Dear Dad

I don’t know every detail of the full story. Just the important ones.

Sitting in some room somewhere, no idea where home was or wasn’t for having travelled too far from it to know, and almost done with your time in the United States Army, they asked you to join an elite tactical division of Special Forces. The Cold War was beginning to thaw, your time serving a country to which you did not officially belong was coming to a close, and I imagine what they offered you was tempting.

I always pictured you, a still-young man, sitting in a plastic chair in a room with flourescent lights and suspended ceilings, perhaps somewhere in Germany where you served most of your time, a Sergeant telling you from across a table that they wanted you. Telling you all that could mean for your future. I always pictured it as a short conversation because of the way you told the story: short, sweet, and to the point — “in, out, done, gone” as you would say in my childhood as we ran to the grocery store or similar errand, as though this decision of yours was nothing to dwell on.

I don’t know how long you deliberated over that decision.

But I know why you chose “no, thank you”, snapping a photo of your dirty, worn-out standard issue boots in the bin on your last day as you packed your single suitcase up from your years of service and headed instead for college.

You decided that no man has ever seen enough of life to act on high-tier, morally-complicated orders without a second thought, and that decision was respected.

I think you knew, ultimately, that entering Special Forces meant that you would have to carry out whichever high-tier, high-stakes orders you were given indiscriminately of your view of right and wrong. You weighed this in light of the worst possible scenario and the best: knowing that while you had already demonstrated the ability to do take orders, but that, had your superior required it in a special operations task force, you would have had no choice but to kill, to drive, to do.

I have seen your choice follow you as the shadows I watch flicker on your face peel away at your stoicism — the way you looked at the television screen, unblinking, as CNN replayed the falling towers in September of 2001 — again. And again. And again, like bullets every time. Mom, preparing me on the drive home from my middle school’s resulting early-dismissal “Just letting you know. Today, your Dad wishes he were still in the army. Be quiet when we get home, understand? He’s hurtin’, boy”.

These days, I see the contempt which underlies your countenance as you watch poison gas take the lives of children, as refugees die senselessly, as world leaders bandy about with their fingers on the button, disgracing the two folded flags already lining the shelves of our home.

Many days I wished I would grow up to have served, just like you, but saw that you had chosen a different path for a better reason. I by no means think you dwell on what it would have been like if you had said yes. But for the moments when you do, know this.

Thank you for your service to our country and for your service to represent what that truly means: standing behind the nation for the role you are committed to without following blindly. Thank you for saying ‘no’ when saying ‘yes’ held strong potential for compromise of the right thing to do.

Thank you for saying no.

And thank you for being my Dad.

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“We’re Here For A Good Time, Not A Long Time”

This week, my grandfather, Dr. Ronald T. Abbott passed away. He earned his medical degree at the University of Glasgow, and his father, Dr. Sydney Gilchrist Abbott, earned his veterinary degree at Glasgow Veterinary College (which would later become part of the University). As a young man, Grandpa loved fast cars, his country, beautiful women, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, and dogs. As an older man, he loved fast cars, his country, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, his dogs, and a beautiful, tender and kind lady who cared for him until his last.

Ronnie B & W 1956.jpgGrandpa was a rabble-rouser, an adventurer, and was always busy with a new object of his focus and affection, motorized or otherwise. At twelve, I heard about his adventures riding his motorcycle from Iowa to Tierra del Fuego, at fifteen, of his adventures to Alaska and close encounters with bears. At twenty, he sent a short story about the time he mistook a brothel somewhere in the wilds of Mexico for a hotel. And no, he did not speak Spanish. Throughout those years, he had a habit of showing up out of the blue (usually in a different car each time), waltzing in with a belch, a smile, and a “hi, Dearie!”, typically in that order. Seeing him was never boring and was frequently a delightful break from ordinary days.

He was, at times, an abrasive man, but was a man who thought clearly with an evident sense of charisma and confidence which carried him through life effortlessly — going through a reported approximated eighty sports cars in five years in addition to airplanes, dogs, and motorcycles. The impeccable Scottish brogue didn’t hurt either.

At the peak of his medical career, his personal choices, career, and life path often took him away from the responsibilities fathers often encounter at bedtime — checking for ghosts in the shadows, reading, and telling bedtime stories — but my own father was never less grateful for the happy times they did share despite. I would ask that he tell them, in all hilarious detail, over and over as I lay down to sleep on nights when my mother was teaching a late class at a local University. Dad would always repeat the same ones.

