By Jennifer Dean
I was seven and a half years old when my parents separated. Separated, not divorced, because of course divorce is the legal end but inevitably there first comes a separation, and in my parents’ case, it was the separation of an ocean. My mother moved me back to her parent’s house in Bromley Kent, England – several thousand miles away from my father who was left in a cheap stucco house in the suburbs of Northern California. I remember the evening before we left – sitting in the living room in front of our small television watching “The Wizard of Oz” with my father. Nothing was said. My mother told me we were going to visit her family for a bit. Once we arrived in their very English home with my grandfather, Poppy and my Uncle Ken, she told me I was going to go to school for a bit since the summers in England are shorter than the summers in the States. I remember thinking, “why do I have to go back to school just because everyone here is still going to school?” I soon figured out that we weren’t going home. We were there to stay. I don’t ever recall my mother telling me – I just deduced it as would most seven year old detectives once they were stuck in a class and their mother was heading out for job interviews and such. It would be several months before my ruby red slippers would bring me home again … because … “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”
I start mid-term at Burnt Ash Elementary school to study. I have Hello Kitty stuff which makes me extremely popular on the playground – for a short time anyway – until I open my mouth and my funny accent makes them not want to talk to me. I’ve got to get rid of that quick. I can sound like they sound no big deal. Unfortunately they still don’t want to be my friend. My teacher reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the East. She looks like Maggie Smith in the “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” with flaming red hair and the cold features of an English schoolmarm. I am nervous and awkward in my new surroundings, feeling completely like a fish out of water. We are told in no uncertain terms not to use an eraser – EVER! We are being taught penmanship and, even though we are to use pencils, our mistakes should remain evident. I make one. I look around me. I have to fix this. I can’t be seen as the inadequate American. I use my own saliva to get rid of the lead and rewrite the letter. Mrs. Smith sees me out of the corner of her eye and asks me to the front of the class. I’m trembling. I feel the blood rushing to my face….. she knows. “Listen class,” she tweets with her proper upper crust English accent “our new student has been vulgar enough to use bodily secretions to mask her mistakes. You shall not do the same.” I want to crawl into a hole and stay there. Unfortunately it is not yet time for me to go home to America so I simply have to continue down the yellow brick road.
Poppy takes me to school in the morning in his car that smells of petrol (he runs a trucking company), only he starts driving before I am fully in the seat. “Poppy wait!” The next two characters I come upon are a pair of twin girls in the changing room for gym class. There is ice on the ground outside but we must still change into our shorts. The girls corner me. They are HUGE! They come from the secondary school. I don’t know how they ended up in the locker room at the same time as me. I don’t know why I am there alone. But they did and I am – and I can only hope that I get to run away when the bell rings. Somehow I manage to escape the monster twins and head outside to run laps. What a relief!
Coming from California I have never seen a storm before. It sounds like the sky is very angry. It is booming and throwing electrical currents through dark grey clouds. My Mummy is out at her new job and I turn to Poppy to ask if she is coming home or if she will get taken away by the storm. After all, that is what happened to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Poppy assures me she will be home soon enough. I don’t know that I believe him because Dorothy had to go through a lot before she got home. Uncle Ken and Poppy start teasing me about the English runner who has won some race. According to them he is the best runner in the world – proving of course that no one can run faster than the English – certainly not the Yanks. Of course I point out how do you know he is the fastest runner in the world? He hasn’t raced everyone. He hasn’t raced my Dad. Maybe my Dad is faster than him. That doesn’t stop Uncle Ken and Poppy from bringing it up. It makes them laugh that I get so riled up.
My Mum made it home – without the ruby slippers – maybe I will too. I am going there for a visit to see my Dad. I always wondered if Dorothy went back to Oz after she got back to Kansas. I mean it would be sad if she just left and never got to go back. At the airport the woman who works for the airplane assures my Mum that I will be just fine on the plane by myself. I feel quite grown up. My Mum keeps telling me I have to eat something on the plane but she knows I won’t. She gives me a bag of grapes for the trip. They are the only things I can eat because the smell of the airline food makes me nauseous and I end up throwing it up anyway, so what’s the point? I try to be asleep whenever they serve food so I don’t have to smell it and they don’t ask me if I want any. Of course, they end up waking me up anyway.
When we land I have to go pick up my luggage. It’s really warm in the airport but I don’t want to take off my English winter coat because then I have to carry it and will probably lose it. So I just leave it on. The luggage is going round and round on the conveyer belt. I’m looking at it and don’t quite know what to do because it’s as big as I am so I can’t really get it off. I guess I’m not that much of a grown up. It has wheels so as long as I get it to the ground I’ll be fine… I’m just not quite sure how to do that. Luckily there’s a nice couple from the plane who were sitting near me and ask me if that’s my bag and would I like help getting it off the continually circling metal contraption. I quickly respond “oh yes please”. I must have had quite a perplexed and distraught look on my face so they knew I needed help. Once it is on the ground I am able to wheel it to the customs area. I see my Dad looking down on me through the glass windows from the flight above – just outside of customs. I wave. He waves back.
A few months after that trip my Mom moved us back to California. I didn’t need a Wizard – just a brave Mother. Of course, when I got back I had a funny English accent which all the kids teased me about. The one slight I recall is “you sound like a frog”. I’m not quite sure why but I quickly adapted back to my original way of speaking. Hello Kitty wasn’t going to make me any friends in California. It is true that there’s no place like home. I am sure I would eventually have made England my home, but without my Dad it wouldn’t have been the same.