End of an era

Next week, I’ll wash all three of those little gingham dresses and take them to the charity shop. After fifteen years of having a child at primary school, Ilse leaves Year 6 tomorrow., and there’ll be no more hanging of summer school frocks on the line.

While I deliberately muddle my children’s names, ages and doings on this blog, some moments need setting down on paper, if only for me. I’ve been taking a child to primary school since 2003. We’ve got photos of them all on their first days, excited and beaming in their uniform, and in a couple of days we’ll have photos of all of their last days, too, with skinny long brown legs sticking out from too-short shorts and dresses, scuffed shoes and faces no less excited about the next adventure.

It would be a strange sort of parent who didn’t want their children to grow up. After all, that’s why we parent: to help them grow into independent adults, making their own place in the world. I won’t pretend that I’m not glad I won’t have to stand in freezing February playgrounds, or deal with two different sets of school letters. When Ben started secondary school I think we were almost as thrilled as he was at the next big step. Now that he’s at university, I know how quickly the next seven years will fly.

This week – this last, mad, silly week of term – is full of performances and celebrations. We’ve split the events between us, John and I, and drafted in the grandparents for support. Last night Seb and Fliss performed in the cabaret at their school, singing and playing in the orchestra, while I attended a different do and John and my dad went to see Ilse in her play. I watched it on Tuesday with the other two – Ben is working away from home – and despite my best efforts I must admit to a tear or two at the end. I don’t know how many school plays I’ve sat through: how many nativities and musicals and Christmas concerts and open classrooms and parents evenings perched on tiny child-sized chairs. They all merge into one extended blur and yet I can pick out distinct moments, made clear by the differences between my children themselves. In their Year 6 musical my children have chosen such different roles: technician, stage manager, comic relief and, last night, soloist. Watching Ilse dressed like a reception pupil, taking turns in a duet with another girl we’ve known since before they could walk, was such a fitting culmination of the confidence and grace my girl has gained over the past few years. I beamed at her throughout. But the finale tipped me over the edge.

This evening will be their graduation, with video of them all in reception, a bouncy castle and ice cream van and the dreaded farewell song. Ilse’s already expecting me to cry, but I think she will, too. It’s bittersweet, this transition from one thing to the next. Exciting and fun and full of adventure, but relentlessly moving on, on, on.

Madeleine

Moving out

I wasn’t expecting Ilse to be the one moving out this summer, but that’s what she cheerily announced on Sunday afternoon, blanket under one arm, cushion in the other. We’ve all been working on transforming the little tower for her in spare pockets of time. John made a swing with her, which hangs beneath the house part and is hidden by the raspberry canes. I took her to a jumble sale to buy the basket which hangs on a pulley, ready for lifting up treats. Lovely Mrs East gave her the squishiest hand-knit pillow, all wool and cables. We found a rug to spread over the wooden floor, and an old beanbag, and a biscuit tin. She’s taken out a notebook to keep a log in. And on Saturday she and Fliss made the bunting and strung it up themselves, right over the F which has been there since we tidied it up for Fliss several years ago. We ought to look out for an I, but are keeping the F for posterity. And because she keeps disappearing up there, too, and pulling that stick-door shut behind her.

And what about Seb, I hear you asking? Don’t worry: he’s building a base out of an old tarpaulin, a ball of string and roughly 6,000,000 sticks. He works for a bit, then stops to raid the fruit patch before getting back to it. He’s very happy.

Between them, I am getting almost hourly requests for a date on which they’ll be able to sleep out there this summer. I keep thinking about the fox who comes to visit the chickens, and the fact that neither space can be seen or heard from the house, and a thousand unsavoury possibilities. Then I remember that they camp out in the garden every summer. It’ll be fine. It’s inevitable, really. Time ploughs on, children get bigger, and one by one they all move out, if only for one night.

