Humbug

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

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

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

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

Tesselations

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

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

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

Big softie

Ben’s jumper is finished, and I’m sure it’s the softest thing I’ve ever knitted. What with all the alpaca spun into the wool, and the thick lofty yarn, and the depth of the cables and ribbing down the front, it is the kind of squishy, silky, snuggly pullover everyone ought to have. I think I need to add five more to my list of things to make.

Beyond his admiration for the cleverness of cabling, Ben has never shown much  interest in knitting. I taught him to make a wobbly and very holy scarf for his favourite teddy when he was little, just as I have all the others, but that was his first and last attempt. Like me, he loves to make things; unlike me he does not like to make them out of wool. But it’s astonishing how the fact that a jumper is for you makes the process so much more interesting. I can’t think how many items I must have blocked over his lifetime, and yet when he came in from Mother’s on Saturday and saw his jumper drying on an old towel he really wanted to know about the process, and what it does to the stitches, and why it matters so.

Everybody else, on entering the dining room, made the same announcement: it’s huge! Well, so is he – in height at least. It fits. But he’s a very gentle giant. He gives good gangly hugs, bending from the knee to make up for the fact that he’s at least eight inches taller than me. He’ll happily spend a day helping his granny pick and wrap her apples, or carry chairs from the top of their house down four flights to the kitchen. A day spent helping Father file or type is a day well spent, in his eyes. I find it hard, sometimes, to equate this tall young man with the solemn chubby baby in the photos, until I remember that even as a toddler he was generous with his chocolate.

It’s been such a pleasure, knitting for my biggest child. He hasn’t wanted anything more than hats for several years but now, at eighteen, he has come to his senses once more. What could be nicer than a mum-made jumper to keep you warm while you study? Pardon, Ben? Spending the night with your granny and grandad? Walks in the woods with your father and Ada? Teaching the little ones to build the best dens? Sitting round a campfire with your pals? Oh, alright then. But you can wear your new jumper while you do all of those things.

Two steps back

Never mind two steps forward, one step back – I seem to be moving in the opposite direction. My autumn plans seemed entirely reasonable at September’s start, but here I am, faced with a list which keeps growing rather than shrinking as the weeks flip by. Two weeks before half term and I’ve made half a jumper, one dress with bunny pockets and some wobbly wool on my wheel. That leaves two school dresses and a long-legged romper for Ilse, a new skirt for myself and another which needs relining, two eiderdowns which need covering again to keep the stuffing in and a blouse for myself which may or may not happen. What I want to sew is Ilse’s quilt, the pieces for which are all cut out, a Liberty fabric soft case for my flute, and tiny crumb quilt covers for Christmas present notebooks. But I’ve forbidden myself all of that until the other sewing is done, which is why I’m spending so much time knitting instead.

I took Ben’s jumper with me to the ballet studio on Saturday while I was waiting for Ilse to finish her lesson, and was pleased with the progress I’d made until I got home and spread it out and realised that I’d held a cable needle to the front and not the back five inches ago. Oh well, at least it’s chunky wool. And at least I know myself well enough to rip it out at once, lest it become a reproach, sulking in my basket. By lunchtime my funny feeling head had given way to a sore throat and nose full of sneezes, so I spent the afternoon strategically resting by the fire in the hopes of heading it off at the pass. No such luck: I woke up on Sunday to a full head cold and a list as long as I had left it.

Sometimes there is nothing for it but to grit one’s teeth and get stuck in. I retrieved the cut out pieces of Ilse’s grey school dresses from where I’d hidden them from myself and got to work, determined to complete the bodices at least. It only took me until the stay stitching to realise that I’d cut the back bodice wrongly: as a whole, instead of two half bits to button together. Thankfully there was just enough left over to cut it out again, and doctor the pieces I had. And thankfully Mrs P was here and chose that moment to appear with a pot of tea for two, emergency buttered scones and some well chosen words of advice. Thus bolstered I sewed on long beyond my goal of two neat bodices, making puffed sleeves with gathered cuffs, little button holes all down the back, understitched linings and pleated skirts until suddenly, nearly four hours later, I had two fully lined wool dresses, all finished bar the handsewn hems and buttons I have yet to buy in town. And when Ilse tried them on they even, miraculously, fitted.

