My anglophila, my love of London, my need to have UK pen pals, and my high school urge to study in London, did not materialize from nothing.
That I owe to the Carey’s.
Every year from age five to 13-years-old, the phone would ring on Christmas Day. My mother would lift up the land line and balance the receiver under her neck while mixing a bowl of pancake batter or beating eggs. She would say “Merry Christmas,” and the woman on the other line would say “Happy Christmas.” The call would come from Swindon, UK, and in my eyes, a call from the UK was cool and foreign, and I liked it.
My parents met the Carey’s when we were vacationing at Disney world. Back in those days we lived a mere few hours from Orlando, Florida. That year we stayed at hotel off the Disney property and spent some afternoons in the pool, and through general pool conversation that parents find themselves in, the Carey’s became our friends. The Carey’s were a family of six, four children, three boys and a girl. We spent the remainder of the vacation with them, even going to dinner and shopping.
I can’t believe I remember so much about that trip, I was only five or younger at the time. But I remember vividly going to a toy shop with the Carey’s. There was a toy doll of a business man, and when you pressed a button he would dance and his pants would fall down to his ankles, revealing a pair of boxer shorts with red hearts. The middle Carey boy kept pressing the button over and over and all the kids thought this was hilarious. I remember running out of the store giggling, I remember Mr. Carey laughing with us, his face turning red. My sister, as a little girl, had a very fun, unique laugh. I hear it clearly when I remember that moment.
My parent’s exchanged information with the Carey’s after that trip, and it became a yearly tradition to write letters, send calendars and Christmas phone calls. They sent us a family portrait, which I always admired. If I’d ever had a family of my own, my photo would be like that one. They were sitting outside on a park bench, the photographer had pressed the shutter at the best moment, and got them all candidly mid-laugh. It was so much better than those plastered on smiles we had in American family photos, and those horrific light blue and green backgrounds that make people look like they are floating in some strange infinity.
“Swindon is thirty minutes outside of London,” mother used to say about their hometown. I used to ask her a lot of questions about what it was like in London. Another country was like another planet.
I think it’s that little kernel, that little childhood memory that settled deeply in my mind. The fusion of many things: vacation, family, laughter, foreign faces and countries. Even at my young age, I recognized the benefits of our very genuine exchange, and figured that all the Brit’s must be that warm and nice. Who knew that I could take that memory, add water and stir, and wake up at 17-years-old and applying to London universities.
Having daily contact with Mr. Pemberton (if you recall, my London-based pen pal whom I write multiple times a day) reminded me of the Carey’s. I called my mother and asked for Mrs. Carey’s first name.
“I’m going to look her up on Facebook,” I said. It hadn’t occurred to me that now we had this resource to find them that we didn’t have many years ago when we fell out of contact and stopped the calls on Christmas. My mother stayed on the line as I typed her name into the Facebook search.
We found her instantly. The kids were now all grown. They all still liked to travel, they all are still based in Swindon. Seeing their faces was like a shock to my memory and the kind of refreshing warmth one gets from smelling a familiar smell from childhood or seeing a toy that you’d forgotten. It’s different, but it’s also the same.
I kept looking.
“She has grand-kids now,” I said. “tons of them. She still goes to Disney a lot.”
Mother and I continued to discuss them for awhile, then I hung up and looked down at my iPhone wallpaper, which is a photo of Big Ben I took when I was riding the London Eye. Today it is exactly three years to the day that I flew to London on a whim. I can’t help but smirk to myself and think: blame it on the Carey’s.