We were relaxing in the American Airlines Admiral's club at the Chicago, O'Hare airport when our names we called over the paging system. Nathan disappeared for awhile, while I continued crocheting, ready to board our business class seats to Madrid within the hour, and then continue on to Venice, Italy, a place we had been dreaming about for months.
After about 10 minutes, Nathan came back and silently walked up to me, looking really upset. All he said was "Umm, you need to follow me." As we walked to the counter, I knew it was bad news. We're probably not sitting together, I naively thought. Or at the very worst, maybe we're flying coach. As we approached the counter, he let them do the talking.
I'm really sorry, but you will need to return home. You cannot enter Italy because your passport expires in March. It needs to be valid for a full 90 days after your expected return date.I was too in shock to be upset. Valid 3 months after we return?! That makes no sense. I stood there, bewildered, and said But we can't go home. Is there a manager I can speak to? Well, he was the manager and there was nothing that could be done: It was a rule of the entire European Union, not the airline. So I did what any pregnant woman about to be denied a babymoon would do. I started crying. The silent type of cry that produces lots of tears and really lets people know you're serious.
We couldn't do an emergency renewal because it was a Saturday, and Monday was a holiday. If we had been sent out of the lounge and left to fend for ourselves, not only would we have not been able to go anywhere else (last minute tickets are always outrageous!) but we could have lost all of our miles being used and had to pay for the return, because the trip had technically already started. But the staff of American Airlines, specifically Doug Dean, Cheryl Krajnovic and Isolina Conception were amazing. Isolina even brought me some of her almonds while she helped us on the customer service call.
The entire European Union was out, but within an hour, we had our choice of a few destinations, including Australia. All I could think about was the 85 degree weather there and my suitcase loaded down with cold-weather clothes. Buying new clothing can be fun, but not when I have to shop maternity and they would only fit me for a few more months. The only upside to going to Australia would have been the fact that Nathan offered to turn all of his jeans into cut-off short shorts, and rock them like no one's business.
London, England? Well, it had the same weather as Venice, and was not officially in the EU, so we could enter. Even though we had each been there before, separately, it seemed to be the best of our limited options. They held the aircraft at the gates waiting for us and when they drove us to the gate, we boarded immediately.
In the lounge at Heathrow, Nathan booked a great hotel in the Covent garden area that was actually reasonable, while I bought tickets to see War Horse at the New London Theater. We made our way to the hotel, slept and freshened up and then found a great local pub, Shakespeare's Head, a place that we would end up at 7 more times over the next 8 days because the food was good and we could get two meals for under 20 pounds. McDonald's was almost as expensive there.
On the off-chance she was free, I called my Mum's sister and left a voicemail letting her know that we unexpectedly ended up in London, and asking if she had time to get together, to possibly see where Mom grew up. My Mom lost touch with most of her family over the years since she left after getting married at 19. I had only met her sister once, when she came to America when I was 12. We had only spoken on the phone twice, once after Mom was diagnosed, and once after she died. I wasn't even sure she still lived near London.
A few days went by. Nathan and I had an amazing time exploring the city on foot, with minimal use of the Underground until I was too tired and needed it. We walked past the London Eye, over to Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, to Westminster Abbey and through Hyde Park. To Buckingham Palace and back. We explored the British Museum, had dessert every night, went to the Tower of London, Harrod's and on a Jack the Ripper walking tour. Through all of this, we enjoyed the time just to ourselves, something we haven't had in over seven months.
|Outside Westminster Abbey on Ash Wednesday|
We had just booked our weekend plans, The Changeling, a 17th century play all by candlelight, at The Globe and a tour of Windsor Castle when she called. My Aunt was free to give us a tour of where Mom grew up! And she could do it the one last free day we had. That night, I went to bed a bit nervous and excited. I was worried it would be too sad or emotional, and mostly just wished Mom was coming along with us. And with the help of my imagination, it felt like she was. I imagined her by my side, with her arm around my waist and mine around hers, as we so often did those last few months when the brain tumor robbed her of her balance.
