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Redemption

July 4, 2019 — Leave a comment

I woke up this morning with Bob. Those immortal words written in 1979 by Bob Marley, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”. The lyrics of Redemption Song danced in my mind as I walked Clyde. Perhaps as counterpoint to the rhetoric I heard yesterday.

The 3rd of July is arguably a more relevant day in the former Danish West Indies – now the US Virgin Islands – than the 4th July. Independence Day commemorates the day in 1766 that the thirteen American colonies no longer answered to the British monarchy, and were relieved to no longer have taxation without representation. 

The British as occupiers were long gone from St Croix by then – their first attempt to settle here being in the early 17th century. They did though loiter around the island throughout the occupations / ownerships of both the Dutch and the Danish, mainly as merchants, sailors and privateers. That’s what happens when ‘owned’ by so many countries – St Croix has flown under seven flags – descendants tend to stick around.

“None but ourselves can free our minds”. And yet yesterday afternoon, as words swirled up to our gallery from the Bandstand in Christiansted, one could be forgiven for thinking emancipation had only just occurred, rather than in 1848 – rather than 171 years ago. From one particular group of orators there was no single positive message. There is no denying the atrocious and barbaric Atlantic Slave Trade, or indeed the Domestic Slave Trade that flourished on the US mainland after the abolition of slavery in 1865. But a barrage of condemnation for a country banished from these shores in 1917, when America paid Denmark 25 million dollars for the islands, seemed a rather pointless exercise.  

Rather than harangue the, admittedly, very small audience, perhaps people yesterday should have been encouraged to walk the walk, to honour those men and women who demanded and fought for their freedom by actually taking part in the fort-to-fort trek. 

The drums signalled the march on Frederiksted in 2019 as they did in 1848. At 5am on July 3rd, for the last nineteen years, former Senator Terrence ‘Positive’ Nelson, now Commissioner of Agriculture, has sounded the conch, given an invocation and rattled the chains at Fort Christiansvaern before leading Crucians, and a smattering of imports, on a pilgrimage of remembrance for those enslaved who demanded their freedom. He has lead people, who cared enough to get up early, to trudge those hills and valleys that make up Queen Mary Highway and to rattle the chains at Fort Frederiksted. Paying tribute to the bravery, and rigours, of those men and women who fought for freedom. It is a walk of reflection, and a celebration of what has been achieved, and a walk of hope for the future.

Moses ‘Buddhoe’ Gottlieb, a sugar boiler and a free man, is commemorated as being the leader of the uprising for freedom, yet cautioned restraint to the approximately 8,000 enslaved who converged on Frederiksted on July 2nd, 1848. It was he who gave Governor Peter von Scholten the 4pm deadline to emancipate the enslaved, which lead to the famous proclamation, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today free.”

Surely a more enlightened approach today would be to salute those Virgin Islanders who have succeeded and gone on to achieve so very much, whether here or abroad. People like Hubert Harrison, who became “one of the most brilliant and dynamic Negro intellectuals ever to emerge on the American scene” and touted, if he had not died so young at the age of 44, as being a possible candidate to serve in President Roosevelt’s administration. Or David Hamilton Jackson, the labour leader, legislator and founder of The Herald, the first black newspaper on St Croix. Or Miss Enid Baa, who among many accolades, represented the Virgin Islands in 1960 at the 3rd UNESCO conference in Mexico City on Latin American and Caribbean Bibliography. Or Alton Adams, the first black bandmaster in the US Navy and who wrote the Virgin Islands anthem. Or Ullmont James, not bahn’ here but born of Crucian parents and who was educated in the first graduating class of the Christiansted Senior High School, who went on to be an outstanding administrator and diplomat to various missions in Africa. 

The list is long for the relative size of these three Virgin Islands. Sportsmen like Elrod Hendricks, and that proud son of St Croix, Tim Duncan, who has proved his commitment to his home island by his continual support, particularly after the 2017 Hurricanes of Irma and Maria. Or those who represent the Virgin Islands at the Olympic Games, only once a medallist but always present. Musicians, Jamesie and the All-Stars, or Stanley and Ten Sleepless Knights, who have taken the sounds of the Virgin Islands around the Caribbean and to Europe.

