Warp and weft

Sometimes the sky stays resolutely grey for too many days in a row. Sometimes we simply feel worn out. Sometimes our plans are derailed at the last moment, and all that anticipation comes to nothing. Sometimes we are caught up in other people’s storms.

Sometimes I have to remember all the good things that have happened this past week. Ilse and I sewed the first seeds: lettuces, snug in their propagator on the kitchen window sill. She scrutinises them daily, for the first green speck of life. Next to them the potatoes are chitting, already sending out their sturdy, nubbly shoots. Red onions are rooting in a tray of compost. The whole kitchen hums with magic.

Fliss and I spent an hour in the fading twilight spreading compost on a bed. I transported it, she raked it level: six inches deep and full of promise.

John took Seb and Ilse to a matinee at the pictures while Fliss and I worked in the veg patch. They laughed so hard on the way home that we could hear them coming up the street.

My fair isle cardigan is on its way, dreamed up as I go along. I am enjoying it as much as I had hoped. There is no rush, no rush at all. This is a project that I would like to linger over.

I had a breakthrough, yesterday, when drafting the pattern for my new spring dress. I struggled and paced and was almost ready to leave it for the day when it suddenly made sense, and I knew how to make the collar I wanted.

These are the big things, for which I am grateful. The weft of my life.

Then, too, are these: a cup of tea, brought to me in bed. A spontaneous hug and a kiss from my sweet Seb. A hasty chapter of a novel, devoured before starting on the supper. Five minutes, sitting, in the afternoon. Passing the time of day with friends. A conversation with Mother. Half an hour, just John and I. The first fragile seedlings of the year.

The warp. Little things which keep my world turning, whatever the weather.

[whohit]warpandweft[/whohit]

A happy birthday

It so happened this year that my birthday fell on a soup club day. Another example of Mrs Bartlett’s wisdom, soup club is a weekly meeting of friends where we take turns to cook for one another. Whatever fills our lives, we pause to sit down together, and eat, and talk.

I made a honeyed fruit cake to share, full of dried figs and apricots. I had been looking forward to spending part of the day with friends. What I hadn’t expected was for so many of them to greet me with birthday wishes, cards and presents. Mrs Weston surprised me with a bottle of homemade wine. Miss Stevens and Miss Smith had scented soap and cold cream, beautifully wrapped. Lovely Mr White, on hearing that it was my day, disappeared only to return minutes later, bearing a card.

As I was already out and about I spent the afternoon running errands in town. I got home as the children did to find John already there, having lit the fire and cut slabs of Christmas cake ready for tea. He had arranged my presents under the tree, and when we were ready Ilse passed them to me, one by one.

They know me well, my family. Every gift was both beautiful and useful. There were things for the kitchen, and for the garden. And there were hand-crafted gifts as well, including a basket from my very favourite weaver.

Our house is slowly filling with Mrs Doney’s baskets. They hold vegetables, laundry, wood, hats, gloves, toys, wool, books: anything which needs a home. There is even one of dogwood and willow which I made, under her tutelage, some years ago. Each has its own character, and plays its role with quiet pride. Traditional and sturdy, they will be with us for years to come.

Ilse had drawn me a picture, while Ben gave me a voucher for labour in the garden. Fliss and Seb had pooled their resources to buy me some sharp new needles. Everyone had given me what I wanted, even though I hadn’t really wanted for anything. I felt cared for. More than that: I felt loved.

Who would have thought that I would like becoming thirty seven so much? I should have guessed. It gets better each year, this life. And the older I get the more I value it and those who help me make what I do of it.

After supper I spent the evening weaving in the ends on the last of those hats, while John and I discussed his gift. John is good at presents. One year he promised me fifty two weeks of flowers, and kept to it. Even in winter, when the market stalls were empty, he would seek out some greenery from somewhere.

This year we are off to the hardware shop, to buy everything I need for the coming garden season, and perhaps something special besides. After that, we’ll have tea in town, all six of us.

