Spring in your step
by Mrs J
Mary Ellen crosses the car park to talk to me. We are strangers when we meet and friends when we bid goodbye.
Mary Ellen is interested in the British flag on our car. Her daughter’s friend in Florida is English. I have had countless conversations start like this but I am patient. The friend’s name is Nigel. “Nigel,” Mary Ellen repeats with satisfaction, “The English have great names.”
It has never occurred to me that Nigel is so curiously British. This tickles me too.
Mary Ellen states that she is ‘Irish’. I ask which county her family hail from.
She has no idea.
“We’re Catholic,” she says, clearly hoping that narrows it down a bit. I offer a 10-second synopsis of four hundred years of Catholic-Protestant geopolitical turmoil. Yes, we Brits made a real mess of things – but I feel comfortable enough to say I have never liked the way Americans funded the IRA either: indiscriminate bombings left an impression on my formative years.
Mary Ellen is the youngest of five children: a menopausal surprise, and an embarrassment to her brother 16 years her senior. “He probably thought his parents were too old to still be doing that,” she laughs. She was ‘born in the bed I was conceived in,’ and we talk briefly about home births and how pregnancy is now treated like an illness. Mary Ellen is retired nurse, which might explain her unabashed nature.
Mary Ellen is originally from South Carolina. “We are like the Chinese,” she laughs, “we eat rice and revere our ancestors.” Her great great grandfather – Abednego – was one of triplets. Naturally, his brothers were called Shadrach and Meshach. Remarkably, all three babes survived into adulthood and Mary Ellen paints a fanciful picture of the little mites being incubated in boxes by a warm stove.
Shadrach and Meshach both lost their lives in the Civil War. Mary Ellen calls it the Civil War, which is somewhat unusual around here – so many southerners call it the War of Northern Aggression or the War Between the States.
Then somehow we get on to the long and critically acclaimed career of the British actor Ralph Fiennes (pronounced Rafe as in ‘safe’). I confide in Mary Ellen that Mr Fiennes and I exchanged brief pleasantries early one morning on Kensington Park Road, in Notting Hill, London. It was 1997, around the same time that Richard Curtis was directing the eponymously named film, Notting Hill. I said, “Morning,” and Ralph said, “Hello”.
I did say brief pleasantries.
Mary Ellen and I pause to remember how handsome Ralph was back then, just after The English Patient…
At 75, Mary Ellen has aged well. Perhaps it is those robust Irish genes. Her 78-year-old bother was a naval pilot and still flying (and jogging) to this day. We do not discuss her health but I notice that Mary Ellen has had a mastectomy and does not hide it. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” is all she says, quoting Dylan Thomas.
Mary Ellen in on the way to the cat rescue shelter. She is also keen to tell me that she is about to get a Yorkshire Terrier. She pronounces the second syllable very clearly: ‘shire’. “Yorksher,” I say, “you should really pronounce it Yorksher Terrier.” We practice together.
Mary Ellen can’t wait to tell her English friend Nigel all about me. I tell her that when we arrived in the U.S. we told our children they were ambassadors for the U.K. It was a way to draw out their best behaviour when they were jet lagged and homesick. I still feel all our family are unofficial ambassadors for our home country. It is one of the reasons we never hesitate to stop to talk to strangers, that, and being naturally plain curious.
I wonder if I will be able to establish a similar level of connection back home, with Brits whose nature is quintessentially more reserved…
Yes, Mary Ellen and I were strangers when we meet and friends when we said goodbye.
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