For romping

Ever since Ilse got her mermaid romper last year, Fliss has been angling for one. I don’t blame her: were I not absolutely sure that 38 is too old for such a garment, I’d be wearing one already. It’s sweet and comfy, cool in the summer and made snug in the autumn and spring with the addition of woollen stockings and a hand knit cardigan. Who wouldn’t want one? So I let her choose a yard of floral tana lawn a few weeks ago and, Saga dress complete, I made this for her the very next day.

Oh, to be fifteen with the summer stretching before you! Old enough to stretch those legs of hers unaccompanied, young enough to dress them in something simple and naive. I wasn’t sure about her choice of fabric when it came off the bolt but as soon as I cut into it I knew that she was right. It just sings summer and sunshine and fun. It’s perfect for bike rides and picnics and trips to the sea, or camping, or berrying, or forays to the shops. It’s a million miles from her summer school uniform, all gingham and knee socks and straw hats, and just perfect for lazy days at home.

Spring is hopping and skipping its way towards us (and sometimes tripping over too, resulting in some wet and windy days), so Ben obliged me by giving the lawn its first rough cut on Saturday afternoon. Those funny hens followed him around, dancing about in their excitement as they searched out things to eat in the new-shorn grass. It’s bumpy and muddy and full of clover and worms, our lawn. It has holes dug by hens and chipped out by hockey sticks, and makes for some funny bounces come French cricket season. It’s not the easiest job, getting over that terrain with our old push mower, and I’m grateful that he does it without complaint. I thought a slice of cake might be in order, by way of a thank you, and when we finished at about the same time, he and I, Fliss slipped out in her romper to take it to him.

From beneath my many woollen layers I shuddered to see her out there in nothing but cotton lawn, but something caught my eye. Seeing her outfit against the grass, I couldn’t help but notice that they had a unifying purpose. Despite their many varied other uses, both were made for romping. Which, in my humble opinion at least, is a vital part of any childhood summer.

Focus on the rhubarb

I’ve not been feeling terribly well of late. I get tired out at the end of winter: tired of fighting off the cold and the germs and the gloom. The fact is that my reserves must be running low because I’ve succumbed to all three this last week.

Now, everywhere I look, there are things which need to be done. Cobwebs sparkle in the clean bright light of spring. Fliss is deep in hockey season, with endless early morning training sessions, which we parents know mean early morning get ups for the rest of us. Ben finishes school in a matter of weeks, and preparations for what comes next are gathering pace. I’ve done nothing in the garden, bar the weeding of three out of five veg beds, and the sowing of a handful of seeds which probably need thinning out already.

I can hardly bear to look. And then, when I was brushing my teeth this morning, I noticed that the spring cabbages had grown so much that I could see their progress from the upstairs bathroom window. That the purple sprouting brocolli had grown another meal’s worth of shoots. That the overwintering salads had put on so much leaf that they were pressing up against the glass. And that the rhubarb was just about ready for its first tentative pull.

So I wandered outside, still in my night-things, to take a closer look. And yes, there were lots of weeds, but I can deal with those. They are just a minor detail. The important things, the things which must be sown and planted seasons in advance, were getting along just fine without me. Rhubarb, and brocolli, and resilient children with the right values tucked deep inside their hearths. A loving home, despite those pesky cobwebs. I took a mental picture to remember all this by, and yes, there were weeds in the corner of it. But they’re a minor irritation, a detail, a blip. Today, I’m focusing on the rhubarb, and everything it stands for.

Different

Here are the things which were different about yesterday: I was so warm, coming home from town, that I had to take my coat off; Ilse and Fliss disappeared to do their prep in the tree house; the fish pie I’d prepared suddenly seemed the wrong dish for such a day.

Sometimes all I need is for things to be different. For John to take a day off work and spend it with me instead, doing nothing more exciting than crossing off a list of household jobs. Being two, instead of my usual one, or six. For the sun to shine all day, uninterrrupted. For a new blouse to wear, or the summer shoes to break out of the cupboard.

This is what I love about this time of year: that there is something different about each and every day. A new seedling pokes its head above the soil, or we find that we want salad in place of soup. Stumbling across that yellow, blooming in the sunlight. Nothing big. Nothing fancy, or expensive, or particularly special. Just a change.