 

Through the wardrobe

Mid May seems terribly late to be going through the children’s wardrobes, but this spring has felt too cold to do so any sooner. At least, that’s what I think. Ilse has been bouncing around in her romper since she spied it in the cupboard when I dug out a couple of her gingham dresses for school. Whatever the weather, spring classrooms are invariably stuffy.

Sunday dawned wet and grey, to be honest, but by the time we got home from Mass the sun was streaming from the heavens and the hens lay basking in it, wings akimbo. I dragged Seb upstairs to go through his things with him, and after the first couple of reluctant changes he was quite pleased to be reunited with some of his more summery things. Of course he’s grown, but with a move to a new school in just a few months’ time I think we’ll embrace the almost cropped look and let him choose some new things next spring instead. At twelve he won’t want to be wearing clothes he chose at the naive and tender age of eleven. This I know from experience. And after all that rationalisation I softened and promised him one new top, just to ring the changes. Needless to say he chose another animal one.

Ilse’s turn began with a look through Seb’s old things, picking out what would be useful for summer camping and the like. Although we agree that you can do absolutely anything in a dress that you could do in trousers, she quite likes wearing her big brother’s clothes when she’s adventuring, and I like to see her a little warmer when she doesn’t realise that it’s turned cold and grey. That said, Seb’s old things couldn’t match the thrill of being reacquainted with a trio of pretty cotton frocks, and she happily tried each one in turn. Two, a little big last year, fit perfectly now. One of those was mine when I was little, and although Mother wasn’t one to save clothes once they were outgrown by the smallest of us, this frock turned up in a box of books a few years ago and has since been worn by Ilse’s cousin, and Fliss, and now her. Add Meg and I, and that’s five of us, which is quite nice, although I’m not entirely sure why. It’s just a dress. Most importantly, she thinks it’s beautiful.

We both gasped a little when she put on the frock I made for her last summerWell Mummy, aren’t you glad you put such a big hem in it? she beamed. It was down here last year! And so it was, right down below her knees, and now it is almost halfway up her thigh. So yes, I am glad I put such a big hem in that and all her dresses. I’ve learned that trick through experience too. It wasn’t such a surprise to me as it was to her, to see how much she’s grown – I’ve been watching her grow out of her winter dresses for months – but she was absolutely thrilled. I remember that feeling of going through my wardrobe as a child: suddenly things which had always fitted were too small, and I’d grown while playing and learning and doing other things. How wonderful. How odd. Best of all, though, was the little stack of new-to-you things to wear, and Ilse is no less pleased with her pile. Cotton, flowers, and more cotton please – jumpers were most severely sent off to the big cupboard to sit the summer out.

Later, though, once she’d skipped off downstairs in nothing warmer than her romper, I pulled a couple of hand-knits from the cupboard and added them to her pile. Emergency cardigans: the sort of thinking that makes me realise that I’ve gone and grown up while I was playing and learning and doing other things.

Show week

Oh Mummy, aren’t you EXCITED? whispered Ilse, slipping into bed with me this morning. It took a moment for me to wake up and realise what she was talking about. This week is Show Week: tutus, makeup, jazz shoes, waistcoats, new satin ballet slippers, tap dancing jockeys – the works. This is the week they get to go on a real stage, in a real theatre, and show everyone how well they can dance. Who wouldn’t be excited?

They’ve been working for this for a long, long time. Show week comes but every other year, in between exams for which the syllabus must be perfected, and I’m not sure which my children enjoy more. What with the fact that everyone is involved in the show, the levels of adrenaline reach new heights at show time. There are top secret dances which are only whispered about amongst the children, and quick costume changes to be rehearsed. And while exams call for new socks and shoes and leotards, the show requires a whole other level of pizzazz. There’s a fuchsia tutu with Fliss’ name sewn in, and the most beautiful handmade peonies pinned onto the waist and hair. I know they must have taken the mother who made them hours and hours, and they will be taken off and treasured long after the tutu has been outgrown. There’s a white satin waistcoat, fluttering with feathers at the neckline for my dove, Seb, and the other boy in his class, stitched by me, with winglike epaulets painstakingly put together by Mrs Roberts. She’s made a hopping, leaping knot of frogs too, with webbed hands and feet and shimmering wet splotches on their waistcoats, and a party of elves to dance amongst the peonies. One of the grannies has created a classfull of tippety tapping penguins, with little dickie bows and white bibs over their black catsuits, and when Ilse tried hers on and did a funny little penguin waddle round the room it made up for the hours of careful sewing.

