exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london


by Jen at 8:28 am on 9.06.2010 | 6 Comments
filed under: family and friends, photo

i don’t really know how to write about this. the fact is that, no matter what i say, or how i say it, there are some experiences that are intensely personal in a way that doesn’t translate into words. so i can’t explain why it meant so much to me to see the little island of unije, where my grandfather was born, any more than i can adequately explain why my surname matters so much to me.

it just does.

americans are, by definition, immigrants – it is as much a part of our identity as anything we call our own. ask any american where they’re from, and they can proudly tell you the different ethnic heritages they are descended from. we are american, yes – but we are irish-american, african-american, vietnamese-american.

me? i’m a second generation croatian-american, from croatian grandparents on my dad’s side. my grandfather’s immigration story is a typically american one, right down to becoming part of the great melting pot. it is so typical, in fact, that most of the families of unije, croatia also have a story like mine.

my grandfather died in 1993, and the memories i have of him are distinctive, sharp and clear – he is etched in my mind as a deeply tanned, square jawed sailor, standing astride his boat, backlit against a sea blue sky. but in many ways, poppi was always something of a mystery to me. he lived in florida, so i never saw very much of him growing up. when we did see him, he and my father often clashed in dramatic fashion – that scared me, and the force of poppi’s personality intimidated me. much of his personal ethnographic history has been omitted through the years – part of the common desire at that time to become a fully immersed “typical american” – so the family stories i know of him come to me secondhand, filtered down through his children.

and yet, the older i get, the more i see the reflections of him in my own father… and in myself. his effusive, emotional nature, the salt-water that ran in his veins, the stubborn streak at the core of him, the silver hair and prominent cheekbones. i have come to associate these as immutable family characteristics, passed down to me through genetics and upbringing. so for many years, now, i’ve wanted to see where poppi came from – the place and time that made him who he was as a young man setting out for the unknown shores of america. the land where he was born and raised, and the land he left behind. the land that launched this offshoot of my family tree with branches now so numerous and far-flung, it’s becoming hard to keep track. i wanted to see it for myself.

and it seems i’m not alone.

we first ran into silvana the evening we arrived, when we were sweatily, tiredly, grumpily chugging our way up the island’s highest hill, dragging our dusty wheeled case loudly behind us. she asked us if we were lost, and she wasn’t far wrong. we’d arrived at the island without any accommodation, somehow missed the island’s designated travel agent who met the ferry at the dock, and were now bumbling our way about trying to find a place to stay via the charitable assistance of the woman from the market – she’d made some calls on our behalf, then told us in broken english to look for a “blue house”. we were lost in a town of 200 people, looking for a blue house.

that blue house would turn out to belong to her niece (the travel agent we’d missed). when i mentioned in conversation with the niece the next morning that i had a family connection to unije, she passed that information along to her aunt, silvana. and so when i ran into silvana in the single-room town ‘market’, buying bread and cheese for breakfast, she stopped me and asked me about my surname.

silvana is a talkative, engaging woman in her mid-fifties, who happens to have been born on unije – she lived there until the age of 12, then immigrated to new york. after living in astoria, queens for most of her life, she recently moved back to unije a few years ago, and has become something of a local historian, actively working on island preservation projects, and keeping up the local lore. as a side hobby, she likes helping visitors to unije learn more about their ties to the island, and so it was that she approached me in the market, offering her assistance.

before i knew it, she’d asked around with some of the island elders and identified the house that my grandfather was born in (*), showed us some of the historic features of her own house, found someone who was probably related to me by marriage, and showed us where there were ancestors buried in the local cemetary. she told stories about island life before full electricity and telephones arrived in the late 70s/early 80s, when all communication was relayed through the post office and turning on a light switch in the middle of the day was a revelation. she spoke about how, to this day, whenever they receive notice that someone from unije has died, an old woman is dispatched to ring the church bell. she talked about how families used to farm their own food, and keep old stone barrels just for olive oil, and bake the day’s bread in a built-in bread hearth. she told us about the sardine factory that was closed, bought and re-opened by the state, then sold and closed again. she talked about the old families that left the island, the families that had returned, and the new residents from places like russia and bosnia who bought property and rented it out. she talked about the old women of the island who remember all the original families and their houses, and the arrival of the new rich yacht owners who anchor offshore in the pristine bays by the dozens. she discussed the change for the better (income from tourism, connections to the mainland) and change for the worse (the dying dialect, the increased litter and pollution).

she talked for hours, eager to share knowledge with those who came seeking on their personal quests. she told me about the newer phenomenon of people who are now several generations removed from the island, returning to explore their roots. these days, while visiting unije is logistically a bit of a pain, it’s far from insurmountable. complicating factors like political instability and civil war are now safely distant in the historical rear-view mirror. travel to and from croatia has become cheaper and easier than ever, and more and more individuals like me are taking the opportunity to see their ancestral homeland in person. every summer, she told me, she encounters people looking to trace their history – and it is those links which she believes will keep the essence of unije alive into the future.

her stories struck a deep chord, and as jonno and i spent the next day wandering the hill and coves of the island, taking photos, watching the sun pass along the sky and into the sea, listening to the background music of the waves and birds, eating grilled squid, drinking beer amongst the locals… i found myself trying to pinpoint more precisely what need this particular experience filled within me. as i ran my fingers over the stone walls of houses hundreds of years old, as i walked amongst the ruins of the old sardine factory, as i sought the shade of the olive trees, i couldn’t help but try to picture my grandfather’s life here as a young boy. and i felt the way i imagine adopted people searching for their birth history must feel: a longing for that sense of connection, that familiarity of seeing people who look like yourself, that internal, personal understanding of where you come from, not as an abstract idea, but as a tangible touchstone that slots into the foundation of *who you are*. and in seeking, finding a bit of who my grandfather was as well.

in a population of billions, this is a universal truth – we are all of us, searching for who we are in the world, and where we are from. for some of us, that is encompassed by a place, for some of us, a person, and for some of us, a purpose and future.

and in unije’s houses and families, crystalline waters, sunsets and fishermen, i somehow found a piece of all three.

(*) upon further clarification by a few other island elders, it turns out that was one of three houses that it might have been – oh well!

