The Things They Gave Me

Myopia, thick ankles, a shnozz. . . these are some of the things my parents gave me. They also gave me food, shelter, an education, and countless lifts in the car. But hey, petrol was cheap, then.

I had reason, today, to stop and think about the other things my parents gave me, the less tangible but infinitely more valuable legacy that I too often take for granted.

Today’s trigger was an article I spotted on (terrific resource, do pay them frequent visits). It was about Eudora Welty (see photo above). I tweeted a link to the story and hit the bookmark button so that I could read it at my leisure. And then I remembered how I discovered Eudora Welty: Mom handed me a copy of the short story Why I Live at the P.O. and said, “Read this.” I did. I’m an obedient firstborn. It was initially tricky for the syntax and style of Southern speech patterns were, at that point, unfamiliar to my young, Yankee brain. But I got the hang of it eventually, and understood that it was funny and wise and that this was an author I’d be hanging on to.

Does your mind tumble from one association to another like a Slinky set down on a step?

All at once I remembered that my parents (and PBS) also gave us Monty Python, making the Flying Circus required Sunday night viewing for the whole family. But the station aired it late, so that particular night – Episode 33, Season 3 – only dad and I managed to stay awake until the bitter end. And then. . .

Four words: Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days.

Five minutes of sheer mayhem and copious quantities of fake blood. Dad and I fell off our chairs laughing, and kept sneaking glances at one another, glances that asked, “Is this really happening? Is it wrong that I’m laughing?” Rick and Ilse would always have Paris, Dad and I would always have a man’s hands chopped off by an errant piano lid, with accompanying arterial spray.*

(This episode also contains the cheese shop sketch, so I presume we were ready for ventilators by the time we crawled off to our beds.)

My parents collectively gave me Great Britain by bringing us here on a family holiday, but my father in particular gave me Durham. I’d always planned on doing a Junior Year Abroad of some description, and badly wanted to spend that time in London. But Dad had spent a sabbatical semester in Durham, a few hundred miles north of England’s capital, and had fallen in love with the place. He encouraged me to investigate their foreign student programme and to apply.

It was an amazing year in an incredible city, one I still adore beyond reason. While I was there I turned twenty, fell madly in love with the cathedral, lost my virginity, went for long riverside rambles, travelled on the Continent for the first time, and made one of the most enduring friendships of my life, which led to other enduring friendships, and to my being the proud godmother of a now 25-year-old-man.

Durham has changed a great deal in thirty-five years – as have I – but I have never fallen out of love with the place. I might not have received that pony I wanted, but how many dads give their daughters a city?

Speaking of books, my mother also gave me Mary Poppins, which is now one of my obsessions. I’d been taken to see the film when it came out, and like a lot of kids ran around the house for weeks afterwards singing Supercalayadayadayada at the top of my lungs. Fed up, Mom turned around and said, “You know the real Mary Poppins was nothing like that! She was a pernickety piece of work.” Then she handed me the book – with the gorgeous Mary Shepherd illustrations – and left me alone with it.

OMG, as we didn’t say in the 1960s.

The real Mary is bloody amazing, and I bang on about her at every available opportunity. (Not now, have no fear.) I’ve read all the books and all the books about it, including critical essays that look into PL Travers’ links to Gurdjieff and mysticism. (You can bet I raced out to see Saving Mr Banks the minute it was released, for like Mary’s creator, I despise the Julie Andrews film now that I know better.)

I guess what I’m saying is that there were many material things my parents could not and would not give me. And yeah, they bequeathed a ton of toxic emotional baggage that I’m still schlepping around. But damn, they gave me some fine cultural touchstones! These few I’ve mentioned are just a sampler. Thinking about it, I realise that in each case they were passing on their enthusiasm as much as their knowledge.

I’m hoping they knew how much it’s meant to me.  How much it still means.

*I have experienced many emotions while interviewing celebrities but John Cleese is the only one who inspired tears. It was nothing he did or said, just that I found myself thinking about how excited my late parents would have been for me. They adored him. So at the end of our hour together I told him just that:

“We were not a very cohesive family, and we didn’t always enjoy each other’s company, but we were unified in our love of Monty Python. You couldn’t say ‘What’s on the telly tonight’ in our house without someone convulsing with laughter. Thank you for that. My folks would have been so excited to hear that I’d met you.”

Then I got a bit choked up and John leaned over and gave me a big hug. To which I could only reply, “Intercourse the penguin!”

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