Garden notes: maying

May is such a polite month. Out goes moody April, with her cold shoulders and stormy temper and in steps gentle May, all maypoles and morris men. It is the month of maying, too, as the old song goes: of love and courtship, steady and hopeful. Time marches on and yet some things never change. The old songs are sung, the old dances stepped lightly out on the grass, and now my girls join in while Meg and I look on and tap our feet. Even the little ones know their places, know to wait their turn to weave in and out amongst the others, and to hold their own strand high above their heads so the bigger girls can pass beneath.

It’s the month of maying in the garden, too – of asking permission and getting it. May we play out after supper, Mother? May we have our lunch in the tree house? May we wear our bathers and splash in a bucket of water? Yes, yes and oh, if you must. It’s hard to deny anyone anything in May, as long as they ask nicely. I’m asking nicely, too. May I harden off the brassicas? May I put in the french beans, and trust to a warm spell to bring them on?

Even the plants are behaving themselves: sitting where they’re put, respecting one another’s space. They’ll sprawl around later, full grown and uncouth, when they think I’m too busy to notice. September can be like that. But in May they are oh so polite. Even the weeds are tentative and easy to deal with. I hoe them down, knowing what tricks they’d get up to later if I didn’t.

Some things are bolder, barely waiting for a reply before pushing themselves up, up into the warm air. The peas are making steady progress, in synch with one another, neat and tidy in their little rows. They’ll start grabbing at the poles soon, but for now they are being good. The shy bluebells are putting on their little show, cool and modest in the shadow of the apple, taking their turn before the branches above burst into bloom. The ash isn’t at all sure, but then it never is, and always waits until the very end of the month to put on leaf. Perhaps it is just being kind, and letting the gooseberries swell before it ushers them into semi-shade. Nor is the may itself in blossom, although the hedges are bright with new leaves. We’ll know the warm weather is here to stay once its pink and white froth celebrates the season.

The only thing which isn’t polite is the list of tasks I want to tackle each day. Planting, sowing, weeding, watering, knitting, writing, making music… Those are just the things I long to do; add to that the jobs which must be done – the cleaning and cooking and washing and ironing. They jostle in my head, these jobs, each wanting to be at the fore, until I order them all on a piece of paper and there they stay until I can cross them off, one by one. A May day is never long enough. I could spend twice the time on each of these labours of love, spurred on by sunshine and soft breezes.

Sometimes it feels as though the only thing to do is to make things simpler. In this spirit, I’ve combined tea and supper into a single meal: high tea, served picnic-style on the patio. A jug of creamy milk from the cows who are so happy to be in the fields again. A pot of tea. Bread and butter, cake, sardines and radishes, and each plate lined with the tenderest, earliest lettuce leaves. I asked very nicely, and took them very gently, and left plenty to grow on. The little plants said I may. For who could say no, on a day like this?

 

In the pink

The race is on, for spring is the season of so many things. It’s the most important time in the gardening year, of course: miss it and you’ll wait a whole twelve months for a second chance. The season of shaking off the old and the woolly, and reaching for cottons and silk. The season when so many of us feel the need to mimic Mother Nature and create. The season of waiting: for reliable sunshine, for warm evenings, for fresh vegetables from the field and garden. It’s the season of eggs – of both the double-yoked and chocolate varieties. Of Mother’s birthday, and Meg’s, and Victoria sponges piled high with jam and cream. For some, it is the season of revision while exams wait patiently at summer’s door, immutable and stern. For others it marks the winding down of the school year, as homework becomes more and more sporadic and spelling books linger unwanted in the bottom of satchels. There are better things to do, while the sun is shining – or so they tell me. And who can blame them, when on a bright day the whole world is in the pink and the children chatter and play like birds in the hedgerows?

The days are busy, and we fall into our beds with willing exhaustion. Sleep is swift and deep, pulling us down, down into its currents. We wake in the morning to plans which have formed overnight without our knowledge. Then the rush is on to finish all those many tasks before we get to the one thing we longed to do: to sew, to write, to wander round the garden in the fading sunlight. Each moment is as important as any other, whether we are eating or kissing or just walking idly along. If this were winter I would reach the evening hours and declare an end. I’d pick up my knitting and stitch steadily through the quiet dark until it was time for bed. But this is spring, and after supper there are more hours in which to do all those things you haven’t managed yet. A second bout of music practice. Sewing name tapes onto summer uniforms. Ticking another item off that merry list which never ends: the list of the living, the doing, the being.

