Letter from Felixstowe: Anticipation

AA CSB and G

With my son near Washington, D.C.

 Thanks to everyone who commented or sent helpful emails in response to last week’s post. It’s heartbreaking that Alzheimer’s disease affects so many individuals and families around the world.

This week has mostly centred on anticipation of my son’s arrival for a long weekend with us in the UK. It seems only yesterday I was juggling personal life with work and teleconferences and business trips. Suddenly (or so it seems) roles are reversed. Now he’s the one with the busy personal and professional life while I eagerly await his arrival.

I feel close to my mother at times like this; from what she said over the years, I know she felt similar emotions when she knew I was on my way to see her in New Jersey.

The days will pass quickly with my son and I’ll treasure every minute. As my mom often said, ‘It doesn’t matter what we do. It’ll just great to be together.’

And as Tom Jones sometimes says on The Voice UK: ‘Yeah!’

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: Tooth Extraction, Alzheimer’s & Guilt

AA Compass w heart

One of the themes of this blog is family globalisation, including the challenges of staying close emotionally while being far away geographically from people we love.

This week, at her assisted living home in New Jersey, my mother had a tooth extracted. The procedure went well, her mouth healed quickly and she has more or less forgotten it occurred (except when I ask her in our daily chats how it’s doing – she sticks her tongue in the empty spot and says ‘it’s fine!’).

I debated with myself long and hard about getting on an airplane. Many times over the years I’ve jumped on a flight when she was hospitalised or needed me at her home. This time around, my thought process took into account that the tooth would be extracted at her assisted living facility and she would be cared for without having to leave her home; the dentist and staff assured me in multiple discussions that all would be well; and I knew I could still go immediately should anything go wrong. On this side of the Pond, we’re in the midst of a renovation project, planning for my son’s visit next weekend (hooray!); gearing up for a trip to Australia next month; and looking forward to the next U.S. trip, booked weeks ago, for my mother’s birthday in May.

And more than any time in the past, an additional factor weighing in my mind was my mother’s Alzheimer’s. I email her every day, so she has something in writing, and call her every night. We have much the same chat each evening. She seems to enjoy our talks but tragically in recent years has lost most of her sense of time. With no short-term memory, she has no recollection of having had visitors, or when a visit occurred – in her mind, I may have seen her yesterday, or a week ago, or a few months ago. She still looks forward to our visits, so if I say ‘we can’t wait to see you for your birthday,’ she says that’s wonderful, then asks me how long it is until then. Sometimes she can still calculate the months, but often not. We talk about her parents and childhood, the family members she remembers (she still always asks what her grandson is doing) and I can usually make her laugh or we can share a happy memory of something important to her.

But what I can’t do quickly and easily is be there, hold her hand or give her a hug. I’ve thought often about bringing her closer to me, but for now she is happy, loves her 93 year-old boyfriend with whom she shares almost every minute of every day (they are dependent on each other in a way the medical and assisted living staff tell me is healthy and wonderful), and feels safe and secure in her environment.

I know that just because my mother is happy and won’t remember exactly when I was last with her doesn’t mean I shouldn’t visit as often as I can. This is my ongoing challenge and the constant balance I strive to attain, not always successfully. I will always live with a certain irreducible measure of guilt and regret I can’t be in multiple places at the same time or go back and forth more often. I hold onto the knowledge Mom’s looking forward to our next visit and I’ll do everything I can to make it a wonderful one.

A breezy February day at the Ridgewood Duck Pond, New Jersey

A breezy February day at the Ridgewood Duck Pond, New Jersey

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: Blythburgh and Happy Suffolk Pigs for Valentine’s Day

Clive and his daughter at Dunwich Heath, near Blythburgh, Suffolk

Clive and his daughter at Dunwich Heath, near Blythburgh, Suffolk

Normally Clive and I don’t make a huge deal of Valentine’s Day, but this year, at the last minute, we decided to treat ourselves to an overnight away. We picked a destination from our ‘We Should’ list (as we did when we visited Suffolk’s Shingle Street) and selected Blythburgh, about an hour’s drive from Felixstowe, a riverside area we’ve often driven through but never stopped to explore or walk.

Thanks to the Internet we managed to find a room in a local pub; everything else was sold out, probably weeks ago. We’ll find out in a couple days if our room’s availability means we missed something in our research – we hope not!

We’re looking forward to the scenery – the River Blyth winding to the North Sea between Southwold and Walberswick; miles of marshes, reedbeds, swaying grasses and heathland; exploring nearby villages and a magnificent 12th-century church known as the ‘Cathedral of the Marshes’ on whose site a church has existed since 630 (just writing that year feels unreal to me). And – with apologies to vegetarian friends – we’re hoping to sample some of the meat products from Blythburgh’s free range pigs, or, as they’re sometimes called locally, happy pigs, because they run free outside from birth until the end of their lives.

