Corona Chronicles XXIX
Toby and Cassie, Co-Editors of Corona Chronicles
Photos by John McClenahen, Swanville
Belfast Bay and beautiful spring flowers from John’s garden in Swanville
Mont Blanc, taken at 12,000 feet above Chamonix, France.
“Never measure the height of a mountain until you have reached the top.
Then you will see how low it was.”
At age 18, I was working as a receptionist/shorthand-typist at Johnson & Johnson and feeling independent, footloose and fancy free. I lived with my family on the South coast of England in Portsmouth, which is a large naval port. Our house overlooked the park that was adjacent to beautiful rock gardens that extended to the sea front. I spent a lot of time on the beach walking my dog or in summer just hanging out. I watched ocean liners heading towards Southampton or back out to sea and thought how exciting it must be to be on a liner sailing to America, the Caribbean, the West Indies, or anywhere for that matter. Portsmouth was nice but faraway places were calling. Shipping lines must need secretaries, what if I got a job with P&O? I scoured the help wanted section of the Sunday London Times until I found an address for P&O and wrote for an application form. Several weeks later I received a letter thanking me for my application, but they regretted to tell me that applicants had to be 21 years old to work for P&O. Would I consider re-applying when I was 21?
In 1960 the British government was still paying passage for people to emigrate to Australia and New Zealand. We had studied both countries in school and I had been particularly drawn to New Zealand. It sounded green, lush, beautiful, and you are never far from the coast. What if I emigrated to New Zealand? I could get there for only £10. I tracked down the address of the New Zealand embassy in London and wrote for the necessary papers. The application forms were numerous and onerous in the detail they required. My parents played it cool when I told them I wanted to go and live in New Zealand, but soon began a subtle campaign of finding other alternatives for their daughter with itchy feet. New Zealand was sounding too far away at a time when travel was very expensive and international telephone calls had to be booked days in advance.
Back to the Sunday London Times and the international help wanted ads. Jobs of all kinds all over the world. I decided to concentrate on America – at least that was closer to England than New Zealand. I pulled out the world atlas to try and find the cities where jobs were available. Most jobs required a two-year contract. What if I ended up living in a city I didn’t like? What if the job did not meet expectations, or the people were not friendly? Two years could be an awfully long time. In spite of my optimism and joie de vivre, those became big ifs.
My father was an anesthetist and was very involved with the care of people who had contracted respiratory polio in the 1950s. He was in charge of the respiratory polio unit for the south coast of England. Through his work he was in touch with Gini Laurie who lived with her husband, Joe, their ten Siamese cats and two Basset Hounds in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Gini was a wonderful lady who lost two siblings in the polio outbreak and ended up dedicating her life to working with the disabled. In one of his letters to Gini and Joe, my father mentioned that his younger daughter had itchy feet, was trying to get a job in America, and did they have any suggestions. They wrote back and graciously offered to sponsor me to come to Chagrin Falls and to help me find a job and get settled. I did not realize until a few years later just how huge an offer that was. I was thrilled, I was going to America! My parents were relieved that Gini and Joe were in the picture and I would not be floundering around on my own.
The paperwork required to emigrate to America was daunting and took months to complete, but eventually my application was submitted, and the wait began. I don’t remember how long it took to process the application but I’m sure it was a fraction of the time it would take today. One day a formal looking envelope arrived in the mail from the American Embassy in London with instructions to come to the Embassy for an interview at a certain time on a certain day. I was so excited; this was the last hurdle in the maze of bureaucracy. Oh, happy day!
With green card safely in hand, I booked a third-class berth on the Queen Elizabeth sailing out of Southampton on October 18, 1962. This was followed by weeks of letters back and forth to Gini and Joe asking endless questions that they patiently answered. Sometimes at night when I was lying awake the fears and doubts would start creeping in and I’d get a little afraid. But in the morning light all was well with the world and my plans continued. One thing I was worried about was what to do with my horse, Martini. I kept him at livery at a stable where I worked in part payment for his keep. I could not afford to keep him there after I left England. I would never sell him, so I had to come up with something. Fortunately, I was able to make arrangements to board him with friends who kept their horses at home.
Leaving the country was a great excuse for all sorts of celebrations, getting together with distant friends, last visits to family members in other parts of England, parties with colleagues and friends, and lingering dates with beau. I packed and re-packed my suitcases and left my job at Johnson & Johnson. I spent my last few days riding Martini and getting him settled in his new home.
October 18th was clear and bright. As I stripped my bed I wondered when I would sleep here again. I had never been away from home or family for more than a month and I pushed back the shadow of fear that niggled the back of my mind. I looked at the clock many times that morning and, like my mother, tried to stay busy. My father came home for lunch. My mother had cooked a lovely meal, but I could not eat very much, I was too on edge. After we did the dishes, I dragged my two suitcases out to the car and managed to stuff them in the boot. I returned to my bedroom and looked around the empty room. I looked at pictures on the chest of drawers of Martini at horse shows, in his stable, rolling in the paddock. I thought of the day I had ridden him to our house, and he had followed me into the kitchen. I was going to miss him.
The drive to Southampton was uneventful but, perhaps not surprisingly, we drove round and round the perimeter of the docks trying to find the right gate. Every time we went to the Southampton docks my father would complain about the lack of signs. Eventually we found the right gate and the right dock, parked the car and hauled my suitcases to the customs shed. With formalities over we stood on the dock a little incredulous at the size of the Queen Elizabeth tied up in her berth only yards away. We watched big cranes loading cars, luggage, and freight. It was amazing how much stuff was disappearing into the holds. There were also several conveyer belts carrying luggage and supplies that disappeared through big openings in the side of the ship. Conversation became harder the longer we stood there and soon my mother said I should probably go aboard and get settled in. Thank goodness for youthful exuberance and lack of awareness of how big this step was that I was taking. We said our goodbyes and I handed my ticket to the good-looking steward standing at the bottom of the gang way. I started up the gang way and turned to give my parents a last wave. My father stood straight and stoic as always, my mother was wiping her eyes with her handkerchief.
Another steward greeted me as I stepped on deck and offered to show me down to the cabin that I was to share with another person. We went down many flights of stairs and each deck we passed was less fancy than the last. The third-class cabins were way in the bottom of the ship, very small and furnished only with two bunks, a small wardrobe, and one drawer for each person. The bathroom was somewhere down the hall. I had to remind myself that this was luxury compared to steerage accommodations in previous years. My luggage had not yet made it to the cabin, so I went back up on deck to see what was going on. I looked for my parents, but they had gone. I imagined the house would feel very empty and quiet after all the activities of previous weeks. While standing at the railing watching the hustle and bustle, a middle-aged American man in a brown polyester suit and loud tie struck up a conversation. He asked so many questions and pretty soon pulled out his wallet and started showing me all his credit cards. Having never seen a credit card before, I was very unimpressed and couldn’t understand why anyone would carry so many bits of plastic around in their wallet. Maybe he was just trying to be friendly, but he was too much for me, so I moved on.
A couple of hours later the sirens sounded and people on shore started to wave as the tugs nudged and pulled the ship out of her birth and we glided out of the harbor into the English Channel. As we passed Portsmouth, I said a silent goodbye. Now it was my turn to be on a liner sailing out to sea, destination New York.
Now that I’m the mother of two 30-somethings, I can appreciate what courage it took for my mother to send her younger daughter off to another continent at age 20. I thank both my parents for their love and support in helping me to achieve my dream of living abroad.
Written in 2007
Thoughts for the Day
The times are urgent; let us slow down
Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light.
Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.
~H. JACKSON BROWN JR.
Courtesy of Gratefulness.org