Burning bright

We had our day in the garden: the very best day of the holidays, so mild and bright that it might have been March. The children herded the hens, as planned, and saved long sticks for the building of their den. John and I climbed ladders and cut things back. A rogue branch from the cherry no longer hangs into the vegetable patch. The elders have been reduced to stumps. Even the wisteria, with its wild curls, has had its topknot shorn. The garden looks empty, and enormous.

The children helped for longer than I had hoped, pruning the roses and carrying lopped branches to a growing heap. But one by one they slipped off to the wild space at the end of the garden. Ilse built tiny nests, first for the birds but then, with Fliss’ help, for a whole village of little people.  Next door’s tabby was cast as a tiger, slinking through the undergrowth, and defences were thrown up. They had a winter picnic in the tree house and finally, when all was done, Ben built a bonfire to burn the debris of the day.

The others trickled indoors but we stood by it, Ben and I, until all that was left was a heap of wood ash. There you are, Mum, he said, pointing at it. You can mix that into the compost tomorrow. We can call it combust.

You see, he understands.  What else is this hacking and pruning and shaping and clipping for, if not to encourage new growth?

A few days ago, we moved from the old year to the new. Burning on that fire were the remains of 1930 in my small patch. But not all of it. The apple, pear and damson trees still stand in the same places. The knotted hawthorn hedge still marks one long boundary. And on everything we cut, fat buds are waiting for the right moment to start anew.

Somehow, the turning of that page means very little to me. A moment in time, full of champagne and fireworks. A fabrication. Artifice.

To see the new year in, you have to look outside. You have to caress the emerging buds with your fingertips, and prepare the way for them. You have to look up at the forsythia, about to burst into flame. The whole of nature knows that a new year is here, without recourse to clocks or calendars.

As for me, I know it is here when the clearing is done and the growing begins. I’ll sow the first lettuces soon, under cover. I’ve marked out my new bed, ready to double dig in the crisp January air. Soon, so soon, potatoes will be chitting in a cool bright place, while outside a hard frost prepares their bed for them.

Once the bonfire was out we went in to the other fire, and I spent an inspiring evening with seed catalogues and my notebook. There will be flowers, this time, in amongst the vegetables. Marigolds in pots, to cheer on the tomatoes. Sweet peas, my favourite, standing tall with the beans. Nasturtiums, to tumble out of beds and into salads.

I am restless with anticipation. I keep having to put aside my knitting to jot down a new idea, or a refinement of my plans. Because the new year is here at last, and burning brightly in me.

[whohit]burningbright[/whohit]

Comfort and joy

All around the house, people are busy with new games and projects. Ilse skips up and down the lawn, getting a little further each time before the rope catches on her ankles or her swinging coat. There is a beetle drive in the front room, between Mother and Father, John and Ben. Long rows of dominoes are set up then knocked over by tin soldiers in the heat of battle. Wood shavings litter the corner of the kitchen, when a new pen knife has been whittling all sorts of experimental objects. And beside each bed there is a little stack of fresh books, enticing us into our pyjamas and another early night.

This has been a Christmas of great comfort, and for that we are very blessed. John kept the fire roaring all day long. Ben helped me cook my first Christmas dinner on the aga, which proved so much easier than the old range. He peeled and scrubbed in the scullery, and I rolled and basted, and by the time we were finished the table was filled with everyone’s favourites. There was bread sauce for Father, pigs in blankets for Ilse and Seb, sweet parsnips for Mother and Fliss, balls of sage stuffing for John and Ben and a capon, juicy and hot. Paper crowns adorned heads, new wool socks kept feet cosy, and we ate so well that a game of charades was deemed necessary before anyone could face pudding.

Such comfort lasts a few days longer. Having cooked such a dinner the day before, I had no intentions of making anything more complex than a Boxing Day pie. It’s only a Monday pie, really, but with extra trimmings. Christmas dinner in a pie? I didn’t bother asking, but rolled the pastry in the morning and left it in the cool pantry all day, while we played our games and read our books and enjoyed being at home together.

