Archive for June, 2009

I love bluegrass.  And of course I can listen to bluegrass anywhere but it only feels right when I listen to it here, here in its home territory.  Bluegrass needs to set against the backwoods of America in order to really blossom into what it’s fully meant to be.  I’ve listened to bluegrass many times in the UK — either caught by chance on the radio or one of my CDs — and, though it always sounded lovely, it never was more than a shadow of its true self.  A little like  hanging an Italian Renaissance painting on the wall of a log cabin.  No… wait… more the other way round…  maybe like spreading an handmade calico quilt over a bed in a some swanky, modern, high-end New York hotel.  It’s still beautiful, but its beauty suffers for being in a place where it just doesn’t fit.

We listened to bluegrass on the radio on the way home tonight, driving down country roads with the windows open on a muggy evening that came at the close of a perfect, lazy, summer Sunday.  M has never appreciated bluegrass properly, but then he has never experienced it where it ought to be.  He still doesn’t quite get it really, but driving along tonight, with the warm air running over our skin and the girls falling asleep exhausted in the back, I think he started to.  A little.

I love bluegrass.  I love country music.  I love hot, muggy summer evenings that smell of the promise of a cool night to come.  I love storms, real storms — powerful, scary storms full of threats they can fulfill, if it turns that way.  I love diners, and oversized plates of good plain grub, with lots of needless melted cheese and served with endless refills of coffee — even though I can’t eat at them anymore.  I love closets…  forced-air heat… garbage disposals… mixer-taps.  I love country roads, yellow schoolbusses, and the possibility that there’s bear in them thar woods… because those woods go on for miles and miles.  I love fireflies, chipmunks.  I love hummingbirds — hummingbirds! — right there at the feeder on the backporch, whizzing past my head to get to it and scaring me to death with the sudden buzz of their wings.  And I love the backporch too, and sitting on the porchswing at the end of the day, and having dinner outside and a slow beer, as the girls run off the last of their energy with the neighbour kids, and I sit wrapped in that heavy, warm, still summer air.

M is in the wrong place — like the quilt, like the painting.  He doesn’t fit, and he is diminished by it.  And I’m not in the right place either, because I don’t belong here anymore — there is too much of me that is left in England and the separation hurts, every day.

And yet, at the same time, I do belong here — deeply, deeply belong here.  All these things I love… they are my childhood, they are my formation.  They are what made me who I am and, when I am in Britain, I am diminished no less by the separation from them too.

“Let’s face it,” M said at one point as we drove, “we’re not going to get back for at least five years.  There’s no way we’ll manage it sooner.”  I don’t like it, but I do think he’s right.  It’s a huge undertaking, an self-funded international move, especially with a family in tow.

“I know,” I said.  We drove on, and after a minute or two, I added, “But I am glad that you’ve been here.”  Because as crazy and as difficult and as exciting as the past year has been, what it’s really been is an education for him — a crash course on the subject of his own wife.  He knew me before, but he knows me so much better now.

He turned and looked outside for a moment, at the quintessentially American summer evening as it rushed past us, and the muggy air blew cool and fresh through the windows.

“Yeah…”  He looked back at me and smiled just a little.  “Me too.”

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Just got the call from the allergist’s office…  E2’s RAST test for coffee has come back negative!  She is (probably*) not allergic to coffee!!!  I am over the moon!!!

And I’d love to natter more about it, but I gotta go.  It’s been three weeks since those hives appeared on her belly and I’ve had not one sip of coffee since.  So I am out of here and off to the coffee shop for a well-deserved — and long delayed — cup o’ Joe!


*Now, this joyous news was of course delivered with that standard warning that RAST tests do not actually confirm the existance or non-existance of an allergy — they only indicate the likelihood of an allergy.  So, it is possible for a person to have a negative RAST result but still, in fact, have the allergy.  And vice versa: it’s possible to have a positive RAST result (even a very high result) and be able to eat the food with no allergic symptoms.   RAST tests are like that — simultaneously helpful, confusing, and frustrating.

