Time by the Sea

I have not long returned from a trip to England. I normally go in the fall but this year I went earlier in order to see my ailing father who is suffering from an asbestos-related disease. I wanted to see him while he is still Dad.

In early July, when I knocked on the bright front door of my parents’ little seaside flat in Worthing, it was my father who came to answer it for my mother was briefly out. Although he had lost weight, I was relieved to see that Dad looked pretty well, better than I had thought he would look, and he was chirpy. I made him a cup of tea and for an hour we chatted together like old times.

During my July stay, I would often take Dad for a drive to the sea. He liked me to park near a small village called Ferring from where we could look out at the shingle beach, the waves, the clouds, the seagulls flying by. During our first trip, a rather smart looking gull with a brown head sat on the nearby grass, occasionally flying away, but always coming back to the same spot. At one point as we sat and chatted, I turned and looked to the north and the South Downs. Somewhere up there amongst the trees was Cissbury Ring, the ancient hill fort that my father and I had sometimes walked around together. Earlier that morning it had been an effort for him to walk to the garden gate.

‘Look at that colour,’ Dad suddenly exclaimed. The sun had just popped through a cloud and the sea had taken on a pearly hue. ‘What colour would you call it?’ I asked, and he pondered for a few moments before calling it a ‘type of greenish-grey’. I then pointed out a yacht in the far distance and we tried to work out which coastal town it was nearing. Later, he remarked on the fact that the yacht had disappeared. ‘Oh yes. so it has,’ I replied.

Back in San Antonio I often think back to that first trip to the sea and our little exchanges. They are particularly precious to me because subsequently my father was not feeling so well; he hardly seemed to have the breath to speak. Thankfully, a procedure carried out in hospital, just before I left, helped him.

This weekend Michael and I will be looking plenty at the sea in Corpus Christi. The tiny bay where I like to swim is covered with crushed oyster shells, not shingle. Here the gulls have black heads rather than brown, I see plump silver fish plopping in and out of the water, a brown pelican swooping down to catch one, terns soaring by. And, if I’m ever so lucky, a dolphin.

Sweet Tweets

After a grotesque week of a FBI director being sacked and yet more Trump twitter rants, it is delightful to hear the sweet tweets of cardinals and scissor-tailed flycatchers as I cycle in the vicinity of Espada Mission. This Mission (one of five in San Antonio) is my favourite for its simplicity. It is, I also suspect, the least visited; I can eat my sandwich on a bench under an old oak in almost solitary splendour and gaze at the small adobe building with its ancient bell, or the many pots of flowering plants on the surrounding lawn. On this particular occasion as I sit under the shady tree, I also think of my father who is ailing.

As I then get on my bike and cross the nearby San Antonio river, I hear the sound of a goods train on its way to Brownsville on the Mexican border. Here, Queen Anne’s lace and sunflowers line the river bank, turtles bask on rocks, herons fish. On the other side of the river, I forego the newer cycle path and instead follow an old route that runs slightly inland and crosses through a number of fields. A great white heron and two large, plump ducks stand on the edge of an irrigation ditch, quite undeterred by my presence as I stop and gaze. The land around here is full of these irrigation ditches which are fed by a nearby acequia (acqueduct) built by Franciscan monks and American Indians in the early 18th century.

A little further along I see a group of female labourers dressed in bright colours, hoeing a field of maize and I have an immediate flashback to a trip to south-west China some years ago when I witnessed similar scenes. I continue to cycle along the old road, lined with mesquites, palms and huge pecan trees, until I arrive at Mission San Juan. Here I cross back over the river and a little off the beaten track I find the old Espada dam built on Six-Mile Creek. A small park surrounds the dam and nearby a photographer is taking photos of a newly wedded couple. As I walk my bike along the creek I am thrilled to see a male wood duck with its red eyes and green head on a small island in the middle of the water. On the other side of the creek I see the San Juan cemetery. Next to that, though hidden by trees, is Stinson Airfield. The airfield was opened in 1915 by three young siblings of the Stinson family and was used to train pilots during the first and second world wars. Now it offers helicopter tours.

I follow the cycle path back along the San Antonio River towards my starting point. On the way I make a short diversion over a bridge where hundreds of purple martins swoop and dive, then through a field stuffed with Indian Blanket wildflowers, to the aforementioned acequia that feeds all the irrigation ditches. This old limestone structure is the only remaining Spanish acqueduct in the US.

Just before I return to the grounds of the Espada Mission, I follow a road lined with tall sabal palms and dotted with tiny houses with tin roofs. In one of the gardens there is a large nativity scene surrounded by light bulbs. Other gardens are filled with enormous Weber cactuses and century plants. There is a field of black cows and ginger goats. A stray dog comes up and barks at my bike. Birds tweet.

Simple and Sweet During Unsettling Times

My father has been unwell lately and we are awaiting the results of tests carried out. We are all keeping our fingers crossed tightly that it is not as dire as it looks. I have called him several times and during a recent conversation, he mentioned that my eldest brother, Greg, had taken him to look at the sea. ‘It’s comforting’, Dad said, a simple comment that touched me. Later on, as always, he wanted to know all about our life over here and I said that Mike and I had just spent a day in Austin at the film festival. Immediately he asked, ‘Is that cowboy country?’ ‘No I replied,’ with a smile, for he has always had a great interest in American history, especially the cowboys and Indians period. I have often sent him books on this subject.