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happy mother’s day!

by Jen at 4:38 pm on 9.05.2010 | 2 Comments
filed under: family and friends

happy mother’s day to all the mothers/step-mothers i know and love so dearly.

in honor of mothers everywhere, i’m quoting in full, this column by kristof. i hope you’ll be as moved as i was.

Happy Mother’s Day! And let me be clear: I’m in favor of flowers, lavish brunches, and every other token of gratitude for mothers and other goddesses.

Let me also add that your mom — yes, I’m speaking to you — is particularly deserving. (As is mine, as is my wife. And my mother-in-law!)

And because so many people feel that way, some $14 billion will be spent in the United States for Mother’s Day this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That includes $2.9 billion in meals, $2.5 billion in jewelry and $1.9 billion in flowers.

To put that sum in context, it’s enough to pay for a primary school education for all 60 million girls around the world who aren’t attending school. That would pretty much end female illiteracy.

These numbers are fuzzy and uncertain, but it appears that there would be enough money left over for programs to reduce deaths in childbirth by about three-quarters, saving perhaps 260,000 women’s lives a year.

There would probably even be enough remaining to treat tens of thousands of young women suffering from one of the most terrible things that can happen to a person, a childbirth injury called an obstetric fistula. Fistulas leave women incontinent and dribbling wastes, turning them into pariahs — and the injuries are usually fixable with a $450 operation.

So let’s celebrate Mother’s Day with all the flowers and brunches we can muster: no reason to feel guilty about a dollop of hedonism to compensate for 365 days of maternal toil. But let’s also think about moving the apostrophe so that it becomes not just Mother’s Day, honoring a single mother, but Mothers’ Day — an occasion to try to help other mothers around the globe as well.

Oddly, for a culture that celebrates motherhood, we’ve never been particularly interested in maternal health. The United States ranks 41st in the world in maternal mortality, according to an Amnesty International report, or 37th according to a major new study in the medical journal The Lancet, using different data sources.

Using either set of statistics, an American woman is at least twice as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth as a woman in much of Europe.

A friend of mine in New York, a young woman who minds her health and has even worked on maternal health issues, nearly joined the data set last month. She had an ectopic pregnancy that she was unaware of until her fallopian tube ruptured and she almost died.

Maternal mortality is far more common in Africa and Asia. In the West African country of Niger, a woman has about a one-in-seven lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy complications. Women there often aren’t supposed to go to a doctor if the husband hasn’t granted express permission — so if he’s 100 miles away when she has labor complications, she may just die at home.

On the 50th anniversary of the pill, it’s also worth noting that birth control is an excellent way to reduce deaths in childbirth. If there were half as many pregnancies in poor countries, there would be half as many maternal deaths.

It’s certainly not inevitable that women die in childbirth, and some poor countries — like Sri Lanka — have done a remarkable job curbing maternal mortality. But in many places, women’s lives are not a priority.

There’s no silver bullet to end maternal mortality, but we know steps that have made a big difference in some countries. Bipartisan legislation to be introduced this year by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut aims to have the United States build on these proven methods to tackle obstetric fistulas and maternal health globally.

Just the money that Americans will spend on Mother’s Day greeting cards for today — about $670 million — would save the lives of many thousands of women. Many organizations do wonderful work in this area, from the giants like CARE and Save the Children to the tiny Edna Maternity Hospital in Somaliland. Women Deliver and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood do important advocacy work. And the Fistula Foundation and Worldwide Fistula Fund help women who have obstetric fistulas. (Details are on my blog, nytimes.com/ ontheground.)

So if one way to mark Mothers’ Day is to buy flowers for that special mom, another is to make this a safer planet for moms in general. And since we men are going to be focused on the flowers, maybe mothers themselves can work on making motherhood less lethal.

I had a letter the other day from a woman in Connecticut, Eva Hausman, who was so appalled when she learned about obstetric fistulas that she e-mailed her friends and asked them to contribute at least $20. To date she has raised $9,000 for the Fistula Foundation.

“Most of the contributions were accompanied by thank-you notes,” she told me. When people thank you for allowing them to donate — that’s truly a heartwarming cause, and a beautiful way to celebrate Mothers’ Day.

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a. thomas maddock, 1917 – 2010

by Jen at 5:52 pm on 27.04.2010 | 4 Comments
filed under: family and friends, photo

last wednesday i got the call – grandpa is dying.

thursday, literally just 3 minutes before the deadline to close the UK skies due to volcanic ash, my flight home miraculously took off. we went straight from the airport to the nursing home.

his appearance was shocking – he was crumpled in on himself, gaunt skin and bones. but when we walked into the room, his eyes lit up. “he hasn’t been that alert in ages,” the nurse would later tell me.

“grandpa, i came all the way from england just to see you, and tell you i love you”

“i love you too.” it was difficult to decipher the words, but the intensity behind them was clear.

i kissed him, held his hands, massaged his feet, made small talk. i told him i loved him, over and over again.

he died on saturday, peacefully, painlessly, amongst family.

his mother was a settler of the american west, in a genuine covered wagon with a sod house. he lived through the great depression, served in the phillipines in the second world war, watched a man land on the moon, celebrated the turn of the millenium. he had three children, 8 grandchildren, 7 great-grandchildren, and a 53 year marriage.

he had a rich, long life, and died surrounded by loved ones. i’m not sure you could ask for anything else in this world… but we were the lucky ones, really.



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about a dog

by Jen at 3:36 pm on 14.04.2010 | 3 Comments
filed under: family and friends, mutterings and musings

i love my cat dearly. adore him, really. his personality suits my temperment in every way. there’s only one thing wrong – he’s not a dog.

if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.

the other day i was running along listening to a new music podcast. a guy was trying to introduce a song by jason lytle – “the ghost of my old dog”, and explain why he liked it so much. he started out by saying, “i love dogs”, and as he was doing so, he began to get audibly choked up.

and i had to stop in my tracks – suddenly it became too difficult to breathe past the lump in my throat, too difficult to see through the swimming tears that filled my eyes.

but if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.

i’ve scarcely known much of life without a dog. when i was just three months my parents adopted a dog who became mine, my girl. i don’t know why she was mine – after all, there were 5 of us in the household. but she was. and when she passed away at a ripe old age, my family felt no shame in mourning her death openly, demonstratively. we took leave of school and work, because nothing else felt right but to honour her absence. at 14, it was the first time i’d ever experienced such an immediate loss.

we had other dogs, of course. lovely, warm family dogs.

but you don’t choose your dog – they choose you.

i would only fully realised this when my then-husband and i went to adopt a dog together. we went to a local no-kill shelter, full of a variety of older dogs and puppies, big and little, loud and quiet. we went around the cages once, made a pretense of playing with and examining other dogs – but i knew from the moment i saw her, that she was mine.

we went back to the assistant to ask if we could take her around the block for a walk. “which one?” she said.

