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.
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.
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.
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.
I am sitting under a tree in a small area of woodland, thinking about life and death and my friend, Herman. On the other side of a wire fence I notice a group of school children. They are on litter-picking patrol and are spread out across the field, eyes to the ground, in search of sweet wrappers and crisp packets.
Suddenly, I hear a voice calling to me. I look up and see a line of small boys standing along the fence line.
First Boy: Excuse me …. what are you doing?
Me: I’m sitting and resting for a while.
First Boy: Is this the first time you’ve been here?
Me: No, I used to come here with my dog.
First Boy: Where’s your dog now?
Me: He died.
Second Boy: Awww that’s so sad.
Third Boy: My grandpa had a dog, a Jack Russell and he died too. He was 16.
Fourth Boy: My fish died but fish don’t live as long as dogs.
Me: Death is sad, isn’t it?
At this point I wonder whether I might be getting them into trouble and I suggest they return to their teacher and their litter-collecting duties. I stand up to leave.
First Boy: Oh, don’t go. Please stay.
Me: I have to go home now.
First Boy: Will you come back another time?
Me: Maybe I will.
As I walk away, the children remain standing on the fence line and we wave until we can no longer see each other.
This August, the Swiss film director, Rolf Lyssy was given the year’s Career Achievement Award at the Zurich Film Festival. Die Schweizermacher, released in 1978, was judged the most successful Swiss film of all time.
I was in my second year at the University of Reading when The Swissmakers was released in the UK. Astonished to learn that a Swiss film had made it to England, I immediately gathered a group of friends and arranged a weeknight visit to the Granby cinema. The film was shown in Swiss-German with English subtitles. I laughed a lot. My English friends not so much.
The Swissmakers is a comedy about a pair of Zurich policemen snooping on resident immigrants who have applied for Swiss citizenship. Sergeant Bodmer instructs his rookie sidekick, Herr Fischer, to pay close attention to any deviation from the Helvetian modus operandi. Fraulein Vakulic, for example, insists on using brown bin liners instead of the standard black ones. When his co-workers at the bakery describe Signor Grimolli as “always happy”, Bodmer is quick to respond “Being happy is irrelevant. He needs to be adaptable. He needs to fit in”.
I lived in Switzerland for 10 years in the 1990s and even though I speak Swiss German fluently and, apparently, without a trace of a foreign accent, I often felt like a foreigner, someone who didn’t quite belong. I tended to make mistakes, some were relatively harmless and reflected my recent arrival in the country and others were more serious social gaffes. On one occasion, I asked my neighbour what he paid for his house, which is considered shockingly impolite in Switzerland.
One morning, the village postman stopped me in the street and scolded me for putting out my rubbish on the wrong day and in the wrong place. I was curious to know how he had identified me as the culprit. He was very matter of fact and explained that he’d opened the offending bag in order to look for evidence. I imagined him rooting around amongst the Earl Grey tea bags and the spaghetti sauce and I felt both repelled and impressed by his dedication on behalf of the community. Eventually he found an envelope with my name on it. He could probably have saved himself the effort and the mess because he must have known, even before he smothered his fingers in tannin and tomatoes, that no law-abiding, thoroughbred Swiss would have behaved so irresponsibly.
I also, however, experienced delightful customs that indicated a close-knit and trusting society. When I purchased our first household appliance, I discovered that I had 30 days to pay the invoice. “……but, you don’t know me”, I stammered, “you don’t know my address or my telephone number. How can you be sure that I’m honest?”
After our second daughter was born, I took a teaching position at the local Steiner school. I hired a cleaner and made sure to carefully follow the example of the few Swiss women I knew who had household help: I ran the hoover, splashed the bleach and had a jolly good tidy up before Frau Probst arrived. She was magnificent. She even used cotton swabs to remove dust particles from the keyholes. When her three hours were up, however, she told me that she would not be returning. My house, she explained, was too dirty. I felt ashamed but also furious. I wanted to tell Frau Probst that I had other gifts, other skills – a university degree and a bunch of students who liked me and worked hard in my English classes. But I didn’t tell her these things. Instead, I apologised for my unsightly home and waved her forever goodbye.
A few months later, I discovered that our neighbour had been coming into our garage while I was at work in order to top up the guinea pigs’ food bowls. She showed no shame about her trespassing habits, insisting that we were starving the poor creatures. I called the local vet for advice and he was clear – guinea pigs should be fed twice a day and no more. Over-feeding would result in obesity and early death. I thanked him and relayed this information to my fussbudget neighbour. She ‘tsked’ audibly and then shouted across the fence: “This is not England. We do things differently here.”
Last night I suggested to my husband, who is American, that we watch The Swissmakers. He reacted to the film exactly as my English friends had done 42 years ago. The humour, he thought, ranged from plodding to slapstick. The film struck him as two-dimensional. I laughed, although perhaps not quite as heartily as I had done when I was nineteen because, in the meantime, I had known the shame of feeling inadequate and wanting in some way.
In an interview in 2016, Rolf Lyssy spoke about the comic intersection between the two policemen: Sergeant Bodmer is simplistic and narrow-minded while his young assistant, Herr Fischer is engaging and open to new ideas. Lyssy made the observation that in the 1970s, immigrants to Switzerland were mainly Italians and they spoke a language that Swiss people spoke too. Similarly, Catholicism was a religion with which the Swiss could identify. Today, those applying for naturalisation come from much further away and from traditions, religions and cultures that the Swiss do not understand.
“This isn’t good or bad” Lyssy reflected. “It’s simply different but the difference is much greater now than it was forty years ago and some Swiss feel overwhelmed by it. The question is how does a civilised society deal with this situation?”
I waited to hear what he would say next.
“I have no answer”, Lyssy admitted.
He’s right. It’s a tricky one.