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.

Feels like spring

Now, I do know that it is only February, and that Spring Proper is quite a way off yet. But there’s no harm in pretending. After all, the bulbs are flowering around the garden bench, and it was warm enough to work in the garden in only a jumper yesterday. The washing has been flapping on the line. It feels like spring to me.

Never mind that those bulbs are actually the winter flowering snowdrops and crocuses, and that I solicited the help of a child to drag the bench into their midst. Let’s forget that we had to pull the washing in before the heavens opened yesterday afternoon. We’ll pretend that I wasn’t wearing thermals and a snood while I worked in ‘just a jumper’, and that much of the warmth came from the bonfire of winter clippings we had finally got round to burning. At the tail end of winter, it pays to see things selectively. It feels like spring, to me.

It felt like spring to the children, too. They spent the whole of the day in the garden for the first time since I don’t know when. Ilse discovered that her irises had flowered in her little patch of earth under the lilac, and came racing up the lawn, shouting in her excitement. She spent the next hour diligently weeding them, much to my delight, and spying the emerging crocuses which are not quite out. Seb spent ages digging up strawberry plants from their unproductive shady site and replanting them in a strawberry pot I’d bought for that very purpose a mere five months ago. Fliss laid plans for a hen-proof fence across the middle of the garden to protect the vegetables from the chickens’ beaks and claws once they are all out and about again – an upgrade from last year’s hodgepodge of brassica cages and hastily constructed barriers. I wandered round the garden and made a list of all the tasks which ought to be done over the next month, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it might actually be doable. Weeding, mainly, and a final spread of compost, before the seeds go in. We’d got more done over the winter than I’d remembered.

Mostly, it just felt good to be outside again. What with all the sewing that’s been going on around these parts, most of my free time has been spent inside. Productively, but by the fire. Just to step outside made it feel like spring again, and has set the ball rolling for a couple more days in the garden this weekend. By the time I’d burnt all the winter prunings, though, I’d had enough for one day and went indoors to bathe and wash the smoke from my eyes and hair. It was tempting to reach for a new-sewn cotton blouse, given the day I’d had, but even I couldn’t stretch the imagination quite that far, and settled for a clean pullover instead. Yes, my mind tells me that it feels like spring, but my body says that it is most certainly still winter.

Primroses and other winter flowers

The snowdrops are out, and the hellebores, and yellow daffodils nod from the market stalls. Winter flowers, here to make the most of the new light, before the trees come into leaf and steal the sun.

I was given a gift of yellow primroses in a miniature watering can, as a thank you for a little sewing task, and it sits on the kitchen windowsill. Now, every time I cook or go to do the washing up I can look at it and the flowers just beyond the window, beneath the apple tree, and beyond them too to the daffodils and crocuses, tulips and irises emerging from beneath their earthy blanket. It is still very much winter, but the sight of all those flowers is drawing me outside. There’s not a huge amount to be done just yet, but there’s enough to keep us busy over a half term week at home. There’s a bonfire to be had, with a picnic lunch and hot cordial for its minders. There’s a bed I want to dig with Ben. There’s an empty strawberry pot, needing to be filled while the little plants are still dormant. And into the earth can go the very first seeds: parsnips and garlic and shallots. More than anything, I just want to be outside, enjoying those flowers while they last, and planning some more for the summer. Of all the flowers of the year, perhaps it is the primroses and other winter flowers that I notice and savour the very most.

Hurrying

Although there was ice in the hens’ water, my six middle-aged ladies had laid another five eggs today: a sure sign that spring is on the way. Unlike me, the hens and other animals aren’t fooled by a sudden cold snap. They watch the sunlit hours grow longer, and know that the time has come to make haste for spring.

There is so much to do before the good weather arrives, both inside and out. As a matter of fact, I’m inclined to ignore the ‘outside’ part of the equation and focus on finishing the indoor tasks before I am out in the garden every day, pulling weeds and planting tiny little seeds in the warming soil. Despite the fact that I have been diligently sewing for weeks now, I’ve made very little progress on items for our family. Cards and presents, yes. Costumes for the show, yes. A cardigan for Mrs Eve, and some lovely socks for Mother, yes indeed. But not a lot for the people who live in our house.

So it was that I spent Sunday finishing off a quick project I’d started the previous week: re-covering Ilse’s tatty old eiderdown. I’ve been dithering about this for ages – which fabrics to use, how to go about it, whether I’d be able to hand quilt through a layer of fluffy feathers. In the end, all my questions answered themselves. The blue fabric I bought back in the 1920s, for a dress for myself which never got made because it would have been yet another blue summer dress, and if I’m not careful all my dresses are blue. I’ve had to resist blue again for this spring, but I think I’ve found the fabric I want to wear this summer. The other fabric, the brown and cream, was an old linen curtain which didn’t fit any of our windows in this house, so I unpicked the tape and lining and found there was just enough. It only took an hour or so to sew them together with a bit of bright pink piping and stuff the old eiderdown inside.

