For Mother’s Day

For Mothers’ Day this year I had a lingering illness which might have ruined the day but for the gifts I received. They were carried in with the morning tea tray: a little handmade coaster, a bag of Pontefract cakes and a voucher. Oh, they know what I like, and what’s on my mind just now. They know I’d like nothing better than to be out in this glorious sunshine, setting the garden to rights, and that I just don’t feel up to it. So nothing could have been better than their voucher promising me a day’s labour out there. I don’t mind how many times they’ve given me this gift; I’ve never loved it more than I did this Sunday.

For my part, I did some fiddly little jobs – pricking out the tomatoes, pushing the onion sets into trays of compost to bring on indoors for a while. John cleaned out the hens and mowed the lawn and built an urgently required chicken-proof fence. Ben spread compost on the beds and turned the newer heaps onward through the bays. The younger three fetched and carried and helped out wherever and whenever they were needed, and from their bare feet and and legs and arms you’d have thought it was high summer.

I took Seb in the motor to visit my own mother with the gift of a bowl of violas. All the talk of allotments with Father sent me home keen to visit my own space: just a little amble, nothing more. John and I cut a basket of tender brocolli before the buds split into yellow blooms. We noticed that the damson has burst its first white tender bud. And when we opened the door of the greenhouse, the aniseed fragrance of fennel spilled out into the cooler, outdoor air.

In the last hour before supper I carried a rug and my old chocolate tin of seeds out to the garden bench. There’s something very pleasing about making a list of what needs to be planted when, and what’s already in. It made me disproportionately happy. Around me, the day dissolved from industry to play. The children soaked themselves in one last water fight before their baths; John hammered in the last stake; an easy Sunday roast was on its way. Thanks to them, I can sow the next lot of seeds as soon as I like, in the freshly composted beds now safe behind the fence. I needn’t worry about the height of the lawn. And no, nobody wanted to do the weeding for me, even if it was Mothering Sunday, but that’s all right. I’ve had a whole day of gardening despite feeling under the weather, and more has been accomplished than I could ever have achieved alone. And they did it all quite willingly. I couldn’t really ask for anything more for Mothers’ Day.

On Liberty, and love

Whatever happens, people will always want chocolate. As a result, we’ve been largely untouched by the depression. The chocolate industry, and John’s role in it, have grown rather than shrunk over the past decade or so. All those Kitkats and Aeros have kept a comfortable roof over our heads and good food on the table. And although I am careful with my spending, I can afford to treat myself to a Liberty print now and again.

It’s easy to be happy, when everything is going well. My day yesterday consisted largely of taking apart a well loved and washed out blouse to trace a pattern from it, before putting the navy silk aside for other purposes. I arranged the pattern pieces on the bias and began to cut everything out, pot of tea on the table, wireless on in the background. After a while the news came on, and with it people who were so sure that they were right that they never even paused to hear the other side speak.

It was at this point that I discovered I’d cut two identical sleeve pieces, which was a mistake, as they ought to be mirror images of one another. The whole blouse had been a bit of a squeeze, really, and to my dismay there wasn’t a scrap left large enough to cut another piece. So I stitched three pieces together with careful French seams which should be reasonably well hidden under my left arm. Far from perfect, but far from a disaster, either. These things happen. I don’t think I’ll make that particular mistake again, for a while at least.

Had it been a cheaper, less nice fabric I might not have bothered. I might have cut it down at once into a blouse for Fliss or Ilse, and pretended I’d never gone wrong. But I love Liberty too much to let it go.

And besides, we do go wrong, sometimes. But rarely so far wrong that a little love and care can’t put it right. I can’t help thinking that we could do with a little more love all around, at the moment. A touch of understanding and patience for angry people. A dash of agape, of wishing the best for everyone, including those we might disagree with. Perhaps especially for those who are unhappy. Now there’s a challenge for me, far greater than a spot of dressmaking. And although it is hardly an original thought, it’s a pretty important one, here in 1932.

Is it winter yet?

As long as I have known John, which is a very long time now, we have disagreed over the naming of the seasons. To me, a sunny day in May spells summer. Flowering bulbs and a break in the frost means spring, even if it’s only February. And winter starts around the middle of November, when lightweight macs are relegated to the backs of cupboards and the last of the summer shoes are hibernating, polished leather against crumpled tissue, in their boxes under the stairs. I can’t wait for the next season to begin, can hardly sleep for hoping for the spring. Were I in charge, summer would begin in March and last until October. And if November isn’t winter yet, then I dread to think how cold it’s going to get.

