In the summer of 1989 I flew out to California for eight weeks, courtesy of one of my many American cousins, the late Charlotte Anderson. It was my first flight on my own, and my first visit to the United States. What an amazing experience! I hung out mostly in Healdsburg (about 70 miles north of San Francisco) but we took a number of road trips: down south to Monterey; then on to Disneyland and Universal Studios at Los Angeles; boogie boarding at the beach at San Juan Capistrano; back north and inland to Yosemite National Park; up north as far as Crater Lake and Medford in Oregon where I witnessed the most amazing lightning storm I’ve ever seen. During the two months I went water-skiing, boogie boarding and rode my first (and last) rollercoaster (in the dark!). I also met up with family.
About an hour’s drive north-west of Healdsburg, cradled in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County lies a small town called Boonville, population 715. It has its own folk language called Boontling. It was also home to a good few members of my extended family, also named Anderson. One weekend Charlotte drove me up and dropped me off, I was to meet and hang out with Bruce and Ling, and their two sons Zack (a little older than me) and Ben (a little younger), and another cousin, Jamie (much younger than me).
Bruce ran the local newspaper, The Anderson Valley Advertiser, the AVA. He is still its editor. The newspaper’s motto is “fanning the flames of discontent.” I wouldn’t say they go out of their way to invite controversy, but they don’t exactly shy away from it either.
I love this photograph of me with Bruce, taken—I think—in his office. I was a little intimidated by Bruce at the time, I have to admit. But I sat and listened to him for hours, he was incredibly well read and really interesting.
One morning over breakfast, Bruce came down from his ‘tree-house’ office with a stack of mail that had arrived for the newspaper. Amongst it was a letter from a couple who had passed through Boonville a few weeks before. It transpired that they had recently adopted a baby and when they had stopped to fill up with gas the infant had inadvertently dropped their toy rabbit out of the car. It wasn’t just any rabbit, it was the rabbit, the rabbit of comfort, the rabbit that stopped them crying while they were upset, it was I-WANT-RAAAAAABBIT! There was a letter explaining the torment that this poor family was now experiencing sans rabbit, along with a five dollar bill and a plea to make a few posters, get them photocopied and paste them up around town. Proper wild west stuff with a reward and everything. We joked about the letter over breakfast, and soon after I got packed up, Char came to collect me and I headed back to Healdsburg.
A few days later the post arrived and Char opened her subscription copy of the AVA. A few pages in there was the letter about losing a rabbit. I smiled. I’d read that letter myself. But to be honest, that’s not really what had demanded my attention on that page. It was the 4″ x 6″ photograph of a toy rabbit with a pistol to its head that had caught my eye, with a caption beneath that said something like “Send five more dollars or the rabbit gets it!” Brilliant! Why aren’t more newspapers like that?!
In 2002 and again in 2004 I travelled with Jane to California to stay with Char. We had amazing holidays, and once more Char was adamant that I should get in touch with my generation of the family, and so I did. Our cousin, the novelist, Robert Mailer Anderson very kindly put us up in his guest accommodation both times and we met up with and hung out with Robert and Zack and Jessica, and Wayne and Margaret and a whole host of others. We had such a brilliant time, with such lovely people. And we should have gone back again after that but we moved house, and then the IVF treatment started, and we had children and… well, last month they came over here.
I love my American family: they are warm and loving and accepting and never too far from laughter. Before we travelled down to the Scottish Borders I was a little apprehensive that we might be gate-crashing their party, despite what Robert had said to reassure us in an email. I needn’t have worried. We arrived on Friday afternoon, and over the next few days there was a steady trickle of people arriving. Zack, Ben and Robert had been part of the advance party; then Nicola (Robert’s wife) arrived with the children; and shortly after Bruce and Ling arrived with their daughter Jessica, her husband Ryan and two children; and lastly Bruce’s sister Judy turned up with her husband Charlie.