So there is comfort, and there is also joy. Joy in the Christmas mass, when we remember the best gift of all. Joy in the carols, sung by three hundred people with one voice. Joy in the children’s voices as they rip the string from their presents on Christmas afternoon. And in the faces of Ben and Fliss, watching their parents, grandparents and little siblings exclaim over the fudge and marzipan they had prepared and wrapped so secretly.

The joy lingers too, just like the leftovers and the full woodshed. It carries on in the hearts and minds of the children, engrossed in something new. It carries on in John and me, at home and at rest together for a few sweet days. It carries on in the lights, still shining in the green tree, and in the sprigs of fresh ivy which adorn this house, and in the Christmas candles, lit each suppertime until they are all burnt out.

There is so much comfort and joy here, now. There is plenty to share. With people who are lonely or exploited or suffering the consequences of the Wall Street Crash. With victims of war. With people we pass in the street, every day. Which is why John and the children and I are putting our heads together around those Christmas candles, to decide how we might share a little of what we have so much of: all that comfort, and all that joy.

[whohit]comfortandjoy[/whohit]

Deck the halls

Christmas Eve is the day when it all comes together. When the tree goes up and presents appear beneath it and the house is full of the scent of cloves and oranges and gammon.

Over the past few days the children have been making, merrily, and decorating their bedrooms. Christmas cards have been pinned to wardrobe doors in the shape of fir trees. Yards and yards of paper chains have materialised, made from coloured paper or stylish, monochrome newsprint. The floors are littered with tiny flecks of white as snowflakes are snipped away at, then opened with a flourish. They twist and turn in the warm air rising up the stairs. Pomanders have appeared, hung with a scrap of ribbon from the window fixings, or nestling in the fruit bowl. Each time I open my wardrobe I pause to sniff at the orange, studded with cloves, which Ben has hung from its handles.

So much has been done in advance, in bits and pieces, by one or two or three of us at a time. But this is the day when we all work together, and Christmas fills the house after its long advent journey. And it is just like having a baby: weeks and months are spent dreaming and planning, but nothing really happens until the day when everything happens, and a new light enters the world.

The cake was made in November, but today I will roll out the marzipan and spread a layer of snow white icing on top. Fliss will decorate it, with silver balls and a paper frill, or with tin animals taken from the toy box and dusted with a sieveful of icing sugar. I’ll chop the sage to mix into the stuffing, and stir the custard as it cooks, ever so slowly, on the cool end of the aga. Then I’ll roll and cut the pastry, for mince pies, and call a passing child to make a turnover with the scraps.

In the meantime, the others will have come in from the garden, red-cheeked and noisy, bearing armfuls of greenery. A slip of holly will adorn the top of every picture frame, and the ivy will be woven into willow wreaths, and a table centrepiece, and in and out of the bannisters.

A pause, then, for a quick luncheon of sandwiches and tea before we troop down the road to the crib service. Each year I wait to see which of our children will take part. Ben nearly sat it out last year but was persuaded, at the eleventh hour, to hold the heavy star aloft. Fliss might be Mary one last time. Or they might sit in the pews with us, and watch their younger siblings embrace their roles.

Afterwards, the tree will be waiting in the living room, unadorned. John will stir the fire back into life as I switch on the wireless. Silence, then a lone voice will fill the room. It will sing a story to us, in nine lessons and carols. I will sit with my love and watch our children hang their ornaments, old and new,  on its green branches. Somehow they will lend this living thing yet more life. Then Ben will lift Ilse to place the angel on top, just as John used to lift him, and Seb will switch on the lights, and we will bask in their soft glow until it is time for stories, and stockings, and bed.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

[whohit]deckthehalls[/whohit]

Summer in Devon, Winter in York

It was Ilse’s turn to help me with my quilt yesterday. I spent the first part of the afternoon in the village hall, listening to her school carol concert – a cacophony of recorders and coconut shell donkey steps, carried off with the exuberance only infants can muster. I had my handkerchief ready – I am prone to welling up when all those little voices wend their way haphazardly through Away in a Manger – but I didn’t need it this year. Ilse is one of the ‘big’ ones now, and I enjoyed watching her play her recorder and organise the tots.

We stopped at the baker’s for two currant buns and headed home for an afternoon of just the pair of us. I’d left the fire laid and supper ready to go into the stove, so all I had to do was make a pot of tea while Ilse ran around closing the curtains, and generally being grown up and helpful.

