When I try to trace my wanderlust back to its source, my search stops at Helen, my Scottish great-grandmother. She bequeathed to me this strand of her DNA, I’m sure. I can’t think of anyone else to blame. No one else in my family seems to have — or have had — this hunger for far-off adventure.
Certainly not my mom. She thought that our little, all-white, middle-class, mostly I-Like-Ike Republican hometown in northern New Jersey was the center of the universe; and she had no interest in venturing much beyond it. I, on the other hand, clearly recall walking alone to and from our sturdy, all-brick grammar school along the town’s neatly trimmed main drag and thinking loudly, “The world is bigger than this!” and “Please, get me out of here!”
So when I learned that my father’s father’s parents, Helen Reid David and William Black of Kirriemuir, Scotland, left their little town and emigrated to Natal, South Africa, shortly after their wedding in the early 1880s, I could immediately relate to Helen. Imagine! I know people who are too afraid to travel to Africa today! Helen was brave enough to make the long, slow voyage by steamship 135 years ago.
I’ve been to Kirriemuir. It’s a charming town in east-central Scotland, just north of Edinburgh, home also to Peter Pan playwright James Matthew Barrie. In fact, Jamie Barrie and Helen David were contemporaries, likely schoolmates and childhood friends. Barrie, who never wanted to grow up (and never grew much taller than five feet), lived to be 77 and is buried in the beautiful hilltop cemetery in Kirriemuir overlooking the glorious Strath. Helen and William Black, however, are not buried there. They died mysteriously in Africa, in their 20s, leaving a young son behind (who was destined to become my grandfather).
For years now I’ve felt the need to tell Helen’s story. I’ve imagined her, arms crossed, larger than life, standing in front of the Pearly Gates, ready to bar my way in if I hadn’t written her story for her before I died. I’ve felt like her chosen one. Who else would understand her? So fulfilling her wish has been on my Bucket List. But I can’t help but wonder now: Who in this busy world of countless diversions would care to take the time to read a book based on what little I know about my great-grandmother Helen? And: Would a blog post do?
Today, as I write about her, I’m thinking: If Helen Reid David Black had not had wanderlust — that hunger to see more of this world before one leaves it, to immerse oneself in other cultures, learn their languages, make and eat their food — and passed that wanderlust down to me; if she had never sailed off to South Africa to meet her fate there; if she’d remained rooted like a big old oak tree in charming little Kirriemuir, where she “belonged,” I would not be writing this blog post on wanderlust from the magical town of San Miguel de Allende in the central mountains of Mexico. I would not, in fact, be me. So I guess I have Helen to thank for all this.
Now, though, I still wonder: What will it take for her to give me passage through the Pearly Gates?