It pleases me how much my sons love their college friends. Upon graduation Joe Workforce is wistful, knowing the reality that only a few of these friendships will endure. This has certainly been my own experience but now I value quality over quantity. While driving cross the country I visit an old college friend and another pal I have known since my twenties. I realize now how rare the occasion is for me to reflect back on who I was and what I valued at different stages of my life. With reminiscence I start riffing on how the eighteen year old became a fifty eight year old who is essentially the same person and yet also a completely different being. Ancient friendship revisited brings a bit of focus to the strangeness of this evolution. Although there is also the sense that everything which was once pressing and urgent is now long forgotten. And that inevitably my current concerns and obsessions will soon lose resonance.
I write this from the attic of a cottage in Charlbury Oxfordshire. I met Rosemary when I was seventeen and a student at Johnston College. She was my professor and she has gone from Redlands on to live and study in Africa and South America. Her home base is now a little Cotswald's berg where I have come to look after her as she returns home after recent surgery. I've visited here before but taking up residence I see more clearly what attracted me to Rosemary and why we remain friends after so many decades. The house is filled with folk art and colorful textiles. I was delighted when told to make my bed with linens from The Designer's Guild. If Rosemary weren't much smaller than I, I'm afraid a couple of her beautiful print blouses might end up “accidentally” in my suitcase and if only I could cram my feet into a pair of buttery petite leather Mephisto shoes she might not miss them. The house I live in now is fewer than ten miles from where I grew up but this cottage, 5000 miles away and filled with color and the bounty of travels, is much more in the spirit of my own.
Helen Gurley Brown and her advice for smart women on how to snare a prosperous man resonated with my mother—born in 1920. I read Ms. Magazine, which was first published while I was in high school and my horizons were expanded but the message to “find a man to take care of you,” was so ingrained that finding a boyfriend was more important to me that equal rights. Despite the sugar daddy thing, there was a lot of other stuff my mom taught me that did stick and continues to serve me well. But there were a couple of high school teachers, and then later a few college instructors who encouraged me to value my intellectual abilities and got across the message that a man who is intimidated by a smart woman is quite a useless thing.
My seatmate on the twelve hour Norwegian Airlines flight from LAX to Gatwick doesn't so much as grunt at me. He gobbles his vegetarian meal and then passes out until the flight attendant shoves him awake upon landing. He has bad dandruff but doesn't snore or violate my personal space. I do resent that he is able to sleep soundly while I peruse the selection of bottom feeder films. I start with Reese Witherspoon in the Hallmark-y Wild and work down from there to reruns of sit coms. As usual, the meals I eagerly anticipate arrive and make me nearly weep. It is nearly an accomplishment to create these meals, starting out with ostensibly edible ingredients. I always bring something from home but then feel guilty eating it while those around me are stuck with gristle-y chicken and stale rolls.
The customs agent at Gatwick seems to function more in the interest of nosiness than national security. He interrogates me about my business and the friend I am visiting and why I am staying three whole weeks. The car rental agency is quite disorganized and weary travelers sit on benches waiting hours for cars. I am told that the only car with automatic transmission that's available is a Mercedes but that I'll have to wait fifteen minutes for it to be cleaned. An hour later I am given the vehicle only to discover it lacks the GPS I'd prepaid for. In the confusion of this I somehow drop the case with my travel itinerary and more importantly my passport. Finally, my passport is located and I am given a tiny GPS which I am expected to install myself. I have taped on the rear window a sign that says “American Driver” but make it quite easily onto the highway which is wide and much more clearly labelled than those at home.
By the time I approach Oxford though, fatigue sets in and the country roads and roundabouts confuse me. I drive too close on the left a couple of times and hit shrubs and gravel. There are thousands of motorcycles on route to some event. I get so flustered trying to make a u-turn after missing a turnoff that I am unable to shift into reverse. I suspect that my “American Driver” sign combined with the Mercedes inspires more antipathy than patience and understanding.
Over six hours after landing I arrive in Charlbury and to a relieved hostess. Here I am cooking and tidying and supervising expeditions up and down the stairs. I've chatted up the South African pharmacist and we've compared the National Health program to Obamacare and discussed the evils of the pharmaceutical industry. My American accent has led to curiosity at the local market and they are nearly giddy to learn I'm from L.A. Coinage has changed quite a bit since I lived here in the seventies so, trustingly, I just open my wallet and let my checker figure it out.
There is a heatwave that has even caused some rail lines to suspend service. Shirtless men and women in short shorts complain about the sizzling temperature. The high is ninety four, which is about an average temp for L.A. late summer but here residents are advised to stay indoors until 4 p.m. It cools down the next day. I walk in the morning. Gardens burst with flowers, aromatic like a perfumer's counter. Green fields roll on forever. I take sunny days for granted but revel in the explosion of color that results from the frequent rain the locals suffer through.
I communicate with Himself and boys daily but I miss my dog so much it aches. As if my “American Driver” sign isn't eccentric enough, I advertise in the local newsletter for dogs to keep me company on my walk. I have three responses. My first companion is Riley, an eight year old with a dachshund head and a spaniel body. She is chipper and sweet natured on the footpath. Somehow the presence by my side of another living being enhances my solitude as I amble by ancient stone walls through gentle green hills. Next week there will be Fizz and Dorrit. If I play my cards right I'll have a daily dog and perhaps I'll garner a bit of compassion as I try to remain on the left side of the road in the behemoth Mercedes.