I didn’t learn to drive until I was 29 and living in California. I had managed pretty well without a car until then. During my university years, I spent practically all my vacation time working at a fishing camp accessible only by boat. One year when I spent a week at home, my father gave me a few driving lessons. However, he lost interest when, while practicing backing in a field, I indented the shape of a tree trunk into the back bumper of his car.
Public transport worked just fine for my job in Christchurch, New Zealand, and for getting around when we lived in England. When my husband bought a Triumph Herald for his commute to work, I had twinges of conscience that I should learn to drive it. But then we’d take an excursion into London, and the huge traffic circle at Hyde Park, with its multiple lanes and multiple exits, would do me in for another six months.
Then we moved to California. One child was just four, the other eighteen months. Between our apartment and the distant shops were no sidewalks, just the weedy, lumpy verges of old orchards. I scurried to find a driving school and a babysitter. My letters to parents chronicle the story, which is probably familiar to readers who learned to drive as teenagers:
30 May, 1967
Tony has been out car-hunting tonight. He has been driving a rented Ford Mustang, & has been so pleased with it that has decided to buy one for himself. Here there is no fixed price for new cars – it’s a sort of Eastern market of haggling & bargaining, & a buyer’s market at that, so it’s a matter of going round the various dealers to see what they will offer.
18 June, 1967
I have passed the written part of my driving test. Margie Mandeville (neighbour with whom I have got very friendly) took me down to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles on Friday morning & looked after the kids in the car. Quite a good system – before you start learning to drive you have to get an instruction permit, which requires passing a written test on the Highway Code, & eyesight test. I’m a bit apprehensive about starting lessons, but guess I shall get over that.
30 June, 1967
My driving lessons are going quite well – I have an hour nearly every day, will probably take my test later next week. Very concentrated course, a bit of a strain, but am apparently managing quite well.
10 July, 1967
I am now the proud holder of a California driver’s license – passed my test this morning, with quite a good mark, considering nervous tension – 81%, passing grade is 70%. Quite a sensible system – you start off with 100 points, & get docked a set number of marks for each kind of error. Mind you, Tony passed the test the other day with 95%! Anyway, I am feeling very pleased with myself.
I am now itching to get my hands on the wheel of that Mustang – Tony has promised to let me have a go at it, provided I don’t mash it up. As I learned on a Mercury Comet, which is slightly larger, it shouldn’t be much problem. We are also going car-hunting for an elderly VW for me – they are very popular around here & have a good reputation for reliability & dealer service – this is a problem with many imported cars. What do you think, Dad, about maintenance costs on a VW of say, 1958? This is available at about $500; compared with a 1964 at about $1,000 (can’t afford anything more recent). I am really looking forward to being more mobile, & Tony is too – he finds weekend shopping a drag, when we could be swimming or sunbathing or going somewhere interesting.
20 July, 1967
I have been having fun playing with my new toy – a bright red 1961 VW. It is in very nice condition, & the engine runs beautifully – the dealer had just spent $200 on it, including a big valve job – I gather that this is the thing most likely to go wrong with these VWs. It seems your advice to go to a VW dealer is just as valid here, Dad – is it true that they are responsible for getting the car into decent running order before they sell it? We took it out & checked it for all the usual faults, could find nothing wrong but a non-functional speedo, which Tony fixed with $2 worth of cable, & talked them into throwing in a new set of tires. Tony is going to take it into an auto-probe centre next week & have it thoroughly checked out, but so far we are very happy about our $850 worth. I have had one lesson from the driving school, & managed the gear shift quite well, & now it’s just a matter of practice. I have been getting in a bit of practice on the Mustang too – just as well, as we landed up in East San Jose on Sunday, buying this car (left the kids with a babysitter) & finished up with two cars to bring home, so I was landed with the Mustang. There seemed an awful lot of car for one scared little me – much more than when I had someone with me, but quite enjoyed myself once I got over being scared.
I loved my little bug. The upholstery was torn, so I made slipcovers from brightly striped canvas. I quickly mastered the freeway system, and went everywhere I needed to go. It wasn’t until some years later, when we traded in the VW for a Mercury Montego station wagon, that I discovered some cars get more respect on the freeway than others. No longer was I being cut off by trucks, or prevented from making a lane change. Interesting, the social hierarchy of the roads.
