A word of explanation. I am reading a wonderful book entitled “How to Craft the Personal Essay,” by essayist Dinty W. Moore. It has writing exercises, so I’ve been writing different sorts of things than my usual religious reflections and poetry. Of course, part of being a writer is wanting to rush out and push the fresh pages of a new manuscript into the hands of any possible reader, and then going home to cower in one’s room, terrified that the chosen victim might actually read what you’ve given her and, worse, tell you what she thinks of it. A blog is the perfect solution. You don’t have to read the “pages,” and I don’t have to watch you do it. So the fruits of some of these exercises, including this one, will appear now and again in this blog.
Once my family lived in paradise, for about six weeks.
My parents probably didn’t recognize it as paradise. Its name was not Eden but the Berystede. It boasted many trees, but none of them bore apples. We never saw a snake in one either. The Berystede was a small British hotel inhabited largely by English stereotypes, staffed by men and women from Wodehouse, and planted inconspicuously along a quiet road in the village of Sunninghill in Berkshire. The year was 1955.
My parents’ view of it was likely colored by jetlag. We moved in straight from endless days of fighting off mosquitoes in Texas (me), looking in vain for famous tennis players at the Forest Hills Inn in New York (my mother), getting locked in a restroom on an eternal flight to Paris (me again), touring Paris in a French-speaking taxi to the accompaniment of drunken warbling (my baby sister, to whom they had given red wine for lunch at the Pan Am commissary for want of drinkable water or milk), and being driven in a stupor from the London airport (all of us).
My parents also likely failed to recognize the heavenly aspects of the day-to-day management of three small children, ages 1, 8 and 10, in a hotel normally undisturbed by the small boisterousness of that species. Actually, most of the boisterousness emanated from my eight-year-old brother, John, who born a fearless explorer of a fascinating universe. He talked to everyone. He asked questions about everything. He investigated anything he could reach with his fingers, and sometimes with other appurtenances. (He distinguished himself in later life by getting his knee stuck in the gutter that rimmed a public swimming pool, requiring rescue by a bemused life guard.) The elevator operator became his special friend. The man wore a dark uniform and had magic powers. He could make the elevator doors open and close. He could drive the little box at will up and down the three floors of the hotel. He could call out the number of the floor as we arrived there. (It can’t have been too difficult. There were only three.) We had never seen an elevator before, that I recall. Unlike my brother, I , hobbled and starched by shyness, did my usual best to make myself invisible. (I’m sure J.K Rowling got the idea for Harry’s cloak from me, or would have if she had known me as a child.) I confined my boisterousness to our rooms, where I whined that I was bored, socked my brother just for the heck of it, and generally exhibited the restlessness of a child confined by her mother’s fear of seeing disapproval on all those staid British faces if her children did not obey the rules.
We mostly didn’t know the rules, of course. To us, it was England, not our homeland, that was the New World. We had just been plucked out of our northern California home and dropped there by my father’s decision to use his seniority with Pan American Airways to bid for an open spot at the London station. We had put in weary months of expectation, preparation and trepidation. The preparation consisted mostly of my parents’ teaching us British vocabulary gleaned, I suspect, from novels, and of breaking it to us that they didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving in England. John was found in tears one day, sobbing that he didn’t want to go to England, because he didn’t know how to speak English. And we wondered nervously if the English celebrated Christmas.
Once arrived, we quickly learned that this place did indeed have a whole new set of rules, besides the familiar ones like saying “Please” and “Thank you.” We learned that we were not supposed to ask loudly and suspiciously “What is that?” in the dining room, wonder where they kept the comics, or run down the carpeted halls and staircases and into other hotel guests, most of them at least middle aged. I don’t remember if John ever tried to slide down the bannisters, but I’m sure he thought of it. His only previous experience of bannisters had been catching his head in one when he was three. We lived in a two-story house then. He had poked his head experimentally between the railings and then discovered he could not remove it. It had taken quite some time and a lot of loud noise for him to grow tired of standing and sit down to rest. His head then popped out of its trap. He had inserted it while sitting down and then stood up. The opening was wider at the bottom than the top. My mother had never noticed that. One had to notice things, with John.
Indoors—and this was England in early spring, so we were often indoors—we soon tired of the two or three rooms we lived in, the unfamiliar board and card and paper games my desperate parents supplied us with, and the confinement. My recollection of those hazy weeks is tinged with pinkish walls, heavy carpets, thick air, and inactivity. Though I probably repeated loudly and often my mantra, “Mommy, there’s nothing to do!”, what I really yearned for was something to read. Story books. I’m not sure anyone yet understood that about me. I’m not sure I understood it myself, that deep, unquenchable hunger and thirst for anything narrative. My father certainly grasped it soon and kept me well supplied once we had moved out of the Berystede into the house on Coombe Lane and he had discovered the cheap English-language bookstores in Beirut.