I would ask for the flowers again, except that there’s no need. You see, the habit stuck. More often than not I walk into the scullery on a Saturday afternoon to find the sink full of blooms, waiting to brighten another day.

[whohit]ahappybirthday[/whohit]

Burning bright

We had our day in the garden: the very best day of the holidays, so mild and bright that it might have been March. The children herded the hens, as planned, and saved long sticks for the building of their den. John and I climbed ladders and cut things back. A rogue branch from the cherry no longer hangs into the vegetable patch. The elders have been reduced to stumps. Even the wisteria, with its wild curls, has had its topknot shorn. The garden looks empty, and enormous.

The children helped for longer than I had hoped, pruning the roses and carrying lopped branches to a growing heap. But one by one they slipped off to the wild space at the end of the garden. Ilse built tiny nests, first for the birds but then, with Fliss’ help, for a whole village of little people.  Next door’s tabby was cast as a tiger, slinking through the undergrowth, and defences were thrown up. They had a winter picnic in the tree house and finally, when all was done, Ben built a bonfire to burn the debris of the day.

The others trickled indoors but we stood by it, Ben and I, until all that was left was a heap of wood ash. There you are, Mum, he said, pointing at it. You can mix that into the compost tomorrow. We can call it combust.

You see, he understands.  What else is this hacking and pruning and shaping and clipping for, if not to encourage new growth?

A few days ago, we moved from the old year to the new. Burning on that fire were the remains of 1930 in my small patch. But not all of it. The apple, pear and damson trees still stand in the same places. The knotted hawthorn hedge still marks one long boundary. And on everything we cut, fat buds are waiting for the right moment to start anew.

Somehow, the turning of that page means very little to me. A moment in time, full of champagne and fireworks. A fabrication. Artifice.

To see the new year in, you have to look outside. You have to caress the emerging buds with your fingertips, and prepare the way for them. You have to look up at the forsythia, about to burst into flame. The whole of nature knows that a new year is here, without recourse to clocks or calendars.

As for me, I know it is here when the clearing is done and the growing begins. I’ll sow the first lettuces soon, under cover. I’ve marked out my new bed, ready to double dig in the crisp January air. Soon, so soon, potatoes will be chitting in a cool bright place, while outside a hard frost prepares their bed for them.

Once the bonfire was out we went in to the other fire, and I spent an inspiring evening with seed catalogues and my notebook. There will be flowers, this time, in amongst the vegetables. Marigolds in pots, to cheer on the tomatoes. Sweet peas, my favourite, standing tall with the beans. Nasturtiums, to tumble out of beds and into salads.

I am restless with anticipation. I keep having to put aside my knitting to jot down a new idea, or a refinement of my plans. Because the new year is here at last, and burning brightly in me.

[whohit]burningbright[/whohit]

Comfort and joy

All around the house, people are busy with new games and projects. Ilse skips up and down the lawn, getting a little further each time before the rope catches on her ankles or her swinging coat. There is a beetle drive in the front room, between Mother and Father, John and Ben. Long rows of dominoes are set up then knocked over by tin soldiers in the heat of battle. Wood shavings litter the corner of the kitchen, when a new pen knife has been whittling all sorts of experimental objects. And beside each bed there is a little stack of fresh books, enticing us into our pyjamas and another early night.

This has been a Christmas of great comfort, and for that we are very blessed. John kept the fire roaring all day long. Ben helped me cook my first Christmas dinner on the aga, which proved so much easier than the old range. He peeled and scrubbed in the scullery, and I rolled and basted, and by the time we were finished the table was filled with everyone’s favourites. There was bread sauce for Father, pigs in blankets for Ilse and Seb, sweet parsnips for Mother and Fliss, balls of sage stuffing for John and Ben and a capon, juicy and hot. Paper crowns adorned heads, new wool socks kept feet cosy, and we ate so well that a game of charades was deemed necessary before anyone could face pudding.

