Balancing

There are certain points when everything feels a bit like a balancing act. Between time spent outside, growing things in the newly emerging garden, and ensuring that the house still feels welcoming when we come back in. Between work and rest – I think that fact that John and I have both been felled by heavy summer colds suggests that we got that one wrong. Or even just getting everyone to where they need to be, especially on two wheels, which poor old Seb came a cropper to last week. He fell on his right elbow, resulting in five weeks of wearing a sling. Like the old pergola, we all seem to be walking a little wounded at the moment. Most challenging of all, though, is catering to people of different ages and stages, all needing something, but something different.

Ben is in the last month of preparation for his Higher School Certificate. I can’t help but think how different it’ll be for Seb and Ilse, with no younger siblings charging around the place singing and squabbling and forgetting that they’re supposed to be quiet, please. We don’t do too badly most of the time, especially when school is in term. But this week they are all on holiday, and only Fliss seems to understand that Ben really could do with some peace in which to get his head down. It’s fine as long as the weather holds – Ben installs himself in the front room and we head out into the garden. On wet days, though, it takes a while for something to grab everyone’s attention. Yesterday was one of those, but crochet animals came to the rescue, and a jigsaw, and Children’s Hour on the wireless.

Thankfully they are heading out tomorrow with Mother and Father and the house will be quiet all day, which will be wonderful while Ben works. He’ll have all the peace he could want. Except that when he’s finished and the books are put away, he won’t have anyone to be silly with, or chat to, or play games with in the garden. The truth is that I’m just not as good for letting off steam with as his little siblings. I’ll have to make sure he does something nice with a friend, instead. Some fun is certainly needed after all that study. It’s a balancing act, I tell you.

On Shell Island

In the end, we went away for just three nights this Easter, which was enough of a change to be a rest before coming home to the garden (for me), work (for John), revision (for Ben) and play (for the other three). We piled tents and sleeping bags on top of the motor, ourselves into it, and headed to Wales for our little break.

I can’t remember having visited Snowdonia before, and it’s the sort of place I would remember. Mountains, woodland, small towns and villages and, around every bend in the road, another view of the springtime sea. We drove through lanes with slate walls on either side, past little roadside waterfalls and mossy, twisted tree-formed tunnels to Harleck and beyond, until we found ourselves on Shell Island before the tide came in and flooded the causeway, cutting us off from the shore. The children tumbled out of the car and away to explore while John, Ben and I set up camp. Red-faced and puffing, they came back to report to us every quarter of an hour or so on their latest find: the sand-dunes that needed to be scaled, the rock pools, the hidden dell between our camp and Lookout Hill, and Shell Beach, from which they brought back sandy pockets of their finds.

We wouldn’t normally spend much time on a campsite, preferring instead to treat it as a place to sleep while we spent the days out and about, but the following morning Ilse looked so forlorn at the thought of leaving the island to climb Cader Idris that it only took me a moment to decide to stay behind with her. We waved the others off and set about our day. It isn’t often that I let a seven year old set the agenda, but we had such a lovely time I might need to do so more often. In the morning we went to the little island shop for a tin of soup, some hot cross buns and milk for tea, then packed my knapsack with knitting and a rug and a bag of sweets and set out for a spot of cartography. We climbed a sand dune and stopped every hundred yards or so to add something new to her map, discussing suitable names all the while. It was such hard work that we agreed on a long sit down after lunch, on a blanket in the sun beside our tent, she colouring her map and me adding the button bands to my nearly-done cardigan, before setting off for a lazy afternoon of shell collecting. We meandered for a good two hours along the beach, past the dunes to the rock pools, then the harbour, then the jetty where the crabbing is, before wandering home to wait for the others and supper. The sun shone well enough, and the wind certainly blew, but we had such a lovely day, the two of us.

Of course we went out and did other things on the other days, but I think that was my favourite day of all. Just Ilse and I, on a nearly deserted island, footling around and doing our own thing. Surely that’s what holidays are all about. Well, ours, anyway.

Mud and rushes

The willow is most definitely out: the twisted little tree in our garden; the grand weeping sort, trailing its tears in the silty river water; and the shoots which sprout unbidden everywhere they think they can get away with it. We saw more willow than anything, on our Sunday walk along the Ouse. We also saw wild cherry trees in such full bloom that from time to time there was nothing for it but to stop, and stand in their arms, and breathe in all that nectar.

