A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Words, words, words


How does one summarize a life? Places traveled, words spoken, tasks completed, people touched?  What is the sum of thirty thousand, two hundred and fifty-six days?

Many people knew Janet Fresco as the head clerk at a public library in a mid-size suburban town – the library lady with the practical skirts and cardigans, the bun, the friendly laugh, and the soft British accent.  They knew her as a woman in motion – a busy wife and mother of two, and later a grandmother of four.  They knew her as a walker, striding along the sidewalks or trails.  They might have known that she sewed all those practical skirts herself, knitted the sweaters, grew a garden, and turned her capable hands to carpentry to build more shelves for all those books. 

They might not have known that she spoke French and Turkish, and worked encrypting and decrypting encoded diplomatic mail for the British embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, during the tumultuous rise of the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s. 

My mother was a more complex and interesting person than I knew or understood when I was a kid.  But then, isn’t that always the case?

Mom (ahem, Mum) – Janet Malyon -- was born in southern England in April 1939, four months before Germany invaded Poland and Britain entered the Second World War.  Her earliest memories were a blend of warm family harmony -- her loving parents, big brother John, and friends Margaret and Angela – and the daily realities of wartime.  She remembered hearing the unmanned bombers and the air-raid sirens; hiding under the table and in bomb shelters; collecting interesting shrapnel from downed planes; carrying a gas mask and counting ration coupons.  Her father, an engineer, worked on the frenzied and crucial race to develop effective radar.  Her mother planted a garden large enough to be a farm, raised chickens in their suburban yard, and traded birds with the neighbors to avoid trauma when it came time to eat them.  The kids collected rosehips for the vitamin C.  The war ended when Mom was six, but food was rationed in Britain until she was 15.

My mother was someone who understood that Nazis have to be fought; knew the value of peace; and didn’t like waste.

Mom loved books from the time she was tiny, and ambitiously started writing her own when she was nine.  She easily passed the “eleven plus” exam and went on to the academic grammar school in Tunbridge.  She excelled there, passing a heap of A-level exams, but when the time came to choose her path forward, university held little appeal.  Her only educated female role models were unmarried teachers and nurses.  The world as she knew it had not yet grown to include women with education, careers, and families.  The world as she knew it boxed her in.

Plenty of people who knew Mom in later years assumed that she was a librarian, because she was so erudite, intellectual, and well-read, someone who not only worked with books, but loved them, too – not just Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen, but a full range from pot-boilers and romances to new classics and old.  But she never went to college; she had no library degree.

Instead, Mom took a secretarial course, learned to type and take shorthand at a blistering pace, and worked in London for a short time.  But her feet itched for adventure, so at 19 or 20 she took a job with Nestle in Switzerland, perfecting her French and doing a bit of light Alpine hiking on the side.  Around this time, her father suffered a very early heart attack, and died.  She didn’t talk about him often, but she missed him for the rest of her life.

After this taste of adventure, Mom launched herself further, signing on as a secretary for the British Foreign Service.  That’s how she ended up in Cambodia when she was still in her early twenties.  She served there for three years.  The Vietnam War was raging.  The entire region was unstable. When the embassy was attacked, she and the head diplomat were briefly the only ones who stayed. 

Back in London at last, Mom briefly worked for the local embassy offices on a collaborative project with the French – an agreement that, years later, resulted in the construction of the Channel Tunnel.

Mom was next offered a posting to a tiny consulate somewhere in Africa – Angola, was it?  She turned it down on the grounds that she wanted a larger city and a busier social scene.  Mom wanted to go to parties with compatriots, to meet people, to dance. She had, after all, given up on the idea of university because she wanted to marry.  She wanted a family.  And, now in her mid-twenties, she was practically an old maid by the standards of the time.  She was sent to a slightly larger consulate in Turkey instead.  She worked there for three years.

Four days short of turning 28, Mom met an American diplomat named Bob Fresco.  It was his 25th birthday.  A year later, they married.  Mom was required to give up her career immediately, due to some combination of sexism and fears of inter-embassy espionage (I prefer to contemplate the latter).  She did so.  A year after that, still in Turkey, my sister Sarah was born. 

