Monday, June 29, 2009

Barbecues, church and ladies who lunch

After the emotion of Friday night, everyone was pleased that Saturday's activities didn't start till 4pm. A large marquee had been set up on a cleared area beside the church for an informal buffet tea - it was called a barbecue, but not in the sense that we know it. It was a great opportunity to sit and chat to Shirley and circulate and meet lots of folks. I was constantly being stopped and told how emotional people felt when Shirley was introduced to me, and how pleased they were that I'd come over.

Sunday morning was church. I'd felt no pressure at all to go - quite the contrary - but I'm so glad I did, even if it was "strange". But strange in a lovely way - with the congregation really joyous - it sure isn't boring. I didn't feel I had to conform at all, I was just made very welcome. I even knew one of the choruses they sang. The service lasted for three and a half hours, although that isn't normal. There were people in town from all over the United States, plus Trinidad and Kenya. After church there was a lunch for the family and many people who'd come from other places, followed by family photos taken by a professional photographer to mark the occasion.

Today four generations of women went to lunch at a seafood restaurant overlooking the sugarwhite sands of the Bay - Shirley, her three daughters, a granddaughter (Elizabeth) and her young Isabella. It was extremely humid today - 90 degrees but it felt like 95% humidity.

After lunch, the plan was to go back to a boutique where I had my eye on a nice shirt last Thursday, but not before I'd dipped my toes in the water. It was beautifully warm - 85 degrees they said.

So by the time I went shopping, I was wet (where do those waves come from, and full of sand. I then not only bought the shirt but also three other items of clothing. The variety is amazing, and it is not expensive. Shirley and her daughters have excellent dress sense so I was in good hands.

I am finding I need at least two or three changes of clothing per day, it is so humid. Fortunately the Inn has a guest laundry.

At 6.30 I was picked up and taken to Cheryl's house for a family tea, where I was not the only guest. Enoch, a pastor from Kenya was also there. He told us that there was a man in Kenya who had 68 wives, and was going to take a 69th, but discovered it was his own daughter, so he gave up accumulating wives at that stage. We reckon he should have been well satisfied by then!

Elizabeth grabbed my camera and took lots of photos, since I was too busy talking. Here is a photo of Cheryl's house. I am intrigued by the different architecture.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Jack in the Box

Well, what a night! These southerners sure know how to put on a show! And keep a secret, even if they have to ask their friends for forgiveness for telling fibs. I was Elizabeth (my middle name), a friend of Zoe's daughter in the UK for the night - people were so friendly and wanting an introduction. I even had to pretend to be unsociable for a couple of hours.

I should explain to my Oz and UK readers that the purpose of the evening was to celebrate the 40 years ministry of "Apostle and Miz Shirley" as they are known to this congregation in Panama City.

Whilst the early part of the evening focussed on the Apostle's ministry and the impact the Apostle had on the many many he'd sent out to minister in other parts of Florida and other states, the second half looked at their family life through a variety of skits, songs etc.

Who ever said that Americans don't have a sense of humour? These southerners sure can laugh at themselves. There was a very funny video where Cheryl starred as her mother getting her exercise going to the shops. It was full of alusions to things that had apparently happened to Shirley because the audience was cracking up with laughter.

Apparently Shirley had arrived in the US with her wedding gown under one arm and her Frank Sinatra records under the other, so her grandson Chad did a Frank number taking off his grandfather's courtship of Shirley.

What talent that family has.! The three daughters - Donna, Cheryl and Katherine - did a great number, and grand-daughter Erin did a solo backed by the choir. There were many other musical items and a great solo tap dance in the manner of Riverdance. All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening, even for one who isn't part of the scene. And Zoe was a joy to share it with. We were towards the back of the room, whilst the immediate Ball family were of course in the front row.

And then the moment I (and the junior members of the family) had been waiting for. Katherine's husband made a moving speech and a presentation to Apostle Ball, then it was Shirley's turn.

They brought out this huge box, then Katherine set the scene, recalling Shirley's dedication to her immediate and extended church family, and then stated that it was ironic how much she gave, when she didn't have any family of her own that she knew of. She related how an email had arrived from Australia and that began a correspondence and exchange of photos that brought back memories of her mother's childhood. She told Shirley that the box contained a scrapbook about her family that Margaret had put together.

By this time, Shirley had opened the box and seen the scrapbook and her face was a picture of emotion. Katherine then announced that they thought that it might be even better if Margaret could be here in person, and in actual fact she was in the audience! By this time, Cheryl's husband Steve was escorting me down the aisle and up on to the stage.

You've all seen the television shows, and of course it was just like that. I was already teary whilst Shirley was looking at the scrapbook. So she was just amazed when I walked up on stage. She grabbed my hands and looked at me, and then there were big bear hugs. Apostle Ball was very moved, he knew exactly what it meant to Shirley. And of course the family was very excited, they'd been looking forward to this moment. She is a well loved grandmother and mother.

