Christmas Eve Thoughts

This morning was the first time, I think, that I have woken up in an empty house on Christmas Eve morning: Mattie has been staying with a family not far away and will not be back until eight tonight. And Michael, who went to our house in Corpus Christi yesterday to speak to a couple of workmen about replacing the patio, will not return until this afternoon. I did not join him as it was my greeter duty at the McNay Art Museum; although relatively quiet there, I enjoyed seeing the staff and the splendid Christmas tree with its audacious Mexican-style baubles beautifully created out of coloured paper.

So I was missing Michael and Mattie when I first awoke! Then, as always, I got up and made myself a cup of coffee, using the Italian espresso maker my sister Molly and her husband Tom bought for me during their visit last year. I always think of them as I grind the Guatemalan beans and then fill the pot with water. Whilst waiting for the coffee to bubble, I put on my favourite seasonal CD, ‘Christmas in New York’, featuring songs by opera singer Renee Fleming. My mother also has a copy and whenever it is playing I wonder if she is listening to it, too. Not this time, though, for as I poured the coffee into my mug, I glanced up at the kitchen clock and knew that she and Dad were on their way to London, to spend Christmas with my youngest brother and family.

I drank the coffee in bed whilst reading ‘Christmas Stories’, an anthology of short fiction that my mother gave to me during my first Christmas here. It has become something of a tradition for me, re-reading my favourite stories from it each year. The first I always read, even though it is so sad, is Nabokov’s simply titled ‘Christmas’ because the language and rhythms are so achingly beautiful. Then I tend to read Truman Capote’s ‘A Christmas Memory’, followed by Dickens’ ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’ from the Pickwick Papers. Finally putting the book down, I decided to finish crocheting a hat that I am making for our trip to Washington DC on Boxing Day. I rarely, if ever, crochet or knit in bed but this morning, alone, and with the weather looking gloomy and inside feeling so cosy, it seemed the ideal thing to do.

Later, I telephoned my brother David, to wish him a happy Christmas, knowing that he and his close friend Annique were about to leave for Molly’s. The line was poor so we said our goodbyes and then I got in the car headed for Eisenhower Park, in the far north of the city. I only discovered this park recently and it has become my favourite for it is just like being in the heart of the hill country. The trails, which meander through prickly pear, yuccas and cedar are a favourite of roadrunners, too. Today the weather was rather gloomy but occasionally a speck of blue could be seen through the cloud and the sun managed to poke through and there were some lovely views from the higher points. A couple of doggies accompanying their owners gaily sported Christmassy kerchiefs around their necks.

As soon as I arrived back home, Mattie rang to mention a doggie she herself was keen to have, a stray she had seen wandering around, and could we have him or he’d go to a dog pound? I replied that we had enough to think about at the moment, what with Christmas and our trip to Washington. ‘I need a dog in my life,’ she insisted, dramatically, before calling off. Then Michael rang to say he was due to come home around three and I mentioned, somewhat sadly, it must be the first year that Mattie hadn’t rushed excitedly into our room in the morning to declare it was Christmas Eve.

Later today, after I have wrapped all the presents, we will have tamales for dinner, a typical (Mexican) dish for this time of year. Our neighbour John said he enjoys tamales the way they ate them when he was little, covered in chilli con carne, and he looked at me askance when I said I like tamales with salad and avocado. Michael will drink a Mexican beer to accompany his and I, a spritze (New Zealand Sauvignon mixed with Topo Chico, a Mexican sparkling water which is fizzier than the European ones). Later, we will have a drive around San Antonio to see the lights. Oh, and before I forget, Merry Christmas everyone!

Loving, Turkeys and Trump

This weekend, Mike and I went to see the film ‘Loving’, a true story set in 1950s Virginia which, at the time, banned interracial marriage. The film traces the lives of a white man and a black woman who fell in love, and who believed they could get around the ban by marrying out of state. Instead, they found themselves arrested (she was pregnant at the time) and at their trial were given the choice of either a 25-year ban from Virginia, or face imprisonment. After several years of exile, the Lovings returned to Virginia with their three young children, but lived in constant fear. Only when their case was successfully brought before the Supreme Court, in 1968, could the family finally breathe easily.

As I was watching the film, it struck me how apt was the timing of its release, given the way Trump manipulated race and people’s fears in this recent election. In part, I found the film uplifting, for it demonstrated how far this country has come regarding race. But I also wondered how far backwards the country might now go.