Because there have been hours of sewing, all around, with people helping each other, sharing their skills and time. I helped Mrs Roberts with some waistcoats; she made goodness knows how many epaulets as well as tails for the flock of girl doves. In the changing room, parents are showing one another how to stitch a flower, or a feather, or a name tag to an outfit. Tips are being swapped for getting those satin slippers light pink again instead of grey, and how to keep them clean (rugby socks over the top, backstage, I hear). And there’s still all the chaperoning to be done, and the ferrying to and fro, and the waiting outside the stage door for the technical rehearsal to be done.

But watching Ilse hugging herself with the thrill of it all made it worth every single moment. Come next Sunday, she’ll be in an exhausted, exhilarated little heap. I suspect the others will, too. Between now and then, though, there’s magic to be lived. It’s finally, wonderfully, ecstatically here. Show week.

A party in the dark

Eleven is a wonderful age. Young enough to knock around together as a ragtag gaggle of boys and girls, old enough for a party outside on a pitch black December evening in the week before Christmas.

Somehow, on the short journey between school and home, the children morphed from the responsible pupils who had led the carol concert into a band of experienced backwoods people. In no time at all they were gathering sticks with which to prepare their supper, building a fire and polishing off great slabs of sticky chocolate cake. And while they’re young enough to be happy spending time with Seb’s parents, grandparents and siblings, they’re old enough to follow instructions with a knife and sit safely around a campfire. After the cake they wound twists of dough around clean peeled sticks to bake over hot coals, then speared sausages on sharpened sticks to roast and nibble while hot and dripping fat. And all the time, between each bite it seemed, the game that they were playing developed just a little more into something uniquely theirs and of the moment.

Perhaps December isn’t the very nicest time to have a birthday: everyone is rushing around in the cold and the dark, getting ready for the bigger birthday to come. And yet, played to its strengths, it worked out beautifully this year. Dark by four, the evening seems endless to children who measure time in terms of sausages consumed. By six o’clock there had evolved a game involving hidden monsters at the end of the long garden, and a safe place by the shed, and more rules than I could follow. And, judging by the shining eyes and the number of times they ran up and down the garden, I think the party in the dark was a success. Nobody wanted to go home, even though the leaving was tempered by gooey marshmallows and other final treats. Bathed and pink and clad in his pyjamas, Seb declared it the best birthday that he’d ever had. Well, that’ll do, then. Happy birthday, my love.

At the shops

I’m getting used to being called Madam around the house, these days. Sadly I don’t have a butler, or even a new hair dresser. It’s just that shops is the game of the moment, and we are all customers whether we like it or not.

It goes something like this: I reach for the tin of custard or bottle of HP sauce only to grope around where I’m certain I last saw it. There’s a trundling in the hall, and Ilse appears with perambulator, baby and bags. Ilse, I begin, have you got the…?

She beams. Good morning, Madam. I’ll just open up the shop. I’m sorry I’m late; my baby took forever to eat her porridge this morning. She abandons said infant in the street while she serves me with food from my own larder. Good day, Madam. I hope we’ll see you again soon.

No doubt she will, and I must admit it is a lot more fun than simply reaching things down off the shelves. We all play along – even Ben, when he realises he needs to buy back his Oxford geometry set, and Fliss, when she finds her hair slides missing. Even John, who is accosted as soon as he walks in the door from work, succumbs to the shopkeeper’s charms. And sometimes, to Ilse’s intense delight, there is a second shopkeeper to help around the place and take turns in playing each role.

