Dorothy Cannell: My husband, Julian, and I are going to England in August. The first part of our trip will be spent at the mystery college at St. Hilda’s College in Oxford. This will be our second time at this event and as we get closer in time, and my mind is filled with happy possibilities, I also find myself thinking back to the England of my growing up years and what I most treasure in memory:
The bluebell woods in spring, the sound of the cuckoo in the early morning. Reciting the words – The cuckoo comes to England in April and flies away in June. Wallflowers. Such ordinary flowers with a heavenly scent. Holding a buttercup under someone’s chin, and if there was a golden glow saying “you like butter.” Standing at the edge of a pond catching tidlers in a net.
Long winter evenings with the curtains drawn snugly against wind or rain, with the coal fire crisply red and casting warm silhouettes upon the papered walls. We didn’t think of the harm to our lungs in those days, the only negative was the chilblains on our toes from putting cold feet to the heat.
Summer with its long days and nights, watching cricket played on the green. Strawberries picked from my paternal grandfather’s allotment (a piece of land for growing vegetables, etc.) and eaten soon after dipped in sugar. He had a shed on the allotment where he kept a tin of ginger biscuits. I remember they were always rather soft, but it seemed right they should be that way. Some years we went on a week’s summer holiday to the seaside, but more often we took day trips by coach (long distance buses). Either way the most glorious moment was the first smell of the sea. We lived in Kent so we usually went to Folkston, Hastings or Margate. The latter was working class then, but I’ve learned that it and its neighbor Ramsgate have gone up market because so many people want second homes on the coast.
Going on a bus ride to the nearest town. Best of all one that had a market day, with part of the road given over to stalls that sold everything from linens, fabric, china and glass, brass and copper, to dogs, cats and rabbits. My school friend had a dog she’d ‘got off the market’, but my mother said they always had worms. Just being on the bus was lovely. I always liked catching bits of conversation. I remember a woman talking to the one sitting next to her. She was going to spend the day with her daughter-in-law. She always did this on a Wednesday. It stayed with me because it sounded so cozy and settled.
Trains were the great thrill. We didn’t have a car. We had aunts and uncles with them, but I never thought that having one would be nice. When our mother took us up to London, something that happened perhaps four or five times year, it was always an enormous treat especially because we went to John Lewis, the department store in Oxford Street, where my father worked in the woolen materials department. We loved to creep up on him when he was serving a customer and see the ‘surprise’ on his face. England will always be for me my parents, my father with his love of books and the garden, and my mother with her wonderful gift for anecdote and laughter. Coming up out of the underground was magic because of the steep escalators leading to the main line station. When I was little I called them the golden moving staircases because the treads were made of brass.
Close by my Grandfather’s allotment was the graveyard where his wife, my grandmother, was buried along with their oldest son who had died in a work accident when he was twenty. My father took me there once when we were out cycling. Just me and him. We leant our bikes against the iron railing and walked between the tombstones until we came to the one with the familiar names on it. I knew from my mother that my father had been devastated by his brother Gilbert’s death. They’d been only elven months apart in age. “He can’t talk about it,” she had said, “it goes too deep.” We stood without saying anything for several minutes and returned to our bikes without breaking the silence. I remember it as a sacred occasion. I sensed that my father didn’t want me to speak, just to be there while he remembered. Our older son’s middle name is Gilbert.
Remembering those days is at the core of who I am. I have now lived in America far longer than I lived in England and I love this country. But England gave me what I believe I was meant to be. It frames my writing life, which is my inner world. So, I will go to Oxford and then on to Lincoln where I have family and paint new memories.