“the black and white one with the long hair.”

“oh her – are you sure? she’s got a problem with her back leg.”

and indeed she did. turned out that she’d been born to a mother with distemper. she was the only pup from the litter to survive, but had nerve damage to her hindquarters – as a result, one back leg had atrophied badly, dangling a few inches above the ground like a dead limb.

but it was too late – she’d already won me over completely. i would later tell people there was something in her eyes that reminded me of my first dog. i don’t believe in reincarnation, but that same spirit came through to me so clearly when she looked at me, a quizzical, eager expression on her face which said, “what are you waiting for?”


what could we do? she came home with us in a taxi that day.

we were told suzie was a lab mix (apparently mamadog was a labrador) and she had floppy ears and a gloriously swishy tail. but it only took one trip to the local park for someone to say, “oh, what a beautiful border collie!” we went home and looked up border collies on the internet (this was before the “babe” movie) and it was a dead cert.

she was a border collie all right. in looks, in intelligence and in energy. she never let her bad leg get in the way of tearing around after other dogs in the park or herding our two cats around the tiny apartment. eventually, that activity rehabilitated her leg – we were no longer stopped on the street by strangers asking what kind of accident she’d been in, and her limp became barely noticable. i let myself forgot her original disability. i allowed myself to forget that she was born with problems.

i can still imagine her licking my face, and smell her feet that inexplicably smelled like cornchips. i still know exactly what the fur between her eyebrows felt like, the curve of her narrow chest. i can still see her play-bowing to engage the cats in a game of chase, and looking at me with that same quizzical, eager expression whenever i spoke.

suzie was my dog. she goofy – there was no other word for it really. she was goofy and quirky and full of exuberant personality. she always looked like she needed a good haircut with her untameable fur sticking out in all directions, and i loved that she always looked a just a little bit wild and scruffy. she was hilarious in her peculiarities – she would nibble buttons off of any clothing just to roll them around on the floor, she would do almost anything for raw vegetables, and she easily learned tricks that we never intentionally taught her. suzie was endlessly adaptable. she was perfectly behaved in the city – waiting patiently for us outside the neighbourhood shops, sociable with other dogs at the park, quiet in our small apartment. but she was equally happy in the suburbs – chasing and eating bees out of the back garden, riding seatbelted in the back of the car, well-behaved on visits to other’s houses. we took her everywhere with us, and suzie was that perfect mix of affectionate and independent – happy to be cuddled and played with, but never seeking it out excessively, and just as often content to curl up in the corner of the room, where she could see your reassuring presence, but not be underfoot.

relationships with people are complicated, fraught with potential disappointments, irritations, sadness and anger.

relationships with dogs are pure and true. dogs hold no grudges when you lose your temper, don’t sulk if you let them down. the love of a dog is the simplest, most essential form of unconditional love. whether you’ve had a bad day, whether you are sad, whether you are neglectful – they want nothing more from life but to love you. and to get up the next day and do it again. that kind of trust and adoration… rather than providing a meaningless ego boost, it actually causes you, just for that short while, to strip away all your petty human pretenses and facades. a dog’s love is humbling in its perfect, infinite way.

if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.

so when my husband and i split up, it went without saying that he got the two cats, and i got the dog. and as heartbreaking as it was to lose my cats, for i did love them tremendously… i simply don’t think i could have gotten through that period of my life without my dog. that goofy, sweet flying furball of boundless love.

shortly after the divorce, two things began to unfold simultaneously: my plans to move to london, and suzie’s declining health. she began to be stiff getting up the stairs, and the vet confirmed that she had some arthritis. getting around on polished wood floors became a little treacherous. a few months later, there was a scary episode where she wouldn’t put any weight on her back legs – a late night visit to the nearby pet hospital couldn’t resolve anything, and so the next day she was heavily sedated for xrays. the xrays came back clear (somehow she’d fallen and badly bruised her hip bone), but i will never forget when they wheeled her out unconscious on the gurney and my immediate thought was “that’s what she’ll look like when she’s dead.” my sister had to console me through floods of tears.

following her xrays, she had a bad reaction coming out of the anaesthesia. for the following 24 hours, she seemed utterly terrified and confused, whimpering and trembling whenever i was not physically touching or stroking her. i brought her up onto the bed with me, stroking her until i would doze off and her whimpering would wake me to pat her again. it was the only night she slept in the bed with me, and i spent it sleeplessly curled around her warm body, trying desperately to soothe her fears. i even called in sick the next day to be with her.

if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.

she recovered from that fall, but only got stiffer and less surefooted. meanwhile i was putting things in place for my move. i had a six month visa, but nothing more, and so my intention was to see if i could secure a longer term visa before bringing her all the way over to london. i didn’t want to put her through a transatlantic flight until i was sure i’d be bringing her for the long haul. it seemed like the most sensible thing at the time. i left her in the loving care of my mum and sister, who looked after her as well as i would have myself.

but when i returned, things were dramatically worse. she no longer had any strength in her hind legs and couldn’t walk unassisted – my mum had purchased an actual dog wheelchair and sling, and she did okay getting around in that. but she was a border collie, after all – she wanted to run. she wanted to fly as was in her nature, and those quizzical, eager eyes told me she couldn’t quite understand just why that was no longer possible. and i’d squandered those precious last six months of her life, through my own selfishness. something i’ll never forgive myself for.


i did it, of course – the single most painful experience of my life, was taking hers. for eight and a half years, she was my very best friend. i hadn’t realised there was something missing from my life before her, but i can’t put into words how much was missing without her.

she was mine – but i was so much hers. in joy, sorrow, sickness, and health – who knew when i picked her that i was entering into a marriage with a 47 pound, fluffy, black and white border collie? but i was, and i am a far better person for it. it is impossible to describe what that kind of love brings to your life.

i could not have asked for a better suzie. she made me laugh every single day we were together, and i swore she could read my mind sometimes. it was a love story from day one – the fact that she was a dog was simply a fluke of nature.


more than six years later, the very thought of her can make me choke up listening to a podcast, halt me in my tracks on the pavement.

but if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.


the ghost of my old dog – jason lytle

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in other sad news, i am rushing home to be with my failing grandfather. any good wishes you could spare will be appreciated.

