Locked Down. Locked Up.

The end is in sight. If we do as we’re told, many of the restrictions on our daily lives will be lifted on June 21st.  Naturally, I’m delighted and excited. Dan and I will get to see family and friends again, eat out in our favourite restaurant, go to the theatre, swim at the pool, maybe even fly to Chicago for our nephew’s wedding in July. A life without limits in just one hundred and ten more sleeps.

The trouble is that after eleven months I have grown rather used to my pandemic-life. Being inside makes me feel safe and I have come to accept the predictable content of my every day. I have discovered how to enjoy slow and have learnt how to love quiet. I welcome the absence of external pressures and obligations. I appreciate my four walls and my daily walks to the far corners of my town. I suppose I could make a conscious decision to sustain my recently assumed habits, but I suspect that continuing to be a tortoise in a world filled with hares is something I would find quite challenging.

In 1980, I was a student at the University of Reading. My friend, Martin was a prison visitor at Reading Gaol and, every week, he would drive over from his home in Beaconsfield to support a man called Jim with his reading and writing. Jim grew up in the East End of London and had spent 40 of his 60 years behind bars. This time though, he assured Martin, he was going to mend his ways and lead a better life. On the morning Jim was released from prison, we invited the two of them round to our student house for breakfast. I remember Jim as short and stocky, with iron grey hair and a deeply-lined face. He told us stories about life on the inside and his friendship with Reggie Kray, one of Britain’s most notorious criminals. He also re-iterated that he was fully committed to the straight and narrow. He wasn’t going to let his friend Martin down.

Jim’s social worker had found him a job as a gardener at a Catholic monastery. For eighteen months he seemed settled and content. In May of 1982, Pope John Paul II came to England and all the monks travelled up to London to see him. While they were gone, Jim stole a radio from one of the cells. This theft, albeit petty, was in clear violation of his parole and he was sent back to prison.

Jim’s life on the inside lacked freedom but it gave him structure and routine. He lived in a small, regimented and institutionalised world that was filled with people just like him. Life in prison offered Jim predictable content. Being inside was safe. It provided him with four walls. It made things simple but, above all, it’s what he was used to. Jim was a tortoise not a hare and even his new monastic life didn’t manage to replicate the familiarity of all that he had left behind.

It’s in the Blood

I live in Letchworth, the World’s First Garden City. Population 33,600. Founded in 1903, the town is also known for its religious freedom and spiritual diversity. Over the course of its one hundred and eighteen year history, it has welcomed Anglican, Catholic, Liberal Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Congregationalist, Pentecostalist, Theosophist, Spiritualist and Quaker. Today there are also Buddhist and Sikh temples and an Islamic Society.

My husband was raised in a Catholic family near Chicago and, for 9 years in the 1990s, he lived as a Zen Buddhist monk in rural Kentucky and in Korea. When people say to him:  ‘Dan, you’re Buddhist, what’s your opinion on   – – -?’, his response is invariably: ‘I am not a Buddhist. I was raised Catholic, I am a practicing Catholic and my life has been informed by Buddhism’. I was curious as to why he, of all people, should say such a thing. So, one day, I asked him and he told me the following story.

In 1981, he was living and serving in a Jesuit parish in Detroit when a young woman wrote with a request to be released from her Catholicism so she could become a Jehovah’s Witness. The Jesuits replied that they had no authority to grant such a request. She had been born into the Catholic faith and if she wished to follow a new religion then that was entirely up to her; they, however, had no power either to authorise or forbid such a thing. I suppose it’s a bit like wanting to divorce your parents. You can choose to turn your back on them and align yourself with another couple you like better, but you can’t separate from them because they are, and will always remain, an innate part of your genetic history. As the Eagles song goes: You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

My own legacy is Catholic and Baptist. My grandfather attended the seminary in Ireland and my grandmother became an evangelical Christian. I wasn’t raised in either faith because my father didn’t want me to get ‘all mixed up about religion’ the way he had been as a child. Dan’s story of the Jesuits in Detroit leaves me feeling oddly comforted.  Although I have tried, over the years, to re-trace and re-connect with my grandfather’s Catholicism, I have, to date, been unsuccessful. It is consoling therefore, to know that some part of me is and will always remain Catholic. Whether I embrace it or reject it, makes no difference. I am both free to do as I wish and am forever linked to the religions I have inherited from my ancestors.