But the negative RAST is a strong indication — an almost surefire indication — that E2 is not allergic to coffee.  Which is great news!  And also ever-so-slightly concerning… because something caused those hives and now we don’t know what did.  Continued vigilance and caution, advised the allergist’s office.  Yes, I agreed.

As always.

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But the thing with your daughters finally getting to eat cake — and your mother realising that she can be the source of this new joy to her granddaughters and so embracing the opportunity to make sure there is cake to be had every single day — is that you get used to them running around with chocolate crumbs all round their mouths.

So even though I did realise, after a few days of this chocolate-covered mayhem, that it isn’t necessary for them to have cake every day and I did ask my mum to perhaps scale it back a bit, it’s still been common enough to see those choccy-smiles gazing back at me.

And so I didn’t give it a thought the other day when E2 came running up with chocolate icing spread all over her face, covering her teeth, a bit streaked in her hair, and the ends of several fingers coated in the stuff and spreading it in little clumps on everything she touched.  Part of me sighed at the inevitable (and unenviable) clean-up job ahead, but there was another part of me — the part that worried so when she stopped gaining weight, the part that was so afraid when she dropped from the 98th percentile to the 1st percentile, the part that has struggled every day for the past year with her incredible dietary restrictions — that was just so happy to see her eating and enjoying and just being a regular kid.  It may not seem like much, but it is.  Oh, it is.  And I put aside all my healthy-food fanaticism to just soak up the joy of seeing my kid covered in chocolate-y goodness.

Until I remembered that I hadn’t given her any cake that day…  And then she turned around and toddled off, and I spotted ther was more chocolate — much more than was ever on her face or hair or hands — coming out of her nappy and spread down one leg.

And I realised, with sudden horror, that it was not chocolate.  And the clean up was a completely different job than I had thought…

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The first time I cried after E2 was diagnosed with all her allergies was in the car on the way home from the appointment.  The news had come suddenly and with no real explanation and I was feeling shell-shocked.  The implications her (then) eight food allergies were beginning to dawn on me…  And the first thing I realised was that she would probably never be able eat cake on her birthday, and that thought upset me so much that I burst into tears right there behind the wheel.

Handling birthdays and other celebrations is one of the hardest things to deal with when you have kids with food allergies (or, I’m sure, when you are a child with food allergies).  When the allergy is nuts, wheat, soy, dairy, or eggs, the cakes and treats at most parties will be entirely off-limits.  And that’s tough on a kid, to sit by and watch everyone else dig in when they can’t, or to have to eat something that’s different (but safe) from what everyone else is having.  It takes a lot of maturity on the kid’s part to handle that gracefully, and a lot of patient explaining — and extreme vigilance — on the part of the parent to get them to accept it.

I’m not that good parent.  I’m far too lazy, and so I’ve avoided the issue completely thus far by simply not letting the girls know about the parties I’ve declined on their behalf.  Alright, it’s only been one but I dread the prospect of sitting by as a dozen pairs of sticky hands touch the same tables and toys and gifts and balloons that my girls’ hands will then touch.  I don’t want bring our own food, and corral my kids to their own table, and make the host-mother feel so uncomfortable and inconvenienced.  And I know I can’t keep an eagle-eye on both girls at the same time — my eyes don’t work independently of each other.

But even I, lazy mother that I am, can’t back out of their own birthdays, so the cake issue had to be addressed!  And my mother, fairy grandmother that she is, performed the small miracle that her granddaughters needed.  Somehow, she took the nut-free, soy-free, wheat-free, dairy-free cake mix from Cherrybrook Kitchen and, without adding any dairy or egg at all, created such a delicious birthday cake that we have had it for every occasion and celebration since.

My girls can have cake!  My girls can have cake! And have it, they do…

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I walked out onto the front porch tonight, just for a moment, as the sun was setting.  It had been a hot and sweaty day, with the kind of direct bright sunshine that I’ve never liked, but the evening had begun to mellow all that.  And though it had threatened rain all day, it never come true on the promise, and yet the smell of  an impending storm hung in the air.

