It Must be the Smith in Me

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, so it stands to reason that I would have an obsession with all things having to do with England, especially its literature and history, right? After all, there's an obvious correlation between growing up in an uneducated, mostly Italian-American, working-class neighborhood and reading Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare (and actually understanding them). It's very typical, really. I recall fondly Louie Sirigniano, Tony Montinino, Joey Marino and Sally boy Castelli, friends of mine, sitting at the curbside, wiping their runny noses, with their pocket knives pointed towards the asphalt, rhapsodizing about England's famed literary culture, spouting names like Virginia Woolfe, George Orwell and Thomas Hardy from their mouths as easily as they spit their saliva. They, like me, were lucky to have parents who bred this culture into them (when we weren't being knocked on the sides of our heads and called stupid).

Seriously, England and its culture, whether literary or historical, couldn't have been more remote to me growing up where and how I did. So, the question begs to be asked: Where does this interest of mine--visiting England frequently, reading voraciously books about the Tudor era, in particular, and writing novels (two already on this subject)--come from? It must be my DNA, something to do with the name Smith, my father's mother's surname, she who, though long dead, could be a relative of Maggie Smith, Zadie Smith, Captain John Smith, he of Pocahontas lore, or Winston Smith, he, unfortunately, of Big Brother lore, or any of the other millions of Smiths who reside in England.

As a boy, I met Olla Mae Smith, my grandmother, but retain only a vague memory, and that's because she didn't live with my father, his other thirteen siblings and my grandfather, Davy Crockett (I'm not kidding), who kicked her out of his house (after killing her supposed lover, yes true) when my father was just two years old back in Nebo, Illinois, an even more remote place to breed culture than Brooklyn, New York.

It turns out this woman whom I'm told I met for a few minutes in a shack in Arkansas when I was elven years old has had a great influence on me as a traveler and writer, thanks to her surname and the fact that her people can be traced to the seaside town of Whitby on the northeastern coast of England. Why else, other than my DNA, am I so so drawn to the English countryside, evident in how many times I've watched episodes of "Escape to the Country," wishing each time I do to sell my belongings and escape to England, to live in a cottage near old women who use herbs and roots to heal the afflicted, while whistling through their teeth, speaking a language left over from the Anglo-Saxons and Britons, long before William the Conqueror conquered the "sceptered isle" and John Barleycorn invented beer and whiskey? Maybe someday, I'll make the move. Until then, I may consider changing my surname to Smith.

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