What is it that appeals so universally about playing at games like shops? I don’t remember enjoying trailing round behind my mother as she ticked things off her list. I’ve certainly never wanted to open a shop of my own – a cafe, perhaps, but not a shop. And yet I loved playing shops so much and for so long that our Irish grandmother used to keep all her empty packets for Meg and I to play with when we visited. She’d take us over to the little barn we were allowed to play in and roll back the big black metal door and there they would all be: empty packets Coleman’s Mustard and Bisto. Bottles which once held lemonade or something mysterious called milk of magnesia, the dregs of which smelled nothing like milk and came in pretty blue glass. There’d be old furniture and crates to move around, and a couple of wicker baskets coming apart at the top, and bits of newspaper to wrap things in.

In this house it’s the kitchen scales which go missing first, followed by the baskets and items from the larder. On sale today are an assortment of conkers and pine cones, and windfall apples from the garden. There’s the book I know Fliss is reading and John’s spectacles and most of the packet goods from the larder. The shopkeeper weighs the HP sauce, in its bottle, before placing it in my basket. That’ll be three and six, please, she says. Everything costs three and six. I count imaginary coins from an imaginary purse, which she deposits in her imaginary till. I pocket John’s spectacles for safekeeping and spot several of the items I’ll be needing to make supper. It looks as though I’ll be coming back to the shops quite soon. Ah well, it’s a good thing that it’s just as much fun as ever.

Swallows and Amazons

There’s been a lot of dreaming about Wild Cat Island in recent months. A lot of den building behind the sofa and at the end of the garden. A lot of packing of knapsacks and traipsing round the house to Rio and back. A lot of pemmican, and grog, and buttered eggs. The stitching of swallows on flags. Piratical attacks. Midnight raids.

At longed-for last, these Swallows headed off with their Daddy – who fortunately didn’t have to be on a ship in the South China Sea – to the Lake District, while I stayed at Holly Howe to look after Vicky (or my vegetables, at least). Three days later, they were back, having had enough adventures to write a novel of their own – which Titty set about at once. Not having been with them, I can only report their travels as they were described to me. A voyage on a ferry to a distant island in the sea, where they camped in the ruins of a castle and made friends with the native children. Post supper swims off the pier. Visits to Rio for supplies, before heading up to base camp, carrying all that they might need. Sleeping halfway up Kanchenjunga, and waking to make the dawn ascent. Searching the cairns for messages from earlier explorers – and, finding none, knowing they were the very first to set foot upon that crest. Returning to civilisation in time to fish for sharks, before the long paddle steamer home across the seven seas.

As I say, I wasn’t there, but I believe what I read in the company’s log. For a little while, at least, they all got to be Swallows: living for the summer, flitting freely about the English countryside. Wild camping in the hills, and messing about in boats. Stories in books are wonderful. Stories shared with friends and siblings, acted out in boats made from apple crates, are even better. And stories recreated in the place where they are set – in the hills and waters set aside for us all to enjoy? They’re the very best of all, apparently.

 

Favourites

I held my breath as I cut the pieces for Seb’s fish shirt, hoping I’d bought enough fabric. He’d chosen it so eagerly, selecting something which would be just right for family campAnd it is. It will be perfect for a weekend of pirates and creatures of the deep, as well as for the rest of the summer.

But it’s just right for him, too. For the boy who likes to swim against the tide a little, to be the odd fish out from time to time. This is the boy who wants to make a giant squid costume out of papier mache and paint it gold, because they are gold, Mummy. Really. There will be ten trailing tentacles, plate-like eyes at belly button height, and armholes to accommodate all the dancing he’s going to do. My little fish is most certainly the orange one.

He left me in no doubt about the details of the shirt: it is exactly the same as that of two years ago, only bigger. A grandad collar, with no buttons to snag on pesky branches. Straight sides to accommodate too many ice creams. And tabs and buttons at the elbows, to keep his sleeves out of the way while he’s hammering new bits onto his den, or copying out constellations.