Wilhelm Tell’s Daughters

In her final year at the University of Bristol, our daughter, Lucy wrote an essay she titled: Wilhelm Tell’s Daughters – The Myth of Autonomy and the Long Road to Women’s Self-determination in Switzerland. My English grandmother, Grace was given the vote in 1918. Lucy’s two Swiss grandmothers were not authorised to vote, in either cantonal or federal elections, until 1971, at which point both women were in their mid fifties.

February 7th, 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Swiss women’s suffrage. Not all of them, however, received the right to vote in 1971. It was not until 1990 that the women of the two cantons of Appenzell (Innerhoden and Ausserhoden) were given their ballot papers. Husbands, fathers and grandfathers continued to vote against their wives, daughters and granddaughters and eventually the Swiss Supreme Court intervened, declaring that if a woman wished to vote she could register a constitutional appeal and would subsequently be issued with voting papers. Not all women in Switzerland wanted to vote. Some preferred to be guided by their husbands and others expressed a lack of interest in politics. There is a Swiss saying: ‘A man is head of the family but his wife is the neck’ and some women chose to wield their influence in other, possibly more subtle ways.

Voting in the canton of Appenzell takes place in the village square on the last Sunday in April. Issues are decided by a show of hands and this has been the tradition since 1403. Until 1991, men carried their ancestral swords, the only identification required in order to participate in the assembly. Today the men, like the women, are more likely to have paper documents but the ceremonial sword remains a valid form of identification.

My mother married my father in 1955 and consequently she was voting in English elections 16 years prior to being able to vote in her Swiss homeland. Lea was an ardent supporter of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister (1979 –  1990). My Liberal voting father was appalled by his wife’s open admiration for a woman, seen by many as a ruthless and divisive leader. My mother was generous-hearted and compassionate and I too was mystified by her respect for a woman who demonstrated such a fervent disregard for those who ‘refused’ (were not in a position) to help themselves. Lea, like many of her Swiss sisters, was not particularly interested in politics; what impressed my mother was Mrs. Thatcher’s assertiveness vis a vis her all-male cabinet. Margaret Thatcher was not only the ‘neck’ of the world in which she lived, she had successfully managed to stage a coup on the ‘head’ and, this, above all else, was what Lea considered to be the Prime Minister’s crowning glory. My mother was never able to articulate why she so admired Thatcher, perhaps because this would have required her to openly criticize Switzerland, something she rarely did. Beneath her respect and admiration, however, my mother must have cradled more complex feelings: resentment, indignation and rage that, for the first 55 years of her life, it was men who cracked the whip and ruled the roost. As my Swiss mother-in-law used to say: ‘In my next life, I intend to return with hair on my teeth’.   

In the Green Room

And I do choose life. Every day. I choose life in all its complexity; aware of its beauty, its pain, its hope, its fragility, its love. Life, I believe, is a gift of unimaginable proportions. I don’t know what the future holds – for me or the world – but I have faith in the extraordinary power of humanity. I am thankful that I can say this. I am full of love. I am full of hope. I choose life.         Clemency Burton-Hill

I recently heard a radio interview* with Clemency Burton-Hill who, in January of 2020, experienced a massive brain haemorrhage. This was her first broadcast interview since she was released from hospital. She spoke haltingly but eloquently and with great heart. I found myself deeply moved by everything she said.

‘Clemmie’ is originally from London but now lives in New York where she works as the creative director of classical music at New York Public Radio.

Apart from being enormously inspirational and utterly authentic, I was struck by something she said about her time at Mount Sinai Hospital. After having been in a coma for 17 days, Clemency describes being presented with a clear choice: she could leave or she could stay. This was not a choice offered by her medical team. It came from a place beyond time and space. Leaving/Dying, she was told, would be easy. It would be painless and mark the end of her suffering. Staying/Living would be much harder and more painful. Clemency Burton-Hill chose to stay. She chose Life over Death.

