Mr Pict’s American Anniversary

Today marks exactly one year since Mr Pict crossed the ocean and arrived in America.  Of course, it has not been the same culture shock it has been for the kids and I, since he is half-American and spent his teens in the suburbs of Washington DC.  However, he has gone from residing in extended stay accommodation to owning a house within that year, has settled really well into and is thoroughly enjoying his new job, and has generally worked really hard to make the transition easier for the kids and me.  He has really accomplished masses within just one year.  He wanted to return to America to live and, somewhat against the odds, he made it happen.  I think he’s had a pretty good first year.

The Scab of Grief

Six years ago today, I gave birth to my fourth son.  It was one of the worst days of my life.

Today is my baby boy’s sixth birthday.  As he was stillborn, today is also the sixth anniversary of his death.

In the immediate aftermath of his loss, I wondered how I could ever face moving forward, aching with emptiness as I was.  But life does go on.  As much as I felt an overwhelming compulsion to never leave home ever again, the weight of grief sitting so heavily on me, I had three other children to take care of.  I had to pick up and get on with it.  I had to keep going for them.  My living children were the life that goes on.  Life is to be lived for the living and that is what we do.  Our lost baby is very much a part of our family: we can talk about him openly with our living children – including the youngest who was born eight months later – and as a family we have marked his birthday in order to commemorate the part he played in our lives.  Our tradition is to do something fun as a family and then do something special, something quiet and reflective, in the evening as we remember him.  I believe that with each child you have, you don’t divide the love you have but instead that love multiplies.  And so I tell myself that the love I would have given to my lost baby son, I can bestow as extra love upon my four living sons.  That’s what we do.  That is how we cope.

Exactly a year ago, in an emotionally wretched coincidence of dates, we left our home in Scotland for the last time.  Of course, we were not just leaving behind our home, our community, our friends and colleagues, but we were also preparing to leave the country.  We were moving our lives forward.  Life was going on, as it must, but all the places that had significance in the brief existence of our lost son were also being left behind.  Life goes on.  And sometimes that is hard.

So we come to this year and, yet again, life is moving on.  We have moved into our new house, our permanent house, a place that will become our family home.  A home where the six of us will have new experiences, ups and downs, forging new memories.  The new house won’t be entwined with our precious memories of our baby’s brief existence as our unborn son.  Because life moves forward.  Because life moves on.  And sometimes that is hard.

Six years on, I can get through most days without his memory being anything other than a tiny, dull ache at the back of my mind, a scrap of pain as tiny as he was, as delicate as he was, as fragile as he was.  Other days, the days leading up to and on his birthday or other significant dates, the emotion comes flooding back and I am transported back to the raw anguish of the day he was born.

The saying goes that time heals but that’s not quite true.  Time just makes it easier to deal with because you develop coping strategies as time goes on and the raw pain dulls to an ache that some days you might not even notice.  Just as with the deaths of my older brothers, 11 and almost 30 years ago, so too with each passing year the grief of our baby’s stillbirth is that little bit easier to bear.  Time, however, does not heal.  Time has taught us to cope.  Grief, in my experience at least, is like a wound that gradually closes and scabs over but the scar is always there nevertheless.  Ever so often – such as on a significant date or when something unexpectedly jolts the memory – the raw, searing anguish comes flooding back and it is as if that scab has been torn right off.  Gone are the coping strategies, gone is the focus on other things, and beneath that is the grief that is always present, as vulnerable as the new skin beneath the scab.

And so I  remember – on a day such as today – that no matter where we now live in the world, no matter how hectic our lives have become, no matter in what ways our lives move forward, because life is for the living, in some significant, special way, our baby son is always with us, whether it is in the form of a cherished memory on the many gentler days or whether it is the pain that returns on the difficult days like today.

Life moves on.  Today that is hard.

Thank you for reading.

In Search of a House to call our Home

As you may have ascertained from previous blog entries, the biggest stressor in this whole relocation for me and the aspect that has upset my equilibrium the most has been our limbo situation of waiting for our house in Scotland to sell before we can find a permanent home here in Pennsylvania.

Mr Pict and I have owned property since we were 21 so even switching to being tenants in a rental property once more – something we have not experienced since we were students – has required some adjustment.  However, the most difficult aspect of being in a rental property has been not having a place to call home.  We have the house that we live in but we are all too aware that it is not our home.  We have personalised it to the extent that it is possible, such as by hanging our own art work, but we are always aware that it is someone else’s house that we are living in and that our stay there will be short term.  We do feel very lucky to have found this property and we have loved living here – and the boys love living next door to their school – but we very much need to start putting down established roots here and investing in our future in bricks and mortar.

