Thursday, May 26, 2011

One Mystery Solved

If you've followed along with recent posts, you know that I have been trying to solve some family mysteries. (See May posts: The Kindness of Strangers and Family Mysteries).  Well, I haven't solved the biggest one, which is "Whatever Happened to Arthur Simm?" That one will take a long time to unravel - if we ever do! I can report though, that I have solved the mystery of what boarding school my mother was attending in England when she was evacuated to Beaumaris, Wales at the start of WWII.

The Liverpool Blue Coat School,
 looking much less intimidating than
in days of old!

The combined help of Jackie from the Beaumaris Town Council, Tony from The Blue Coat Brotherly Society, and Rachel from Liverpool Schools led to being able to confirm that Mom was a student at the Liverpool Blue Coat School from 1937 to 1939. This was a "charity" boarding school for orphans and fatherless children. The entire school was evacuated to Beaumaris, Wales at the start of the war.

As part of Operation Pied Piper, more than three million schoolchildren were removed from major English cities and sent to the country - ripped from their families and placed in foster homes. Some stayed only for a few months, but others were parted from their families for the duration of the war - five or six years! My mother was already separated from her family - her mother was in the U.S. working as a governess, her father had run off (making my mother a "fatherless child"), and there she was, a 14-year-old American-born girl alone in an English boarding school.

While my mother's childhood had been one of disruption and abandonment to this point, the evacuation actually gave her an interlude of freedom and happiness. She was placed in a nice home on the waterfront in Beaumaris, with a kind older woman who had a maid. From what Mom wrote later in an essay about her experience, it is clear that this was one of the happiest times of her life so far.

Finding Mom's school means that we may now find  people (alive!) who were also there at that time. They can tell us what it was like to be a student at the school. Perhaps someone will even remember Mom. We might find someone who was evacuated with her. I'd like to find out what house she lived in and with whom, in Beaumaris.

It's a wonderful moment, filling in this huge missing piece of our puzzle. It opens up a whole new world - Are there photographs of the school and students in 1939? Is Mom in any photographs? What was the school like then? Was it Dickensian, with a stern headmaster and a Nurse Rachet-type matron? Did my mother have to wear those odd half-Amish/half Junior Nun outfits that I've seen in pictures? Can I see my mother's report card?

What else will we find out?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Being Open to the Possibilities

Something happened at the yoga studio today that I want to write about.

The teacher for the mid-day class is away this week, so another teacher subbed her class. It's a Level I/II class, which means that students will begin to learn some of the more advanced poses, such as inversions like handstand, headstand and shoulderstand. Because they are learning, students aren't expected to be proficient - each one will be at a different stage of the learning process. With handstand for example, some may only be at the point of learning where to place their hands on the floor and lifting one leg in the air. Others may be trying to kick up. And a few may get themselves up there for a terrifying but exhilarating two-and-half seconds.

Anyway, about two-thirds of the way through class, one student came out and started packing up her things. I could tell she was in a huff. She said, "I want to give you some feedback about the class. I always come to this class because we never do inversions and today we did two different ones."

I said, "Okay, I understand and I'm sorry you didn't like the class. But in a Level I/II class you should expect to be starting to learn inversions."

She said, "Learning to do them maybe, but not DOING them!" And she stormed out.

I stared after her thinking, but how will you ever learn to do them if you don't try doing them?

We all have our favorite yoga teachers, and it's normal to sometimes sigh with disappointment when we get to class and see that someone else is teaching. I know, because I've been there myself. But after a while I learned something important: Every time I stayed to take the sub's class, I learned something new. Even if I wasn't crazy about the person's style, there was always something, some instruction that got through to me in a new way, some new variation on an old pose, some useful insight about the practice that no one else had ever given me before.  And so I learned to get over myself and be more open to the gift that was being offered.

Yoga teachers, like all teachers, show up to give of themselves for not very much monetary reward. I don't mean to be too judgemental of this lady today (just a little judgemental :-) because it's such a human thing to want things to be the way we want them. It's just that I'm thinking more about this teacher who made the effort to prepare what she hoped would be a good and challenging class, and showed up to share what she knows about yoga. 

And it  makes me want to put out this plea for us all to be a little more grateful for that, to be a little less focused on getting what we think we want, and a little more willing to let go, open up, and perhaps trust that the gift that is being offered may actually be even better than what we thought we wanted. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Family Mysteries

I'm on a mission these days, to see if we - my sister, brother and I - can solve some of our family's mysteries. If you read my previous post, you know we are close to finding out what boarding school my mother was at when she was evacuated from Liverpool, England to Beaumaris, Wales at the start of WWII. But we have an even bigger mystery that we have been trying to solve for far longer: What ever happened to Arthur Simm?