On many drives to Southwold, we’ve passed fields with rows of open-air, metal-roofed pig huts (for lack of a better term), some singles and some doubles, apparently. We’ve seen pigs frolicking and foraging in the fields. Perhaps it’s my non-country upbringing but whenever I see them I can’t help cheering, ‘Happy pigs! Happy pigs!’

Living in Suffolk, we’ve come to appreciate the local food scene and that includes the happy pigs’ bacon and sausages, served in various pubs and restaurants – they’re truly delicious.

I don’t know how many happy pigs we’ll see running around the fields this time of year, but we look forward to dinner at the pub and a full English breakfast on Sunday, so should get a taste of some good Suffolk pork.

If the weather doesn’t cooperate for walking, I foresee a lot of pub-sitting and coffee-sipping before a cozy fire.  More to come.

Southwold, near Blythburgh, Suffolk

Southwold, near Blythburgh, Suffolk

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: Greece, Germany and My (Non) Retirement Plan

AA EU Money 05 Feb 2015 1

Greece’s recent election and its interactions with the European Union, Germany in particular, are much in the news these days.

I claim no economic expertise but my high level understanding is that Greece carries crippling debt and wishes to renegotiate its repayment terms, perhaps to include the ‘forgiving’ or erasing of a significant chunk of that onerous debt.

As we’ve seen in the news, at least here in Europe, many EU members and Germany in particular are not exactly fond of this idea. A significant chunk of Greek debt was already erased in an EU ‘bail-out’ several years ago, which included the proviso that the country live in an ‘austerity’ manner, restructure various aspects of its economy and institutions, and attempt to gradually repay what it owes.

We also hear many debates in the UK about austerity vs. growth economics, and I realise nation-level economics is different from personal economics. And yet …

I can’t help seeing a certain logic when Angela Merkel (one of my heroines anyway) and her leaders express the basic sentiment, ‘We already gave Greece a lot of money and bailed them out once, and don’t particularly fancy doing it again.’

Various unfortunate stereotypes emerge: those southern, tanned, slow-moving, sun-worshipping, terrace-sitting receivers of cushy government salaries and pensions … vs. those rather pale (cold, winter!), dedicated, energetic, hard-working, responsible contributors to the economy in the north.

And then I consider my own history and culture. My parents and grandparents, Depression-era Americans, drilled into us over and over again: work hard, spend less than you earn no matter how small that may be, and save the rest. Classic Puritan values, much more Germany than Greece, it must be said.

My life took an unexpected turn when my first husband Gary and I decided after my international assignment ended to remain in Australia. (More about this on my ‘About’ page). The decision came with great joy but also great costs. The biggest emotional one was geographic separation from our U.S. family; the biggest financial one was the loss of 80-85% of my future pension and amounts I’d contributed for more than 24 years. Though I remained with the same global company, I had to start over as a local employee Down Under. We factored this into our life, made various reductions, saved a bit more, and so on. I was fortunate to have a job I enjoyed but, perhaps like Mrs Merkel, I have to say I worked damn hard too.

I can’t help thinking that if, say, I’d loaned someone a lot of money and they promised to ‘live frugally’ to be able to pay me back, but then they didn’t quite do that, but returned asking for more money and erasing of much of what they owed in the first place – I might respond in line with the German leader. I’m trying to broaden my view and learn more about the economics on both sides.

In any case, I’m guessing the leaders will come to some agreement they can all live with. In the meantime, it should be interesting to see what happens next.

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: Snow in the Gloaming

Our tree by the sea in the snow

Our tree by the sea in the snow

Snow has been on my mind this week. Several days ago, we watched reports of the U.S. northeast storm, with its less-than-some-expected but still significant accumulations. In the past 24 hours, heavy snow has been falling across northern parts of the UK. This afternoon in Felixstowe, following a morning of sunshine, we had this winter’s first snowfall.

This reminded me of a poem I memorised in 8th grade at Ho-Ho-Kus Public School in New Jersey. If anyone reading this also was there in the era of the incomparable English teachers Mrs Mercier and Mrs Bickell (among the group of brilliant teachers with whom we were blessed), you may also remember reciting poems in front of the class. I don’t recall if we chose our poems or they were assigned, but one of mine was James Russell Lowell’s The First Snowfall.

This poem impressed me when I was a teenager and it seems more beautiful today. With thanks to the poet and Mrs Bickell, here it is:

The First Snowfall
by James Russell Lowell

The snow had begun in the gloaming,
And busily all the night
Had been heaping field and highway
With a silence deep and white.

Every pine and fir and hemlock
Wore ermine too dear for an earl,
And the poorest twig on the elm-tree
Was ridged inch deep with pearl.

From sheds new-roofed with Carrara
Came Chanticleer’s muffled crow,
The stiff rails softened to swan’s-down,
And still fluttered down the snow.