There was pride to be seen yesterday in the quelbe dancing later at the Christiansted Bandstand. Quelbe, recognised as the traditional music of the Virgin Islands and a graceful fusion of bamboula and cariso that tells the story of these islands. That’s keeping history alive in a positive manner.

Never forgetting, and honouring, the trials of our forefathers is important. Knowing our history helps make sense of today and prepares us for tomorrow. But to frame today against a litany of sins from long ago is neither productive nor constructive if, as Bob sang, “We forward in this generation, Triumphantly”!

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Houston is a city with a bad rap. When I mention we own a funky loft in Downtown I am met with comments like, “How can you stand it?” “Full of concrete.” “Dangerous. Full of gun-toting Texans.” For those in the actual know, Houston is a diverse, liberal city with incredible arts and culture, an amazing choice of excellent restaurants serving anything from Brazilian to Thai cuisine, and all manner of dishes in between. Parks brimming with well-tended spaces and water features, bayous that encourage wildlife – including the odd ‘gator, and bike trails galore dot the landscape. It is a city that has found its feet and has stopped the wanton demolition of buildings that might be more than 30 years old. As such Downtown is a wonderful conglomeration of old and new – honouring the past yet not afraid of the future. And whenever I return from any absence my heart lifts. 

It was my sole intent to show my travelling companions the best of Houston but first the fridge needed stocking. My chosen shopping spot was awash in flowers and chocolate dipped strawberries in preparation for Mother’s Day and we delighted in the colourful array. Suitably provisioned we headed home for a late lunch and general breath catching after a hectic week. It was nice to chill.

Catalina Coffee is the place in which much of my first book, Expat Life Slice by Slice, was written. It has been our favoured haunt since it opened, and I have spent many hours there chatting, reading or writing. It was where my second book, Fireburn, was launched. It is, in short, a place in which happy memories have been made and so it seemed only right to start our day there. And it serves the best coffee in town.

Houston is big but the core, the heart of Houston, is not and in order to give my guests their bearings we went for a drive along Buffalo Bayou, through River Oaks, and back through Memorial Park. Houston is also a shopping mecca and so we agreed Saturday would be our day to browse, and I had a party to prepare for. I introduced Emy and Laurie to Arnie’s – the store to beat all stores for anything festive. Need accoutrements for a Texans party, go to Arnie’s. Need a lei, go to Arnie’s. Having a bar mitzvah, go to Arnie’s. Need something risqué for a bachelorette party, try Arnie’s. 

Mother’s Day brunch was spent at Boomtown Coffee though as we wandered along Main Street I thought we were heading to the Honeymoon Café – a lot can change in a few months. I can’t begin to remember all the iterations the space has been called since I’ve lived Downtown. That space also holds many memories – my husband had a job interview there when it was the St Pete’s Dancing Marlin! Brunch was fun – a Mother’s Day treat for Laurie and I, courtesy of Emy!

There is an area of Houston that is particularly dear to me, so it was a must-see. The University Museum at Texas Southern, in the Third Ward, has been somewhere I have spent more time than most places over the last fifteen years or so. A place where I got more than I gave. A place that taught me to understand and value African American art, from the recognised greats of John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White and Kermit Oliver to up-and-coming greats like Leamon Green, Kingsley Onyeiwu and Prinston Nnanna. The Museum is in the Fairchild Building and was converted from the original gymnasium and so has high ceilings, the original floor and light streaming in to form an airy, serene art space – and on the walls was the Graduating Seniors Exhibition, the latest artistic talent to emerge from TSU.

Monday could have been a mess due to the guide’s forgetfulness – i.e. all Houston museums are closed on Mondays and so our long-awaited entry to the Van Gogh Exhibition at the MFAH was a non-starter, though Emy and Laurie did manage to get to see it later in the week, and me a few days later still. Instead we lunched at the Hotel Za Za, that chi-chiest of places on the edge of Herman Park. Next stop the Rothko Chapel. Also closed, this time due to renovations. My role as tour guide was looking nebulous but a drive around Rice University saved the day. We also said goodbye to Bruiser.

