Pottering with a purpose

The younger children have exactly three trips planned this half term: one morning in town with pocket money and book tokens to spend; one afternoon out with Mother – a trip to the Castle Museum followed by afternoon tea; and one day out in the motor, all together, for a walk or a wander in an as yet unselected location.

All are suitably vague for a holiday which is, in this house at least, all about rest and recuperation. We’ve adopted a let’s see how we feel on the day approach to everything beyond the garden gate. As long as they get out at regular intervals to stretch their legs and have a change of scene, I’m happy. So far there has been dressing up, board game playing, the making of pouches for survival kits, the start of a new manuscript, and much reading. They are expert potterers, able to entertain themselves for days on end with self-dreamed projects and pastimes.

All of which is extremely fortunate, as my own pottering has rather more of a timetable attached to it. Why do I always end up with so much I want to do, each half term? It isn’t as though any if it is terribly important, even, this time around. Honestly, one of my aims was to replicate the coffee cake my mother-in-law baked last week. Frivolous, yes – but I never make the time to ice my cakes in term time, so it seemed the perfect treat for Friday afternoon when the children came home with mounds of muddy sportswear and that start-of-the-holidays glee. Truth be told, it only happened because I wrote it down. Friday morning: clean house with Mrs P. Friday lunchtime: bake coffee and walnut cake. Friday afternoon: pop to haberdashers for thread, bias binding and elastic. Ice cake. Come half past four all was well with the world.

The list goes on, and more is ticked off each day. Sewing, knitting, seeing the odd friend. Preparing for spring in the garden. It’s all pottering, only I know what I want to achieve each day. With only a week off school, I like to have my time mapped out in a vaguely purposeful way. We still get up a little later, and take a lacksidaisical approach to daytime meals (a favourite part of holidaying, to me). But I can immerse myself in each and every moment knowing that, by the end of the week, I’ll have done all that I hoped to.

Needless to say, plans change all the time, but there’s plenty of room for improvements. Ilse has a new task, for which she’ll need a spot of supervision: bunny-sitting a certain rabbit named Sparkles who lives a few doors down. Popping along the street on certain days to check his water and have a few cuddles while we’re at it? I’m sure we can squeeze that in. In fact, that seems to be the epitome of pottering with a purpose.

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.

Bit by bit

What are we doing tomorrow? is often the last question of the day, asked over the banisters on the way up to bed. I had wondered if the younger ones were beginning to get fed up with pottering around the house. Fortunately, ‘tomorrow’ was a day with definite errands, activities and an outing built in. Well, I need to go the the greengrocer and the butcher, and then I thought we might make some gingerbread, and then we’re going to visit your great-grandmother for tea. A look of slight concern passed over Seb’s face. Will we have some time at home? I’ve got so much more to do for Christmas.

Bit by bit, everything is coming together. As far as I’m concerned, only my favourite parts remain: wrapping the children’s presents in front of the fire one evening with John; Christmas Eve in the kitchen, making custard and stewed cabbage and pigs in blankets. Laying first the marzipan and then the icing over the rich fruit cake, and deciding how to finish it this year. Boiling the ham and baking dauphinois potatoes for a meal so rich that only something green and frugal can sit beside it: the cabbagey tops of the sprouts I’ve grown especially. Laying out the stockings at the ends of beds and, finally, trying to sleep so that Father Christmas might arrive.

In the meantime, other important preparations are being taken care of by our household team of elves. There’s a snowstorm on the kitchen windows, and paper chains dangle from every permissible angle. The gingerbread we baked was duly tasted, decorated and tasted again. The pile of homemade cards and little presents is growing, day by day. I’ve a secret slot booked in the kitchen with Ilse. And although they are itching to bring in the holly and the ivy and festoon every picture frame in the place,  that and the tree must wait until Christmas Eve, when everyone needs something to channel their excitement into.

Which left me free to dust off my spinning wheel last night and turn a pile of rolags into yarn. While I did, I thought about all the things I’m going to make in that quiet week between Christmas and New Year, and the walks we’re going to go on, and the people we’re going to see. And then I thought: what are we doing tomorrow? and realised that the answer was: nothing, especially. Well, how lovely is that? I think I’ll do a spot of wintry gardening, and then maybe add a bit to Ilse’s quilt. This is just the sort of holiday I needed: calm and quiet, while the children busy themselves with Christmas fun. I wish you the sort of holidays that you need, too, whatever those might be. Have a very happy Christmas, everyone.

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.