We’ve had our fair share of springtime colds, of sore throats and headaches and general grottiness. Some of us are still under the weather, delightful and changeable though it is. Yet even then, even with sniffles and tired bones the spring has urged us onwards. And there’s nothing like a cold to remind you of how wonderful it is to feel well. We’re better now, thank goodness, and in rude health once more. Ready to meet up with other people, to bake a cake and make hand drawn birthday cards which open back to front. Ready to sing, in chorus if not in harmony, of happy birthdays. To make the best of this, my favourite of all the seasons now that we, like the flowers the house is filled with, are in the pink once more.

Spring fashions, 1931

Hail one day, then glorious sunshine the next. April, in Yorkshire. Except that the sun has stayed with us for several days now, and temperatures are on the rise, and all that wool seems suddenly unseasonal. The time for cotton is most definitely here.

I have to admit that I really like changing our clothing over from one season to the next. There’s not that much involved. The pulling forward of cotton shirts and frocks. Making sure everyone has a set of decent bathers. Exchanging felt hats for straw, and heavy winter coats for canvas.

It’s the putting away which takes a little longer. Mrs P and I have been doing extra washes this week, of the woollens and the dressing gowns and so forth. Some things will stay out, refreshed, ready to be worn on cooler days or chilly evenings. Other things can be put away at the back of the wardrobe after a good airing, buttoned up and with the pockets basted shut to hold their shape. Boots are cleaned and polished ready for the next year or next child. Blankets flap on the line on a sunny afternoon and it feels like a thank you of sorts, this ritual week of putting things to rest. Sewing up little tears or undone seams, sponging dirty marks out of a lapel, putting our coats and jackets on the best padded hangers. They’ve kept us warm and dry all winter, and deserve to be looked after. They’ll be waiting when the calendar rolls on once more.

In the meantime, the cotton is shaken out and pressed. The girls head off to school in crisp green gingham, with white ankle socks and goosebumps on their calves. By first play, they assure me, it’s simply scorching. The boys are eagerly awaiting shirt sleeve orders. They ride home with blazers draped over their handlebars.

And I? Well, I’m getting to know these summer frocks of mine again. I’m enjoying seeing something different when I open the wardrobe door. I’ve been thinking about the season ahead, and what it holds for us, and making sure we all have what we need. There’ll be lots of normal life: gardening and housework and popping into York. The odd smart occasion, for which I think I’ll dress up my peonies frock. And lots of camping too, in July and August, which can be awkward in a skirt.

I decided to be bold, in the end, and bought a pair of slacks each for Fliss and myself. Needless to say, she looks the part in them, and loved them at once. I may take a little longer to get used to mine – a process which has not been helped by Mrs P’s reaction. But they are blissfully comfortable and so very, very practical. I wouldn’t wear them to church, or out to tea, but they’ll be perfect for life in a tent. And I must say, they look rather smart with a gay pullover and a pair of heels. So you can think what you like, Mrs P – I’m going to wear them anyway. It is 1931, after all.

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Prunings

The end of March can be one of those wonderfully useful times of year, for gardeners. The first, tentative steps towards the autumn’s harvest are about to be surpassed by a veritable stampede as life in the garden leaps back into motion. Everything is starting to grow: the early seedlings, the spears of broccoli, the tops of the parsnips still waiting in their bed. The beginning and the end of the cycle of life in the veg patch, all mixed up.

I found myself, on Good Friday, with two rows of new potatoes to plant and a bed still full of brassicas. Not to be deterred, I decided that it was time to use them up. We pulled them all and picked off the smallest, most tender leaves, which yielded enough for several meals. The rest we hung from the top of the chicken run for the hens to peck at. They laid an egg each, over the following days, including the odd double-yoker. A brilliant exchange, in my opinion.

Spuds in and brassicas munched, it didn’t take me too long to spy another garden job. It isn’t only my veg which are growing again; the weeds are making their presence felt, too. I attacked them with strategy this time, seeking a return for my labour. As a result, we have had what some are politely calling an experimental week in the kitchen. It turns out that Hairy Bittercress is aptly named. And that Ground Elder doesn’t really taste like spinach – a truth which I feel the need to test every year, for some reason.

I blame optimism, and the fact that I really don’t like waste. We eat everything up, around here, emptying the larder into a pot of soup almost every week, and seeing what colour it turns. We save empty treacle tins to plant seedlings in, and toilet rolls to start off our tomatoes. Pamphlets are cut up for collages and decoupage. Bottles go back to the shop for half a penny, and the remains of each Sunday roast is minced into shepherd’s pie, before the bones are boiled to make a nutritious stock.