I would beg for more stories of this ultimate reckless adventurer-leader — camping in Yellowstone and hearing the dogs fighting with bears as the camper rocked my father and his brother, being stalked through the woods, fishing for dinner, and my Dad, riding motorcycles across the great plains with his .22, being chased by bulls — but would, more often than not, come up empty. There was a finite supply of stories to tell, and I had heard all of the ones my father wanted me to hear. I wanted desperately to have these adventures — the three of us — on our own. Grandpa was an easy character to idolise.
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But Grandpa was still busy ticking things off the list of adventures to have, and I respected that. My father painted him as a character in a story book — Mr. Toad from the Wind in the Willows was a favorite parallel, always looking for another wild ride and always captivated by the sights, sounds, and smells of a clean engine. I came to admire and adore this feature of him — for his absence was in fact a distant presence as this character, off to seek more stories, and I learned early to appreciate this from a distance.

But where Grandpa was still busy with his adventures, others filled the void. A wonderful neighbour, Professor Kent Newmeyer, came into our lives, and is always there to listen and share stories (he will probably never know how much this means to me).  My father gave up his own adventures (of which there were many) to check for ghosts in the shadows of my room, read bedtime stories, teach me to whittle, to work on cars, and take me fishing or to the flea market.  I dreamt up adventures of my own. And Grandpa was still there, too — a character to admire and adore.

The night he passed away, the streets of Glasgow were eerily vacant as if bereft of the normally-lively spirit of the population. All the pubs were empty but one, appearing equally sombre from the outside, in which an impromptu, ten-piece fiddle and cello band enjoyed some drinks while playing a lively melody to what seemed the entire population of the city. I couldn’t have known, but as he passed, I sat in that Glaswegian Whisky bar and knocked a few scotches back with an elderly, politely-vulgar Glaswegian man (with certain disdain for the English) with whom I spoke for hours about politics, culture, and current events. I thanked him for his time. I explained that Grandpa was passing and how much a simple conversation meant. We talked and laughed until the bar spilled onto the streets and bequeathed back to Glasgow the fervor it had been missing.

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I was his first-born grandchild, and I will forever respect him for the gifts he gave to the people I love and cherish: humour, adventure, and a love for the parts of life a Glaswegian cab driver named Stevie best described when he once told me “we’re here for a good time, not a long time”.

Whether right or wrong, we often pursue things in life to seek the pride of those we love, or to otherwise fill the spaces which are, to some extent, unfilled either due to our own flaws or the flaws of the characters in our lives. In seeking the adventures I have seen thus far, I hope only to have achieved the pride of my Father, for everything he has sacrificed, so that I may pursue my own ‘Miss Toad’s’ adventure.

So, if you partake, knock one back tonight for the man who in is part responsible for my globe-trodding — and if you don’t, picture my Grandfather staring at you, belching, and bluntly asking “Why not?” in perfect Scottish brogue.

 

“How Van Met Phyllis” – Piece Featured by Edge of Humanity Magazine

I am excited to share the release of my second featured piece with Edge of Humanity Magazine, a website specialising in photoessay, documentary photography, investigative cultural journalism, and memoir. As the second installment of an ongoing memoir and photography project, I visited Curley’s Diner in Stamford, Connecticut — where my maternal grandparents met in 1948 — to explore their love story, and in the process, explored the diner’s historic past and cross-cultural significance to more families than just my own.

This is a much more personal project than I am used to sharing and I’m honoured to have it receive such audience. I am so grateful for the amount of love I have received as a result of this story and send big thanks to everyone who takes the time to give my work a read, keep up with and / or interact with me, and of course, to Edge of Humanity for the work they do to give writers and photographers such a suitable and honourable platform.

Read more about The Ruby Slipper Project here and be sure to check out Edge of Humanity for some incredible articles, photoessays, and much more. To read the original blog post, click here.

A New Page for ‘The Ruby Slipper Project’

In late 2015, I began an investigative photoessay memoir project which aims to explore the stories told in my family from one generation to the next. Until I feel it is finished, I will be traveling across the world, seeking out an immersive experience of my family’s most poignant, funny, heartbreaking, weird, and beautiful stories with the hope of inspiring others to do the same. The more frequently we do so with eyes open, rooted in an emotionally-sound connection, the more prone we are as individuals and as a society to cultural acceptance — something which cannot be undervalued in the current politico-social climate. And the shoes… well, there’s a story for that, too.

