quinta-feira, 14 de agosto de 2014

Story of my grandmother.

My whole life I’ve seen photographs and writings about my grandmother, Shirley May France.  In 1949 she did something remarkable.  At the age of 16 she attempted to be the youngest in history to swim across the English Channel.  For a brief moment in time, the world turned its attention to the small proud town of Somerset, Massachusetts and the American school girl who would brave the treacherous channel waters.


         After saving money for an entire year, my dream of studying abroad finally came true.  I was able to spend four months living in Lisbon, Portugal with enough money to travel throughout Europe.  Out of all the cities I wanted to see, it was Dover, England that I was most determined to visit.  After finally making it across the Atlantic from my hometown of Somerset, Massachusetts, I told myself, “I don’t care if I have to do it all alone, I’m going to make it to the English Channel.”    

        My trip to Dover was not only for my own personal interest but I saw it as a tribute to her.  As I anxiously sat on a train from London, I wondered what I would see, who I could meet, and if there was anything for me to discover about my grandmother’s stay in Dover so many years ago.  The train entered the small fisherman’s town and I finally got my first clear look at the English Channel.  The water looked angry and I could not even see the coast of France.  All I could think was, “who would ever have enough guts to swim across waters like this?”

Holding a few printed photos in my hand I walked around the town to see if I could recognize any places from photographs, it was my attempt retrace the past.  I hiked up the White Cliffs of Dover where I saw the most magnificent view of the channel.  There, I spent time gazing out onto the water and thinking of her.

My next stop was the East Cliff Hotel, looking almost the same as it did in 1949.  I had a conversation with the owner, an old British woman named Vicki.  She had never heard of Shirley May France but willingly gave me keys to the bedrooms upstairs.  I entered a room that I believed my grandmother may have stayed in.  I looked out one of the old windows and imagined crowds of admirers gathered outside of her window to wish her well on her big swim. 


         In just a short time I had already seen so many wonderful things but there was one moment in Dover that was completely unexpected; something that I will never be able to forget.  It occurred in a small maritime museum tucked away in the center of the town.
I entered the museum with little expectation of finding something significant to my grandmother.  I asked a woman working at the front desk, “Do you know who Shirley May France is?” She shook her head apologetically.  I was disappointed but it made sense, why would young girl who had failed the swim ever be remembered?

After walking around the museum and becoming discouraged with my search, I noticed a poster. It hung quietly and unlabeled on the wall.  I gasped with disbelief and ran over to it. I was looking at an all too familiar photograph, one of my grandmother.  She was being lifted nearly lifeless out of the water after swimming the equivalent of forty miles and spending nearly eleven hours in the bitterly cold water. 

As a stared at the poster with a big goofy grin, I became even more inspired by her story. To visitors at the museum, what this poster symbolized was defeat and a lost battle to the channel, but to me, this image meant something completely different.

I saw perseverance and courage.  It was a moment like no other in my life where I felt a surge of empowerment, pride, and inspiration.  I realized that no matter what I achieve in life, I should never be afraid of failure. That it is the fight and the will to persevere through any obstacle in your way that can be the most admirable.  I got on the train back to London feeling overwhelmed with joy and feeling like I had left Dover with a little piece of her.    

Kayla (Silva) Setters




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