Then it was Tuesday. The day around which the entire epic escapade had been based. The Gemini Lunch – an event started over ten years ago – for a group of friends of the dual personality persuasion plus, because it was my party, a few non-Gemini friends! And what was spectacular was that in 2018 that wonderful group of women travelled to St Croix to celebrate my 60th birthday with me there, and so knew Emy and Laurie. It was not a quiet affair. Starting at noon, it ended at 7:30.

Wednesday was the official end of our wonderful road trip as Laurie left to return to Winter Park, the start of our odyssey. We remembered to wear our NOLA for beads for the final photo! Emy though still had a few days left in H-town and so we wandered the elegant halls of The Menil Museum, and went to the Alley Theatre and saw the brilliant Constellations by British playwright, Nick Payne.

Thursday saw the book signing of my third book, Transfer, at the delightful River Oaks Bookstore – thank you for coming out to play, Houston – followed by dinner at The Blue Nile – an Ethiopian restaurant.

Serendipity is a fine thing and two of my favourite people happen to be Wellesley alumni, and here they were both in Houston. Dr Alvia Wardlaw, Director of the University Museum meet Emy Thomas, journalist, author and artist – a lovely evening spent in the company of two remarkable women.

And then it was over – a fabulous road trip to always remember – Emy’s Epic Escapade!

We knew rain was in our forecast but it held off long enough for us to tour the Whitney Plantation, the only museum in Louisiana to showcase plantation life from the enslaved perspective. We were ably lead by Ali whose ancestors had worked the fields of the plantation when it was owned by a German immigrant family. Ambroise Heidel, after humble beginnings, purchased the land in 1752 on which he planted indigo, that most precious of dyes which symbolised wealth for many, from the Tuaregs of the Sahara to the nobility of the Elizabethan era. But indigo production requires great acreage and so when Jean Jacques Haydel (notice the name change), son of Ambroise, took over the plantation in the early 1800s he transitioned to sugar. The plantation stayed in the family until after the Civil War when it was bought by Bradish Johnson of New York. It was then it became known as the Whitney Plantation – named for his grandson, Harry Whitney.

But neither indigo nor sugar, whose actual production is remarkably similar, could be grown, harvested and fermented without a large workforce. And that was provided by the enslaved. It is always the casual cruelty that affects me most when I read about, or visit museums, dedicated to slavery. The indifference. Even a seemingly initial kindness turns into a self-serving and uncharitable disregard. A fact highlighted by the soulful statue of a young slave girl standing in Marie Azélie Haydel’s bedroom. Taken in as an infant, dressed in the finest clothes, taught her letters and numbers, she was toyed with until age ten – then the fine life was taken away and she became what she had in essence always been – a slave. Abuse of the most callous kind.

And it is that which the Whitney Plantation brings to life. Through recorded stories of those who remembered being enslaved as children. Stories gathered in the 1930s and 40s by a team led by folklorist John Lomax of the Federal Writers’ Project, and under the auspices of President Roosevelt. 

The Whitney Plantation is now owned by John Cummings, a retired trial lawyer from New York who in his own words is “a rich white man”. The estate bought as an investment has instead become his life’s passion – a legacy demanding attention. The Children of Whitney, statues of enslaved children dot the property and are the work of Woodrow Nash, a sculptor from Ohio. The figures are made more haunting by eyeless sockets and bowed heads. It is hard not to be imbued with shame. Then the Field of Angels. Black granite slabs naming the 2,200 slave children who died in Louisiana before their third birthday. Thirty-nine of them on the Whitney Plantation between 1823 an 1863. There is statue in their midst, a bronze sculpted by Rod Moorhead, of a black angel carrying a baby to Heaven. It was impossible not to cry.

By the time we got to the plantation house I couldn’t have cared less about the murals and frescos painted by Italian artist Dominici Canova and commissioned by Marie Azélie Haydel, the widow whose plantation by 1860 was producing up to 407,000 pounds of sugar in one grinding season. Produced on the backs of those bartered through the Domestic Slave Trade.

As we drove through the Whitney Plantation gates the heavens opened and I, that most pragmatic of women, felt they could well be the tears of angels.