My father’s other favourite subject is the renovation of our house in Corpus Christi, which I pray he and Mum will still be able to visit one day. I described a recent trip there, and in particular all the birds that flock to the area during migration. At Oso Bay near the house, I told him, I had seen two great blue herons each with a plump silver fish, about a foot long, in their beaks, and close by a fisherman wearing an old battered straw hat in the water, plying his rod.

Dad has always been keen on birds himself and when I was in India on holiday many years ago I brought him back a red lacquer box with all sorts of colourful birds on its sides. It has been there, near his bedside, whenever I’ve returned home.

Whilst I was observing the herons, I looked up at the grassy bank and saw that it was covered in pink evening primrose and Indian Blanket, set against a perfectly blue sky. ‘Mum will love to hear that,’ my father commented, and I told him that whole swathes of bluebonnets, scarlet Indian Paintbrush, golden daisies and other wildflowers now line the verges of the interstate running south of San Antonio all the way to Corpus Christi.

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Dad if he had started reading the latest book I had sent him, a novel about an aging soldier from the American Civil war who agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her own people. ‘No, not yet,’ my father replied, ‘But I’ve had a look through it.’ I remembered Mum saying he hadn’t felt up to reading lately and I cannot begin to imagine what a bewildering time it must be for her, too, her own life held in suspension as we await the test results.

Mike told me that when his own father had been very ill, he remembered his mother holding his father’s hand and reminding him of the evenings they would sit on the upstairs balcony of their farmhouse to watch the cattle grazing nearby.
‘It was so sweet,’ Mike said.
‘Sweet, and simple, and it cost nothing,’ I replied.

Memories of Washington DC

When I was at the doctor’s surgery recently, I saw a young woman wearing a black veil that sparkled with diamond-like sequins. She had a baby in her arms and a small toddler by her side, and I commented how sweet the baby was and she gave me a big smile. As she kept looking round at me, I asked her where she was from. At this she motioned to a young man standing at the reception desk who approached and in good English explained that they were from Afghanistan, that he had been an interpreter for the US army and that they had only been in the US a month. I welcomed them to San Antonio and wished them good luck.

I often think of that young Afghani couple, especially given the recent turn American immigration policy has taken. Not long after that encounter, Mattie and I were in Washington DC for a few days, between Christmas and the New Year: I had wanted to experience the city before Obama left, and Mattie (unlike Mike!) wanted a cold Christmas – and cold it certainly was.

Now that Trump is in power and I hear some pronouncement coming out of a senator’s or congressman’s mouth in Washington, I think back to our first evening there when we walked around the Capitol after dark. It was all lit up, there was hardly a soul around and it looked particularly beautiful viewed through the bare branches of the surrounding trees. I remember how we turned a corner and much to our delight saw a huge Christmas tree filled with green and blue lights. It was on a lawn facing the Mall that is dotted with monuments and Smithsonian museums, all of them free. I remember how splendid the Capitol was inside, too, not least the murals in the Senate chambers that were painted by a pupil of Raphael.

Now, when I see Trump in the Oval Office signing one of his executive orders, I think back to the National Christmas Tree outside the White House with its hundreds of white lights, the little children excitedly watching the clockwork trains running around it, and the 50 smaller Christmas trees encircling it, each representing a State. And I remember the drone of military helicopters landing on and leaving the White House lawn, seeing them fly to and from the Pentagon, the tourists pointing and taking photos.

When Trump recently nominated a new Judge to the Supreme Court, I remember how silent and majestic that building was, too, by night, and the glorious ‘beaux arts’ Library of Congress next door with another huge Christmas tree in its lobby, and its gorgeous reading room. I recall wandering down streets in the Capitol historic district lined with 18th and 19th century houses, the indoor food market, the small park with its famous statue of Lincoln and the freed slave, the bookshops and funky little restaurants and cafés.

When Trump sends out an incendiary tweet, I compare that to President Lincoln and his appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature’. I think of the tree-lined path that leads peacefully from the Washington Monument down to the awe-inspiring Lincoln Memorial (Mattie remembered the scene from ‘Forrest Gump’ that was filmed near there!) And I recall our watching Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Ford Theatre where Lincoln was assassinated, and the tiny museum in its basement where we saw the actual gun and bullet. During the performance I often looked up at the box where Lincoln had sat and I wondered what he would think of his country right now.

When Trump this week gathered together a few black sympathisers, I recalled my visit to the new Smithsonian African American museum on the Mall (whilst Mattie was visiting the Natural History Museum). My disappointment on learning that only ticket holders were allowed in – and then my delight when a Pennsylvania couple immediately approached and offered me, a total stranger, a spare. I remember the joyfulness and the chatter on the top two floors of the museum that showcased sport, music and the arts. And the intensity and silence in the basement where inscriptions and exhibits documenting slavery were carefully studied. (I was quite surprised that only 10% – if that – of visitors on that packed day were white.)

I recall the conversations I had with people there, in the museums and on the streets. The Botanical Gardens and the poinsettia displays. The open-air ice rink by the National Gallery where I would drink a gluhwein whilst watching Mattie skate. Seeing the snow come down, ever so lightly, on our last day.