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Family tree comes full circle

As the 747 eased into its final approach to London's Heathrow Airport, I got that feeling again. This was my fourth visit and again, as in the past, I had that feeling of coming home. I can't explain it, it just comes over me.

Listening to the tape-recorded chimes of Big Ben on the coach taking us to our hotel, I thought, as usual, of my father. In my mind, I was making the return journey that he never made.

When he came to America in his late 20s, he already had traveled much of the world _ India, China, Egypt and more. At 21, an engineer with British Westinghouse, he was in China with a virtually unlimited expense account. Since his father, my grandfather, was a Westinghouse executive, the way had been paved for him somewhat but in the end he had to prove that he could handle the job.

He ended up in Pittsburgh in this century's early years to take some specialized training at the big airbrake plant on the city's eastern outskirts. At a dance he met my mother, the young and closely chaperoned belle of my grandmother's boarding house. My grandmother brooked no nonsense from young men who dated her daughter even though they were all young, much sought after, professional men.

To be accurate, my father was, more or less, "sent" to this country by his father who thought he would remove one side of an irksome triangle. Good-looking and much-traveled, my father drew his share of feminine attention, in one case the wife of a family friend.

Probably seeking to appear superior to his peers, my father had passed himself off as a married man to his engineering colleagues. So, after he had taken a room at the boarding house and gotten properly smitten with my mother, he had to undo that tale before being permitted to date my mother. My grandmother would accept no less than a letter from his parents in England. Eventually, the situation was cleared up, and my parents were married. Even so, my grandmother had made my father move back out of her boarding house until after the nuptials.

In England, my grandfather bent enough to arrange a position in Australia, supervising the assembly of locomotives shipped from Britain in parts. It must have been a good life in Sydney if the snapshots of 2- to 4-year-old me are to be believed. We even had a sort of combined housekeeper-governess. However, when my parents' second son was born with cerebral palsy, a promised promotion failed to materialize and homesickness began to gnaw at my mother, my father brought us back to this country. In England, my grandfather, angered by the move, resolved not to pave any more of the way _ and he didn't.

My English grandparents did come to see us, however, in the mid-1920s in conjunction with a business trip to the Westinghouse Airbrake plant. They stayed at my grandmother's big house. But after that, they never saw their son again.

Eventually, my grandmother gave up the business and continued to live with us as the family grew, helping my mother care for her brood of five. My mother, a talented singer and pianist, was a professional church soloist and in 1927 was a finalist in a national RCA-Victor talent search. I can recall hearing her sing over the radio at that time. I was 7 years old. In the end, because she was married, she had to decline the prize, a trip to the Met Opera tryouts in New York.

By the time I was 10, the Great Depression was upon us and no one was buying the machinery that my father, working as a sales engineer, was selling. It was a rough time, and I remember the excitement of weekends when my father would bring home a roast for Sunday dinner. Roasts were rare, and I'm not referring to the way they were cooked.

I got glimpses of England from my father. He would sing music hall songs in the shower and tell me about Big Ben as its chimes came booming over the radio. In those days, our stations often would rebroadcast news and other programs from the BBC. In my teens, I acquired my first shortwave receiver and listened to the BBC direct.

My father never went to bed at night without first having a cup of tea, and he looked upon tea bags with disdain. Most prized of all was the tart English orange marmalade on his breakfast toast. It was expensive, and he often couldn't afford it during the Depression. One day, showing a friend the first jar he had been able to buy for some time, he inadvertently dropped it and it smashed on the pavement. I can still see the look on his face as he told my mother about it.

My English grandfather died in 1934, but my English grandmother lived on to the age of 95. She wrote to us now and then as did my father's sisters. So we were in touch periodically. World War II came and I ended up in the Army. (My father had gone to Canada in World War I and joined the Canadian Army where he rose to the rank of sergeant-major.) My American grandmother died in 1942 while I was in the service.

Looking back now, I can realize how much, at times, my father must have wanted to see his native country one more time, but keeping up financially with his growing family always ruled it out. He paid close attention to Britain's role in the war, and wartime broadcasts from London meant so much to him.

He was quite a dynamic guy with us children. Whether it was a Sunday morning visit to the zoo or a backyard game of badminton, he made it seem special. But dynamos run down and in 1951, after two heart attacks two weeks apart, my father died suddenly at 64. I can still hear my 16-year-old sister sobbing that night in the hallway outside my parents' bedroom. I found solace in the fact that he lived long enough to see the first bylines of my budding newspaper career. My mother lived until 1978.

When I'm in England, seeing the country and visiting with my English relatives (my only first cousin is there), I somehow seem to be doing it for my father, too. On my recent visit, Cousin Ken took me to see our grandfather's grave, an odd experience for me since I am his namesake and my name is on the tombstone. My wife and I always rate a warm welcome from the English branch, from teens to adults. Over the years, I've been shown all the old family homes and been given my father's old Bible, kept all those years.

So, in a way, it has come full circle. Oddly enough, although my father was the only family member who came to America, our family now outnumbers theirs. Not bad for a prodigal!

As for me, standing by my English grandfather's grave recently and visiting my father's grave in Pittsburgh once a year or so, I get the feeling that somehow I may have restored an old connection.

James Pettican is a retired journalist who lives in Palm Harbor.