The new page will serve as a cohesively-flowing home for the project in its entirety, and new installments will still appear on my blog as usual. If you would like to follow my journey and work in its entirety, please follow my blog.  Learn more about me or drop me a line here.

How Van met Phyllis: Curley’s Diner, Stamford CT, The Ruby Slipper Project

Has anyone ever told you you have bedroom eyes?” He leaned in over the counter of the tiny diner and set down their food as her big brown eyes darted back and forth. For the confident, handsome, thirty-four-year-old veteran (a line cook for now), this interaction was easy, comfortable. For her – also a veteran, and savvy, but with a giddy laugh she never was very good at holding back – the interaction would have been a little less comfortable: she was on a date with another man. But my grandfather didn’t seem to care much.

That is the spark-flying story of how Van met Phyllis – the story of how my maternal grandparents met. Hers was an extreme caricature of a position many women have encountered over the course of history – whether to follow the head or the heart. She followed her heart, and like their memory, the diner still stands today.

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The year was 1948, and Curley’s diner in Stamford, Connecticut had been open for seven years, about the same number of years Van Gordon Evans, a southern gentleman with a strong jawline and an incurable sense of confidence, had called the north his home. There was instant chemistry, and through a series of events she never fully detailed, they were married six months later with their first of three baby girls arriving ten months after that.

My grandmother had an affinity for diners – frequently calling us from the land line of a local joint she had spontaneously arrived at to see if we would like to join her for a coffee, one of my greatest regrets in life is the one time I declined to join her on one of these occasions. But more often than not, we would end up in a booth at a diner, having a B.L.T., and talking about life: the future, the past, and the present. It was in those diners where I got my first sense of the world around me, of the community we lived in, and where she passed to me her unabatingly street-smart sense of class. Frequently, she spoke out against things she felt were wrong if the time arrived, but more frequently, she complimented that which she saw as good for the world. I gauged her reactions to the world around me partly in diners just like Curley’s, and in so doing, she taught me when to speak up and when to shut up.

Their courtship would have taken place as the height of Country-Western, Latin, and Big Band music led up to the birth of rock n’ roll. Most of their dating activities happened in and around the Southern Connecticut area where she had spent the latent parts of her childhood after immigrating with her family from Italy at the age of eight. But Curley’s diner is the stand-out landmark of their love story – itself as imperfect and inescapably charming as their relationship. The neighbourhood surrounding them abounded with visual disparity even then between the ‘rich’ sides of town and the poor, ramshackled places struggling with crime, violence, poverty, and drugs.

The diner was empty when I arrived, and admittedly, sticks out like a sore thumb in the heart of the increasingly gentrified Stamford, Connecticut, which in its efforts to beautify the neighbourhood has gone largely in favour of a more classic turn-of-the-century style. Skyscrapers and parking garages spring up all around, and construction sounds ring out in a clamour from behind the tiny parking lot, but inside there’s just silence. Across the street, town efforts to transform the neighbourhood into a bustling downtown are succeeding – it is a portrait of gentility with carefully restored brickwork and particularly-chosen lampposts. Black, Hispanic, and White workers can be seen ducking between the shadows of the buildings, working on construction crews while well-kempt Black, Hispanic, and White families enjoy the appeal of the restoration efforts below, driving into the city for a day of shopping while locals are an interesting mix of privilege and pain. But Curley’s is a quirky and quintessentially authentic New England diner, hosting senators, congressmen, and actors – DeNiro even filming a part of his film “Everybody’s Fine” at the counter.

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I love your shoes.” The waitress says in a very matter-of-fact way as she swings by the table. “Thanks! There’s actually a funny story about that – it’s kind of why I’m here”. I explain my Grandparents’ story and the shoes’ significance, hesitant at first and admittedly taken aback by the interior which looks more seventies than fifties despite the iconically original sign which still stands on the roof outside, but I am welcomed by her directness and interest. When I explain my grandfather’s opening line, she laughs and exclaims with great joy “I’d probably date him, too! And the Wizard of Oz is my favourite movie. Love it.

Opened by Herluf Svenningsen, called ‘Curley’ for his golden locks in 1941, the diner has been a stubbornly-steadfast icon of Stamford for decades, changing hands in the seventies after being bought by Maria Aposporos. It has, literally, made it through hell and high water: surviving everything from the flood of 1955 which left southern Connecticut drowning, to gentrification efforts which would have liked to do away with the diner entirely.

