I said goodbye to Hilary Decent at Naperville station and got the last short leg on the California Zephyr to Chicago. I spent the day briefly taking in the city – a couple of art galleries, the famous architectural boat trip – but at the end of the day I was back at the station – a typical urban station – grimy – dodgy – and glad at last to board the night train to Cleveland. Because this was going home.
I spent some of my earliest childhood in Ohio. I was born in Canada. My parents are British but met and married there. We know how my Dad got there – his long, ever-eastwards journey from London to Malaya to Hong Kong over the course of the 1950’s. In 1959 he got the boat from HK to Vancouver, then Greyhound Bus to Toronto.
My Mum was born and brought up in the north west of England. She was the first person in her working class Lancashire family to go to university where she was always proud to say she got a First in English Literature. She belonged to a generation of women who were beginning to feel their way beyond the moulds of what women of her class and previous generations were expected to do. It wasn’t going to be the mills for her but she had to make a living somehow so after university she trained in librarianship in Manchester. Here she met Valeria, a Salford lass, and they became very dear friends. They spent a few good years in their 20’s, reading, talking, working, taking in culture and politics, expanding themselves. Intelligent women searching for life, occupation and meaning.
At some point Valeria saw an ad for a librarianship post in Akron, Ohio. Val took it and my Mum was left in Manchester, somewhat bereft. A year or so later she saw a similar job opportunity in Ontario and began her own adventure.
So Val was now only 300 miles away across the US border. Both women married – Val to Ben, an American, and my Mum to my Dad in 1962. They had their children – Val and Ben’s 2 daughters a similar age to me and my sister and brother, all of us born in the late 1960’s. So holidays were often spent together, either at the small town of Peninsula, Ohio or at our house in Richmond Hill near Toronto – the fathers driving a station-wagon full of young family the day’s journey between them. Val and Ben still live in the same house we visited then which they built themselves in the heart of Cuyahoga National Park.
I have few people in my life who have known me since I was a baby and even fewer places that I can go back to. Now I have lost my Dad and my Mum has advanced dementia I found it extraordinarily comforting to be going back to Val and Ben’s.
Val and Ben’s youngest daughter Anne and I have always been friends. We are the same age, were pen-pals as children and have always stayed in touch. As Anne is fond of telling people ‘We were in diapers together!’ Anne lives with her husband Mick in Akron, about 20 mins from Val and Ben’s and I was staying with her. Fabulous to be with my friend again!
Val and Ben were peers and good friends with my parents. In the last few years my perspective on my parents has been shaped by their difficult aging, then my father’s death, and then the revelation about the abandoned woman and child, one which doesn’t cast him in the best light. So it was lovely to hear my parents remembered as they were at their best, in their prime, especially my Dad, things I’d forgotten or perhaps never knew. The time Ben was working and my Dad drove all the way to Ohio to pick Val and the girls up and bring them back to Canada. They remembered my Dad – not as the vulnerable aging man I knew, or the stereotypical ‘bastard’ his behaviour to Margie and Jackie might embody, but as the vibrant, kind, intelligent and funny man they knew in his 30’s and 40’s. People are complicated. Life is a long time.
They knew nothing about Jackie and Margie. When the secret came out an aunt told me that my Mum had said something to her once about my Dad having had a child with someone before they met. She only mentioned it the one time and it’s doubtful she knew much as if she had – knowing my Mum – she would have had a lot more to say about it than that! It was a comfort to know my parents must have talked about it at least once. When? Did my Mum ever talk to Val? Did my Dad ever mention it to Ben, fathers of young children together? No. The first they heard of it was when I emailed Anne after Dad died.
Val misses my Mum every day, even now, 50 years since they knocked about together in Manchester and nearly 40 since they were on the same continent. They were true friends. It was lovely – and spooky now my parents’ house has gone – to see things in their home that were the same as my parents’ – art prints, books – things my Mum had, more by coincidence than design – because Val and her were so similar. Anne’s husband Mick noticed the same when they came to the UK about 10 years ago. Anne said that my Mum is the only person she thinks about as ‘another Mum’. Ditto me and Val.
