Balancing

There are certain points when everything feels a bit like a balancing act. Between time spent outside, growing things in the newly emerging garden, and ensuring that the house still feels welcoming when we come back in. Between work and rest – I think that fact that John and I have both been felled by heavy summer colds suggests that we got that one wrong. Or even just getting everyone to where they need to be, especially on two wheels, which poor old Seb came a cropper to last week. He fell on his right elbow, resulting in five weeks of wearing a sling. Like the old pergola, we all seem to be walking a little wounded at the moment. Most challenging of all, though, is catering to people of different ages and stages, all needing something, but something different.

Ben is in the last month of preparation for his Higher School Certificate. I can’t help but think how different it’ll be for Seb and Ilse, with no younger siblings charging around the place singing and squabbling and forgetting that they’re supposed to be quiet, please. We don’t do too badly most of the time, especially when school is in term. But this week they are all on holiday, and only Fliss seems to understand that Ben really could do with some peace in which to get his head down. It’s fine as long as the weather holds – Ben installs himself in the front room and we head out into the garden. On wet days, though, it takes a while for something to grab everyone’s attention. Yesterday was one of those, but crochet animals came to the rescue, and a jigsaw, and Children’s Hour on the wireless.

Thankfully they are heading out tomorrow with Mother and Father and the house will be quiet all day, which will be wonderful while Ben works. He’ll have all the peace he could want. Except that when he’s finished and the books are put away, he won’t have anyone to be silly with, or chat to, or play games with in the garden. The truth is that I’m just not as good for letting off steam with as his little siblings. I’ll have to make sure he does something nice with a friend, instead. Some fun is certainly needed after all that study. It’s a balancing act, I tell you.

Stitches

Well, it transpires that there are lots of things you can’t do without stretching your arms forward, particularly if you spend most of your days working with your hands in one way or another. I had a day or two of such discoveries, getting more and more fed up until I started to think about all the things I could do. Things that were not on my immediate list but that I wanted to get done. Frivolous things.

I spent an evening alternately dozing and re-reading The Go-Between. I tapped into Ilse’s enthusiasm for growing flowers and, with her help, arranged the pots on the patio. I delegated, rather a lot. This helped the house to get clean, thank goodness. I baked a huge Victoria sponge, simply oozing raspberry jam and cream, simply because I had the time, and it seemed a nice way to celebrate Friday. I still sat, for several hours across several different sessions, and helped Ben with his revision. It’s dull, doing it all on your own, day after day. I practised my Chopin, and the non-arm-crossing parts of my Debussy. I hoed the garden, standing very upright. I made a new camisole for myself.

And in between all of this, I cross-stitched the label for Ilse’s quilt. Indoors on the Saturday, then outside while drilling Ben on his Latin grammar on Sunday afternoon. It’s done now, although I might add a pretty little border in a darker pink, just to frame the words. It has a snowflake in the middle because it was one I never finished last Christmas. Once I’d stitched the other half of the flake, it seemed silly not to use it. The label is far from perfect – it’s an old linen napkin with a very uneven weave which makes it hard to be neat – but we all rather like it. So much, in fact, that the others would all like one for their quilts too. I’m sure I can oblige. I loved every soothing stitch.

But today I woke up and felt much better, which meant that the onions have had a much-needed hand weeding and I’m planting up some of those pots. Mrs P and I did a huge, ever-so-slightly-urgent wash. I’ll be getting on with lots of those tasks at the top of the list, now that I’m on the mend. I might just slip in a little cross stitch though. It is just the loveliest thing to do at this time of year, in a wicker chair, in the dappled sun. I don’t think I’m altogether healed just yet. Yes, a few more days of stitches might just be in order.

Through the wardrobe

Mid May seems terribly late to be going through the children’s wardrobes, but this spring has felt too cold to do so any sooner. At least, that’s what I think. Ilse has been bouncing around in her romper since she spied it in the cupboard when I dug out a couple of her gingham dresses for school. Whatever the weather, spring classrooms are invariably stuffy.

Sunday dawned wet and grey, to be honest, but by the time we got home from Mass the sun was streaming from the heavens and the hens lay basking in it, wings akimbo. I dragged Seb upstairs to go through his things with him, and after the first couple of reluctant changes he was quite pleased to be reunited with some of his more summery things. Of course he’s grown, but with a move to a new school in just a few months’ time I think we’ll embrace the almost cropped look and let him choose some new things next spring instead. At twelve he won’t want to be wearing clothes he chose at the naive and tender age of eleven. This I know from experience. And after all that rationalisation I softened and promised him one new top, just to ring the changes. Needless to say he chose another animal one.

Ilse’s turn began with a look through Seb’s old things, picking out what would be useful for summer camping and the like. Although we agree that you can do absolutely anything in a dress that you could do in trousers, she quite likes wearing her big brother’s clothes when she’s adventuring, and I like to see her a little warmer when she doesn’t realise that it’s turned cold and grey. That said, Seb’s old things couldn’t match the thrill of being reacquainted with a trio of pretty cotton frocks, and she happily tried each one in turn. Two, a little big last year, fit perfectly now. One of those was mine when I was little, and although Mother wasn’t one to save clothes once they were outgrown by the smallest of us, this frock turned up in a box of books a few years ago and has since been worn by Ilse’s cousin, and Fliss, and now her. Add Meg and I, and that’s five of us, which is quite nice, although I’m not entirely sure why. It’s just a dress. Most importantly, she thinks it’s beautiful.

We both gasped a little when she put on the frock I made for her last summerWell Mummy, aren’t you glad you put such a big hem in it? she beamed. It was down here last year! And so it was, right down below her knees, and now it is almost halfway up her thigh. So yes, I am glad I put such a big hem in that and all her dresses. I’ve learned that trick through experience too. It wasn’t such a surprise to me as it was to her, to see how much she’s grown – I’ve been watching her grow out of her winter dresses for months – but she was absolutely thrilled. I remember that feeling of going through my wardrobe as a child: suddenly things which had always fitted were too small, and I’d grown while playing and learning and doing other things. How wonderful. How odd. Best of all, though, was the little stack of new-to-you things to wear, and Ilse is no less pleased with her pile. Cotton, flowers, and more cotton please – jumpers were most severely sent off to the big cupboard to sit the summer out.

Later, though, once she’d skipped off downstairs in nothing warmer than her romper, I pulled a couple of hand-knits from the cupboard and added them to her pile. Emergency cardigans: the sort of thinking that makes me realise that I’ve gone and grown up while I was playing and learning and doing other things.

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.