I was only dashing out for a moment to grab something that had been left outside — the children still needed to be fed and bathed and put to bed — but I found myself paused there on the porch.  It was just too seductive — so balmy, and quiet, the sunset golden pink…  I didn’t want to leave it.  It was utterly enchanting.

I have always loved English summers, with their cool freshness, their faint mildewy-ness, the warmish days and chilly evenings.  But they were all the forgotten — the last 15 years melted away — as I was transported to back to the summers I grew up with.  And I stood unmoving, frozen in place for a few moments, to drink it in.

English summers are blues and greens, gentle, and tender.  American summers are dusty golden yellow, harsh, and brash.

And beautiful, beautiful…   beautiful.

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I hit a real milestone in our repatting adventure the other day, one I wasn’t expecting at all.  Indeed, I hadn’t even given it a thought before.

Growing up in the US with an English mother, I was used to way people treated her because of her accent.  In shops, salespeople would sometimes just follow her about, ignoring other customers and hanging on every word she said — sometimes she appreciated the personal service, sometimes she disliked the intrusion.  A realtor once took her to see a $1million house, under the mistaken impression that we must be loaded just because she sounded posh to him.  And often, people would reply to her in an attempted English accent — I always noticed her slight flinch, but I never really understood it.  To me, their attempts were charming, flattering, funny, and usually, I thought, pretty good.

When I moved to the UK all those years ago, I had a perfectly American accent.  In reality, if you listened very closely, you’d be able to hear a tell-tale lilt that revealed there was something different in my background, but most people didn’t catch it.  Certainly the Brits I lived and worked with didn’t — to them, my accent was as American as apple pie and Chevrolet.

And, apparently, my accent was just too tempting as well — at least once a week, and sometimes more often, someone tried to imitate me.  I’d say something perfectly innocuous and what I’d hear back would come as a complete shock.  What were they saying?  What were they doing?  That strange sound!…  OH! It’s… it’s… it’s supposed to be me?!?  This is what they think I sound like?!?!?

And I’d smile… or wince — I was never quite sure which expression my face pulled — but no matter how I looked outwardly, on the inside I was always cringing.  They never, ever got it right.  No matter how many attempts at an American accent I endured, week after week, year after year, not one of them was anywhere near as good as the imitator thought it was, and every one was painful to hear.  Ah… at last, I understood why my mother’s face always registered that barely noticeable flinch.

But now, we are back home and I should blend smoothly back into the crowd.  Except that after years and years abroad, I don’t sound so very apple pie any more — most Americans, in fact, hear my now mixed accent and assume that I am a Brit born and bred.  It’s confusing to them — and amusing to me — when I explain that, actually, I was born just down the road.

So I should have been expecting it, but I wasn’t.  I was chatting away quite cordially with my neighbour yesterday when her voice suddenly jacked up an octave and she began speaking peculiarly, mangling her vowels and sounding a bit like the Queen being strangled.  For a moment, I didn’t get it.  And then she did it again, and I realised… she was trying to imitate me! And it was awful… awful.  That familiar feeling came over me, and I cringed inside.  But I tried very, very hard to be smiley on the outside while I quickly brought the conversation to a close.

And as I took the girls’ hands and walked back to the house I realised with a sigh that I’d reached, again, that most dubious of expat milestones.  And then I realised with surprise that I’d one-upped my mum… Oh, lucky me — I get it from both sides now!

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In the bookstore today, I spotted a woman whose shape astounded me.  It wasn’t so much the size of her — she was overweight but not really all that fat in most places — but that her arse was like nothing I’ve ever seen.  It was disproportionately large to her body but, more than that was the fact that, instead of sitting wide and low like almost anyone else’s bum would, it sat high, impossibly high…  weirdly high…  The top of it jutted out at a right angle from her back like some kind of fleshy bookshelf, and the lower portion of it actually angled up on a diagonal to reach it.  From the side, her bum was distinctly triangular.  It was simply one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen and I had to force myself not to stare.