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answers… and tears

by Jen at 11:17 pm on 15.03.2010 | 1 Comment
filed under: family and friends

and finally some answers.

it has taken a week to find out. even in days of fibre optic cables and internet video calls, sometimes the petty obstacles of distance and time get in the way. but tonight I was finally able to connect with kristin, who filled in the gaps for me of beth’s recent life and her death.

it seems that as tumultuous and despairing as her life often was… beth died peacefully in her sleep. a small measure of grace to dignify the passing of a remarkable soul.

and it seems like, with those answers, I can let myself mourn in earnest. because although I’ve known about her death for a week, I couldn’t let myself feel until I knew *what* to feel. she’d been gone from my life for many years – and now death has brought her back into it.

I’ve already eulogised her. and I’ve speculated on her possible death for so long. but the difference between believing something to be likely, and knowing it to be true, is measured in the weight of grief.

all these memories I’d forgotten I had keep flooding back with fresh tears. and now, who do I share them with?

she’s been gone for almost a year. I haven’t seen her in seven years. but tonight, she’s lost to me forever.

I don’t believe in god, and I don’t believe in heaven.

but for once in my life, I really hope I’m wrong.

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1 Comment »


by Jen at 3:23 pm on 9.03.2010 | 7 Comments
filed under: family and friends

remember my friend beth?

i remember my friend beth. my generous, gregarious, funny, flawed, sweet friend beth.

i remember the tattoo she got that long weekend we spent in new orleans – a guardian griffin with a n’awlins crescent on her shoulder. she was a new yorker with a southern sensibility. she was equal parts impulsivity and fierce loyalty, protective to the core. her friends were her family, and she guarded those relationships closely. she would forgive her friends anything – any hurt, any slight, any neglect – the relationships came first, and her feelings came second. seems like she was always coming second to someone else, but that was her nature.

i remember the surprise birthday party she orchestrated for me – the only one i’ve ever had – because she knew how much it mattered. she had a way of honing in on the sensitive, achy spots in your heart, and tending to them. like a psychic healer, she always knew just what you needed most – a phone call, a gesture, a balm. she had a knack for knowing when you needed to talk, when you needed cheering, when you needed to be left alone. she was attuned to that kind of thing – she was always a caretaker, and when she cared for you she took care of you.

i remember her animals. i remember the day she got franny, her beloved golden retriever. franny was her first baby, but there were a lot more to follow. she could never turn away an animal in distress – sometimes to her own detriment. she didn’t always have as much money or space as she had heart, but there was no one else on earth i would have trusted more with the care of my pet. she would watch my dog when we went away and i always felt a bit guilty when i came back, knowing that she was probably nicer to my pooch than i was.

i remember her look. she was striking in that slavic way. tall and slender, all angles, with high cheekbones, dark hair and fair skin, and a red mouth – beth was never without her signature red lipstick. she had a loping walk – the kind you develop when you were real knobby-kneed as a kid, but she never outgrew it. she favoured classic tailoring, linens and silks and chunky silver jewelry. she had a closet full of crisp white shirts, but she liked to surprise people as well. a photographer friend of mine once used her as a model for a book cover he was shooting, with a blond bob wig and black gloves, very femme fatale, and she loved that. she turned heads without even trying, but she definitely enjoyed the attention.

i remember her generosity. she’d give you the shirt off her back, and she once very literally gave me the shoes off her feet. that generosity of spirit made you just want to soak her up, to drink it in like water. she often gave more than she had, and that sometimes left her in a hole – emotionally and financially. but if you needed something, anything, she was there. if you needed her tomorrow, she would be there yesterday. no hedging, no boundaries, no questions asked. it was that simple for her, and when you were around her, it made perfect sense. it was the only way she could live.

i remember her sense of humour. she was quirky and wacky light-years before quirky and wacky were cool. she loved a crude joke – crass, slapstick, that was right up her alley. she liked her humour unrefined and honest. she had a laugh that had a hint of snort to it, and sometimes it morphed into genuine snorting hilarity. which sounds unattractive, but it wasn’t – it was all part of her goofiness. goofy – that’s what she was. people can relate to that, it made her accessible and approachable and such fun to be around.

i remember beth as beautiful, tough as nails, vulnerable, rebellious, effusive, extroverted, resilient, self-destructive, warm, loving, scared and scarred.


last night, i found out that my friend beth has died. i’m still piecing together what happened. i’m still piecing together my heart and my memories. although we’d lost contact, i never stopped trying to find her, and i always figured at some point we would reconnect. that will never happen now, and all i can do is remember her as she was.

i remember my generous, gregarious, funny, flawed, sweet friend beth.

lynyrd skynyrd – free bird

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you gotta give to get back to the love

by Jen at 7:13 pm on 20.12.2009 | 4 Comments
filed under: family and friends, holidaze, mutterings and musings

now that i live an ocean away from my family, we usually don’t exchange gifts at Christmas. but the other day i saw a link to this charity gift card website, and thought it would be a really nice idea. so i sent everyone a small denomination giftcard which they can then donate to the charity of their choice. as part of the message going along with the giftcard i wrote:

This year I thought people would like the opportunity to pass on some good to any cause that is near and dear to their heart. Our family is so lucky, we have more than enough cheer to spread around

and while that it technically true – my family are lucky in that we all, thankfully, have enough to eat, shelter, and clothe ourselves – upon reflection, i think i’ve probably been a bit insensitive. i was really speaking only for myself – because while *i* have enough money to donate to others, others in my immediate family are definitely not as well-off. in fact, there are some in my family who probably could have made good use of that $25 themselves.