In 2007, then Stamford City Mayor and now Connecticut State Governor Dannel Malloy’s Urban Redevelopment Commission’s efforts to seize the diner under Eminent Domain in hopes of replacing it with an apartment complex lost to Aprosporos in a hard-fought and very public Connecticut Supreme Court battle garnering attention from everyone from The New York Times to CNN.

Curley’s didn’t ‘fit in’ with the sleek gentrification plan for Stamford, and the ground upon which it rests was valuable. It gives off an anachronous vibe: clashing heavily with the art deco style taking over the newly renovated downtown with its fifties charm and even more out of place seventies interior. Aprospros fought back with a card as political as the one she was dealt, using powerful alliances and the press to establish security on her investment – after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight government claims of Eminent Domain, the battle ended in Aprosporos and her sister Begetis saving the decades-old piece of history from destruction.

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Aprosporos, a Greek emigrant with thick white hair and friendly eyes whose accent is as steadfast as her commitment to the diner, has garnered plenty of attention and support from Republican politicians and community members as a result of her public battle with Malloy, at one point supporting Tom Foley’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign for Governor in 2010, and serving on the Republican Board of Representatives in years prior. During his campaign for Governor against Foley, Malloy would later cite her involvement as a political move and claim no involvement in the Urban Redevelopment Commission’s decision to attempt to seize her property in Stamford.

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Typically, the Connecticut Democratic Party’s constituency are proponents and defenders of arts, culture, and humanist ideologies, and gentrification projects tend to reflect the democratic majority’s reverence for the arts and historic integrity, even across party lines – Willimantic, Connecticut, once much more of a heroin hotbed than it is today, has made strong and continuing comeback efforts in recent decades, presenting a swinging comeback which regards the area’s original features and historic value.

Today, restaurant is an unapologetically authentic homestead for the family clan – Maria and her daughter chat away in Greek as they serve the community. As she directs her staff, she carries herself with the wary sensibility of a street-smart mother, as though watching carefully for the next political move which may jeopardise the integrity of her legacy. She carries with her the wariness of her generation, looking out for her diner like a child from behind the front counter, ducking in and out of the kitchen in her apron.

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An African American woman and her son walk in mere moments after I take my seat – right across from the doorway my Grandfather may have walked out of so many decades before. In the quiet diner, she thwarts the boy’s requests for ham in his omelette order, explaining that it would cost more than they had — $0.50 more, to be exact – and that she had to eat, too. As they settle in and prepare to order, the waitress, who has overheard from the kitchen, comes forward to take their orders.

Excuse me, ma’am, not that it’s any of my business, but I overheard part of your conversation. This is the best value on the menu” she points at the menu, explaining the volume of food for one order. “Let him get what he wants. I’ll make sure you have enough to eat. I’ll put the extra dollar in.” She leans down to the child, shyly looking over his menu. “What do you like to study in school?” she asks. He responds happily, explaining in fragmented sentences his love of math, science, and community. He’s gotten loads of awards so far this year. He’s an area local, it’s clear he has no Daddy but he’s too young to mind, and he likes ham with his eggs.

Some time passes and a local comes in, greeting the waitress with a hug. They ask each other about business and he sets about getting some lunch. It’s the authentic place for the ‘real’ Stamford residents to come, where on the other side of the street, wealthy shoppers frequent the attractive, restored storefronts.

“Let me see if I can find something for you… Ma! I’m goin’ out for a minute” The waitress disappears into the parking lot. Moments later, she returns with two items: an old article from the Stamford Advocate featuring the diner’s story for me, and a toy truck. I pour over the collection of images, and information, and naturally, order a B.L.T., then watch as she takes the truck to the boy. “Santa told me you’ve been good this year”, she says, stooping down to deliver the gift. The boy graciously accepts, and the waitress returns with a smile, saying “you keep doin’ good in school, okay?” as she walks away.

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Curley’s diner represents a community through several parts of a very diverse whole, the underlying current of mankind uniting despite political, social, or racial differences to convene for one purpose: to enjoy some really good food and have a chat. Greek, Italian, Scottish, and Black culture, Liberal and Conservative, converging in one space with no animosity. Naturally, conditions are not always this idyllic, but for today, it was peace incarnate, and my Grandmother’s affinity for the American diner was alive both through her story and her legacy of acceptance. Their marriage was rife with differences – some more innately curable than others – but they loved each other, so they dove right in.