John likes to name the seasons by the book. Winter, apparently, does not begin until the setting of the solstice sun. Spring comes in March; autumn in September. And not just at the start of each named month, but on the 21st, and not a minute sooner. He measures his days by the calendar, which is reasonable enough, I suppose, but not sane enough for me.

For me, winter is when toddlers chug up and down the street, blowing steam out of their engines. It’s when even Ben asks if we might light the fire, and I can serve stew three times in a week without anyone complaining. Winter starts when the Christmas crafting does, and the last of the tomatoes’ blackened stems has been hauled off to the compost. When the hens have to be away by four o’ clock for fear of the fox. When the children bother to come back for mislaid gloves.

If I want to take the only sunny day in January and call it spring, I will, and I’ll enjoy it all the more. One swallow definitely makes a summer. In fact, the only season I will not rush towards is autumn. Lovely in itself, it spells the end of my long summers and I hold it at arm’s length as long as I possibly can. That’s why it’s the shortest season of them all, only hanging around as long as the brown leaves on the trees. What with the wind and the rain of the last few days, those have all been blown away. So call it a month early, if you must, but I’m fairly certain winter’s here at last.

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.

Swallows and Amazons

There’s been a lot of dreaming about Wild Cat Island in recent months. A lot of den building behind the sofa and at the end of the garden. A lot of packing of knapsacks and traipsing round the house to Rio and back. A lot of pemmican, and grog, and buttered eggs. The stitching of swallows on flags. Piratical attacks. Midnight raids.

At longed-for last, these Swallows headed off with their Daddy – who fortunately didn’t have to be on a ship in the South China Sea – to the Lake District, while I stayed at Holly Howe to look after Vicky (or my vegetables, at least). Three days later, they were back, having had enough adventures to write a novel of their own – which Titty set about at once. Not having been with them, I can only report their travels as they were described to me. A voyage on a ferry to a distant island in the sea, where they camped in the ruins of a castle and made friends with the native children. Post supper swims off the pier. Visits to Rio for supplies, before heading up to base camp, carrying all that they might need. Sleeping halfway up Kanchenjunga, and waking to make the dawn ascent. Searching the cairns for messages from earlier explorers – and, finding none, knowing they were the very first to set foot upon that crest. Returning to civilisation in time to fish for sharks, before the long paddle steamer home across the seven seas.

As I say, I wasn’t there, but I believe what I read in the company’s log. For a little while, at least, they all got to be Swallows: living for the summer, flitting freely about the English countryside. Wild camping in the hills, and messing about in boats. Stories in books are wonderful. Stories shared with friends and siblings, acted out in boats made from apple crates, are even better. And stories recreated in the place where they are set – in the hills and waters set aside for us all to enjoy? They’re the very best of all, apparently.

 

A proper picnic

Come August the moors turn purple. The sun lights up the landscape in patches, falling through windows in the cloud. The rowans are laden with red, the bracken is at its full height, and the gorse is, as ever, in flower. But it is the purple heather I like best: great swathes of it splashed across the tops, broken only by a prow of Yorkshire gritstone here and there.

There are lots of places more classically beautiful – I know that, I’ve seen many – but nothing quite compares to the moors in August. It is still bleak, still hard country to scrape a living from. For great stretches there is nothing, and then a long, low farmhouse comes into sight, and then there is nothing again. Small villages huddle in shallow dales, trees twisted by the wind. Sheep wander freely: Swaledales with their curled horns and black faces. Sheep and pheasants, fattened for the kill, and the hovering birds of prey who have spotted something small and living we could never see. This is an old landscape, constant over centuries, changeable by the hour.

It was here that we took a picnic – a proper picnic, in celebration of John’s fortieth. A family picnic seemed just the thing, and the last time he’d had such a thing for his birthday was thirty four years ago, when he was six. Oh, to have an August birthday. The outings and excursions, holidays and lazy days in the garden that such lucky people have, each year. He always lets us share it with him. This year it was properly hot – almost too hot to sit still on the blanket in the midday sun. Nobody really wanted to, anyway, given that the bilberries were ripe. Lips, fingers and chins were stained purple long before the hamper had even been opened, and it took little persuasion to get the children to collect a few more for jam while John and I spread the rug. We had a late luncheon in the heather – pork pies with piccalilli, sandwiches with bully beef and relish, tomatoes from the garden and cool green cucumber cut into sticks for nibbling. A pause was most certainly necessary, and so out came the books and the playing cards, the whittling knives and the knitting. Nearby boulders were examined and attempted, low paths in the flora wriggled through on bellies, siblings jumped out on before they could get ‘home’.