In 2017, I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for triple negative breast cancer. I was bald and weak and grateful to be spending Christmas with my husband and two daughters, my soon-to-be son in law and his family. I had the best Christmas Day: I joined the family on a walk, ate turkey, opened gifts and even had enough energy for games and a Christmas quiz. For those few wonderful hours, I forgot that I was sick. I forgot that, on December 27th I would be returning to the hospital for further treatment. In bed that night, I remembered. It felt painful to remember after I had forgotten. Since my diagnosis in July, I had thought a lot about death. I had feared it, denied it, believed those who told me that I was strong and would survive it. Then, at some point over the course of those weeks and months, I made peace with death. I developed a strong faith in the goodness of an after-life. I believed, and continue to believe, that one day I will be reunited with those I have loved and lost. Dying no longer seemed like the worst thing that could happen to me because life, even when it’s good, is not always easy.

But, on December 25th, 2017 what I remembered, alongside what I had forgotten, was that dying meant leaving my family. It meant being invisible in time and place, it meant not being there for the milestones in my daughters’ lives, it meant watching from afar as Dan grew old alone. I recognised that death might mark the end of my suffering but it would be the beginning of theirs. Unlike Clemency, I was not offered a choice but I suddenly understood that leaving/dying was the easier option and yes, Life is a gift of unimaginable proportions.

*Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, January 20th, 2021

Bones and Bricks

Any intervention must come to terms with the structure of the place   Luigi Snozzi   (1932 – 2020)

Switzerland’s most famous architect is undoubtedly Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965).  Luigi Snozzi is a name that is less well-known outside his home country. He died last month of Covid in Minusio near Locarno.

Snozzi believed that understanding history was crucial to his work: Architecture must not invent but must be rediscovered, he said. He taught his students the importance of learning about a city before attempting to design or re-purpose any of its buildings. He used Trieste as an example, a city which was once part of the Roman and Habsburg Empires, was invaded by Napoleon and occupied by the Wehrmacht during WWII; a city with many layers, all of which, according to Snozzi, needed to be respected and understood.

Luigi Snozzi’s best known project is at Monte Carasso in Switzerland’s Ticino. In 1968, he was commissioned to design a new elementary school. He refused orders to build it on the outskirts of town and chose instead to centre the new building within the grounds of a decaying church and monastery at the heart of the village. This created a new sense of community and a vibrant public space.

Snozzi once said that in his long career he had never knocked down a single wall. He wished, not to break with the past, but to understand it. He realised the importance of synthesis and integrity and recognised the value of acknowledging those things that had been significant and meaningful to his predecessors.

As the writer, Lisa Iversen says We are not as original as we think we are and if we disconnect ourselves from our history, be it architectural, social or ancestral, we are at risk of losing something substantive, including the ability to nurture and express our own originality.

A Pied Piper in Switzerland

Tomorrow was created yesterday. To ignore history is to ignore the wolf at the door.

                                                                        John Le Carre

The Swiss government has recently admitted to ‘oversights’ in adoption regulations that resulted in 900 babies from Sri Lanka being illegally sold to Swiss parents between 1973 and 1997. Following an in-depth investigation, prompted by a parliamentary question, it transpires that the Swiss federal authorities were aware of what was happening as early as 1981. Illegal adoptions were also negotiated with Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

Unfortunately, Switzerland’s practice of separating children from their birth parents has a long legacy. Between 1860 and the early 1970s, a practice known as ‘verdingen’ (indentured servitude) operated in Switzerland. Children, considered to be at risk of poverty, were forcibly removed from their families and sent, either to orphanages or to work as farm hands. Unmarried, divorced or widowed mothers were rarely allowed to keep their children. Many ‘Verdingkinder’ were sent to live in neighbouring cantons and lost touch with their parents and siblings. The Swiss government took the view that hard work and self-discipline were a natural corrective for these potentially wayward children and would provide them with the means to support themselves as adults.