Turning away, I threw my focus into hunting for the book I’d come in for and the girls lingered at my feet, perusing the shelves for something colourful and interesting.  Not finding it, they began to wander, and I let them go to the next aisle and then the next, happy that I could keep my eye on them over my shoulder.

I found my book, and opened it.  They found a step-stool — the kind with a trefoil shape and little kick wheels that they always have in libraries — and sat down on it together.  E1 pulled out a book, and began “reading” it to her little sister.  I could hear her voice and see the top of her curly head, and so turned back to my book.

“Where did you get those curls?”  It was a man’s voice and, when I turned around, I realised it was the husband of the woman whose shape had so perplexed me.  E1 answered him, something I couldn’t make out, but it would be one of her standard answers — she gets that question every time we go out.  I turned back, but kept them in corner of my eye.  He said something else to her, and she answered him, and his wife came over to join them.  I flipped the pages of my book.

And then I heard E1 start to speak and, somehow, I knew what she was saying before she’d even got past the first four words.   “Why do you have…”  My heart stopped.



I wanted to stop her, but I was too far away.  If I leapt out to quieten her, to slap a hand over her mouth, I’d never reach her in time.  If I’d opened my own mouth to yell, even the sound would get to her too late.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was paralysed… horrified…  frozen,  as she continued.

…a big bum?

I didn’t know what to do!  Should I dash up and usher my child away?  Should I apologise?  Should I leap forward and chastise her?  I didn’t know…  I didn’t know…!

And so, I did the only thing I thought I could do, the thing that came naturally, the first thing that came to my mind.  I did the thing that you would do…  I sank down onto my heels and hid behind the bookshelves.

The lady hadn’t been paying attention, and the man was a bit deaf.  “What did she say?” the lady asked her husband.  He looked at E1 and repeated the question, “What did you say, dear?”  Oh good!, I thought.  Oh good!  They hadn’t heard!  Perhaps she’d forget her question, or perhaps he’d ask another.  Or… someone… someone quickly!  Ask her about her curls!

Whyyyyyy…”  She was speaking very clearly now, very slowly.  She hadn’t forgot her question.  I snuck a look between the books — both the man and woman were leaning down towards her with expectant smiles.

do yoooou...”  She pointed up at the woman.

have…”  I sank back down and put my hands over my face.  There was no stopping it now.  I felt the blood rushing hot to my face.

a BIG BUM?“, with extra enunciation at the end for full clarity.  Oh, to have the floor swallow me up!  Oh, to abandon my children just for this moment!

Hidden away in my shame behind the bookshelf, I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder, and glanced up to see a woman looking down at me pityingly.  She was biting her lips to keep from laughing out loud.  “There’s nothing you can do,” she whispered.  “Just stay there.  It will all be over in a minute.”

My shame and helpless written all over my face, she continued, “It can’t be helped.  Children just say whatever they are thinking.”  To be fair, it had been what I’d been thinking only moments before.  She was right — I mustn’t be too angry with E1.  And then, as if to try to soften it further, she added, “But she’s got beautiful curls!”

I heard the couple saying something to each other, and then they spoke again to E1.  I make out what was said, but when I glanced between the books again, they had begun to move away.  I stayed crouched behind the shelves and waited for the all clear from the lady still standing by my shoulder.

She drew breath sharply, and then hissed, “They’re coming this way!”  I quickly recomposed myself so as to appear as just another shopper, crouched down to look for a book here on the bottom shelf…  Nothing at all to do with the obnoxious child they just encountered…

I peeped through the books again — they were nearly upon us.  I pulled out a random book and began rifling through it earnestly.  The couple began to round the end of the bookshelf.  I looked up, casually, and smiled vacantly as if I’d never laid eyes on them before.  It had worked — I was home free!

And at that very moment, E1 came tearing around the other end of the bookshelf, ran straight up to me and, throwing her arms around my neck, she yelled, “Mummy!  Oh Mummy!  I did think I’d lost you!”


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