warned visitors not to remove whale bones from the beach. A little further down the coast, at a small seaside town called Cayucos (“Canoes”) we ate an excellent lunch of halibut and chips (as good as any fish and chips that I have had in the UK!), washed down with a glass of fine Californian wine. Turning eastwards, we took a cross-country route for a couple of hundred miles through a quite forbidding craggy landscape where almost the only sign of life was a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The terrain later flattened out and became alternately lined with oil derricks, cotton fields, orange groves and vineyards. Early evening we joined Interstate 40, spent the night at Needles, just across the border from Arizona, and the following morning continued on the same interstate, driving through Kingman, Arizona, once a famous stopping point on Route 66. We later enjoyed a picnic lunch at Walnut Canyon National Monument where we learned that the very impressive and well preserved cave dwellings there were constructed during the 12 and 13th centures by Sinagua Indians. We crossed the border into New Mexico late afternoon, enjoying beautiful, typically New Mexican, scenery all the way to Albuquerque where we enjoyed an excellent dinner in a wine bar, and spent the night. We were now just a couple of days from San Antonio…

From Albuquerque we drove south-east through some impressive, though unusually (for New Mexico) flat countryside, passing through small towns like Artesia, known for its artesian wells and dotted with oil derricks. We enjoyed a surprisingly good Mexican lunch in the infamous town of Roswell and visited its international UFO museum and research centre: in 1947, during a severe thunderstorm, an airborne object crashed on a nearby ranch and although residents were adamant that it was a spacecraft containing extraterrestrial life, the military denied it and the incident has been subject to conspiracy theories ever since…

We crossed the border into west Texas during the early evening, spending the night at Fort Stockton. Interesting that, apart from parts of California, the approach to Fort Stockton was the only time during our road trip we experienced traffic problems – this time, due to the oil trucks and pickups going home after a day’s ‘fracking’. Fort Stockton was established in 1859 to protect the San Antonio-San Diego mail route from the Comanches and I recalled that we had passed through the town during our first ever road trip with Mattie, when she was just five…

Three weeks after leaving Texas, we arrived back in San Antonio. We all slept very well, and very late, the next several days…

Highways and Alleyways

Let me tell you a little about the neighbourhood where we live. Colonial Hills is situated a few miles north-west of Downtown, San Antonio and most of the houses were built in the 1960s, so it is called a mid-century neighbourhood. Our neighbourhood is ‘in transition’ – the original owners have either passed on or moved away and their old houses are being renovated (or ‘remodeled’ as they say here) by younger incumbents.

A small dry creek marks the south end of Colonial Hills, about half a mile from our house. Only when it rains hard does this creek fill up; it is usually dry again within days. I am sure there must be some interesting wildlife at the creek though all I have seen are the flattened remains of a bull frog. The creek is at its prettiest in spring and summer when it fills with wildflowers and obscures the litter that is sometimes thrown carelessly into it. To the south of the creek is a freeway that leads to Downtown San Antonio – reachable within 15 minutes by car or an hour by the bus that stops close to our home. Just to the west runs the Interstate 10 which will take you as far as Santa Monica in the west and Jackson, Florida in the east.

Our house is rare in this neighbourhood because it is has two stories. Its peachy-beige brick looks very pretty in the evening sun. Our front garden (or ‘yard’ as they say here) contains two great live oak trees that stretch over the wide boulevard-like street. On the other side of the street, deer visit our neighbours’ front yards from time to time; these white-tailed deer live near a pond which is also enjoyed by skunks, opossum and a coyote or two.

Each morning, it is common to see neighbours doing their regular circuit of Colonial Hills – about 1½ miles in the round; one can take a longer walk by including the alleyways between the back yards. Unlike the front yards, which tend to be uniformly manicured, the back yards reveal far more about the people who live here. I can see swimming pools in their yards, swing chairs, tree houses, bird boxes, basketball stands, barbecue grills, slides, beach towels flung over lawn chairs, chickens, a goat or two, and a birdcage which contains what turned out to be a stuffed parakeet – I spent a minute or two studying it before realising that it was artificial. The back yards also contain an interesting variety of dog life. When walking by I get yapped at by numerous Chihuahuas, a couple of lazy-looking Labradors, a world-weary Alsation, not to mention an assortment of mongrels, most of them rescued from the nearby dog home. The dogs bark so loudly when I walk by that I must surely be the most interesting event of their day. (In those back yards that carry a ‘Beware the Dog’ sign I have never seen a sign of dog life at all…)