We were subdued and, until our mobiles started bleeping warnings of flash floods, only cursory words were spoken. But as rain lashed the windscreen and Laurie’s grip on the steering wheel changed from light to tight a change in mood was called for. And so we sang. Or rather we started numerous songs only to tail off into tum-de-dums as lyrics failed us.  

Now I’ve never been to the Isle of Capri in Italy, but I’m pretty sure it looks nothing like the Isle of Capri at Lake Charles, our next rest stop. Granted the gloom of a furious storm did nothing to elevate the scenery, but the hoped for jollity of a casino hotel was equally lacking. Instead droopy-eyed punters sat at dining tables eating forgettable meals. A little levity was found when our waitress attempted to remove a plate whilst Emy was in the act of eating, fork en route to mouth. My words were probably harsh and further conversation with our server was conducted through Laurie, whose charm soothed ruffled feathers.

Morning came to find Laurie looking flummoxed. Guilty.

“I think I must have hit something. That’s a fire alarm,” she said, throwing on clothes and disappearing along the corridor. She didn’t return.

Why, I wondered, as Emy and I followed suit do women always assume we are at fault?

We found Laurie outside in the carpark, not allowed reentry. We mingled with fellow guests – tousled hair, bleary eyes and lack of clothing added to the drizzling drama. I had never realised camis enclosing bosoms could house so many knick knacks – cell phones, cigarettes, lighters, wallets. There appeared to be quite a lot of teeth missing from various mouths.

Words jumbled around us. 

“Screaming all night long. Doors banging.”

“Smoke everywhere on the 5th floor.”

“A naked lady – Asian – running up and down the corridor.”

We listened as sirens approached. Slinging my computer case into Bruiser I saw, at the side of the hotel, two fire engines, an ambulance and a police car. A woman covered in a sheet appeared to be receiving oxygen.

“I’m going in for our stuff,” I said, expecting to be stopped by someone in authority. Not smelling anything untoward I went to our room on the ground floor. It was not pretty packing. As I pulled three cases down the corridor people were entering the lobby, only to be shunted out again. Then in again. It was fortunately not a serious fiasco.

Free breakfast, issued for our inconvenience, turned out only to be available from 11am. At 8am and in dire need of coffee we braved the cafeteria. Breakfast was good, or maybe adrenaline had sharpened our appetite.

None of this intrepid trio are gamblers but a quick swing through the casino was a must. Croupiers – the women heavily made up and no longer in the first, second or third flush of youth, and pasty men, paunches straining uniform shirts – spun wheels, flipped cards, or gathered dice in automated boredom. Smoke lingered overhead like a shroud. 

The pokies – one armed bandits – flashed their gaudy lights as bills were fed into their greedy mouths and the roll of the machine jolted to a stop and delivered no rewards. Men and women, cigarettes stuck to lips or dripping ash to the floor watched in blind belief that today would be the day. 

We each played. Novices that we are, we didn’t realize we were in the high stakes area until I lost $10 on two pulls. Laurie and Emy sensibly moved to the amateurs side of the hall and lost $5 each on five pulls. A mug’s game.

Lake Charles was still drizzling and so with little regret we left and Bruiser took us on our final drive to Houston where …..

Elysian Fields was to be home for the next couple of days – an Airbnb that charmed us from the moment we opened the front door. Two old shot-gun houses knocked into one, with the central fireplace cleverly opened on both sides. It wasn’t quite at the posh end of the road and the small bodega a block further up was not a place in which one could find a bottle of wine, or anything that wasn’t processed to an inch of its life. It gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘food desert’ – that phrase used in the US to describe an area devoid of healthy options. Laurie and I were scrutinised as we, in turn, searched the shelves for something, anything, to purchase. In the end we left empty-handed and, with an apologetic nod, scurried home.

Driving is hungry work so over cups of tea we decided on our dinner destination. In answer to Emy’s cravings, it had to be French. Herbsaint fitted each and every requirement – casual elegance, delicious food and a crisp wine for those drinkers amongst the trio, and it had the benefit terrace dining which added to our enjoyment. With apologies to Irving Berlin and Putting on the Ritz, who doesn’t like seeing ‘the well-to-do? Up and down St Charles Avenue, on that famous thoroughfare’. We left feeling the restaurant deserved its regular place in the Times-Picayune’s list of top ten in the city.