I stood and watched by the window
The noiseless work of the sky,
And the sudden flurries of snowbirds,
Like brown leaves whirling by.

I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn
Where a little headstone stood;
How the flakes were folding it gently,
As did robins the babes in the wood.

Up spoke our own little Mabel,
Saying, “Father, who makes it snow?”
And I told of the good All-Father
Who cares for us here below.

Again I looked at the snow-fall,
And thought of the leaden sky
That arched o’er our first great sorrow,
When that mound was heaped so high.

I remembered the gradual patience
That fell from that cloud like snow,
Flake by flake, healing and hiding
The scar that renewed our woe.

And again to the child I whispered,
“The snow that husheth all,
Darling, the merciful Father
Alone can make it fall!”

Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her:
And she, kissing back, could not know
That my kiss was given to her sister,
Folded close under deepening snow.

Hope everyone in the Northern Hemisphere stays warm and cozy and enjoys any snow that comes your way.

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: The Randomness of Tragedy

With my brother, Rob, in Ho-Ho-Kus NJ

With my brother, Rob, in Ho-Ho-Kus NJ

This week I received an email from a dear friend in the U.S. who expressed the general idea that it was good Clive and I were back in the UK from Paris, because Paris doesn’t seem like an enjoyable place to be right now.

My friend’s words hit me hard, coming as they did upon Clive’s and my return to Felixstowe after having spent a couple days in London – deemed by all accounts to be as equally at risk of attack as Paris – during which time we rode the Underground, walked around various central neighbourhoods and in general went about our business without fear for our lives, at least no more so than going about our business anywhere else we might travel in the world.

The topic of the randomness of tragedy and why bad things happen to good people warrants so much more than a simple blog post. My brother, Rob, was killed years ago with my uncle Ted in an automobile accident on a foggy, icy December night. He was 17; I was 21. More years later, gastric cancer took the life of my first husband, Gary. I am not alone. I think almost everyone on this earth experiences loss and grief and one form or another of the randomness of tragedy.

When I read my friend’s email, my first response was to bristle in defence of Paris, the city I’ve known and loved for longer than any other, except my hometown of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. I thought of the endless if not daily reports of random U.S. shootings – schools, movie theatres, malls – and was tempted to reply that sometimes my country of origin doesn’t seem that enjoyable a place to be, either.

But my friend’s words were sent in kindness and caring (thank you, dear one). And life is not about living in fear.  Surely we need to take reasonable precautions, but beyond that life must be lived wherever we may be. I love the English wartime expression still used today, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

Over the years I’ve read and thought a great deal about the randomness of tragedy. One of my most favourite books on the subject is ‘The Will of God’ by Leslie D. Weatherhead, an insightful, thought-provoking series of five sermons by a UK Methodist minister during World War II. A better-known volume is U.S. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’, also a classic.

As for Paris, a wonderful blog post earlier this week, with text and photos by ‘Paris Breakfasts’ [note: I am not the ‘Carolyn’ mentioned in her post] sums it up perfectly: ‘Paris IS OK, people!’

Last month in Paris

Last month in Paris

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: Winter by the Sea

Winter Sunday on the Prom, Felixstowe

Winter Sunday on the Prom, Felixstowe

January seems to be flying by. Thanks to New Year’s Day falling on a Thursday, this is already my third weekly newsletter for 2015. Where does the time go?

We returned from Paris nearly two weeks ago and, at least figuratively, have been soaking up winter by the sea in Felixstowe. As much as I love Paris in winter (see Nine Big Reasons why I think many people would), equally I recommend being by the sea during this season — a weekend break, a week’s holiday (vacation), a longer-term visit or a permanent home.

In UK winter we can’t lie on the beach and work on our tans, but we didn’t do that in Sydney either, when we lived a few minutes’ walk from some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. What we love to do in both places is walk and breathe in the fresh sea air, pop into shops and cafes and of course stop along the way for cappuccino or flat white coffees. In England, seaside cafes offer freshly-baked scones with pots of tea and hot chocolate. Or you can choose the ever-present and most excellent option of heading for a cozy pub and having a pint in front of the fire.

The North Sea is different from any body of water I’ve experienced before – more changing green and grey and silvery colours than the turquoise Pacific or steely blue Atlantic. In my view, any sea or ocean makes a great winter destination.

The season of lowest temperatures and shortest days can be a valuable time of hibernation and reflection. Something about walking by the seaside, watching the movement of the waves and breathing the salty air intensifies that sensation. The light is crisp and clear which makes for stunning sunsets, too.

Winter won’t last forever, of course. Living so far north (Felixstowe’s on approximately the same latitude as Calgary, Alberta), already the days are growing longer.

Wishing everyone in the northern hemisphere a lovely winter season. If you’re tempted to visit the seaside, go for it! And enjoy those walks and pubs/cafes and sunsets.

Winter sunset, Felixstowe

Winter sunset, Felixstowe

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.


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