Our son, Caladon, and I walking up the steps of Fonte Fria in the National Forest of Buçaco eight years ago on our first property hunt in Portugal when he was four; we didn't move for another five years
What does the future hold for our children?
What kind of world are we passing on to them?
What can we do to help them thrive?
Frightening as it is, all of us are guessing at answers to these crucial questions. One thing is for certain, we must be creative and brave in our responses and consequent actions because what worked for our parents and us will not work for us and our children. The rules of the game have changed; indeed, the game, itself, is changing in our lifetimes.
For years, I worked as a newspaper journalist, which paid my rent, while I wrote novels. At American newspapers, there was a camaraderie. Those in the Fourth Estate gave voice to those without one, respected the language and taught the young ones who would take our place.
There was a sense of natural order. Old hands often worked as rewrite people, deftly piecing together disaster stories by deadline from reporters' dispatches via public telephones at the scene. Cub reporters covered the police beat, excellent training for reporting detail and reporting it accurately. When a rewrite person complimented someone on their story, it elicited pride. They had, after all, chronicled history in the span of a newspaper career.
Legends abounded in newsrooms, legendary news stories - the San Francisco earthquake of 1984, the Oakland fire that decimated so many homes, a San Pedro woman accused of hiring a teenager to kill her husband - and legendary journalists - a reporter who wrote about the AIDS crisis before it became recognised as such, a photographer who lived in a cave in Spain, a city editor from Australia who lived in his big American car in the newspaper's car park.
This eccentricity, this differentness was a necessary component of newspapers. With it came a lot of drinking.
One warm and sunny day, an anonymous caller telephoned the San Francisco Chronicle with a bomb threat, a perennial call: "I set a bomb at the paper. It will go off at ..." Jack, the veteran news editor, alerted the newsroom: we could stay and work or go and play for awhile. Most of us played for awhile. When we returned, Jack asked me where people had spent the time. I said that most of us went to the coffee takeout down the street for iced lattes and cappuccinos. He shook his head and said, "Ten years ago, everyone would have gone drinking at the M & M."
The M & M was woven into the folklore of The Chronicle. When an editor searched for a missing reporter, he or she could speed-dial them at the M & M. The bartenders also served take-out drinks in plastic cups for journalists. Those days are gone. The M & M is gone. There are not as many alcoholics in the business now but not as much fire either.
I would be proud to have my son follow in my footsteps. Sadly, he cannot because newspapers are struggling to survive and, in their struggle, have forgotten their calling which, ironically, renders them less attractive to readers.
A fire in our hearts will lead to success: doing our work and doing it well. Economic troughs offer us the opportunity to reexamine our lives and choices, and break patterns. Once again, we can ask, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" As an adult, our answers need not please our parents, friends and teachers. Many of those close to us have died, and death has freed us to be truthful.
What do I want?
I want to live mindfully, writing, loving my husband, raising our son, keeping animals and growing our food. We have chosen the foothills of mountains in Central Portugal as the place to do so.
*** *** *** ***
Ironically, I am a city woman.
I grew up in New York. Both my parents are from Belize, then British Honduras, in Central America. My father, Clive Williams Kirkwood, loosened the tentacles of his respected family and patriarchal father when he was 16 in the 1940s when only a brave few left the country. He sailed round the world as a merchant seaman, spending months in China before the Communist regime shift in 1949. As a child, I loved to rummage through his chest of drawers and scrutinize photographs of far-away places.
After 10 years, he decided to leave the sea. There would have been many conversations among crewman about their origins and their future plans. Daddy joined the United States Army in exchange for citizenship. He spent most of his stint in Germany in an all-black regiment. Like most people from outside the United States, he did not understand racial segregation, hate and ignorance. As a Belizean Creole, racial distinctions could not be black and white; his first cousin and good friend, George, would have been labelled white in the Army because of his fair skin and blue eyes. And he did not understand the speech of the soldiers from the deep South of which there were plenty. Coming from the managerial class of the British colony, he spoke with a received pronunciation accent that must have sounded pretentious, certainly different, to some of his fellow soldiers.