Morning came and once again our thoughts turned to our stomachs. Our host, Andrew, in the copious notes left for guests, had assured us that joining the waiting line for a seat at the table was unnecessary for locals, and so we headed down to the French Market to Cafe du Monde. I hustled ahead and, studiously ignoring eye contact with those tourists not-in-the-know, found a table recently abandoned. Within moments the residual icing sugar was wiped away by a Filipina waitress and as my companions joined me, we ordered café au lait and beignets. Our cups overflowed when a jazz quartet starting playing on the sidewalk and we knew we were headed into a good day.

“Well, well, hello, Emy – This is Louis, Emy, it’s so nice to have you back where you belong, You’re lookin’ swell, Emy, I can tell, Emy, you’re still glowin’, you’re still crowin’, you’re still goin’ strong.” Yup, next stop Louis Armstrong Park where, though disappointed by the statue of the great man, we still managed to sing our way around and take Emy’s photo under the lights for her brother.

Who needs a ‘fascinator’?

Having found a spot to park I bottled out of city driving and under my inexpert guidance we boarded a streetcar for a quick ride down towards the Mississippi. Three changes later we were still miles from where we wanted to be but, as often happens, we stumbled upon the Audubon Butterfly Garden where we had an enchanted couple of hours. Our streetcar ride back was faster and we returned home glad we were not staying in a ‘cockroach motel’ such as the miniature shown at the Insectarium.

The French Market called us again and though we didn’t go to a jazz club, we had a lovely evening watching NOLA come to life as the lights went down. Some sights were not for the faint of heart but enjoyment was all around.

Fully loaded with cups of coffee and chicory we left our haven on Elysian Fields and squeezed Bruiser in a parking place near our chosen breakfast stop, only to find it firmly fermé. Instead we stumbled upon Anotoine’s Annex, a dear little patisserie and coffeeshop and a subsidiary to the famous Antoine’s, in business since before “New Orleans was queen city of the Mississippi River, when cotton was king and French gentlemen settled their differences under the oaks with pistols for two and coffee for one.”

The World War II Museum was next on our calling card. The three of us, having different areas of interest, split up agreeing to meet in a couple of hours. I had been looking forward to the visit but was bitterly disappointed in the presentation of the Pacific theatre. Whilst I recognise the desire to put US involvement in the forefront, I truly felt the museum did a great disservice to those Australian men and women embedded in the mud and bloody grime of war alongside their American counterparts. I couldn’t help feeling the majority of younger visitors would leave with little idea, if any, of how bravely the Australians fought. Certainly those same visitors would have no knowledge the reason the Australian fleet and air force were not on immediate hand was because they were in North Africa and the Mediterranean, and had been at war a great deal longer than any US troops. Much of the fleet and RAAF were re-stationed to the Pacific after the attack on Pearl Harbour, which took place on the same day but after the Malay peninsula was invaded at Kota Bharu. Neither was there any mention of the ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’ – not a derogatory term – for the incredible fortitude and bravery of the New Guinea men who served as guides and stretcher bearers for injured American and Australian troops through the rugged terrain of the New Guinea jungle. I left the museum feeling very cross.

A drive through the quiet grandeur of NOLA’s Garden District soothed my ruffled feathers and, as Laurie took the wheel, we headed along the I10 through the most horrendous storms to where …..

Montgomery was a welcome sight after a long day of driving and having found our accommodation with only the most minor of detours, due entirely to the driver not following navigational instruction, it was good to stretch our legs. As sometimes happens we found, tucked behind an unprepossessing strip mall, The Cork and Cleaver – an eatery which proved a pleasant culinary surprise not far from our hotel.

The sole purpose of heading north was to visit The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration www.eji.org  Opened just over a year ago, the museum uses technology to chillingly dramatize “the enslavement of African Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in America.” 

Our timed entry to the Museum ensured an early start and at 9:30 we were at the doors of what was once a warehouse for the enslaved, a mere block from what had been one of the biggest human auction sites in the country. It stood adjacent to the docks and railroad – convenient for the trafficking of people. Exploring “the history of racial inequality and its relationship to a range of contemporary issues from mass incarceration to police violence” made for uncomfortable viewing. And gave a stark confirmation that racial tensions are still far too high in America, with detention levels of African Americans proportionally higher than for any other race. 

