"I had a lovely pork pie for school dinner today, Mummy," my 7-year-old, Meg, informed me one afternoon. The sentence rolled off her tongue. Then, thinking I might not understand, she added, "They say 'lovely' here instead of 'wonderful.' "
It's hard for me to convey just how tickled I was by her helpful translation - and by my new nickname, "Mummy." My family had left behind our home in Virginia to live for a year in Cambridge, England. Why? For many reasons, primarily professional. But we were also there for our two daughters: My husband and I wanted to show them another country, another culture. Yet as each day passed, I realized how mistaken that notion was - that is, the notion that I would be the one doing the showing.
Meg did not want to go to England. She did not want to leave her house, her yard, her dog, her friends, or her school. She even made alternative plans, readily agreeing to swap lives with an envious friend of mine. Playing along, my friend's husband asked Meg what she intended to cook for him. The answer: hot chocolate and scrambled eggs.
"What about Christmas?" I asked, in hope that Meg might deign to visit her family during the holidays.
She hesitated only a moment before declaring firmly, "I'll make brownies."
So I can't say she didn't warn me of her reluctance to go. But caught up in the preparations for moving a family overseas, I didn't listen. Everything would be fine, I thought, once we got over there. What was Meg so worried about? After all, she'd be with her family. We would take care of her.
I should not have been surprised that, once we got there, Meg was unhappy. Still, I couldn't understand her misery. The rest of us were excited to be in our new temporary home; her 10-year-old sister fell in love with the very air she was breathing. Sure, everything was different, from washing clothes to banking, but that was part of the adventure. Why couldn't Meg appreciate what we were doing for her?
In an effort to ease the transition, I grasped at the few things I knew my younger daughter would like: the public library, the swimming pool, and the playground. Eventually we added to her list of likes: riding up high in a double-decker bus and punting on the River Cam. I found that putting a few pence in Meg's pocket gave her the opportunity to engage in daily life on her own terms. Whereas I edged by street musicians warily, she loved to watch them, applaud, and put coins in their hats. She adored studying the sweets in the little store near her school, spending all of her allowance on them, then sharing them with the rest of us.
But Meg was not impressed by Cambridge's centuries-old buildings. Reading out loud to her from a guidebook didn't help. While I looked up high at statues and steeples, her eyes were aimed at the cobblestones beneath her feet. The very mention of visiting a cathedral could provoke a tantrum. It was daily life that interested her, not sightseeing.
Had we bring her all the way to England just so she could collect conkers (horse chestnuts) in the fall or eat crisps (potato chips) designed to turn your mouth green? The easy answer is, yes, of course. But there was more to it than that. I was hoping that, every so often, she would understand the significance of where we were. It was for these glimpses of a larger world - along with shiny conkers and green tongues - that I had wrenched Meg away from her routines.
"If we fall in," Meg said one day as we walked along the white cliffs of Dover, "we'll be in the English Channel, and we'll float to France."
Ah, I thought. She's starting to get it!
We had no car during our stay, and got around by bicycle. Meg's was a little hot-pink mountain bike. When we arrived in England, she had only just learned to ride without training wheels. She was wobbly at first, and fell frequently. Surprisingly, she rarely complained.
Come to think of it, Meg did not complain about a lot of things. Cycling to school in the rain and home in the dark (night fell early in the winter). Being one in a class of 34 students. Getting a crash course in a new kind of cursive called "joined-up writing." All in all, she adapted well. She used a rubbish bin, not a trash can. She wore a jumper, trousers, and wellies, not a sweater, pants, and rubber boots. She found friends, and developed a bit of an accent. After school, she'd ask if she could "go round Lauren's house," or Bettina's, or Sophie's.
Sometimes, as I watched Meg pedal her pink bike home from school, her small wheels covering the ground so much more slowly than my bigger ones did, I was flooded with an awareness of something I had overlooked, but which Meg seemed to have known all along. Before we went to England, I did not realize the extent to which our going there would put new demands on her. I imagined that she and I would experience our new lives together, that I would be able to protect her, shelter her, explain new words to her. I did not realize then what seems obvious now: Meg, on or off her bicycle, in England or at home, has to make her own way. She has her own experiences; she learns things for herself. And, on occasion, she teaches me.
I think that's lovely.