Golden fruit clings to leafy branches. Golden-skinned men climb orchard ladders, old metal harvesting pails in hand. Close to the road, a huge billboard: FOR SALE FOR COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT. The scene has stayed in my mind, my first introduction to the landscape of my new home.
I moved, with husband and children, to Cupertino, in Santa Clara County, California, in late May of 1967, just as the apricot harvest was beginning. Between our apartment, off N. Blaney Ave. by Interstate 280, and the nearest food market, on Stevens Creek Blvd., was a mile of apricot orchards. In other directions were acres of cherries, almonds and prunes. The Santa Clara Valley, a fertile alluvial plain, was until the 1960s the largest fruit production and packing region in the world. The beauty of all that spring blossom gave rise to the nickname “Valley of Heart’s Delight.”
The post-World War II economic boom and the rise of high-tech industry changed all that. My husband and I were part of a flood of new arrivals that forced out the fruit farmers and replaced orchards with tract houses, shopping centers, and business parks. It was a bittersweet time. On the one hand the energy and excitement of the new technological advances, the sense of living where the future started. On the other, sadness at the destruction of all those beautiful trees. Among my old notes I found a few lines of a poem I wrote in those early years:
The field is bare now where the orchard stood.
Apartment builders hammer at its brink.
How soon do we evict the meadowlarks
that saunter golden in the rainy dusk,
foraging through weeds by the highway’s edge?
In recent decades, with the growth of the environmental movement, there grew a collective sense that something important was being lost. Efforts were made to preserve at least the memory of that fruitful landscape. In 1994, the City of Sunnyvale preserved ten acres of Blenheim apricot trees “to celebrate the important contribution of orchards to the early development of the local economy” and created an interpretive museum beside it.
The Olson family, whose 100-acre cherry orchard was one of the last vestiges of cherry farming in the area, still retains a few acres of trees and the roadside fruit stand that began in 1899. Owner Deborah Olson commented: “We try to educate people just moving in to the area, who don’t know what it’s all about. They get a sense of place, about how it began here, and they kind of feel a part of the community.”
Blogger Lisa Prince Newman, whose family also moved to the valley in the 1960s, is collecting stories, pictures and apricot recipes from the few farming families still in the valley.
The chorus of Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi,” written in the late 1960s, sums up the sense of profound loss:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
According to archived weather records, the afternoon temperature at San Francisco Airport on Saturday May 20, 1967 hovered around seventy degrees. Fog had rolled in the previous night, but the mid-afternoon sky was clear, with visibility ten miles. As the British Airways plane dropped lower and lower over the waters of the bay, the surrounding hills became visible. Something about the quality of the light triggered a thought in my mind: this is the landscape of home.
It wasn’t the place where I grew up. Tauranga, New Zealand, is 6,500 miles southwest across the Pacific from California. But Tauranga’s distance from the equator, latitude 38 ͦ S, is the same as San Francisco’s to the north. The view from the air of San Francisco Bay and surrounding hills has similarities with Tauranga Harbour. Tauranga’s climate is subtropical and humid; it’s a rare day with no cloud in the sky. Even in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate, with its clear summer skies, the ever-present offshore fogbank spreads a blue mistiness over the hills.
Part of the triggered thought was relief at finally coming back to terra firma. It had been a long flight, twelve hours over the pole from London. The journey had been made as comfortable as possible. The Silicon Valley company hiring my husband Tony had paid for first class tickets. The airline put us right up front, where there was plenty of legroom, and wall space to hook up a crib for our 18-month-old baby, who slept most of the way, sitting up occasionally to exclaim, “Airp’ane! Airp’ane!” The food was excellent, according to Tony. Our four-year-old son and I didn’t want to know. The two of us huddled together, miserable with airsickness.
Sight of the San Francisco Bay also signified something deeper: a recognition that this journey was the start of a new life. We were no longer in England, where the class system had us labeled as “colonials” and therefore outsiders. We were not heading back to our birth country, where the old baggage of family relationships and kiwi social assumptions would reassert their weight. We were free to find our own place in the rapidly growing, multi-cultural landscape of the exciting new high tech industry.
When we moved to England, we were unclear about how long we planned to stay. We stored boxes of belongings in New Zealand, as if we planned to return, and our mindset while we lived in England was that of visitor rather than permanent resident.
