England: A Personal History & Travelogue (Part I)

While thinking about a spring trip--and Xavier's last free flight before he turned two-- Christian and I decided to revisit England, a place where we both have some history but where neither of us have been in many years or together.

Christian has a British Passport in addition to his Canadian one.  His parents both grew up in England and moved to Canada together soon after they wed.  Christian was born in Vancouver, but his family returned to England when he was six months old and lived in Oxford until he was four.  He must have had the sweetest British accent as a little boy!  The family then moved to Toronto, but Christian would often visit his grandparents back in England and has many fond memories of walking in Dartmoor, playing at the seaside and eating English chocolate, which he insists is much better than North American chocolate.  Christian’s mother’s family, the Peels, were landed gentry and they are listed in Burke’s Peerage – I looked them up in that thick historical tome and their family motto is "Industria."  Christian's maternal grandfather was born on an estate called Trenant Park where, at one point, he kept a pet lion in the garden.  And Christian’s father has researched his English family line back to the 1600’s which I wrote about recently here.  Anyway, both sides of my husband's English family go back a long, long way.  Here is a painting from 1827 of his Auntie Julia, also known as Lady Peel.

Christian and I stumbled upon Julia in the Frick Museum in New York one afternoon a few years back.  I was drawn to this beautiful portrait (I love portraiture) and when I read the title and details I called Christian over to see it.  I asked him, “Could this possibly be one of your ancestors?”  Indeed she is.  Giddy with the discovery, we bought prints in the gift shop for Christian's mother, sister and for us.  She now lives among us and watches regally from her place on our fireplace mantle.  I chat with her sometimes. 

As for me, when I finished university I had a history degree and no clear idea what to do with it. So I followed in my older brother’s path, applied for a 6-month BUNAC work visa and then packed myself off to London.  With no other real work experience other than waitressing, I found a job on Portabello Road at the neighborhood bottle shop called Oddbins Wine Shoppe Extraordinaire.  While I didn’t make much money, I received an excellent education in wine and drank quite a bit of rather fine champagne after-hours with my manager and coworkers.  I lived on smoked salmon sandwiches on buttered brown bread from Marks & Spencer and ate them in Hyde Park.  Because I was there from November-May when it rains incessantly, most of my free time was spent in the National Gallery and the Portrait Gallery where I became best friends with Mr. and Mrs. Andrews:

For part of this time I lived part with Hilary and Robert Swift and their daughter Moxie in West Ealing.  Hilary is the sister of a former boss of mine and they generously took me in for my first six weeks while I sorted myself out with a job and a shared flat.  Robert is a lawyer who would come home from work and listen to opera and read in his study.  Hilary hosted weekly Sunday night gourmet feasts where anywhere from 6-18 people might show up for seven course meals including port and cheese.  I liked how they lived and took mental notes. Culturally, that six-month stint was a rich if sometimes lonely time for me.  And now, looking over my bookshelves I realize I’ve been infused with British Art and Literature my whole life. 

A few favorites from childhood:

Paddington Bear by Michael Bond
Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling (I especially loved "How the Elephant got his Trunk)
Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (which I read straight through while in bed with the chicken pox)

And a few of my favorites as an adult:

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (a new favorite children's book recommended by our British friend Alicia, first read on this trip) 
Orlando by Virginia Wolf
In the Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Vile Bodies and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Anything and everything written by P.D. Wodehouse
Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Emma by Jane Austen
Othello and Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

For this trip, I was excited to go back to England and walk into some of the scenes from these books, from my memory and from my imagination.  We wanted to explore the countryside outside of London, which I had seen but little.  We also wanted to do a fair bit of walking, as all of England is a criss-cross of public foot paths, and we planned to find accommodation on farms and in country inns, preferably ones above cozy pubs.  We booked our flights on points, rented a car and set off with no itinerary other than to head north towards Yorkshire...


When We Were Two Yet One

"My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it."
~ Mark Twain.

Happy Mother's Day Weekend!  Below, the beautiful painting by Edouard Manet depicts exactly what I will be doing tomorrow to celebrate except instead of a French garden, I will be lolling in the garden of a farmhouse in the Yorkshire Moors (and sadly I will not be wearing such a fabulous frock).