If I am the main source of excitement for the back yard dog population then in late summer the ripe fig and pomegranates growing on neighbours’ trees are the main source of excitement for me (we have recently planted our own trees and I am pleased to see that they both are bearing fruit). Some back yards sport banana trees, too, but these only fruit after a mild winter (last winter was so cold here that our own banana trees froze completely back). Another common fruit tree in this neighbourhood is the Loquat (or ‘Japanese plum’) tree which has a rather lush, tropical look and bears apricot-like fruit around May. I also enjoy the blossoming foliage that lines the alleyways: clear blue Plumbago, deep yellow Esperanza, orange-scarlet Pride of Barbados – not to mention the pink and lemon blossoms that adorn the cholla and pricky pear cactuses. It should all look a mess but somehow it works. The trees and the power lines above the alleys are also worth viewing, for the squirrels doing their trapeze acts, as well as a large variety of noisy birdlife – the ubiquitous grackle, white-tailed doves, wrens, woodpeckers, scarlet cardinals, mocking birds, blue jays, and the occasional vulture – a neighbour’s prize hen was recently plucked out of its hutch by one…

Back In The USA

Shortly after our return from the UK, whilst Mike was finalising our year-end taxes, I drove to Garner State Park, north-west of San Antonio. Mike, Mattie and I discovered the park in January – we had arrived late that day, having first visited the home of John Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president, for whom the park is named, and we only had time for a short walk along the Frio river just before sundown. The Frio is blue-green and gorgeously lined with huge cypresses, their roots almost as majestic as the trees themselves, and in the late afternoon they were filled with black vultures.

On my more recent trip, I arrived early to do some hiking. From the top of the high bluff, on which most of the park is built, the views of the surrounding Hill Country are breathtaking. I sat on a rock now and then and enjoyed the silence whilst watching vultures glide in the sky. The hillside was studded with bright green cedars, stubby Texas grasses and the purple blossom of mountain laurel. After three hours or so of hiking I descended to the river and ate a picnic I had brought with me. Around me, black Hill Country squirrels scampered up and down the trees, and black-crested titmice (so named for the black tuft on their heads) flew in and about the lower branches. Before returning to San Antonio, I checked out the parks’ buildings. During the great depression of the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps – a body made up of young unemployed men – built the nation’s state parks under the supervision of architects and supervisors. The rustic-style buildings at Garner include an outside dance floor, pavilion, refectory and keeper’s lodge, all handsomely hand cut from limestone taken from the park itself. My journey home took me through three small towns originally settled in the mid-1800s by immigrants from Alsace; one of them, Castroville, sports a French restaurant and bakery. A railroad runs alongside these towns and now and then freight trains trundle through. In the 1800s, stagecoaches would have stopped at the towns and reportedly once carried supplies for confederate soldiers fighting in the civil war. I drove on and a nearby historical marker recorded a small battle between Texas rangers and Comanches in which all the Comanches were killed but only one ranger wounded. Roadside verges contained whole swaths of wildflowers – bluebonnets, golden coreopsis and pink evening primrose.

Last weekend, Mattie and I returned to Garner Park for an overnight stay. On our way, we saw cows grazing in fields spiked with white prickly poppies, and red and yellow Indian Blanket and dark lemon Coreopsis now dotted the roadside verges. We spent the night in one of the park’s screened shelters, close to the Frio now lined with blue blossoming sages. These small shelters have a table and enough room to lay sleeping mats. We barbecued sausages that evening and slept well in our shelter. The next morning Mattie was thrilled to see a humming bird and a titmouse flying outside the wooden door. Rust-coloured wrens flew in and out of the trees around us. During the day, Mattie made friends on the campsite and swam in the river whilst I did some hiking. On one of the hillsides a prickly pear cactus was already in blossom – lemon tinged with pink. The sky was a deep cloudless blue and the surrounding stony countryside reminded me a little of Provence.

Our First Trip Back

It is Thursday, February 27th and Mattie and I are back in the UK, headed towards our old home town. My brother-in-law, Tom, has picked us up from the airport and as we approach Lewes he asks, ‘Do you want to go through the town centre or via the bypass?’ ‘Through the town centre,’ Mattie and I reply in unison and soon we are driving past the Georgian terraced townhouse where we once had lived.

I often had wondered how I might feel on seeing the old house. Surprisingly, I seemed to feel nothing, though I did feel a little sad to see the greengrocer’s, up the road, newly boarded up. ‘How did you feel on seeing the house?’ I later asked Mattie. ‘Nothing’, she said. Perhaps our exhaustion after a long night flight, the drizzle and the greyness of the day contributed to our apparent non-reaction. Lewes seemed smaller than in my memory and when we got out of the car at Tom and Molly’s home, located on a hill overlooking the town, it felt cold, too. We both began to feel much better after a hot shower and change of clothes and later, when we walked into town, the drizzle had stopped and a glimmer of sun cast a warm glow over the town’s higgledy-piggledy chimneypots, tiled rooftops and Harvey’s brewery out of which a cheery plume of steam rose. After a light lunch in Le Magasin café – which had been a newsagent’s in my time – we strolled up the high street. I noted that the furniture-cum-coffee shop, which had hosted the launch of my book Dear Mummy, Welcome, was now an expensive-looking boutique, causing me to wonder about the former owners, a lovely couple, who had helped make that book launch such a memorable event. Walking on, yet more shops seemed to have been turned into expensive curio shops, and a notice on the toyshop that Mattie once had loved announced its imminent closure. Later we popped in on my old friend and neighbour, Christine, in her cosy terraced cottage and afterwards I saw Caroline who lives in the old coach house around the corner. I enjoyed being back in houses once so familiar to me. Mattie had left early in order to meet her cousin Mei after school. I hoped their reunion would go well…