Maria represents a demographic which came to American in pursuit the American dream: much like my own Grandmother’s journey from Italy, and a demographic which is still very much alive and well today, but one which is challenged by hyper-conservative immigration reform proposals and adjacent media firestorms. When big business got in the way, Maria accorded with whichever political side could aid her in moving forward with her dream. But even with her conservative allies, she has not lost her socially liberal ideologies; serving food to the poor, sometimes lending money to regulars, and welcoming everyone, from white collar workers to prostitutes, to eat at her table. In the wake of the election, relations are tense even in the ‘quiet corners’ of Connecticut – but the American diner is still even ground on which to have a discussion or to learn about life from a stranger.

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Diners and community gathering places like them are hotbeds of human interaction: in them, we meet people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world. Frequently, they are tied to the romanticised ideals of American road-tripping, and frequently, that is an accurate connection, with travellers visiting from all over the country and the world. They provide common ground upon which ideas and differing philosophies can duke it out, ground upon which humanity’s most basic interests stand, and a chance for minds and hearts to meet. My grandmother’s view of diner meals as an occasional luxury was due to more than just her depression-era frugality: she saw the educational, humanist value to the interactions which took place within them.

I speak with Maria on my way out, talking about her experiences owning the Diner and the transitions which have taken place over the years. But charity isn’t new to Curley’s – in fact, Maria explains that the extent of their charity – feeding the neighbourhood poor, hungry, and prostitutes, had sometimes exceeded thousands of meals a week. She explains her battles to secure her business, her plans to eventually renovate, to keep improving, and to restore the building to a more original 1950s style: big dreams which transcend her age or any battles she may face in future.

I’m planning to fix the sign” she explains, sounding almost sheepish. But as her daughter chats with the young boy’s mother in the background of our conversation, watching the young boy play with his new truck, Maria has no idea how perfect her diner already is.

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Sources Consulted:

Some important sources consulted for anyone looking for basis to references made. It is important to note that all of these sources have been considered in light of their potential biases and most analysis within this piece has been made on the basis of interview and experience. Big thanks to Curley’s Diner for such a wonderful afternoon and for sustaining such a beautiful memory in the hearts of many people. Great food, too!

http://www.courant.com/politics/capitol-watch/hc-christie-to-appear-at-diner-where-owner-clashed-with-city-malloy-20140923-story.html

http://www.stamfordhistory.org/ph_1002_n3.htm

http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fsb/fsb_archive/2007/04/01/8403853/index.htm

“It’s Not About the Shoes”: The Ruby Slipper Project

Turn it off”, she said, almost in a whisper. It was one of the bad days nearing the end, and the frustration was bearing down on her in ways her cancer had robbed her the ability to express. I could hear the tears gathering in her eyes, but she ensured I could not see them as she turned away in the bed which took up most of the available floor space in the already-cramped living room.

My mother made her swift and decisive way toward her, weaving through furniture and boxes and plastic cups, books, and folded napkins balanced precariously on footstools, through the living room in which my maternal Grandmother, Phyllis Granata Evans, was living her last.

The colours and light levity of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ had burst through the barriers of fate onto our living room television screen – a screen blacker and less dramatic than the silver one upon which she would have first seen those dancing, vivid depictions of lovable characters and yellow brick roads reminiscent of the gold-paved streets her family had sought in coming to America from Italy so many years before. It was one of her favourite movies, and something she and I had shared for years.

Something about it all had long captivated both of us for as long as I could remember, and more times than I could remember, I on her knee in her coincidentally ruby red velvet armchair, I kicked together the heels of those shoes three times, and as promised, I was home. The vibrant colours, the vivid imagery, the powerful, understated simplicity – it was beautiful.

We would delight for hours on end in Judy Garland’s character – and as we watched together, so she became a silver-screen embodiment of Gram. That same strength and the class of its delivery, the bravery in standing up humbly with what knowledge she had, acknowledging fear, and those big, brown doe eyes. Judy Garland had been every little girl’s idol in my Grandmother’s day, surely – but only I was lucky enough to know a real-life version. We knew the lines by heart, though after the first or second time, I was really only watching her. Her undying, enduring fascination with the film reflected a great reverence for life and a joy besides which she retained to her last.

As soon as I was old enough to ask, I received and cherished my own “ruby slippers” – a plain pair of red leather Mary Jane shoes bows on the toes which I wore at every available opportunity. Gram was always the first to remind me to click my heels together and say the magic words which would get me home.

            Cancer had also robbed part of her ability to communicate in her trademark, descriptive way, and the resulting directness was always a bare, minimalist version of what she really wanted to say and a reminder of the way things were ‘before’. But in her typical grace, she drove the disparity between communications past and present with great competence and careful consideration, crafting her responses thoughtfully but quickly in order to make the most of the changes like an artist working with a new medium.