Of course, we could not start looking to buy until our house in Scotland had sold so that the equity was released.  We loved our house.  We had it built for us so it was very much “our” house.  When we left the maternity hospital with each successive baby, they came back to that home.  It is where all of their childhood memories were based, birthdays, celebrations, achievements, fun, the occasional episode of melodrama or minor catastrophe.  We also had superb neighbours – the best neighbours we had ever had indeed – and were in the middle of a lovely community with a beautiful view down the loch to boot.  In the months running up to leaving that house, knowing it was definitely happening, I had to start mentally and emotionally detaching myself from the house.  I had to keep reminding myself that home is wherever my husband and the kids are, that home is not bricks and mortar but is instead all of the emotional stuff, the joy and the chaos of family life.  It remained a challenge, however, because of course the house reverberated with the memories of all of that emotional stuff.

And then at some stage that house, which we had loved so much and which had so many connotations for us, became an albatross around our necks.

A small community with a tiny population makes for a slow housing market.  Like tortoise sloooooooooooooow.  We had a feeling that our house would either be snapped up quickly or would sit empty for quite a while.  Unfortunately it was the latter.  The house went up for sale when we left our home for the last time in early September and just this last week we finally, finally, after some false starts and false hope, had a formal offer lodged with our lawyer.  If it all goes to plan then the sale will be completed in late June.  We will be so incredibly relieved when it does.  

Meanwhile, since I arrived in America in October, I have been viewing houses online.  I signed up for email alerts so that any new property that has at least four bedrooms and is sited in our school district pings right into my inbox.  It was a knowledge gathering exercise so that I could be as informed as possible when the time came to actually embark on looking for a permanent home.  What I soon realised was that the catchment area for the boys’ elementary school is really rather small and there are not many four bedroom houses within that small geographical area and some houses that are large enough to accommodate a family of six were out of our budget.  So as the months have rolled on, I have become increasingly despondent about our Scottish house still being unsold and increasingly anxious about the prospect of finding the right house to buy and increasingly fretful about our timeline because we really want to avoid getting into another lease period.  We very much want to cease paying both a mortgage and rent because that is a whole other stressor.

Anyway, once the offer on our Scottish house was formally lodged, we decided it might be smart to start properly looking at houses.  I knew there were four on the market that were feasible for us so we contacted a realtor to set up viewings for us.  In the time it took for the realtor to phone the selling agents, two of the houses had sold.  I had noted, through my obsessive real estate stalking, that houses here sold quickly but the pace has clearly picked up since we got into Spring.  I assume everyone wants to move before the next school year commences.  Mr Pict and I quickly realised that there was going to be no being casual about this, viewing houses and pondering and contemplating as such.  We needed to be decisive.  Luckily, we have had to make rapid, immediate and instinctive decisions before when buying property so we have the required skill set if not the nerves for such an undertaking.  I drew up a list, in table form – as I am wont to do – of criteria for our house hunt.  There were things that were essential – such as being in the catchment area of the elementary and having a minimum of four bedrooms – and things that were preferable – such as being within walking distance of school and having a finished basement – and things we really did not want – like a swimming pool or being sited on a busy road.  Being armed with that checklist would keep our heads in the right place and then we could rely on gut feelings about places and a vision for how we could make each place function as our home.

On Friday, therefore, Mr Pict and I went to view two houses.  The first was beautifully presented but was just too small for us and was especially lacking in storage space.  The second, however, ticked all of the boxes – literally all of the boxes on my checklist – and just felt right for us.  We could instantly imagine ourselves living there and could envision how we would transform it into the Pict family home.  To cut an already long story short, we were decisive and lodged an offer and it has been accepted.  Squeal.  The next hurdle is the survey of the house – which I think is called a home inspection here in America – but if nothing untoward is discovered then we should be able to progress with the purchase.  It’s nerve-wracking but for the first time in months the nervous energy is exciting rather than coming from a place of panic and dread.

So keep your fingers crossed, join me in touching wood, send out positive vibes into the cosmos and wish us luck.