When Daddy left the Army, he moved to New York, to Harlem, the section of upper Manhattan where black folks lived in 1953. He lived in a room in a brownstone, where tenants shared a bathroom down the hall upon whose doors people hammered when they needed use of the facilities. Daddy's family home in Belize City rose an imposing two stories on stilts as a hurricane flooding defense. The house was wood painted white with wooden shutters at all its windows. When a mango dropped from the tree out front, its thud brought him, his brother, Bernard, and sisters, Olivia and Dorla, dashing to retrieve it in the bright morning sun of the tropics. In Harlem, it was January; it was bone-chilling cold; it was barren of the niceties of home.
My mother, Emanda Elizabeth Roberts, wanted more options in her life. From "up the country" or "out district" in Bermuda Landing on the Belize River, she had struggled to escape a life of hard times. As a small girl, she had made stretch-me-guts, cuttobrute and tableta, which are coconut sweets, and sold them on the streets of Belize City for dinner money for herself and younger brother, Paul. She was still a girl when her mother, Vilma, returned to Bermuda Landing and handed over to her daughter her live-in job working for Miss Carrie and Mr. Seymour Vernon, Madre and Padre, and their large and respected family. The Vernons were good people; today, they are still close family friends and have become family.
But as Mommy grew older, she strived for a better future. In her early 20s, she secured a shop clerk position at Brodie's, the only general/department store in Belize. Her job was a coup. Many Belizeans today remember her from her days at Brodie's, and she recalls many from her days on the floor. After working here awhile and at the Vernons, she realised that there was nowhere else for her to aspire in Belize.
She had accepted a marriage proposal which, I believe, even she knew was insurance against the future. She appealed, by letter, to the brother of her father, Edgar, for sponsorship to the United States. Uncle Edward agreed that he would take responsibility for her so that she would never be a financial liability to the U.S. Mommy carried her signed forms to the proper U.S. Embassy office and received approval. Uncle Edward posted her an airline ticket to New York, where he lived with his wife, Wilhelmina, in a comfortable mock Tudor house in middle-class Queens.
In January 1953, the couple brought a winter coat to the airport for Mommy who would have been wearing a jumper to stave off the chill of a Belizean rainy season. It may have been the hostile sub-zero climate. It may have been Mommy's sudden dependence on people in a strange country. It may have been that she had never before left B.H., as some called it. Whatever the reason, Mommy seemed to have become homesick with her first step off the plane. She missed everything about home; there was nothing bad there. Why had she left?
She wanted to go back home.
Even after working with Wilhelmina behind the red doors of Elizabeth Arden, where actresses like Lana Turner and Dorothy L'Amour went for makeovers and saunas, Mommy wanted to exit this American dream.
Then, on her 24th birthday on January 28, 1953, Uncle Edward and Wilhelmina took Mommy out to a Belize dance on Fifth Avenue. She was miserable, thinking about going back home. Homesickness is a kind of depression. Anything, like a birthday or party that normally would lift your spirits, fails to do so. The night was nearing its end, and they were about to leave when Daddy and a friend walked in. Mommy perked up and quickly found out who he was before asking Uncle Edward to introduce him to her.
She said that as they danced their first dance, she fell in love.
They married six months later in June and I, the eldest of five, was born in September of the following year in New York, where I lived for 17 years before leaving for Williams College in the purple hills of the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
*** *** *** ***
My husband, Huw, our 9-year-old son, Caladon and I are in-betweeners, people who have sold their houses and now are renting before buying another property.
We accepted the offer on our slate and granite Cornish cottage in early October. We completed, or sold, and moved out of Trimbles in the Tamar Valley four days before Christmas. We exchanged contracts, or became legally bound, only one week beforehand. So, we were in a tizzy before exchanging, not knowing whether we would do so before Christmas after which business in the United Kingdom would shut down for two weeks, leaving us unable to secure a rental property.
Our solicitors had received requests for two planning documents three times from the buyer's solicitors. Not fulfiling the first request delayed the exchange six weeks later. Why were our solicitors thinking? The documents dated back more than 20 years and, therefore, our solicitors considered them non-legally binding. In response to document requests, they kept faxing back this response.
