Thursday, November 17, 2016

Throwback Thursday - Chapman's Dam

When I was four, in 1966, I went with my parents to stay with my Auntie Joan's family in Pennsylvania. We went there again when I was thirteen, the second time my nearest brother came too, but this first time, my being just a foal at foot and not yet at school, it was just me. I had a lovely time; I was considered cute and a honey, made much of by everyone from the pilot of the Aer Lingus plane that took us there who sat me on his knee in the cockpit (that was possible then), to New York hotel maids and men working on the streets to my teenage American cousins and their buddies. 

The picture was taken at a place we called Chapman's Dam. I just googled it and in fact it's actually Chapman Dam, and is still there, of course. I remember it as a sunny place with little beaches and barbecue and picnic tables. I appear to be being fed marshmallows, probably by my cousin Honey, who was really called Marjy after my mum. I don't know who the little girl behind me was, I vaguely remember another child I was friendly with.

Joan was my mother's only sister, she had gone to live in America at the end of the Second World War, because she was a GI bride. Uncle Lloyd, her husband, who for some reason we often knew as Uncle Kit, had been stationed in Northamptonshire where the Cutmores (my mum's family) then lived, he also went to France, maybe for the Normandy landings, I should probably know more about where, when and how as one of my American cousins has been researching it and even made it over here very briefly in the last year or so but I didn't get to see him, but I forget the details. I think Lloyd finished up in Brest so he must have been through Brittany, and thus the cross-hatching of historical coincidence shows itself again there in a small way.

This was the first time the two sisters had seen each other in that time, twenty years almost exactly. It was certainly an exciting thing for them. As always there was, well, history: little bits of grit of bitterness, rivalry, jealousy, diverging accounts of How Things Happened, hurt and soreness around my Gran, their mother, and how she saw and treated each of them. It was wartime and a hard time for all of them, and everyone too sad and reproachful to easily see the other's point of view.  Yet the two sisters supported each other too, made clothes and food and were company for each other and their children, they named their daughters after each other. Joan was altogether a sweeter, easier person than my mum, less sharp (in both senses), more rounded at the corners; once when we talked about her, after the second visit, Mum said she saw her besetting sin as a kind of laziness. She didn't mean idleness, Joan was hardworking, creative, resourceful, handy and outgoing, as Mum would have been the first to acknowledge, but I think she saw in her a kind of complacency, a deeper rooted shiftlessness which didn't try to analyse or criticise or change things much. More kindly it might be seen as acceptance, patience, a sanguine temperament. But Mum not being like that herself, didn't see it like that. 

I loved being in America, both times. My impression of life there was of abundance, though Joan and Lloyd were always quite poor, I think, financially and lived rather hand to mouth. Yet there was a pile of toys for me when I got there, looked out from the attic or donated by friends of the family, which were wonderfully different from anything I'd seen at home, someone bought me some guppies which swam around in a glass vase on the windowsill much to my fascination, there were chickens and dogs, and somewhere else, some friends' farm I think, maybe the family which my eldest cousin finally married into, where there were piles of young puppies and kittens I was allowed to stroke, and an old blind man who asked to be allowed to touch my face to see me with his hands, which I also liked. There was open house at weekends (I think that was more the second time) with huge amounts of food cooked and served, most of it home grown, and when my mum queried whether it was quite reasonable that so many people should descend on the place expecting to be fed, Joan was quite affronted. 

They visited us a couple of times afterwards, including to come for Az's wedding when I was fifteen. Joan died about ten years ago. We had kept in touch on and off; I rang her when my Mum died, perhaps ten years before, and she told me I was a brave girl to make that call. 


Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

So beautifully, vividly remembered. And what a memory you have, Lucy! Almost total recall and you were four years old...also thirteen. But still, I never remember details and they are what brings it all back to life.

the polish chick said...

your description of your mom's take on your aunt reminded me very much of both my mom and my aunt's take on my cousin's wife (my aunt's daughter-in-law). i don't know why it is that the sharp-tongued ones resent the easy-going ones, but there it is. i was born the former but i'm doing my best to be more like the latter.
a wonderful post, sunny and warm in the telling.

Mailizhen said...

I love this post. Such a memory. And as an American so ashamed and repulsed by what is happening in my country right now, your description of the abundance of generosity and homecooked food and welcome that you received is a tiny balm to my spirit this morning. Thank you, Lucy. Alison

Lucy said...

Thanks people.

Natalie - As always with memory, I'm not absolutely certain how much is genuine or accruate memory; some was surely reinforced and recreated from photos, from my mum saying 'do you remember...?', or from objects, one or two of the toys, a silver half dollar I still have, which I brought back with me and which stayed around, some from going back to the same place nine years later and redrawing the pictures with thirteen year old's eyes. Some I really do remember though, but much of it is like isolated coloured images against a dark background. I think four is probably the earliest age from which most of us can really have any coherent memories.

PC - It's true. I think I can identify with aspects of both, but certainly have always tried to avoid my mum's tendency to be judgemental, and it's attendant disappointment and unhappiness when people don't live up to it. I don't always succeed. I think Joan was actually rather more selfish and less self-sacrificing, my sister remembered that when she visited, she didn't refuse the last cake and generally made sure she got her share of nice things that were going; I think though that this meant she had a bit more joie de vivre and could be loved in a more straightforward way, uncomplicated by guilt and remorse. But it doesn't do to let go your critical sense and dissatisfied edge and honesty either.

Alison - that was somewhat on my mind too. Much about the America and Americans is and has always been incomprehensible to me (as has much about my fellow Brits/Europeans!) especially at this time, but the best is still something to be admired, emulated and loved. Thank you for stopping by.