Helen lived with her mother, father and two uncles. George shared several businesses and a home with his brothers, Helen’s other ‘fathers’. Together they ran the local bank, a farm, a grocery store, plumbing business and some apartment buildings. In the 1860s the construction of a railroad put Dunellen on the map but the local’s attitude remained determinedly ‘small town’. Both Helen and her best friend Mary however had ambitions beyond the town’s borders. Helen took a job in New York and regularly wore fur to college football games, Mary went on cruises and played golf. It was Mary who introduced Helen to Tom, her brother. In 1938 they married, left town and had two girls but a few years later Tom learnt that he had cancer. His daughter Barbara was just 5 when he died. His one wish was that Helen ‘stay home and take care of the girls’. And so she did. The family moved back to Dunellen and the girls went to the local school. They’d walk home, work up an appetite and return to the smell of baking cakes; Mabel’s Milk and Honey, Mrs Lutz’s Tomato or Kathleen Kiefer’s Coffee cake. This is Helen’s recipe box, inherited by Barbara and filled with the tastes and smells of her New Jersey childhood.
Julio left Paris before he finished his degree, he returned to Canton and a home ravaged by civil war. The delicate truce brokered between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek faltered and Chiang fled to Taiwan. As a sympathiser, Julio boarded the first boat sailing down the Pearl River. He arrived in Panama in 1939. His name, like two footprints, tracks his journey to Colombia (Julio) from China (Cheng). He eventually moved to Barranquilla, working for the Chinese consulate and bringing up his two boys. His son Jaime joined the Colombian navy. While Jaime was stationed in New Orleans Julio moved to the island of San Andrés. Julio never met Jaime’s daughter – his granddaughter, but Susana gained some sense of who Julio was as a man through his books. Aged 13 she would rifle through them and it was his ‘Secretos del Cosmos’ that began her fascination with astronomy. Through Roman’s book she discovered Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, a treatise that underscores ‘our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.’ For the young Susana there was no better vantage for a clear view of the vast cosmos than her grandfather’s remote home.
By the time Joel and Harri left the pub the stars were out, the pin holes pricking the black sky were just a little fuzzy from the beer. In bed Joel stared at a ceiling littered with a set of luminous plastic stars he’d put up as a boy. He now lives in Hackney where light pollution has snuffed out the perspective he’d seen from the Brecon Beacons. The city’s skies are orange and small. Joel bought this skull in a London percussion shop. It sits on his desk at work. Shaken like a maraca it makes a low pitch rattle. But it also serves as a reminder that under our skin we’re all the same, that there’s more that binds us than separates us, that ‘it’s important to remember your mortality when bullshit gets in the way’. Joel quickly punctures the morbid conversation. Grinning, he says that the skull also glows in the dark. He then quotes an episode of ‘Porridge’ where the seasoned Fletch offers Lennie, his young cellmate, some sage advice – you’re born, you die and it’s up to you to fill the time in between.
Margaret went into hospital in 1967 to have their second child. Simon took this as an opportunity to rent a television set, his wife had insisted they weren’t getting one. Margaret and baby Tom returned home to Simon and the incessant chatter of TV ‘and we’ve never spoken since’. This, delivered with a wry smile.‘The Adventures of Parsley’ ran from 1970, it was their daughter Lucy’s favourite programme. An animation that chronicled the inhabitants of a magical walled garden and its eponymous gatekeeper, the lion. Lucy made several copies of the characters out of clay, including Parsley and Bayleaf, the gardener. Bayleaf has since lost his head but Parsley has maintained the same dignity he exhibited in the opening credits. A performance inspired by (and arguably superior to) Leo, the MGM lion.
Michael and Sieglinde were both studying in Stuttgart. She was an art student, he was training as an engineer. There was plenty of competition for Michael, even from Sieggi’s flat mate Elisabet. But Sieggi moved with him to Munich and they had a family. Michael worked for Honeywell-Bull as an electrical engineer in the fledgling computer industry. One evening he was driving back from the office when his car was hit. Michael never arrived home. Even in the midst of her grief Sieglinde could find humour – in Elisabet ‘taking her place’ at his grave. Elisabet’s promiscuity meant she could take her place many times over at any number of funerals, it had been the 60s after all. Years later when Sieglinde’s pain had abated she showed her youngest daughter Julia a recorder that Michael had left. Julia would be able to hear the voice of her father for the first time. But on playing the tape all they heard were the voices of two strangers. Julia now keeps the recorder in her London home, with or without her father’s voice, the machine had still been his.
Celia and Sarah shared a flat in London in the 60s. Alice and Polly also shared a flat, just minutes from where their mothers had lived 50 years earlier. It was Polly who introduced Alice to Paul. Alice suggested that she and Paul go out for a drink, they were neighbours after all. She was lying, they actually lived at opposite ends of the city. Paul emailed the day after the date to ask her out again. Alice played it cool. She was off to Palavas-les-Flots on holiday. Concerned that she’d played it too cool she bought him a present, a ‘snow globe’ of gaudy fish in a tiny plastic tank. Through the week her confidence dwindled, he was a product designer, a cheap seaside chotchke wasn’t going to cut it. So she gave him a bottle of wine. Alice held onto the fish tank as a reminder of when they were first dating. She recently confessed to Paul that she’d bought it for him. Paul says no matter how pretentious he is with his new house and fancy furniture he will always have to accommodate the fish tank.