I find a great deal of joy in a job well done, and even more in one so well received. He put it on, beaming, and the shirt I thought had plenty of room in it had only a little. He grows while my back is turned. Ten, already. Ten.

I wondered whether he’d still wear it next year, at eleven. Whether he’d prefer something else, by then, something striped or checked or even plain. Who knows? Not I. All I know is the pleasure on his face as he hops around, declaring it his favourite ever.

He’s grown out of everything but his school uniform, this spring. Ten was the height of Ben’s phase of wearing everything out: holes in knees and elbows and many random rips besides. There is nothing to pass down. So Seb will need something more to wear at weekends and through the long summer holidays. I didn’t need to think before offering him another.

The trick with Seb is to let him choose, because who doesn’t want to wake up on an spring morning with a favourite shirt flung ready over the back of a chair?  They’ll become his second skin, a creased and grass-stained part of his everyday adventures. One on, one in the wash, over and over again. Little boys have other things to think about than what to wear, like where to find the biggest mess of frogspawn, and whether the latest Just William is back on the library shelves. But when he does stop to wash his face before tea, and catches a glimpse of himself in the little bathroom mirror, he’ll recognise himself, just the way he is in his mind’s eye.

He went for bears, the second time around. I cut the pattern a little larger, and managed to squeeze a size eleven out of just over a yard. I’m feeling optimistic, you see, encouraged by his hearty approval of the first. This time it’s bears to wear in the woods, out ranging, searching for blackberries in late August. Bears to wear fishing with his uncle in the Lakes, to scoop pike out of the water and into the bows of the boat. Bears to come snuffling around me in the hot July kitchen, asking for honey sandwiches for tea.

One day he’ll outgrow such things; I know that. But now? For now, he loves them, and I love that he does. I must have stitched that sentiment into each and every seam, judging by the way his face shines when he wears them. Once these days are past I’ll cut them up and make a quilt for him. Something new from something old – something very, very him. Not yet, though. Not just yet. We’ve the whole of the summer before us, and the next, and maybe even the one after that. Here’s hoping.

[whohit]favourites[/whohit]

Forever

Every so often a book is published which captures the imagination of a generation. Father Christmas delivered one such book this Christmas, to the stocking of a certain ten year old. He read it in one long go, pausing only to eat meals and, when forced to, sleep, so that by the end of Boxing Day he was able to lay it aside with a bittersweet sigh. He didn’t want it to end, you see.

Ilse was curious, as she always is when Seb is immersed in something, so I borrowed it from him to read aloud to her, in the time between supper and bed, snuggled on the couch. By the end of the first evening Fliss was listening in, hovering, perched on the edge of an armchair. By the third evening she was ready and waiting with Ilse for the story to go on, and Seb had come back in to lie before the fire and hear it all again. Even John has had to read it, just to be able to join in with the incessant chatter and renaming of so many daily things. The children no longer walk anywhere, but tack, arms spread to catch the wind. They request pemmican and grog at mealtimes. The newsagent is getting used to being called a native, and takes it in his stride as he measures toffee provisions into striped paper bags.

No-one wants the younger parts. Seb is, naturally, Captain John, and carries his compass around with him. He has done a lot of cartography, lately, and I am not altogether surprised to learn that the hill up the road is, in fact, the Matterhorn. Ilse wants to be Mate Susan, but all too often Fliss takes that role and Ilse is Able Seaman Titty, instead. I, of course, am Mother, the best of all natives, and our own John is Captain Flint with his green parrot and home upon the high seas.

Only Ben doesn’t join in. He’s too old for such games, and not old enough to enjoy them differently, either. Fliss teeters on the edge. I hear her playing, wholeheartedly, when she thinks it is just herself and Ilse and Seb, but the minute I walk into the room she clams up, and pretends to be doing something else. She is in-between, just now, in that no-man’s land between Ilse and I. I catch her longing for both things: for womanhood and childhood, and not knowing which way to turn.