In 2016, I was researching my own Swiss family history and I met with a group of former Verdingkinder. Their stories were heartbreaking: many spoke of relentless hunger, of eating slops from the pig trough and stealing fruit from the orchard. Some slept in attics or on old sofas in the barn. Others were beaten with leather belts, wooden posts or the ‘Teppichchlopfer’.

We had a Teppichchlopfer at home, a carpet beater which my mother used to discipline the dogs. She insisted that it didn’t hurt them but that the whistling sound passing through the bamboo paddle frightened them. Teppichchlopfer was a word both labradors learnt to recognise early on and the mere mention of it would send them cringing to their beds.

One former Verdingkind I met back in 2016 has since become a family friend.

Gottlieb Brunner was born in Zurich in 1931. When his father, a bricklayer, lost his job during the Great Depression, he turned to petty theft. ‘Godi’ was sent to live with his grandmother before being verdingt to a Bernese farmer. Although his grandparents lived in a neighbouring village, the eleven-year-old was forbidden from visiting them. The farmer’s wife persisted in telling the boy that he was a good-for-nothing scoundrel, just like his father. When he was fifteen, he was sent to a psychiatric clinic near Bern where he spent twelve months undergoing treatment for bed-wetting. He was medicated, given injections and forced to undergo electric shock therapy. Godi apprenticed as a joiner and at the age of 20, he was finally released to his own fate. He found work as a hotel porter, a butcher and later as a construction worker on the Jungfraujoch. On Saturday nights, he would go dancing in Bern and it was on the dance floor that he met a young widow with two small children. As he had nowhere else to stay, he began spending his weekends with Getrud. Three months later, Godi was called to attend an interview with social services where a panel of four administrators informed him that, unless he married this young woman, both she and her two children would be sent to an institution. He saw no alternative but to comply.

Godi will be 90 years old in March and has been happily married to his second wife, Renate for more than 50 years. When our granddaughter was born, Godi carved her a Swiss chalet. It has a cedar-shake roof, red shutters, window boxes full of flowers, a neatly stacked wood-pile with its own tiny axe and a water pump. The chalet also doubles as a money box. Godi told me that he had inserted a flap behind the slot so that any deposited coins could not be retrieved by searching fingers. Thriftiness is a quality many former Verdingkinder have in common. They recognised, early on, that financial independence offered greater freedom of choice and self-determination, something very few of them had experienced as they were growing up.

Thea’s chalet bank sits on the shelf of her nursery, as yet empty of coins, but overflowing with the generosity of a man she has never met.





The Last Men on the Moon

A doctor once told me I feel too much. I said, so does God. That’s why you can see the Grand Canyon from the Moon.

                                                                        from Jellyfish by Andrea Gibson.

Today would have been my father’s 102nd birthday. December 14th also marks the day, forty-eight years ago, that the last men walked on the Moon. Before the two astronauts returned to earth, the  Apollo 17 commander, Eugene Cernan read these words out loud:  ‘May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind’. No one has returned to the Moon since 1972 and, since there is limited lunar atmosphere, the  commemorative plaque, the snapshot of Charlie Duke’s children and Alan Shepard’s golf balls will still be lying, undisturbed on its surface.

Dee O’Hara, the aerospace nurse to NASA’s astronauts, witnessed the ‘Earth rage’ many of them experienced  after they returned from the Moon. It was as if part of them had remained up there and couldn’t come down, she said. Michael Collins described it as ‘Earthly ennui’. The problem, as it is often portrayed, is that these men had achieved the pinnacle of their success. Where do you go after you’ve been to the Moon? Jim Irwin heard the voice of God and founded a ministry, Charlie Duke became a born-again Christian and Ed Mitchell joined a New Age movement in Florida. Others lost their drive and direction and became suicidal or alcohol-dependent. Many of the 12 astronauts got divorced soon after they returned from the Moon.

