I’ve spent much of my adult life influenced by a childhood trip to the British Isles when I was 7 years old. It was a sultry summer in southeastern Pennsylvania. At night we sweated and tossed and turned— inches from a fan in the window—our beds bare of all but the bottom sheets.
But the air in England was moist and cool when we landed in London, a refreshing change from our heatwave. The eccentric owner of our London hotel asked my brother and me to look for a white rabbit. I can’t remember what would happen if we actually found said rabbit, but we didn’t need much enticement to begin the quest. I still love a quest, especially one that is seemingly futile. Those are the best, because if the mysterious item is ever found, it is all the more rewarding. So the white rabbit was our holy grail. And we looked.
My early memories of London are mostly olfactory: scents of cheeses never sniffed before, crimped and eggy-glazed meat pies stacked in bakery windows, fruit soap on a bathroom sink smelling vaguely of strawberries, ruby-red jam on a scone, dark robust tea. All around us the black shiny cabs blurred by us and the big red buses really did have a staircase and a second floor to sit in and look out into so many mysterious streets and windows. Beefeaters, palace guards, stories of queens thrown into towers, crown jewels, poets graves in the floor stones of abbeys, Egyptian mummies in glass cases—London was rife with much for an overactive imagination. And through its center glistened the ribbon of dirty water, the Thames. I loved it on sight, carrying boats by all of that history and through all of those memorable bridges.
At bedtime Mom read aloud to us from Wuthering Heights. Cathy at the window made me wonder where that elusive white rabbit might be. I checked the darkened window. My brother and I left London reluctantly, leaving hope of finding the rabbit and set our sights on the moors of Yorkshire, the plains of Salisbury (where in the early 70s you could still walk within the stones of Stonehedge, and we did), the home turf of the Bard, the churchyards of Sussex where we made rubbings of designs on medieval tombs—my parent’s rubbings precise and ordered, and our childish ones sloppy and hurried—and onward to the lochs of Scotland, the valleys of Wales.
I spent a three month college term in England, a deja vu of my childhood trip at times, and at other times the beginning of quests that were entirely my own. Each time I return, the sights and smells seize me powerfully as things do that first enchanted us as children. I wonder what experiences my daughter, who just turned 9, is having that will continue to captivate her as an adult. Someday I will ask her.