Because of their age, the documents were not available online. Because of the recent consolidation of North Cornwall and Caradon councils, we had not a clue as to where they would have been stored for safekeeping. Our estate agent spent an hour on the telephone before he found the documents' location. The archivist was kind enough to pull them for us the same day she received an e-mail requesting them. Huw and I drove 30 miles to Bodmin, where they were waiting for us at the front desk
So, on the day we left our home of 15 years, we signed a six-month lease for a three-bedroom bungalow three miles away and a few minutes' walk from Harrowbarrow School, where Caladon is in Year 4.
Trimbles' sale occurred five years after we decided to sell it, four years after we first placed it on the market: four years of keeping our chins up; four years of studying the market and thinking up ways to beat it; four years of constant re-examination of ourselves and our goal of selling up and moving to Portugal.
During this frustrating time, we had many viewings. In the last 18 months with the second and successful agent, we had 49. Most said they loved the house. Some said they wanted a larger garden. One couple had four dogs and four cars. Another viewer said the kitchen was too small; they wanted more of an open-plan layout. A third couple said they lived and worked in Plymouth but wanted the quiet of the countryside, then decided that the house was too far from work.
For many of the viewers, our house was a dream - a daydream - property, a quaint 160-year-old handsome home with no right angles and flush with features - kitchen flagstone floor, a Rayburn stove for central heating and cooking, hardwood windows, window seats throughout, vaulted ceilings upstairs and exposed beams.
Several times we placed second on prospective buyers' short lists, a bridesmaid, not a bride. Most, I am sure, bought modern properties. We realised how much we identified with our home. A rejection of it seemed to be a rejection of us and our hard work in making our house a home. During the four years, our emotions ranged from hurt to embarrassment to anger, and then through the gamut again and again. Friends and family seemed reluctant to mention the house and, when they did not ask, I wondered why they had not asked about what was most prominent in our lives. We were defensive; we were hopeful. Woe to the person who said that if a house is not sold in the first six weeks, it will have a hard time selling. We were in a recession; the housing market had stalled us as sellers, and buyers played the wait-and-see game.
Unluckily for us, we waited one year to put our house on the market after making the decision. In 2006, we had moved temporarily to Chepstow for Huw's 12-mile commute to Bristol. We spent one year doing little jobs on Trimbles such as painting the coal shed door, readying it for the market. In 2007, Trimbles went on the market at a price suited to the previous year when house sellers were profiting greatly. If we had sold the house before we perfected it, I believe that we would have sold it quickly. But who knew? There was no crystal ball.
Our temporary stay in Chepstow endured for the planned one year, then the second possible year, then an unplanned third and a difficult fourth! Trimbles came off the market for six months before we signed in the spring with another estate agent in Cornwall, rather than Devon. We moved back home to work full-time at selling our house. Being there was our best decision in regard to selling; it was our winning decision, more momentous than the hundreds of hours watching television property shows, advertising in the London Time Out and the alumni magazine of Johns Hopkins, where I attended graduate school, and trying to sell Trimbles as a featured property in national newspaper articles.
Before a viewing, we gave Trimbles an impeccable clean, clearing shelves and window seats. We polished the wood floors in the dining room, bathroom and third bedroom with lavendar-scented beeswax; we vacuumed the rest of the house. Our windows shined; our bed linen was fresh. Coordinating bread baking and viewings, which often were delayed, never worked for us. We kept to a regime of making our home clean and tidy. And, of course, the house felt lived-in again, an intangible that viewers sense without knowing why. In an economic downturn, do not expect an estate agent to accomplish a sale without your help in preparing your house for a viewing.
When you are living in the property, you can get rid of an errant hairy spider in the bathtub, a bird that had flown into a window and lay dead outside the kitchen door, a cobweb on a ceiling beam that caught the light before you left the house to the estate agent. All these things happened at Trimbles minutes before a viewing.
Now that we have sold and have the money to pursue our plan of living on a smallholding in Portugal, we are biding our time in Cornwall for seven months while Caladon finishes Year 4 at a school with good teaching and good friends. We also need this in-between stage because what we are looking for is so different from what we had in an extended cottage with a small garden. If we moved too quickly, we would be tempted to buy a similar house with more land when what we want is water, solar energy, hydroelectric power, a wood and arable land.