Arthur was my mother's father. He and my grandmother emigrated to the U.S. around 1920 and lived for a while in Nutley, New Jersey. Arthur was a ship's steward, and through the Ellis Island website, we have seen documentation of his crossings between the U.K and the U.S. He was listed as a duty officer on the Aquitania and the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria during 1921 and 1922.

Around 1933, when my mother was eight, Arthur left for good. Grandma said he was a "rake" and unreliable. She implied that he liked the ladies and to party. But we don't know if he really was a louse, or if that was just Grandma's story, because Grandma had a lot of stories. If you read my "G" post during the A to Z challenge, you'll know that my grandmother, Gertrude Waghorn (yes, really, Waghorn) was a difficult woman.  It's possible Arthur couldn't put up with her.

What we do know is that Mom never saw or heard from her father again. She always wondered if he just didn't love her, just didn't care enough to try to see her. But we have always suspected that if he had tried, Grandma would have run him off. If she thought he wanted to see Mom, Grandma would have punished him by not letting him, she was definitely like that. And in those days, you could get away with it.

I remember that Grandma told us that Arthur had died in an earthquake in San Francisco. But we are pretty sure that was just a story she told so they could eventually declare him dead. Later, she said he died while fishing in a river, and they were a few other stories too. Mom remembers her Uncle Fred (Grandma's brother), saying that Arthur's best friend had seen him alive. The trouble with that generation was that they were big on keeping up appearances, and they would go to great lengths to do so. They could really keep a secret, and they were good at making up cover stories.

From time to time we've tried to solve this mystery. My sister has looked on, and you wouldn't believe how many Arthur Simms there were/are! We have so little to go on - he was born in 1900 in or near Liverpool. A age 21, he was 5'10" and weighed about 150, according to the ship manifests. No social security number, no known addresses.

For all we know, Arthur Simm did die in an earthquake in San Francisco. Or, maybe he remarried and had a whole other family. We just don't know. But since I am having good luck on this whole evacuation to Wales thing, we are feeling encouraged that we might somehow solve this mystery too. I think that our best bet is track down Simm family members in England. Enough time has passed, and Arthur is certainly dead now - one way or the other - and so there's no need to keep the secrets anymore. The worry though, is that by now, the secrets have all been lost.

I'm wondering if any of you have ideas about how we might proceed with this kind of search - other resources, websites, organizations. Better yet, do you know any people named Simm? Or, better still, do YOU know what happened to Arthur Simm? That would make it so easy!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Lately, I've become a bit (okay, a lot) obsessed with finding out more about my mother's experience as an evacuee from Liverpool, England to Beaumaris, Wales on the eve of WWII. During the first four days of September 1939, more than three million English school children were evacuated from major cities like London and Liverpool to smaller towns and villages throughout the countryside of England, Scotland and Wales.
Beaumaris Castle

My mother was born in America, but my grandmother had sent her to live with family in England when my grandfather abandoned them. But the family couldn't manage the responsibility, and Mom ended up in boarding school. When she went to England she was eight, and at the time of the evacuation, she had just turned 14.

When I was much younger, Mom talked about her boarding school (straight out of Oliver Twist) and her evacuation to Wales. But when I was younger, it didn't seem as interesting or important. In recent years, when I would have loved to hear her talk about it, Mom had Alzheimer's. So it was all lost.

When going through Mom's things, we found an essay she had written in 1940, after she returned to the U.S. In it, she described the evacuation and the idyllic 10 months she spent in Beaumaris. She was billeted with an kindly older woman whose home faced the waterfront of the Menai Strait. Knowing the sadness and loneliness of Mom's childhood, I instantly wanted to know more about her time in this beautiful place where she had experienced kindness and been so happy.

But how could I find out with whom she stayed and where they lived? I didn't even know the name of the Liverpool school she'd attended. I thought that finding the school would be key to finding other students, still living, who had been evacuated to Beaumaris with my mother. Perhaps they would remember her, and perhaps they would know with whom she had lived.

So I decided to attack it from both directions - from Liverpool to Beaumaris and from Beaumaris back to Liverpool. I googled everything I could think of. I found the Beaumaris website and sent an email to the town council email address. I found a book about the evacuation, called Goodnight Children Everywhere, and then found the author's website and emailed her. I wrote to the Liverpool Records Office and asked how I might find out what school my mother attended.