Like a dance, my Mother’s agility and competency under pressure were among the only things she could give to ease her dying mother’s finals days, and she gave them freely with that singular goal in mind. Mom turned the television off at the end of an abrupt series of motions and with it, my childhood entered its final phase. “You want it off, Mom? Okay, she wants it off; Caroline, where’s the remote?” The screen went black, and then there was silence.

In my own attempts to ease our communal, hovering state of dread, I had been the one to surreptitiously stumble across those slippers, and like Dorothy, had found an unwanted assignment as my Glinda departed. Like my Mother, it was all I could do – flipping through channels, contributing to day to day goings on – all I could offer to our dying matriarch whose self-educated grace had held our family’s seams together even at their most vulnerable. And especially then. I was incapacitated by my inability to help, or to control the rapid passage of time like so much sand through some wicked witch’s poison hourglass.

At the time, I was newly seventeen with plenty of the less endearing characteristics that brings, a petulant teenager prone to frustration and misdirection thereof. But she, of course, ever tolerant in her aged wisdom in her mid-eighties and having lost none of her astuteness to the disease which had rendered her housebound and living with us in our already-cramped house, had not lost her ability to recognise that petulance.

Once, as my Mother and I concluded an explosive, nonsensical argument concerning the criminal misplacement of my high-top Chuck Taylor shoes – too close to the radius of the front door’s inward swing – she consoled my overworked mother, saying with wisdom and understated humour; “Sandra… It’s not about the shoes”. For the years of her absence to come, both of ‘her girls’ – my Mother and I – would cite that line like a ruling from the Geneva convention, mandatorily preceding the apology for each regrettable argument of similar calibre. She was “Mom”, she was “Gram”, and she had our number until the last.
This time, it was too great on the compressed emotions of a moody high school senior – we would not watch our movie. We could not watch our movie, and that meant that things were not normal. I didn’t press the issue because I saw her pain, and so I saw her pain as it became ours. She did not want to show the sadness she would otherwise have been incapable of hiding, she wanted to hide her sadness to remain strong. She couldn’t bear to see us see the effect it would have on her, to see her in the pain her brain tumour never delivered due to its merciful placement. I did understand. It would – and had – become a sad thing. We would never watch ‘The Wizard of Oz’ together again.

Perhaps she remembered the last time we watched it together where I had forgotten it without realising its value. Perhaps she wished to keep it in her memory for its pleasantness or more frivolous circumstance. Perhaps the memory of me on her knee was too valuable to replace with these unhappy circumstances.

For years, I couldn’t grasp the emotional magnitude of her request to simply turn it off, her concession to privately experience her emotions where I denied myself the same experience. I noted my Mother’s swift follow-through and tight-lipped silence. I reeled in shocked silence, I grasped at the absence of experience, thoughts swimming in a sea of vacant space bereft of the familiar comforting songs and joyful imagery, a shock like the missed step of a staircase. I walked myself through it a thousand times.

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We had sat together in the silent living room on days just like that before, but there was never a lack of movement and life about her like there was in the moments which followed that decision – whether reading or watching my parents go about the day to day, flitting from work to chores to family time to sleep and back again to start each day, she faced the future as boldly as she had lived her past.

She died on a quiet morning as Mom and I slept on the floor next to her bedside in the living room – only after looking up one last time to be sure we were there, together. Mom put on Israel Kamkawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow / Wonderful World”, and to this day, I can’t listen to it without crying every tear I held in during her illness. Her soul left her body on the holy ground she had built – she had given my parents a place to raise me in her tiny nine-hundred-and-fifty-square foot home which now hosted her death bed.

The days following her death were first years, then moments, and finally seconds. Time has since quickened the course of the hourglass, only slowing down for moments in which we choose to acknowledge memory, and within those moments, more are made.

At first, her absence made home an impossible place to return to by its original definition. No matter how many times I clicked my heels, no matter how many times I closed my eyes and said the words (figuratively and sometimes in desperation, literally), I couldn’t seem to get ‘home’, and my spirit sunk. For the years which followed, and as the world threw me to the wind as it does many young people, I searched for a path by which to return to it wildly, incensed at its evermore present inaccessibility, not understanding how to return to what I would only understand to be an intangible concept after leaving it.