How our dreams change!
When I left my parents' house, I never dreamed of wanting my own. For years, I fled the notion of ownership which, to me, represented mortgage, compromise and physical stability. As a journalist, I worked in northern and southern California, Virginia and western New York State, an area of thousands of miles. Of these places, San Francisco was the only one I could envisage living in for years and years. There, I rented a one-bedroom house on Potrero Hill, one of the city's 41 hills, with a garden that I terraced and sometimes wrote in. I was happy with renting. I was in my late 30s and living alone though I wanted a family. I was not thinking of passing anything on or of teaching a child how to live by example. I felt young and had time enough. I did not worry about the future because I did not think that it would be a worry.
I was 39 when I met Huw whose concerns were so different from mine. Six years younger than me, he owned a house, a 15-year pension and plans to move up the housing ladder (in fact, he said, he had left it a little late). When working abroad, he religiously paid into his British pension.
He was driven to be financially secure in his old age; I never gave old age a thought.
Together, we brought Caladon into our lives. Children do make you think about the future. Both of us mull over his future world and his place in it. We want him to be independent of forces beyond his control. We do not want him to be affected by the inevitable exhaustion of oil, the increasing scarcity of water, or the rising expense of food.
And neither do we want to be beholden to those forces.
*** *** *** ***
Children, today, are members of the first generation who are not likely to earn more than their parents.
How many times have we heard this? What does it mean?
The same rules do not apply today as did yesterday. Going to school, getting a good education will not guarantee financial stability; education will guarantee broader vision and cultural appreciation.
Education adds another dimension to your life. It makes you a better person because it calls for self-examination and consciousness.
The gifts of music, art, literature and philosophy are gifts which make us rich and keep us well throughout our lives. How thankful I am to my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Conroy, who introduced me and the other 10-year-olds to literature by reading aloud to us after lunch Edgar Allen Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Black Cat". How thankful I am to Sister Marie who introduced me and the other 14-year-olds to modern art through Piet Mondrian's "Boogie Woogie Broadway". How thankful I am to American public radio stations who taught me most of what I know and love about classical music. I have had many good teachers, people who have been excited about their subject matter, generous with their knowledge and respectful of their students' capabilities. I have been fortunate.
Somewhere along the line, people began to equate education with job training and, worse, job certification. It is an unfortunate mistake because once the connection with job acquisition is severed, the logical conclusion is that education is not necessary. Education is essential to individual and societal well-being.
Yet, it is easy to understand how people began to equate education with fortune.
When I first attended primary school at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Astoria, Queens, my schoolmates and I came from somewhere else. Our families had come to New York from the Caribbean, Europe and the southern and poorer United States. The more established families had come from Brooklyn. We had immigrated to New York to achieve a better life. We were first-generation Americans. With our mother's milk, we were fed the cardinal importance of learning. We were hungry. We did not take school for granted. If we had not seen impoverished lives ourselves, our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles gave us a glimpse of them through off-handed comments:
"When I was 10, I had to stop going to school. I had to work."
"I was about five, taking care of my younger brother when a pot of hot water fell over on him. He died."
"I prayed that God would help get me out of Belize because my life was going nowhere."
For most families, school was a luxury for their children. They hailed from places where childhood was eclipsed by necessity. You were not a child for long. And a teenager, what was that, Mommy asked friends. She and Daddy agreed that American children take longer to grow up than their Belizean counterparts.
You cannot pick and choose aspects of America or any other country in which you live; you have to partake of it all.
First-generation Americans are driven; second-generation try to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors; third-generation have begun to forget their way.
Remember the two wretched children in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. One was Want, the other Ignorance. The Ghost of Christmas Past showed the clawing merchant, Ebenezer Scrooge, "a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
"...This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased...."
Education can happen in schools which is convenient and a fortunate opportunity. It also can happen in other parts of our lives. To ensure our health, it should be happening constantly. We should never stop learning.