I always thought Sarah’s birthplace was much cooler than mine.  By the time I came along three years later, my family was in Ohio, where my dad was working for the Cincinnati Enquirer.  A year later, he got a job with Long Island Newsday, and we all settled in Huntington, NY. 

Mom didn’t officially have a job during those early years of motherhood, but she was never not working.  She sewed most of her own clothes, and Sarah’s, and mine – using her own invented patterns and an old hand-crank machine that had followed her around the world.  She sold hand-made children’s clothes on consignment to a small boutique in town. She did everything on foot, piling groceries around me in the stroller.  She took her children to the public library so often that by the time I was four, she was recruited: “When Nancy starts kindergarten, would you like a job?”  Yes.  Yes, she would.

Mom’s accent shifted, gradually, as the years passed, but she was always branded as British.  She laughed about the assumptions that this burdened her with – positive stereotypes, but genteel ones.  She laughed about the fact that most Americans couldn’t differentiate a cultured BBC British accent from Cockney or Yorkshire.  She was condemned to being always very slightly foreign in a country that she ultimately made her own, although part of her heart was always in England.  She kept her green card for decades, and when she at last became a US citizen, it was not without regrets.  She had seen enough of the world to know how swaggering and ignorant America can seem.  At the same time, she loved America’s egalitarian ideals and generous landscapes.

No matter their nationality, Mom loved people – her family, her friends, her coworkers and all those library patrons, even when they were at their most maddening.  She could see through the differences, the trappings, the posturing, the biases, and the snobberies, and accept people for who they were. Most of all, Mom loved children.  Even as an old woman, she’d drop to the floor to play with Duplos or invent a magic carpet ride for any three-year-old who needed entertaining. 

While part of me is saddened by the thought that Mom gave up many potential opportunities to become a parent and grandparent, I know that she wouldn’t have altered those choices.  My own existence wasn’t the terminus of adventure; it was, for her, an adventure of its own.

It’s impossible to enumerate everything that Mom shared, gave, and passed on to everyone she touched in this world.  There are people she knew whose names I’ve never heard, or can’t recall.  Her legacy can’t be measured in stacks of old letters, hand-written stories, photos, or the quilts on her grandchildren’s beds. 

I wish Mom hadn’t started to decline mentally six or seven years ago, and that prior to that she wasn’t burdened with caring for Dad during his decline.  I wish they’d both had the chance to travel in retirement, as they always wanted to.  I wish my kids had had the chance to know Mom better, into their big-kid years and adulthood.  I wish she were still as she once was, and still with us.  But I find joy in all the ways in which Mom’s life is inextricably woven into who I am.  We all see ourselves, as we age, becoming our own parents.  Yes, this can be unnerving – but it’s also comforting.

Mom’s literary selections litter my over-burdened hand-built bookshelves.  Our family’s choices for reading aloud – still going strong even in the teen years – have included so many of her favorites (ahem, favourites).  The twins fell in love with the Swallows and Amazons stories early on, and have reread Mom’s battered copies of these 1930s British adventures perhaps even more times than I have.  Our current bedtime story is The Sand Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw, a novel about young Archimedes of Syracuse, which I read myself years ago, at Mom’s recommendation.  Yesterday, the day Mom died, the kids begged me for extra chapters.  In the past month, I also read aloud A Town Like Alice -- a worn paperback by Nevil Shute, from Mom’s collection; they loved that, too.

Knowing how much Mom loved Shute’s books, I took one of her old copies along when I rushed east last week to pay one final visit.  Mom was no longer able to speak, although she smiled at me, and squeezed my hand, hour upon hour.  I read aloud to her from Pied Piper, a Shute novel about World War Two and an old man who risks himself to save seven small children.  On the book’s inside cover, in an achingly familiar handwriting, it says “Janet Malyon Phnom Penh”.  I showed the inscription to Mom.  She gazed at it for a long time.  She held my hand.

How does one summarize a life? Places traveled, words spoken, tasks completed, people touched?  What is the sum of thirty thousand two hundred and fifty-six days? 

There is no way.  And yet we try.



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