Back.

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I arrived home this week after 3 & half weeks in American. I spent the last weekend in New York, not doing anything related to my project, maybe that’s what I needed, just to have a bit of fun and not think too heavily about the fact it’s coming to an end, and that I would be leaving New York, my mum’s old home. I used to think I really wanted to live there, perhaps because I always feel this connection to her when there, but now I just feel like I only really want to visit. I love it there, love wandering around, imagining what she would have done, but maybe if I lived there it would lose it’s magic. I want New York to remain our thing, the place we can go together in my head, I can feel like I’m visiting her. If I lived there I’d be scared that would fade. It didn’t feel sad leaving, as I know I will always return.

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On one of my many walks around town I went to her old school Dalton, I remember visiting it when I first came here after her death and feeling the most amount of grief as I walked around the corner of East 89th Street, but this time was so different. She loved this school, it just reminded me that she had lots of good times here and that made me happy. I imagined her walking out the doors with her best friend Jane, in all their American glory, and it didn’t bring up sadness this time. There were the remains of children’s drawings and words on the front of the building when I went this time, and it felt in some weird way like they was made by her, and it felt nice. I look forward to seeing what I find next visit.

Now I’m home it feels like the start of the next part of the project, after this trip I feel so much more inspired and clear about what I’m doing, I can see it in my head, before it was just kind of blank and a big panically feeling. Now it feels like I’m going to enjoy it, like I know more about it. The next bit is about her life here, and all about her cookery, learning her recipes, and I’m especially going to enjoy the eating bit.

Anniversaries.

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I happened to be in New York on September 11th this year, I didn’t go anywhere near the site, I definitely had no intention of being a grief tourist, hanging around the site taking selfies whilst watching family members sob. I did however happen upon the tv broadcast (well it seemed to be on every channel) of the reading of all the names of the victims by their family members, I found it incredibly uncomfortable watching the grieving families on camera, with the cameramen desperate for the all important sobbing close up. It’s 14 years since their relatives died, but it seems from the grief like it was yesterday, and I feel for them, to still be this grief stricken after so much time, their relatives died in such a freak way it must take an incredible amount of time just to comprehend it, let alone start processing the grief.

It made me think about my mums anniversary next month, it’s going to be 5 year since she died. I’m not sure how I will mark it, probably just visit her ashes under her tree on Hampstead Heath like I’ve done every year, what else is there to do really. I’ve realised I don’t feel anything like the people do I saw on the TV, I can talk about her without crying, or without it putting a dark cloud over the rest of the day, I can remember her fondly now. But does this mean I feel anything less? Do I still need to be crying to feel her loss? I do, and always will, feel a massive hole where my mum was, a huge part of my life has changed, but I can’t mourn forever. I’m not in any way making a comment about the 9/11 relatives, I think openly grieving is good for you, I’m all up for public grieving, the non-english way, I would do it if I could, I wish I could, but it just doesn’t happen. All I’m really saying is it made me think about my own stage of grief, and the fact I’m not in that bit anymore, and for that I’m glad.

San Francisco to New York by train.

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I decided to take the California Zephyr train to New York, it takes 4 days and 3 nights. I was in no hurry so thought it would be a nice way to travel. It also occurred to me that the landscapes I would be seeing are probably the only parts of this country that haven’t changed since mum lived here. I could very likely be gazing out at the same mountain, the same river she once did as a child. I imagine she did get the train in the 1950s, as it’s very unlikely they would have driven the 3000 miles or flown at that time. When they first moved to the US they travelled on the Queen Mary ship, taking a few weeks to get there, so I imagine they did get the train in New York from LA in 1959.

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The landscape changes so much out my cabin window, after the boring suburbs the train starts to cut across the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains and endless woodlands, which rather surprisingly how quickly turns into the deserted desert, where it looks like it hasn’t rained in decades. Then, after what seems like endless days travelling across the desert states of Nevada & Utah quickly breaks into a land with abundance of water; Colorado. It’s so foreign to the previous states it feels like a different country. After Denver another night approaches and the train picks up speed and spends the whole night powering through Nebraska, the one state I was really looking forward to seeing and it was dark the whole way! I awoke to breakfast through the corn fields of Iowa, fields as far as the eye can see in all directions, they went on for hundreds of miles. Throughout the whole trip everything out the window was so foreign, yet it was funnily familiar as it looked like so many different American film sets flashing past the window.