This move was different. We were immigrants, Resident Aliens in the terminology of our green cards. I knew there would be culture shock. I had experienced this phenomenon, unexpectedly, our first months in England. I had to drop all the slang I had grown up with, and was unsure how to correctly use English colloquial expressions. (Did to “go up to Oxford” mean to take the train from London or to attend the university? If the former, did one “go up” to other universities too?) This time I knew to expect that attitudes, ways of talking, and subtle social cues would be unfamiliar. Like caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies, we would slowly take on the coloration of our new country.
Among the battered manuscript boxes in my old black filing cabinet, you won’t find the draft of my first novel. It’s gone, the victim of a long-standing conflict for women between the dream of a writing life and the urge to domesticity.
Katherine Mansfield was my heroine and role model. Born in New Zealand in 1888, she too had embarked for England as a young woman determined to make her name as a writer. Through privation and illness she continued to write and publish story collections that made her famous. I could do that too, I told myself.
But there was a variation to our respective histories I had not counted on. In New Zealand before we left, I had given birth to a stillborn daughter. Looking back, I understand that depression fueled by guilt and buried grief over this loss exacerbated the homesickness and culture shock I experienced that first year in England. My unsuccessful search for a writing job did not help. In traditional wifely fashion, I had held off until Tony found work, in a company based west of London, then scrambled, in an unforgivingly tight rental market, to find us somewhere to live nearby. By the time we were settled, a lengthy daily commute into London seemed overwhelming.
I also ran into a catch-22: even though I had been a member in good standing of the New Zealand journalists union, no paper or magazine in London would hire me unless I was a member of the British journalists union, and it was not possible to join that union without first having a job on a paper. When the local newspaper in Windsor turned me down for a posted job because I refused to promise not to get pregnant and ‘waste their time,’ I decided the best thing to do was to start work on my novel and to have another child. I believed, naively, that I could handle taking care of a child and having a writing career. In retrospect, any kind of job would have made better economic sense. We were desperately poor, but the dream of making my way as a writer still held.
I don’t remember much of the plot of that first novel. Two main characters were New Zealand immigrants to England, like ourselves. There was also another couple, and some symmetry of cross-coupling, probably influenced by the Iris Murdoch novels I was reading. I remember feeling uneasy that the plot line was uncovering a sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment in my own life and that I didn’t know how to resolve the story.
By the time we left England five years later, my world revolved around our two small sons. I found it harder and harder to find time to work on my novel. I pushed aside the dissatisfactions with my own life that the novel echoed. In California things would be different, I told myself. I would devote my life to being a good mother. One bleak winter afternoon as we were packing up to leave the tiny house we had bought in Egham, Surrey, I came to a decision. I was alone, Tony at work, our older son playing at a neighbor’s house, the baby asleep upstairs. Outside under a lowering sky, the baby’s nappies, frozen into boards, hung motionless on the clothesline. Inside, a small coal fire burned in the grate. I sat on the floor in front of the fireplace and fed the unfinished draft of my novel page by page into the flames.
Would she be able to watch my toddler for an afternoon while I went to a doctor’s appointment, I asked Margaret, my next-door neighbor in the block of new row houses we’d both recently moved into in 1965. An odd look came over her face, and a blush reddened her cheeks. A pause. “Actually, I have a doctor’s appointment that afternoon too.” Another pause. I don’t remember which of us said it first: “I think I’m pregnant again.”
An easy solution: we went to our appointments together, to the same doctor, taking turns to supervise our infants (her daughter only three days younger than my son) in the waiting room. Our second children were born within two weeks of each other. Another neighbor, Jo, took care of our two-year-old then, while my husband was at work. When Jo had another baby the following year, it was I who minded her two little girls.
Not having family in England to call on for help, I am forever grateful to this sisterhood of neighbors. Most of the women in our little close of twenty houses were stay-at-home mums with small children. We drank coffee together in the mornings and shared how our brains were turning to mush. Our children ran in and out of each other’s houses. We took care of each other.