Twinkle

Walking home from Mother and Father’s last night, we paused to admire the big trees twinkling in bay windows. There’s something so generous about a Christmas tree in a window, the curtains left open as night falls. From within, the inhabitants can enjoy its light and scent while they snuggle by the fire; from without passers-by can choose their favourites, which gets harder and harder as the walk goes on.

The very best display was in a tall Georgian home, where the window of each storey was involved. On the ground floor was the tree, decked out in coloured lights – pretty, but nothing extraordinary. Above it, though, was the nativity scene: the plain panes transformed into stained glass by coloured tissue paper. There was the stable, and the mother and father leaning dotingly over the crib. Three shepherds and three wise men had appeared in the distance. The whole picture was framed by the sort of flowing leaves and vines we might expect in a medieval illumination. And above it, in the little attic window of the top storey, all was dark apart from a yellow tissue star, silhouetted against the background.

In our house we don’t ‘trim up’, as Mrs East puts it, until Christmas Eve. The tree lives in a pot outside; the baubles and all those funny homemade decorations which would mean nothing to any other family stay firmly in their box until the very last minute. Then, while I’m icing the cake and stewing red cabbage, the children have the tree and house to keep them busy, and on Christmas Day it all feels fresh and new and fun.

It can be difficult to wait, though. I found them all in the sitting room making paper chains on Saturday, and more lights have been added to the ones that I strung up last week. A few branches of twisted willow have been cut and sparkle quietly in the corner. There’s a jug of eucalyptus in the hall, subtly scenting the house. And some silly twinkly teacups, bought at a jumble sale last year, have replaced my usual green and white set on the dresser.

We lit the pink gaudate candle at mass yesterday, and the excitement seems to be catching. Just a couple more presents to make, just a few more days of school. But before all that, before the season can really begin, we have the birthday of my own special boy to celebrate. Eleven! And such a fun and special birthday planned. I can see his eyes twinkling already.

Nesting

When I went out to the hens this morning I found that three of them, at least, had finally finished putting on their winter eiderdowns and were laying eggs again. After a few weeks of nothing, it was a pleasure to carry the still warm treasures through the frosty garden and place them in the bowl, straw and all.

I’ve been nesting, too, in this cold weather. The temperature dropped below freezing just in time for advent, and just in time for our new fireplace in the dining room to be lit for the first time. We decided to have the sitting room mantlepiece replaced too, so there was an awkward day last weekend when all the furniture was piled up in one end of our kitchen. John finished painting the dining room first, and we moved a couple of armchairs in there to have somewhere warm and clean to sit – a temporary measure, you understand. Except that it transpires that our dining room makes the cosiest sitting room imaginable.

I love these sorts of accidents. Who knew that a smaller sitting room was what we wanted, or that the bigger room would be so perfect for the dining table and all the making and designing that it hosts? That the piano would fit so perfectly into the space between the door and the start of the bay window, or that a big old leather settee was just what you needed to be able to flop onto when your algebra or sewing was too hard? And so the base of an old dresser has been pushed into an alcove to hold the coloured pens and school books, and the piles of sheet music found a space for in the big family bookcase. Armchairs and small tables have been moved. And cushions and throws and blankets have found new homes on old chairs around the house.

We haven’t bought anything, but the house feels completely different, which is my favourite kind of decorating. All our familiar things in unexpected places. There are two new-to-us items, however, which needed a reshuffle to find their places in the house. One is an old low rocking chair, which belonged to John’s grandmother. She used to sit and knit in it when he was a little boy. It’s been waiting for new covers for an embarrassing length of time, but now that there’s a space waiting for it by the fire, it’s the next job on my list. Much easier was the act of spreading a gorgeously warm Welsh blanket across the foot of our bed, to be pulled up on chilly nights. Passed on by John’s mother, it is just the thing to cosy up our room.

Last but not least were the advent calendars, unfurled and hung in a row in the hall, each little pocket stuffed with a chocolate for the start of every day. And I couldn’t resist a string of fairy lights around the kitchen dresser, where the first of the Christmas cards stands. It’s advent, you know. Time to get nesting. I hear a special baby’s on the way.

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.

At the shops

I’m getting used to being called Madam around the house, these days. Sadly I don’t have a butler, or even a new hair dresser. It’s just that shops is the game of the moment, and we are all customers whether we like it or not.

It goes something like this: I reach for the tin of custard or bottle of HP sauce only to grope around where I’m certain I last saw it. There’s a trundling in the hall, and Ilse appears with perambulator, baby and bags. Ilse, I begin, have you got the…?