talking about this makes me a bit uncomfortable, actually. truth be told, i’m fairly well-off in comparison to many – i live in an expensive city, yet still have enough to do things like travel, go out to concerts, give nice gifts, and generally not worry too much. in fact, i live a fairly cushy lifestyle by some standards. that’s not to say that jonno and i don’t work hard, or watch our spending in other ways. but overall, we are extraordinarily lucky to have not only enough, but more than we need.

others in my family have it a bit harder. there are some who’ve had to rely on public aid. there are some who’ve had difficulty finding steady employment. there are some who worry about keeping the jobs they have. there are some who make ends meet – but only just.

and to be perfectly, excruciatingly honest, this is the only time it has occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, it might bother them that i have certain financial freedoms that they don’t.

don’t get me wrong: there’s no one in my family who would let any one of us go without. but charity is a luxury available only to those that have a surplus. that’s a luxury that some of my family just don’t have.

if i critique my motives, i know that my heart was in the right place. but i have to wonder if perhaps i was so caught up in making the gesture to make myself feel good, that i never considered whether it was something that would make others feel good. if i wasn’t giving what i wanted to give, rather that what others would want to receive.

how’s that for selfish? i never stopped to think about it at all.

they say there is no such thing as a truly altruistic act, and i suppose i proved that to be true. but maybe even if my magnanimous gesture wasn’t such a great present for everyone else, at least it gave *me* something in return – a little self-awareness, a little sensitivity, and a little reminder of something i’d clearly forgotten. that no matter how well-intentioned, Christmas is not about the giving – it’s about family.

and what a gift that is indeed.

god knows (you’ve got to give to get) – el perro del mar

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finally, forgetting

by Jen at 8:00 pm on 9.12.2009Comments Off
filed under: family and friends, mutterings and musings

there are nights in our history that my family don’t talk about. nights where the calm of domesticity and image of family was shattered into a million sharp pieces that left us all scarred.

it is enough to say that much. in fact, i’ve probably said too much.

but this is not a post about the things that happen to a family, or the things that happened to our particular family. i’ve long since come to understand that all families have their hidden scars. given enough time, they eventually form part of the strength that hold us together – or sometimes, hold us apart. the shared bond and shared vulnerability of having survived – without words, we share a story.

and the thing is not that every family has them – because every family does. the thing is that we forget that others don’t know. me: i forget that others don’t know. i forget that people who did not know me during my twenties, don’t know what a massive crater those things that happened left in me, for so very long. they have no idea that i was not always whole.

there are people whom i’ve known for many years, who helped me live through some of those times, so they understand that there are things that are redacted from my past. for a very long time, the things that happened to my family were a source of pain that was sometimes so all-consuming that i was a walking, weeping wound. they felt like *the* defining characteristic of my family, and by extension, a defining characteristic of me.

(and just as my family doesn’t talk about those scars amongst ourselves, i do not tell the story of others in my family – those versions, those experiences are not mine to tell, and as much as i am open about myself, i am very private about most other people in my family.)

but friends i’ve made in the past ten years have no idea. and i forget that they don’t know. this post came about because i was with a friend in a pub the other day, and on a tangent of our original discussion, i found myself filling in the backstory to some of my own darker days. i had forgotten, you see, and said something along the lines of, “you know how when such-and-such happened…” and the blank look of complete non-recognition fell across her face.

so why is that remarkable in any way? because the friends i’ve made in the past ten years have no idea. those scars? they’re faded. the pain that once left gaping wounds in my heart for all to see? it’s no longer the hole at the center of my life. it too, has faded into memory. i can tell you where and how things shattered – but it is no longer the central, defining story of my family. it no longer defines me. in fact, i forget that many of my friends don’t know.

and the miracle of that forgetting?

that tells me i’ve healed.

change of heart – el perro del mar

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i know because i love them more and more

by Jen at 5:05 pm on 29.11.2009 | 2 Comments
filed under: family and friends

the other day on thanksgiving, i rang up my brother dave’s house to talk to the family gathered there. after chit-chatting with all and sundry, my brother raul’s girlfriend, passed the phone on to dave’s long-term-partner-now-new-wife. as she handed over the phone, the girlfriend called out, “hey Mrs. B___! jen’s on the phone!”

as she did so, it suddenly struck me: after being one of only two Ms. B___s in my family tree for years (the other being the one who gave birth to me), another woman now shares my surname.

you see, my grandfather’s surname was B____. he had sisters who all changed their surname upon marriage. dad’s surname is B____. my dad has five sisters, who all changed their surname upon marriage. my two sisters have both changed their surnames. my mother is Mrs. B___ by marriage, and although my parents divorced years ago, she kept her married surname.

so for several years now, i have been the lone female B___ who is descended from this particular line of the family tree… stuck way out of the very furthest twig of the limb. and in spite of childhood teasing, misspellings and mispronunciations far too numerous to count, and marrying twice… i’ve never had any inclination to change it. i like to joke that that’s out of sheer laziness, but the truth is that i’ve always been very attached to my surname.

my surname is pretty unique, even in cities chock full of multi-cultural populations. in fact, for many years, it was thought that outside of the cluster of B____ relatives in the new york/new jersey area, there was another cluster of distant cousins somewhere in california – and that was it. these days an internet search brings up a small smattering of people, who are, i’m sure, in some way related to me by historical lineage – i can see the familiar high slavic cheekbones and noses staring back at me with such familiarity in people’s facebook profile pictures, including those with alternate married surnames. my particular surname goes back to a tiny island called unije, off the coast of croatia, where my grandfather, Matthew B____, emigrated from when he was barely a teenager. he journeyed alone by boat (his father Martin having emigrated to parts unknown in the states several years earlier), landed at ellis island, as in the classic american immigration narrative. there’s a famous family story that a dockworker at the port, who happened to know Martin B___, happened by chance to recognise my grandfather Matthew B___’s surname from the hundreds of names on the ship’s records, and managed to put him back in touch with his father who was also working the docks. in a city of millions, what were the chances?

and so it was another set of coincidences that lead me, in one of my periodic google searches, to find a book called “The History and Families of Unije”, a small genealogical book put together as a personal project by an author tracing his own family history. unije’s modern history has been checkered by the forces of war – it has been a various points part of austria, italy, the former yugoslavia, and now croatia. in 2005, a set of parish records were uncovered which dated back to the 18th century. suddenly, thanks to this book, i now can look back and trace the origins of my B___ surname to 1753. i can see pictures of the island where my grandfather lived as a boy. i can see the olive mills and the sardine factories. this amazes me to no end.