Jefferson’s ban in 1808 on importing people as chattels from Africa did not end slavery, many still being smuggled in through Spanish Florida, but rather also lead to the lucrative Domestic Slave Trade – that of selling men, women and children from the northern to the southern states. Montgomery, one time home to the fertile Black Belt, was where plantations owners garnered huge enslaved populations to work the rich soil and to pick cotton – its production increased by the invention of the cotton gin. By 1860, Alabama was one of the two largest slave-owning states in America.

We spent a humbling few hours absorbing just some of the horrors faced not only by the enslaved, but by the humiliation of segregation. One wall was covered with signs common to the Jim Crow years – No Niggers, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans Allowed – No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs – were two that I found particularly offensive. 

We blinked as we emerged from the dimmed lights of the museum to the brilliance of the day, sun bouncing off cars in a blistering haze. It made the juxtaposition of what we had seen and what we were about to see even more stark. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a few short blocks from the museum, is built on the crest of a hill overlooking the city. It is dedicated to the legacy of those enslaved, those terrorized by the then ever-present threat of death, those whose dignity was stripped away by segregation. Surrounded by lawns, the memorial has 800 suspended steel columns etched with many names and many ‘unknowns’ denoting the county and state in which the offense took place. Over 4,400 African Americans, including children, over a period of 73 years and only ending in 1950, were murdered – hung, burnt, shot, drowned or beaten – by white mobs. I expected it too to be a chilling place but, like war cemeteries, there was a tranquillity. As if naming names acknowledged the atrocity and allowed the souls of those murdered to be finally being honoured.

We three intrepid travellers left Montgomery glad we had visited. Glad to have faced that which is often left unsaid, and believing every American man, woman and child should at some stage in their life visit both the museum and the memorial because it paves the way for discussions many of us don’t have, and many of us don’t want to have. 

Our drive out of the city was quiet as we processed all we had seen. There is, I know, much about my British heritage of which to be ashamed but the legacy of legalised segregation in Britain is not included in the list. I left Montgomery with a profound gratitude that I was not brought up in America – that Africa and Asia gave me my early education in schools filled with people of all colours, ethnicities and religions.

We picked up Interstate 65 and headed south to Mobile. The Malaga Inn, originally built in about 1862 as twin townhouses by two brothers-in-law for their wives, was a peaceful sanctuary after the turmoil of the morning. Like many old homes, the Malaga Inn, also has secrets, along with tunnels possibly used as a hiding place by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The homes remained in the Goldsmiths and Frohlichstein families for many years but from the early 1900s filtered through various owners until the mid 1960’s when the current owner’s family bought and renovated both properties. Two stories were added to the coach house with bedrooms overlooking a courtyard between the two original properties. Profuse with the lingering scent of jasmine and gardenias, pots of colourful geraniums nestle beneath pansies and petunias cascading from baskets hanging from flickering gas lights, the courtyard was a haven of serenity in which to discuss, over a bottle of wine, the questions provoked by the day’s activities.

The morning saw us finishing our coffee, again in the courtyard, before wandering along the banks of the Mobile River where students posed for graduation photographs amidst the flowers and statuary in the park, and to the accompaniment of toots from tugs. Emy also found a knee on which to perch. That of Ervin S Cooper, founder of one of the largest stevedoring companies in the country, and operating in 23 ports.

Before leaving, we learnt that Mobile and not our next destination, New Orleans, is considered the home of Mardi Gras in America. Then taking the road less travelled we meandered along Highway 90, through Pascagoula and Biloxi, marvelling at the Antebellum grandeur lining the shoreline until we found ourselves on Elysian Fields where…..

Every now and then the stars align and a suggestion mooted becomes an actuality. The initial idea, prompted by a birthday card showing three women of the slightly older variety in a convertible on a road trip, was my husband’s idea. One of our party needed something to look forward to following an illness.

Well we’re not in a convertible – one of our group not being keen and, truth be told, neither am I. It’s not that I’m fussy about my hair, but wind and sunburn take on a whole new meaning when you’re wheeling along the highways and byways of the southern states. Oh, and we haven’t done any flashing.