Since we finished her quilt I have hand-sewn the three layers of my own together in blues and greens: quilting and decorating it in one stroke. I’d sewn the front of the binding in place with the machine and so just needed to spend an extended evening hand-sewing the back of it into place. Ilse’s ‘help’ consisted of her playing her favourite records and rehearsing dances to them in the hallway. Then she would come in, announce a recital, and perform. It made the hand-sewing fly by.

I love this quilt, not because it is particularly beautiful or a show of much skill. It is, in fact, extremely simple in design and execution. The reason I keep gazing at it is that it is pieced from old clothes worn on a special holiday in Devon, eighteen months ago.

My brother Pete and his wife had arranged for the whole family – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents – and many friends to spend a week camping on a wooded hill by the sea in South Devon. We took the train down and as we had to carry everything up to the wood from the bus stop three miles away, we packed as lightly as we could. I laid out one old frock and set of underwear for each of the girls and myself. Similarly, John and the boys packed one change of clothes apiece. Bathers, night-things and essential teddy bears went into the knapsacks, and the children were ready to go.

We had the kind of weather we English fantasise about – long, sunny days with unbroken skies, where the air is sultry in the light but blissfully temperate as soon as you step into the shade. There was no cloud watching or chilly breeze; Ben and several of his older cousins abandoned their tents and slept in a clearing, with nothing between them and the hushing of the trees. In the evenings there was a great fire, for fresh fish from the hut along the road, or tins of beans, or potatoes in their skins. Somebody brought an accordion, and someone else, a tin whistle.

The site has no water, so I took the children to bathe in the cove each morning, and rinsed their clothes out in the salt water before spreading them on warm pebbles to dry. The weather broke on the last day; the sea turned grey with the threat of the coming storm and our train was lashed by it all the way north.

When I washed the salt out of the clothes with soap and fresh water they were soft and faded, perfect for climbing trees and getting lost in for the remainder of the summer. Ripped and finally outgrown, I cut them into squares last winter and, in the summer just gone, stitched the squares into four long strips.

The faded blues and greens remind me of the muted Devon landscape in late July. The grass is about to yellow. The leaves of the trees are less verdant, more familiar. The sea sparkles so that it barely has a colour at all, but is just a dazzling sheet of reflected light.

Between the strips I sewed white percale sashing, left over from the sheets I made in January. White for winter and snow, and to bring light into these dark days. A quilt for both summer and winter, finished in time for midwinter’s day, when the balance tips and the days begin to draw themselves out once more. I sewed rows of running stitch dashes to link the two, to say where we have been and where we are now. We will go back again. Back to summer and sunshine and days when all you have to do in the morning is slip on a frock and a pair of sandals. Summer and winter, north and south, sunshine and snow. Neither would be the same without the other. And on cue, the very morning after I finished the quilt, a postcard dropped onto the mat, inviting us to another family camp next year.

[whohit]summerindevonwinterinyork[/whohit]

Nutcracker

A trip to the ballet seems to have become a Christmas tradition in this house. And what better ballet than the Nutcracker, full of toys and children, magic and sweets?

The very act of putting our glad rags on and leaving the damp streets for the gilt and plush of the theatre made it feel as though, suddenly, Christmas was here. Ilse was tingling even before the overture began, with its hoppity-skippety heartbeats. She perched on the edge of her seat throughout, and by the time Marie was dreaming of her nutcracker prince Ilse was dreaming too, of dancing those same steps, and having the swell of the orchestra lift her from below.

At six, she can dream. At six, anything can happen. Her life is wide open, just waiting to be filled with whatever she may choose.

Seb would not choose to be a dancer, I know, much as he loves his lessons. His dreams, he told me afterwards, were a little more prosaic: he plans to ask his dancing mistress if they might include a fight scene in the next show. Or trumpets and galloping. Or both. We talked about how good the little nutcracker boy was at keeping himself stiff and wooden, even when he was being carried around, and how he was barely any older than Seb.

Neither Ben nor Seb particularly liked the romantic ending, but Fliss and I did. Try as I might, I can’t shake the adagio from that Pas de Deux from my mind – those falling notes, simple and tragic all at once, followed me all the way home.