Such comfort lasts a few days longer. Having cooked such a dinner the day before, I had no intentions of making anything more complex than a Boxing Day pie. It’s only a Monday pie, really, but with extra trimmings. Christmas dinner in a pie? I didn’t bother asking, but rolled the pastry in the morning and left it in the cool pantry all day, while we played our games and read our books and enjoyed being at home together.

So there is comfort, and there is also joy. Joy in the Christmas mass, when we remember the best gift of all. Joy in the carols, sung by three hundred people with one voice. Joy in the children’s voices as they rip the string from their presents on Christmas afternoon. And in the faces of Ben and Fliss, watching their parents, grandparents and little siblings exclaim over the fudge and marzipan they had prepared and wrapped so secretly.

The joy lingers too, just like the leftovers and the full woodshed. It carries on in the hearts and minds of the children, engrossed in something new. It carries on in John and me, at home and at rest together for a few sweet days. It carries on in the lights, still shining in the green tree, and in the sprigs of fresh ivy which adorn this house, and in the Christmas candles, lit each suppertime until they are all burnt out.

There is so much comfort and joy here, now. There is plenty to share. With people who are lonely or exploited or suffering the consequences of the Wall Street Crash. With victims of war. With people we pass in the street, every day. Which is why John and the children and I are putting our heads together around those Christmas candles, to decide how we might share a little of what we have so much of: all that comfort, and all that joy.

[whohit]comfortandjoy[/whohit]

Deck the halls

Christmas Eve is the day when it all comes together. When the tree goes up and presents appear beneath it and the house is full of the scent of cloves and oranges and gammon.

Over the past few days the children have been making, merrily, and decorating their bedrooms. Christmas cards have been pinned to wardrobe doors in the shape of fir trees. Yards and yards of paper chains have materialised, made from coloured paper or stylish, monochrome newsprint. The floors are littered with tiny flecks of white as snowflakes are snipped away at, then opened with a flourish. They twist and turn in the warm air rising up the stairs. Pomanders have appeared, hung with a scrap of ribbon from the window fixings, or nestling in the fruit bowl. Each time I open my wardrobe I pause to sniff at the orange, studded with cloves, which Ben has hung from its handles.

So much has been done in advance, in bits and pieces, by one or two or three of us at a time. But this is the day when we all work together, and Christmas fills the house after its long advent journey. And it is just like having a baby: weeks and months are spent dreaming and planning, but nothing really happens until the day when everything happens, and a new light enters the world.

The cake was made in November, but today I will roll out the marzipan and spread a layer of snow white icing on top. Fliss will decorate it, with silver balls and a paper frill, or with tin animals taken from the toy box and dusted with a sieveful of icing sugar. I’ll chop the sage to mix into the stuffing, and stir the custard as it cooks, ever so slowly, on the cool end of the aga. Then I’ll roll and cut the pastry, for mince pies, and call a passing child to make a turnover with the scraps.

In the meantime, the others will have come in from the garden, red-cheeked and noisy, bearing armfuls of greenery. A slip of holly will adorn the top of every picture frame, and the ivy will be woven into willow wreaths, and a table centrepiece, and in and out of the bannisters.

A pause, then, for a quick luncheon of sandwiches and tea before we troop down the road to the crib service. Each year I wait to see which of our children will take part. Ben nearly sat it out last year but was persuaded, at the eleventh hour, to hold the heavy star aloft. Fliss might be Mary one last time. Or they might sit in the pews with us, and watch their younger siblings embrace their roles.

