New York City at sunrise, from the deck of the Queen Mary 2
It was over. All of it. The starting trek across the US. The weeks of research in New England, filled with Cornelia’s and Emily’s “rapturous plans and lyric anticipation”. The quick visit to Canada for the “false start” part of the story. Sailing to England on the Queen Mary 2. The month in London, followed by the month in France. And then the last hurrah on the QM2. It was quickly becoming my past. My three and a half months of traveling with the girls – my dear friends at this point – was at an end. Saturday, August 12, 2017 had arrived and my enchanted summer came to a close as the QM2 pulled dockside in Brooklyn.
On September 9th, less than a month after we arrived in New York, The Greatest Generations Foundation reported that Colonel Douglas Dillard had passed away at the age of 91. He was very fortunate, really. To have lived such a long life, and been well enough only weeks before to cross an ocean, speaking to crowds and enjoying a marvelous vacation, was a blessing, for sure. But even understanding this didn’t stop me from being terribly saddened by the news. RIP, Colonel.
After stopping in to see my QM2 friends Matt and Marianne in Chicago and New York City, respectively, I would spend the autumn following my enchanted summer in the idyllic New England town of Hudson, New York, living in a converted 1900 schoolhouse which sits between two cemeteries – and in the process, make a new friend in the artist-owner, Laurie. There I would finish the first draft of my book at 1:28pm EST on November 9, 2017.
In early 2018, I would spend three months in Lake Worth, Florida with Cornelia and Emily – not the girls in the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but the two accomplished women who wrote it. Doing my best to emulate their wit and style, and occasionally whispering a plea for their help or guidance, I edited and worked through various drafts of my book, trying to sort out what the journey had been about. That is, I worked on the book in between making good on my promise to Steven the World War II veteran.
I needed to learn the foxtrot. And so shortly after I arrived in Lake Worth, I signed up for dance lessons with Grigol Kranz, a brilliant pro dancer and teacher, as well as a witty, wonderful, and extremely patient soul, who managed to get me dancing passable versions of every dance I would need for the ballroom on the QM2 – the most important being, of course, the foxtrot.
From him, I even learned the tango, just as Cornelia and Emily had done in 1922, when it was still quite new – and quite scandalous. They had been taught by a fellow hotel guest, Jacques Ventadour, in the parlor of their Paris pension. This was symmetry I found extremely pleasing.
(In addition to somehow teaching me to dance, Grigol worked overtime as therapist on some of my rougher writing days, and his bright spirit would lift mine when I was doubting my work or myself. He also gave me a marvelous gift: some of his other students. They are a phenomenal group of intelligent, charismatic, talented, beautiful women – Jean, Anna, Andrea, Jill, Bimika, Carolyn, Susan and Hannah – who I’m thrilled to have as my friends. Grigol and my dancer friends, along with pros David and Alexis at Palm Beach Ballroom Dance Studio, would end up turning those three months of work into lots of a brand new kind of fun.)
On March 14, 2018, Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76. In the summer of 2018, his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey, and one of the last things I did on my return visit to London was stop in and pay my respects. I whispered to him how sorry I was that I would never get to ask him about the phenomenon of time and space blurring.
But maybe, just maybe, that me from thirty years ago can find a way to ask the him of thirty years ago about it, as we pass each other on the sidewalk in front of King’s College, Cambridge. Because time is not linear, and everything is happening at once.
In May 2018, I would once again sail to England on the QM2, traveling with some familiar faces, and making new friends along the way, most especially Patrick, Anette and their darling daughter Flora, as well as Kate and Greg (my nomad role models) and their golden doodles Lucy and Gracie.
I would spend a couple of weeks in Oxford (see my post “Home Can Be More Than One Place”) before returning to London, to the same flat I’d lived in the summer before.
The plan had been to finish the book in London, but it seemed that there were too many people to see and too much fun to be had. In addition, I would continue my dance lessons with the kind, talented group of teachers at the Karen Hardy Studios, as well as attend weekly forro dancing lessons at the Lighthouse Bar in Shoreditch, learning this Brazilian street dance from the brilliant, fun foursome of Chinedu, Graziela, Gala and Jonathan.
My longtime traveling buddy Daron and I would get a week to run around London, a couple of decades after our first “Cornelia and Emily” visit to the UK. I’d also get an all-too-brief visit with my friend and fellow writer, Betty, who was over from Hawaii to visit with her son and his family. And I got some – but not enough – hangout time with my ex-pat neighbor Sabrina and her beautiful poodle Tigger. There were shows and dinners and drinks and, of course, afternoon tea…
As always, it wasn’t easy to leave England, to get back on the ship, when the time came to leave. But it helped that I had Grigol and Marianne with me, and that I made some amazing new friends, including Matt, Nick, Ciaran, Margaret, Christelle and Andy. Most happily on this voyage, I discovered I was sailing with some other friends from the past – Amy and her daughter, Hannah; Maite and her daughter, Hannah; and Vicki and Bill, my fellow spa-rats.
It was another magical summer. Though it meant I would return to the States short of my goal – a completed book – my time had been extremely well-spent. The stars had aligned, and I had found my next book idea. All because of that promise I had made.
So here’s how it worked.
Thirty years ago… I dated a guy in Oxford, and through him and his family, I met Tom, who would give me the idea for my first book. And it would be Tom who, over drinks one night this past June, would implant in my brain the notion that I needed to find an inventive angle for my next book, which was to be about my upcoming travels.
Meanwhile, a year ago… I make a promise to learn to dance. Ballroom dancing leads me to social dancing, which leads me to other dances – bachata, then forro – and making a lot of amazing new friends.
Meanwhile, this summer… In reading tributes to the late, great Anthony Bourdain (which he was), I am reminded of how he learned about the world through food, and it made me realize I had my own way to see a place, learn about the culture and meet the people… through their dance.
All those bits and pieces had fused together to become my next book project. And on May 24, 2019, I shall begin A Twirl Around the World by dancing across the Atlantic on the QM2 with The Greatest Generations Foundation, as they sail to Europe for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day invasions.
But first I have to finish this first book, which I’m calling Enchanted Summer. In a few weeks I will be stationing myself back in that schoolroom in Hudson, and only emerging when I have a completed manuscript. If I appear to go missing, check there first.
Top Row: Colonel Douglas Dillard, holding a picture of his WWII self which appeared in Life magazine (photo courtesy of John Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation), with Matthew at Chicago’s Union Station; my room in the old schoolhouse in Hudson – the perfect place to write a book.
Bottom Row: With Daron at the artist Christo’s installation in Hyde Park; Stephen Hawking’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey; afternoon tea with Grigol at Fortnum and Mason.