Letters To My Mother
Letters To My Mother Podcast
1977 - From the beach of New Zealand to the Plains of Illinois

1977 - From the beach of New Zealand to the Plains of Illinois

Sixteen years old. Sent to a town we could not even find on a map. What could possibly go wrong.

This morning after the usual farm and then caretaking chores, I cleaned out my town bag, reorganized and cleaned the kitchen, prepared the old peoples dinner, swept all the floors, thought about doing the windows, took the dog for a walk,  wasted quite a bit of time working on pig training. (I guess you can’t teach old pigs new tricks). I spent quite some time staring at the grain on my wood floor trying to find cats faces.

I took my new toy the leaf blower and blew out dust from under the stove (which no longer works so my latest challenge is to see how long I can survive without an oven). 

Then I stared for a while at my old dog to see if he was dead and then he blinked - not dead then. 

Suffice to say that I was doing basically anything except doing my writing because I have reached a chapter in my story that I just don’t remember very well. It is really hard to write in chronological order. Memories are just not like that. 

I am Cecilia from The Kitchens Garden. If you want to know more about me and my farm pop over to the kitchens garden dot com. Join the conversation there. 

We spend a lot of time in the Lounge of Comments over at the blog talking about sustainability and farming and general stuff like how to load an hour of farm sounds into SubStack on Wednesdays. 

So if you are a paid subscriber you will receive a Farmy soundscape once a week. To write with or relax with.  As background noise. It is here on substack that I experiment with things. 

Today I wanted to take you back to 1977 when I was an exchange student. This is not a sad story.  I know my last two stories were a bit sad but sometimes life is pretty shitty right?). 

In 1977 I was 16 going on 17 and traveled from the beach in New Zealand to the plains of Illinois in America. It was interesting. Though interesting is not the right word. Shocking is probably better. I think I was in shock for the first few weeks. 

I came from the sea. No, that is not correct; I come from the sea - I will always come from the sea. I am a creature of the shore, when I left New Zealand, with my cardboard suitcase without wheels (in those days we only packed what we could reasonably carry - no wheels to roll along), the milk came in glass bottles, we wore school uniforms, we were taught by the nuns with rulers and rode bikes to school. We only ate at meal times and after school. We were never allowed to talk to boys. Things were regulated I guess. Stricter. 

Though my Mum had been in bed for two years by then. I was sure of my place. Confident. Winning even.  Doing really well at school and on track. And managing my mothers home as well.

And then they decided to send me to Central Illinois as an exchange student. Illinois.  I loved the idea. I was fully into it. But Illinois is a landlocked state, no sea.  When they told us where I was going my Dad brought home a map of America (we called it America in those days) and spread it out on the floor of our upstairs lounge and we tried unsuccessfully to find the town I was being sent to. We found Illinois. Just not the town.

Not understanding at all the extreme distances I would be dealing with I asked Dad how long he thought it would take to drive to the beach. 

Probably a few weeks,  he said, and I looked back at the map in horror.

We went back to trying to find the town the exchange student group said I was going to.

We never found it.

Instead my Dad told me the story about when he was a sailor and they were in a port called Frisco - I guess they call it San Fran now and he and his sailor friends (he was working for the Union Steam Ship Company as a marine engineer and they wanted to go out on the town but the port gates were locked or something so they stole a crane and kind of threw each other over the fence. 

When my parents considered sending their teenage,  convent raised, daughter away to a family they had never met, a family with four boys, I have no idea what they were thnking. I do not know what they were thinking. It certainly slammed the breaks on my trajectory so far. I just proceeded to have a good time. 

My mother had been ill, bedridden really and Dad hoped by sending me away, as an exchange student for a year, that he would both save me from becoming my mothers forever minder and save Mum from being so dependent on me that she would ever got out of bed. I am not sure that his plan worked too well. I don’t think that any of us really believed that she would stay sick - in and out of bed for years and then die anyway. 

A month or so later, we were all piled into a plane in Auckland and flown out to Hawaii (the planes went through Hawaii in those days) we stayed there overnight (it was there that I tasted a pineapple for the first time) (and snogged an incredibly handsome boy called Oscar who came from Basque Country).   Then we flew out to California where hundreds of us gathered, hundreds of excited teenagers gathered. It was the first time I truly understood the power of mob mentality, I said goodbye to Oscar as we were re arranged into groups according to our destination, then literally we were bused across the United States and dropped off one by one like the kids on the orphan train; into the hands of total strangers.  

Nothing at all prepared me for America. 

I went underwater trying to make sense of it. 

We were bused through days and nights - I don’t remember how many. I can’t even remember stopping to eat, though we must have, I had never been in a situation where I could get away with not eating at all. So I didn’t eat.  My life up until  this episode had been within my big noisy family where I cooked and cleaned up and we all sat down to eat three times a day-  together. Unless we were at school. 

I do remember though being in the dark bus as it rumbled through Central America talking with one of my new found friends who I would never see again. It was hot and dark in the greyhound bus, we had been on the move for days, always with strangers, strangers coming and going. It was July I think. I was wearing a tiny tank top with stringy straps and jeans and my new friend wore about the same. I remember touching my hip bones, with my finger tips, my belly a concave yolk slung between the bones of my hips and saying if I can’t feel these bones I am stopping eating altogether. 

You hardly eat already,  she said. She was from Australia and had a healthy appetite. 

I don’t know, I said. They don’t give us  knives here. And it is all so sweet. I don’t know how to eat here.

Just use your hands, she said. 