I felt at home only when I lived within the memories she shared which so had made our own memories as a unit, and therein her laughter would surface in my memory at last. The bitter moments of her absence would teach me that, while you really can’t go home again, the power to do so truly is within you just as it was within Dorothy.

Three years after leaving the town in which we said our goodbyes and two after leaving the state I had called home for over twenty years, I came into the belated but clear understanding that home was not a place to return to – it has no familiar qualities, no tangible way of entry, no key which directly signifies its locked up return address.            Home is the construct of memory alone, of relayed generational experience, and critically, at the centre still, anecdotes, stories, and oral tradition. We are each the construct of innumerable overlapping fractured pieces represented only by the retelling of memory and buried if not cared for – the stories which make it across generations and ages which perpetuate not only our personal and cultural identities but our sense of family and so, home. Those memories transcend genealogical significance or pure cultural pride and themselves hold the power to unite the entire human race through the commonality of this overlap. A tale of adventure from one city to the next – a snippet of someone’s life passed down over generations will reveal coincidence and irony evident only to later generations, proving global citizenship and unfolding a valuable story to understanding our humanity.

My Grandmother was a champion of liberal ideology: she won her open-minded, humanist intellect through self-bought and hard won education. She was flawed as all human beings are, but she was strong, kind, persevering, educated, and all the things I aspire to be. She believed in equality for all, she listened to all, and she cared for all, and through her stories, she imparted these values on all who knew her. Her journey through life embodies the experiences which become stories and so build the house upon which a ‘home’ stands.
Our remembrance of family stories is of integral value to broad-scale cultural acceptance in a world which desperately needs reminders of it. Within these stories, proof of cultural overlap abounds, proving both multiculturalism and global citizenship at their most deeply-rooted levels – and proving to be a powerful tool in gaining ground on cultural acceptance. No person belongs purely to a single race or culture but instead are each the construct of every culture which has, even minimally, touched our own, and within our stories, those cultures deserve recognition. It is critical to our acknowledgement of ourselves as cultural beings to examine and revisit these stories, memories, and to embark on our own journeys towards self-discovery so that we can, in turn, contribute to the cycle. To place our pride in people, not in place, is at the centre of our ability to understand ‘home’.

I can’t go home again – not to the place I knew, because her final lesson has divorced me from my faith in place and instead seen me place my faith in time and memory. Home is all about me because of what she taught me. But nearly ten years later, it’s just about time to symbolically watch that movie together.

We are living in a world which could have benefited greatly from her presence, and so, in her absence, I found a pair of modern-day ruby slippers, and for the next year, I will be undertaking a project which aims to document the stories in my family through travel, photography, and writing – travelling all over the world in these shoes on a pilgrimage which acknowledges my own origins and exemplifies the global citisenship of humanity through story to prove that there really is ‘no place like home’ in the hope that others will do the same.

This is a journey through life in her shoes, viewed through the lenses of love and will to learn through which she saw the world. It exists to exemplify the confluence of cultures in our lives and to honour her memory by illustrating the multicultural facets which construct each of our life stories. And yes, Gram, you’re right…

It’s still not about the shoes.

The Parlance of the Brave: “Of Course I Believe In Fairies”

I grew up with the fervent admonishment of ghosts, werewolves, and vampires — but my Father frequently and vehemently reinforced the absolute validity of the existence of fairies, or as they are commonly called in the United Kingdom, “Faeries”. He explained that they were good, but playful and sometimes naughty, and were present in places they found to be suitable homes. It was implied as well, heavily, that they were most comfortably present, in his view, in the presence of kindness and peaceful respect of nature.

Ronald Abbott Jr. and Caroline Evans Abbott (Dad and I), c. 1994

The connection between the Scottish culture and the ‘wee folk’ is a well-documented element of our myth structure, and of course, each has their own interpretation of the mischievous creatures. But my Father’s interpretation of this particular element was made entirely his own by his creative drive — it seemed almost that the rationalism with which he conducted other elements of my tutelage so beneficially would abate with absolute certainly for this topic and few others.

Ron Abbott Jr. and Sydney Gilchrist Abbott, Grandson and Grandfather enjoying the water
Ron Abbott Jr. and Sydney Gilchrist Abbott, Grandson and Grandfather enjoying the water

The setting sun on a calm evening in the home I grew up, in which bells from the church in which my parents were married could be heard as the sun set against a backdrop of my Mother’s gardens and cobblestone walk indicated the approach of bedtime and always provided an air of magical beauty, but on this particular evening, my Father hurriedly gathered me in hushed tones from the interior of the house. As we crouched along the south wall of the house, he quickly explained in whispered words which I recognized to be of critical importance:

“There are fairies outside under the forsythia hedge. I saw and heard them, and you can see them too but we must be very quiet. If they hear you, you won’t see them. And as soon as they hear you, they’ll go away.”