i’m not a history buff, and i’m not a genealogist. but something about this commonality with people whose blood lives on in my veins pulls deep at the core of me. it feels essential to who i am. i am the granddaughter of an immigrant, i am the great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Martin B___, who was one of about 140 inhabitants of the tiny island of unije in the early 1700s. even before i knew this, i felt it.

genetic links are strong stuff. in recent years, my brother and sister who were adopted as infants, have both been in contact with their biological birth mothers. i have seen them standing next to each other, their mannerisms, facial features and smiles mirroring each other. in spite of the years of separation, and differing surnames, they are linked at the cellular level. as my brother dave married the new Mrs. B___, i watched his birth mother and biological sister look on with smiles that were perfect images of the one beaming across his face at his new bride.

this is the truth of why i have kept my surname. it is, for me, a way of representing those links to people whose dna from hundreds of years ago, still circulates through me, and whose immigrant story has made my life possible. i am a B___ because my grandfather and great-grandfather left their stone houses and olive mills and sardine factories to travel across an ocean to the docks of lower manhattan.

but it also represents the links with those to whom i am tied not by the genetic bonds of blood, but by bonds of choice and love. my siblings and i are not of the same genetic descent, we don’t look alike or act alike… but we are family just as true as if we were born that way, and our shared surname reflected that. my new sister-in-law is of greek heritage – her parents too, emigrated here, and are also part of the famed american melting pot. she shares none of the B___ dna, but in adopting her into our crazy family, she is just as surely “one of us” now.

i am Jen B___. the B___ represents my family – the old and the new of it, the blood, bonds, marriages, divorces, adoptions, journeys, oceans, history, stories, deaths, olive mills, birth mothers, misspellings and cheekbones of it all. for me, it represents all of who i am, past and present.

it is my family, it is my identity, it is quintessentially *me*. i wouldn’t change it for the world.

it’s cool to love your family – feist

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turkey day in the uk

by Jen at 10:00 pm on 25.11.2009 | 6 Comments
filed under: family and friends, holidaze

another thanksgiving here in the uk.

i will be working on the day, but hosting a traditional turkey dinner on the saturday – a motley dinner party of three americans, three south africans, two brits, and one canadian. they are friends and family both.

between the the two years i lived in Canada, and the nearly seven years i’ve been here, i’m almost getting used to celebrating on a completely different day. scary.

but i am grateful. this past year my family has welcomed a new nephew, a new sister-in-law, and very soon, another new niece/nephew. so much love.

happy thanksgiving to one and all – i hope you have as much to be grateful for as i do.

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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if i could spend my days free from the prison of your gates, i could die a happy man

by Jen at 8:52 pm on 5.10.2009 | 7 Comments
filed under: family and friends, mutterings and musings

i want my grandfather to die.

i want my grandfather to die, because i know if he were aware of the state he’s now in, he would want to be dead. he who owned a gun and would nonchalantly talk about using it against himself, can no longer manage a steak knife. he who took such pride in his perfect posture and thick black hair, has crumpled in on himself. he who piloted the plane that was my very earliest memory, and prized his freedom above all else, is locked behind safety doors. he who spent his life as a chemical engineer, can no longer tie his shoes. he who never wanted to be a burden on his family, is legally incompetent of mind and infirm of body. those essential things that made him the man he was so proud to be, have been torn away from him – and if he could have, he would have gone down fighting tooth and nail to go out with them. he is no longer aware of who he once was – but who he once was would rather die, than be who he is now.

i want my grandfather to die because at this present moment, he is happy. because i know that the path which lies ahead only becomes more distressing and debilitating. because i know there is no kind or peaceful ending for this cruel disease, there are no mercies. for right now, he is happy in his simple way. singing music, eating food, retelling times half-remembered, relaxing into a soft touch. but i know full well, that this will not last – there is future fear and sickness that i only wish he could be spared. he is happy because he knows none of this.

i want my grandfather to die because it’s killing my mother. it’s killing me to watch my mother lose her father in a thousand tiny moments, eroded memory by cherished memory, dignity by precious dignity. it’s killing me to see her try to be strong as he grows ever frailer. it’s killing me to watch her try to hold on to a ghost. it’s killing me to watch her watch him vanish in front of her eyes. it’s killing me to watch her see herself one day in his shoes.

i want my grandfather to die because the reasons i have for wanting him to live are so selfish, so cowardly. it’s me who is worried about grief and the avoidance of pain. it’s me who can’t bear the sadness that he no longer remembers me. it’s me who is too weak to watch him shuffle off for a diaper change, to watch him eat his meals with his fingers, to watch him become more childlike each time i visit. it’s me who can’t stand it when i feel his papery hand in mine, when i tuck his thinning hair behind his ears, when i tell him i love him and he says “i love you” back, not knowing who i am. it’s me who is too scared of a time when he can’t say it back. i want my grandfather to die because i cannot cope with the process of losing him. the steady, irreversible loss that wears away at my heart.

i don’t want my grandfather to die – but he is dying. i don’t want my grandfather to die. but my grandfather – strong, fiercely independent, pilot, engineer, devoted husband, proud father – is long gone.

shelter for my soul – bernard fanning

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if you’re leaving, come back soon

by Jen at 11:58 pm on 15.09.2009 | 1 Comment
filed under: family and friends, photo

after six and a half years living in London, i don’t really get homesick anymore. not for places anyway. and as for people… well, the awful truth is that you get used to the missing. that ache becomes a constant, uncomfortable but bearable background noise that you learn to live with out of necessity.

so it’s been a while since i choked up on the inevitable departure. i am always sad to leave again, of course, but dealing with that is the price of being an expat. so you deal – you prepare yourself, you suck it up, and you deal.

