Where Are We? Where’s Walter? And Where is That Fleeting Moment?

My daughter Bea’s spring break didn’t coincide with her Dad’s, so we took our first overseas trip together, just the two of us.

She was a sophomore in high school, but I knew she  would be college bound before I could blink twice, and her spring breaks and summers would likely be spent on internships, summer jobs, or traveling with friends.  Each moment felt precious and fleeting, except perhaps our first night in England, when my darling girl got very sick.  There was nothing fleeting about that night–it lasted an eternity!  But Bea rallied, and we made the most of every moment.

Each day I studied the map and planned our route, which ‘A’ road led to which ‘B’ road which led to tiny country lanes with no names.

“Why bother, Mom?  We always get lost anyway,” said Bea.

Good point.   If we asked a local for directions, the answer went something like this: “Right! Take the left fork, then the second right, go past three fields and take a left where the old oak used to be…”  Once I even had to knock on a stranger’s door to beg directions.

But a dandelion is only a weed if you don’t want it, and getting lost was an interesting diversion, so long as we were in no hurry, and we never were.  Our oft-repeated motto was, “We always get where we’re going…………………………………………….eventually!

I wanted to share some of my favorite places with Bea and do a bit of research for a historical novel, but mostly I hoped to discover exciting places new to us both.  On previous trips, I’d never made it to Canterbury, though the town had played an important role throughout English history.   So we moseyed to Canterbury, and stayed at Blackfriars, an inn that was once a 13th century friary.

At Canterbury Cathedral we had our tour guide all to ourselves.  I’d have sworn he’d stepped right out of a BBC special, with his gray hair, proper English accent, and Mr. Rogers sweater and tie.  He also carried a cane, and I suspect that he’d suffered a mild stroke.  Yet here he was, kindly sharing his expertise and his precious time with us.  We asked questions about the cathedral and even ventured into politics, current events, and other matters I’d always wondered about, such as, “What do contemporary English people think about Henry VIII?”  When our tour ran over–too many questions–our guide called the front desk for permission to spend another hour with us.  We felt so honored and grateful.  After saying goodbye to him, we went to the gift shop for our pilgrim badges.

We heard great stories from John the Boatman on the canal tour in Canterbury.  When we came to a particularly low bridge, he  warned us to duck.  As we passed under, he pointed out the groove worn into the center stone by the heads of boatmen not quite fleet enough, at least when it came to ducking.  How many times, I wondered, would you have to smack the back of your head before you caught on?  And how many boatmen had it taken over the centuries to wear a grove in the stone?

Some of our discoveries were due to fools’ luck.  On an evening stroll we stumbled upon this little coffee shop where in 1620, according to its proprietors, America began.  (It was the place where the Mayflower was hired to carry pilgrims to America. Using that logic, the soda fountain where Mr. Disney popped the question to the future Mrs. Disney is the place where Disneyland began.)  Nevertheless we took a photo for future reference, since we have a personal history and interest in the Mayflower.

We visited castles, museums and took high tea, but a trip to the grocery store was as much fun as Disneyland.


We love to try new things, especially when the second ingredient listed is sugar.

…and I think there should be a monument erected in honor of Mr. Kipling, for his contribution to the world–Mr. Kipling’s Exceedingly Good Cherry Bakewell Tarts.

But Bea and I don’t need a tourist attraction to amuse ourselves–we talk history, life, story and more story.  Wherever we go, Bea and I  inevitably produce an outline for a novel based on this era or that event, and England was a fertile and storied land long before we arrived.   We took turns brainstorming and talking each other through rough spots in our writing projects.  I’d just finished a draft of a women’s contemporary, Real Troopers.  One of my characters is Walter Clark, a retired F.B.I. agent, poet, and amateur astronomist.  He is older, with white hair, a good looking sixty-something.  But was he too good to be true?  Could someone like Walter exist in real life?  Bea and I invented a game, ‘Where’s Walter?’  On country lanes and city streets, we kept a discreet eye peeled for him.

“How about him, Mom?” asked Bea, casually nodding her head in the direction of a man walking toward us in the crowd.

“Too young,” I said.

“How about him?” asked Bea.

“Too old,” I said.  “Oooh, don’t look, Bea!  Turn slowly and check out that gent by the phone booth.  Could that be Walter?”

Bea pretended to stretch, discreetly twisting her head for a look, then gave her report.  “Walter would never have frown lines.”

She was right, of course.  We left Canterbury and The Walter That Wasn’t to depart for our next destination.  Not knowing if I’d have another chance, I had splurged for a night in a very spiffy 15th century B&B, The Olde Moat House, in Ivy Church.  There was a tiny hamlet with only a church and a pub, where two men were having a pint at an outside table.  We were coming from a different direction than we’d planned, but figured we would find our way there…………………………………….eventually.   After a mile or so, we realized we’d overshot the town and turned back.  As we passed the pub for the second time, one of the men jumped up and flagged us down.   I stopped and rolled down the window,  and he said, pointing,“The Olde Moat House.  It’s in that direction.  Look for a gate with two white posts.”

 “How did you know?” I asked.

“A mother and a daughter.” (He did NOT say “looking confused,” but he didn’t need to.)

For one night, Bea was a princess.


The next day we had tea at The Mermaid Inn in Rye.

The inn was there at the time of the Conquest.  It was so old they had to remodel in anticipation of a visit by the first Queen Elizabeth.

Our bartender was Paddy Mortimer, whose ancestor had come over with William the Conqueror.  (We forgave him.)  When he heard Bea had been ill, he mixed her the special orange juice concoction his mum always made him when he was sick, and served it to her on the house.  He had us wait five minutes for his shift to end, so he could escort us to our car park.  Thank you, Paddy, dear lad.

