There’s a great deal to see in California. (Though not the Golden Gate Bridge, permanently obscured by fog, whatever the postcards say!) A lot of it was amazing and beautiful, particularly in and around Sequoia National Park, on which probably more another time.
But while we went looking for bears, and were delighted to find them, the most amazing encounter for me – after an absence of 33 years – was with my Californian cousins. ‘Hi Kim, this is your cousin Ellie from the UK – I’m in San Francisco for about 48 hours.’ ‘How fantastic! Shall I drive into town now and we can go for a coffee?’
This, right off the bat, from somebody I have to assume hasn’t had much occasion to think about me since 1978, when she and her sister were our cool American cousins and I was an overawed eight-year-old… I begin to see where the Californians get their reputation for warmth and laid-back good nature.
In the end we met up the next day, together with cousin Karen and her shy-cheeky-smiley four-year-old Quinn in a diamante butterfly dress. I inevitably went to the wrong Starbucks – how can a town the size of a largeish parking lot possibly have two of them?? – and had to be rescued, but not before I had checked out every one of the Sunday-morning coffee-drinkers in turn. It’s interesting how very differently you look at strangers when you think they might in fact be family...
But it’s a bit like that moment in Arrivals when you’re waiting for a loved-one to come through the gate and everyone seems to have their haircut or coat or walk – and then the person him- or herself comes out, and you realise you couldn’t possibly have mistaken them for anyone else. Kim and Karen were of course everything the mangy Brit expects of Californians – tanned, slim, impeccably turned out and at ease with the vagaries of parking rules, three-way stops and the Starbucks menu – but they were also unmistakeably family. We talked a lot, filling every pause between sips of coffee and every wait at a red light on the way to visit their parents, and somehow managed to get past the stage of ‘Tell me everything about yourself over the past three decades starting NOW’ and on to things that mattered to us.
And one thing we found mattered to us was our own relationship: despite none of us having made the effort before now to establish contact as adults, we all felt that now the connection was made, it was important to maintain and nourish it. By the time we reached the nursing home, a free-ranging discussion of memories, history, interpretations and ideas about ourselves and our families had created a kind of complicity, so that while I had in a way to present myself anew to an aunt and uncle who’d not seen me themselves in decades, I did it flanked by cousins who in some sense did already know me.
So while the picture of the bear cub below is very cute, it’s mostly here for Quinn; the one that really makes me smile is the one of the Starbucks family reunion.