With all of these property developments this week, that was what was on my mind when the latest Documented Life Project challenge was posted.  Because I was thinking about what home actually means, that became the theme of the page.  The challenge this week was to incorporate embroidery or embroidery floss onto the page.  I have sewing skills limited to taking up hems, replacing buttons and making sock monkeys and sock monsters.  Embroidery is beyond me.  I, therefore, kept that element of the challenge to a minimum and just ran a tacking stitch around the text.  I created a background using watercolour paint and ink.  One of the creative things I do is carve lino blocks and I had a small one of a bird inside a cage so I utilised that as a stamp and stamped onto a brown paper bag which I then stuck onto the page.  I picked out some of the detail in the printed image with red and white ink.  Although I wish I had used deeper, darker colours for the background, I am quite pleased with how this page turned out.




My Kids doodled in my Art Journal

Being new to art journaling, I decided to join in a project that would provide me with prompts, tips and inspiration.  As such I am participating in the Documented Life Project.  This week’s challenge was to have someone else draw in your journal and then finish the page.  

Back in Scotland I would have asked one of my many artist friends to collaborate on the challenge with me but here I had three options: ask Mr Pict to draw something; ask one of my kids to draw something; ask all of my kids to draw something.  I plumped for the last option.  Since one of the ideas behind the project is to – as it says on the tin – document your life, I decided that the prompt for my children should be a reflection on the things they have enjoyed about living in America so far.  This was what they came up with:


My four year old drew a minion because he is obsessed with minions and was excited to meet one when we were in Times Square; my six year old drew the Empire State Building because visiting it fulfilled one of his ambitions – and he even included King Kong on it; my eight year old drew Abraham Lincoln because he has been enjoying learning all about Presidents; and my ten year old drew a hot dog because he is enjoying eating lots of new foods.

I determined that I did not want to alter their drawings too much as I wanted to preserve this moment of reflection on their experiences of their new home five months into our relocation.  So I just added some detail to the drawings using red and blue ink, added some words generated during a chat with them about the things they were enjoying about life here so far and then added some stars because that seemed to work well with the colour theme.



Something amazing happened to us on Wednesday: we finally got our shipping consignment!

We last saw our possessions on 26 August.  After months of thinning out our possessions by selling, donating, recycling and binning, the remaining items were packed and sealed on a day of back-breaking agony and headed off, as it transpired, into a long period of limbo.  We were told it would take about eight weeks door to door as extra time had to be allowed because it would be a shared container – we were not shipping enough things to fill an entire container on our own – and, when pressed, we were informed it would be a maximum of 12 weeks.  Ha!  Try 16 weeks.

It has been a saga of poor communication, ranging from a total lack thereof to wretched miscommunication, misinformation, unprofessional attitudes and staggering incompetence.  At one point I had to even step in and do the shipping company’s job for them since they seemed incapable of problem-solving on their own, despite their apparent knowledge and experience.  We were told it was on one ship just to find, once that ship had docked, that in fact it had never been loaded on to that ship and was still in Scotland.  When it was finally loaded, we were given the tracking information so we could see it sitting on the coast of Ireland going nowhere for a good while.  Then, once it finally docked in America, despite being told several times what our Pennsylvania address was, they determined the delivery address was a town in Massachusetts that doesn’t even exist.  For real.

Yes, they are only things.  It’s material possessions. That doesn’t matter as much as us all being reunited as a family and achieving an international relocation just a little over a year from when Mr Pict had his late night brainwave inspired by the Battle of Gettysburg.  But it is what those things represented that mattered most to us.  Those things are way-markers of a relationship lasting two decades, of our own childhoods and those of our offspring.  Those things are physical reminders of precious memories, people known and people now lost, places visited, events experienced.  Those things are what makes a house a home.  All those nick nacks that are the emblems of us as a family.  And then, on a more practical level, some of those things can be hard to live without for a long period of time.  Try cooking meals for six people with minimal kitchen equipment for months on end and see how frustrating it is.  My kids have had to trudge in the snow without boots and waterproofs because those were all stuck in a shipping container long after they should have arrived.  And the toys!  My boys have been playing with the same small bundle of toys for months now.  They missed their things and needed them.  It is also not easy for four young kids to settle into a house that is largely empty and is devoid of anything familiar.

Then, on Tuesday evening, came a phone call from the company charged with delivering our possessions asking if we might want to take receipt of them on Wednesday.  Not a lot of notice.  One might even suggest it is another example of incompetence to not provide more notice.  However, we were excited at the possibility we might just have our things in time for Christmas.  Note we were excited about the possibility.  Not the knowledge or belief we would have our things by Wednesday evening.  Just the possibility.  Jaded does not come close to describing our regard for shipping companies.