When the Moon-walkers speak about their experiences, it is often in terms of the new perspective they gained on the Earth; the place they, we, call home. Irwin describes the Earth as a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away, it (the Earth) diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble…. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.

In 1991, Alan Shepard, who died of leukemia in 1998, described seeing the blue planet all by itself, as an emotional moment. Maybe if people had a chance to see this, they wouldn’t be so parochial, they wouldn’t be so interested in their own particular territories…. our world is finite, it is small, it is fragile and we need to start thinking about how to take care of it.

In his book Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins writes about not fully appreciating the first planet until he saw the second one. The Moon is so scarred, so desolate, so monotonous, that I cannot recall its tortured surface without thinking of the infinite variety the delightful planet Earth offers: misty waterfalls, pine forests, rose gardens. I have seen the Earth eclipsed by the Moon. I have seen the ultimate black of infinity. I have seen the sun’s true light, unfiltered by any planet’s atmosphere. I have been pierced by cosmic rays on their endless journey from God’s place to the limits of the universe, perhaps there to circle back on themselves and on my descendants.

Collins’ words describe something of what I felt in 2017 when I was having chemotherapy treatment. My destination was unfamiliar and potentially frightening. Would I come back from this scarred and desolate place? Recovering from cancer changed me. Returning to life and this delightful planet Earth which, to paraphrase Jim Lovell, holds everything I have ever known – my loved ones, my life with all its complications – made me realize how fortunate I am to have this body and this life on this Earth.

Two Quilts

Part One 1973

My mother’s favourite television programme in the 1970s was The Waltons. The series tells the story of a three generation Baptist family living in rural Virginia during the Depression. Critics considered the show naive and sentimental, but its dedicated followers found it charming and sensitively written. I liked it because there were so many Walton children and I desperately wanted siblings, especially a kindly order brother like John Boy, who would take an interest in me and help me feel safe in the world. My mother liked company when she watched television, and so when I reached an age where I was at risk of drifting away from The Waltons, she hit on a plan: she suggested I sew a patchwork quilt, just like the one Mary Ellen had made in the quilting bee episode. She told me that she had a pillowcase full of material, including pieces of her wedding dress and scraps of linen and silk that had belonged to my grandmother. So, in the evenings I began to sew my quilt, joining my mother, not only for The Waltons, but also, on occasion, for The Galloping Gourmet and The Val Doonican Show.

Taken from The Absent Prince: In search of missing men

Part Two 2020

For several months, I spent every afternoon in what my husband began to refer to as the ‘sewing room’. In the days before we were visited by a global pandemic, the sewing room was in fact the guest room. Since March, however, the free movement of people in and out of our house is ‘verboten’ and flouting the rules can incur an on-the-spot fine of £200.

Three weeks after lockdown was imposed, I learned that I was to be a grandmother. Once I’d digested this wonderful piece of news and come to terms with the aching disappointment that I would be spending very little time with our daughter during her pregnancy, I began thinking about an appropriate gift. Whilst on a visit to the attic, I re-discovered my mother’s pillowcase full of linen sheets and lace-edged napkins. The hand- embroidered tablecloths from her trousseau date back to the early 1940s. My grandmother’s thick and creamy linen aprons are pre-WWI and Great Aunt Bertha’s sheets and pillow cases recall her days as a ‘gouvernante de lingerie’. Some pieces are embossed with their initials, expertly stitched in white and duck-egg blue thread – LK.RK.BG.

Using my 47 year old patchwork quilt as inspiration, I spent the next four months repurposing these ancestral remnants to make a quilt for my granddaughter. Trading in Waltons’ Mountain, Virginia for Starrs Hollow, Connecticut, I watched my way through 82 episodes of The Gilmore Girls as I cut and stitched and pieced together Thea’s quilt.