and so it caught me by surprise to find myself sobbing as i hugged my sister goodbye yesterday afternoon, crying as hard as if it were my first time tearing myself away. i don’t know why. maybe it was the fact that i will once again miss the birth of my newest niece or nephew, due in a few short weeks. maybe it was the fact that for the first time in five years, we were all together for my brother’s wedding, and it felt so good to be in the warm embrace of my whole family. maybe it was the changes in my grandfather, whose memory of me is fading so fast. maybe it was the time spent with old friends that know me so well that we can pick up where we last left off without missing a beat. maybe it was seeing my dad together with his sisters, and realising that the passing years are beginning to have the same effect on myself and my own siblings.

it was probably all of these things and more. these precious, precious things that only grow dearer with time – these stirring longings that no amount of travel or freedom can take the edge off of.

i always believed that more than six years as an expat would inure me to these nagging doubts and guilts. i always thought this choice would get easier, not harder.

but the tears belie the reality – i am missing more, and not less. and with each passing year, the tradeoffs i’ve made seem to pale in comparison to the things slipping past which i can never recapture.

i have, for the most part, become accustomed to the missing. but this fresh spate of tears serves to remind me that that’s not necessarily a good thing.

how i miss you – foo fighters

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forget the protocol, i stand corrected

by Jen at 6:50 pm on 21.07.2009 | 3 Comments
filed under: family and friends, mutterings and musings

my dad is pretty crazy.  he turns 60 in just a few days, and when i was recently home, i spent father’s day with him.  it goes like this: the plan is originally to go out for some brunch, so when i arrive at about 11:00, i’m dressed to head out to a restaurant.  after a few cups of coffee and some chat, my dad says, “we can go in a just a sec, but i just need your help with something first.  it’ll take two minutes.”

so he, my stepmum, and i all head outside to the back garden.  it was raining pretty steadily earlier,  and had now thinned to a persistent drizzle, but we are definitely getting damp.  my dad shows me a tree he’s been working on taking down – a 30 ft pine in the corner along the neighbours’ fences that caught some fatal tree disease and needed to be chopped down.  the tree was probably half down, with a good 12 feet of trunk remaining, and at the top, a large, 6 ft log was suspended by a chain.  as he clambers up a ladder perched precariously against the tree, he tells us he needs us to pull on a nylon rope which would lift the weight of the log enough so that he could unchain it from its mooring, and lower it safely to the ground on his side of the fence.

so, like fools, my stepmother and i are planting our feet in the mud, heaving at a wet nylon rope to try to lift this log in the air.  of course, the log gets caught on an errant branch, so my dad begins poking at it with a big sick, trying to swing it free.  that doesn’t work, so he begins hacking at the branch with a handsaw.  it comes free from the first branch, only to get caught on another on the way down, and this scenario repeats itself a few times before finally, a half hour later, the log is on the ground.

my dad has mist on his glasses, bark bits in his silver hair, mud on his jeans, and bleeding knuckles.  “okay,” he says.  “let’s go eat.”  i turn to him and say, “you know, it just wouldn’t be father’s day unless you were 10 feet up a ladder, hacking at a tree in the rain.”

that’s the kind of thing my dad does all the time.  i am consistently getting emails from him about all the crazy things he does.  how he jumped into the ocean in a speedo and santa hat for charity (though i really didn’t need to see the picture!).  how he challenged his 30-something staff members at work to a stair climbing race.  how he’s sailing his boat down to north carolina singlehandedly.  how he’s planning to bungee jump off the same dam james bond did in the opening scene of “goldeneye”.  how for his 60th birthday, he wants to jump into boston harbour.  how he was dancing in the square in venice with wild abandon when the police came along to break it up.  how he was dancing in harvard square to some street performer playing folk music.  even as a kid, he was always the father who used a real butchers bone in the halloween costume, who brought his honeybees into school for show and tell, who tried to build a log cabin in the woods, who learned to ride a unicycle and juggle at the same time, who liked to jump and click his heels together to show off.  he was the kind of father who was always full of loopy ideas and enthusiasm in equal amounts, always singing and dancing and trying new things and throwing caution to the wind. and dancing, always dancing.  the kind of unselfconscious dancing that doesn’t need a rhyme or reason or even a partner.

and i was always the painfully shy girl dying in the corner of embarrassment.  my personality could not have been more different from my dad’s.  i was the kind of girl who was terrified to do anything new for fear of getting it “wrong”.  my deepest desire was to not stand out in any way, shape, or form.  to be unexceptionally bland and undistinguishable in every way.  attracting no attention, blending seamlessly with the wallpaper.  i was quiet and sober and easily flustered.  i hated being humiliated by my dad’s exuberance, as wanted nothing more than to slip through the floor cracks every time he acted goofy or silly.  and anything i was uncertain of, or didn’t know how to do well was out of the question – i was so fearful of looking foolish, that i never tried anything at all.

i bring all this up, because the other day, my friends dragged me along to something called ceilidh dancing.  i honestly hadn’t a clue what i was in for, and would never have agreed to go if i’d only known it was a form of scottish square dancing.  so when we arrived at the big school-style auditorium and people began lining up in kilts and the fiddle began warming up, i parked myself on the bleachers and settled in with a beer.

you know how it goes next: prancing and dancing and  drinking and sweating and laughing harder than i have in a very long time, with plenty of bruised toes to remember it by the next day. my dad would have loved it.

this didn’t start out to be a story about my father – only about this dance i went to the other night and wound up enjoying immensely in spite of myself.  but i guess i couldn’t help it.  it seems, somewhere tangled deep in my dna, even with all my years of cringing and blushing every time my dad unhesitatingly did something kooky or made a fool of himself, it turns out i am my father’s daughter after all.

i stand corrected – vampire weekend

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everything was perfect, everything was meant to be

by Jen at 7:24 pm on 28.06.2009 | 4 Comments
filed under: family and friends, holidaze, photo

so here’s what happens when you plan a holiday around sun and beaches: it rains.

it rained nearly every single day of my vacation.  and yet somehow, through the unfailing optimism and hilarious good cheer of my travelling companion, (and copious amounts of beer), it was all okay.  everything we did, was “perfect”.  everything that was even moderately successful was “meant to be”.

i was, as tourguide, overcome with the realisation of just how different i am from the person that lived in boston 6 years ago.  the paths and places i’ve forgotten, the words that tangled up my tongue.  while there are bits and pieces that remain as intimately known as the back of my hand, more and more, each visit back represents snapshots of a life that is more different than i ever remembered, and all the unseen shifting that happened when i wasn’t looking.