In a matter of just two days, I have made a whole bunch of new friends over in the U.K! The folks in Beaumaris offered to put my inquiry into their town newsletter. The author, Monica Morris, suggested websites that might provide information about the evacuation. And the folks from Liverpool records asked me some questions to help them narrow down the search.

Then a neat thing happened. Each of them, separately and in completely different contexts, made mention of the Liverpool Blue Coat School. I looked it up, and bells and buzzers started going off. It was a "charity school," for poor children, orphans and fatherless children. That fit - my mother was fatherless. And it looked and sounded just like the kind of place Mom had described to me so long ago. Most importantly, I discovered that the Blue Coat School was evacuated to Beaumaris, Wales in September 1939.

Now I was on a roll. I found the Blue Coat Brotherly Society, devoted to serving the needs of past students of the school. I wrote to the Society's email address, and now a wonderful man named Tony will be going to the school in June to research records and find out if my mother was indeed a student there.

I guess everyone loves a mystery, and even more than that, loves to help solve one. Suddenly, I have a cadre of dear people who are helping me find answers to questions that we - my sister, brother and I - have had for years. It's pretty darn cool, and I have to admit that right now, I am in awe of and extremely grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sometimes Things Happen When You Stop Trying So Hard....

It's really true, isn't it? Like when someone is looking for a relationship, everyone says, "When you stop looking, you'll find someone." And I discovered it's true with yoga too - my secret shame as a yoga teacher is that I have a hard time kicking up into handstand. I love being IN handstand, I just have trouble getting myself up there. It's totally a "letting go" thing. But I find that when I stop kicking so hard, suddenly, up I go.

My last post was a week ago. Like some of you, I'd gone like gangbusters with the daily A to Z challenge in April. Great things came from that - by "Z," I had amassed a small army of 30 new followers and had found some delightful bloggers to follow too. Then an interesting thing happened. My blog just sat there for a week, as though it had gone on a silent retreat. Yet, new people kept coming! By the end of the week, my blog had, without fuss or fanfare, or any effort on my part, meandered past the 100 follower mark. Let me say once again how pleased I am to meet you all.

On other fronts, I am trying to get my book published. Well, my wonderful agent, Kate Epstein, is trying to get my book published. That's a real letting go thing too - placing your faith in another to present you and your work in the best possible light. And, we are trying to sell our house. Last week, we had a sudden burst of activity, with cash buyers here and 21-day closings there. For a few days, we were crazed with offers and counter-offers and high hopes and dashed hopes. In the end there was no deal, but we were encouraged by the interest and the activity.

With those two things - the book and the house - it's hard to wait. It's hard to keep from wanting to do something to make something happen. But there is nothing to be done - everything that I could do has already been done. I've written the book. I've found a great agent. We've loved and taken care of our home. We've cleaned the bathrooms and planted the gardens. It's out of our hands. It's out of our control. 

Today we are taking a drive up the mountain here in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico. It's Mother's Day, so I want to do some kind of little ritual up there for my mom. And, perhaps one to thank Santa Fe for having sheltered us and shown us such a good time, and to ask it to give us its blessing to move on. Maybe that all sounds WooWoo weird to you, but I just feel this need to do it. It's a gorgeous day and supposed to be warm, so it should be lovely up there. Just being surrounded by tall pines and budding aspens, with the skies what we call "Sedona blue," and the sun warming our faces, always manages to re-set my inner workings, like a kind of spiritual tune-up.

The photo is of the view of the Sangre de Christo mountains from our house. The aspens form a perfect heart that seems to be looking right at us. I don't think things like happen just by chance, I always think they are a sign - of something!

Monday, May 2, 2011

It's May, It's May!

Now that the April A to Z Blog Challenge has ended, I'll be blogging just once or twice a week. I am very much looking forward to re-visiting and getting to know more about the bloggers I met through the challenge. 

So, put on some tea, I'm coming to visit!

I'm also looking forward to settlling back into my writing projects. I'm currently re-writing a children's novel that I first wrote almost 10 years ago. And, I want to start working on a new story based on my mother's experiences as a 14-year-old American girl living in England on the eve of WWII. And of course, I await news as my agent shops my book, The Christmas Village, with publishers.

In the meantime, check out my interview (below) with 3-time author, playwright and humorist, Arthur Wooten. He has experience with both traditional and self-publishing, and what he has to say is pretty interesting! His latest book, Birthday Pie, just came out, and it's flying off the shelves and through the e-book airwaves!