Friday, April 28, 2006

English Lit 101

I spent much of my life as a teenager alone in my room reading. We all did. We had friends, we had places to explore. But England was a rainy country, and when it was too wet to go outside, we didn’t have “play dates”: we spent our time in solitude.

My personal library was small. I remember poring for hours on end over the Pears Cyclopaedia which was probably out of date before I found it in my parents’ bookcase. I could identify the flags of every principality in the world. I knew the capital of every African nation and its population. My delight in trivia knew no bounds.

Most of my small collection of books crossed the Atlantic with me and the other day I came across the Oxford Book of Modern Verse which I received in 1955 as a school prize “for good work.” I had always questioned the “modern verse” part, because the book started with Walter Pater (1839-1894.) But if the title was misleading, the poets were comfortable and familiar and in fact I rather disdained the writers at the end of the book. They tended to be born after 1890 and to have a nice blank spot after the date of their birth and the hyphen which would lead to the eventual date of their demise. I regarded them as upstarts, as did the editor of the book, the venerable W. B. Yeats. He includes the poetry of Hardy, Bridges and Blunt, but omits any critique of them, proclaiming, “I will consider the genius of these three when the development of schools gives them great influence.” What a sensible approach. How much ink and RAM and paparazzi shoe leather would be spared if critics passed over the Jude Laws and Clay Aikens and Paris Hiltons of this world until they had “great influence.”

I turned to the front of the chubby blue volume to check the publication dates and concluded that my copy must be the 1955 edition. Listed above the dates of the editions were the overseas offices of the Oxford University Press, a nostalgic reminder of the days before the sun set on the empire:


Surely it was a kinder, gentler era when the inhabitants of Karachi or Ibadan met to discuss the imagery of Sacheverell Sitwell.

And those poets I found too modern? They have all followed Yeats to the grave, leaving another generation of upstarts to face the scrutiny of unflinching editors.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Petticoat Pilgrims

I am an accidental immigrant. I had no intention of staying here. I thought a year or so in the United States would be an adventure, and I would then return to my former life. I had very little idea of what to expect when I came. Didn’t all Americans ride horses through the vast grasslands of Texas, cruise along Sunset Strip in convertibles with guys called Cookie or live in small but elegant apartments with magnificent views of Manhattan and neighbors who looked like Rock Hudson and Doris Day? I did actually do the Sunset Strip bit (though it was in a white Buick with a Classics professor called Ernie), but none of my misconceptions mattered, because I didn’t have to stay. And by the time I realized that I would be staying, I had become so familiar with my surroundings that I felt right at home.

In the seventies we worked with a Vietnamese family who were seeking asylum. Coming to the United States wasn’t a choice. I don’t know if, like me, they had a sketchy view of this country gleaned from American movies. I felt sad for them as they wrestled with a new language, unfamiliar food and all the baggage of an alien culture, but my biggest concern was that every day they woke up knowing that they could never go home again.

In February The Washington Post ran a wonderful article about another group of immigrants, the 70,000 British war brides who arrived in 1945, some already with children. The British media dubbed them “petticoat pilgrims.” Many were still in their teens and most of them had little idea of the reality of life in America. One service man went to meet his wife in the Norfolk train station. “He was shocked to find her in the baggage room, sitting on the ‘colored’ bench. Segregation was an alien concept to her.” There must have been many cases of culture shock. “Some women found themselves isolated in rural areas, London birds recast as prairie wives in the Dakotas, or married no longer to a dashing soldier but to a trapper living in a backwoods cabin with no running water or electricity.”

There were some sad stories, but the Post article chose to celebrate the happy unions, even as many of the couples are in their seventies and eighties and reaching the end of their lives. The Virginia group featured in the article hold a Guy Fawkes party in November and garden parties in June to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. They still delight in trifle—“the testimony to the English culinary arts involving unset Jell-O and Matterhorns of whipped cream.” One widow mused, “Who would think all this would come out of war?”