On November 8th, when it began to look as if Trump would become the next president, it felt totally surreal. ‘We’re watching history in the making,’ I remember saying to Mike. But it wasn’t the sort of history we wanted and we both went to bed feeling fearful, and without a clue as to what the future might bring forth.

The following morning, I had coffee with Millie, a neighbour from Peru. She, too hadn’t slept well the night before and felt anxious. But as I left, Millie said she had seen a lot of different governments come and go in her own country, including dictators, and people had somehow managed to get through it. Perhaps there’s a silver lining, I replied, thinking that the Washington gridlock might finally be broken.

Another of my neighbours, Ella, is from Turkey and each time Turkey is in the news, I always think of her. Over brunch today, Ella told me that she had planned to visit her family in Turkey earlier this year but then the coup happened. ‘How are your family?’ I asked, and she shrugged, resignedly, ‘They are used to it.’ But her (Iranian) husband, she said, still doesn’t feel well after the US election results. I can’t begin to imagine how they both must feel.

During a recent cycle ride, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a health official shortly after Macey and I had arrived in the country. She had asked me how we were settling in and then, what I thought about US politics. I replied that though very frustrating, there was never a dull moment. And she looked at me and said, ‘We need some dull moments.’ How true those words were!

Life goes on and later on during my cycle ride, I came across four wild turkeys and was reminded that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. We plan to spend a few days in Corpus Christi and are very much looking forward to it. The weather is lovely, too, after a recent cold spell, though after stepping my toes into the pool yesterday, I think my swimming days this year are, sadly, over.

Here and There

I was walking in a local park recently, found myself trampling acorns, and was immediately thrown back to the days when I once walked Mattie to her new middle school, soon after she came to San Antonio. She would have been 12 then and I remember our walking up the street where we live, a wide boulevard where most of the front gardens sport at least one live oak tree, and we would see who could find the largest acorn and make the biggest crunch.

Hard to think Mattie will be 16 next month and is in her sophomore year of high school. During the last week of her summer holidays, we went to Philadelphia for a few days, and what a lovely city it is with its easy downtown walking, plethora of historical buildings, art museums, French-style bistros and other restaurants boasting fine new American cuisine. Mattie and I were immediately reminded of London (especially east London) as we walked around the city with its elegant Georgian architecture, tucked away cemeteries, leafy squares, small gardens and old hospitals. We thought of Lewes, too, our former home, and one narrow street in particular (Elphrick Alley) which has been continually inhabited since 1700; Mattie was particularly struck by the fact that one of its front doors was numbered 116, the number of our old house.

On our return to San Antonio, I asked Mattie what she remembered most about her trip to Philadelphia and she said it was the fact that I’d unknowingly booked a hotel in the gay part of town; and that we had seen a homeless person sitting on the pavement with a sign by his collection box with the words F*** Trump (Macey gave him a dollar).

Back in south Texas, we have witnessed an invasion of Snout butterflies – parts have literally been swarming with them. I first became aware of these butterflies a week ago whilst out cycling in Comfort, a town settled by German immigrants, and found myself engulfed in what at first I thought were leaves falling but were in fact small brown butterflies with a patch of orange and spots on their wings.

Last Friday, whilst I was driving back from Garner State Park in the hill country, large swarms were crossing the countryside and I arrived home with a splattered window screen and a number of dead butterflies lying flattened in the radiator grill (in as perfect a condition as if a lepidopterist had pinned them to a board).

Garner State Park was as lovely as ever, the river is deep enough for swimming and the hiking affords splendid views of the surrounding hill country. I was particularly delighted to see growing on the hillside the native Lindheimer morning glory, a short climber with trumpets of the most beautiful, almost luminescent, pale bluish-mauve. This was the first time I had seen it growing in the wild, unexpectedly popping up behind a prickly cactus here, a scrubby tree there. On the drive to the park, I had spotted at least a dozen hawks and Michael and Macey, very unusually, spotted one in a neighbour’s front garden this weekend. (Mike has just entered my study to say that he can hear the hawk screeching nearby and we wonder if it has a nest in our neighbour’s red oak.)

Recently, at Mitchell Lake in south San Antonio, I saw a large flock of barn swallows darting around and read that they tend to gather by water in preparation for their onward flight to south America where they will spend the winter. They certainly looked very pretty with their apricot breasts and forked tails. As I was watching them, ten red-winged blackbirds in loose formation flew close by followed by a scarlet cardinal. Egrets were perched in mesquite trees around the lake that soon will welcome hundreds if not thousands of migrating ducks.

