AFS

It’s 1976 and Mum and Dad come to the USA, to visit me.

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.

Dad, Mum, and me at Mount Rushmore

Dad, Mum,and me at Mount Rushmore, June 1976. Despite the poor quality of this old photo you can see the size of the thing, and I’m not talking about the Presidents. You have to agree, it did him no favours! As for the high waisted jeans – clearly, they were a disaster as well.

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.

With my host parents on graduation day

With my host parents on graduation day – I think they were proud, too. I’m pretty darn sure my  two sets of parents had a few stories to tell each other!

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 …

25 replies »

  1. I remember those old days so well, and I wouldn’t swap our present speedy, easy communication methods for anything~unless it’s faster, easier and better. Speaking of moustaches; my husband had one for years. About 10 years ago he did away with it. To our utter embarrassment, and his amusement, none of us noticed for about a week. 😀

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    • That story about your husband’s moustaches is so funny, Gallivanta. In my Dad’s case the moustache didn’t last very long. Probably because, as my sister reminded me, we did give him quite a bit of stick about it! And I have to agree with you about modern communication. One of our children has been travelling for the last six months – I’ve very much appreciated the regular updates. So different from the 70s.

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  2. I had to chuckle at that photo of your Dad and his mo’ he rather reminds me of Michael Caton the actor from the movie “The Castle”. Oh yes party lines and never knowing who might be listening in!!! I remember having to book a call weeks in advance to have a Christmas call to my Mum in UK. Also when we had our one and only brand new car in the mid 1960’s (a Hillman Hunter in a metallic green) we had to wait over 3 months for the delivery…What a great and life changing time you had in Minnesota, great post Jill.

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  3. I still marvel at sending messages by computer. I remember telegrams (expensive). Mum and Dad would be amazed at the technology today. At for 70’s fashions – I had platform shoes coloured red, yellow and blue ( I thought they were lovely!). Remember embroidered jeans? (Ah the memories). 😂😂.

    It must have been interesting to travel to America to go to school. Great post Jill.

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    • Ah, Maria, yes indeed, the memories. I had some gorgeous bell bottom jeans that were embroidered. And my most favourite shoes, ever, were ankle breaking platforms. The uppers were denim embroidered with white daisies. I thought they were so cool. Of course, now I wouldn’t have a hope of walking two steps in them

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  4. I really enjoyed this story Jill. I’ve just been with Rotary youth exchange students this weekend and they wouldn’t understand the lack of communication that you and your family endured. On the facial hair front my dad was in the navy and while at sea once grew a beard. We didn’t recognise him when he came home and so wondered who the strange man kissing our mother was!! We wouldn’t let him into the house.

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    • Oh, so funny, Debbie. I wonder what your dad thought?
      I noticed recently on some exchange forums that students are being encouraged to limit their contact with friends and family back home. Not sure what I think about that.

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    • I think they must have been the fashion of the day, Kat but I didn’t like it. My sister has reminded me that we all gave dad a hard time about his, and he did get rid of it quite quickly. But it’s in all the photos of that trip!

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  5. I love the photos, especially the 1st – soooooo 1970s. In response to your question, I am pleased that there is internet to keep me connected on my travels now but also so glad there was no Facebook, Twitter, etc when I was a child/teenager/college student. I wouldn’t want to be a kid now in this ‘noisy’ world.

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  6. Ah, those days of the thin blue airmails winging their way around the world. The days of poste restante and eagerly making your way to the main post office in a city to see if anyone had written to you. To be honest I think we have gone too far with the instant communications, it is so hard to ‘disappear’ to live in solitude, make new discoveries. Life can be over-planned if you know what I mean. I enjoyed my freedom, (went travelling as a 17 year old through Europe and caught the wanderlust bug) though I guess it was hard on my mum, but she never complained.

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    • Hi Jude, I was just thinking about those aerograms. I used to try to write with tiny script to fit everything in. The upside of the modern world is that it’s so much easier to stay connected but that is the down side as well, isn’t it. You can have too much of a good thing!

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  7. That’s a great story. I remember when my father grew a mustache. It was while I was in college but it looked pretty good on him. The fact that they came halfway around the world to be at your graduation must have made you feel very special.

    As for communications, I think about the fact that you went months without talking to your parents. Maybe it’s sad, but maybe it helped you become the person you are today. I think it works both ways.

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    • It was awesome that Mum and Dad came so far to see me, Dan. And I’ve always been glad they did. It made it so much easier when I got home – they knew the people who were important to me from that time. And, yes, I think that whole experience contributed to who I am to day! Some things have stayed the same – itchy feet being one of them!

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  8. I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday about how much easier travelling is now with pretty well instant communication and easy access to cash. When I was young and travelling in Greece I had a 5 day wait for the bus back to London (and that was a 3 day trip!). I literally lived on bottles of water and plain loaves of bread cos I was seriously low on funds. Wouldn’t happen now I don’t think.

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    • Hello Mary, That wait for the bus in Greece sounds rather dire. Perhaps it still happens but less often – some of the backpackers i’ve seen on our travels have been sailing rather close to the wind, if you know what I mean.

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  9. Hehe. Your dad’s mustache reminds me of the one my dad grew in the early 70’s. My dad’s pretty swarthy, so he looked like a “Mexican bandit” extra from a Sergio Leone movie. As for digital communications; I have a teenager spreading his wings and so am very grateful for smart phones and his willingness to use it (she writes between texts about evening transport). 🙂

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  10. Yes, that is a serious mustache!! All my sons and some of my grandsons are into facial hair of one kind or another at different stages. I confess, I’ve never understood the attraction.
    Love your story. I can definitely relate. Also, am amazed at how brave you were to come so far away at a time when communication and distances were such a challenge.

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    • Hello Eileen, Back then I was fixed on the adventure. I think it was much harder for my Mum, understandably. About Dad’s moustache – neither of my sisters were impressed, either. They were quite vocal about it, too, so it’s not surprising he didn’t keep it very long – thankfully!

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