Afterwards, the tree will be waiting in the living room, unadorned. John will stir the fire back into life as I switch on the wireless. Silence, then a lone voice will fill the room. It will sing a story to us, in nine lessons and carols. I will sit with my love and watch our children hang their ornaments, old and new,  on its green branches. Somehow they will lend this living thing yet more life. Then Ben will lift Ilse to place the angel on top, just as John used to lift him, and Seb will switch on the lights, and we will bask in their soft glow until it is time for stories, and stockings, and bed.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

[whohit]deckthehalls[/whohit]

Day’s end

It had been such a mundane sort of day: the children at school, John at work and a blanket of damp grey sky. I swept the grit, tracked in from the salty streets, off the hall tiles for the umpteenth time, and decided that a pleasant evening was in order.

Popping a tea bread into the stove at the same time as the stew, I laid the table early. By the time the children were home I was hanging up my pinny. A special Christmas card fell through the door with the last post, from my auntie in Scotland. Already, things were looking up.

John was home on time, for once, so I took the opportunity to pull out the calendar and talk through the rest of December. We added in Ben’s rugger social, and John’s evening out with an old friend. I reminded the children of the nice things I had planned: Grandma coming to stay, and a special matinee next week; which days they were seeing Grannie and Granddad, and the Cub Scouts’ Christmas party.

We chose a date to work in the garden, all together. What I really needed was a day of Ben and John’s labour to climb ladders and shift several small mountains of compost. Ben wanted to improve the hen run, and John hasn’t worked in the garden for weeks, so they agreed readily enough. I forget that none of the others get out there on weekdays. They haven’t had the hens pecking at their shoelaces for ages. I wouldn’t have any trouble in getting them outside.

Still, I have long since learnt that the best strategy is to give everybody their own special job to do. I started them off: leaf-raker, bonfire-builder. By the time we sat down to supper, the little ones were full of suggestions. Fire-feeder. Hen shepherdess. They chattered away through the meal, getting sillier and more fanciful. Worm relocation officer. Twig snapper. Ladybird hibernation monitor. Leek counter. They moved on to plans for the den, and giggles gave way to earnest faces. Hooks for the bows and the quivers of arrows. A basket of pine cone missiles. Prunings, woven into camouflaging screens. A secret entrance round the side. Their excitement mounted, and supper became a strategy meeting.

Afterwards, when I asked Seb and Ilse to get ready for bed, they begged to come down again in their night-things, to carry on planning. Of course they could, on this special occasion. Because although it was just the end of a very ordinary day, it had been made into something extraordinary by these children.

[whohit]daysend[/whohit]

December soundscape

The younger children may be rising earlier, but Ben and I are struggling to wake in these dark December dawns. This morning I was only vaguely aware of the desultory gusts of drizzle against the windows when a sweeter sound broke through.

I lay in bed, eyes closed, guessing at which of my little band it was. Silent Night, with the chords only occasionally hesitant: Fliss. There was a pause as, presumably, the sheet music I had left out was rifled through, then the tune of Good King Wenceslas, picked out arrhythmically with a finger or two. John, rattling the stove vents, whistled along in support. I could hear Fliss naming some of the low notes for her sister.

Ben and I yawned our good mornings on the landing. When I went downstairs I found them all wide awake, thanks to chocolate and carols. We chatted over boiled eggs and soldiers before they departed in ones and twos.

Now that Ilse is at school, the days can be very quiet, especially in December. There is none of that hum of life when everyone is shut behind their own closed doors. Many of the birds have flown away. The insects are over. Even the late bees have crawled drowsily into a crevice somewhere.

I let the hens out for a wander as I finally tackled that hibiscus. Two of them were surprisingly noisy as they clawed the soggy leaves. The third, the one who is either too wise or too afraid to ever leave the run, let out a series of heartfelt clucks. Afterwards I closed my tingling fingers around her egg, relishing its warmth. We will buy more pullets in the spring, and I will hear that sound eight or nine times a day. For now, I pull eggs from the chilly barrel of isinglass.

Inside, the sounds are not so different, bar the early morning mumming. Kettles whistle, needles clack. Pots bubble over, spitting on the hot plate. I can turn the wireless on, with a click, to hear someone talking. Soon Mrs P will ring the doorbell and pass the time of day as she shrugs her overcoat off and pinny on.

