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Interregnum

March 25, 2020 — 12 Comments

A recent Sunday morning was spent speaking to a small congregation of Unitarian Universalists, www.uua.org whose seven principles would seem to be a pretty good guide for decent living. I promised that Same View, Different Lens would discuss cultural awareness in a world wherein countries, and some peoples, are reverting to an insular and intolerant outlook.

But this isn’t a piece about the brilliance of my talk! Rather it is the coincidental nature of it as the precursor to the hell happening around the world as COVID-19 shuts down our borders. An action wholly understandable but which threatens to make us more inward looking and parochial, quick to lay blame beyond our boundaries.

Pico Iyer, a philosopher and travel writer I much admire says in his book The Global Soul, “The airport was a rare interregnum– a place between two rival forms of authority– and the airplane itself was a kind of enchanted limbo…. And so, half-inadvertently, not knowing whether I was facing east or west, not knowing whether it was night or day, I slipped into that peculiar state of mind– or no-mind– that belongs to the no-time, no-place of the airport, that out-of-body state in which one’s not quite there, but certainly not elsewhere.”

It is this feeling, this interregnum, in which I find myself now. Not, however, the anticipatory kind of limbo that airports induce but rather in a discombobulated state of nowhereness. I should be used to that feeling. I grew up a ‘Nowherian’ as Derek Walcott, the St Lucian poet called us. An in-betweener, and so am accustomed to often being on the outside looking in, to not always quite fitting into a prescribed mold. 

My family is global. My daughter is married to a Trinidadian and lives in Port of Spain, my son is soon to marry a Polish woman. They live in London. I have no doubt we will continue to live in different parts of the world, that their children will grow up with an inherent cultural awareness and, as I sit fretting at the keyboard, I remind myself that cultural awareness and common sense go hand-in-hand. I just need to get a better handle on the latter in these days of COVID-19 because I have a constant refrain in my head. 

What if they need me?

I know that is highly unlikely. I believe and trust in their ability to deal with anything thrown at them. That was how they were brought up, around the same world they now have the temerity to call their playground. And, in my current state of mind and despite my pride in them, I am to blame for their independence. 

It was only this morning, as I walked my dog along the empty Boardwalk in Christiansted, I realised what is causing my somewhat irrational mood. It is grief. 

Grief for a world that has changed beyond anything I could have imagined. No one knows how long borders or skies will be closed. A sorrow for those whose family and friends have died from this rampant virus. But my newly understood grief is also selfish one. It is grief at the freedoms I have lost, the freedom to hop a plane to see my children. It has sent me to find words vaguely remembered from when my father died. In his desk I had found a book of quotes, snippets of Latin and Greek, Malay and Urdu, he jotted down. Words that took his fancy. The words I wanted were written by the British doctor and eugenicist – not a science I agree with but, in the current context, wise words nonetheless, “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” 

So in this interregnum, this limbo, I must accept that some things have changed, maybe forever. That is the grief. I must embrace the ease of virtual communication which, for a while, is replacing the joy of real and tactile social intercourse. With vigilance COVID-19 will be contained and once it has run its course our borders will be reopened, and our minds once more excited about the infinite possibilities and cultural awareness that travel provides. But for now it is a time of letting go, and holding on, and remembering we see the same views through different lenses.

Melancholy Confusion

January 5, 2019 — 6 Comments

It is January 5th, Twelfth Night, the eve of epiphany, but here on St Croix, it is known as “Three Kings’ Day” and is marked by the adult carnival parade – a not particularly chaste celebration of the Magi’s first sight of the infant Jesus.

But as with most things Crucian it does have its roots in history when the enslaved were given time off to celebrate Christmas. In the 1700s the streets of Christiansted and Frederiksted would be filled with costumed singing and dancing merrymakers, who would also visit other plantations to spread the holiday cheer. The modern manifestation has been in existence since the early 1950s when Three Kings’ Day marks the end of the month-long celebration with ten days of fun at the Crucian Christmas Carnival. Calypsonians compete for the title of king or queen and this year was won, for the fourth time, by Caribbean Queen aka Temisha Libert for her calypos, Promise and Karma. The first advising the incoming governor, Albert Bryan, to say true to his election campaign promises, and the second perhaps warning of what would happen if he doesn’t! Moko jumbies keep bad spirits at bay, cultural activities and fairs showcasing arts and crafts, food and drinks, keep the revellers happy, fed and lubricated. The final day, “Three Kings’ Day”, sees shimmering scantily clad men and women chasséing down the streets of Frederiksted to the steady beat of music belting out from trucks. It a noisy fun-filled spectacle that sets the crowds up for the coming year.

Twelfth Night, or the beginning of Epiphany, was always a subject of debate in my childhood home. Do the decorations come down on the night of the 5th or 6th of January? According to the Church of England it should be the 5th and so, over the years, I have come to adhere to their ruling. I can only assume the confusion came about due to one parent counting the 12 days from the day after Christmas Day, and the other from Christmas Day. Perhaps having the international date line between their two countries had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, I find the day a little melancholy. The tinsel is down, the fairy lights are stored away despite knowing a fuse needs changing, the baubles that have survived the cat’s delighted playing are packed away and my favourite tree decorations are wrapped in tissue and bubble wrap and wedged into stout boxes ready for any eventuality. The whole enterprise reminiscent of an international move, which was my initial reason for such careful storage practices. For many years we did indeed move every twelve months and I’d be damned if my Christmas decorations didn’t travel with me.