That evening, it was lovely to see my sister who had just returned home from work. Strange, but it seemed like five minutes, not two years, since we had last been together. Over supper of chicken pie, with chocolate pudding for dessert, we all caught up: Tom was now a newly graduated teacher, their eldest daughter was applying for university, and a boisterous mongrel and several cats had joined the fold. Mattie and her cousin, Mei, seemed to get on as famously as they always had, give or take the odd scrap…

At the weekend, Mattie’s birth sister, Jay, came to Lewes for the afternoon and for the first time I was struck by the likeness of the two siblings; even Jay’s dark brown hair had the same hint of red in it. Jay was pleased when I remarked on it, saying, ‘No-one ever told me that before.’ After lunch at Pizza Express Mattie took Jay to meet Molly and family up on the hill.

On Sunday, my sister and I took the girls to the church we had once attended. The first thing I noted was that all the pews had been replaced by chairs. Disappointingly, I hardly recognised a soul and even felt a little out of place – until after the service the vicar came and hugged me. After church, Mandy drove us over the Downs to Ovingdean (at the time covered in a dense sea fog) where we were to have Sunday lunch with friends Gillian and Donald in their cosy, converted barn. We arrived early so first we had a walk along the seafront during which Mei smilingly reminded me of the times I had often taken her and Mattie to the beach and had barbecued sausages. ‘Yes and you even used to ask me in winter if were having sausages,’ I laughed. During Sunday lunch – Gillian had cooked a delicious roast followed by fruit crumble – I reminded Mattie, who insisted on wearing a peaked cap emblazoned with the word ‘Geek’, that Donald used to play nursery rhymes on the piano for her and Gillian had sung lullabies. After lunch, we watched a short video of their recent trip to Canada and Donald reminded me that in 1992 I had brought over an album of my photos of Peru to show them. ‘My goodness, you have a good memory!’ I laughed.

The next day I made a trip, alone, to the National Gallery in London whilst our old next-door neighbours, Jo and Ann, took Mattie to an animal sanctuary that her foster mother Jenny (she sadly died several months before we emigrated) had often taken her to as a child. Mattie had rarely asked to go back to that sanctuary and it struck me that she must have had Jenny in mind. Later, Jo and Ann cooked a chicken supper for Mattie and me, followed by strawberries and meringues – this meal had become something of a tradition over the years.

Next day we journeyed to Worthing, where we spent a lovely few days with my parents’, enjoying Mum’s cooking and, for me, many a good walk on the Downs at Cissbury Ring; thankfully, it was not too muddy. Mum and Dad were in the process of moving and I was relieved to get a look inside the flat they planned to move to whilst there. We also met up with my brother, David, as well as my eldest brother, Nick, and his wife who live just outside Chichester. Nick took Mattie and me for a lovely walk around the yacht harbour, during which we saw a black swan. Nick, who has been a GP for most of his life, told me how anxious he felt about his imminent retirement. We later enjoyed a cosy supper – roast pork with salad and a choice of several yummy desserts – at Nick and Melanie’s home in Birdham.

Back in Worthing, Mattie and I met up with my youngest sister, Caryl, and her little son, and Mattie stayed on to spend the night with them whilst I returned to Lewes. Interesting that the moment I stepped off the train, for the first time since our return I felt at home – even though in the narrow street that led back to Molly’s, what had once been an Indian restaurant now had become a wine bar, and another new shop had opened that advertised 50 different types of tea. That evening, Molly and I dined with several mutual friends at a vegetarian ‘pop up’ (a new word to me) – a sort of supper club, situated near a duck pond close to where I had first lived in Lewes. I recalled, with some amusement, that the ‘pop up’ was located in what had once been Ron’s, a grocery shop where I often bought cornflakes and kindling. I wondered what had happened to Ron, the grocer with the raucous laugh, who had been part of the Lewes landscape for years before closing shop. At the Lamb Inn where we all had gone for an after-supper drink, I was surprised to bump into a former running friend from my pre-adoption days. It struck me how my life had changed…

On our last Sunday in the UK, whilst Mattie amused herself with Mei, I enjoyed a glorious sunny day and walked over the Downs to the village of Firle to meet friends down from London. (Mattie and I had done a similar walk early in the week when it was damp and that day there had been a log fire burning in the pub fireplace.) I always loved Firle and I remember a photo I had taken of my parents, outside Firle church, shortly after I moved to Lewes in the 80s. They looked very young in those days and whilst writing this blog I realise that they were the same age then, that I am now. A strange thought.