I was able to tell her publicly that her great aunts back in England had really grieved when they'd lost touch with her, and never forgot her. Our contemporary Ray - our only second cousin still in the UK - was not born until 1943, the year after Shirley had disappeared from their lives, but he had heard all about her.

That was pretty much the end of the evening, except for the Apostle's final word(s), so we were all tired. But today's the beginning of getting to know each other and go through the stories and what happened to all the aunts, so I'm looking forward to that. After the event I gave Shirley a couple more presents - a small photo album and a digital photo frame with a thumb drive full of photos, so she and the family can share them around.

So all in all a great day.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Meeting Shirley's family

Yesterday Cheryl introduced me to three generations ofShirley's family over a seafood lunch on one of the many bays in Panama City. Cheryl is the second of four - three girls (the others are Donna and Katherine) and their young brother Mark still in his forties. Mark is much quieter and not as gregarious as his sisters - the poor fellow is well and truly outnumbered! He is a script writer and spent a number of years in Los Angeles, but is now back in Panama City. Katherine lives in Nashville, Tennessee. I forgot to ask her if she knows our Nicole and our Keith.

Then there was Elizabeth, Cheryl's 29 year old daughter) who is due to give birth next month to a second girl, and her three year old Isabella who is just as quiet as our namesake at the computer club (Hazel and Deb's young grand-daughter), but I suspect she will thaw out when she gets used to me. Later, Kathryn's daughter Erin turned up.

Now I noticed there are good genes in Shirley's family - very pretty women all of them - and amazingly warm. Listening to their stories of family life, I began to get a real picture of just what my visit means to them, and what it will mean to Shirley. I can't wait till tonight, and neither can they.

I learned that for whatever reason, Shirley's father - an intensely private man - cut off Shirley's relationship with her mother's family the moment her mother died. On the day of the funeral in 1942 when Shirley was 12, she was not told of her mother's death, but taken out for the day by her grandmother. She was told eventually and became very close to her grandmother whilse her father was elsewhere managing wealthy men's English estates.

So when I made contact, continued the research and sent her photos, it was a very emotional turning point for Shirley. She and her daughters had tried without much success to undertake research when they'd been to London, but didn't have enough information to make the initial breakthrough.

So it seems that I have been the key to opening up her mother's family for her, and it means so much to the family that I was able to tell them that Shirley and her deceased mother Kathleen were very much missed by all the aunts, who simply didn't know where she was. My sister is also a Kathleen, and dad said she was named after cousin Kathleen, whilst mum always said she was named for a song they liked - I'll take you home again, Kathleen!

Of course families never turn out to be as "perfect or normal" as our older generations would have us believe, but that's life isn't it. I've found birth records of further relatives who we may never be able to track down, it was all so long ago, and the names were so common. All I have is my dad's fragmented memories of Shirley's grandmother's other children being sent to Canada because their mother couldn't look after them.

On to more mundane things. I am still having trouble with jet lag. Yesterday I woke up at 3 am after four hours sleep, so went for a walk at 6, knowing it was the only cool time of the day (temperatures are constantly in the 90s), then another walk after breakfast to see the church, which is only 10 minutes walk from here.

I later went to the Mall to purchase a sun hat. The mall seemed strange because there was no supermarket, paper shop or chemist (drugstore). They are separate here. Panama City has no public transport - no trains, no buses as we know them. Even poor people rely on cars. Of course petrol (gasoline) is much cheaper here. The terrain is perfectly flat, only three feet above sea level, the soil seems very poor - sandy of course - and the water table is at 10 inches! Incomes are low, although vary widely.

After a late lunch, I asked the younger generation - Elizabeth and Erin - to help me purchase an iPod Nano, which I duly did. After a rest, I was collected by Zoe, a family friend and taken down to a nice shopping centre where we window shopped, looking at bookstores and clothes. Zoe was very easy to talk to, into literature and historyand psychology. We had intended going for a meal, but neither of us was hungry! She took me to her house to collect an electric jug (I'd been boiling my water for tea in the coffee percolator), and we stealthily drove past Shirley's place for a look, in the dark of night. If only she'd known! Cheryl is keeping away from her mother at the moment - she reckons she couldn't keep the grin off her face.

My next tale will be about my role as the Jack in the Box, and Shirley's reaction.....