Edible weeds, then, just beg to be eaten. Some are disappointing: we’ll stick to proper cress from now on. But others are just waiting to come into their own. There’s a little patch of nettles behind the tree house which I insist aren’t weeds at all, given that they are growing in the right place. They bring in the butterflies, yes, but before then they have other uses. I’ll be pulling my gloves on before long, and taking my gathering basket down to that end of the garden. The time for nettle soup is nearly upon us, and with a dash of nutmeg and a swirl of cream it’s as good as any other.

In the rush of this time of year, between the sowing and the weeding, I usually forget the little bit of pruning that’s required. That of the odd thing which is meant to be left to flower on last year’s growth: the forsythia, for instance. I was in no danger of forgetting this year, though – it is a beast of a shrub, eight feet tall and almost as wide. Luckily we all approve of the use I put those prunings to. They’re on the kitchen table, in the living room, and in front of the little window at the end of our hall. Anywhere I can tuck a vase, really. Daffodil-yellow, twiggy and fresh, ready to welcome April into our home.

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A moveable feast

No Easter is quite like any other. It flits about, this feast, like the birds between the trees and the ground, gathering twigs, building new partnerships. Some years it’s sun-soaked in a predictable, comfortable sort of way: one of a succession of days in the garden, sowing and hoeing and mowing the lawn. Others, like this year, it is as unpredictable as spring can be, moving from showers to bright skies and back within the space of an hour. And sometimes, rarely, like the time we stayed in Appleby, there is an unexpected fall of snow and we spend the morning sledding and building soggy snowmen which melt before the day is out.

It feels right, that Easter weather is so unknown. After all, nobody knew what was happening that first Easter. Christmas is different: people knew, even the first time, what was going on. A fact which is reflected in the depth of our traditions: in plum puddings and roast goose, in presents under the tree and a visit from Father Christmas. We know how to celebrate a birth.

That first Easter, though, very little was known. The killing of God took place, and yet the world didn’t end. For three days there was mourning. And then nothing but an empty tomb, an absence of a body, a mystery. Nobody knew what was happening, until, somehow, they did.

The only fixed things in our Easter celebration are a trip to church and a chocolate egg for each of the children – and even the eggs are brought home by John. Unlike the run up to Christmas, Easter is a time when there is very little for me to do in the way of fulfilling the children’s expectations. Which is a very good thing, given all the other tasks I am enjoying just now: all the sowing and planting, weeding and planning. There’s the spring cleaning to come, too, the washing of windows and curtains. The sweep to book, once the last fire has gone out. Outgrown clothes to send to the jumble sale.

All of which has the lovely effect of making everything we do an added bonus. This year the children blew eggs, and painted them with watercolours. I bought some twisted willow inside, pruned last autumn and left over from the Christmas wreaths, and they hung the eggs from its branches. Twiggy and bare, full of unexpected loops and tangles, they have space for all sorts to dangle in their embrace. Ilse had to be shown how to blow the eggs, which made me wonder how long it’s been since we’ve done this. It’s not as though we’ve done nothing in the meantime: sometimes we boil eggs and draw on them with pencils, making monochrome designs. Other times we might slice their tops off, stuff their insides with cotton wool and wait for a full head of cress to grow above their funny faces. One year a neighbour, who was watering the plants while we went away, left a treasure trail of tiny foil-wrapped eggs around the house, chocolatey and precious.

I found the time to make some hot cross buns while the children were busy with their eggs, and we had them as an easy Easter breakfast. In the evening Mother cooked for us all, making the sort of feast that the children save room for, guessing there will be more than one pudding. There was. It was a happy day, this year, relaxed and joyous, full of laughter and silliness.

There have been other Easters which have not been so glad: as I say, it’s a moveable feast. Changeable as the season it falls in, with rain and sleet as well as sunshine in the forecast. Each one unique, each one met afresh, but always full of love. While all else may change, that part never does. Happy Easter.

Springing

It isn’t quite here yet. It comes and goes in bursts of yellow light and clear blue skies. We are not in the month of April, with its sunshine and showers and weeds sprouting everywhere. Spring has not quite sprung.