She beams. Good morning, Madam. I’ll just open up the shop. I’m sorry I’m late; my baby took forever to eat her porridge this morning. She abandons said infant in the street while she serves me with food from my own larder. Good day, Madam. I hope we’ll see you again soon.

No doubt she will, and I must admit it is a lot more fun than simply reaching things down off the shelves. We all play along – even Ben, when he realises he needs to buy back his Oxford geometry set, and Fliss, when she finds her hair slides missing. Even John, who is accosted as soon as he walks in the door from work, succumbs to the shopkeeper’s charms. And sometimes, to Ilse’s intense delight, there is a second shopkeeper to help around the place and take turns in playing each role.

What is it that appeals so universally about playing at games like shops? I don’t remember enjoying trailing round behind my mother as she ticked things off her list. I’ve certainly never wanted to open a shop of my own – a cafe, perhaps, but not a shop. And yet I loved playing shops so much and for so long that our Irish grandmother used to keep all her empty packets for Meg and I to play with when we visited. She’d take us over to the little barn we were allowed to play in and roll back the big black metal door and there they would all be: empty packets Coleman’s Mustard and Bisto. Bottles which once held lemonade or something mysterious called milk of magnesia, the dregs of which smelled nothing like milk and came in pretty blue glass. There’d be old furniture and crates to move around, and a couple of wicker baskets coming apart at the top, and bits of newspaper to wrap things in.

In this house it’s the kitchen scales which go missing first, followed by the baskets and items from the larder. On sale today are an assortment of conkers and pine cones, and windfall apples from the garden. There’s the book I know Fliss is reading and John’s spectacles and most of the packet goods from the larder. The shopkeeper weighs the HP sauce, in its bottle, before placing it in my basket. That’ll be three and six, please, she says. Everything costs three and six. I count imaginary coins from an imaginary purse, which she deposits in her imaginary till. I pocket John’s spectacles for safekeeping and spot several of the items I’ll be needing to make supper. It looks as though I’ll be coming back to the shops quite soon. Ah well, it’s a good thing that it’s just as much fun as ever.

Oh crumbs

It only took one day of the new school year to send me to my sewing machine for a little distraction and comfort. There’s something about September, lovely as it is, that gives me a sinking feeling and for some reason it’s worse than ever this time around. I suppose that’s the other side of having such a lovely summer: it had to come to an end sometime. And end it has, and that now what shall I do today? feeling has been replaced with long lists of chores and uniform requirements and pesky timekeeping. It’s the busyness that gets to me – so many things which must be done that I never seem to get to the part of the day when I sit down with a book or a spot of sewing and just switch off.

But when the days spit me out, frazzled and ever so slightly cross, the evenings are there to pick me up again. Every night last week found me sewing: sorting through the scraps too small for Ilse’s quilt, wanting to make some order out of chaos. And thus a little crumb quilt was born. I’ve been meaning to make something like this for a while, to run down the centre of our kitchen table for the butter and pepper and water jug to sit upon. But I wasn’t meaning to make it just now, when so much else is new and demanding our attention. Not when Ben is going into his last year of school and making choices about what comes next. Not when Ilse is just moving up to the juniors. Not when there is a new schedule of music and dance classes, swimming galas and tennis lessons. Not when I have a garden to bring in and bottle, and windowsills of overwinterers to put out. Despite all my protestations, though, it appears that an hour or so just playing with fabric was exactly what I needed each and every night last week.

This promises to be quite a year for us, one way and another. There will be lots of things to balance. Everything is jostling for position, and some are already in danger of being squeezed right out. I’m keeping a close eye on the important things, like family meals and story time and long walks to think things over. After last week, half an hour in the afternoon with nothing more important on my plate than a scone and a cup of tea has become the most critical part of my day. I can’t lurch from one peaceful Sunday to the next, missing the weeks in between. I know much better than that.

Last week? Well, thanks to that little quilt, balance was restored, and it was bound and on the table in time for our Sunday roast. John says it looks like a story in a comic strip, just waiting to be written. Seb likes the little octopus in its wonky log cabin. And I? I only put in the things I thought should be there. It’s a bit chaotic, a bit colourful and mad, but it’s all quite carefully chosen. I’ve spread the fabrics out with a little bit here, a little there. And if you look closely you can see that there are seven blocks, in a pattern, connected with strips of this and that, and held together with something bold enough to set the requisite boundaries. A bit like last week, really, and the weeks to come. Oh crumbs.