I recently learned this is also the time of year for broad-winged hawks to be flying over Corpus Christi, on their way from Canada to south America. I hope to get a sighting of them at some point next weekend. A lot of improvements were made to our house there over the summer, though there are still odds and ends to tie up, the painting and tiling to be done and a new patio to be built. Happily, we have seen the last of our workman, Victor, who did his job pretty well but was growing more and more erratic as time went by. We plan to go down this Friday and already I am thinking of oleander shrubs profuse with pink, dark red and salmon-pink blossom and the cream and soft pink of frangipane trees.

Summer Evenings in Corpus Christi

Mattie has just returned from a ten-day holiday in San Francisco where she stayed with Mike’s daughter, her husband and two little ones. It was 15 year-old Mattie’s first independent trip away and she loved it! When Mike and I picked Mattie up from Austin airport earlier this week, she was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with ‘California’ emblazoned on the front and a pair of swish new sunglasses. The intrepid traveller immediately announced that she would like to go back and work in California for a while after she finishes High School, so hopefully, this will encourage her to spend a little more time on her studies and less on her social life when she embarks on her sophomore year next month.

Whilst Mattie was in San Francisco, Mike and I spent some time ‘camping out’ at our new holiday house in Corpus Christi whilst Victor, our Hispanic carpenter and jack-of-all trades, was on a two-week break. It was nice to have the house to ourselves and together come to a few decisions, especially regarding how to build the new patio which is rather ugly and full of cracks. In somewhat better condition is a long driveway which we had at first thought about reducing in size until Mike suggested a small sail boat would fit very nicely there. Mention of sailing takes me back twenty years to the time I took lessons in a dinghy on Piddinghoe Lake, near Lewes in the UK – cold winds, sore hands and jumping into icy water to practise capsize drill immediately spring to mind. I have a feeling that sailing on the Gulf coast will be a more pleasant affair.

During our stay in Corpus Christi, we also celebrated Mike’s birthday (July 3rd), having dinner at an excellent restaurant, Liberty Hall, on nearby Mustang Island. The restaurant’s reputable chef specializes in seafood and I have to say my Brazilian stew was once of the best meals I’ve tasted in a long time; Mike was similarly delighted with his Caribbean-style grilled drum. Afterwards, we took a stroll on the beach but the wind was unusually strong and several tents belonging to holiday-makers who had come down to celebrate July 4th, lay broken on the sand. So we drove back to Corpus Christi and had a drink on the small wooden patio of a weatherbeaten fishing pier/café near Oso (‘Bear’) Bay, not far from our new home. It was lovely sitting there, looking out over the sea to the twinkling lights of Bay Bridge to the west and Mustang Island to the south.

Whilst cycling along Oso Bay last month I saw a dolphin leaping in and out of the water. It was the first time I had seen a dolphin in this particular stretch and I stood for a while watching it, entranced (though the several fly fishermen standing only feet away from it seemed totally unphased). My favourite time for cycling along Oso Bay is in the early evening when the laughing gulls and terns come flying back from wherever they have been during the day. Watching them, I imagine loved ones and friends, both over here and on the other side of the world, settling down, too, or already fast asleep.

Mother’s Day

Whilst browsing through some old magazine articles that I had written about Mattie’s adoption and our early years together, I came across one on the theme of Mother’s Day.

It had never occurred to me prior to Mattie coming into my home that Mother’s Day might be a difficult day for an adopted child. On our first Mother’s Day Mattie was only four and I remember she was quite grumpy but I couldn’t understand why (surely, she couldn’t be missing her birth mother?)

On Mother’s Day five years later, Mattie’s lovely former foster mother, whom she had looked on as a mother, was in hospital terminally ill. Mattie and I were sitting side by side in church that day as the young vicar reminded the congregation that Mother’s Day was a sad day for many. I felt the tears run down my cheek and fetching a hankie from my bag looked sideways at Mattie: she had that firm mouth she always has when trying to be brave.

Unlike the UK, Mother’s Day in the US is on the second Sunday in May and Mattie seems to have enjoyed the day more as she has got older. There was a tradition of Mike taking her out shopping to buy a card and a gift and afterwards taking us to a restaurant with a big enough patio to take the crowd.

