Butter on Everything

Earlier this week, I met up with my Mom for lunch. The kids are on school vacation so whenever one of these weeks roll around (which seems like every other week in the current curriculum) – we try to make plans to connect the distance that spans us; seeing as how her grandchildren are growing up in a region so far removed from my earlier South Shore beginnings. Simply put, my Mom misses them (and presumably her son, too) so we always make time to break bread – as often as we can.

We had a lovely lunch – punctuated with many tales and lots of laughter – and at one point, we briefly touched on memories of my grandmother, Nellie Louisa Clarke. It was the second time in three days that I spoke of my grandmother, who passed away almost four years ago – on February 28, 2014. A few days before, Colin and I had been visiting my Dad in Plymouth. Colin – ever the history buff and bastion of famous dates – remarked that we were approaching the 4th anniversary of her passing and we weren’t that far away from where she enjoyed her final days. Four years before (almost to the day), she had passed away in Plymouth – close to the coast she cherished so much since she made landfall in the United States in 1946 as a war bride to my grandfather, Ronald Clarke.

Last week, I wrote about the songs that make up your life’s soundtrack. Sometimes you don’t even need music & lyrics to whisk you back. All you need to do is let the world quiet for a moment and your mind will make the leap to whatever treasured memory you have stored for safe keeping. All of this talk of my grandmother put me in the mind of something that happened towards the end of her life; a crazy happenstance connection that was almost too good to believe but absolutely happened at the right time and place.

This one’s a keeper – and one for sharing, too.

I thought for sure I must have written about this at some point but an extensive review of my archives turns up nothing. Now – I’m no idiot. I’m not using these pages to divulge every innermost thought of mine – nor am I ever going to use this site to share every little personal thing about me. We all need our secrets.

But there are some stories that are too good not to share and that is exactly what The Ed Zone is all about.

When I think of my Nana Nell – three things come to mind.

  1. She had the most refined British accent I’ve ever heard (one that she kept with her through all of her days). Every word sounded lovely lifted by her accent.
  2. She loved her family and the Red Sox in equal measure. She never missed a game (Not. One. Game.) and she would tune in to the NESN pre-game show and watch all the way through post night-after-night. When they finally won in 2004, shortly after I had moved westward towards the South Central Worcester area, I immediately thought of my Nana and her dogged devotion for this team that had crushed hearts better than they could fastballs when it meant the most. Finally, they had lofted this win out of the park and straight to her. It was late so I called her the next day and she went on and on about how happy she had been to finally see a World Championship. That joy and elation married to that lovely, refined speaking voice is the call of the game that I will keep with me the rest of my days.
  3. Butter on Everything. Seriously – she put Butter on Everything. Even Tuna Fish sandwiches!!! Don’t ask me why – it’s a British thing. Butter on some things (tuna?) may be a little gross – BUT – “Butter on Everything”?!?!? I guess sometime’s it’s quite a bit rich, too.

My parents came from different backgrounds, although both are technically the children of immigrants. My Dad is an immigrant himself, having been born in Newfoundland and then moving to Canada proper at the age of 1 before heading down to Miami, Florida. I know that a Canadian planting roots in South Beach is a strange route to take, so I presume somewhere around the same time, some Cuban family settled way up north in Bangor, Maine just to bring balance to the force. Eventually, his family moved up the coast (presumably in a bid to find a good hockey town, eh) – and ultimately settled in the Boston area.

My Mom’s father (Ron) grew up near Boston as well and his tale is fodder for a post all its own. All I know is that guy seemed mythic to me when I was little. He was drafted by the Boston Braves (before they moved to Atlanta) but threw his arm out throwing batting practice for the team. He also did some modeling work and ended up out near Hollywood among the starlets for a time. At least, that’s what he told me. And, like most men his age – he ultimately found himself in World War II – where he served as an airman for the United States Air Force.

This is where the story turns and this is also the whole reason for this post. This is one of those “what happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way” moments. An entire family legacy spins out from a chance detour down a random London street. Two roads diverged and fortunately he went the way this story (and my life) needed him to go.

When my Grandpa Ron was a young airman, he was stationed in London. All you need to know about him for this story to make sense is that he was a smooth talker. So smart. So erudite. So effortlessly charming. Everyone loved him. Even in his more mature days, when he found himself chatting up medical staff on a regular basis, you’d pity the poor nurse who caught his gaze because they would end up talking to him for days. That guy had a way with words and was quick to make so many swoon. He was (and is) memorable. A real gentleman – the kind they break the mold after.

One day – while taking a break with a couple of his brothers-in-arms, my grandfather wandered into a London tavern; beckoned by the siren’s call from within. The three guys had been walking down the street when they heard music coming coming from that establishment; a lovely piano piece. My grandfather urged the guys to follow him in so he could linger a little while and find out who was making such beautiful music.

You can’t script this. You can’t make this stuff up. Truth is sometimes so much stranger than fiction.

They entered the pub and immediately he saw her, his future wife and my beloved grandmother, Nellie Louisa Collins (her maiden name at the time). She was playing piano for the troops – something she absolutely loved to do, and a good respite from her job at a munitions factory. She was 22 but like many of her contemporaries had already lived a lifetime – having witnessed history by living through the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. The latter event saw her dashing for safety into subway tunnels as bombs rained down from the sky above. But if life is best measured in chapters, her story (and mine) was about to change for the better in the next one.