On the back pages of my English cookbook are two recipes, one for a Charlotte Russe from Margaret and a prawn cocktail from Jo, both classic 1960s recipes. I remember the occasion vividly. My husband Tony had accepted a position in California. We were waiting for our US green cards to come through –a nerve-wracking saga that I’ll write about sometime. Meanwhile, his prospective new boss was passing through on his way home to Denmark for Easter, and wanted to meet Tony. A dinner invitation was obviously required. But what to serve? In a panic, I turned to my sister-neighbors. They held my hand and helped me through planning a menu. Prawn cocktail to start, and Charlotte Russe for dessert. For the main course I probably served roast lamb, a traditional New Zealand staple.
The dinner was a success, though I suspect that the Danish boss, having gotten used to casual Californian ways, was a bit overwhelmed by the formality of it. But he was very gracious, and we had a pleasant evening. I couldn’t wait to share how it went with my neighbors the next morning.
The ring is nothing fancy: a cabochon of amethyst quartz clumsily set in a plain silver bezel. No magic symbols engraved on the back. Yet it is a talisman. Whenever I wear it, I hear in my mind the unspoken message of the woman who sold it to me.
The year was 1966. Knowing it might be our last year in England, our family (husband, two infant boys and me) took a summer trip through England and into Scotland, staying mostly in private homes that offered bed and breakfast. A farm in the Peak District of Derbyshire. Across the Yorkshire Dales to Huddersfield and Keithley, from whence my paternal grandfather had emigrated as a young man to New Zealand. Up to a gray stone village on the moors to take tea with a sweet great-aunt who had married and stayed behind when her siblings left, and whose knowledge of the whole New Zealand branch of the family put me to shame. The Lake District, lowering with storm clouds and redolent with Wordsworthian cadences. A stone circle near Keswick. Hadrian’s Wall, a loch in Scotland. Yellowing pictures now fill a photograph album.
The little roadside shop was somewhere in the northern hills of England, on our way home. A gray, damp day, a gray, bleak building. Nothing much else around. We all needed a break from driving, so we stopped. Quickly bored with the arts & crafts contents of the shop, our toddler and the baby drifted outside with their father. I lingered, drawn to the young woman attendant, who sat at a table threading beads into a necklace. A knitted shawl around her shoulders, long mousy hair falling in a braid down her back. We chatted. She had left an unhappy relationship and was determined to survive on her own.
She had the confidence I lacked. Brought up in a conservative culture and married young, I was struggling with a sense of powerlessness in my traditional wife-and-mother role. There were times I felt trapped, and thought of escaping with the children back to New Zealand. But this would have felt like defeat. Besides, it was impractical. I had no money to pay for fare, no clue about how I would manage on my own once I got home.
My encounter with the woman on the moor was brief. I never learned her name. But the amethyst ring symbolizes an unspoken pact between us. What I gave her was good wishes and payment for her work. What she gave me was confidence that I too could find my inner strength. This is what I remember when I wear it.
Having lived through the experience of applying for a United States immigrant visa, my heart goes out to those who recently trudged through the bureaucratic thickets, only to be turned away at airport gates by Trump’s anti-immigration order.
Every immigrant’s story is different, of course. But maybe telling our story, as documented by my letters to parents during that time, will offer some insight into the process which, even in 1966-67, and even with a US company going to bat for us, was exhausting and nerve-wracking.
Born in New Zealand, we were living in England, where my husband Tony designed and tested disk drives for the rapidly-growing computer industry. He interacted with people from US companies, several of whom had shown interest in offering him a position in the US, where skilled high tech workers were in short supply.
9 Aug. 66
p.s. Have you got my B.A. or M.A. certificate? If so, would you please send them airmail.
A complication was that when we left New Zealand in 1962, we boxed up belongings we didn’t think we needed to take and left them in a friend’s basement. Those friends sold their house and moved, sending the boxes to Tony’s mother, who sold her house and moved, sending them to my parents, who sold … By this time they were (we hoped) with my sister, Evelyn.
22 Aug. 66
Don’t bother any more about the degrees. …we are going to rely on a statement from the university registrar instead. It is for American visa – we need proof of special qualifications etc. to get onto special entry list. However, there is no hurry as yet, as American job is still a mirage on the horizon – needless to say we are both a bit edgy with all this uncertainty.
17 Oct. 66
The property market is very depressed here at the moment … so we can only hope for the best.
We don’t expect to leave until after Christmas anyway. The visa will take quite a few weeks to come through, & Tony can’t give his month’s notice until he gets it.
… After so many months of waiting around, we are finding it hard to believe that it has actually happened.