His tone implored my remembrance of this occasion, and with all of the might of my four-year-old mind, I did my best to engrave all of what followed in my consciousness as though a future, adult version of myself had provided a guiding hand through the fog of childhood.

We crouched against the west wall just past the old and rusted oil tank, his arms encircling me to keep me from approaching the delicate creatures. In silence, I barely breathed as I stared at the piled leaf litter beneath the thick forsythia hedge. My commitment to the task of watching was so intense that time seemed to dissolve as it passed. I was mercenary in my attention as time was lacking both the ability to tire me and to sway my focus. Moments passed and I heard the motion of leaves in the thicket.

Gradually but with fairly consistent progress, I saw leaves within these piles moving, lifting individually, one by one, but not as if by wind. It looked as though a dozen tiny trap doors were slowly being opened, and I could almost see the tiny hands forcing them upward. As if by magic I began to hear their trill and windy little voices, chattering softly and in ever-increasing quantities, lyrical and melodious but concerned; seemingly consorting with their neighbors as to whether or not the cover of twilight had provided the requisite conditions to at last emerge.

Losing the maturity with which I had reserved my excitement in moments prior, I lost myself, exclaiming with glee and in that moment, I witnessed each leaf fall — each trap door in a flash descended in unison with a hushed and rapidly-stifled exclamation of surprise and fear from the little voices. My father was neither upset nor surprised, and in his typical fashion took the consequence of my excitement as part of life but was sad to see them go, encouraging me that the take-away value from the encounter had been that there would always be proof for their presence for the rest of my life: he had afforded my own analytical nature the ability to believe in magic. We walked back to the house and I am certain I had sweet dreams that night by virtue of the excellent imaginative fodder.

Ronald Abbott Jr. Fishing
Ronald Abbott Jr. Fishing

In the days and weeks to come, I frequently left offerings under the forsythia hedge, putting my china tea set out in all weather filled with honey and milk and cookies. Often the offerings remained after having put them down, but many times they vanished in the night. I kept open eyes for them at every possible occasion. On every walk in nature to this day, the corner of my eye is devoted to scanning the leaf litter in hopes of again finding them there.

Many years later, the day before Father’s Day and just after my graduation from college, I was preparing for my departure from the pastoral beauty of my childhood home. I walked the edges of my driveway alone in the fading sunset light, tracing the leaf litter along the sides of the pavement with my eyes and expecting nothing unusual when something caught my attention. There, a few feet away, a leaf lifted and a solitary green light grew brighter in the fading light every moment. As I approached, it sank, and the light faded. Upon examination of the area, I could find no natural source — neither insect, nor wind, nor Father to be seen. I scanned the area in the darkness one last time before returning to the house.

He bestowed upon me for the duration of my childhood and life (among other critical things) the existence of a love of nature and belief in magic therein for which I can never repay him. In the revelation of that suggested magic, I sought it through childhood and adulthood through my worship of it — walking in nature silently, taking nothing away which belonged to it, and demonstrating the attention to detail which the forest so thoughtfully puts in to making certain that each leaf is just as beautiful as its sister. One shared memory had, in this way, incentivized my pursuit of experiencing nature for the rest of my life, revealing magic and providing an eternal appeal to the absolute truth that all is not known. On weekends, I can be found climbing waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada or fishing outside of Lake Berryessa, always remembering to silently respect the leaves upon which I walk for fear of disturbing someone’s home.

Caroline Evans Abbott, Sierra Nevadas, 2016
Caroline Evans Abbott, Sierra Nevadas, 2016

A true gift of a father is one who highlights the magic of the world, encouraging its experience, in hopes of imparting upon the child the importance of not losing sight of these wondrous qualities when they reach adulthood, such that they are both better armed for the world’s bad days, and better served to contribute to the world’s good days.

His dedication to communicating the wonder of childhood which he had never lost the ability to see himself created the person I am. Childhood is the parlance of the brave, and thusly is spoken in adult rhetoric by only the bravest.

I seek to be the bravest in the image of my Father, and so I can state in patented Ronald Abbott Jr. fashion,

Of course they’re real, child, we’ve seen them. I’ve already told you this. Of course I believe in Fairies“.