My grandfather wagered that he could get that lovely woman to talk to him. Those fools! There’s no way his compadres stood a chance – not with this guy’s gift of gab. So he approached her and began to talk and charmed her with his knowledge of music. From there a courtship was struck and they married on May 25, 1945. A little later, my grandmother gave birth to her first-born, a daughter. While my grandfather still had work for do in the service, my grandmother climbed aboard a ship headed for the states – with other war brides in tow – and made way for a new country and a whole new life.

When she arrived in the United States, she posed for a photo with her fellow passengers and their babies (all British women who had met and married American servicemen) and then headed to Massachusetts to take residence with my grandfather’s family; his French-born mother and Canadian-born father – who shared a home on the outskirts of Boston. She was truly a stranger in a strange land. But she was brave. She had already lived so much.

Eventually my grandfather made his was back from the war and reunited with my grandmother. They moved to South Weymouth, MA where they lived for 45 years – and in that time, their family grew to include three daughters (including my mom, Claudette) and a son (my beloved Uncle Ron). From there came the next generation – who without, you would not be reading this tale.

Flash forward to 2011. My grandfather had passed away a couple of years before and my grandmother was in need of assistance so it was with a heavy heart that the family brought her to reside in a Life Care Center in Plymouth which could provide around-the-clock assistance as she lived out her sunset days. On the first day that she moved in – she met a roommate (Selena) who as fate would have it, was also from England.

My Mom and Uncle got to speaking with Selena’s family and the more they compared their notes – a startling plot twist presented itself. Selena had come to the United Status under similar circumstances as my grandmother. They had both met their husbands in the war. They had both married and had children while in England. They had both arrived in the United States around the same time.

My Uncle knew of a picture he had stored back at the house – a snapshot in time taken as the ship’s passengers – the British war brides – made landfall on American soil. He dashed home to get it and returned to share with the group. My grandmother immediately pointed herself out, holding her child. Selena took one look and spied herself – standing mere feet away from my grandmother. The two women had come over on the same ship under the similar circumstances over 65 years earlier and then went their own separate ways before finally meeting in the same room on the same day.

If it was in a movie, you wouldn’t believe it.

But here it was – an honest-to-goodness amazing twist of fate that saw my grandmother coming face-to-face with her past on the day she needed it most.

When I really think about my Nana Nell and her story, I am completely leveled. I can’t even fathom what she must have been feeling when she boarded that ship and said goodbye to her homeland; headed to a land where she didn’t know anybody. A girl in her low-20s suddenly shouldering all the weight in the world while seemingly making her way halfway across it. It’s staggering and humbling in equal measure. And yet – if she doesn’t make that journey, I cease to be. If my grandfather doesn’t step down the street, I cease to be. So, what happened – happened – and couldn’t have happened any other way.

And once she was here, she hardly went back as there really wasn’t enough money to afford frequent travel. My grandparents were comfortable but not well beyond their means, so once she was in the USA – she was pretty much here for life.

So it comforts the entire family to know that as my grandmother got to the end of her life – knowing she had never really had the chance to get back to England (save for a trip or two here and there over many years) – her homeland came back to her. Over those last three years, she bonded with Selena greatly – sharing her love of the Red Sox with this woman. If you went to visit them between 7 and 10 pm on most summer nights, you better bring peanuts and Cracker Jacks – and you damn well better root, root, root for the home team.

Their dueling accents were a treat, too – with my grandmother offering up a more refined lilt and Selena’s tinged with a bit of Cockney. When I would go visit them, I would say “I’m off to see Adele and the Queen” and those visits were as wonderful as that meet-up sounds.

Four years ago – on February 28, 2014 – we said goodbye to my Nana at a lovely ceremony in Plymouth, MA – using the historic church that is billed as the direct through-line to the Pilgrim’s original meeting-house. That structure stands a couple of blocks away from the Atlantic Ocean – the great, vast expanse that my grandmother returned to so often to just sit, sip a coffee and look out onto the horizon. It’s that wide blue sea that carried her home time-and-time again.

My Uncle delivered a beautiful and moving eulogy that morning; one that recounted this tale and Selena’s role in my Nana’s life – as she came in to play a very important part just when we all needed it most. That’s the type of grace note we should all get in this life.

A couple of days later, I went out with my good friends for our monthly Guys Night Out and we found ourselves playing bar trivia. I had just regaled the guys with this story; punctuated with much fond reminiscence of growing up with such an amazing woman playing such a pivotal role in this boy’s life. When pressed for a name for our trivia team – the group took a beat and decided in unison – ‘Butter on Everything’.

We won that night. Of course, we did.

And here I am now. Four years later. 45 years old. Doing well with much to show for it, in that I have two amazing children and an army of unbelievable friends and family. I’m hiking mountains so I must have my health. I’m still writing so my wits are about me. I’m at the point where a new chapter is beginning again. It’s a blank page and part of me is a little weary of that. Eventually you want to put the pen down for a spell and just settle into your story; to live in it for a long stretch. Well, sometimes life goes the other way, too. So, you adapt. But that’s my ultimate goal – to start this next chapter and let it meander to a happy conclusion somewhere way off in the far-flung future. The type of life my Nana enjoyed.

So, while life tells me I have to get writing again, I have a feeling this next time will be the long chapter and verse. That’s my hope.

And when I think on my grandmother and the courage she showed in coming to a new land without a single friend here – and then I see how she went to town creating a life (and then from there – an entire legacy of lives), I realize the power in second chapters. There is so much possibility and such beauty just waiting to be uncovered.

The page is blank but the story is yours. You’ve just got to write it from the heart.

That’s what my Nana did – for she knew no other way.

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