In 1902, Thea’s Great Great Great Aunt Bertha moved from her tiny village in Switzerland to the French Riviera, where, for 8 years she was employed in the linen room at The Grand Hotel du Louvre in Marseille. In 1910 she returned to Switzerland to work at resort hotels in Gstaad and finishing schools on the shores of Lake Leman. Her employers describe Bertha Gilomen as hard-working, dependable, loyal and morally upright but work was seasonal and in spite of her excellent references, Bertha lost her job at The Palace Hotel in Lausanne shortly before the outbreak of WWI. She was unemployed for 16 months. After the war, Bertha found a position as a housekeeper at The Grand Hotel Dent du Midi in Champery before falling into another period of extended unemployment. I have no idea what my great aunt did to survive during these fallow years. She was unmarried and there was no social security. Bertha moved to Davos in 1926 and spent the next eight years working in tuberculosis sanatoriums. The exclusive alpine resort was to become a notorious Nazi outpost, often referred to as ‘Hitlerbad’. Bertha’s final position was at The Savoy Hotel in Zurich and her career ended as the Second World War began. She retired at the age of 57 and moved to a small rented apartment near the Basel train station. Bertha Gilomen died in 1966 at the age of 84.

My still tiny granddaughter, born in 2020, will have opportunities that Aunt Bertha, born in 1882, did not have. Although Thea will not be spared the inevitable setbacks and sadness associated with being human, she will, I hope, also inherit some of the strength, resourcefulness and resilience of her Great Great Great Aunt Bertha.

Kris Kringle Associates

Fifty years ago this week, my husband, Dan was hired by Kris Kringle Associates to be the Sears Roebuck Santa Claus in Oak Brook, Illinois. Dan was eighteen, working the night shift at MacNeal Memorial Hospital in Berwyn and saving for a trip to Europe. Every afternoon, he would hitch-hike to Sears, make his way to Santa’s Grotto and climb into his red ensemble. Kris Kringle Associates paid their Santas an hourly rate of $2.50. The minimum wage at the time was $1.60. In 1970, the gift most requested by girls was a ‘Dawn’ doll. Boys wanted ‘GI Joes’. Popular children’s names that year were Todd and Heather and the Christmas hit was I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by the Jackson 5.

Some of the nurses who worked with Dan on the psychiatry unit at MacNeal would bring their small children to visit Santa. On spotting them in the crowd Dan would call out, in his rich, deep voice: ‘Well, well, well, if it isn’t Billy and Bobby Duryea’. The fact that Santa knew their names would leave the little tots open-mouthed, wide-eyed and speechless. Dan learnt how to treat the older kids too, the ones who no longer entirely believed in Father Christmas, the ones who pulled his beard to see if it was real and studied him carefully for clues. Whenever he identified potential non-believers, he would snap the clasp on his grandmother’s French prayer book and begin leafing through its pages. He was searching, he told the children, for their names in order to verify whether or not they were entitled to a gift. When the overly-inquisitive tried to sneak a peek at the pages, he would explain to them, with a steady but kindly gaze, that the words were written in Santa-Claus language.

Kris Kringle Associates was founded by Earl Tegge, who had spent 25 years of his life as a professional clown in a travelling circus. I was tired of taking my children to see drunken Santa Clauses in dirty wardrobes with twisted whiskers he said in an article published in The Chicago Daily Herald in 1969. Santa Claus is a cross between a saint and a father confessor and I don’t think we can burst that bubble because businesses don’t want to take the time to properly screen, train and outfit the right person to play Santa Claus, Tegge explained.

Although the ideal Father Christmas is thick of beard and wide of girth, Tegge believed that personality was what counted most. Santa Clauses needed to like children and to be kind and patient with them. Another important skill was to know how to manage some of the more heartbreaking requests, such as Please Santa, will you bring my daddy home from Vietnam for Christmas’

Kris Kringle Associates is no more but Earl’s son, Timothy Noel Tegge, continues his father’s legacy, touring with his own circus, based out of Baraboo, the small Wisconsin town where Dan and I were married in 2012.

I’m a Human Being and You’re a Human Being too

One bleak winter afternoon in 2013, I typed the words Rustic cabin on the water, North Carolina into a search engine. I had never heard of Harkers Island but the salt-stained, wooden cottage with its floor-to-ceiling windows and views across open water to Shacklelford Banks, looked perfect. Shackleford is home to a herd of wild horses. According to local legend they are the descendants of shipwrecked Spanish mustangs from the 16th century.  