Mattie’s and my hectic schedule continued and the next morning we went up to London to see a friend, and later the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Strolling through Covent Garden, I showed Mattie the tiny office in Great Queen Street where in my twenties I had worked for a small advertising firm. Mattie took some photos of the Royal Opera House where, shortly after I adopted her, we had seen a ballet. Mattie didn’t remember the ballet; she was only four at the time. Before the show we met my friend Ruth for lunch at the Boulevard Brasserie, chosen partly to celebrate her recent purchase of an old farmhouse near Bordeaux. Ruth had recently been through the mill health-wise and I was above all pleased to see her looking so well.

The next day, Mattie and I walked along the River Ouse en route to The Blacksmith’s Arms to meet two old colleagues from those Covent Garden days. The pub had once been a drinking pub frequented by locals and walkers and run by an elderly gent with a twinkle in his eye. Now it is run by two middle-aged women and is noted for its cuisine; no-one appears to stand around the bar any more. My friends, who had never met Mattie, each gave her a little gift before she walked the short stretch back to Lewes to do some shopping. After catching up over a delicious steak and kidney pudding and treacle pudding, we three also went into Lewes for a stroll around Grange Gardens, prettily covered in daffodils and grape hyacinths. (During my trip back to the UK I was always struck by the spring flowers, so different to those in San Antonio.) I pointed out to my friends the Elizabethan building that had once housed Mattie’s nursery and the mulberry tree that she had liked to climb before it was cordoned off.

At the end of that same afternoon, Mattie and I were invited by Tim, a theatre designer and now owner of our old house, for a cuppa and to look around – Mattie had particularly wanted to see her old bedroom. The house looked very much as we had known it except that the handsome Victorian garden wall between ‘our’ house and the neighbouring one had recently fallen down (I felt relieved not to have the bother of it). Mattie’s old bedroom, it turned out, was now Tim’s studio, complete with drawing tables and maquettes. She amused him now and then by exclaiming, ‘Oh that’s my old paint mark!’ or ‘That’s my nail varnish stain!’

Time was running out fast and during the last few days I took Mattie and Mei into Brighton, allowing them some time on their own to go shopping whilst I met my sister, Caryl, for a drink in The Lanes. That evening, Mum, Dad and my brother, David, came round to Tom and Molly’s for supper. Mum brought a large, fluffy Victoria Sponge for dessert and afterwards Mei and Mattie sang a duet based on Your Song by Elton John.

On our last day in Lewes, Mattie and I popped in to see our former optometrist, Julian. He had always offered Mattie a chocolate ‘eyeball’ taken from a large glass jar at the end of each visit and had always stressed that she take just one. I laughingly recalled that Mattie’s fist was usually full of chocolates each time she left the shop. Grave-faced, Julian now informed Mattie that he had been unable to obtain chocolate ‘eyeballs’ for some time now. Afterwards, Mattie went window shopping and I made my way to The Brewer’s Arms, an old pub on the High Street where Mike (during his visits to Lewes) and I had been known to share a steak sandwich on a gloomy day. Unlike most others, the pub had hardly changed and I felt I was in the Lewes of old as I read the paper and reflected on my years in the town. I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting more of my old neighbours: Alexandra, now well into her eighties, looked so much frailer than two years ago but Tony and Tere who had formerly lived opposite to Mattie and me, looked just the same as ever; they were in the midst of renovating their idyllic new cottage at the foot of Lewes Castle.

Our last evening, sadly, arrived. As a treat, Molly and I took the girls to Prezzo’s, an Italian restaurant where in the past we had often dined (the pasta arriabiata and the sticky toffee pudding tasted just as good as I remembered). Molly recalled that it was in a branch of Prezzo’s, in Eastbourne, that we had celebrated, the day I was approved by the Adoption Panel. ‘How do feel about Mattie leaving?’ I asked Mei at the end of the meal. ‘Mixed emotions,’ she said, and added, ‘I feel a bit empty.’ Mattie, in response to the same question, shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. Molly then mentioned that her family hoped to visit us some time in 2015. We look forward to it.

Early next morning we were up at six and soon heading our way to Heathrow where we just had time for a quick hug with Molly and Mei before Mattie and I caught the flight back to San Antonio. We both felt sad at leaving family and friends behind, but at the same time a little excited at the thought of going home …

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!