Maples were unfurling their sticky buds, their little hands still held tight in the cool spring air. And everywhere stood hummocks of last autumn’s grass, its seeds long since pillaged by the birds and the field mice and the tiny, furry voles.

These are the things I look for on a walk: what is growing, what was growing, what will be growing soon. Signs of animals which surely must abound there. Birdsong, and flashes of the rainbow as a crow hops into the marsh, a treasure in his beak. Just life, really, the sort of life that goes on, wild and independent, galaxies apart from mine, and right there on my doorstep.

What the children look for is something entirely different. The city boathouse where the wooden rowing shells wait in racks for their turn upon the river. Wide concrete steps down to the water, and an algae-waving wellington abandoned at their foot. Barges along the towpath, and their little gardens set out with living fences woven out of willow. The smell of woodsmoke, and somebody’s lunch, and the fantasy of living there and being allowed to roam the water and its edge. Eroded pathways tumbling to the shore, with muddy beaches and slippery expeditions to the next. Grass, growing unkempt and unexpected in the crook of a tree, and working out how it came to be there. And mud. Always mud. Squelchy and wet in the marshes, a treacherous terrain which boasts the fluffy tops of rushes at its centre. Mud, slippery on the beaches. Sucking mud, in patches, where if you wiggle your feet you can get them to sink in and pretend that you are trapped there, held prisoner by your own rubber boots.

It’s gratifying, how much pleasure can be gleaned from a simple tramp along the water at the edge of the city. I can see why there are big houses built here, overlooking the marshland and the waterway beyond. Huge houses, in fact, with lawns which sweep down to the rough public land below, a polite distance keeping them from tramping folk like us. I saw one house that I would very much like to live in, should I also be allowed to have the staff. And a garden that I loved, with ancient hawthorns pruned into wonderfully round clumps at the end of each gnarled branch. We ought to go back, in May, to see them blossom into candy floss. That was the image I carried home with me.

Seb, who is on occasion very wise as well as being very silly, brought home a handful of fluff from the top of a tall reed or two, and put it in the empty syrup tin he’d begged last week. We were all a little bemused, not knowing what this was meant to be. It’s my tin of happiness, he told us later, when Mother and Father had arrived to share our roast. He prised off the lid and offered it around, urging each of us to plunge our hands inside, and as we did so every single one of us broke into smiles. He’s right. That silky, fluffy goodness is happiness in a tin. Who would have thought it? So much pleasure from just some mud and rushes.

For Mother’s Day

For Mothers’ Day this year I had a lingering illness which might have ruined the day but for the gifts I received. They were carried in with the morning tea tray: a little handmade coaster, a bag of Pontefract cakes and a voucher. Oh, they know what I like, and what’s on my mind just now. They know I’d like nothing better than to be out in this glorious sunshine, setting the garden to rights, and that I just don’t feel up to it. So nothing could have been better than their voucher promising me a day’s labour out there. I don’t mind how many times they’ve given me this gift; I’ve never loved it more than I did this Sunday.

For my part, I did some fiddly little jobs – pricking out the tomatoes, pushing the onion sets into trays of compost to bring on indoors for a while. John cleaned out the hens and mowed the lawn and built an urgently required chicken-proof fence. Ben spread compost on the beds and turned the newer heaps onward through the bays. The younger three fetched and carried and helped out wherever and whenever they were needed, and from their bare feet and and legs and arms you’d have thought it was high summer.

I took Seb in the motor to visit my own mother with the gift of a bowl of violas. All the talk of allotments with Father sent me home keen to visit my own space: just a little amble, nothing more. John and I cut a basket of tender brocolli before the buds split into yellow blooms. We noticed that the damson has burst its first white tender bud. And when we opened the door of the greenhouse, the aniseed fragrance of fennel spilled out into the cooler, outdoor air.

In the last hour before supper I carried a rug and my old chocolate tin of seeds out to the garden bench. There’s something very pleasing about making a list of what needs to be planted when, and what’s already in. It made me disproportionately happy. Around me, the day dissolved from industry to play. The children soaked themselves in one last water fight before their baths; John hammered in the last stake; an easy Sunday roast was on its way. Thanks to them, I can sow the next lot of seeds as soon as I like, in the freshly composted beds now safe behind the fence. I needn’t worry about the height of the lawn. And no, nobody wanted to do the weeding for me, even if it was Mothering Sunday, but that’s all right. I’ve had a whole day of gardening despite feeling under the weather, and more has been accomplished than I could ever have achieved alone. And they did it all quite willingly. I couldn’t really ask for anything more for Mothers’ Day.