The train was fun, especially meal times. You were seated at communal tables and served a proper cooked meal three times a day. Each sitting you meet new people from all different backgrounds, travelling to different places and with different stories, that’s one photo project on its own. I had some very amusing conversations with a lady about why I hadn’t visited Disneyland whilst I was in LA, she really couldn’t understand my reasons, an interesting conversation with an American about socialism and how it’s ‘not that bad’, and what to do if a bear attacks; I’m still unclear as depending which type of bear is trying to attack you, you have to do completely opposite things. On my last meal I met a lovely woman who was on a bit of a journey, not just a train ride, she was getting over a divorce and trying to get back in to her professional singing career after her kids, she was lovely and we shared a long lunch chatting.

You see so much of America by this train, and I kind of understand more about the Americans who don’t leave their country, there is so much to see, and if you come from some tiny dusty village in the middle of the desert, then going to the Colorado River or Los Angeles beaches for vacation must feel like the most exotic place ever.

After a few hours off the train to look around Chicago, it’s back on for another night & whole day to New York City. As we approach the city it feels like I’m getting closed to mum, I feel much more of a connection here with her than I had in LA. She spoke so fondly of her time here, going to Dalton school, meeting her best friend Jane. I, again, am not exactly sure what exactly I’m I here to photograph, the feelings of being here I suppose, perhaps more words written than pictures taken this trip, but that’s ok.

These are some iPhone snaps of travelling through the states: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York…

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Chez Panisse

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I ate at the lovely Chez Panisse in Berkeley today, I’m not sure exactly what connection my mum had with it, I grew up knowing about it though. I think it was just that mum & Alice Walters the owner had the same food ethos at the same time, back before it was all fashionable like now. One of mums chefs must have went to work there, as I found a letter written to my mum address from there and, though the last page with the name is missing,  I’ve been trying to track down who it was, no luck yet.

Anyway, today I finally ate there for the first time, it was like being cooked for by my mum. Beautiful seasonal food, simple, bold, straightforward, and incredibly tasty. So like my mums food, everything on the plate had a reason to be there, no sprinkles of this or stupid foams, just great ingredients cook well and by someone who understands food and flavour. The only thing that would have improve my lunch is if my mum had been sitting at the table with me. She was missed.

Magical thinking.

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After leaving LA and heading up the coast to San Francisco, I checked into what turned out to be the worst hostel in town. I could only handle one night, and moved. I’m normally not that fussy about where I stay, but haven’t stayed in a backpackers place since I was a lot younger. Backpackers now really get on my nerves I discovered, so bloody young free and happy, and dirty & noisy, I’m too old for all that I realise. I’m glad I’m not that age anymore, but that place made me realise I’ve aged a lot in the last few years. The year I turned 30 my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and since then that event has influenced and changed my life more than anything else, it has aged me considerably I think. Everyone says your 30s are your best years, so far they have been my worst, now half of them have gone. I used to be really angry about this, angry about spending my 30s in and out of hospitals, hospices, ambulances, funeral parlours, crematoriums, seeing my mum lying dead in a bed, pissed off that it all happened to her to me to us all, but now things have changed in my head, I no longer feel that anger, and in a weird way I wouldn’t change anything, obviously I don’t mean I wish my mum was still dead, I would give anything for her to be alive, but rather what I mean is the whole experience changed me, and I wouldn’t want to go back to or know how to go back to the person I was before, before all this happened.

Grieving for my mum lasted at least four & half years, it only really occurred to me the other day that I don’t feel like I’m grieving anymore. I never felt myself come out of it, I just kind of realised I no longer felt that way. It’s peculiar as I kind of miss the feeling, the heavy weight became part of me, like my mum was always around. I don’t think a day goes past that I don’t think of her, especially not when I’m working on this project about her, but my mind isn’t as fixated on the mourning of her. I don’t constantly remember the death part, those memories no longer haunt me like they used to. I don’t know when things changed, it wasn’t like I woke up one day and decided to stop it, something just shifted, I suppose finding a great councillor this year helped undoubtedly.