Now that I am a mother myself, this holiday has extra meaning for me and of course, I do love to be feted. But becoming a mother has made me appreciate my own mother in a whole new way.  I look around at all these people walking around in the world and think to myself "Wow, all these people grew in their mother's bellies for nine months all the while being supported by an umbilical cord attached to her body!"  This fact is simply miraculous and sci-fi at the same time - and then we all kind of forget about it most of the time.  I may be a little more tuned in to all this at the moment as I am carrying a little sibling for Xavier around in my own belly so I am feeling extra sentimental, awe-filled and happy this Mother's Day.

Two poetic writers describe the physically and emotionally symbiotic relationship of mother and child in a way that makes me tear up.

"I will say it is so:  The first voice I heard belonged to my mother.  It was her voice
I listened to from the womb; from the moment my head emerged into this world; from the moment I was pushed out then placed on her belly before the umbilicus was cut; from the moment when she cradled me in her arms.  My mother spoke to me: “Hello little one.  You are here, I am here.”  I will say it is so:  My mother’s voice is a lullaby in my cells.  When I am still, my body feels her breathing."

~ Terry Tempest Williams, from When Women Were Birds

And from Samantha Reynold's Bentlily:

Maybe You Won't Forget

In case your memories are scrubbed
by the lick of the air
as you enter the cluttered glare
of this place
let me tell you about this time
when you lay like a leaf
in the centre of me
about the dosas you craved
at strange hours
and how the young Indian waiters
couldn’t believe how much I ate
and the brave one
who asked me why
I ate alone
about all the books we read
one a day
as I lay on the couch
sobbing about the civil war
or the French one
whose words we sipped
like sherry
about the way your brother asked
can I cuddle in
and I thought he meant to me
until he went under the covers
and put his cheek
on my belly
and the time you waved
on the ultrasound
in the funny way your dad and I wave
to each other
like squirrels flirting
or maybe you won’t forget
maybe when I’m old
and my skin hangs
like a thin sheet off my nose
and my bones have yellowed
and folded into each other
maybe then you will take my hand
in yours and whisper
that was peaceful
wasn’t it
before the breath
when we were two
yet one.


Xavier's Birth Story

Two years ago today, my son Xavier Rhys was born and the whole world became a brighter place. His Auntie Rebecca was there to welcome him as she'd come out from New York to be my doula. We were all so happy she was there with us for the big day.  She wrote this beautiful birth story as a gift for him and for our family.  I look forward to reading it to him every year on his birthday.

Auntie Rebecca holding Xavier for the first time.