There were snowdrops. And peacocks. And miniature rooms.

We had a few very spring-like days last week in the midst of much cold and stormy weather and as luck would have it, those just happened to be the days that we had plans to be outside. One of those was Friday, which John had taken off work and so we all piled into the motor and set off into Ryedale.

After all these years of living in York I’d never visited Rievaulx Terrace – in fact, none of us had. A man-made feature, it has that lovely combination of the wild and the constrained, urging you to wander along a smooth and grassy terrace as you enjoy the shifting view of the trees and ruined abbey below. We began our walk, though, by heading through the woods to the far end of the grounds, before wandering back to the temple for luncheon (well, a talk about the meals we might have had in it had we arrived by invitation and carriage two hundred years ago). And everywhere were great swathes of snowdrops. I thought they’d make a lovely photograph, pure white against the browns of leaf and trunk and earth, but just as I was focusing Ilse asked if she might take it, so I handed the camera over.

It wasn’t until I wanted to take a picture of the children that I reclaimed the brownie, only to find that Ilse had used up all the film. Ah well, no matter. We had seen her creeping quietly through the woods, presumably photographing something wild. A deer, perhaps, or the woodpecker we had heard. She assured me that her pictures were well worth it.

So it was with a cry of dismay that she arrived at Nunnington Hall to find a peacock posing for his portrait on top of a garden wall. And the banks full of snowdrops in the sun, and the funny old scarecrow in the cutting garden, and the wishing tree, its bare branches bright with ribbons. She would have liked to have taken photos of all this, but her disappointment was short lived. After all, there was an attic waiting, full of miniature rooms to examine and sigh over.

We’ve visited Nunnington many times over the years, and that collection of tiny rooms in the attic is an enduring highlight. They are not the kind of thing that I’d ever be tempted to make, being small and fiddly and utterly useless. But they are certainly something to wonder over. Who, for instance, has the patience and skill to render shelf after shelf of inch-high leather-bound books? To make a workshop full of shining woodwork tools, complete with a project in progress, miniature shavings curling on the floor? In spite of the grand entrance hall and period drawing rooms our favourites are the day and night nurseries, with their rows of thumbnail marching redcoats and a set of stacking rings, abandoned mid-play on a little table. There are shelves full of tiny toys, on top of which stands a doll’s house in a doll’s house, which prompted my children to search for yet another within. And on a chair by the cot lies the nanny’s knitting: the beginning of a diminutive red sock grown on double ended needles the size of pins.

We had such a lovely day that I opened the envelope of photos with some anticipation, right there in the chemist’s. There were some older ones of earlier parts of our holiday. There were one or two that I had snapped, early on our walk. Then there were four of John, one of me and seven of a pheasant, growing ever closer and less blurred. I picked the best, to give to Ilse for her scrapbook as evidence of our day. But there were also snowdrops, I assure you. And peacocks. And delightfully miniature rooms.

Feast

The new year started with a feast, which is by far the best way to start a year, to my mind. I can take or leave the seeing out of the old year – I was reading in bed when 1931 slipped away – but I like to see the new year in with a special meal and plans for the months ahead.

Mother cooked this year: one of her spectacular meals where the whole afternoon slowly unfolds into course after course, with brief rests in between. There was salmon and salad to start, followed by a ham and vegetables, then two puddings and finally, before heading home, apple pie and crackers and cheese. We certainly needed our walk up the hill afterwards, and I was glad I’d skipped breakfast.

Instead, I’d used the morning free from cooking or eating to look to the months ahead. I don’t make resolutions, but I do make lists and sketches and plans. The garden has been mapped out for the coming spring, and the order form in the back of the seed catalogue carefully filled in and dropped in a postbox on our way to my parents’ house. Onions and leeks, swedes and parsnips, broccoli and broad beans and a whole new bed for salads: 1932 will hopefully be slow revelation of the seasons through the tastes and textures of the veg patch. After an icy day out there last week, the garden is ready and waiting for the days to grow long again, and I can hardly wait.