This evening I might leave John toasting by the fire and and have a rummage through those carols myself. Ben will be upstairs, translating the next section of The Iliad. He is growing tired at the end of this long term. Seb and Ilse will be tucked up, sheets and blankets pulled tight, the way they like it. Fliss may knit a few rows of her scarf. John will be reading a book, and resting. Easter aside, Christmas is the busiest time of year in a chocolate firm.

There is an excitement building in this house, spreading from the youngest to the eldest, despite the short days and tired heads. Which is why we mustn’t forget the other side of advent, about contemplation and preparations of another kind. We can embrace the short days and the opportunities to look inwards sometimes: to ourselves, and to those in our care. So I might choose God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, or Away in a Manger, to soothe them all as the night draws in around us.

[whohit]decembersoundscape[/whohit]

Advent

Overnight, mornings have changed from coaxing the children out from under their blankets to finding them downstairs before me, smears of chocolate around their mouths. It is as if we were past the solstice and heading towards longer days again, thanks to this month of lights and anticipation.

I made their calendars shortly after Ilse was born, completing two the first autumn and two more the next. Each has a scene, blocked out in felt then trimmed with a simple chain stitch, with sequins and beads to add sparkle. Ben has the shepherds, telling stories around their fire. They have leapt up to point at something mysterious: a new star in the sky. Fliss has Mary on a donkey, the lights of Bethlehem twinkling cosy and crowded in the distance. Seb has the three kings, precious gifts in hand. And of course my baby Ilse has the baby in his manger, surrounded by the world he loves.

Just as the wise men are stirring, so are parents everywhere. My list-making has begun. New handkerchiefs and socks are at the ready, embroidered and knitted in long-ago summer moments.  And I must tell Father Christmas of the things they need: a bottle of ink, or a box of crayons. A new trigonometry set. Knickers, with ribbon round the waist. A penny whistle, to replace one which was lost and is still mourned. Chocolate coins, of course, and a satsuma for the toe.

The hardest gift is the one they don’t need, but simply want. The one under the tree, the one which is gazed at and dreamed about and not to be touched under any circumstances. I have some ideas, but John is best at these. He has a way of knowing what people want almost before they do. I wonder whether this is, in part, due to his work: studying people, knowing what they will buy, and why. It’ll be John who suggests a list of titles for Fliss, or a new game for Seb. He knows what Ben would like in a way that I can’t fathom. So we will be making that list together.

Last of all are the little gifts, for parents and grandparents and one another. Small things we know we like, which show that we care enough to remember. It wouldn’t be Christmas for me without sugared almonds, a jar of marmalade and sweet-smelling beeswax candles for the table. That, and giddy children. And I needn’t tell John this, because he already knows. He proves it, every year.

[whohit]advent[/whohit]

Stitches in time

Ilse and I went to the village jumble sale: I to run a stall, Ilse to play beneath the tables with her little gang.

Mrs Partridge had put me in charge of the jams. Before me was a jewel-box of treasures, the summer bottled and screwed down tightly. Although the jars were not labelled with the makers’ names, everyone knows everyone else’s speciality. I bought a jar of Mrs Andrew’s strawberry conserve, knowing that there will be bright chunks of soft fruit suspended in the jelly. Mrs Partridge bought a jar of her friend Mrs Ellis’, who returned the compliment. There was a pleasant hum around me all afternoon.

It was only when I spotted the dress that I felt marooned. I had been looking for Ilse, who had vanished some time ago, and recognised her cardigan beneath the rail of donated clothing, arms dancing in some clapping game. Above her was a vision of Victorian outlandishness: a virtual haberdashery of flounces and bows, roses and braid. It looked just Ilse’s size. Mrs Partridge was doing another round of the hall. Two more tables and she would reach me. I saw a woman I didn’t recognise, accompanied by her own little girl, feeling the fabric between knowing fingers. She held the dress hopefully in  front of the child who pulled just the face Seb pulls when I kiss him in public.

