It was late May 1976, graduation time for me, in the USA. My Mum and my Dad came all the way to Breckenridge, Minnesota, to be there for the big day. It was almost twelve months since I’d seen them, and six months since we’d spoken on the telephone. International calls were horrendously expensive back then.
“A’there,” said my Mum, when I rang. I’ve never heard anyone else use this term. It means, Are you there? I suppose it originated from the days of their first telephone – a party line.
The long pause that used to be so typical of international phone calls, the time it took for the electricity carrying the sound of your voice to travel all the way from small town America to the bottom of the earth (New Zealand) was longer than usual, while I tried not to cry at the sound of her voice.
And then excitement got the better of us. We forgot to allow for the time delay, we talked over each other, our conversation punctuated by: What was that? Pardon? And the kiwi classic: eh?
Dad came on the line for a while. Later, he would use the frustrations of the phone call as an excuse for leaving out one very important, to me, piece of information.
The real comfort from the call was the sound of their oh, so familiar, so loved voices. But it was followed by an unutterable loneliness that descended as I replaced the receiver in its cradle. Yep, I was left with a bout of homesickness.
Now, Mum and Dad would be be blown away by Facebook phone, Face Time, Skype. By the fact that during Ben’s travels we can see him as clearly as if he was sitting across the table from us, that he can carry his laptop out on to the verandah and show us, live, his view of the Mediterranean. Or, most amazingly of all, live message us from a basket, under a balloon, five hundred metres up in the sky, above Cappadocia, Turkey.
I’ll admit to a surge of gratefulness when Ben messaged half hour later to let us know he was on the ground again.
Yep, there’s no doubt about it, today Dad wouldn’t have been able to keep his secret.
When Mum and Dad arrived in Breckenridge, back in the summer of ’76 I was excited. Beyond words. I wondered what they would think of my life. Of my host family. My American friends. My school. Me
I lived two blocks from the school. Let me tell you, that day, walking those few yards home was the longest walk of my life. Trying to hurry when your tummy is filled with fluttering butterflies just doesn’t seem to work.
I walked in to the house not knowing what to expect. And then I saw my Mum grinning, the way she used to, when she was excited. The sort of grin I still see on the faces of her sisters, my aunties. The same grin I see on my sister’s face, and that I know passes across mine from time to time.
It was a sweet, sweet moment. You see, my Mum had been torn up by my going off to America. She couldn’t conceive of where I’d be, what I might be doing, who I would be living with. She hadn’t travelled herself back then. Although that changed quickly in the years that followed.
And then, an oh so familiar voice came from the stranger sitting in the chair opposite her. Don’t you know your own father?
It was Dad. And he was right. I didn’t recognise him.
My father, a man who had made a ritual every single day of my childhood, of knocking on my bedroom door to wake me and then hogging the bathroom while he shaved, had grown a moustache. And it wasn’t a trim line of hair across his top lip. Oh, no. Not. At. All. You might remember that I’ve talked before about Dad’s huge zest for life, his “in for a penny, in a for a pound” attitude.
There were never going to be half measures when it came to moustache growing for my father. He had grown a great big bushy, dark mass of whiskers that completely obliterated his top lip. It was unbelieveable and he was unrecognisable.
Dad was a trombonist. After his family – on bad days my Mum would claim before his family – music, brass band music in particular, was the great love of his life. With that mass of hair across his top lip I don’t know how he managed to get a note out of the instrument.
I never got used to it. And when I look at the few photos from their visit that have survived I do still cringe. About that moustache and because they almost always involve me in one fashion catastrophe after another.
But even a massive disguise, that made Dad look uncannily more like Groucho Marx than my father, couldn’t hide the pride he had, that both Mum and Dad had for that matter, about my American High School graduation. Although they were both hugely talented and intelligent people, they didn’t get to finish high school. When he was twelve Dad left school to help support his family. He worked as a delivery boy for a grocer. Mum was a little luckier, she got to stay at school till she was fourteen. She could add sums in her head faster than any calculator – true story.
No wonder they didn’t stop grinning the entire time they were with me.
Graduation day it self is a bit of a blur. It was emotional. My parents were welcomed up on to the stage. That would have been a challenge for my Mum, she hated the limelight, but she did it. I have a photo, the quality is too poor to show here, of them returning to their seats. Maybe one day technology will help me recapture that moment.
The moustache didn’t last. It was gone by the time I got back to New Zealand a few weeks later. Thank-goodness!
Tell me, do you enjoy the immediacy of digital communication or do you hanker for the good old days?
What about fashion disasters? Come on, you know you want to tell me …