Holy Week

My children like Christmas much more than Easter; I think most children do. I certainly used to. Now, though, it’s the other way around. I love Easter and all that leads up to it: Pancake Day, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday… It goes on for well over a month, but, well, so does life. Looking around, even now, you wouldn’t know that there was anything much afoot. A few more chocolates in the shops, perhaps, in some rather unusual shapes, but nothing like the days before Christmas.

Instead, Holy Week finds us all full of our own plans: for gardening, spring cleaning, a good old clear out, a trip away or maybe just a rest in the glorious sunshine. I like the way that life goes on throughout the run up to Easter. If Christmas is about a birth, with all the excitement and novelty that that entails, Easter is about life. About the day to day, and how we live it, and what happens when it comes to an end on this earth. If a birth is the beginning of something, like a wedding day, full of promise and joy, then life is about the keeping or breaking of those vows. Not with grand gestures once a year on a birthday or anniversary. It’s in a million cups of tea, or meals set on the table, or a willingness to stop and listen to each other. Small things.

So really, I’m glad that there are no gifts to be bought or parties to attend. Just a trip to mass and a meal with family and a bit of chocolate for the children. Simple celebrations in the midst of springtime life: the sowing of seeds, the pulling of weeds, the washing of curtains and quilts. It’s a promise kept, Easter Day, just as the spring follows the deep midwinter. A miracle occurred. The sun came back. And life goes on and on.

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.

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.

Twelve days

The first day is the big one, or course. Christmas Day: a day for church and presents and rather too much food. A capon, and stuffing and parsnips and sprouts. Paper crowns. Wrapping paper everywhere. Leftovers on the kitchen counter.
Boxing Day: a walk in the wind. Cold meat and vegetables baked in a pie. The start of a jigsaw.
Not much on the 27th. Playing with some new toys, finding homes for others. Thank you letters. A stroll to the postbox.
On the 28th old fabrics are pulled through, and plans for using them up are afoot. We do a little sewing, or model making, or reading. There’s a trip to the pictures.
The 29th and 30th are spent outside, the former in freezing fog and frost, the second in a sudden thaw. One day in the garden, pruning shrubs and trees, and the next wandering around the woodland of Fountains Abbey with the rest of the Graham clan.
On the 31st, plans for the following year are germinating. By the first, they are complete. Mother makes a feast.
The second brings a trip to the countryside in the motor in the morning, and more sewing in the afternoon. The schools go back on the third. On the fourth I bake a cake, and give the house a clean.
Today, the fifth of January, is the eleventh day of Christmas, and also my 38th birthday. We’ll eat the cake, and have something special for supper. It is the last in a long list of recent celebrations, and really we are all ready to get back to normal. Which is why it’s a good thing that it’s the twelfth day of Christmas tomorrow. A day to take the greenery down and put it on the compost. To pack the decorations away in their box, ready for next year. For the house to feel clean and sparse and bright again. Twelve days, each with its own flavour. Our Christmas, in a nutshell.

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.

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.

Pirates and creatures of the deep

There’s a particular type of pleasure in knowing just what to expect. It wasn’t just me, with my packing list or John, map at the ready. The children were raring to go, even before we pulled up at our own traditional pitch, longing for their cousins to arrive. We were a day before anyone else, and camped a dark night under the stars with only the wind in the trees for company. The following morning Seb and Ilse scouted out old dens and ran the perimeter of the wood before settling themselves near the gate and to wait for their friends.

This time, we watched the party evolve. John and Ben knew how to help put the marquee up. Familiar faces arrived by the hour, so that the crowd swelled from our little picnic of eight to thirty, then a hundred, then more. That first evening the adults were sitting around the fire, sharing news of the past two years, while the children were already running wild in the dark, electric torches flashing through the trees. Two years older, two years more independent, they stayed out of sight for as long as possible, delaying the inevitable call to bed. And yet, the faster you went to sleep the faster the dawn would come, with sausages for breakfast and then a quick bathe in the sea before more friends arrived, and the party proper would begin.

There aren’t many places where children can really run free. We read about them in books: the Walker children with their camp on Wild Cat Island, the Famous Five roaming the Cornish coast. We seek these places out: in cub camps and long walks over the bare winter landscape, in gardens big enough for the children to be hidden with their penknives and their flints. This is what I want for my children, and what I have made sure they have had: dirty knees, smoky hair, something sticky smeared around their faces. A length of string dangling from a pocket. As big a world as we can muster, making room for an even bigger one in their heads. Games which go on over hours and days and even years, put down and picked up when the same little gang gets together again. Friendships which endure over time, with children they might only have met once before, in a far off place, a quarter of a lifetime ago. Adoration for the big ones in the gang. Care for anyone smaller. Tumbles and grazes and dock leaves pressed on stings. And always, in the background, a safe place where the grown ups are.

