I was born in England, and carry a British passport (in addition to my American one), but I have a decidedly American accent, American habits, and American sensibilities. And, yet, I’ve always loved England, and more specifically, London. I love English food (really!), and drafty old English houses, and the amazing museums and galleries of London. I love the theaters in London, and pubs, and the culture of tramping around Hampstead Heath and the English countryside. And I love milky tea.
One of my earliest and happiest memories was the weeks my family sat together in our living room watching the TV series Upstairs Downstairs, which took place in an upper class London home around the turn of the century. Upstairs referred to the owners of the home, and Downstairs referred to their small army of servants. The lives above stairs and below stairs were both fascinating, but, usually, the servants seemed more real, and more interesting. Maybe my affinity was partly due to my feeling that I could more easily relate to the servants than to the masters.
When that program was airing originally, we lived with my grandparents – my English grandmother, who married my very American grandfather after meeting him as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford university. He was a lifelong Anglophile, and made his career studying British politics. My grandmother was the daughter of a well-known writer, and, while not aristocratic, they must have had servants and governesses and cooks. I wish, when we were watching that program, I had thought to ask her more about her life as a child growing up in wartime England. When I watch Downton Abbey now, and other programs like it, I often wonder about her early life in England, and how similar it may have been to what is portrayed.
A few years ago at Thanksgiving, my sister and I followed the suggestion made by the public radio project StoryCorps – the National Day of Listening – and sat down with our mother on the day after Thanksgiving (shunning the traditional Black Friday shopping madness). We asked her to tell us about her childhood, and whatever she remembered about her early life. I had thought I had known most of what there was to know, but a wealth of insights and recollections poured out of her. We ended up with 26 minutes of recorded conversation, and we only scratched the surface. I hope we can set up another session soon, to get more of the story.
I have always loved to listen to older folks tell me about their world, that which has vanished, replaced by technology and a much faster pace of life. There’s no better education or entertainment than sitting down with a “senior citizen”, and hearing their story.
Go sit with an older person, and ask them to tell you their story. You never know what they’ll have to tell you.
This post was inspired by Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey by The Countess of Carnarvon. Learn more about the family who lived in Highclere Castle, where the popular British series Downton Abbey is filmed. Join From Left to Write on December 17 we discuss Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.