A New American Remembers Her Dad

A quick note: I am not planning to write anything about politics on this blog.  The internet is saturated with it as it is.  I wrote the following in 2008 when I became an American citizen.  I posted it on a political website and it was featured on their front page as a ‘rescued diary’ (i.e something no one read, but the admin thought they should have!  Now I’m forcing it on all of you!!) I was young and starry-eyed back then and could not conceive of the every day misery of now and what is happening to my beloved country. My posts aim to be a tiny bit of a respite from that, to give myself and anyone else reading a bit of a laugh.  This post is political and heavily liberal so if you have a problem with that don’t read any further.  Most of you were lucky enough to know and love my dad – Arthur Littlewood McKenzie.  It is commonplace to romanticize the memories of our lost loved ones but he was truly the best of men and he is missed every day.

The photo above features my ‘Pa’, aka ‘Uncle Arthur’, ‘Uncle Mac’, ‘Mac’ ‘Mr. Jane’s Dad’- on top of Ben Nevis. This is one of the last photos I have of him. I can’t believe he climbed an actual mountain. He is wearing his work shoes! Brother says the two of them were visiting Glencoe when Pa said he wanted to climb Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the British Isles. In his work shoes. So he did.

I have wanted this for so long and now it’s less than a week away.  It is monumental and I am terrified.  On June 4th, I aim to join the ranks of many of you here as a bona fide American citizen.  I’ve been having nightmares that my tongue grows to twice its size and I can’t answer the questions, and I can’t do the fingerprints, and my hands get covered in ink and the examiner just shakes his head sadly.  

 I think I was destined to be an American, it was probably programmed in my DNA.  My Dad was obsessed with America.  As a young boy, he and his brothers used to run errands for G.I.s who were stationed in the grounds of a stately home near where they lived in England.  My grandparents ‘adopted’ several of these men, bringing them sandwiches and having them home for dinner.  Imagine the hero-worship inspired by these exotic strangers with their cool uniforms, movie accents and much sought-after chocolate.  My Dad’s dream was to visit the States one day, but we had very limited means.  I remember as a kid in the Seventies when a well-off relative finally ‘made it’ to Florida and brought back grainy footage of their trip.  It was a typical tourist effort of the time, but we were mesmerized.  Up until then we got by on images from the TV (Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels etc).  Now I knew it really did exist, because someone we knew had been there!

At 19, I was living in Spain and my friend Anne got me a sales job that required me to work on the US Sixth Fleet aircraft carriers.  I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say it wasn’t illegal!  Palma, Majorca was a liberty port for the US Navy.  Every week we boarded the crown jewels of the fleet, the Nimitz, Iwo Jima and America among others.  I still had not set foot on American soil, but this was a step closer.  I was surrounded by Americans, touring flight decks, eating in mess halls, even flirting with Commanders (sometimes 😊).  After a few months I hit the proverbial powerball of my fledgling (and fleeting) ‘career’  – a chance to go to America, with Anne, to work at a Px mall at a Marine base in Quantico, VA.  Elation.

On a cold November night we landed in New York and as we entered the city over the 59th Street Bridge, I first laid eyes on that sight – the hallowed New York skyline.  Twenty three years later it still makes my heart pound.  We got some time to ride the Staten Island Ferry, take pictures on top of the Empire State Building and marvel at the size of the roaches in our fleapit hotel (I’d never even seen a roach before – even that was impressive – it was so American!).  After a couple of days we boarded Amtrak for our actual destination, Quantico, VA.  Talk about culture shock, if there is a polar opposite of Manhattan it is Triangle, where the train let us off.  There wasn’t even a sign, let alone a station, the conductor just stopped the train, let down the steps and off we got.  It was our very own Jarmusch movie, two British girls and a Tunisian man sitting on our suitcases at the side of railway track in the middle of nowhere.  After a few days of work we excitedly toured DC and I got my photograph taken outside the White House with a cardboard cutout of Ronald Reagan.  Hey I was young, I was a fool.  The month flew by and we had to return to Spain, but it was never the same for me.  Glamorous, vibrant Palma had been reduced to black and white, and America was glorious technicolor.  I was smitten.  I couldn’t wait to get back.

