The house was always cold. British stone is like that – giving its heat and light back out to the wet lawns and sheep fields, welcoming the damp in return. When we woke up that morning, I felt the end of the heated blanket with my wriggling toes, daring to put my feet against the frozen edges of the sheet beyond. It was hard to believe that I was there – I always felt that in this house – and I hated mornings because they promised another day closer to leaving again. I squeezed my eyes shut against the patch of sunlight.
The kettle sounded below, and I heard water running from the rickety tap in the bathroom. The bathroom was even colder than my bedroom at the end of the hall, and I knew my mom was chattering her teeth against her toothbrush as she sighed into the smudged mirror. I should join her, begin the day. But I didn’t want to wake up from my dream, from being for a brief glorious moment a nine year old in England with carrot-colored hair and freckles, beautiful in her moongazing, climbing ladders and being kindred spirits.
Mom poked her head around the heavy white door, the one with the handle lower than my hip. “It’s time to get up – breakfast is almost ready. They’re waiting for us.” I sat up, the warmth from my back against the blankets immediately evaporating. I dressed in a purple sweater and jeans, pulled on socks and shoes. I was too young to brush my hair, so it hung in curtains on either side of my round cheeks.
The stairs were my favorite part of the house. They were narrow and deep, covered in thick and dusty red carpet. The smell going up those stairs promised me every morning that it was real, that this was my grandparents’ house in England. The smell – a combination of my grandmother’s rose water, the dust and smoke from the downstairs fire, something like spring… I closed my eyes every morning, breathing it in, promising myself, someday.
We ate eggs with their yolks running across the white china. We ate toast printed with small squares from the Aga griller. We ate orange marmalade, dripping off the crusts of our bread. I drank tea out of the fine china, holding the cup with both hands. It was silent, and I watched my grandmother bend low over the stove, her hands shaking as she lifted heaving pots of potatoes and carrots, making room for a turkey. I saw the carefully peeled apples in the sink. Granny never made apple pie, but it was Thanksgiving, and Mom and I were Americans, and she wanted to offer it to us. She wanted to bring home to us.
I wanted to tell her she didn’t need to bake an apple pie. Home was the smell of her staircase, the cold stones, the not-yet-blooming garden. Home was the hedges along the road. Home was the big tree in the front where I named snails, kneeling on the wet ground with my too-big black wellies stuck out behind me, my voice a high-pitched gleeful squeak. Home was the stamp collection we played with, Mom and I, at the table in the corner of the room, beneath the picture of Dad meeting President Clinton.
I wanted to tell her, you are home. This house, tall Granddad and his pipe, his wink and the book he always bought me in the Castle Cary bookshop, no matter how old I was, all the Roald Dahl and their bright soft covers, the special illustrations by Quentin Blake. You are home, the pictures I sneak glimpses of in the parlor with the piano, the pictures of you with horses and with Granddad young and in love. You are home. You are home.
I wanted to tell her those things, my heart bursting with them, but I ate the crusts of my toast instead. I drank two cups of tea in the kitchen while she baked the pie. At dinner that night, gathered around, I ate the first piece – let it slip down my throat and settle in my stomach. I drank more tea than Mom liked me to. I smiled, and smiled, and told her in the American accent that it was a wonderful Thanksgiving.
That night, lying in my cold white sheets, waiting for the electric blanket heat, I closed my eyes and wished. But I didn’t wish for Anne, for the heroes of my lopsided book pile. I didn’t wish to be big like Abby. I didn’t wish for more books at Christmas. I wish I could stay here forever.
But wishes are thanksgivings, our hearts cut open by longing and love. I was nine years old, wishing for England, eating an apple pie and naming snails, my hair hanging like curtains around my face. All I wanted was to stay forever.
And now, thirteen years later, that wish softened and bent with time, I close my eyes against the New England sun, and whisper, thank you.
You are still home to me.