Sure enough, Wednesday afternoon rolled around and a removal truck pulled into the driveway.  I stood and checked off box after box as two men lugged them into the house and deposited them in three different locations.  About a dozen boxes were visibly damaged so I refused to sign the paperwork without adding a note that I had observed the damage and that the contents were, as yet, unchecked but otherwise it was job done in just under two hours.  It took almost a full working day to pack it all up but it was all the boxes were unloaded lickety-split.

We were left with a house filled with boxes.  It was like having an early Christmas.





My four year old, who was home at the time, was hyper seeing all of the boxes come in.  Despite being told not to open anything without my supervision, he sneakily ripped a box open.  He was disappointed that it contained my books.  Then, when the older three boys arrived home from school, there were hoots of joy, a spontaneous hallelujah chorus and a whole lot of frenetic jazz hands as they did a pogo dance around the living room – precariously close to some boxes labelled “china”.

Then the unpacking began.  It takes a long time to unpack things when you are not sure where they should be stored – or when there is no place to put them yet since you don’t have the required furniture – so it is taking a while.  I am now 48 hours into when the shipping was delivered and I have probably dealt with ten boxes.  I can tell you the exact moment when I opened a box and felt like I might just be able to feel at home here.  Indeed I can show you because, as I do with everything, I took a photo of it to record it.  It was the moment when I found my Great-Gran’s tea set and placed it on a shelf in a kitchen cabinet.


The Kindness of Strangers

Following my Narwhal Diarrhoea blog entry – regarding a further delay of our shipping consignment – I was spitting feathers in anger.  After venting my spleen on the phone to the shipping company, all that ranting and raving left me feeling at a low ebb.  The reality was that there was now nothing anyone could do to rectify the situation.  I will ensure lessons are learned and abject apologies made once we have secured our possessions but for now all I can do is try to problem solve how I am going to get through the holiday season with a house that contains none of our own things, while our advent calendar box, Christmas decorations, all the boys’ toys and games, are crossing an ocean and being held in a customs warehouse.  It was all looking pretty bleak.

This week I have been visiting my sons’ classrooms, as part of National Education Week I believe, so yesterday afternoon I was visiting the Second Grade classroom and got chatting to the mom of one of the other kids, a boy my 8 year old has mentioned as a new friend.  She inquired about our shipping and I really did not have the energy to put a positive spin on things so I explained that there had been a further delay and that we would not now have our festive bits and bobs in time for the holiday season so I was hoping to come up with some make-shift traditions and solutions.

Then something amazing happened.

She shared that her mother had died just a few months ago and that she was still storing all of her possessions as she had not felt strong enough to sort through them. Then she offered me all the holiday decorations because knowing they were helping us out would give her the impetus to sort through at least those items.  She also felt it was what her late mother would have wanted. True to her word, she came over early yesterday evening to deliver the first couple of boxes. I was overwhelmed with her kindness. I got quite tearful. Her sons, who are the same ages as my oldest two boys, also loaned the kids some toys to play with. She also got tearful because she had embarked on clearing her mother’s things out. We stood there in the living room, cavernous and empty as it is, a reminder of everything we don’t yet have, and I felt so moved that I too welled up.  There we were, the two of us, glazed cow eyes as we tried to hold back the tears, and we spontaneously hugged. Now I cannot do physical contact with people I don’t know extremely well, it freaks me out, so it was a bit of an out of body experience for me.  I was just so touched by her generosity towards me, a complete stranger.

I have been feeling worn down and dejected with this whole sorry shipping saga.  It’s hard to settle into family life in a new location when you are rattling around a mostly empty house with no familiar things to make it feel like home.  If I allow myself to focus on that, as I have to frequently in order to overcome the obstacles of living with so few things, then a sense of dislocation settles over me.  But the kindness of this stranger, her feeling so moved to help me, knocked me right out of that black cloud.  Now I can focus on what we do have.  We have a new life in a new place with new opportunities and crucially we have each other and really that is what makes a house a home.

So now I am going to make some new festive traditions for the holiday season since we cannot maintain our old ones for this year.  There is no point pretending I can replicate what is stuck on a cargo ship.  I am going to embrace the new.  I will change things up, introduce new Christmas experiments and perhaps the successful ones can be incorporated into our traditions to blend the old and new.

Narwhal Diarrhoea

This is most certainly not a sunshine, baby giggles, cupcakes and unicorn farts post; this is not even a walrus poop post; this is a narwhal diarrhoea post.  It’s that bad.