But this year, 15 year-old Mattie showed little interest in Mother’s Day and as she has been quite a difficult teenager of late, I was sure, when I woke up on Mother’s Day, she wouldn’t even mention it.
‘I won’t mind,’ I had told Mike the previous evening.
‘I think you will!’ he replied.
As I was making my morning coffee on Sunday morning, I heard a noise on the stairs and Mattie came running into the kitchen and gave me a big hug. ‘Happy Mother’s Day, Mummy,’ she cried out.

Later the three of us went for a late breakfast at Sol Luna, one of our favourite Mexican restaurants. There were plenty of babies, as well as dressed-up mums, seated on the patio, and dads and granddads, too, carrying small bouquets of flowers. Service was slow, the female wait staff having been given the day off, which I thought rather sweet. There was a pleasant drone of happy chatter and Mattie seemed very happy. The three of us hadn’t chatted together so happily in a while and as we came out of the restaurant I remarked to Mike, ‘It’s the best Mother’s Day I’d ever had!’

Easter in Corpus

Mike and I spent Easter Sunday at our recently purchased ‘holiday’ home in Corpus Christi. The house is situated just 3 minutes’ walk from the water; in fact, when you come out onto the front lawn and look left, you can see the bay and palm trees.

Inside the house, strangely enough, I am reminded of an English cottage. Perhaps it is simply due to the wainscotting on the walls, but each time I enter it, I feel as though I am stepping into an episode of ‘The Railway Children’. At the moment, we spend most of our spare time there clearing up – the house was full of dog hair and the pungent smell of mothballs when we first took it over. We have also been busy in the front and back yards cutting down dead or dying shrubs and trees, and I enjoy planning what might replace them. We have already planted a frangipane, a Texas ebony and a bottlebrush tree. However, these are tiny, in 1-gallon pots and Mike is somewhat leery of them. ‘How long will that take to get to full size?’ is his common refrain.

One of the first tasks on our list is to treat the front lawn which has a greyish, dead-looking spot; Mr Gonzales, the elderly plumber who replaced the old drain pipes before we took possesion, is certain that scrub-worm is the cause of it. All it needs, he told Michael, is to put a few holes in the earth and fill them with soap powder and water it well. (At this point I am reminded of one of my favourite books, ‘Stones from Ybarra’, written in the 1960s by a young American couple who inherited and did up a house in northern Mexico. I came across this book by chance in a second-hand bookstore in San Antonio and only then learned that Mike had read it years earlier. So when we first viewed the Corpus Christi house and I spotted ‘Stones from Ybarra’ on a bookshelf, I thought it a good omen.)

The house will need some renovation, including a new kitchen and the conversion of the office, which was formerly a garage, into a master bedroom and bathroom. Apart from that and the myriad small things that always needs to be done in a newly acquired home, it needs a thorough lick of paint. Most of the floors are covered in Saltillo tile except two of the bedrooms, one of which Mattie has claimed as hers.

Outside the kitchen, we will replace the cracked concrete patio with Mexican brick and its overhead metal cover with something more aesthetic. The back yard is quite extensive and at the back of the kitchen is a narrow, shaded strip which contains a couple of tall palm trees, a pile of terracotta shards and broken bird boxes. (There was a dead squirrel here, too, but this thankfully has since been removed by an opossum, perhaps, or a hawk.) There is the constant sound of birdsong in the garden and the occasional drilling of a woodpecker. Some of the birds I have seen in the trees I shall have to look up in my bird book.

Corpus Christi seems to be a friendly town and some neighbours have already popped round to say hello. Opposite lives the head of the art department at the local university (his wife, a working artist, commutes from Georgia at the moment.) Next to them live an elderly couple who built their house back in the 1950s. The wife’s immediate comment regarding the people from whom we purchased the house was ‘They were far too liberal for us,’ and within ten minutes she had regaled me with a potted history of not only them but almost everyone in the street… In the house to our right, Mario and his family have already offered to help out in case we need anything doing whilst we are not around. We haven’t met the people on the other side of the house but two dead-looking limbs of their Arizona ash tree hover threateningly over our side of the yard.