It turned out that I couldn’t hand quilt all those feathery layers, and have newfound admiration for those who can. My stitches were uneven and I couldn’t get the fluffy layers to lie flat enough to avoid puckering the back. After a couple of feet I ripped it out and opted to tie it all together instead, and Ilse found some embroidery silk to match the piping in her Christmas sewing kit. In no time it was done and on her bed, and I love the pink ties against the brown of the flowers and vines. Things do have a way of working themselves out. It sat atop her blankets and quilt just in time for the hard frost of last night and the misty start to this morning.

Oh, there is still so much to be done, but it is a good sort of hurrying at this time of year. Racing against the arrival of the spring is the best way I know to cope with the final weeks of cold and dark and damp: making them precious, making them count. I need at least another seven or eight weeks of inclement weather if I’m to sew all those dresses and other summery things in time. I’ve another whole cardigan to cast on for, even, before I give up on big knits for the season. Stay with us, winter, just a little longer. I’m not tired yet of knitting by the fire or taking my latest creation along to Mrs Thistlebear’s winter parties. I’m hurrying, but in the nicest possible way. After all, the only thing that can beat me is the spring, so whoever wins I’ll be happy.

Onwards and upwards

Even on the coldest days I spend an hour or so outside: hanging washing in the winter breeze, cleaning out the hens, digging veg or surveying the garden with an eye to spring. I never plan to be that long – just fifteen minutes, is what I tell myself, but then I’m always pleased when I come back in and the kitchen clock tells me just how much fresh air I’ve had.

All this week the sun has been shining, and it has been a pleasure to do those little outdoor tasks. On my return from the compost I noticed that the bulbs are pushing up in Ilse’s little ‘garden’. We bought crocuses and dwarf irises to add to the daffs I’d pushed in the previous autumn: easy flowers that the hens will leave alone. Woodland flowers, perfect for filling the bare earth in the shadow of the lilac. They’ll distract from its spring twigginess and be over before the shrub is in full leaf.

Bulbs are so wonderfully tenacious. Frost or snow, they push their blunt little noses onwards and upwards whatever the weather. Today they were getting plenty of sun, although the wind was bitingly cold. I chopped a birch log into kindling to warm myself up again and went indoors to light the fire. As I set the match to the paper, the sun streamed in through the window, heating the chill air. When it catches the grate I can barely see the dancing flames within. Even the dull days are growing longer, and there is more birdsong in the air. I’ve a list of jobs as long as my arm, but the sun makes it all feel so manageable. Onwards and upwards, I say. I think it’s time I got started.

Frozen

The seasons lag behind the sun, dragging on their mother’s hand. The winter solstice was over a month ago and yet it is colder now than it was then, with hail and sleet and frost in the last three days alone. On paper it looks as though spring is not far off, but a glance outside dispels this theory in an instant. We are in the middle of winter, and every twig, every blade of grass, is frozen.

By noon there were dark brown molehills against the winter white where I had pushed my fork through the icy crust and pulled food from the crumbly soil: knobbly Jerusalem artichokes for a smooth and creamy soup, parsnips to sweeten a wintery stew. The eggs  were still warm when I wrapped my fingers round them, and the hens have puffed their feathers into little fluffy eiderdowns. I spread a fresh layer of straw in their house for them to scratch in, and threw in a handful of mixed corn. They don’t mind this weather as long as their crops are full.

As I went back over my lists last night, snug by the sitting room fire, I was glad to see how many weeks I had to finish all the inside jobs before the warming earth pulls my attention elsewhere. What’s the hurry? There’s a pile of beautiful fabric awaiting my attention, and some soft new wool to knit. The children are still playing with their Christmas toys and puzzles. We’ve visited the library. One way and another, I’ve got better at wintering as the years have gone on.

In Clydebank, though, there are many families for whom winter has just got worse, with the work on the Queen Mary grinding to a halt. There will be a lot of people without a fire to make their idle lists by, or new fabric to run contented hands over. When it gets as cold as this, I wonder how those without a roof survive at all. How do you coax yourself through another day of ice when spring is two months off, at least? I used to think about men in frozen trenches and wonder how they bore it; now it’s mothers who gladly send their children off to  school with its heater and free meals.

It’s a beautiful thing, a frozen world, when there’s hot toast and dripping at the end of your constitutional. And if there isn’t, then little kindnesses can go an awfully long way towards making sure there is.

 

Lull

Outside, the silver frost has hung on all day. The whole world seems suspended in the timeless twilight between Christmas and New Year. We get up a little later every day, and breakfast is in danger of merging into luncheon. And why not? I’m sure these precious days at the end of one year were made for readying us for the next.

How I love this little lull. If I were to wander around the house, I’d find a jigsaw on the dining table, and Ben’s books, and my sewing machine in full swing at the other end. In the sitting room John has been doing just that, and galloping through his Christmas books at speed. There is evidence of knitting on the couch, and some embroidery, and new music on the stand. On the stairs the fairy lights twinkle and beyond them, in the kitchen, Seb is touching up his latest diorama. Ilse’s new colouring book lies open on the table, a tropical scene half alive with colour. It’ll have to wait to be complete, like the jigsaw and and knitting and the little embroidered house. They’re all at the pictures with John, and I am in the quiet house on my own in the middle of the lull in these holidays.

