Wafted home by John's trumpet
John sits on an upturned bucket at the corner of Washington's H and 17th streets. Fingers stiff with cold and cheeks bulging, he blows his battered trumpet in resonant rebuttal of passing office workers' early morning blues. Beside him is another bucket, the right and hopeful way up, gathering dollars and cents as commuters shuffle by.
At first, I would throw in a buck - a note for his notes - and go on my way. Morning by morning, we progressed. First, an effusive "Thank you, bless you, sir" that interrupted the music; then handshakes, an exchange of names, occasional chats. An introduction to my wife led to invariable good wishes to "Isobel" thereafter.
At one point John got around shyly to asking for advice about how to handle the travails of a tricky relationship. In the ensuing exchange, trumpet silenced, he must have missed quite a few donations. I hope my simple words about the value of tenderness and thoughtfulness were worth it.
John quickly caught my British accent. And after each encounter I began to notice as I walked off along H Street toward my office that I was being pursued by the slowly fading echoes of "God Save the Queen." Yes, I know, the British National Anthem has the same tune as "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." But it happened far too often to be a coincidence.
However long you live in an adopted country, however much you come to love it, twinges of remembrance of "home" can be triggered in the most unexpected ways. I suspect most expatriates are familiar with sudden aching recollections stirred by even the slightest of events. William McKenzie, poet and hymn-writer, put it well when he wrote of "exiles yearning for homelands loved through patient years."
Nearly 40 years in the United States do not erase the memories of the gentle hills and narrow, twisting, bank-bounded, wild-flower-filled lanes of Devon; the ancient thatched farm cottages, in one of which I could stand upright only where the ceiling humped up a little above the kitchen sink (I was always therefore called upon to do the dishes); the flat-bottomed, thick-cushioned punts on the Cambridge "Backs" on a misty morning after an all-night May Ball, each narrow boat bursting with students in bow ties and tails or elegant long dresses poling their way unsteadily upriver for bacon and eggs in Grantchester. That was the village memorialized by Rupert Brooke's poem written in a Berlin cafe not long before the horrors of World War I trench warfare and filled with homesick yearnings for the English countryside: "... Oh! yet/ Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/ And is there honey still for tea?"
John's trumpet takes me back to the "Last Night of the Proms" - the final Promenade Concert in the annual series that fills London's cavernous Albert Hall night after night every fall. Normally reserved Brits, decked out in strange hats, wave Union Jack flags, blow tin horns, dance, stamp, and sway together on the vast open floor of Prince Albert's mighty auditorium. They belt out "God Save the Queen," "Land of Hope and Glory," and William Blake's "Jerusalem" ("And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England's mountains green?/ And was the holy Lamb of God/ On England's pleasant pastures seen?") with all the traditional voice, verve, volume, and chauvinism associated with this annual venting of emotion.
In London in the '60s, my job required me to attend parliamentary debates in the House of Commons, with Honorable Members often overflowing the green-padded benches into every corner of the chamber that Winston Churchill had insisted be kept intentionally and intimately too small. Ministers of the Crown dodged and wove their familiar way through Question Time; Big Ben, a bell and not a tower, chimed the hour for the start of the BBC Evening News.
It's not that this expatriate is dissatisfied with where he now lives. I do not fit the description of our Dalmatian dog, Nutkin, who in my childhood was always on the wrong side of the kitchen door. As Mr. Cuddiford, our Devon gardener, put it succinctly: "'E'm never aisy but where 'e b'ain't."
Unlike Nutkin, I'm easy where I am. But those little twinges never quite go away. Hearing John's trumpet float up H Street after me with its reminders of the past floods the mind with gratitude for there ... and here.
I pause once more at the upturned bucket. John has a hymnbook on his knees and is playing tunes I have never heard before. We talk, and I turn his pages to one of my favorite hymns - "Abide With Me." Written by Henry Francis Lyte, the beloved 19th-century pastor of Lower Brixham church in Devon, it bridges distances and oceans. And as I walk away, "Abide With Me" follows me gently up the street, quite as familiar and reassuring as "God Save the Queen."
Ah, John, the trumpet indeed shall sound ... and oceans shrink.