Corpus Christi has two fairly large beaches situated a couple of miles further east and dotted along the coast are a number of tiny parks, too. One of these, Poelnish Park, is close to the house and sports the tiniest of beaches (our ‘local beach’ I call it) and I intend to take a swim there one day. I pass by Poelnish Park each time I cycle, to the occasional sound of a helicopter hovering in the sky above, towards the naval coastal station about two miles east. Much of the ride is along a long narrow spit, on one side of which is Corpus Christi Bay and on the other some wetlands. Herons, pelicans, terns and many other shorebirds abound and at this time of year the grass verges are sprinkled with pink, lemon and blue wildflowers. On Easter Sunday, there was no traffic and apart from a few fishermen (and the birds of course) it was empty and silent, quite blissful in fact. I stopped cycling more than once to gaze at the city of Corpus Christi across the bay and the long bridge that crosses from it to the barrier island. Those of you who have read ‘Dear Mummy, Welcome’ might recall that Mike took me to Corpus Christi for a couple of days just before I adopted Mattie. At that time we had even considered living here. We definitely made the right decision to settle in San Antonio, but looking across the bay, it occurred to me that we have, in a sense, ended up here after all.

Tea towels

Yesterday morning, two letters from Homeland Security arrived in the post, announcing Mattie’s and my permanent residency. We have enjoyed temporary green cards for a couple of years now but these will be the real thing. The cards, so the letters informed us, will arrive within 60 days and as Mike, Mattie and I stood together in the kitchen, we discussed how long the process had taken to get to this point. Mattie suggested four years but I thought it closer to five, given the fact that Mike had initiated the process almost a year before we left the UK. In the same post as the Homeland Security letters was a parcel from my mother: along with two books that she thought I might like came a tea towel, which made me smile.

When Mattie and I first arrived in the US, I at first found it difficult to find the type of tea towel (ie, made of linen) that we have in the UK. Here, they tend to be more like the kitchen towels you use to wipe your hands with. So having mentioned this both to my sister, Molly, and my mother, a steady stream of tea towels has crossed the Atlantic ever since.

The first of our tea towel collection was given to us by friends Chris and Richard at a neighbours’ farewell party shortly before we left Lewes. It is a handsome tea towel that depicts images of Lewes, like the Castle (just down from our old home on the High Street), St Anne’s Church (where Mattie loved to see the nativity play each Christmas), and cobbled Keere Street, down which I walked Mattie each week day, first to nursery and then to primary school.

Eight months after our departure, during our first Christmas in San Antonio, included in sister Molly’s gift package were two turquoise-and-white check tea towels from a favourite shop in Lewes. And for my birthday that August, two pretty, pale blue, pink and red ones – depicting various types of teapots, cups and saucers, and trays of cakes – arrived. These invoke memories of the tea parties that Mattie and I often hosted for close friends and neighbours at our old house on the High Street; I remember putting out the best china, making egg & cress sandwiches and that Mattie loved to decorate the fairy cakes. Tea would usually be served in the kitchen, which overlooked the garden and you could see the south downs in the distance.

On our second Christmas in San Antonio, Mum included in her gift package two tea towels from Charleston (former home and gathering point of members of the Bloomsbury Group). These depicted a traditional Charleston print of birds and flowers, which invoke memories of my first visit to Charleston, soon after it opened to the public back in the late 1980s – I had just moved to Lewes around that time and the period is very dear to me and one I am currently writing about in my first book of fiction.

For Christmas 2014, Mandy sent me a coral-coloured tea towel of flowers and doves, and from Mum two tea towels depicting garden vegetables arrived in the mail. Then this Christmas, Mum sent a tea towel printed with a 2016 calendar surrounded by rather splendid red blooms. We have had a bit of a tough start to 2016, what with Mattie experiencing some teenager ups and downs, but our lives are now moving into full swing again, we are experiencing beautiful winter weather and the plants on my Victorian potting table (from Ludlow, England) are beginning to bloom. So I expect that in future years, when I bring out this particular tea towel to dry the dishes, these are the memories it will surely bring forth.

Now with a full drawer of tea towels, I had wondered whether to tell Mum that there was no need to send any more. Instead I told her how much I loved them, which were my favourite designs and which dried the crockery best. So I should not have been surprised when the latest tea towel arrived this week. ‘Dig For Victory’, a well-know British wartime slogan from World War II, is written in bold black letters on a dark lemon background and it features a garden trug full of veggies, the sort of trug that you see in many a shop in Sussex. This tea towel brings back memories of the time when my back garden in Lewes had been re-designed and I would plant up the raised vegetable bed and make trips to local nurseries hunting unusual plants. And the wartime message has a grit to it which I find particularly apt at this time of struggling at times with a teenager! So after I have washed this latest addition, it will join all the other tea towels in the kitchen drawer, taking their turn to be used in our south Texas home, and all of them bringing a smile to my lips.