However, when I was five, my grandmother’s radio and the enchanting novelty of our first television had taught me that if you run out stories around you, you can just make up your own in the space behind your eyes. This was where the Berystede became our Eden, John’s and mine. We had grown up in the pocket handkerchief yards of San Francisco Bay Area suburbia. Here we were surrounded by acres of green mystery where no one saw or scolded us. We could hide in the clusters of bushes, run across the expanses of lawn, long to climb trees we were as yet too small to aspire to. Mostly we used this heaven as a backdrop for the stories we made up and acted. I did most of the inventing and directing then. Look for me in Jo March.
Although I think we created it on Coombe Lane rather than at the Berystede, the longest playing story we shared in our English years was called “Jim and Mary,” as in, “Let’s play Jim and Mary.” The choice of Jim and Mary was dictated by the size of the cast at our disposal. Our little sister still too small to be usefully conscripted into any of our dramas. Jim and Mary were a married couple because we didn’t know of any other way for a male and female character to go adventuring together. We had never read any stories of brothers and sisters taking to the jungle (where I distinctly remember riding down the river on the African Queen, though I can’t have seen that movie till years later) the forest (Sherwood, where we sometimes became Robin and Maid Marian once we had heard those stories), desert islands (where we sometimes played the Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe and Friday), and any other venues that captured our fancy.
We did add other stories to our collection of scripts later. Indoors, we often played house under a blanked spread over the card table, or we played pilot and air traffic controller amid a spread of papers. My father regularly had to update his heavy flight manuals, whereupon he donated all the outdated pages to our prop collection. He also taught us to read them, after a manner of speaking. I remember specially how tricky was the approach to the Hong Kong airport—which couldn’t have appeared in those manuals, now that I think of it, because Daddy flew through Europe and the Middle East from London. Hong Kong had been on his San Francisco route. I was always the air traffic controller in our various scenarios, routine or emergency, and John was always the pilot. When my father taught me the principles of aerodynamics, I told him I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up. I meant, of course, a commercial airline pilot just like him. He broke it to me then that girls could not be pilots. When I was older, he added to this conversation, “You can’t even learn to drive a car. (which was true—I was a terrified flop at Driver’s Ed) How could you possibly learn to fly an airplane?” So I learned when I was ten to settle for the role of air traffic controller instead. I doubt there were any women air traffic controllers either, but Daddy was kind enough not to tell me that.
To my surprise, Google informs me that the Berystede is still alive and well and living in Sunninghill these nearly sixty years later. The staid and stuffy comfort it offered us is long gone. It has become the “Macdonald Berystede Hotel and Spa, Sunninghill, Ascot, near Windsor.” The new Berystede boasts “contemporary design, secluded gardens and gated entry, 126 individually-styled luxury bedrooms, AA Rosette Restaurant with roof terrace” and “luxury spa with outdoor hydro pool.” In England? The only warm summer I remember there was in 1955.
Even the address has changed, though the building seems not to have moved. Sunninghill is not and never has been in Ascot, but whoever heard of Sunninghill? Even in 1955, the official mailing address of the house on Coombe Lane was “Sunninghill, nr. South Ascot.” The postal service felt no need to mention Windsor. Ascot was famous enough in its own right as the home of the Ascot race course, scene of the famous Royal Ascot Week, when Royalty and Society gathered in flowered dresses and morning coats to gossip, sip tea (or, I suspect, something stronger) and occasionally watch the horses run.
Neither Sunninghill nor Ascot was anywhere near Windsor in those days. Windsor was six miles away. Driving there from Sunninghill for shopping was a major expedition undertaken only for the most important items. The local population of Sunninghill was horrified when my mother took her laundry to the laundromat in far away Camberley until we got a washing machine, and Camberley was only five miles from Sunninghill.
According to the web, the years have banished the flavor and the character and the children from the Berystede. The gates have slammed shut behind us, and we can never now go back. I don’t really want to. Sometimes Eden is better remembered than inhabited. In the paradises of the mind, there are neither apple trees nor serpents but only faded daguerreotypes of innocence playing Jim and Mary among the trees in forests long ago and far away.
Copyright 2012, Abbey of St. Walburga