So when we got in, I put on my recording of the score. It has been on or near the gramophone for some time, as the children became familiar with the music. There was a great deal of twirling and leaping around me as I boiled the potatoes, and Ben succeeded in showing Seb how hard it is to stay rigid whilst being carried under somebody’s arm. Ilse put her tutu on, left over from her last show, and Fliss watched them all from behind a book.

I suspect that there will be a lot of dancing in this house over the next few days, of both the sword-wielding and twirly varieties. And I’m sure I heard some shuffles and thumps from Fliss’ room at bedtime. As for myself, I lowered the needle on the record as soon as they had all left this morning, and enjoyed a little waltz as I cleared away the breakfast things. An overblown flower, in two pullovers and a pair of slippers. At thirty-six, that particular daydream is never going to come true, but it is fun pretending. Anything can happen in your own head, no matter how old you are.

In fact, in the foyer yesterday I bumped into a friend with whom I had lost touch, and we made plans to meet up in the new year. Old friends brought together by something beautiful. Which only goes to show that all sorts of wonderful and unexpected things happen in real life, too.

[whohit]nutcracker[/whohit]

Day’s end

It had been such a mundane sort of day: the children at school, John at work and a blanket of damp grey sky. I swept the grit, tracked in from the salty streets, off the hall tiles for the umpteenth time, and decided that a pleasant evening was in order.

Popping a tea bread into the stove at the same time as the stew, I laid the table early. By the time the children were home I was hanging up my pinny. A special Christmas card fell through the door with the last post, from my auntie in Scotland. Already, things were looking up.

John was home on time, for once, so I took the opportunity to pull out the calendar and talk through the rest of December. We added in Ben’s rugger social, and John’s evening out with an old friend. I reminded the children of the nice things I had planned: Grandma coming to stay, and a special matinee next week; which days they were seeing Grannie and Granddad, and the Cub Scouts’ Christmas party.

We chose a date to work in the garden, all together. What I really needed was a day of Ben and John’s labour to climb ladders and shift several small mountains of compost. Ben wanted to improve the hen run, and John hasn’t worked in the garden for weeks, so they agreed readily enough. I forget that none of the others get out there on weekdays. They haven’t had the hens pecking at their shoelaces for ages. I wouldn’t have any trouble in getting them outside.

Still, I have long since learnt that the best strategy is to give everybody their own special job to do. I started them off: leaf-raker, bonfire-builder. By the time we sat down to supper, the little ones were full of suggestions. Fire-feeder. Hen shepherdess. They chattered away through the meal, getting sillier and more fanciful. Worm relocation officer. Twig snapper. Ladybird hibernation monitor. Leek counter. They moved on to plans for the den, and giggles gave way to earnest faces. Hooks for the bows and the quivers of arrows. A basket of pine cone missiles. Prunings, woven into camouflaging screens. A secret entrance round the side. Their excitement mounted, and supper became a strategy meeting.

Afterwards, when I asked Seb and Ilse to get ready for bed, they begged to come down again in their night-things, to carry on planning. Of course they could, on this special occasion. Because although it was just the end of a very ordinary day, it had been made into something extraordinary by these children.

[whohit]daysend[/whohit]

December soundscape

The younger children may be rising earlier, but Ben and I are struggling to wake in these dark December dawns. This morning I was only vaguely aware of the desultory gusts of drizzle against the windows when a sweeter sound broke through.

I lay in bed, eyes closed, guessing at which of my little band it was. Silent Night, with the chords only occasionally hesitant: Fliss. There was a pause as, presumably, the sheet music I had left out was rifled through, then the tune of Good King Wenceslas, picked out arrhythmically with a finger or two. John, rattling the stove vents, whistled along in support. I could hear Fliss naming some of the low notes for her sister.

Ben and I yawned our good mornings on the landing. When I went downstairs I found them all wide awake, thanks to chocolate and carols. We chatted over boiled eggs and soldiers before they departed in ones and twos.

Now that Ilse is at school, the days can be very quiet, especially in December. There is none of that hum of life when everyone is shut behind their own closed doors. Many of the birds have flown away. The insects are over. Even the late bees have crawled drowsily into a crevice somewhere.