I recently read the book A Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a memoir about her husband’s death. It’s an amazing book about grief, and one I can relate to more than any other I have read. She speaks about her ‘magical thinking’, about not wanting to throw out any of her husbands shoes, because when he comes back what is he going to wear on his feet? If she does then how could he possibly come back? This makes total sense to me, this is exactly how I thought for all these years. That explains why I have an attic full of my mums stuff, why I brought all her things to my new house and boxed it all up and am keeping for her return. I have boxes full of her chefs clothes, because how could she return to work without them when she comes back? I have all her (hundreds of) books, because she needs something to read when she comes back, if not then maybe she won’t return? I have all her kitchen stuff, because you can’t throw out a chef’s equipment, how could she cook when she comes back if I have? She would never forgive me. She will need all of this, otherwise how can she come back? I’m not sure for one minute I really believed she would walk through the door but in another way I totally did, every time I heard the key in the front door I expected to hear her voice call up as she always did. This made such sense in my mind, this is the first time I’ve written about it, it might seem a little somewhat mad, but in my head it was complete fact.

When I was grieving my head was constantly in a weird state. My logically and illogical ways of thinking had complete equal control over my mind it felt. Perhaps it’s a little close to madness, but it allowed me to process things, to understand and except what was happening. It was rather nice, if you could take the sad part away it would have been a great high. The voice of reason was silenced, the voice that would tell me normally that these ‘magical’ thoughts were nonsense, farcical, deranged even, was not there. If you are lucky enough to have lots of family around you going though the same thing maybe you don’t need this, I didn’t have that so I got the ‘magical’ thinking instead, and I’m really glad I did. I could happily think totally illogical thoughts, and be comforted by them, perhaps that’s why my brain did that, to get me though the hard & dark times, without them I might just have jumped off a bridge.

Having made the decision to move out of my house when I return to London, it’s a good time to clear out all these things of my mums I’m hanging on to. Unfortunately the magical thinking fades, I know now she is never coming back, but I wish she would. I miss the magical thinking, I wish that hadn’t gone too.

The streets where you lived…

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I’m in America for most of this month, continuing on the project about my mum’s life. I came here about four and a half years ago to start this, but wasn’t in any kind of fit head state to really know what I was doing, I came home with many rolls of pictures of the empty desert, though perhaps that reflected how I was feeling rather well. I’m loosely tracing her life as a child here, she grew up in LA & New York city. I’m starting in LA where she lived from about 1954-59 (I think), aged about 10 years old to about 16 or 17 yrs. I say loosely as again I really don’t know exactly what I’m doing, I’m not creating a historic book, more a book about me and my journey through her life. It’s cathartic if nothing else, it feels like some kind of natural conclusion to the grief process, and that alone is reason enough to do it.

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I was in LA for only a few days this time, it’s changed so much since she was here that I didn’t at first feel much of a connection to her or her life here. I know the places she lived, where she went to school, and have lots of old photographs of her time here. I spent one afternoon wandering around Beverley Hills, searching for something, some hint she was here, some feelings, some connection to something that she would have experienced. I wandered around by her school, Beverley Hills High, I tried to imagine her walking to and from school, chatting with friends, being picked up by her parents. In one way I could totally see her, sense her presence, but in another way completely couldn’t. This was so foreign to our life in London, so different to how I grew up, but for that reason in a way it makes me understand her more.

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Your school looks just the same as the old photos, and I bet the neighbourhood hasn’t changed much, just as glamorous. I wonder past people’s gardens, seeing all the exotic & foreign flowers, maybe here’s where you got your love of flowers from? I bet there where so many more to see than in 1950’s London. I passed a whole front garden of Bird of Paradise flowers, you loved these. I only just realised now that was very different to your normal taste in flowers, maybe it was seeing them here that influenced that. Maybe you saw this very same garden.

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I can still the spot outside your school where your dad took the photo of you, it hasn’t changed. You are here in all the wonderful ways, it’s lovely, it’s not a missing feeling, more just like a feeling that I know you more, I understand more.