Daddy knew that travel was a tremendous education; he also knew the work of Poe and other great writers. Coming from a well-to-do family, he could afford to step back and appreciate the humanity of education. Mommy viewed education as formal schooling. Coming from a scrabbling family, she saw it as a means to an end and that end was a job in an office, a white-collar position, respected and one which never dirtied my hands.
My parents supported my formal education; they applauded it. I attended academically strong Catholic primary schools, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and, in Hempstead, Long Island, St. Ladislaus. Then, I chose to continue at the high-caliber Sacred Heart Academy "for young Catholic ladies" in Hempstead for which I helped pay tuition. For university, I won a partial scholarship to the prestigious little Ivy League, Williams College, in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. And for graduate studies, I received a Master of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. near Dupont Circle.
After graduation, I attended the Summer Program for Minority Journalists, a boot camp at the University of California at Berkeley, where about 20 black, Latino, Asian and Native American cub reporters wrote a weekly newspaper which was edited by talented journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and many other newspapers.
I have had 18 years of formal study for which I am grateful. I am not a millionaire, but I am rich in knowledge and with friends who have taught me so much. I have a well of knowledge from which I draw in living my life and continue to deepen as I learn more.
“They can never take away what’s up here,” my father would say, pointing to his head and referring to racists.
Education lasts forever. It will serve you well whether you are working at a florescent-lit desk or in a sun-filled field.
*** *** *** ***
We can have it all.
I deeply apologise to young women today for my generation's legacy for which we worked so hard, withstood bulwark opposition and believed in with all our hearts.
How could equality be wrong?
There had to be a sacrificial group of women who fought for choice and won it.
In shoulder-padded suits, I soldiered into newsrooms where I was one of two or three women out of 50 or more and learned to curse like a sailor and smoke furiously. My friend and editor, Howard Taylor, lit my cigarettes at the Long Beach Press-Telegram as I banged out copy about watching illegal PCP dealing from the living room window of a couple living in a one-time law-abiding middle-class neighbuorhood. I became an "honourable" man.
We wanted to do jobs that we wanted to do. I still would fight for this. The conviction was so strong in us that we did not examine the repercussions. We did not think that other pieces of the puzzle of life would have to change as well. We refused to accept that the changes in our personal lives would be monumental
Let's not fool ourselves any longer. The longer we wait to have babies, the more difficult it may be to have them if, at all, possible. We are born with a finite number of eggs and when we pass a certain age, the quality diminishes dramatically. I will not cite an age and attribute it to a medical source because when a woman is trying to get pregnant, she clings to any information that might give her hope. I know; I was one.
"Your eggs are old," a gynaecologist once told me.
I was outraged. He lacked empathy, but he was stating a fact of life. We cannot argue it out of existence. No matter how clean our bodies are of caffeine and nicotine, and how healthy they are from exercise and good eating, we cannot change nature.
When my husband, Huw, and I underwent IVF treatment, one nurse called me "a career girl", the same as many of the older women there. I flinched at the term "girl". Weren't we past the use of sexist language; I was a “woman”, surely. And the notion of putting my career ahead of children seemed more happenstance than the truth of it. I met Huw when I was 39; we married when I was 40. It had taken me that many years to meet him.
Yet, now, I see that there was some truth in it. For years, I worked as a newspaper reporter knowing that I wanted to write fiction. I figured that my newspaper wage would support my writing. However, in my time of chasing fires, covering school board meetings and piecing together slice of life stories, I wrote not one word of fiction.
My life was chaotic. Although my hours were 10 until 6, I reported and wrote when and where the stories dictated that I do so. Even when I was not actively working, I often thought of stories. Reporting was an intense and demanding occupation. Eventually, I remembered the advice of John, a features editor at the Long Beach paper, who had warned me not to keep reporting for too long. He had echoed the words of several others who also were writers.
Finally, at 30, I covered an education story that led to my first novel and I left reporting. Whether teaching or proofreading or working as a temporary worker, I wrote the first four hours of my day, which sometimes began at 4 in the morning. My only focus was writing. When I met Huw, I was editing mayhem and strife at the San Francisco Chronicle after writing in the morning. My regime had not changed for 10 years.
