England came to me…
For an entire year, I prepared to be sixteen days in England. Carefully planning each day. Layering my compact wardrobe for the chill and damp of autumn. Leaving room in my carry-on bags to bring a little bit of England back with me. Why England? To conduct research for my novels and to meet some very dear people who, by chance, happen to be my relations.
When my ticket was ripe, I skipped on planes until came at long last to England only to find that England had come to me. Just as any British hostess, she brought out her best and shut behind her courteous graces the tiresome and arduous season that had battered her before my landing. The Olympic-sized, jubilant year that tromped hoards of celebrities, celebrants and gala organizers through her gardens, halls and primetime schedules were sufficient excuse to wilt her welcome. But she turned from the exhaustion of the summer of 2012 to my appointed days and gave her autumnal best to me.
England had borne flooding and rain-drenched skies from May through September. But for my October she provided cloudless blue and sunlit photo opportunities. Her trains ran on time, her subways kept up and her byways were without mishap, as I went this way and that. Guest houses, public houses and great houses stood ready for my pleasure; rewarding me with many more docent insights and willing conversations than a mere off-season visitor should expect near the end of a very busy Jubilee year.
When my sixteen days were spent, my luggage bulged, my camera burst and my heart overflowed with far more than stories, photos and mementos. For, unlike most who came to her in 2012, England unlocked more than her doors and gates, she displayed more than her stately diadems and resplendent autumn leaves; she let me into the part of her from whence I'd come four generations of my mother's family tree ago.
In 1855, a young man, Thomas, the eighth-born of Pryce Jones' ten children, tore himself from his family and congregation in the west of the midlands of England and 'removed to America'; never to return. He fared well and eventually grafted himself into a new life as farmer and minister in the soil of Moundville, Wisconsin.
I'm glad Thomas' venture worked out well. But part of me wishes he'd stayed home in Coverland, Hereford, England. I could imagine myself living there now, very happily. Fortunately, he left behind a single thread that survived for four generations to reconnect me with my distant branch of British kin. And they, being the best of people, invited me to stay.
The story that united us is quaint but not uncommon. After perhaps as many twenty-five years apart, Thomas exchanged letters with his elder brother in England; praising and giving news from each other's homes. Two folded pages, dated August 1881 and signed 'from your brother Thomas Jones,' were kept by an English family for over one hundred years. When the letter was discovered, in 2001, far-off cousins some in England and some in North America reached across the Atlantic through the thin gap of the internet and found that they were long-lost relations.
What is important to me is that the reach to reconnect us came from England and not the other way around. Seldom is family history researched from the mother country forward into the lives of family branches descended from an ancestral line that 'strayed.' Usually, the mixed ancestry of Americans or natives of other nations once colonized by Victorian England is sorted out from the immigrant's perspective. When the century old letter from Thomas was discovered by a descendant of his sibling he knew nothing of an ancestral uncle that left England to seek his pastoral dream in America. Fortunately, the word 'brother' was not made to rest another generation.
It touches me that those who stayed where my ancestor once belonged initiated the search; like the biblical shepherd who left his flock to seek the single sheep that wandered. If not for Vivienne and Diane and the rest who took the trouble to confirm the letter, I would have lost something of immeasurable value. I never would have known the treasure of my English relations nor been able to experience the very land our ancestors once called home.
Back to England…
In the last days of my October 2012 English ramblings, I enjoyed the comfort of staying in my 'new' cousins' home on the old Roman road through the village Leintwardine where Thomas once walked and commerced. I shared tea in nearby cousins' sunny conservatory with a landscape-quality vista, before walking up to Coverland, the home of Thomas' birth. And I shared stories before and after a splendid Sunday roast, a feast for the prodigal son I represented, with another cousin living next door. In short, I 'caught up' with relations, much like Thomas' extended family might have done.
My modern cousins showed me where our forefathers were born, lived, worked, recreated and were likely buried. I walked paths that Thomas may have walked and marveled at what remained from his day. I like to think that Thomas would have been very pleased I went to his home country and he would have been just as grateful as I was for the welcome I received.
Now, I have a permanent place on a four-foot wide ancestral chart between the descendants of Thomas' brothers and sisters. My fourth cousins opened a place for me in their homes and hearts as well as beside them on the family chart. It eased my homecoming nerves greatly. They graced me with patient interest as I blabbered about the silly life I'd led in a far country they had visited and no doubt privately shook their heads at as a place or way to live. Often, I feel the same, particularly in a presidential election year.
I did not wish to wear out their welcome so I kept secret that what I truly longed for more than returning to England was to never leave. It may sound dramatic but there was so much more to see and do that, at near sixty, I'm not sure I could have gotten through it all in my lifetime even if I had the means to try.
Why letter writing is better than texting…
It all comes back to a two-page missive my fourth great grandfather wrote that his brother saved in such a way that none of his descendants dared to discard it. Without that century old letter I would have come and gone merely a well-spent tourist that burdened England for sixteen lovely days in autumn. But for a single letter, I might have been just another American woman with only family rumors that any part of Britain had ever been my gran-cestors' home.
What if the letter had been lost or never written? What if it had not come to the attention of two sisters with a strong interest in family history? What if the mish-mash of oral tradition could not be rectified with conclusive records that proved the connection? I would, of course, still be literally related to England but she would not know me.
I like to think that England somehow knew I'd found my way home. Perhaps that was why it did not rain much the first sixteen days of my October with her. I am back in America now, wishing I'd left a better first-impression and hoping I'll get the chance to improve what England saw of me.
It was well that I went to England, but it was far better that England came to me.