On our first visit to London my cousin, Ian, was working in the Treasury Department of the British government. He was our guide for several days around London, showing us all the sights.
We went to a tennis match at Wimbledon where our friend and Sparky’s book collaborator, Billie Jean King, gave us passes to the Players’ Tea Room with a view into Court 2. We sat in the grass “bleachers” of a side court and saw John McEnroe in his first Wimbledon appearance. Two older ladies behind us had been chatting the whole match, catching up on each others’ lives. I found their conversation very amusing and quintessentially British. When John began an argument with the umpire, one said, “What a pity, such a nice looking lad.” After that, McEnroe was always a “lad” to me.
Then we went down to stay with Ian’s mother, my Aunt Betty (my mother’s sister-in-law). She lived in the guest quarters of a grand old house owned by a friend. (I never saw the interior of the main house, but I imagined it to be in a pre-WWII state). But it was Aunt Betty and the lawn and the scattered barns and out-buildings that charmed us. Betty did what Sparky loved best, she just “hung around.” She cooked; she tended to the garden; and she fed and watched the birds outside her windows. She knew how to live—simply but well.
In the morning we walked down to a bridge across a stream and watched to see if we could catch sight of the large fish (could it have been a trout? a perch? ) swim by. Then we would go back and have a “lie down.” What is not to like about a life like this?
On the weekend, Ian would come down and manicure the lawn. For some reason Sparky thought the lawn mower Ian used was not right. He said he would like to buy Ian a new one. But it had to be a reel mower, Ian insisted. The rotary ones “chopped up the grass and weren’t suitable.” So the next day we went off on a consumer adventure to town—probably Wiltshire.
On the way, we past the ruins of old Sarum that dated to William the Conqueror! Once in town, we negotiated for a new mower. I am sure whatever form of payment we had was looked upon with skepticism, but finally it was purchased, and they said they would deliver it next week. “No” Sparky insisted. “It had to be tomorrow,” because we were to leave the next day. A little more consternation, but finally an agreement was reached. We were all so proud when the mower arrived and Ian put it to work cutting the grass. It was heaven. Ian was so proud of himself and his mower. I think that lawn mower bonded Sparky to the English countryside forever!
Sparky made Betty laugh, and he loved to tease her. I am sure he brought out a playfulness her children hadn’t seen in many years.
One joke that ran for years went like this: Betty was always urging more food on us. “Have more toast,” “more tea?” “Have some more roast and some more salad.” Whatever there was she offered it up. And the answer, 20 times over was, “No, thank you.” Then Betty would say in her English accent, “Have a bahnana?” Finally, Sparky would beat her to it, saying in a Midwestern twang, “Have a b’nana.” It was a simple comedy sketch, but it kept us in stitches for years.
Here is Sparky with Aunt Betty during one of our later visits to England. Sparky was always entertained by these sign warning drivers of elderly and old people. He even posed pretending to be like the elderly people depicted in the sign.