A birth story dedicated to the parents who love you, 
Christian Amott and Sarah Elizabeth Burns 
Love, Rebecca Frances Thom
May arrived in Vancouver in all her glory. Stanley Park was green and bright and people were all emerging just as the flowers; apple blossom pinks, magnolia whites and dogwood. The mama Canadian Geese were teaching their tiny, fluffy goslings just how to be in the world. Everything was anew and your parents too, were preparing for life with you, Xavier Rhys Amott.
On the second day of May I had arrived and was staying across town with my sister. I talked to Sarah at your high- rise apartment on Stanley Park’s edge; her voice was vibrant and joyous and she was ripe with 9 months of pregnancy and had just cleaned the stove. She was surely nesting in those precious days before your arrival, but still attending prenatal yoga, visiting with friends, enjoying delicious meals and running around with your papa, Christian, making last stops before your arrival. We all shared a meal that day and Sarah was glowing with motherhood already. She was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt and in all her fullness she opened a bottle of champagne and poured us all a glass. Your mama had a few little sips, and you were celebrating along with us from the little warm place where you curled up, waiting.
You were perfectly in position. Your Dad knew just how you were laying at any given moment. He would lift up your mama’s shirt and give us a tour of your whereabouts, you were bottoms up – and Sarah would just smile. Both your parents were ready to meet you! And each of them had special ways they would use to tell you to come out. Sarah wrote to you, they spoke to you through her belly. Christian was already an expert in the technicalities of childbirth and Sarah was all read up on pregnancy poetry. All in all they were ready.
Saturday the fifth was a super moon. They call it that because the moon is closer to the earth than usual. It appeared over Vancouver like a great white pearl, rising over the harbor, arriving above English Bay late in the night. Your mama peered out the window, looking for it. Finally it shone back at her around four in the morning. She stirred some more and then went back to sleep.
On Sunday the sixth we had planned to go for a jaunt in the wilderness. Your dad was going to kayak and your mama wanted to relax on the shore side. Instead Sarah called me to say that the labor was beginning. She had woken up in the morning as the fluid from your sac started to seep. She hadn’t felt contractions yet and was bright and excited on the phone. ‘I guess that supermoon pulled our baby down,’ she said.
I packed up my things and headed over while your Mum and Dad ate lunch and got comfortable with the beginnings of labor. Sarah was beginning to feel the growing intensity of contractions, but was still smiling, talking and laughing throughout. Around four in the afternoon your parents got dressed and slowly walked through Stanley Park, they were arm in arm and were easing through the pain with steady steps.
I found them both in the rose pavilion. They both looked so happy, without a glimpse of fear in their eyes and very much in love. They were kissing under the trees and holding each other in the dappled sunlight as Sarah kept moving and you steadily kept on your move down. In the early hours Sarah used a little machine called the tens to deal with pain. Each time she felt a contraction she would press a button and get a little shock in her lower back. It was a good distraction.
We met back at your house as the sun was reaching its golden hour. Your mum was comfortable and beautiful in red and she stretched on the floor like a cat, gracefully moving and trying to manage the intensifying pain. Sarah wanted a cake for you and had picked out a gorgeous recipe of a chocolate and rose blossom chiffon. I’m not a master baker, but I set about to make you the cake. While Christian prepared dinner and I made the batter we both supported your mom. She was doing great though and around 8:00 she was able to speak with the midwife, feeling as though things were getting closer, and wondering when she should come over. The cake was taking forever and we didn’t have a whip so Christian and I were whipping the egg whites between helping Sarah through contractions.
At around 9:30 the midwife, Gillian, arrived. She was very sweet and quickly found her place and soon checked Sarah who was already dilated more than five centimeters. That means that the place where you come out was half of the way open. By this time everything had become quite intense and your Mama was ready to use the shower and bath to help ease pain. So your dad hooked up the awesome, radical, coolest birthing-tub ever. It’s actually just a kiddie-pool with sea animals on it, but it worked perfectly – and soon it was in the living room, filled with warm water for you and your mama to get in.
Your Mum labored around that whole apartment. She tried all the spaces, leaning on counters and over cushions. Sarah’s favorite place to be was in bathroom; it was dimly lit and she could go in there alone or with one other person. She would lean against the sink and we could see her strength in the mirror. At one point she turned to her profile in the bathroom mirror, her big belly protruding – she wasn’t wearing any clothes and she looked free and happy. ‘I’m going to miss my belly like this.’ she said smiling.
In the middle of the night, around three and four in the morning, your mum and dad were in the tub together. Your dad supported her like a king with his queen, loving her, rubbing her shoulders and placing a clothe to her forehead. I helped her with cold drinks and towels, and using my strength to hold her up when she changed positions.
Around four thirty the blue herons started to awake in the trees below the apartment. As the sky turned from midnight blue to a soft yellow the herons shrilled their call, leaving their nests. The windows were streamed with dawn and dew and we moved then from the tub to the bedroom because your mother had started to push, signaling your final descent.