As for having children, I did want them, but I did not want to raise them on my own. Really, I could not see a way to squeeze them into my life. I was making choices all the way along.
When we were trying to get pregnant, my mother reminded me that when I was a teenager, I had sworn that I would adopt a child because there were so many without homes. I had forgotten my promise.
I did, however, remember that ever since I was a girl, older women had told me to do what I wanted to do before "settling down". I always winced when someone used the expression because it meant the death of me. Who would want to settle down? Women said that when I ceased thinking, traveling, and seeing the world in a flower or a new landscape, at least I had done those things before. It had become second nature for me to push away all things linked to marriage and family.
When Mommy reminded me of adoption, I seemed to have come full circle. Thank God, we did not become pregnant. Years later, I wrote our IVF doctor a thank-you note with a photograph of Caladon and me. When I was in the throes of fighting for new life within me, I could not have imagined writing this.
We live three times. First, we live the experience; then, we have the memory of it, and last, we are able to examine it, that is, put it into perspective and make sense of it. Many years must elapse between the experience and its examination. Of course, we re-examine experiences and come to different conclusions based on new experiences. Life is so layered and so rich.
We can have it all but not in a way that we can imagine before having it.
*** *** *** ***
On our first visit to Portugal in March 2007, it was difficult to find postcards in our two weeks before we returned to Chepstow.
Our first week, we were in the Beiras of Central Portugal, where there were cards in a village near the skiing area, but they were dusty and looked as though they had been there for years. The lack of postcards and the old ones reminded me of Belize 20 years ago before it embarked on a successful campaign of ecotourism..
Yes, we liked the Beiras and will look to buy land there and build a house, maybe two, so that we can rent out the second one as a holiday home.
It is a bit like the Wild West there. That first week, we spent three days with three different “estate agents,” who were Brits who have lived there 12 to 20 years. Two have bought the properties themselves. We met the agents at a bus station of a town, outside a pottery shop on a road between two villages, and outside a café across the street from a hotel. Then, we would climb into their 4-wheel drive pick-up truck or Ford Fiesta to drive to the properties, which were between ¼ to 1 mile off a main road and on a twisting dirt or asphalt private road. Caladon would start laughing when we turned onto these side roads because they gave us bumpy, rollercoaster rides.
The younger Portuguese have moved to cities or to properties on main roads.
We saw lots of steep, terraced properties. Spectacular views! Huw stayed up late into the night thinking about one and how he would get from the lower terrace to the house. He said that when he came up with a ski lift, he figured it was time he accepted that the property was untenable for us.
We saw land that we liked a few minutes from a picturesque village in a gentler part of the Beiras off a tarred road. We would want to buy adjacent properties. But we are not at the point of purchase yet. We have got to sell Trimbles first….
Our second week, we stayed in the Alentejo, which was scenic but flat. Cork trees and citrus. We lost track of time there, probably, because we quickly decided that we did not want to live there. We stayed near where there is a large dam only a few years old. However, it is still much hotter there than in the Beiras, and water would be a concern. In the Beiras, all the properties we saw had their own water, either water mines, similar to caves, or wells, or streams.
So, in the Alentejo, we played hide-and-seek behind cork trees on the 30-hectare property where we stayed in a cottage. And we played hide-and-seek in a huge circle of megaliths near Guadalupe.
The countless storks nesting on tall trees and electricity poles surprised us. The magnificent aqueduct at Elvas awed us. And the marble quarries, lining the road to Borba (known for its red wine) as well as the marble pavements in the town, impressed us.
Caladon found playgrounds in Borba, Vila Vicosa and Evora, which thrilled him, and bought pottery (a cereal bowl and mug) in Redondo with his birthday money from his grandparents.
Our self-catering cottage provided us with a tranquil base from which to discover the natural beauty, antiquities and treasures of the area. Every morning, Caladon woke to play with the dogs, about 10 of them, and then walk them in the afternoon. He had a favourite, a Labrador called Mel (honey in English) and a second favourite, a springer spaniel called Monty, short for Montgomery. However, his favourites expanded with each of our days there.
A good holiday and the beginning of a different life!