September 23, 2013

Please Look After…


My mum wants to know,” Jayne said to me, “if you want to hear all about how she was evacuated during the War.”

Well, who wouldn’t want to hear about that? The story of how trainloads of children were whisked out of British cities and into the tranquil green countryside to keep them safe during World War II is the stuff of Masterpiece Theater. Add Jayne’s mother Marion into the mix—statuesque, red-haired, dramatic, a woman once ideally cast as trident-wielding Britannia in an outdoor extravaganza on the grounds of Walmer Castle—and it’s certain to be an evening unlike any at home. (more…)

May 20, 2013

A Stitch in Time


The lines aren’t all entirely straight and the stitches aren’t always even, but there’s no mistaking Windsor Castle rising above the treetops or the royal coat of arms down below, beneath the slightly imperfect slogan that appears to read GODSAVE THE KING. Back in 1936 someone spent days—perhaps even weeks—memorializing with a needle a moment in British history that never took place at all. (more…)

November 11, 2012

Somebody’s Son and Brother

After this Veterans Day essay appeared in The Seattle Times, my father and uncle both told me they thought their Uncle Wilmot was a WWI soldier suicide, not a battlefield casualty. If they’re right, that was a detail my grandmother never mentioned. It was an early lesson for me in the slipperiness of family narrative.

No matter how Wilmot died in 1919, the essential truth of the essay remains the same.


 Read “Somebody’s Son and Brother” on the Seattle Times web site



October 10, 2012

Great Uncle Joseph Did Not Go Down on the Titanic

My friend Maggie has a problem.

Not a problem so much as a cousin—a distant, well-meaning cousin with a passion for genealogy. Maggie likes him. She wishes him well. But she wishes he’d stop insisting that someone in the family tree was rescued from the Titanic.

“It just isn’t true,” she tells me. Maggie’s pretty old school when it comes to documentation. She likes to see some kind of actual proof. “Two men share a name and that’s all.”

There was, in fact, a ship passenger with the same name as Maggie’s great uncle. This young man—we’ll call them both Joseph Shaw—was an Irish farmhand from Connemara, sailing third class to America to join his brother in New York.

No doubt he was handsome and full of life. We know he was good in a crisis. When the ship hit the iceberg and water gushed in, young Joseph stripped off his thick Aran sweater (the one his mother knitted for him before he left Ireland forever) and gallantly gave it to two shivering women about to be launched in a lifeboat.

The women survived—with the sweater. Young Joseph, alas, did not. (more…)

August 28, 2012

The War of the Plucky Women

In case it’s not on your calendar, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

This is not, to put it delicately, a war that most Americans think about very often. We find it a little confusing, the fact that we fought Britain again after the Revolution. The notion that U.S. soldiers attacked Canada in the process is also surprising—at least to us. The citizens of Canada seem to be clear on this point.

For Canadians the War of 1812 is a pivotal moment in national history, the time when they defined themselves as Not Americans.

But for those of us south of the 49th parallel, other wars loom so much larger that the War of 1812 inevitably shrinks to a footnote. If pressed we might be able to name Francis Scott Key and The Star Spangled Banner, or Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture . . .

No, wait. That’s the Russians fighting Napoleon. Same year, different war. (more…)