Two of our group flew from St Croix, USVI to Orlando, Florida, and before you throw your hands in the air and think – in common day parlance – OMG these biddies are going to Disney, we weren’t. Instead we met up with the third member of our triumvirate to spend a happy few days seeing Winter Park.

Now I’m not really a suburban kind of gal, but it was pretty, though maybe a little too manicured for my more Bohemian side, however the museums and galleries were a delightful surprise. But before we could admire the culture we needed sustenance which came in the form of a three-tier slab of carrot cake. 

If glass is your thing, hotfoot it to the Morse Museum of American Art. It houses the largest collection of work by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the world – pieces that bedazzle the mere mortal with intricate designs that seem to glow from within. Dedicated to the Chicago industrialist Charles Hosmer Morse, the museum was founded in 1942 by his granddaughter, Jeannette Genius McKean. Keeping it in the family, though they weren’t married until 1945, Jeannette installed Hugh McKean as the first director. But it wasn’t nepotism alone that got him the gig. McKean was a talented artist who, in 1930, had been selected by the Tiffany Foundation to work, along with other artists, at Laurelton Hall on Long Island – the home of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Their work was ‘gently critiqued’ by Tiffany himself, who often joined the artists for evenings of organ music in the great Fountain Court. 

It was not surprising then that when McKean learned that Laurelton Hall had been destroyed by fire, he and his wife made a concerted effort to purchase anything that could be salvaged. One such element was part of the 1893 Byzantine-Romanesque style chapel designed by Tiffany for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Other bits of the chapel that had been sold off over the years were found and now form an exquisite space that gleams with an incandescent glow as one looks in awe at the thousands of glass tiles, the mosaic windows and baptismal font – truly a space as Tiffany said, “in which to worship art.”

Winter Park overlooks Lake Osceola which we felt duty-bound to sail around. The homes of local worthies from days gone by were pointed out – their foibles as well as their good deeds. One chap was having difficulty in plucking his wife from her New York roots and so built an exact replica of their home up north in order to tempt her to the Sunshine State. Personally, crocs clambering up my gently sloping lawn would put me off.

However, meandering around the grounds of the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens made me forget to never smile at a crocodile. The gardens were filled with statues of men and maidens, some disrobed. Many allegorical, some magical in the fluidity of the marble that seemed to almost breath in the soft breeze shimmering off the lake to tease the leaves of the full-bodied magnolias, the trembling asters, or the drooping and aptly named Angel’s Trumpets.

Winter Park was fun but we needed to head west and so, abandoning Laurie’s rather lovely baby blue Mercedes coupe named Lady, we picked up a sturdy black mammoth we instantly named Bruiser. First stop the Gulf Coast south of Tallahassee where we shared space with a group of Harley-Davidson riders from Germany in a hotel very close to the wonderfully named Sopchoppy. 

Now you may not know this, but Sopchoppy came into existence in 1894 after a railroad was built to encourage people to settle in the area with the promise of fertile land and a pleasant climate. The railroad company was referred to colloquially as the Gopher, Frog and Alligator Company – perhaps a clue as to why the town is only home to approximately 457 bodies. I could go on about how the township got its name but really I’m sure you’d much rather know about the annual Worm Grunting Festival. I have led a sheltered life and had not come across such an activity before but understand it to be quite an art. Worm charmers – yes, there is such a thing – hammer wooden stakes into the ground, then rub them with metal slabs. The resulting vibration tease the worms up through the soil where they are gathered and sold for bait, with the grunter gathering the most worms, I’m sure, being bestowed the title of Champion Worm Grunter.

But the miles were calling and we couldn’t linger long in our next stop, Apalachicola – say that very quickly after a couple of Margaritas. It is a pretty town on Apalachicola Bay in which the original French Consulate is now an inn, and where a charming independent book store offered literary temptations. After succumbing to temptations of another variety, where decisions had to be made as to whether a hand-made milk-chocolate covered pecan would be better than dark-chocolate covered fudge, a conundrum decided by purchasing both, and a few others, we hustled across I10 and through the by-roads of Alabama to Montgomery where…. 