31 Oct. 66
We had our first viewer for the house yesterday….
You may have heard that we have had a delay over visas – U.S. authorities have stuck over this question of Tony’s degree & they insist on the fancy bit of paper. I wrote to Evelyn last week, so hope she has managed to do something about looking for it. Could you find out how she is getting on? It is possible she may still be assuming that it is in a mailing tube – it ain’t necessarily so – it could be flat in an envelope – or anywhere. Another thought – has she got all our things, or has Mrs. L. still got some? It really is urgent that it be found.
Apart from these problems, things are going quite well. We had a note from the removal firm the other day asking when we wanted them to come in – it seems that everything will be packed for us, transported, & unpacked at the other end – unheard-of luxury!
12 Nov. 66
I suppose you will have heard of the latest little crisis – bloody N.Z. Post Office managed to send the degrees by ship, due to reach us about Christmas! However, it mightn’t be disastrous. B.Sc. sent by Mrs. L did arrive safely, & the firm are cabling the university to send a duplicate of the degree. But it has got to the stage where I am beginning to wonder how much else can go wrong before we actually leave.
15 Dec. 66
…[Have] had another difficult week – actually, I had been putting off writing until we got our affairs a bit straighter. Anyway – on Monday we learned that the visa petition had not yet been filed – they are still waiting for the M.Sc. degree. The ship was supposed to berth yesterday, but as the mails are already in chaos with the Christmas rush, heaven knows when it will turn up. So, having found out where the petition had got to, we thought we might as well check up on the time scale from the embassy. Here we got a horrible shock – we were cheerfully informed that it was going to take five months from the time the thing was filed in San Francisco – don’t ask me how they manage to stretch the red tape that far – that’s just what they said. Contracts half-way through being signed for sale of house – still legally possible to back out – just – but very inconvenient for everybody else, so we are going on with sale, & still negotiating a deferment of the completion date. Even so, we will probably have to find somewhere else to live for a while, which is going to be a bit of a problem. Tony very depressed at the thought of staying at [his current job] for another six months, still waiting to hear whether California are prepared to wait that long.
30 Dec. 66
How up-to-date are you with our plans? The degree has been sent to America, we haven’t heard yet whether it & its associated papers have been presented to the authorities, we have until the middle of April to get out of the house, & the name of someone in the American embassy whom it is possible (possibly) to push to get a visa sooner, and at present are gathering together all the documents (in triplicate) we require, such as birth certificates, marriage certificate, photographs, etc.
18 Feb. 67
I forgot to tell Evelyn that we have received a letter of apology from the Postmaster-General, though no compensation – didn’t really expect it!
Trying to get information about the status of our application proved almost impossible. Before 8:00 am, the phone at the US Embassy would ring and ring. From 8:00 am to 5:00 pm we’d get a busy signal. But finally, one day I got lucky.
28 Feb. 67
You’ll have to excuse me if my letters are a bit erratic in the next few weeks. We have to be out of the house in six weeks, and it is just possible that we may be leaving for America about then. The papers arrived from San Francisco last week. I don’t think I told you that we had the petition changed a few weeks ago, on the advice of the American consul in London. We had applied for 3rd preference – for those with degrees, etc., but the waiting list for this category goes back to last September for NZers – as there are only 100 immigrants a year total [from NZ] and 10% for this preference, this is not surprising. Anyway, he suggested trying for 6th preference – skilled workers not easily available in U.S., for which Tony, being an electronics engineer, would qualify, & for which there are places available now for NZers. So a frantic dash to London by me, to bring back yet another lot of forms to fill in. Can you remember all the addresses you’ve lived at since you were 16? …
15 Mar. 67
The petition has now gone for clearance to Wellington (checking up on our murky past). I don’t doubt there will be another delay, in which case we will have to move into a flat or something here. The estate agent who sold the house is looking for something for us, but I expect we shall have to pay through the nose for it.
We were lucky to find a furnished flat. On April 14 packers moved in and packed our household goods for shipment to California. We took with us only the clothes for ourselves and the two children (ages three and one) that would fit into suitcases weighing under the economy class limit, and borrowed a few items from friends, such as a cot and stroller for the baby.
15 April 67
… The clearances have now arrived… Now we only need a quota number from Washington, a medical check & formal interview, and that is the lot. At least we have this place until the end of May, which gives us a breathing space.