We sat in our seats watching the lights of America go by. Flashing signs, motels and restaurants. Traffic, houses, high rises. All with bright neon lights flickering through the bus like they had a life of their own. McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried I recognised.

Our bus smelt like dying mice, smelly teenagers and farts. So we rode with the windows open listening to the sounds of America.

And then we reached Illinois. 

I stepped down from the bus clutching my string shoulder bag and I was in a huge carpark.  It was mid morning. I was in literally  the biggest car park I had ever seen in my life with more cars in it than I had ever seen in my life. And the cars were huge too. I stood beside the bus in my last clean top waiting for the bus driver to find the brown suitcase with CW written on it in sticky tape because Mum had been afraid I would lose it. 

The mother and father of the family were there to greet me. I don't know how they recognized me - maybe I was the only one being dropped off there.  I must have seemed terribly small and quiet. I do remember feeling quite terrified and shy. My hands above my eyes trembled trying to see them in the glare. I wondered what they were expecting. They both smiled with big white teeth. I stammered something. 

What did she say, said the father - he was very tall and large.

The mother shook her head at him and they hustled me to the car.

 They drove a huge cadillac that was all shiny and brown and enormous. It felt like driving in a long flat table. When we pulled out into the traffic I ducked as we were on the wrong side of the road before remembering that this was the correct side of the road for this country - after all I had just crossed God knows how many states in a bus -  you would think I would remember what side of the road I was meant to be on.

 My heart was thumping wildly. I sat very still.

We stopped at a restaurant.  We will stop to eat here. I had only ever been in a restaurant once before in my whole life. It just was not something we did in New Zealand then - especially not with a big family and a sick Mum. I was handed a menu with maybe fifty things on there. All incomprehensible. 

I listened carefully as the grown ups ordered but it was all too fast and I could not understand the words they used. There seemed to be a lot of choices. A lot of discussion with the waitress. 

It came to my turn and I could not think of a thing. 

In the end the Dad of the house got frustrated and ordered for me.

How do you like your steak, he said. 

I don’t know.  I answered. We never had steak either. 

That was for rich people. 

I’ll just have some chips, I said. Surely chips were safe to order. 

Get her a Bealtee, the Dad growled.

Be- al - tee?  The mother asked. 

By now I was thoroughly confused- I was too afraid to ask what that was so I just said yes. And was relieved to be handed a sandwich with bacon, lettuce and tomato with a big of chips. OK chips had not been a safe choice apparently I should have said fries. 

I ate half of the sandwich and was relieved to be able to use my hands. 

And so we drove for hours again through towns that got smaller and smaller and out to the country where they lived on a farm without animals. It was July I think and the whole house was surrounded in field corn. 

There was not a hill in sight, which loosed my brain in the most uncomfortable way. I grew up on the shore but we were in a Bay, surrounded in hills. I had never been able to see this far. Maybe this is what they meant by culture shock I thought. 

My eyes ran free without stopping. 

There was only horizon. 

Soon I would discover that they all drank Coke or Pepsi or Mountain Dew any time of the day even in the morning and literally sat in front of the television and ate chips straight out of the bag for hours at a time.  The older boys who were about my age,  just drove off when they felt like it, they all had cars. And came home when they were done. They just drove around if they had nowhere to go. Everyone ate when they were hungry.  The women cooked and the women cleaned up. And all the males waited to be served. 

I had come from a motherless house where we never went anywhere without asking permission - coke and chips were only for birthdays, we were all skinny and rode our bikes everywhere, and if we were not on a bike we were running - not for health or anything just as the fastest way to get from one place to the other. And everyone my Dad included helped me cook and  took turns with dishes. 

Toilets were different here. 

The hot and cold tap were on different sides. 

No one had baths - they all had really long showers. 

The toilet was IN the bathroom.  In the same room with the shower. 

I did not know where to put my toothbrush. 

But I had the most beautiful room. It had a four poster bed and matching dresser with a mirror that reached to the high ceiling - made of flame mahogany. There was a washstand and bedside tables to match. The floor was wide dark shiny timbers. 

The bed was made up with old quilts and there were three huge sash windows on separate walls that opened to the east and the north and the west of the house. The windows were double glazed and had screens in them which I found fascinating. 

I sank straight down into the bed and slept as though I were dead. I woke in the morning  of the next day with a huge weight laying on top of me. I could not move. When I woke again I was freed of the weight and saw that there was an old lady in a long night gown, her white hair in plaits, rocking quietly in the chair by the large north window. I watched her rock for a while then slept again. 

In the late morning the woman was gone, the house was totally silent (I had never been without the sound of the sea before) and I got up.  

I crept carefully down the big staircase to find in search of the kitchen and much to my relief - everyone was  gone but the mother of the house and the baby.

She gave me the baby and we sat down at the kitchen table so she could tell me about everyone in the house and feed the baby food out of a jar. When she stood up to show me round, I wiped the baby's face and swung him to my hip (I was used to babies) and I asked her about the old woman in the rocking chair. She shook her head. I am the only old woman round here, she laughed. 

One of her sons wandered into the kitchen - he was about 12. He stuck his head into the fridge and pulled out a can. 

Them there rooms haunted, but. He said, as he popped the lid. You won’t catch me in there. There’s ghosts. He left the room. 

Go tell your brothers to come in to meet the girl, she called after him and followed him out to the verandah. 

I looked at the baby and he looked back at me.

Ghosts, I said. He smiled.  

Letters To My Mother
Letters To My Mother Podcast
Cecilia from The Kitchens Garden reads about growing up in a Simpler Time.