It’ll be a while though, which is why I’ve made other plans for the meantime. A list of sewing and knitting I’d like to work through in the dark evenings between now and then. Pot holders and bookmarks and birthday cards, two blouses and new school dresses for the girls. My annual summer frock. The pair of socks I’ve just begun, and a cardigan for Mrs Eve’s baby, and another jumper for Ben and something pretty and lacy for myself. Will I get it all done? I doubt it. But I’d rather have too much in my plate than too little, especially when the days lend themselves to gloom and and chill and inertia.

That wasn’t something I had a problem with on the First. There was plenty on all of our plates, and stories of our Christmases to share, and the next few weeks to talk about. I hope you too have plenty to look forward to, this coming year. Happy new year. Welcome to 1932.

Humbug

… the hamster, that is – not my attitude to Christmas. In fact, I loved Christmas this year, and there are moments of the past three days that I intend to relish for a very long time. Like settling on the sofa to read The Night Before Christmas to discover that Ilse has learned the poem by heart, or she and Seb adding their own secretly homemade presents to the pile under the twinkling tree. The children all climbing into bed with us on Christmas morning – even Fliss, even Ben – to unwrap the books and socks and stationery that Father Christmas had so carefully chosen for each of them, and seeing that he’d got it right. Or watching their faces as they unwrapped surprises on Christmas afternoon.

It really is better to give than to receive, and I saw the children watching as their gifts to us and one another were opened and admired. From Ilse: coloured card cut into paper stars to hang upon the tree. Sweets from Ben and Fliss, which I can only assume they made in Mother’s kitchen as I’ve not been out of ours for days. And last minute whittling from Seb: birds and paper knives and other little things. They were lovely presents, carefully dreamed up and executed with muted excitement behind closed doors. I love that our children all love making things.

The presents I received were all about making, too. Sock wool in just the right shade of muted green; a length of tweed from Abram Moon in the colours of the late September moors; piano books full of Chopin and Deubussy to master; a new pattern book to pore over and unpick. There’ll be no shortage of projects on my list next year.

On a Boxing Day, though, we left all the gifts at home after a late and lazy breakfast, and headed out for a walk under a bright and wind-scoured sky. It was freezing and sunlit and a million miles away from the small excesses of the day before, and it whet our appetites for the leftover pie at home. With the end of Boxing Day comes the end of Christmas proper, to my mind, although the lights and other decorations will stay up until Twelfth Night. Sitting by the tree on Christmas evening I looked across to see Ben, paper crown shining in the firelight, with a look of utter contentment on his face. From within his folded arms poked an inquisitive little nose, happy to snuggle now that the excitement of meeting one another was done. Dark brown with a white stripe around his middle, Humbug is easily as sweet as his name suggests, and a not a bit of a Christmas Scrooge. Despite all the gadgets and gizmos available in 1931, we knew that a soft and furry friend was just what our boy needed to take him through this final year of exams and upheaval and change. I was, by that point, too tired to get up and find the camera and snap the two of them together, and I don’t think I needed to, anyway. Of all the moments from this very happy Christmas, that’s  the image that’ll stay in my mind’s eye forever.

Sunday

For all the moments when having such a spread of children’s ages is a challenge, there are days like Sunday which make up for it, tenfold. On Saturday, Ben and Fliss went off to bonfires with their friends, leaving the rest of us to our own devices. And although I didn’t much feel like celebrating, the little ones bounced us through the traditions and it was fun seeing how happy a sparkler could make them.

After the fireworks, Sunday dawned grey, wet and windy. There didn’t seem to be enough light in the air to make it through the windows. Days like that make me tired to my very bones, and apt to doze the hours away in an armchair. But there are better things to do. We wrapped the little ones in their coats and wellingtons and, despite their protests, headed to Fountains Abbey. All around us the trees shone, copper and bronze, and the light switched from gloomy to ambient. A silly, impromptu game of tig carried them through the ruined cloisters and, before they knew it, they were halfway to the tea shop at the far end of the grounds. There we sheltered from the rain and fed them up with scones and jam and clotted cream, until their cheeks were pink. And on the way back they stalked pheasants through the wooded hillside, pretending to be poachers, and named trees from their fallen leaves, and found their own route back.

