She Knows Why I Am Me

A conversation that stretched me out of myself.

I stand beneath the wisteria laden arch of my auntie’s flat, waiting for Jean to arrive. It’s been over six years since I’ve seen her, and other than the emails over which we’ve exchanged details about this trip, I haven’t really communicated with her either. I close my eyes and try to recall what she looks like. She is the daughter of my grandfather’s cousin. What does that make us? Third cousins? Once removed? Twice? I arch my feet to stand on my toes and crane my neck for a glimpse of her car.

My mother loves Jean and Jean loves history. These are the things I know about her. She’s told me that she has a lot of information on the German Occupation, the five years that Germans controlled the Crown Dependency Island, and that she’ll set up interviews for me with survivors.

I want to be a writer, I tell her over email. No, I correct myself, backspacing it out. I am a writer. I am writing a book about the German Occupation. I look forward to seeing you again. Take care, lots of love, Rachael.

A seagull swoops narrowly close to my head. The thing about being on an island that only unfolds five miles one direction and nine the other is that, even in the most middle point, you are not far enough from the sea. Farmers of the potato fields that cover this middle section like a tightly buttoned coat have to watch out for seagulls, because they will dig up the potato seeds and have them for lunch.

Jean used to take my mother around, when she was growing up, before the island fit her too tightly and she left for England, then for America. She used to pick her up and take her to the zoo or the beach, out for ice cream or for a walk to stretch those legs of my mother’s that always had to be on the move. We stayed with Jean, the last time we came when I was sixteen. Her house smelled like wicker and peonies and she gave me her quiche crust recipe, wrote it out in her handwriting that looked like a computer font.

I step back like I’m surprised when her car whizzes around the corner and into the drive, stopping abruptly seven inches from my toes. She steps—no, bounces—out of the car, saying in a voice that is somehow both singsong and business like, Hello Rachael so sorry I’m late I had to drop of the grandchildren with Jayne-May and went the wrong direction lovely to see you this must be Andrew gosh he is tall, isn’t he right then are you ready to go?

I cannot stop smiling. I suddenly remember her. I say goodbye to Andrew and get into her car. Classical music is playing. She chats the whole way ten minute drive in her cheery, sing song voice, the kind that sounds happy even while describing how she lost her husband, how then her dog Bertie died earlier this year, how lucky she is to be a grandmother.

We pull into her house and it is exactly like I remember: the thick, wooden gate that must be pulled back, the wall of windows that stretches across her dining and living room, the blue kitchen with the yellow lemon table cloth. On the counter, beneath a fly net is a quiche, stuffed with peppers, onion, and lots of cheese, sitting at room temperature.

The table is covered with research she has already done for me: newspaper clippings of stories from the Occupation, books, a milk tin, now empty, that arrived for her mother in 1945 from the Red Cross Vega, the ship that brought nourishment to islanders about to starve.

Outside, the potato farmers till the field in big red machines, “Too heavy,” Jean says as she bustles into the room, carrying plates and a salad she insists I must eat, because lettuce gives her indigestion. “Dad would be rolling over in his grave to see that.”

She pushes her research to the side so that we can eat. She tells me about her walking holidays, asks about my mom, my dad, how the rest of my family is now. “Eat more,” she tells me between sentences as she dishes up another slice of quiche, cut like a pizza, like pie. “You haven’t eaten much.”

After lunch she brings me out a steaming cup of hot tea. She brings one out for herself too, but doesn’t take more than a few sips—when I turn around she is carrying a metal ladder to the conservatory to fix a fallen shade.

She takes shortcake wrapped in doily to Osmond’s, a farmer down the road who I am about to interview. Before we close the gate, she carries a handkerchief full of piecrust crumbs to the back garden. She drops them just before the stonewall and behind the clothesline, to feed her “pet seagull.” We walk and she points out the ocean, her favorite meadow, the woman who lives in that old stone house.

I soak up the presence of this delightful woman, this link to my family history, this woman who knows so much about why I am me.

Falling into step beside her, I realize I do not need the interview to go well for this trip to be worth it.

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