For the next few years, I would spend two weeks of every year on Harkers Island, a 12 hour journey from my home in North Hertfordshire.  

The island has a strong identity and a long tradition of oral history. In 1987, a group of local women from the Methodist church decided to write a book. Ostensibly it is a cookery book but it is also the story of the island and how its people got there. Those born and raised on Harkers Island speak a dialect that has its roots in Elizabethan English and they are affectionately referred to as ‘Hoi toiders’. The community has lived by fishing and boat building for more than 300 years but, new regulations, pollution and the importation of cheap fish from Asia are all contributing to a slow decline and the closure of many of the fish houses. The sense of community, however, remains strong and questions such as You from off? (ie. not from the island) and Got anybody in the graveyard? (ie. how long has your family been on the island?) help determine who belongs and who doesn’t.  

Of course the locals weren’t the first to settle on Harkers Island and when their ancestors arrived from England in 1701, they chased off the Coree People, an Indigenous American tribe, so tiny that they only lived in this particular area of the Carolinas. 

In May 2015, I was researching the role of religion in my ancestry and I decided to visit both the Pentecostal and the Baptist churches on the island. In England you can slip into a church service and be largely ignored, so I was surprised to be greeted at the door by a very short lady with a very tall beehive. When she heard my British accent, she was enchanted and rushed me down the aisle to meet the deacon. He too was thrilled to bits and wrote down my name and the town where I was from. Soon I was standing in a sea of people, all wanting to know how I had got to the island and why I had come. ‘We’ve never had a visitor from England before’, declared one. 

Before Brother Anthony began his very long, very rousing sermon, I was given a ‘Harkers Island’ welcome. While I sat, slightly embarrassed on my velvet pew, the entire congregation got to its feet to clap and cheer my arrival.  Afterwards my picture was taken ‘for the church records’ and everyone waved me a fond farewell. The following Sunday I went down the road to see the Baptists and they too were overjoyed to meet me. This time I was slightly better prepared and explained that my grandmother had been a Baptist and I was interested in knowing more about her faith. 

During the sermon, which, like the Pentacostal homily was well over an hour long, my thoughts drifted to other things. Suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder by the lady behind me, alerting me to the fact that the pastor was addressing me directly. His question was more of a statement and related to the challenges of living amongst Muslims. ‘You must have a lot of Muslims in London and so you will know just what I’m talking about’, he said, nodding sympathetically at me from the pulpit. He then moved on to an even trickier topic – the transgender bathroom bill which North Carolina was actively opposing at the time. I prayed he wouldn’t invite my opinion on that one. These were kind people who had welcomed me into their church because they assumed that I shared their views. How could I show appreciation for their generosity and respect for their community whilst remaining true to my own ideas, beliefs and confusions. How could I avoid being outed for what I in fact was – someone from ‘off’; someone who didn’t belong; an outsider. Two hours later when it was all over, I hurriedly explained that unfortunately I couldn’t stay for coffee and donuts because I was heading down the coast to visit an old plantation house. I left feeling a little embarrassed but also relieved that, on the face it, I was still in everyone’s good books. 

Two days later I was shopping at Walgreens off the island when I heard someone call my name. It was Dianne from the Baptist church, working at the check-out. She was visibly delighted to see me again, introduced me to her co-workers and then ran all my purchases through her personal discount card. I wanted to hug Dianne and thank her for remembering me. I wanted to tell her that I’d miss her and would talk to my friends back in England about the kind people I’d met on Harkers Island. I also wanted to tell her that I worked with Muslim families in London and that many of them were kind and generous, just like her, making their way in a challenging world, just like her, wanting what’s best for their families, just like her. But I didn’t, because I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to explain myself in a way that Dianne and her friends would understand. But, in truth, I also didn’t want to snap that thread of momentary belonging, that feeling of being included in something that felt so real and so very kind.