I let the hens out for a wander as I finally tackled that hibiscus. Two of them were surprisingly noisy as they clawed the soggy leaves. The third, the one who is either too wise or too afraid to ever leave the run, let out a series of heartfelt clucks. Afterwards I closed my tingling fingers around her egg, relishing its warmth. We will buy more pullets in the spring, and I will hear that sound eight or nine times a day. For now, I pull eggs from the chilly barrel of isinglass.

Inside, the sounds are not so different, bar the early morning mumming. Kettles whistle, needles clack. Pots bubble over, spitting on the hot plate. I can turn the wireless on, with a click, to hear someone talking. Soon Mrs P will ring the doorbell and pass the time of day as she shrugs her overcoat off and pinny on.

This evening I might leave John toasting by the fire and and have a rummage through those carols myself. Ben will be upstairs, translating the next section of The Iliad. He is growing tired at the end of this long term. Seb and Ilse will be tucked up, sheets and blankets pulled tight, the way they like it. Fliss may knit a few rows of her scarf. John will be reading a book, and resting. Easter aside, Christmas is the busiest time of year in a chocolate firm.

There is an excitement building in this house, spreading from the youngest to the eldest, despite the short days and tired heads. Which is why we mustn’t forget the other side of advent, about contemplation and preparations of another kind. We can embrace the short days and the opportunities to look inwards sometimes: to ourselves, and to those in our care. So I might choose God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, or Away in a Manger, to soothe them all as the night draws in around us.

[whohit]decembersoundscape[/whohit]

Advent

Overnight, mornings have changed from coaxing the children out from under their blankets to finding them downstairs before me, smears of chocolate around their mouths. It is as if we were past the solstice and heading towards longer days again, thanks to this month of lights and anticipation.

I made their calendars shortly after Ilse was born, completing two the first autumn and two more the next. Each has a scene, blocked out in felt then trimmed with a simple chain stitch, with sequins and beads to add sparkle. Ben has the shepherds, telling stories around their fire. They have leapt up to point at something mysterious: a new star in the sky. Fliss has Mary on a donkey, the lights of Bethlehem twinkling cosy and crowded in the distance. Seb has the three kings, precious gifts in hand. And of course my baby Ilse has the baby in his manger, surrounded by the world he loves.

Just as the wise men are stirring, so are parents everywhere. My list-making has begun. New handkerchiefs and socks are at the ready, embroidered and knitted in long-ago summer moments.  And I must tell Father Christmas of the things they need: a bottle of ink, or a box of crayons. A new trigonometry set. Knickers, with ribbon round the waist. A penny whistle, to replace one which was lost and is still mourned. Chocolate coins, of course, and a satsuma for the toe.

The hardest gift is the one they don’t need, but simply want. The one under the tree, the one which is gazed at and dreamed about and not to be touched under any circumstances. I have some ideas, but John is best at these. He has a way of knowing what people want almost before they do. I wonder whether this is, in part, due to his work: studying people, knowing what they will buy, and why. It’ll be John who suggests a list of titles for Fliss, or a new game for Seb. He knows what Ben would like in a way that I can’t fathom. So we will be making that list together.

Last of all are the little gifts, for parents and grandparents and one another. Small things we know we like, which show that we care enough to remember. It wouldn’t be Christmas for me without sugared almonds, a jar of marmalade and sweet-smelling beeswax candles for the table. That, and giddy children. And I needn’t tell John this, because he already knows. He proves it, every year.

[whohit]advent[/whohit]

Stars for Seb

I like to think it all began with our first night walk, years ago now, when Seb had grown sturdy on his feet and Ilse was just beginning to be thought of. It was a mild October evening, yet the dark had us penned up, listless, indoors.

There were empty jars draining by the kitchen sink and Ben had abandoned some tissue paper project. He had already mixed a flour paste, so it was easy to put the two together and show the children how to cut bright pieces of colour and stick them to the outside of the jars. Ben’s had tiny diamonds in it; Fliss’ was a sea of overlapping curves. Seb’s was a medley of colour, stuck on any which way with great globs of paste.