This is a blog I wrote in April 2015. In April 2019, following the scandal of celebrities and the well-heeled ‘cheating’ to get their kids into college it is just as relevant.

Education, and parenting, can provoke heated debate regardless of where in the world we happen to live. The ‘tiger mom’ of Amy Chua, who espouses a structured and highly disciplined approach versus the ‘panda dad’ of Alan Paul, who believes “it stifles creativity and innovation”.

Then you have Texas Lt Governor Dan Patrick’s Grassroots Advisory Board, who believe pre-K education is a “godless, socialistic” plot and “a threat to parental rights”.

Like most things there has to be a median way.

In his book Anatomy of Restlessness, Bruce Chatwin wrote, “Children need paths to explore, to take bearings on the earth in which they live….” He believed some of our earliest memories are based around paths, whether to school, to the end of the garden, to the shops; in essence wanting to find out where a path may lead. The journey being as important as the destination.

My “I’m nearly four” year-old granddaughter recently started kindergarten, and is thriving in an environment that allows her to learn, to find her own path and to have a few hours a day independent from her mother.

And there’s the nub. Independence. It seems to me, our role as parents is to set our children up to succeed in whatever endeavour they decide to undertake. We try to guide them. We hate to see them suffer, whether from a snub in the playground, a lost ballgame, a bad grade, or a first broken heart. But if we try and ensure all failure is taken out of their little lives, how will they know how to handle failures that will inevitably face them as adults? There are very few of us who have not had a disappointment of some kind, and it is how we manage those later failures that gives measure of the man or woman we have become.

An article on the BBC website triggered thoughts on how much pressure we put on our children to succeed. Parents in Hong Kong taking extreme steps to ensure their toddlers are accepted into “the most prestigious nurseries.” Only then, these parents believe, will their children gain entry to the best primary, and secondary schools, and ultimately the best universities. One mother has a tutor for her eighteen-month-old daughter, who will need to know how to build a house with bricks, know where the eyes go on a felt face, and in the more extreme nursery interviews, be able to identify different kinds of eggs. Really? Of the five eggs pictured, I felt reasonably confident I got three correct. Tutoring is set to begin for this child’s brother when he reaches the grand old age of eight months. These toddlers are also tutored, and tutoring does not come cheap, in ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and not to be greedy, not to hit little Jimmy, and so on.

Parents in the US desperate for their daughters to get into a sorority have been known to spend up to $8,000 for a two-week sorority prep class, wherein their daughters are taught how to behave. Call me old fashioned, but I thought that was a parent’s job. A study by the University of Mary Washington, published in Journal of Child and Family Studies, reported that children with hovering parents were more likely to suffer from depression, and a lack of self-worth than those with parents less inclined to micromanage their offspring.

There is, of course, a difference in giving children a leg up, and all out cheating. A photo doing the rounds on social media recently showed parents climbing the walls and hanging from the windows of a school in Bihar, India, waving cheat sheets at their children inside taking end-of-year exams. Apparently US colleges expect applicants from China to have falsified transcripts, fake letters of recommendation and not to have written their own essays.

But it’s not just in Asia this proclivity to cheat for our children occurs. Tutors writing college papers for wealthy students is not unknown here. One young tutor earned enough to pay his own college tuition from such an undertaking. An extreme example is of an American mother, Catherine Venusto, a school secretary, who hacked into the schools computers to change her child’s grades. Not just once, but a hundred times. Again, really?

I do understand, and agree, education is the way out of poverty, but parents cheating for their children is not going to help them think. If we want independent, free thinking and confident young people we have to allow them to think for themselves, and to make some mistakes. That does not mean abrogating responsibility for their safety. It means giving them the opportunity to find their own path, even if it means some fraught moments for us. And parenting is full of those gut-wrenching moments. 

In a recent guest blog for ExpatChild.com on the ‘empty nest syndrome’ I wrote, “Helicoptering our children has I think made the ‘empty nest’ that much harder to bear. Our children have become the focus of our lives, rather than a very precious part of it; necessary of course when they are tiny and truly helpless but not so much as they grow.”

We have to let our children go in incremental steps and a good first step is kindergarten, but on their own merit. Not ours.