1 May 67
Believe it or not, we now have immigrants’ visa to the United States. We spent all day at the Embassy today. Having got up about 5:30 in order to be there by 8:30 as instructed, eight hours of sitting around – though I must give them credit for having things reasonably well organised, considering the numbers of people they had to get through. We were through the whole rigmarole by about three o’clock, & they offered to post the visas out to us instead of making us wait around with the kids for another couple of hours while they finished the processing – offer gratefully accepted. Actually, the kids were extremely good, considering David’s boundless energy & Simon’s lack of sleep. We were well stocked up with sweets & biscuits & story books, & of course there were plenty of other children to play with…
We are booked to leave England on Sat. 20th May, flying direct to San Francisco over the pole.
My letter of 18 May 67 speaks of farewell visits with many friends. At the last minute I learned that the company was flying us out first class, so I could have had more of the children’s gear with me for the last few weeks. But that was a minor irritation compared with the relief of having the ordeal over with, and gratitude that the Californian company kept the job open for Tony all those months. I wish all today’s visa-holding immigrants and visitors could have an equally happy ending to their story.
Since the election, my husband has been suggesting that we renew our New Zealand passports, expired nearly forty years. Though we are fortunate in having dual citizenship, I am reluctant. I love my life and my friends here in Northern California, and want to stay and fight for what I value. “It’s just an insurance,” he says. Just in case the unthinkable happens.
In this period of political unease in the US, when many have expressed a wish to go live somewhere else, I think back to our last few years in England in the mid-1960s, and how alienated we felt then.
Despite higher economic growth, the UK performed relatively poorly compared to major competitors. UK productivity growth was relatively lower due to several factors. such as:
- Lack of willingness / ability to innovate
- Poor industrial relations with a growing number of days lost to strike action. Some argue this was exacerbated by Britain’s class system.
- Trade unions effectively blocked efforts at reform.
- Lack of public sector infrastructure.
Even though we might have returned to New Zealand then, our lives did not take that turn. In my old black filing cabinet I found a letter to my parents that lays out the situation.
19 July 1966
… [W]e are still unsettled about what we are going to do with ourselves. We did have serious ideas of returning to New Zealand, but I am afraid that is now dropped through lack of interest on the part of N.Z. firms. We are feeling rather sour about the whole affair, especially as N.Z. is always griping about the country’s young brains staying away in their thousands. A year ago Tony made a private enquiry to I.C.T. (NZ) asking about the prospects of getting a job, and did not even get the courtesy of a reply. Then six months ago head office in London offered to arrange a transfer for him. After much prodding, official letters to N.Z. eventually got answered, but in such unsatisfactory terms that no-one knew quite what they wanted. It has taken six months for N.Z. to agree to take Tony, but they have made it plain that they consider he is being foisted on them by London, and that they are still suspicious of him. Their terms are that he is to have a year’s training in computer systems, and not until “they see how he gets on with the training” will they consider discussing position or salary. Since Tony is one of I.C.T.’s top authorities on computer tape, and already has a big general background in computer systems, he has taken this as a not-so-polite brush-off and told them what they can do with the job. If he were in his early twenties, without family, and determined to get back, it might have been different. But at his age—rising thirty is a critical age in his line of industry, since the job decisions he takes now will set the line his career is to take. So you see he just can’t afford to throw away yet another year on a job that might still not eventuate, and would probably be a frustrating backwater if it does. Other computer firms in N.Z. take much the same line—not interested enough to get him an interview in London, just “drop in when you get to N.Z. and we will see if there is anything doing.”
Meanwhile, he is still negotiating for a job with an American firm, which might mean going to live in California, but nothing has been settled yet, We feel it is time we got out of this country—the present economic crisis is just a symptom of a general decadence and backward-looking attitude, and we can’t see any future for Britain.
You mentioned your feelings towards Britain as a spiritual home—I can understand this, and think it is one of the main forces that pushes young people into coming over here. I think it is this thing about historical roots—it gives a wonderful sense of history and continuity to visit places that have been lived in for so long by so many different peoples. But it is necessary to distinguish between this feeling and the present political reality. Modern Britain doesn’t care two hoots about New Zealand—it is either confused with Australia (well, they are both on the other side of the world, what does it matter?) or else N.Z. is regarded as some sort of idealised paradise where it is never rainy or cold, and where they would like to go to escape from reality. As a political or economic entity it just doesn’t exist. And while N.Z.ers continue to believe that it doesn’t exist either, except as an offshoot of Britain, there is not much hope for its future, and the young brains will continue to stay away in their thousands.