I treasure this photo, taken in 1945. Victory parties were held on every street and the mothers raided their cupboards for hoarded scraps of sugar and flour to make “treats for the kiddies.” If you look carefully at this faded photo, you will see a white blob in the middle. That’s my brother, being held by my mother. And who knows, maybe one of those women ladling out food at the front of the photo had a sister or a cousin who was on her way to the States, leaving all that was familiar for the love of an American.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Henry's First Birthday

Today marked a number of events: it was the first gorgeous day of Summer 2006, it was the day Income Tax returns were due (we just made it), it was the day Al and the two older boys left for DC to celebrate Easter with Andrew's family and to go to Dulles tomorrow to meet Gody and Frederick on their return from Pisa, it was the day before Easter, marked by an impressive Vigil—and it was Henry's birthday. Jeff and Elizabeth entertained us for brunch, and if Henry didn't know what was going on, at least he enjoyed the cake and playing with his siblings and four cousins.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Civis Romanus Sum

That one statement, I am a citizen of Rome, was enough to ensure safe passage throughout the world for a Roman. No passport or visa was necessary; there were no quotas, no debates as to whether nationality was derived from mother or father or from the place of birth.

Today there is escalating debate throughout the world concerning citizenship and immigration. The heads of the three North American countries have met to discuss the issue; there have been riots in France and vigilantes patrol the southern border of the United States. It is a complex question. It is a question with political and economic implications, a question that impacts governments and individuals. The journey to life in another country has meant death to many.

Not all stories have tragic endings. I remember the Easter when my neighbors Tim and Michelle took off for Moscow with their daughter Gabrielle in the hopes of bringing home a baby. The days and weeks passed. The Russian adoption laws were changing and the red tape prolonged their visit. Eventually they arrived home with a small, blond baby. We have enjoyed watching him grow into a smart, strong boy who is never far from some piece of sports equipment. Here it is a basketball, but it could equally well be a baseball bat or hockey stick. A couple of weeks ago Jared became an American citizen. He looks no different, but the paper conferring citizenship on him has all the weight of a Roman’s statement.

In two days Gody and Frederick leave for Pisa. Gody’s Italian mother, Patrizia, seen here with Gody in Kigali last August, has been working to get Gody Italian citizenship and she will be signing the papers next week. This has been no small accomplishment. It has been a long and circuitous journey for Gody. We will miss her presence at Easter, but rejoice that the country which welcomed her has awarded her citizenship.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Of Spies and Blossoms

The trip to Washington was most enjoyable. It is amazing how smoothly the 500-mile trip goes if a person starts out reasonably early! I was so happy to see this little guy again: the last time I saw Linus he was five days old. Before too long he will be devouring pancakes as voraciously as his big brother Theodore.

Our visit was well orchestrated and we got to spend time with everybody. We covered a lot of ground with Lucy (some of it many times over as we circled the Lincoln Memorial and crossed the Potomac repeatedly before we could figure out where we were headed), including her office and Ernie’s Mecca in Arlington, the Container Store. Lucy had tickets to the Spy Museum, where we adopted aliases and a cover story and traced the history of espionage from the Trojan Horse to the modern day. I love books about the Cold War Era. The equipment looks so antiquated today and I wondered how the spies of the sixties could get by with cameras disguised as cigarette lighters or coat buttons and microphones in light bulbs. And amazing that operatives as recent as Robert Hanssen were still passing messages and bundles of money at dead drops in Rock Creek Parkway. Not surprising that the tradecraft of the modern spy is not on exhibit. Perhaps that will seem antiquated to future visitors.

Our visit coincided with the opening of the Cherry Blossom Festival. We have been down to the Tidal Basin in previous years and marveled at the glorious Japanese cherry trees, but time constraints prevented a visit this year. The past couple of months have seen the deaths of two distinguished professors of our acquaintance, one in his eighties and one who had reached the venerable age of 96. Housman understood the relationship between age and cherry blossom:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, 1896