Perhaps the melancholy comes from knowing my global relocations have spluttered to an end. That is not to say I am unhappy in life or in my current location. How could I be? I am healthy and happy, as are my family. I have the Caribbean glinting in the sunlight and trade winds rustling the coconuts palms outside my study. A new book being released in March adds an element of satisfaction, and the thrill of starting another engages my mind in pages of what ifs and maybes. But the excitement of wondering what country we might call home the following year was intoxicating, and I miss it. 

Or perhaps my melancholy comes from saying goodbye to a houseful of friends who have stayed with us and shared our 12 days of Christmas – a noisy, busy, laughter-filled time of tempting smells from the kitchen and far too much rum and wine on the gallery.

Or perhaps it because this year we did not share our Christmas with our children and grandchildren who are scattered around the world. That, perhaps, a direct reflection of their upbringing in different parts of the globe. We all lead our own lives and only rarely do they truly entwine for a few precious days of shared memories, and when new ones are made to be stored away, like the decorations, and brought out occasionally for delightful reminisces. That is the price we all pay for a nomadic existence. And whilst I might think ruefully, and with a smidgeon of envy, of families who each year gather around the same Christmas tree in the same house in the same town, I know that is not our family.

We are global nomads. Each married to or with a partner from another country. We live in three different countries and as different cultural mores are navigated, with some becoming amalgamated into our own family culture, I reflect on the differences. But more importantly I reflect on the shared values. 

Because as Three Kings’ Day draws to an end, my melancholy vanishes and I have my own epiphany. It doesn’t matter where we live, or who we live with, or what language we speak. What matters is that when we do share time together, whether in reality or the virtual world of FaceTime, we are a family despite the miles between us.

Memory Keepers

November 29, 2016 — 11 Comments

Sadness washes over me like a warm tide. The tears are salty too. A childhood memory surges through the wave of grief, and I smile.

The undiluted joy of receiving a tiny, tinny transistor radio from my aunt and uncle when they stayed with us in Singapore, en route back to England from their posting in the Solomon Islands. I was about seven and confined to bed for six months with suspected rheumatic fever. That little wireless was my constant companion as I whiled away the long days, and I remember thinking it fantastic that people like Cliff Richard or Brenda Lee, or The Beatles, all came to our little island. They didn’t of course, but no one dissuaded me.

I called my uncle and aunt ‘Jonjulu’. Their names, John and Julia, merged into one amorphous and interchangeable sound. In those early days, before the islands in the Pacific became their home, Jonjulu lived in northern Nigeria where my uncle was a district officer. We lived mainly in the south, in Port Harcourt, Lagos and Aba. Christmases were spent together. And I, as the only child around, was very spoilt. Early on I tried to adopt my aunt’s favourite pose. That of standing on one leg, the other tucked up behind her calf. I, a chunky toddler, of course would fall flat on my face.

Julia reminded me of that this summer. We had lunch together when I visited her in Sherborne, England. She was by then in an old people’s home conveniently located across from a very nice hotel. Her short-term focus was drifting away but her long-term memory was remarkably intact. We talked about my uncle, long dead. About my father – also dead – and his delight when, after introducing his commanding officer to his sister via letter, their meeting culminated in marriage. We talked of their cottage in Suffolk and the joy their children had given them in that idyllic part of England.

Whilst reading and talking about the menu was enjoyed, deciding what to eat was an ordeal for my aunt until, with a little nudging, she finally decided and we ordered from the busy waiter whose patience never wavered.

We talked about the gardens surrounding the hotel, of the self-important robin redbreast hopping beside the raking gardener and, suddenly, Julia reminded me of arriving on their Dorset doorstep at three in the morning. Saudi, their spaniel, shushed by my voice licked my hand and bade me enter the unlocked door to the kitchen. She followed me up the stairs, her head cocked as I whispered through the bedroom door, asking for a bed for me and my friend. “Do you want to meet Fiona,” I, by then a young woman, remember asking. “No, I do not. You know where the beds are. We’ll talk in the morning,” my sleepy aunt replied.

Along with stories, we shared a bottle of wine. Probably excessive at lunch time, but I’m so glad we did. Because my much-loved aunt died on Sunday.

The final person who knew me well as a child despite not always living in the same country. Who knew my parents in their early days of courting and who answered my questions, as well as she could, when I first learned of my half-sister’s existence – my parents, who I would not see for a year, having left London to return to Papua New Guinea. An adaptable woman who was often easier in the company of Hausa tribesmen or Pacific islanders than her compatriots.

It was Julia who taught me the subtleties of English dining – artichoke and asparagus – “Only ever eaten with the fingers, Apple.” I was thirteen and more used to rambuttans and breadfruit.

Remembering her influence, I think of how many expatriates worry about family ties being broken by miles and oceans. A few years in Nigeria and a couple more as a young woman in England are the only time I lived in the same country as my aunt, and yet she knew me better than most – my foibles and my dreams. Distance was never an object to our closeness.

My aunt was the product of an era now passed. Of when duty was considered paramount. Of when doing the right thing was expected and not rewarded. She had sadnesses, like everyone, but she was a private person brought up to not make a fuss, to get on with it. Truisms seen now as anachronistic.

My father, Julia’s brother, was a military man and when I was a child he would say to me, “A soldier’s daughter never cries.” Not something I espouse and, as I type, my tears fall for Jonjulu, my last true memory keeper.