time marches on, of course.  would that i could freeze people, come back to exactly where they were when i left, slide right back into my slot, take up my place seamlessly in everyone else’s lives and times.

but i can’t.  and the changes seem more and more pronounced each time i try to pick up where i left off.  i cannot, it seems, expect to indefinitely straddle two worlds – at some point, they drift too far apart.

these observations are not new, of course.  i’ve made them many times.  what was new, was the realisation that it doesn’t really sting so much nowadays.  i kinda wish it did.

other things of note:

  • i have a new nephew! will get to see him in a few weeks when i’m at my brother’s wedding
  • my nephew had swine flu. yes, for real
  • my other sister is also having another baby! due sometime in november
  • i don’t miss getting wound up by the ridiculous media in the u.s.,  at all.
  • lucky charms have inexplicably shrunk their marshmallows and now call them “mini-charms”
  • i may get lost driving around, but i can still home in on the beacon of any dunkin’ donuts within a 5 mile radius
  • customer service, while sometimes verging on the sycophantic, overall remains a far better experience in the u.s.
  • i hate getting charged for using an atm machine
  • boston is actually not a bad little city
  • people in the u.s. are starting to use british slang. i heard “knackered” and “wanker” used. for some reason, this annoys me greatly.

a few photos (more here):


thank you

by Jen at 4:40 pm on 27.11.2008 | 1 Comment
filed under: family and friends, holidaze

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. ~Meister Eckhart

happy thanksgiving!

hand turkey

with love to all family and friends celebrating, near and far. with so much gratitude for all you bring to my life.

heartfelt thanks.

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autumn visit

by Jen at 2:50 pm on 13.11.2008 | 5 Comments
filed under: family and friends, photo

a few pics from my visit home



trick or treat


boston night


jen and grandpa

jamaica pond


election night

kate and piper

cat and grandpa

carl and piper


shout out

by Jen at 7:56 pm on 26.09.2008Comments Off
filed under: family and friends, like a fish needs a bicycle

i’m so proud of my friend (and honorary third sister) diana, who was just listed in san diego magazine as one of their “women who move the city”.

she’s one of the strongest, smartest and most socially conscious women i’ve ever had the good fortune to know, and she just makes the world a better place to be. basically, she just kicks ass.

and *she* has more foreign policy experience than sarah palin )

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country weekend

by Jen at 8:06 pm on 13.07.2008Comments Off
filed under: family and friends, photo

spent the weekend out in wiltshire with kerryn, tracey, chris and tonia – the occasion was j’s third birthday!

amazing how quickly the time has flown. watching children grow so fast makes me feel old.

but i can think of few better ways to spend a weekend than surrounded by gorgeous countryside, with good friends, good food, good drink, and birthday cake.

back garden



trace and jj



j and j

j and harmonica

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double happy

by Jen at 10:49 am on 3.07.2008Comments Off
filed under: family and friends, photo

happy birthday to my dearest brother dave… and happy anniversary to my sister kate and her husband carl!

love to you all )

dave and kate

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by Jen at 9:16 pm on 15.06.2008 | 3 Comments
filed under: family and friends, photo

we didn’t get rained on – yay!

i did, however, freeze my unmentionables off every night. i’ve never missed jonno more…



aunt muriel

by Jen at 8:34 pm on 18.05.2008Comments Off
filed under: family and friends

today was the quarterly pilgrimage to see dear aunt muriel.

aunt muriel is my grandfather’s cousin – a garrulous old bird in her late 70s/early 80s, and my only relative here in england. i never actually knew anything about muriel growing up, and only really met her for the first time at my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration, back in… 1996 maybe? though i have no recollection of being introduced.

instead, i only came to meet muriel properly courtesy of my grandfather’s alzheimer’s.

you see, muriel is a bit of a social butterfly and frequent traveller, and she’d spoken to my grandfather about coming over to visit him. apparently she’d arranged to fly into boston, and he’d planned to drive up from west virginia to meet her. my grandfather’s memory had, however, become increasingly clouded and muddled – a fact muriel would not have been aware of, considering how adept he’d become at hiding it.

a few days before muriel’s scheduled visit, my grandfather happened to mention in passing to my mother that she was due to arrive, but he wasn’t sure of when or where. he also had no telephone number for her or further details about her flight or arrangements. in a panic, my mother rang me, and managed to dig up a postal address from years ago, and i was charged with writing to her to try to explain the situation and hope she got word before getting on a plane to arrive in boston with no one to greet her.

thankfully, this being a rather small country, most post arrives the next day, and muriel rang me to discuss what had happened. luckily she took it all in stride.

after rehashing the situation, she invited us up to piddington-upon-oxford for a sunday lunch. we felt obliged to go. and thus began a quarterly tradition, which we now seem rather unable to escape from.

every 8 weeks or so, muriel rings. we fix a sunday a few weeks hence. we trek up there by train (or drive, back when we owned a car) to arrive at noon. we then spend four hours drinking sherry, listening to repeats of the same stories over and over (recited by muriel at a non-stop 90 m.p.h.), posing for photos and perusing old ones, and choking down the most godawful food i’ve ever had the misfortune to ingest.

muriel, by her own admission, is a bad cook. in fact, muriel gives herself a little too much credit – she is a truly terrible cook. jonno likes to joke that she begins boiling her waterlogged vegetables the night before – but he’s probably not far off. meat and potatoes are an incinerated, gristly mess. shrimp cocktail is floating in a puddle of watery mayonnaise. desserts are store-bought, then baked into a hefty brick. it’s really stomach churning.

yet, every few months, we voluntarily go, listen to her rapidfire chatter for hours on end, paste smiles on at the appropriate point in the familiar story, drink cheap wine, eat horrible food and make our escape around 4 hours later. part of it is because she’s so darn persistent – we’ve tried not answering the phone – and part of it is an inability to gracefully decline. part of it is obligation, and part of it is pity.

but more and more, part of it is a strange sense of affection. she’s become more important to us, because we are clearly important to her – i don’t know why we are, but we are.

maybe that’s part of the mystery of family.

all i know is, i must like her enough to suffer the inevitable stomach ache that follows.

feist – it’s cool to love your family

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