And yet… The tomatoes have germinated. Forty-nine new lettuce seedlings are waiting to greet the outside world. The tiny specks of green which marked the celery and celeriac have got taller, and thrust out two fragile leaves apiece. We monitor our busy windowsills each morning for further signs of life. Outside, next year’s parsnips are in. The spinach is beginning to grow again. I have ordered some new hens. And last night we had broccoli from the garden with our fish pie.

Away from the fire the evenings are still shivery, but the days are warming fast. Gloves are discarded on the cycle home from school. Hats lie, unwanted, in the basket. Coats, donned under protest by some, are left unbuttoned by all. The snowdrops are over. The nettles are on the move.

I have almost finished being in: doing all those tasks I promised I’d do by Easter. Soon, very soon, I will be out every day, soaking up the sunshine and the green, green garden. And when it rains, which it will do, because we are in Yorkshire, after all, I can come in again and be pleased that I have a clean kitchen wall to look upon while I boil rhubarb jam and stir fresh greens into the soup.

Everything has its time. Last Sunday we started to plan our summer holidays, and while we were doing so I slipped in an little extra treat for the younger children and I: a trip to the seaside just as spring is turning into summer. A couple of nights in a boarding house, followed by smoked mackerel for breakfast and a race to be the first on the beach. We will dust off the buckets and spades, and dig out our bathers. The season of whelks and ices is coming round again. Soon, soon, but not just yet.

I made the schoolboy error of telling the children of this plan late one afternoon, as soon as our booking was confirmed by the last post. That night I found Ilse still awake long after her bedtime, whispering to her teddies. I can’t sleep, she told me. I’m too excited.

As for me, I went to bed with a head full of garden plans. Some new hens. How I’ll plant each bed. The shape of the days to come, in the spring, when everything is racing into life. My mind rushed from one thing to another, far into the wee hours of the morning, long after my own bedtime. In the morning I told John, bleary eyed, of my wakefulness. He laughed at me: how old are you? You sound just like Ilse.

I don’t care if I do. This is my very favourite time of year, full of hope and anticipation. Anything might happen, and I’ll do my best to make sure that it does. Good times are on their way. The earth is springing into life all around us, and I’m springing, too. Springing, springing, almost sprung.

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Home from home

So much of this winter’s sewing has consisted of little things: shoppers and cushion covers, bookmarks and pencil cases – bits and bobs. Gifts, and the odd thing I’ve needed for a while, but have been loathe to buy. A simple set of pyjamas. A new toilet bag. Things which can be made out of the scraps left over from our new shirts and dresses, costing nothing more than a Sunday afternoon. What with the rain we’ve had lately I’d rather be inside anyway, across the hall from the fire, with the wireless for company.

Most often, though, I find I have other company, usually in the form of a certain six year old. She makes me feel like a conjuror, with her oohs and ahhs and general excitement. The simplest hemmed handkerchief appears, through sleight of hand, where minutes earlier there was a only a square of cloth. It is enough to inspire even the most reluctant sewer.

I can’t help laughing, just a little, at her enthusiasm, and yet… Creation in action is magical. Seeing something appear where before there was only a piece of paper, a stick of charcoal. Watching someone use their hands to turn something mental into something tangible, accessible to all.

It happens even when we think we are in charge. It was I who showed Ilse how to cut and stuff her teddy bear, and how to form a blanket stitch. I thought I knew what she was making. Yet even I was surprised by tiny Tabitha Bear, with her little blanket, ready for nights away. Ooh, I said when presented with her, she’s wonderful!

A little familiar company is what is needed, sometimes, to make a home away from home. Someone to whisper to at bedtime, after the last page of the story has been turned and your light has been switched off. Someone to tuck in and reassure that everything is fine, in this strange house with its funny noises. Ilse has been staying with Mother and Father from time to time, as a treat, when Seb is away with the Cubs. Much as she loves it, she has been dreaming up a few home comforts to make it even more special. A new teddy bear to mother in the dark, and a grown up toilet bag – just like Mummy’s, please.

Thus passes another showery spring afternoon. A bit of pink corduroy for the outside, with a little bird stitched on, to distinguish it from mine. A pale blue zip to match the bluebird lining. Then another zip, to a smaller, secret pocket. One day she might keep her jewellery in there, as I do mine. For now, though, I think she might just unzip it to look at the fabric it is made from: a scrap from my peonies dress. A little bit of home away from home, at toothbrushing time, that no-one else need know about.

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