YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN
Michael and Sue Harrison return to Birmingham, England
By Michael Harrison
Gertrude Stein once famously described her childhood home of Oakland by saying “there is no ‘there, there’,” but our family certainly did not find that to be the case in returning to our native Birmingham, England last month.
My wife Sue and I decided to celebrate our 50th Anniversary in the church where we were married at Erdington Abbey in Birmingham. The trip represented the first time that we would be in England with all three of our sons at the same time. Our eldest son Sean brought along his girlfriend Jeanine, while Ian was accompanied by his eight year-old daughter Isabel (Izzy). Youngest son Neil was there with his nine-year old daughter Ava.
Unfortunately, a goodly number of those that had attended the wedding a half-century earlier are sadly, no longer with us. Both sets of parents are gone, some siblings as well, but a sister, numerous nephews and nieces, and their attendant offspring are still living there. We felt there were several family members who would be joining us in the celebration of our 50-year odyssey. So off we set on our search for Stein’s elusive “there, there.”
With family members spread throughout England, it necessitated renting a car, and although I learned to drive in England and have driven on the wrong side of the road many times on visits there, it is still not an activity that I look forward to. And in this particular instance, my reluctance was well-founded after picking up our rental car at Heathrow Airport, and setting out for a small village called Ockley, about 30 miles from the airport, where Sue’s niece lives.
During a driving rainstorm on a very narrow country lane, I swerved to the left in order to avoid some twit who was coming over the center white-line around a blind corner at speed, and in the process, I clipped a wooden post on the edge of the road, which resulted in a small dent in the left fender and a broken offside mirror. That meant returning the car the next day and exchanging it for a new one, and for that to have happened on the first day of the trip, and knowing the need to traverse the land of my birth for another two weeks, meant more “white-knuckle” driving than I had done in my 40 years as a sales rep. It was a blessed relief to relinquish that vehicle to the rental company at Heathrow, for both Sue and myself.
The next stage of our journey was picking up Sean and Jeanine and driving to Kenilworth, in the Midlands, quite close to Coventry, where my niece Ann Wilson and husband Peter had kindly offered us accommodations at their lovely home for the duration of our stay in the Birmingham area. They had also been instrumental in setting up the family dinner on the 20th, after our visit to the Abbey, and the arrival of sons Ian and Neil, and their daughters.
We had a great couple of days exploring the Kenilworth and Warwick areas, including the warm and inviting pubs, the historic castles, the absolutely best fish and chips found anywhere in the world—and apparently the best weather the area had experienced all summer. Obviously, we had brought our California sunshine with us, as we described our current drought to the Brits as posing more than a minor problem back home, which was a concept they easily understood.
Our good luck with the weather held up for two consecutive weeks following our first-day nightmare. One interesting aside is how strange it was to hear English voices describing the weather as Indian Summer, since my first hearing the phrase upon arriving in the U.S., I had assumed it referred to American Indian Summer, and wondered what Indians my countrymen were crediting for their good fortune.
The visit to the church was magical, to stand at the same altar with our three sons and granddaughters, where we had once stood 50 years before, in the full glow of our younger selves, having no way of knowing what life held in store for us—only sure of our feelings for each other and the knowledge that we would soon be leaving family and friends behind to begin a new chapter for ourselves in America. And like all newlyweds, we had little real understanding of the trials and tribulations that all fledgling relationships experience. But the one advantage we had was a total dependence upon one another, with no family to call on during those crisis times that beset young couples in a new world and environment. And in unplanned short order, we welcomed the joys and challenges of parenting, and all that that entailed.
This trip to the Altar was completely different, as history had intervened; the evidence was all around and embraced us in the moment, with three sons now in their 40s, with their daughters in tow, including a handful of other family members. It wasn’t an occasion that needed a repeating of our vows, nor the strictures involved, or even the encouraging words and rites of the marital vows as administered by Father O’Hearne, which had sufficed to keep us together for the last half century. For perhaps it was simply “kismet” that makes some unions last, while others do not.
But this trip was definitely a more relaxed event, with young granddaughters gallivanting around heedless and unknowing of their grandfather’s history in this church and attached school, where the codes of behavior involving one’s relationship with God and his Temples did not countenance to laughter in those days—nor perhaps even smiles. They saw beautiful stained glass windows, huge pipes which they didn’t understand were for the church organ, and the confessional booths that were the bane of all altar boys—who were always certain the priests could recognize their voices. But all the girls saw instead, was the place that Grumpy and Nan were married a lifetime ago. There were so many sights to see and photograph there, which is exactly what they did.
For me, whatever memories I have of the school and the church, and of time and tide, have dulled any negative feelings of those early years. And as to any sense of shortcomings of the parochial school systems of post-war Britain, I can now truly say that for me, Erdington Abbey’s most shining memory was of one glorious Monday afternoon, September 20th, 1965.
After the visit to the Abbey, our niece Anne Wilson and nephews Peter Harrison and Tony Butler had arranged a celebratory dinner at Gavino’s, a restaurant about a mile from the church, which is owned by a niece that I had never met. Karen and her husband Gavino, made it a family affair with their sons and daughter all involved—an assemblage of more than 30 family members were there to greet us with hugs, kisses, and tears, and with introductions to English family members, including their American cousins. For our family, this was all that we had hoped for, and much, much more.
Sons Ian and Neil off to Paris with daughters Ava and Izzy
The next day, our sons took off in separate directions, including Sean and his companion Jeannine for London and the bright lights of that city. Neil and Ian, with daughters Ava and Izzy, took the Chunnel train to Paris to give the girls their first experience of seeing the City of Light with Daddy and their closest friend. Notre Dame awaited, as did the Eiffel Tower, the Paris Zoo, a cruise on the Seine, and many other sights to charm two young American girls who would soon have memories to last a lifetime.
It gave Sue and I another week to travel and visit with family and friends, and experience little Britain, where the small villages in many ways were unchanged from our childhood memories. Who knows when we will travel that way again, but the memory of this trip will stay with us for a long, long time.
Michael Harrison retired from the book business after 42 years working as a field representative for several publishing houses including Houghton Mifflin Company and W.W. Norton.. He and his wife Sue live in Oakland, California.