Which makes us more or less permanent exiles, at least spiritually. But if we do go to America, it is probable that Tony will be earning enough money for us to afford the occasional holiday in N.Z. I feel very sad that the children do not yet know their grandparents, but that is one of the penalties of our decision. I hope you will understand.
I still ponder why it meant so much, that Christmas morning in England in the 1960s, that a robin sat on the back fence. The field behind the fence was white, the fence wires thick with hoar frost, and the little red-breasted bird made the scene perfect. Finally, I told myself, a ‘real’ Christmas.
I have tried for many years to clarify my feelings about the disconnect between the traditional trappings of the season and my experience of growing up in New Zealand, where the seasons are reversed. My childhood Christmas memories are of summer: the tree laden with oranges in my grandmother’s garden where we hung our presents and picnicked on the lawn; the scent of magnolia blossom outside the church on Christmas Eve.
Also the Christmas cards with their images of snow (which I’d never experienced) and yes, the English robin. I knew about robin redbreast from the old nursery rhyme, but until that Christmas I hadn’t seen one.
Now on the coast of Northern California, I have a different understanding of how to celebrate the winter season. Our multicultural society recognizes many winter festival stories and traditions: the birth of Jesus in a stable, the menorah candles of Hannukah, the Swedish light-bringer St. Lucia, the gift-bringer St. Nicholas (known also as Santa Claus), and many others. The celebration that holds the deepest meaning for me now is Winter Solstice, the return of the light. From summer to winter, I note where on the horizon the sun sets, and how the darkness grows. Even as clouds gather, the place where sun disappears into ocean fogbank moves steadily to the south. When the prevailing westerly wind shifts to the southeast, I know to expect the winter rains. Sometimes a shower or two, sometimes, such as this past week, a prolonged deluge that floods rivers, downs power lines, and closes roads.
Meanwhile, the earliest spring flowers are breaking bud, and over-wintering birds gather hungrily at my feeder: Steller’s jay, spotted towhee, hermit thrush, acorn woodpecker, hordes of white-crowned sparrows. I love them dearly. I am happy that I have learned to understand the connection between the flow of seasons and human efforts to explain them with stories and festivals. And I still have a place in my heart for the memory of that cheery robin redbreast who brightened an English winter.
What I loved about living in England as a young woman in the 1960s was the traditions around the holiday season. On foggy street corners in London, vendors with portable braziers sold roasted chestnuts, hot in the hand, but so good. Butchers’ shop windows would fill with huge hams, neighbors’ kitchens be redolent with the aroma of figgy puddings steaming on stove tops. I would pull down the English recipe book my mother-in-law had given me and assemble ingredients for my Christmas cake: an assortment of dried and candied fruit, spices, juice, eggs, butter, brown sugar, treacle, flour, and the all-important dash of rum.
Making a proper English fruitcake is a multi-day affair. First, the careful preparation of the tin and timing of the baking so that it doesn’t go dry. My Constance Spry Cookery Book devotes several pages to these matters. Then the making of the cake itself. Several days later, in preparation for icing, the cake is brushed with a warm apricot glaze. My cookbook declares:
The object of this protective coating is to avoid any crumb getting into the icing and also to prevent the cake absorbing moisture from the icing and so rendering it dull.
Next comes the layer of almond paste or marzipan, rolled out like pastry and smoothed on with the palm of the hand. A day or three later comes the smooth base coat of royal icing, made by mixing egg whites and lemon juice with the sugar. When this layer is perfectly stiff and hard the decoration is piped on.
When we moved to California, I continued to make Christmas cake for a few years, until I realized that fruitcake in America is the butt of seasonal jokes and that my lovingly prepared cake sat in the pantry scarcely touched. I am grateful that until his death a few years ago, my late brother-in-law Derek Heckler, who lived not far away, continued to bake and share a splendid traditional cake.
As earth and sun roll toward another pausing time, let us remember dear friends and family members now gone, and reach out in love to those still with us. However you celebrate the season, may it be filled with the traditions you hold dear.