There’s something about the turning of the year that makes me want to neaten up loose ends. These are the days in which I rifle through old offcuts, and make a plan for each and every little piece left over from the previous year’s projects. We covered two notebooks this morning, Fliss and I, for a twins’ birthday party she’s going to next week. I’ve made a quick potholder from the leftover crumbs. There are toilet bags and bookmarks and pretty fabric roses in the offing. I’d like to clear the decks by the end of January, in time for the spring sewing to begin. We all need a dose of optimism in February.

Then there’s the ground to clear for next season’s growth, the tips of which are already poking out above the soil. A day or two in the garden should do it, if we all work together, and pave the way for an excitable evening with the catalogues.

And yet it isn’t all tasks. Some days are set aside for other things. Best of all are those mind-clearing walks that only cold air and bright sunlight through bare branches can achieve. We found the first primroses yesterday, small and pastel yellow in the otherwise barren ground. Soon the buds will be on the trees, soon the snowdrops will be out in force. For now, though, we can walk through the silent woodland and over the icy moor and wonder at the peace of it all. Of this welcome, gentle, unassuming lull, before the earth shifts on its axis and plunges us into the coming year.

That’s better

Well, we finally made it. The children broke up on Friday, John has taken two weeks off work, and the holidays have begun. It took us until Sunday for the truth of it to sink in, and until today for me to begin losing track of time, which is always the mark of a good break. But it was yesterday morning, walking across Hob Moor as the sun broke through the mist, that I stopped to pay attention. The children travel  this way every single school day, cycling over this little nature reserve on the edge of the city, with John or I in attendance more often than not. At the start of each new term we marvel at its beauty, or stop for  an impromptu picnic tea, but as the weeks wear on I stop looking and simply pedal, head down, into the wind or the rain.

To me, enjoying the little pleasures that winter affords is one of the joys of the Christmas holidays. When we are all at home, sharing out the daily tasks, there’s time to lie on the rug in front of the fire and savour a fat satsuma. There’s time to visit Mother and Father for mulled wine and her delectable mince slices: shortbread with an apple mincemeat topping. And time for parties, of course, fuelled by a fridge full of fizz. When else would I get to settle down and listen to whole of The Box of Delights with the little ones, or take all four of them to the flicks? And yes, there are cards to be written and homemade presents to complete, and there’s lots and lots of wrapping to be done. But with a spicy drink and some carols in the background, it’s no trouble at all.

Yet the nicest thing of all about the Christmas holidays is that almost everyone I know is having a little rest. It’s the one time of year when holidays across the country coincide so that bankers and teachers and schoolchildren and shopkeepers can collectively look forward to a few days off. Even the farmers and the doctors strip their tasks back to the essentials. And beyond these shores, in many other countries, more people than I can picture are celebrating the same feast in more ways than I can imagine. I like that thought very much: a collective sigh of peace and goodwill from all over the globe.

Because I know I’m not the only one to see an old route with new eyes at this time of year, or to look forward to renewing old traditions. Bit by bit, our house is filling with greenery and light. Touches of gold sparkle in dim corners. And every so often I catch myself taking a deep breath and thinking: ahh, that’s better.

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.

Tiddely-pom

It isn’t snowing around here, but it is pretty cold and dark and foggy. Bad weather for walks and scenic drives; good weather for toasting your toes in front of the fire and speeding to the end of a pair of woolly socks.

They’ve taken rather longer than I anticipated, largely due to the fact that things got very busy around the heels, and by the time I sat down each evening I was so tired that I kept going wrong. I had to wait until a Sunday to make the turn, and even then it was another week before I got going properly on the feet. I was very glad indeed to reach the toes: a pair of socks shouldn’t take so long to knit. If I hadn’t been making them two at a time I might have abandoned them until after Christmas. But it’s cold now, and I have every intention of pulling them on the moment I get out of bed tomorrow, unblocked as they are, to wear to Mrs Thistlebear’s December party. Time enough for blocking in the wash, I say.

With the coming of the cold and the long evenings, the retreat inside is very nearly complete, and the shelves of books and games have been thoroughly reexamined. Our library visits have gone up in frequency, if such a thing is possible – I wish I had the leisure to read as voraciously as the children do. Although I can remember ploughing my way through a novel a day, I am still taken by surprise when, at the end of the weekend, those towering piles they bore home so happily have been devoured. Last week’s hoard included Anne of Green GablesThe Riddle of the Sands, and The House at Pooh CornerWe did so enjoy reading those poems and stories again. And while I was knitting, the plodding yet skippety rhythm of The more it SNOWS (tiddely pom) kept marching around my head, reminding me of the parlous state of my own toes.

Well, they’re done now. Homemade woolly socks – a little pre-Christmas present to my toes. There seems to be a theme emerging, of nice little things to keep us all going until Christmas. This week: summer jam and woolly socks. Next week, nativity plays and carol concerts. I think Pooh Bear has the right idea really, approaching the cold and the wet with a cheerily unconcerned tiddely pom. In fact, looking at the calendar and my ever-growing to-do list, I think it might be the only way forward. Perhaps he isn’t a bear of so very little brain after all.