We tied parcel string handles around the rims and dropped a tea light into each. The children giggled as they waited, ready in their hats and coats, for John’s key to turn in the lock.

There is something thrilling for children about being out after dark: something adult and almost forbidden. It is not quite the same world, seen only by light spilt yellow across the pavement.

We listened to the nocturnal creatures crashing about in the fallen leaves, and made our way to the river. Glimmers of white caught our eye along its contours as the moon picked out the sleeping swans. We made for our favourite bench on the bridge and it was here, protected by candlelight, that they ate their makeshift supper of cheese and pickle sandwiches, dipping shortbread into milk still warm from the thermos. Towards the end of the feast the candles guttered and went out, one by one.

Suspended over the river you are away from the light thrown out by the important buildings: the shops with their windows full of wares, the big gas lamp reminding everyone where the pub is. The sky above, with its splash of stars, is more clearly visible. We pointed out what we knew: the North Star. Ursa Major. Dippers, large and small. Orion’s diamante belt. Seb, in particular, was fascinated.

That Christmas we gave him a book on the stars. He has long since absorbed it. This is the boy who asks to stop on the way home from cubs to see which of his friends are shining tonight. This is the boy who threw handfuls of borax in the bonfire, to show me what it would do. The boy who can make a miniature radio set out of a bit of crystal. A magician, and a soothsayer. An alchemist.

Children change all the time. There is a danger of pigeonholing them, of telling them who they are and what they are good at, and determining their self-view. One year’s passion might be gone by the next. They try things on for size and discard most of them.

But some of them stick, which is why I am confident that this starry jumper will still suit Seb in a year or two. I think the stars have stuck, with him.

These past few months have seen new interests creeping in. An affinity for music. Outdoorsiness. A blossoming love of nature. Which is why I am glad that there are trees, too, in this traditional design. Stars and trees, but mostly stars, for Seb.

[whohit]starsforseb[/whohit]

Freewheeling

John has been trying to persuade me to buy a new bicycle for ages; last week he won the argument.

My final ride on my old cycle was to the station. The chain fell off, again, but once it was back on the pedals jammed. I used all my know-how: peering at it, telling it off and prodding it a bit. Then I decided to focus on catching my train. I ran up the hills, pushing, and jumped on to freewheel down the other side. I leapt into the nearest compartment just as the guard was blowing the whistle.

That evening I wheeled it all the long way home, confident that John or Ben would be able to work their magic on it and coax a little more life out of the old girl, but they took one look and shook their heads. It was time for a replacement.

This is the first new bicycle I have had since I was a child. It is exactly the cycle I wanted: with a big basket and dynamo lights, a ding dong bell and the Sturmey Archer gears that are so perfect for the low hills of York.

It’s hard to overestimate the difference that it has made to my life. It has set me free again. Just one week of being confined to tram timetables, or making lengthy trudges, has reminded me of how much freedom there is in a bike. Bicycles are relatively inexpensive, and cheap to maintain. Each journey can begin and end wherever you like and will, by default, lift your spirits. Best of all, though, is that feeling of whizzing downhill, which makes little ones squeal with glee and big brothers put their hands, nonchalantly, in their pockets.

If I could choose just one luxury for each of my children to own, it would be a bicycle. Forget box brownies and gramophones and wireless sets. Give them a bicycle and you give them their freedom and independence. Teach them to maintain it and you give them a not-to-be-sniffed-at source of pocket money, too. All four of our children cycle, just like John and I. Ilse, watching the others from the luggage rack behind me, was the keenest to graduate to her own set of wheels. We bought her a brand new machine of her very own, as there wasn’t a hand me down small enough, and she has pedalled at my side ever since.

So far I’ve cycled over to visit Mother and Father, and to meet the children after school in our favourite tea shop. I’ve dashed to the grocer’s to buy cheese for a supper cheese and onion pie. I’ve enjoyed a sunny afternoon coasting along country lanes. I’ve pedalled past mothers with perambulators and queues of old ladies at bus stops, and I’ve made up my mind. If I am lucky enough to grow old, old enough to be afraid of falling, I will buy a pair of tricycles, one for me and one for a toddling grandchild, and teach them how to ride it.

[whohit]freewheeling[/whohit]