We last saw our possessions in August when they were packed onto a removals van ready to be taken to a container and shipped across the Atlantic.  The time scale we were quoted was four to twelve weeks door to door.  I chased the shipping company when it became apparent that they were not going to meet even the outside estimate and that seemed to spur them into action.  We were told that a slot on a cargo ship had been identified and that it would depart Scotland in early November.  Annoying, to say the least, but at least we were potentially going to have our things in time for Thanksgiving.  A follow up email confirmed for us that our container had departed, on a specific, named ship no less, on 4 November and would make land fall in the US last week.  Yesterday my husband decided to follow up on this and determine when they thought it was likely to be delivered to us, having cleared customs.  Do you have a sense of when the narwhal diarrhoea is going to hit the proverbial fan?

We received an email late today that informed us that we had been misinformed: our container is not even departing until late November.  Build in crossing times and clearing customs and we really have little hope of having our possessions in time for Christmas.  The level of incompetence is startling.

Now I am sure you, dear reader, can appreciate why I am so livid, why my veins are filling with magma, why I feel like primal screaming expletives until my throat feels like sandpaper.  Apparently the shipping company don’t appreciate this at all.

If you reflect how important your possessions are to you – not just the practical things like pots and pans, not just the essential clothing like winter boots, but also the trinkets that symbolise places travelled and people met and the photos, those things that preserve the memory, history and identity of the family – you will have a sense of how emotionally difficult as well as practically challenging it is to live without your possession for an extended period of time.

We have moved across an ocean, away from family, friends and all things familiar, and – while making all sorts of other transitions – are having to camp out in a mostly empty house, so empty that it echos, just to remind us of our sense of dislocation.  You get this, I’m sure; the shipping company apparently does not.

As you know, I have four sons.  Right now, they each have a DS, a few books, a small tub of lego, a few toys that fit in their pockets and some paper and pencils.  That’s it.  Because all of their toys, games and precious treasures are on a container.  Still.  Months after they last saw them.

We are also just a few short weeks away from Christmas.  All of our festive decorations are stuck on that container as are our Christmas movies and our wooden advent calendar.  Those are the things that make family traditions.  We have just a sliver of hope that we might have our possessions in time for Christmas Day (if by some miracle our consignment clears customs quickly) but we won’t have them for advent.  All the fun of decorating the tree and house, the counting down through opening each advent calendar box, the sense of anticipation and excitement: all gone.  I am tempted to make the manager of the shipping company phone my four sons and explain to them why they won’t be doing any of those festive traditions this year.  I’m certainly not looking forward to breaking the news to them that they have to wait even longer than the ridiculous length of time they have already waited.

I.  Am.  Livid.


Who am I and why am I here?

The title is not an indication that this first post (or blog indeed) will be full of existential angst.  Quite literally I thought I ought to explain who I am and why I am here.

So the title of my blog is “A Pict in PA”.  The latter part is easy to explain: I live in Pennsylvania – PA for short.  I have done for precisely a week.  Indeed, I have lived in America for precisely one week.  That segues me into the Pict part which is a little tricker to explain.  Partly I opted for Pict because I love alliteration.  I actually alliterate without thinking about it because it is a compulsive thing for me.  I am, however, from Fife in Scotland – the Pictish Kingdom of Fife.  And I am pretty confident that, short of a DNA test to prove it, I have Pict blood coursing through my veins: I am short, dark and hairy and very feisty.  So I am a Pict in PA.  Simple really.

And why am I in PA?  Well what do you do when your husband of many years, the father of your four children, starts a late night conversation with the phrase, “What would you think about us moving to America?”  Option one is to smother him with a pillow but I happen to love my husband so I heard him out and actually a lot of what he said made sense.  That in itself was kind of remarkable.  So my husband, who is a dual US/UK national who had not lived in the US for 20 years, set to researching and investigating how we could possibly relocate our family to the US.  It’s impossible to precis the saga that followed so to cut that epic short – just over a year on from that initial conversation, after a lot of immigration hooha at the London Embassy, a great deal of soul-searching and very difficult goodbyes, and a period of the kids and I living apart from my husband – our family of six took up residence in Pennsylvania.

So the purpose of this blog is to record my experience, as an immigrant mother, relocating family life from one side of the Atlantic to the other.  The intention is for it to be a journal of sorts, help me process my responses to new experiences and opportunities by typing it out and perhaps even provide family and friends with some insight into what we are doing as a family hundreds of miles away.