John and I are very aware that these might be the last few months in which she plays these sorts of games. This might be the last time she can be truly lost, as only a child can be, just around the corner, barely out of sight. A cry goes up from the end of the garden: Swallows and Amazons forever! and while there is abandonment in it there is an edge of something else too, of self-consciousness and shame. Soon, too soon, the role of Susan will be Ilse’s every day.

With this in mind, we’ve hired a bothy in the Lakes for later in the season. A little stone hut, far from anywhere, on the edge of a mere. There are rowing boats for hire, and perhaps a chance to sail. We’ll teach the children to make drop lines and fish for sharks and tiddlers in the boundless ocean. They can build dens amongst the trees, and make buttered eggs over a campfire, and walk the mile to the native settlement for their supper each evening. They can wake each morning to that best of all thoughts: now, what shall I do today? and come up with the answers themselves.

They don’t last long, those years between toddling and adulthood. Much as I would like them to last forever, Ben has shown us that they won’t. So we’ll just have to make the most of them, fleeting and precious as they are.

[whohit]forever[/whohit]

Quilts, large and small

I had intended to work on my quilt on Sunday. The top is all pieced, made from shirts and dresses we wore on a special holiday and have since worn out. All I needed to do was find the old curtain I had in mind for the backing, and check that it was large enough. I already had a threadbare blanket set aside for the filling.

Truth be told, my fabric was a mess, stored in a variety of bags and boxes about the place. I found the curtain soon enough, and cut away the heading, setting it aside for the rag and bone man. Ilse, sensing a clear out, was at my side in a moment.

She giggled as we pulled all sorts out of the scrap bag: old shirt collars, remnants of sleeves, pieces so small I don’t know why I kept them. Amongst it all was the quilting Ilse and Seb had begun last summer. We set this to one side and then, as I was ironing some larger pieces to fold and put away, I pressed their blocks for them.

Once everything was stowed neatly in one cupboard and the last bit of thread had been picked up off the rug, Ilse turned to me, hands on hips. ‘Now what shall we do?’

What we did was finish her quilt.

She’d already pieced most of the top, as she, Seb and I sewed by hand on the patio, Children’s Hour on the wireless. She was now at the point where a little adult intervention was required, to speed the project to its conclusion.

Ilse is often in need of a speedy hand. When she catches me knitting in the daytime she seats herself at my side, to carry on with the teddy bear scarf she began that weekend in October. She knits one s-l-o-w row, and I knit three. It keeps her going.

So we pulled the machine out and she turned the handle while I pushed the fabric through. Then she put her hands on top of mine so as to be able to say that she sewed it, without ever needing to go near that frighteningly fast needle. We had it batted and backed in no time, and machined one edge of the binding around the border.

After a quick break to make some scones, we settled ourselves, tea tray and all, before the living room fire to finish the job. I showed her how to secretly stitch the back of the binding into place and together, despite sticky fingers and copious crumbs, we finished it off.

Seb was a little crestfallen at Ilse’s progress, which has been a theme of their quilting. Ilse sews the way I remember sewing when I was at school – with fast, uneven stitches. Like her, I wanted to see the finished product now, please. Seb would have delighted my sewing mistress. His stitches are pin prick tiny, in perfectly straight lines. I couldn’t have done a better job myself. Because of this, he is a long way from completion. I promised him the use of my machine next weekend, and his face brightened. Tiny stitches and speed? A winning combination.

In the meantime, I plan to finish my own quilt. I’d like it on someone’s bed – probably Ben’s – by Christmas. Isle has already wrapped hers and hidden it in her cupboard, ready to be laid beneath the tree on Christmas Eve: her present to her dolly. I wonder whether one of Seb’s toys will get such a treat. In the meantime, I have some rows to add to a delightfully wobbly pink scarf, so that Little Ted doesn’t feel left out on Christmas Day.

[whohit]quiltslargeandsmall[/whohit]