True ghost stories from Dover Castle must wait, as will the story of our visit to Battle Abbey, where we walked the battlefield on which the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, was defeated by William the Bastard, thereafter known as William the Conqueror.

I also wanted to take Bea to Battle, because it is the starting point of my historical novel, The Keeper of the Crystal Spring, which I co-authored with my sister Deborah.  It was a really special moment to share with my daughter.

So we had our eating moments,

and our bleating moments…
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…and even our cheating moments.

That happened on the Underground.  We were returning from London to our  hotel when I saw him.  Among the bustling crowd on the subway I saw Walter!  “Look, Bea,” I whispered.  “It’s him!”  Bea confirmed.  Yes!  We had a positive identification, but we needed documentation.  I whipped out my camera and said, “Smile!”  Bea did, and I shot right past her head to snap a creeper photo of Walter, concrete proof that he did, indeed, exist!  But the shot was out of focus, soI tried again…

By that time I was laughing so loud that I embarrassed Bea, and drew unwanted attention.   Thank goodness, the train stopped, and we all went our separate ways.  But now I know, somewhere in the streets of London, Walter exists!

I will tell you one more story, about the 650 year old Clergy House in Alfriston.

In the 1880s it was in a state of decay, and church authorities wanted to tear it down.  Living there was a ninety year old woman who had been renting the house from the church for many years.  She cried and begged them not to destroy her home and put her out onto the streets.  They took pity, and granted her permission to live out the rest of her life in the old clergy house, and then they would raze it.  She surprised them all by living another three years, just long enough for the right folks to found The National Trust.  They got organized just in time to purchase The Clergy House, raise the funds to restore it, and maintain it as a priceless national treasure, the very first property of many such historic treasures acquired by The National Trust.  When we toured the house, there was a smooth-edged little hole in the lintel over the front door, worn into the wood by six centuries of coming and going of the furry little bats living among the rafters.  Who would have thought such fleeting appearances by such tiny creatures would make such a lasting mark?

Fleeting moments occur, and often reoccur.  I think of the Canterbury boatmen who wore down a stone bridge with the backs of their heads.  But then there are the bats who have done much the same thing at The Clergy House, only they created a pathway to home, a far worthier pursuit than banging your head against a wall.  I’m more like a bat than a boatman.  Every expression of love, every shared smile, every conversation we have is a precious fleeting moment in time.  Just like it did for the bats, that moment builds upon itself, and the effect is cumulative.   I think of the empty nest I will be living in next year, but I will try not to feel too sad.  Bea and I have shared a lifetime of fleeting precious moments that have worn a pathway from heart to heart, and that will never go away.

Copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Befriend the Ides of March

Last year for Valentine’s Day, guests came to our house dressed as as history’s greatest lovers.  My husband and I were Harold Godwinson and his handfast wife, Edith SwanNeck.  Our daughter Bea came as Petrarch, Father of Humanism and victim of unrequited love.  The guest list also included Sonny and Cher, Marge and Homer Simpson, Clark Kent and Lois Lane, The Little Red-headed Girl, and Narcissa, to name a few.

This year, the day of our Valentine’s Day party fell upon February 12th, so we decided–what the heck!  We would celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, our favorite president.  In the costume room we found top hats, stovepipe hats and a couple of wigs, which we cut into strips for beards.  Decorating was easy; everything with a face, like the bust of Diana the moon goddess and our storyteller dolls, sported a beard and top hat.  Lincoln Logs were the centerpiece, and we put 203 candles on the birthday cake (just kidding! We used numerals 2-0-3).   We had rolls of Lincoln pennies for pitching or playing poker, a big portrait of Abe to play Pin the Wart on the President, and all the fixings to build pretzel log cabins.  We never got to half that stuff, but we did get to hear a seven-year-old guest (Go, Sylvia!) read a moving excerpt from the Gettysburg Address.

This month, I’m booked for St. Patrick’s Day, but am planning ahead to next year, for my Ides of March party.  If you’ve read Shakespeare, you know a soothsayer forewarned Julius Caesar about his assassination on March 15th, telling him to “Beware the Ides of March.”  So we will have to commemorate the event, of course, with a toga party, B.Y.O.B. (bring your own bed sheet).  We’ll eat Roman fare, and I am fortunate enough to have musician and storytelling friends who will tell stories (Roman myths) and sing for their supper.  I might even rent a temple for the day.  (It’s been known to happen.)

The calendar is full of odd and interesting holidays. International Talk Like A Pirate Day, Fruitcake Toss Day, Pi Day (on 3/14, of course).  And one of these years I will celebrate National Barbie Day–come as you aren’t.  Guests could dress each other up as Zombie Barbie, Office Slut Barbie, Star Trek Nerd Ken or maybe Trailer Trash Ken.

I try to do in my writing what I do with my parties—people them with quirky characters, and create an interesting backdrop.  In The Keeper of the Crystal Spring, a historical novel co-written with my sister, the village of Enmore Green is populated with affable eccentrics like Edwin MoonCatcher, Agilbert PigWife, and Thurgood GiantKiller.

For deliciously quirky characters, read Jonathan Safran Foer.  He deftly uses humor to tell serious stories, as in Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  I also highly recommend the movies based on those novels.

And next October, go to someone else’s Halloween party, but the following week try hosting your own All Saint’s Day Bash.  In your writing and in your life, if you have a choice, try taking the road less traveled.  Befriend, rather than beware The Ides of March.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of Cee’s Odd Ball Photo Challenge.