Val is still reading the Guardian as my Mum did – the international Guardian Weekly here – on top of all the US papers she reads, and she and Ben are thoroughly on top of current affairs. They were dismayed by what was going on there at the time – Obama only in his 2nd year in office being sabotaged and shot down in flames. ‘I didn’t know how racist this country was until now,’ Ben said. They are the Americans appalled at the discovery of how many other Americans – and some pretty powerful ones – simply cannot cope with having a black president. Ben (who is over 80) said he has never seen such a nasty, vicious time in politics.
It was good to remember this aspect of my parents, who shared these politics and values, which became mine – the astute observation of events, the impatience with racism and intolerance. The whole family are lovely intelligent people with a wide circle of friends – the gay male couple Val and Ben go on holiday with, the lesbian down the road, the black guy in the coffee shop. People in their 80’s can be like this. My parents were.
Val, like my Mum, is happy at home with her books and the paper. Ben on the other hand ‘needs to talk to 7 people a day’ as Anne puts it and likes to get out. ‘Angel Falls’ is one of his and the whole family’s favourite haunts – a coffee shop in Highland Square, the culturally diverse part of Akron where Anne and Mick live. One or twice when Anne was working I met Ben there.
It’s a laidback place with a hip but friendly atmosphere and a mixed crowd – young ones on their laptops, friends having a chat, creatives having a meeting, people like Ben. ‘You get a real diverse crowd in here, some really interesting people,’ he tells me confidentially. ‘Young people, old people and some real weirdos!’ he says, thrilled.
It was lovely to hang out with Anne again. She is creative like me and we’ve always had stuff in common. We talked, remembered and went for some lovely Ohio autumn walks. She and her husband Mick are musicians. Mick is in a hardcore punk band which occasionally re-groups and Anne and he also have a celtic rock band which he fronts called The Mickeys. Anne plays the flute, tin-whistle and sings, and they have a fiddle player and a drummer. They do festivals and have a pretty good following. I watched them rehearsing one night in their basement.
One day Anne managed to get off work and she took Val, Ben and me on a daytrip to Amish country. It’s an obvious daytrip in that part of Ohio and one they’d taken my parents on when they last visited about 15 years ago. They took me to their favourite diner there where my Dad had a ‘reuben’ – a beef and sauerkraut sandwich. I did too. My Dad always knew his sandwiches.
Ohio has a certain reputation – one which Anne proudly and fiercely rebuts – of… not being the most scintillating state in the USA. Not that there is anything to prove, one night Anne and Mick took me to what is in actual fact THE coolest place ever – the Vegiterranean – Chrissie Hynde’s – yes Chrissie Hynde’s! – vegan restaurant. We had martinis and dessert at the bar. I had a martini the flavour of grape juice – one of my favourite tastes since early childhood – and it was all utterly fabulous! Chrissie is an Akron gal and can occasionally be sighted at the Vegiterranean but not by us on this occasion. Cool or what?
The last night of my visit was Halloween – the festival I’d been moving towards since Hong Kong – plastic pumpkin dog toys in the pet shop in Kowloon, a glowing snowstorm witch I bought in a gay DIY shop in the Castro, the Naperville Fright Night. The Festival of the Dead, when the veil is thinnest between this world and the next. We had a bonfire at Val and Ben’s. After the fire we looked at old photos of the ‘diaper days’ and all the visits that had taken place between us in the years since. I wished my parents were there. Anne’s older sister Catherine came with her husband Rich and his 2 daughters and we ate antelope burgers. Yes that’s right. Rich – who looks every inch the all-American blue-eyed boy – also a major reggae buff whose been running a well-respected Jamaican radio show in Cleveland for 20 years – hunts – and had shot this particular antelope himself. It seemed only right we should eat it, he always does, it was honourably killed. Floored by my inability to find another response or to put anyone into an easy stereotypical box, I could only agree – and the burgers did taste good. As his wife Catherine and I commented – America, where the deer and the antelope play… and where they get their brains blown out and turned into burgers – the American way!
I was saying goodbye to Val and Ben, going back to Anne’s for the night from where I’d get the train to Niagara Falls early the next morning. I was sad to leave them. Val and I were a bit teary. Ben said ‘Well we just love you!’ pragmatically in his strong American accent. Fine by me.
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