I felt mildly guilty that I’d managed to visit America before my Dad, but when I returned to New York a year later, that was all the invitation he needed.  He arranged a month long coast to coast tour for us with my 15 year old brother in tow.  Our mode of transport? The Greyhound Bus.  You have to have an unheard of level of desire to explore America to agree to this.  Fortunately my Dad had enough for all of us as he dragged two surly kids from New York through the deep South to California and back to New York via the Northern states.  He had a perpetual sense of wonderment (which could be annoying at times, like having to have his picture taken with every cop he saw – 20 states = a lot of cops). For him, America delivered on every promise and then some.  His itinerary reflected his desire to stand in the shadow of history.  My Dad left school at age 14 and his only real education was what he could provide for himself. He was a voracious reader, particularly history books. At the time I mockingly referred to it as ‘the Dead Presidents tour’ as he shepherded us to Deeley Plaza and the Texas Book Depository and the Ford Theatre and Hyde Park and Arlington Cemetery.  I was a wretched ingrate who didn’t realize what an honor it was until years later.  My Dad had managed to rent a video camcorder but back in the ‘old days’ they did not have those dinky palm sized digital things.  This machine was so large he had to carry it on his shoulder or swing it by his side like a suitcase.  He was a mugger’s dream.  He never really mastered the on/off switch so we have literally hours of footage of the legs of whichever person was in front of him.  Simply turning it on rapidly drained the battery so every day he was to be found charming someone at a bus station to recharge it for him.

Now, to inject a tiny bit of politics into this diary in deference to my surroundings, my dad came from a long line of Scottish Socialists.  My Grandfather received threats of bodily harm for vocally opposing Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts.  My mother told me that something was amiss if the local newspaper’s account of the weekly council meeting did not include a mention of a man with a loud Scottish accent (my Grandad) being frog marched from the building.  Apparently they always let him back the following week.  If you wanted to be generous you could refer to my dad as liberal.  One night we were on a seemingly endless journey from San Antonio to Albuquerque and I was sitting beside my brother.  My Dad had found a seat a few forward from us and unbeknownst to us, was still awake chatting to his seatmate.  In the middle of the night, his voice cried out ‘SHE’S A BLOODY VILLAIN!!’  He was talking, of course, about Margaret Thatcher and my brother and I instinctively knew this without even discussing it.  We rolled our eyes and resumed twisting ourselves into more comfortable positions to try and get some sleep.  In the morning, we asked him about it and he just smiled sheepishly.  That anecdote has become family lore and we still laugh about it today.  I sometimes wonder whether that stranger ever recounts to their family the night they were winding their way through the sleepy South West and were accosted by an English lunatic ranting about politics.  

Sadly, my Dad died suddenly in 1993 without making another trip to the US.  It took me years to make peace with all the things left undone, chief among them that he would never return to his beloved America.  He never met his American son-in-law or grandchildren.  We scattered some of his ashes in Central Park (there’s probably some local ordnance against that, so no one mention it).  When I was younger, I was terribly embarrassed by my Dad and his outbursts, but one day, when I wasn’t looking, I turned into him.  Now I offend others with my leftist leanings and loud political discourse.  I get disinvited to the best parties.  I accept with gratitude that among his many traits, this one came to me.  It makes me feel so much closer to him, and I hope that after a long period of embarrassing my children, they will inherit it too.   Then Grandad Mac’s legacy will continue.  We often talk about what he would have thought about the state of the world today, 9/11, Dubya and the Iraq War.  If there’s a word that means furious and heartbroken, that would be it.

Sample US Citizenship question #93 Q.  What is the most important right granted to United States citizens?  A.  The right to vote.  Success next Wednesday will be a dream come true for me and I cannot think of a more perfect ending to this long journey than to vote for the most inspiring candidate of my lifetime, Barack Obama.  I know without question Obama would have been my Dad’s choice and he would be itching to push the button with me.   With any luck, in November I will stand proudly with my fellow citizens and whisper ‘this one’s for you Pa’.

Tearful in the moment
I pledge allegiance to the flag…

Comments (4):

  1. Anne

    September 7, 2020 at 7:21 pm

    Oh Jane just loved this, first one from the drop down menu that I read, pleased as punch to see my name. Your Dad certainly was larger than life and gone way too soon. Love you my friend.

  2. Elaine

    September 7, 2020 at 9:37 pm

    ❤️this writing, and so loved my uncle Arthur

  3. Jane

    September 8, 2020 at 6:14 pm

    Anne – I could write your name dozens of times over! Wait til we get to ‘The Richie Years!’ You have been instrumental in so many parts of my life. Love you back!

  4. Jane

    September 8, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    Elaine – thank you. I’m so touched by how you keep his memory alive. <3

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