What with the wind and the spattering rain and a pot of tea at the cafe, I thought the walk had woken me up, until we were motoring through the dark on the way home. We arrived unexpectedly soon. The living room window glowed yellow through closed curtains, and when we opened the front door the smell of supper made my stomach growl. How lovely it is to have children big enough to stay at home and feed the fire on a cold November day. To  keep an eye on the meat, slow roasting in the oven, and set the table ready for the meal. To have them all there, the little ones telling the big ones about their walk and the pheasants they supposedly nearly caught. The big ones eating two, then three helpings of belly pork and potatoes, before breaking through the nutmeggy skin of a baked rice pudding. Slow food, watched over by those who have stayed at home to write an essay and solve a page of equations. This is what Sunday afternoons are made for: spreading out and then coming back together, to eat. A little feast day to celebrate the passing of each and every week. Whatever the weather, whatever our plans, this is what makes it Sunday.

Tesselations

There have been page after page of tesselations floating around the house of late. Fliss learned to draw these interlocking patterns from her mathematics mistress and Ilse, spotting the bright sheets of gridded paper, demanded to know how they were done. Ever patient, Fliss taught her sister to draw interconnected crosses three squares wide, and pick each element out in a different colour. Then they moved on to dogs, each one standing on the back of the next so that they rose in diagonal towers across the page. Then came the moment of glory, when Ilse made up her own simple pattern and it worked. When I’m grown up, she announced, and I build a house of my own, this will be the hall floor.

The lives of the six of us, in and out of this house, are a tesselation of their own. They are more than the sum of their parts, and, when all is well, they fit together into a lovely seamless pattern. I see it more at this time of year than any other: when it’s chilly in the bedrooms and so we gather around the fire. When there’s still novelty in indoor pursuits and no-one is fed up with the same games, the same stories, the same selection of crafts. Last night, Ben lit the fire while I got the tea things ready. I sat down with a final cup once the scones had all been eaten, and found the boys engrossed in a game of chess. The girls were drawing more tesselating patterns together. Tea drunk, it was time to give Seb and Fliss their flute lesson, and for Ben to make a start on his prep. Ilse was happy with the shoebox of colouring pencils until Seb was free to join her, while Fliss went off to write an essay on Tennyson. By the time John came home, supper was ready, prep was done, and the children had a fresh stack of patterns for him to admire. It was one of those lovely evenings when everything fitted tidily together.

Of course, not all evenings are quite as neat. Often the things we do jar and clash against each other. Show me a family that doesn’t know that feeling. But once in a while everything fits, just so. The tasks which need to be done fall into place alongside the all important play. Everyone wants to join in the same games, to make the same music, to draw the same pretty patterns. Those rare evenings are worth taking the time to enjoy. And of course, the cherry on the cake was that the patterns the children were drawing summed it up just perfectly.

In my hands

In the evenings, when I’m tired of chopping and mixing and spooning hot food into jars, I’ve been knitting, instead. And so, in a week, this little cardigan has almost been completed. It’s Ilse’s, of course – the one she chose the wool for at the fair. The one she’s been asking me when I’m going to start. And now her eyes are as big as saucers as I let her try the top-down garment on for size, and she can see that it is almost there.

It is a simple little knit, with a clever pattern to form the rippling rows around the shoulders. The neck and hem and button bands are finished in childish garter stitch: the first stitch I ever learned, which lies flat and wiggly all at once. Only the sleeves remain, and the buttons to sew on, and ends to be woven in. I’ve knitted a lot this week, because it has been such a sad week, and I knit when I am sad. I’ve dropped a lot of tears on this little woolly number. And because of the way the things I make remind me of the times I made them in, this cardigan will always remind me of my grandad, and when he died.

If last year was all about pattern, this winter is all about texture. Ben’s cables were the start of it, and now the rise and fall of these sweet waves. I bought some sock yarn at the fair and want to try three different pairs, one homely, one botanical and one Parisian. That’ll take me up to Christmas, I should think. I’ll have something to bring to each of Mrs Thistlebear’s parties between now and then, and make new friends over. And between parties, with my hands busy, my mind can wander freely to wherever and whenever it wants to go.

When sad, some people walk. Some talk. Some sit and gaze out of the window. Myself, I like to knit. It’s a good thing to have in your hands, wool. It’s soft, and warm, and strong. And later, when you look down at what you’ve spent the evening making, you realise that all the things you couldn’t say are in your hands, instead.