I think this is how much of the weekend felt, to them. Until the entertainer arrived with his magic and his music and tomfoolery. After that it was time for the donning of costumes and the clearing filled with pirates and creatures of the deep. Our own made an appearance: our mermaid and giant squid, our pirate and our silly seahorse, water-wings and all. John and I were pirates too, adorned with fake tattoos and stripy shirts and neckerchiefs. There was a luminescent jelly fish, and an deep sea anglerfish with an oh-so-mesmerising light dangling just before his teeth. There was a gaggle of mermaids and their pets, and a ghostly butler from the long-since-sunk Titanic. The hog roast was dished out by a sailor in his whites, and I almost walked past Father with his dark false beard and tricorn hat.

In the dusk, we listened to sea shanties and joined in when we knew the words (what shall we do with the drunken sailor?), then sat back to more music from singers and players alike. There was a rum bar, and a couple of barrels of something else for the landlubbers among us. There was dancing, and sitting by another fire. Finally, at some time in the early hours, there was bed.

The next day could have felt a little empty, seeing so many people leave. Some we’d met two years ago, others we’d known all our lives. More still we’d met just the previous evening. They were all off on holidays, or back to work, or off to visit family. But us? We struck out for the loveliest beach in Devon and spent an afternoon in and out of the surf, before walking slowly home along the cliffs. There were the remains of a hog roast to be shared amongst we remaining campers, and a final night of talk around the fire. The following morning saw the last few families on their way and as the rain began to fall it was just us left camping in the woods. We weathered the storm in the best way we knew how: by striking out for somewhere beautiful, and picking up fish and chips for supper on our way back in the evening. It would have been much sadder, but for one important fact: the theme for the next family camp had already been discussed.

New music

To my surprise, I find that there are other tunes to listen to. There, beside the gramophone, they have been waiting for me. I run my fingers over the cardboard sleeves, settle upon one at random, and pull it free. Some hissing, a little scratching but then the music which has been turning over and over in my mind, viewed from every angle, is replaced by the steady pulse of an orchestra and the the gentle rise and fall of piano notes above.

Throughout the rest of the day, other melodies have risen to the surface. Other snippets of song, other chords, other timbres. Some linger, some pass swiftly on, but it’s good to hear them again. Good to listen to something that I don’t know the name of every note of. Good to have a change.

That afternoon, in the garden, I find the slugs have been eating my savoys, and lift the cage off for a closer look. I bring two big bowls of raspberries in to have after supper, with cream. The mange tout are growing large and stringy so I pick the lot, and eat the bright sweet peas straight from the toughest pods. I weed a little section, and Ben passes me short lengths of cotton twine to tie things in. I snip at prickly brambles and carry them, at arm’s length, to the pile for burning. The hens follow me around, and I think that they are pleased to see me.

Inside, there is new fabric to be washed, and a new pattern to be cut. There is a little mountain of ironing to smooth the wrinkles out of. Ben gives me his old shirt, acid holes burned in the front from a chemistry lesson mishap, and I add it to the pile I was sorting, months ago, for Fliss’ quilt. There are two cards waiting to be written on the mantelpiece. There are novels by writers other than Christie to be read. There is a piano to be played, and a school play to enjoy. A party in a week or so. Holidays to have.

I hadn’t realised quite how far away I was – not consciously at least. Little piles were building in this house where little piles are never left to clutter up a surface. Books to be read, and new clothes to sew for little people. Recipes I’d like to try, thank you letters to be written. Even though the floors were swept, the dishes washed, the meals cooked and eaten, it seems I wasn’t fully there. Half my mind was elsewhere, rehearsing, remembering, and trying not to worry. It’s silly, really, to get so caught up in a project. To let it dominate a month or more.

But then I’m so, so glad I did it. I’ve become a better player, and learned to deal with nerves. I’ve remembered what it’s like to be eighteen and faced with exams, hard work and uncertainty about the outcome. I’ve seen how well my own children cope, and tried to learn from them. I’ve given four performances, and come out smiling.

Now I can relax, and the summer can begin. Never mind that it is raining, or that temperatures are low. There are so many things to do that I can’t wait, and so I haven’t. The garden got a burst of my attention yesterday. I’m popping into town to have my hair cut. Lots of little projects are coming back to life, and my full attention is right there with each and every one. And between them all – between the sewing and the writing and the tidying of the house – I think it’s time for some new music.

Banking it

Clearly two plus one does not always equal three. Take bank holidays, for instance: adding just one day to the weekend more than doubles the time off work. Everything that can closes down for the full three days, leaving Saturday curiously like Sunday, that lovely day of peace. And then the real Sunday comes, and then Monday which, with all the banks and shops and schools and factories shut down, is Sunday yet again. And three Sundays are worth much more than three of any other day, which makes the break far longer than just three turns upon the axis.

Add to that the fact that everything seems just that little bit easier in May and well – what are we to do but spend a lazy three days pottering around at home? Getting back into bed with the tea tray and a good book for just one extra hour. Helping Ilse with her latest project (involving tissue paper and a great deal of paste) before even thinking about the luncheon. Finding myself with an army of eager garden helpers, which dwindles to just one within five minutes, but which is still one more than I am used to. Getting round to some of the tasks I’ve been avoiding: repotting the tomatoes for the last time, lifting the netting off the peas to get at those marauding weeds – because it’s ten times more fun with two. Thanking John for doing the tasks I find heavy going, like cutting the hedges and mowing the lawn. Seeing a break from Ben’s revision become a carpentry session, at the end of which the hens have a new playground to get fit on.