For more hours than we knew was possible your mother pushed and pushed. She was on the bed now, trying different ways of moving all around the room. You were all ready to come out and weren’t showing any signs of distress – but still no signs of your head either. Your mother was so strong, and so sweet, asking you to, ‘Come down baby, come down.’
Your Dad stood by, doing anything he could during this long time when your mum was so brave and worked with such endurance to bring you down. It was the midwife’s birthday too, and she was quietly urging Sarah to keep up her efforts. Around 8am the second midwife, Patti arrived; she seemed determined that you come out soon. And although your Mum’s body used every muscle to bring you down, still, you didn’t come, just yet. So finally the midwifes decided that we should all transfer to the hospital so that they could check on you even more closely and decide what to do next.
As we were getting ready to leave the house we had to dress your Mum – many laboring women might wear baggy clothes and some big underwear for the occasion, but Sarah only had pretty little lace things in her drawer, so we dressed her in Christian’s underwear and comfy clothes and headed for the cars. The last thing that Sarah wanted to do was get in a car. But step-by-step we made it, and soon we were driving in the bright morning light. The weather was agreeable, with light clouds and impending sunshine.
Your Mum was quiet on the way to the hospital, she had turned inside herself and to her deep breathing to stay calm and move through the pain. Your Dad drove well, despite the fact that the little car felt every bump. And we were so ready to greet you by that time. Each of us had our own thoughts, but each of us knew that you were in good hands and that each decision was the right one.
We arrived at BC Women's Hospital around 9am, the same place where your Father was born forty-two years before. We checked in and they moved your mama into a room where she could relax until the doctors arrived. The environment was completely different from the comfort of your home, but everyone was very kind and your Mum was ready for anything. Once in the room, Sarah was hooked up to a fetal monitor; which told us how you were doing. She also got contraction monitor, which measured the frequency and strength of her contractions. Y our mum was then given an I V and then an epidural, so she could rest a little between all the pains. An epidural is a needle that goes into the back, once its in place, the anesthesiologist puts a medicine into the spine that takes away the pain. It worked very fast and once the kind South African anesthesiologist left, your mother was able to drift to sleep for just a few minutes.
Christian and I were sitting at the bedside as Sarah finally closed her eyes for a rest. She had been in the process of labour now for almost 24 hours and actively pushing for the last four. The moment she was quiet and at peace your Dad teared up; he had held it together so seamlessly the entire time, and just for a moment he released a little bit of the emotion he felt. There were no words. We were just there for you and your Mum as we waited for the doctors to come in. It had been hard to see your mum work so hard for so long, and we all just wanted to greet you.
The room suddenly filled up with people. Two doctors listened first to your heartbeat and then examined Sarah to see where your head was. One announced that your Mum’s pelvic bone was just a little too narrow for you to come out unassisted. They thought they might need to use a tool, like forceps or a vacuum to reach up and grab you. But then, they took closer listen to your heart with a little instrument that attached to your head inside. Like a ping-pong ball, your little drumbeat was heard clearly by all. Then, the main doctor turned to your parents and told them that she recommended a Cesarean, because you were starting to show signs of distress.
There wasn’t much time to think about it. Your parents wanted you safe and well and so they signed the paper and in not more than a minute more staff arrived and moved your mother onto a rolling bed and pushed her, with your father at her side, to the operating room. This was at around 10:30. Your Dad quickly changed into scrubs and stood at Sarah’s head as they began to make an incision in her belly. At 10:53 the doctor announced that you were a boy and held you up for your parents to see. The midwife snapped a picture; it’s a pretty amazing sight. They got you all cleaned up and laid you on your mum. You were perfect and got a stellar score on the Apgar test, which is a scale of your colour and vitality at birth.
Within a few hours all three of you moved to a sweet little room where you would stay for a couple of days. While your mum was being checked, your Dad gave you some time on his skin, which is really good for you for so many reasons.
You were eight pounds one ounce of perfection and sweetness; I barely heard you let out a cry. Your mum was exhausted and Christian and I too hadn’t slept, but we were all full of bliss because you had arrived! That afternoon, when you weren’t being a perfect little milk drinker, you slept and slept in a little cot next to your Mum. That night, as I’m sure your parents can tell you – all three of you slept near each other. Y our Mum in the bed, you in yours and Christian on a blow up mattress that he brought from home.
The next day my sister and I came to the hospital to see you again and to drink champagne, and eat the birthday I cake I had made you! We held you and ooohed and aahhhed at your darling little face. The cake wasn’t stellar, but I’ll work on it for next time. Your parents were already so proud of you – so in love with their new roles as Mum and Dad. A few days later they were able to take you home to celebrate. A week later your Uncle Matty came to visit; he’s the whole reason that I’m part of your family and was your Mum’s doula. Next year we’re getting married, which means I’m your Auntie! And I’m blessed to be.
Well, Xavier Rhys Amott, the rest is history – Your life! And I can only imagine what a life it will be. You have such great luck to have come into such a cool, exploratory, loving family. Before you were even born you traveled all over Europe with your Mum, spent a few months in Italy with both your parents and then went to Hawaii! Now you’re here Xavier, and the whole world is yours.

We love you, Rebecca.  Thank you!