I cycled up the drive, through clouds of midges, from our holiday lodge to ‘the big hoose’ (it was about a ten minutes’ walk) shortly after Nicola arrived with the children. They were running around the grounds playing tig, or whatever young Americans play these days. As I pulled up outside the house I teamed up with Zack and Ben and we laughed and joked until one of the girls, Frances, ran up saying that she had touched something and her hand had come up in a rash.
“Ah, that must be a stinging nettle,” I explained.
I hunted the nearby border beneath the dining room and quickly found one.
“One of these,” I explained. “They sting, so stay away from them. However, if you do get stung look for a docken leaf.”
Again I hunted amongst the foliage beneath the dining room window and tore one off.
“Place this on your hand, on the sting. It will soothe it and cool it down,” I explained, suddenly feeling like some kind of mediaeval wizard or the monk Cadfael.
“Wow! That’s cool,” said Ben. “One plant that’s an antidote to another plant.”
Selkirk Common Riding
Each morning we met around the (tremendously long) breakfast table and ate together and laughed and shared stories. Each evening we did the same over dinner. Robert, who was fulfilling his duties as the 2013 Selkirk Colonial Society Standard Bearer joined us when he could—boy! that was one full schedule he had, packed with late night after late night. It was lovely to catch up with him when I could, and I was disappointed that I had to leave one morning when he and Bruce had just got their teeth into a really meaty conversation about American politics. I was back in Boonville in ’89. I wanted to hear more, but family duties were calling.
Of course, what we were all there for was to support Robert at the Common Riding. On Wednesday evening I travelled into Selkirk for the Colonial Bussin’ concert, where Nicola bussed the flag (put ribbons on it) in a very graceful way (as they kept remind us) and Robert received his standard bearer’s sash and flag for the Common Riding on Friday morning.
After the concert I got to attend the Colonial dinner, something that I’d seen my Mum and Dad go out to for years as I was growing up. Finally I was allowed to go, and I’m so glad that I did. What fun Zack and Ben and Frances and I had sitting at the top end of a table that extended about three-quarters of the way down the Lesser Victoria Hall. We sat beneath a California flag that Charlotte had donated a few years before she died. She would have been so proud of us all being together.
My Mum surprised me at one point by going forward to present a gift to Nicola, from a former Lady Busser to the current one. I leaned in to Frances and said, “That’s my Mum and your Mum!” She smiled. I was so proud of my Mum that evening, and so proud to be a part of this family. I wish my Dad could have seen it all too. He’d have been in his element.
There was a lot of singing that evening, which took me a bit by surprise. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like singing. I was in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain for about eight years, but it was like hanging out at the Prancing Pony inn with a bunch of hobbits and dwarves! More singing! More drinking! More singing! But it was brilliant. At one point, near the end, Robert got up with Frances and they sang a fabulous, eerie, gothic American ballad, something that they sometimes sing at bedtime. It went down a storm.
Then on Friday morning we got up at pointlessly-early o’clock and did the Selkirk Common Riding. Reuben and Joshua were incredible. For about five hours, Reuben walked pretty much the whole way round, Joshua got carried for a bit of it, Jane about broke her back carrying Isaac in a sling the whole way. I was so proud of them all.
Robert did everyone proud casting the Colonial flag in the Selkirk Market Place at the conclusion of the festival, which you can watch on the ITV website along with a short interview with him.
The following day the wider family gathered at Hoscote House for a buffet meal. What was rather fun was that Judy and I worked on a copy of the family tree so we could all identify where we sat on it, and we could see graphically how we were all related to one another.
Then we gathered for the obligatory family photo on the steps of the house and then we all went our separate ways.
I was sad to leave. I miss not having so many people around the breakfast table. I miss the jokes and nonsense conversations, I miss finding out more about these amazing people with whom I’ve spent less than a month of my life in their company but who have accepted me as one of their own, and who I regard as close to me as my nuclear family. I guess I miss them because I love them. And surely that’s a good thing in a family, even one as wide and extended and scattered and… odd as this one.