Sunday, September 1, 2013

Exploring another life

Montpelier - a city nestled in a forest

About 39 years ago,  for reasons I've never been clear about, my parents decided to emigrate from the UK. This is especially surprising when you think they'd never been travellers - they'd never been to Europe (except when my father was doing his military service before I was born), or even to Scotland. My father has always had a wanderlust. But my mother not so much. When I asked her recently how she came to move to New Zealand, she said "I think I just didn't realise how far away it was." Geography has never been her strong suit.

As my father tells the story, he applied for, and was offered, jobs in Athens, in Napier, NZ, and in Montpelier, VT. I don't think the first was ever seriously considered, but I remember the debate: New Zealand or Vermont? Obviously, he chose the Napier option - and so our lives have unfolded. But I have always been curious about the life I might have lived, and indeed that was one of the things that led me to Vermont for this Sabbatical.

My closest friend, at the school I attended in Duffield, was Julian Gumley. When we left England, when I was 14, I missed him terribly. His family emigrated to Canada, only a few months after we left. And for 39 years we have written to each other - shared our lives, first through long letters that took weeks to travel across the world, and more recently through emails. We have documented, for one another, our school years, our travels, our growing families (Julian is now a grandfather) and the memories we've made for our families, relationship breakdowns, hopes and dreams. Maybe some years there were only a couple of letters or emails - at other times, when our lives were full of news or difficulty, we've written more. While I have lived in one place for most of those years, Julian and his family have travelled and shifted, as his job with the Canadian military has taken him all over the world.

This week, these two elements of my life have come together. Julian arrived at our cottage on Thursday night, laden with gifts: Canadian wine and whisky, Canada tshirts for the girls (that should confuse the issues at school!), Canadian maple syrup, chocolates, and doughnuts:

yummy Canadian chocolate!
But best of all, he brought his own physical, tangible self. And it was effortless: the three of us (Bruce was lured away from his computer) sat up talking late, and I don't think we stopped talking for the two days he was here.

On Friday he and I drove to Montpelier, to visit what might have been my home town. Montpelier is the capital of Vermont, but it is tiny city, maybe only 9,000 people, nestled in a deep, dense forest. There are two streets in the centre of town, which seem to be made up of cafes and bookshops and churches, and a miniature state building (where, I read recently, the most pressing topic of debate is likely to be the grading of maple syrup!).

We walked the streets, ate delicious seasonal food, stopped outside the school I would have attended

and drove up and down the hills to choose the house my family would have lived in.

Julian reckoned this would have been our house - and it's all neglected and lost because we didn't get to it!

But maybe we would have lived in the city centre in a house like this?

Or even better...a house in the woods

So it has been a poignant couple of days - joyful and intriguing. Visiting an unknowable life in the company of my dear and oldest friend.


  1. A poignant post, too, Lisa. I was reminded powerfully of the opening of Eliot's Burnt Norton.

    I see from the second photograph that Lizzy and Emily haven't changed yet ;^)

  2. Gorgeous narrative - life throws those up, doesn't it?

  3. Nice to see pictures of Montpelier - the town I might have grown up in! And I'm glad Julian was able to visit.

  4. Ah Pete, that is nice. All time is unredeemable....

    All time is unredeemable.
    What might have been is an abstraction
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation.
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.