Perhaps that counts as two steps forward – or one, at the very least? Yes, it rained off and on again all day yesterday so that the apples are still on the tree. Yes, there are still trays of winter seedlings waiting on the kitchen windowsill, hoping to be planted out. Yes, it’s getting colder and I don’t have a single decent skirt to wear. But those two dresses which were holding up my stitching are almost out of the way, and I feel a surge of productivity coming on as soon as I feel better. I finished the front of Ben’s jumper last night as I recovered in front of the fire and as I held it up to him this morning I noticed a tiny mistake in one of the ribs near the top. Time to start ripping again. What was that saying? Two steps forward and one step back? Oh well, at least that’s better than the other way around.

Goodness

 

It seems almost silly to be knitting with such a colour when October sunlight saturates the world. Outside are verdant lawns, wanton berries, roses which throb pinkly in the dawn and evening light. Inside, I am knitting with the colour of summer: the sea washed out by overhead sunlight, the faded greens of favourite cotton frocks. And oh, goodness, how I love it. The time for plums and teals and ruby reds is fast approaching, but not here yet. I’m happy knitting with the ocean, on sticks of driftwood beige.

While this jumper looks like summer, it feels like bed on a winter’s morning: plump and soft and comfortingly warm. I’m not sure I’ve ever knitted with anything quite this thick, or on needles wide as tree trunks. After months and months of 2 ply it felt a little wrong, but only until I looked down to realise that I’d knitted the whole of the back of Ben’s jumper in two short sessions. Then it felt just right: fast and compelling, keeping pace with this sudden onslaught of autumn. I’m cabling the front already, and watching the pattern emerge. He’ll have this jumper in a couple of weeks, all of a sudden, having waited all last year. Ah, well. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.

Once done, it’ll be on with Ilse’s, in seasonal royal plum blue, paving the way to Christmas. Then, after the feasting, I’ll rip out my old white aran and make it over in a way that’ll feel just right for January. Frugal. Austere. Necessary and good. I’ve decided to join Mrs Thistlebear’s winter project parties, this year, and take along a new project at the start of every month, which leaves room for Ilse’s quilt as well as those two raw fleeces, bits of which are already twisting their way onto my wheel.

Truth be told, I’m not all that happy about the arrival of autumn, but little bits of goodness are cheering me along. Sitting by the fire and knitting. Holding onto the colours of August for a short while longer. Dashing through a jumper to warm my patient boy. Simple things, but kind. Thank goodness for wool, and knitting, and boys who ask for jumpers in subtle summer hues.

Bit by bit

There are two ways to cut an overgrown lawn. The first is the way Ben approaches it: forcing the mower over the long grass with the brute strength of youth. A few passes and he’s inside, complaining that I have set him an impossible task. The grass is too long, the blades too blunt, the sun too high in the sky.

Come on, I tell him. We’ll do it together. And despite his protests, I raise the blades so high that they’ll cut only the most precocious plants. I adjust the tension so that the cylinder spins freely. Then I give him the mower to try, without the cumbersome bin attached, and off he sets, leaving an arc of green mowings in his wake. We lower the blades, less than he would like, and he does it again. Then lower again for a third cut, until by the fourth he is ready to reattach the bin and leave neat light and dark green stripes up and down the garden. He’s proud of a job well done, I’m happy and John is delighted to come home from work and find that job ticked off the list.

All I need to do now is approach my own task list in the same, gentle way. The house and garden are not quite the way I’d like them to be by this point in the summer. There are weeds growing back between the patio slabs, and the celery is struggling with the heat. I haven’t washed the curtains yet, or beat the rugs for an age. I’ve a mountain of marrows to turn into chutney, and have hardly made any jam. The children’s clothes need clearing out, and I’ve got stuck halfway through knitting a pair of socks for Ben.

Luckily, his lesson on the lawn was a good one for me, too. Slowly, Cecily, slowly does it. It doesn’t all need to be done in one fell swoop. Every day there are meals to be made, clothes to be washed, floors to be swept. Much more importantly than that, there are the children’s holidays to be enjoyed. If I pick a single task every two or three days, that will be progress enough. Bit by bit, I’ll work my way down that list. And if I never reach the bottom? Well, never mind. What happens will happen, and what doesn’t, won’t. Given the choice between embracing the summer and running a perfect house, I know which I’d choose. Today the lawn was mown and the shed tidied, which I think merits a trip to the seaside tomorrow. Make hay while the sun shines, yes, but don’t forget to stop for a long drink of cider and a midday snooze in the shade of the bird-loud hedge.

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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