It took another ten minutes before Mrs Partridge had gossiped her way round to me, but at last she took over my table while I went to investigate.

The dress wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – no-one else had even given it a second glance – but the way Ilse’s face shone when I pointed it out made trying it on a formality. It would be made to fit, if necessary. She skipped and hopped at my elbow all the way home.

Even John couldn’t help but admire the work which had gone into it. It must have been a wealthy little girl’s best dress, for parties or perhaps a wedding, probably in the 1880s. The overskirt, in cream dupioni silk, was lifted to reveal the satin underskirt, with clusters of rolled ribbon roses pinning up the gathers. The waist was accentuated by a plaited cord in three shades of creamy brown, and the puffed sleeves finished with softly swinging lace at the elbows. Best of all was the cafe-creme front panel, embroidered with vines, leaves and shimmering flowers. It must have taken days and days – even weeks – to make.

The dress was a little large on Ilse, so I took it up while she stood on a stool, turning as directed, pretending to be the original owner. As I sewed we wondered about who she might have been. Ilse tried on a few names for size and settled on ‘Sara’. She called me ‘dear Mama’ and my mouth was too full of pins to point out that Sara’s mama most certainly would not have been on her knees at her daughter’s feet. That was the lot of other, poorer, women.

I basted the hem fairly loosely, guessing from Fliss’ envious looks that Ilse will continue to wear this as she grows. There wasn’t  a mark on it, which made me feel sorry for a child not allowed to run or play for fear of spoiling her frock. Ilse ate jammy crumpets in it, helped me shut up the hens, then lay in front of the fire on her tummy, rereading A Little Princess.

I hope it is a long time before I have to let down that hem. Time enough for more jam dribbles and grass stains and many, many parties. ‘Sara’ must be quite grown by now, older than I am. I don’t want to imagine Ilse as a woman: sixty rather than six. If I could, I would put a few stitches in time too, just to hold it steady.

[whohit]stitchesintime[/whohit]

Armistice

On Sunday there were military parades and church services. People gathered at the cenotaph and laid their wreaths of poppies – there and at other cold stone memorials around the country. Ilse learned In Flanders Fields and recited it at her school pageant. Seb and Ben marched with the Scouts. Fliss made garlands of red and black and green. I bought a crocheted poppy from Mrs Roberts, who is raising money for the British Legion, and pinned it to my coat. There was ceremony, and solemnity.

Today is Armistice Day. It is twelve years since the end of the Great War. In that time Ben has grown from four to sixteen, Fliss from two to fourteen. I count the years by them. Seb and Ilse have appeared, from nowhere, because John came home. My brother’s second child has done the same. My sister has married a man she didn’t know existed then, but who came home nonetheless.

Next door, Mrs Ellis still has a cupboard full of her husband’s clothes. She gave a suit, for the first time, to the children’s guy this year. Mrs P works to support Mr P, who came back a different man. Their daughter is a widow. There are empty places in the ranks before the cenotaph, but also in the schools and on the playing fields. Whole generations of dreamed of families have gone missing.

At eleven o’clock this morning Mrs P and I laid down our knives and took off our aprons. I poured two small sherries, in the best cut glass, and set them on the sideboard. For two minutes, the world was hushed.

I don’t know what Mrs P was thinking, but I can guess. I prayed for peace, lasting peace, so that we will never see a conflict like that again. I prayed for Ben and Seb and all the other boys. I prayed for the the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and lovers of those who were killed or maimed. I prayed for broken families and dislodged families, whichever nation they belong to. I prayed for those who had fled, and those who have yet to find home again.

Finally, when we were both ready, we raised our glasses to memory and love and hope.

[whohit]armistice[/whohit]