‘Hands across the sea, my dear,’ replied Mrs Greenhill. ‘Hands across the sea.’ Teacup in hand, she smiled and shrugged a bit as if to say, ‘It’s as simple as that.’
I had asked Mrs Greenhill why the entire village of Dalserf, Scotland, had turned out for the wedding of two strangers from Texas. After all, she was there when my husband Charles and I married in Dalserf Parish Church in 1985. Ten years later, Mrs Greenhill offered her explanation at a tea party my mother and I were giving at the Popinjay Hotel in Rosebank. But what exactly had she meant by ‘hands across the sea’? All I could think of was World War I . . . Yanks and Brits . . . the song ‘Over There’. Our conversation shifted to another subject, but I never forgot her reply.
For our ﬁfteenth wedding anniversary, Charles and I decided we should return to Scotland to renew our vows. After the ceremony, we gave a dinner party for the villagers at the Popinjay. When we walked into the dining room, a table laden with beautifully wrapped presents greeted us. What was going on? Our friends explained that it was our crystal anniversary, and that these were all gifts of crystal for us. We were overwhelmed.
Back home in Houston, I developed a few photographs taken at the party, copies of which I had promised to send to the villagers in a ‘small tape-bound booklet’. Then I thought, why not include some of the wedding pictures, especially the one of the whole village, with the men in their kilts and the women in their hats? What about a picture of the stained glass windows in Dalserf church, the ones that had been dedicated to the memory of my grandfather? Maybe I should include his photograph as well, since he had emigrated from the village in 1905, just a lad of thirteen. Staring at his picture in a World War I uniform, I started wondering: What was it like for him to sail to America? And what did he leave behind in Dalserf? What did he see as he walked around the village back then? Where did he go to school? What was it like for his father to work as a coal miner? What did his family have for breakfast—and dinner? He had never spoken of any of these things.
The impossibility of ever answering these questions (my grandfather died in 1962) saddened and frustrated me. Then one day I called the Lanark Gazette about reproducing a newspaper photograph of our wedding for the ‘booklet’. During our conversation I casually asked the chief reporter, ‘You don’t know anything about mining in the Dalserf area around 1900, do you?’ ‘Yes, quite a bit,’ he replied, promising to write a short story describing the life of a miner. He also referred me to a book on mining, and when I called the publisher in Ayr to order it, the person who answered the telephone just happened to be an author—an agricultural expert who knew all about fruit growing in the Clyde Valley in my grandfather’s time. It turned out that the author of the mining book was actually a friend of his—would I like his address? And would I like a lead on a collection of old photographs of coal miners?
It seemed that a local historian had bequeathed his photograph collection to a new mining museum in Coalburn. The man who volunteered to organise the pictures for the museum was also the publisher of a magazine on Clydesdale horses, which he and his wife bred and showed.
And so began an article on the magniﬁcent animals indigenous to the Clyde Valley. I began to believe that, with the help of writers in Scotland, it would be possible to recreate the Dalserf my grandfather knew.
Life, of course, intervened. The tragedy of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001, and then the unexpected death of my mother in 2002, brought messages and ﬂowers from our Scottish friends. Our eighteen-year-old nephew Austin died in 2003, just two months after he told Charles and me how much he wanted to go to Scotland with us. When I called the minister of Dalserf Parish Church for solace, I began to understand the meaning of ‘hands across the sea’.
Meanwhile, my Scottish project slowly moved forward, especially during the two years we spent remodelling our house in Houston. Happily, that challenging event allowed us to use stained glass from Dalserf Parish Church in our kitchen window. I began gathering vintage photographs to accompany the articles. Then I asked everyone I could think of who knew my grandfather to write about their memories of him. The librarian at Ellis Island encouraged me to tell my grandfather’s story, and so I asked him to contribute an article about the emigration process. The word book had stealthily replaced booklet in my conversation. As I organised the pictures and proofread the articles, I continued to gather more material.