Wearing the cross that holds some of her remains, we took the tube to Paddindton Station and from there, caught a train into Reading. The train ride only took 30 minutes, and I realized that Mom always saying she grew up "30 minutes outside of London" was indeed accurate.
We arrived at the station and after sitting out front for a few minutes, my phone rang and it was my uncle Mark! I had not seen him since I was two when he came to visit my Mom with my grandmother Lilly. That was the first and last time I met her, and she brought me a gollywog. Turning around, there he was, all grown up, walking with Anna. Some hugs and introductions to Nathan, and we were on our way.
The day could not have been more perfect. I was hoping to just see one house Mom lived in, but they planned so much more. First up: visiting the grave of my grandmother Lilly, and my great-grandmother, Mary.
Died Feb 15 1965 aged 66
Nov 2 1993 aged 65
|Mary Mangan with my Mom, Paula Mary DeWitt (Mangan)|
|1st house (actually a room)|
I imagine the stigma they faced, just two women and a child. I know at least one person who judges that now, let alone back in the early 1950's. What strong women they were to up and leave like that, seeking work and a better life for little Paula.
The next place we saw was where they moved after they saved up enough to get out of the one room, and then where they were living when my grandmother met her husband, Johnny Sheehan, also an emigrant from Ireland.
Finally, a few streets over, the house where they all lived at and raised their five other children, Johnny, Michael, Julie, Anna and Mark. This last house is where Mom was living when my father was courting her.
As you can tell from the street view, all the houses look the same. But I remember Mom saying my grandma painted her door red, and was talked to by the housing council who did not appreciate the originality.
Already, it was an amazing day, but what they had in store for us next was incredible. Down the street and to the left is Christ the King Catholic Church at 408 Northumberland Avenue, Reading RG2 8NR. This was where my Mom and Dad were married on August 9, 1969 but also, as I learned that day, where my Grandmother and Grandfather were married. For years, I knew my Mom's and Dad's wedding picture, with them standing in a doorway. But i had never seen her parent's wedding photo, also in the same spot. My Aunt Anna had an 8x10 of this photo to give me, and it made our visit there all the more meaningful. The church was even open that Friday afternoon because they were setting up for a concert, and we were able to walk down the aisle, imagining the excitement nervousness Mom and Dad felt when they were doing the same.
Lastly, we were off to visit my grandfather. This was to be my very first time meeting him. I knew it would be hard. Eight months earlier, he suffered a stroke while walking to meet his Irish friends at a pub and had lost his ability to speak. Anna and Mark entered the room first, and told him someone special was here to see him, Paula's daughter, Megan from America. I entered the room and after he saw me, he began weeping. You have to remember that is a strong Irish man who never spoke about his feelings and was probably never caught crying his whole adult life and now here he was, breaking down. He held onto my hand tightly and alternated between trying to communicate and crying. Tears fell as I thanked him for being such a good father to my Mom. Asked if I looked like her, he nodded and griped my hand tightly. We told him our daughter's name and when asked if he liked it, he nodded and tried to say yes. When I asked if I could take this photo with him, he reached his hand up to make sure he smoothed his hair down and nodded yes.
|Meeting my grandfather, Johnny Sheehan, for the first time. Born in Castleisland, Ireland in 1932.|
|L-R: Bartender, Alan Bride, my Grandfather Johnny Sheehan, my Mom Paula DeWitt (Mangan)|
Another book was filled with baby photos of me, that my Mom sent to her Mum. But one gem stood out, and tears began flowing as I held it. This photo of my Mom holding me at three days old melts my heart, and is something I will always treasure. The love and care that she wraps me in with her arms is almost tangible, and when I look at it, I can feel it. I hope to take a similar one of our daughter, and hang them both in the nursery.
In all, it was a much more meaningful trip than Venice ever could have been. More than one person has told me that it was meant to be and I believe them. A few years ago, I laughed at the old adage everything happens for a reason. But situations like this trip make me think there is something to that. None of this would have been possible without the help of those American Airlines staff and I wish they could know just how much their help means to us both, for all the years to come, and one day, to our daughter.
|Mom, making a wish|
|Mom, with her cats|
|At 18 months, with my gollywog that my grandma brought me|