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It's hot in Panama City, FL

Here I am in Panama City, population about 110,000 Cheryl tells me. (Cheryl is Shirley's middle daughter who arranged all this). This morning, after nearly missing the connecting flight (it was 50 minutes earlier, vastly different terminal than on my ticket), I arrived to a welcoming party of four - Cheryl, her daughter Elizabeth and the cup) and the two church workers I've been dealing with - JoAnne and Debra. Photos were taken, then Cheryl delivered me to the Hilton Garden Inn.
I made some tea (they had delivered a tea pot) and ate some grapes from the huge basket of fruit, cheese and biscuits they'd packaged up for me and crashed till 5 pm. This is getting ridiculous - no sleep at night, sleep all day. I have to try and sleep tonight - fortunately I feel somewhat tired.
Cheryl collected me for tea prior to her rehearsal at the church and we exchanged family stories and I showed her a locket with photos of two of her great great grandparents - the Reeds of Southampton.
I managed to purchase the electronic gift I had in mind for Shirley, because the shops are open till 9 pm every night. The stores are made for cars - great distances between the shops with car parks surrounding them. Otherwise, Panama City reminds me of a well laid out regional city like Dubbo. Of course I haven't seen much of it yet.
Cheryl is dribbling information to members of her family - her Nashville based sister and family arrive tomorrow and we will join them for a seafood lunch by the beach. Everyone in the family will know by Friday except Shirley and her husband.
So off to bed right now and try to sleep. Whilst I was having tea with Cheryl at a Mexican restaurant, John was running my one hour computer class in Beginners 2 in XP. Poor fellow - he had to run for two weeks prior to this whilst I had the flu. Luckily I'm over the flu and didn't get questioned at immigration about my froggy voice.
Till next time! Margaret

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Los Angeles and it's still Tuesday

Well, my computer time says 10.23 am Wednesday, but here it is 17.23 Tuesday, and I don't feel quite with it right now. I had about six hours sleep on the 12th floor of the Radisson overlooking the airport and all I'm likely to see of Los Angeles is concrete and palm trees. Tarmacs, car ports and flyovers. Oh well.

But I had a marvellous flight - I was upgraded to Premium Economy - Florida prayers or our second lucky break of the day - who knows? Very roomy, decent blanket, great food and even a linen table cloth. As well as a very nice young pharmacist from Detroit who'd fallen for an Australian from Brisbane, making it a very expensive romance. Got to see her photos and all, so I dragged out my scrapbook which I was still utting together on the way to the airport. (You should have seen John's eyes roll!)

Everything went according to plan, but very much jet lagged right now. Looking forward to crashing for a few more hours. I have a reception party of four meeting me at Panama City at 8.30 am Wednesday. An overnight flight to Atlanta with Delta Airlines, then change planes. I now have four bags - one full of Australian soft toys etc. but all easy to carry.

Thanks for all your comments - I very much look forward to them.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Still packing

In just over 48 hours, I will be setting foot on American soil for the very first time. If you'd told me six months ago that I'd be doing that, even less that I'd be going back to England, I'd have told you you were crazy. So how did this happen?

Well it started just over 12 months ago, when my second cousin Raymond in Banbury said "Have you heard about Shirley?" Well, no I said - who is she? Another second cousin, great Aunt Minnie's grand-daughter. He had a photo of her at age 5, taken in 1934. He thought her other grandparents had taken her to America after her mother had died during World War 2. I later found that this wasn't quite right - she'd married an American serviceman in 1951, but had indeed lost touch with the family when she was 12. The Reed family (my grandmother was one of six sisters) was very saddened that she had disappeared out of their lives.

I was intrigued - she was such a pretty little thing, but would now be 78. I decided to try and track her down. I found who her mother married and when she was born. She had an unusual surname (what luck!) Try Googling her, I thought - and bingo!

I found a church website in Florida, and her husband - an apostle in The Rock of Panama City - said he'd married a Shirley Navello in London. So I emailed the church in the hope that it was her. And sure enough, within a day I had an email saying she was so pleased to hear from me, because she didn't know she had any relatives left in England. She visited London every couple of years.

We started corresponding and I was able to send her photos of herself and her mother, and answer some of her many questions. Her daughter later told me that she'd cried when I sent her a photo of herself with the Reed great aunt who had reared her mother after her parents split up in about 1910.

In February I received a very surprising invitation - to go to Panama City as the guest of the church to be Shirley's "present" on the occasion of Apostle Ball and Mrs Shirley Ball's 40th anniversary of their ministry in Panama City. Their church is Pentacostal, rather like Hillsong. Quite outside my Anglican church experience.

As you can imagine, I was "gobsmacked" and had to stop myself saying YES! immediately until I'd talked it over with John. Who said "Go for it! And why don't you go on to England for a few weeks as well?" Was I going to disagree - not on your life!

So it's been a lot of organising and still some to do, but in less than 36 hours I will be on the plane. I'll let you know what the airport hotel is like. That's all I'll see of Los Angeles - a short kip and then on to Panama City via Atlanta.