Our friends in Dalserf and Edinburgh, experts in their ﬁelds, proved to be major contributors to my understanding of what life was like at the turn of the century in that wee village. The minister, a scholar at heart, wrote about religion, and his wife, a head teacher, wrote about education. A great friend, who had overseen the installation of the church windows in memory of my grandfather, wrote about the architecture of the period. In the mail came his original pencil sketches of the old buildings as well as a pastel painting of the Clyde Valley. An essay on the sport of curling, recipes from church teas, and an oral interview with a villager born in 1899 added to the picture of what my grandfather left behind. The story of the village in antique maps, written by the son of my ﬁrst Scottish friend, gave me a sense of place made visible through time.
One map I wanted to reproduce in the book was an old Ordnance Survey map, so I called the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Glasgow for permission to use it. The director unexpectedly answered. Having volunteered to research the landscape of Dalserf, beginning with the geology of the area, he later explained his enthusiasm: ‘It seemed like the nice thing to do—and I like to write about landscape.’ When the minister of Dalserf church sent me a book on Anne, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton, I got in touch with the author through her publisher. She immediately responded and agreed to write an article about Anne’s relationship to the church. In what we both considered a hands-across-the-sea gesture, she resourcefully and energetically tracked down the mysterious original donor of the 1895 stained glass windows.
Boldly, I asked the editor of Scottish Field magazine to write about wildlife, but instead he offered to write about Baronald, the manor house built by his family around 1890. In modern times, Baronald became known as the Cartland Bridge Hotel, the place where, coincidentally, Charles and I had held our wedding reception. The editor eventually referred me to a wildlife writer in Edinburgh who not only wrote an article, but also educated me about the beautiful antique prints of birds and animals at the Natural History Museum in London. Meanwhile, a reporter in Glasgow, who had written a story for the Sunday Post about my family’s ties with Dalserf, offered to contribute a piece on daily life in the village when my grandfather lived there.
Wondering what transportation in Dalserf was like in bygone days, I located an archivist with Strathmore Transport. An independent historian about to retire, he expanded on that subject to include how my grandfather’s family would have travelled to America, and researched the actual ocean voyage as well as the ship that took them there. The author of the piece on nineteenth-century Scottish music also found the illustrated covers of sheet music of the period for me, and even made sense of some indistinct Scottish songs sung by my family years ago. Ultimately, every question I had was answered by enthusiastic, kind, and talented people in the UK. Finally, all the articles and all the images had been assembled.
But what to call the book? It should have been obvious, but I suppose I needed it spelled out for me. One day, while leaning on a glass counter in an antique shop in Houston, I looked down and saw a postcard from World War I. Embroidered in silk was an image of two hands clasped beneath a British and an American ﬂag. The caption? ‘Hands Across the Sea’. I surrendered to the inevitability of that title. Then I became curious about the origin of the phrase. The earliest reference I could ﬁnd was a John Philip Sousa march called ‘Hands Across the Sea’, composed in 1899, when my grandfather was seven years old. Evidently Sousa was inspired by the line ‘Let us swear an eternal friendship.’ But I was determined to find out exactly what Mrs Greenhill meant that day at the Popinjay, when she echoed the words on the postcard.
When I called her, Mrs Greenhill said that ‘hands across the sea’ did bring back memories of wartime, when American boys came over to ﬁght and help them out. And, as I found out when compiling the book, the saying did reﬂect a historical relationship between the two countries: an ongoing affection for Americans felt by people in the UK and, on our part, a love for our mother country. But Mrs Greenhill was talking about how excited the villagers were when they learned that Charles and I were coming all the way from America to their little village to be married. There had never been anything like it before in Dalserf. And since we had invited no one from home to come to our wedding, all the villagers wanted to come together that day to be there for us. ‘Hands across the sea’, in Mrs Greenhill’s heartfelt words, meant that ‘we did not want you to be alone on your wedding day.’
This book is an acknowledgement of that friendship, a gift from the heart to all our Scottish friends, for adopting us as their ‘own Charles and Diana—from Texas’.