Caught in this little time warp there is a chance to slow down, take stock, and get started on ventures new. Time to pair a pattern with some soft and variegated aran, and see a cabled bobble hat fly together in a swift row here, row there. Looking at my fast dwindling skeins of wool and choosing some to crochet into granny squares. Opening the cupboard with the fabric in and, with Fliss, choosing all the cottons for her quilt. Poring over design books together, and asking if she’s sure. Sitting and chatting while we snip away at old shirts and dresses, cutting squares two and a half inches wide for an Irish chain in washed out pinks and greens. And then, when we pause, finding that it’s only ten to three, and not quite time for tea.

There have been trips to the park, and to a friend’s to play. There’s been music practice, and preparation for exams, and learning lines for a school performance. There’s been a long letter from Meg, and one written in reply. A shop popping up in the shed, selling all manner of groceries at outrageous prices. A garden centre with a cafe and two keen delivery children scooting up and down the paths. Leisurely lunches which melt into leisurely teas. A bit of a tidy. A lot of sitting in the sun.

I’m half expecting to find that a whole month has gone by, while we were having our bank holiday weekend. We’ll go back to the real world and find that there’s a row of little absent Os in the school registers, that John’s desk at work is dusty. That Mrs P has been knocking at the door, and the children and I have missed our holiday by the sea. They go on forever, these bank holiday weekends, always giving more than seems quite possible. Soak it up, I say. Save it, store it, bank a bit of this for later. Because – believe it or not – it won’t go on forever.

Mothers and sons

Traditionally, Mothering Sunday was the day when people would be allowed to attend their ‘mother’ church – a religious occasion which meant that those in service would be allowed home for the day. Of course, the Great War changed all that – there are so few people working in the big houses nowadays – but I like to think of all those near-grown lads and lasses picking flowers from the hedgerows to greet their mothers with.

We went to our church last Sunday, and the little ones were invited to take flowers from the altar and bring them back to us. Seb picked out a hothouse rose, Ilse a seasonal tulip. Once home, Ilse tucked her pink one into the orange bunch John had bought me on Saturday. But Seb’s rose lay lonely on the kitchen table, with no natural mate. The house is full of flowers: daffodils, tulips and great leggy branches of forsythia, cut from the garden. Yet our own roses stand bare and twiggy in the beds. He looked a little forlorn, until I took down a cut glass vase, just big enough for a single bloom, and trimmed its stem to length. Now it stands beside my bed, the last thing I see at night. Something beautiful, from my boy.

It was Ben’s birthday, too, last weekend: his seventeenth. He still climbed into bed with us, long limbs and all, to open his presents in the morning. It is getting to be a squeeze, this bed of ours, on birthday mornings. Soon, too soon, he will be elsewhere, making his own traditions. But not yet. We showered him with all of ours: gifts before breakfast, a special supper of his choosing, and an outing with a friend or three. A raucous chorus of Happy Birthday. A cake, aflame. Nothing extraordinary, but everything sweet and full of comfortable, familiar ordinariness. We have had seventeen years of practice, to find out what he likes.

He likes to see his grandparents, too. We invited them all to share our Sunday roast: a chicken as a treat, and a home grown fruit crumble for afters. I took the opportunity to give my mother some flowers, and a card I’d stitched on my machine. My own cards, adorned with cups of tea and colourful (if improbable) garden scenes, were lined up on the dresser. I love those homemade cards: crayon on folded paper from some, watercolours on the special laid stuff from others. I cherish the way they appear from under mattresses and stacks of vests. I take care not to tidy too well at such times of year. And I love how there are always more than four, always six or eight or ten, as they are struck by inspiration over and over again. Those funny little cards are the best gift I could have.

Yesterday I dusted the mantelpiece, moving each of Ben’s cards carefully out of the way, daydreaming idly about our upcoming holiday in the Lakes. Meg and I have begun to plan it, sending lists of food and equipment north and south of the Scottish border. She: pickles and cold meats. Fresh perch, fried in butter. Fishing rods. I: beef stew and new sleeping bags. And cake. More than anything, I want to arrive armed with heavy tins of it. I want to send the children into the woods with greaseproof-wrapped slabs in their pockets. I make a list, thinking most of all of what Ben might like. Tiffin, stored with a cut Cox to keep it moist: gingery, Yorkshire. A simnel cake, made by a mother for her children rather than the other, traditional, way around, a fat disc of marzipan melted into its fruity middle. Hot cross buns, full of chopped peel and spice. Easter food. Picnic food. The sort of food that can be served in chunks. The sort of food that boys – and girls, and mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles – crave on long walks with uncertain weather. A last burst of winter food, eaten in front of a bank of crocuses, under a shower of blossom. Food for the start of spring.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time poring over my cookbooks this past week, choosing what to bake. I’ll try a few things out, between now and then, recipes I’ve not followed for a while. From over my shoulder, certain voices have made themselves heard. I nod, and assure them that I know what they would choose. I am their mother, after all.

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