Yet ‘home’ they all came when they saw me sandwiching blackcurrant fool between the layers of a Victoria sponge. It being a birthday cake, we poked candles into its top, and sang before we cut it. Such simple celebrations are very often the best. A slab of cake – or maybe two – on a proper cloth napkin, with tea in a proper china cup and proper grog for the little ones? Proper French bubbles in proper champagne saucers, followed by a most improper nap in the middle of the moor? Now, that’s what I call a proper picnic.

Tipple

When we moved into this house, we found a number of things left about the place by the previous owners. Some of them were useful: lots of bamboo canes, for instance. Some were less so: the twisted goal posts and rusted wheelbarrows, unearthed when we cleared the bramble jungle. One of the better finds was a stash of demijohns, neat and dusty on a set of shelves, the remains of someone or other’s home-brew ambitions. We took this as an invitation to have a go.

Some things have gone mouldy, and been chucked out. Others have been enjoyed. More have been dreamt up than have been made. Eighteen months ago, though, faced with a bumper elderberry harvest, I decided the time was right to try a classic country wine. I boiled it and stirred it and mixed in the sugar and yeast. I poured it into the demijohns and was amused to find a row of children watching the bubbles rise, rise, then break through the airlocks. Then I put them in the shed, and never racked them off.

There’s been a flurry of spring cleaning, around here. The shed has been emptied and swept out, spider webs dealt with, garden tools sharpened and oiled. I dusted off three demijohns of wine,  wondered briefly what to do with them, and put them back. And there they sat until John, inspired by the last of the forced rhubarb, pulled them out. We tasted it (with some trepidation) and pronounced it really quite nice. A sort of fruity dry sherry, clear and rosy against the light. Perhaps, just perhaps, we were more inclined to like it than most. I don’t think I’ll inflict it on any guests, unless they truly want to try it. But we like it, and I’ll be making it again, this autumn.

In the meantime, John has filled a couple more containers with the type of tipple he is best at. So now there is rhubarb liqueur slowly infusing beside last year’s sloes. Day by day, the colour leaches from the fruit into the liquid, so that the drink turns pink while the rhubarb slowly fades to white. A few more days, a few more turns, and it can be put away for a while.

There are gardeners who raise whole allotments of parsnips or gooseberries each year with the sole purpose of making wine. I’m interested, but not that keen. When it comes to home made drinks, I’m definitely a dabbler. A little here, a little there, a bit of experimentation. I’d like to try an ale, soon. And an elderflower champagne.

In the meantime, there are drinks to be made which are best drunk straight away. Ilse brought me a doll’s teacup of cold mint water the other day, and very refreshing it was, too. I’ll make mint syrup as soon as there’s enough of it. In the meantime, I like to add a sprig or two to a cup of black tea. Warm and sweet and freshly herby, it’s the perfect brew for this time of year.

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This is how

Some people show their love by cooking, or buying thoughtful gifts, or perhaps doing the washing up. I knit.

I cook and clean and sew as well, of course. I grow vegetables, and leave plants and flowers around the house. Some of these things bring me great pleasure. Others just need to be done. And there’s no denying that to sew for someone – or, better, with someone – or to bake a cake and watch your child lick the bowl, is a great joy. A shared joy, and a quick one. Over in an hour, or an afternoon, much to everyone’s satisfaction.

But to show my love, I knit. There is something about those stitches, one after another, sometimes counting, sometimes entirely elsewhere, which is, for me at least, a sign of something more. It isn’t always because knitting takes a long time: a baby hat can be whipped up in an evening. Nor is it about the beauty of the finished product: a knitted dishcloth expresses the same feeling.

Perhaps it has something to do with the solitary nature of it. Knitting is not a collaborative activity. Sociable, perhaps, but not collaborative. Which leaves a lot of time to think about the person you are knitting for, and the qualities of the wool, and how the finished product might look on them.

So many women start to knit in earnest when they have babies. Baby things are small, and quick, which is a blessing when you only have short nap times in which to seize the needles. We then move on to older children and perhaps ourselves. A few pullovers later, our stamina builds, and we are ready for the big one.

It took me many years before John got his cardigan. Hats, yes. Mitts, scarves, socks – absolutely. But that cardigan was a long time coming.

I started it in the spring, sitting in the sun under the tiny bright green leaves of the wisteria. I had a woollen rug around me and I was full of ambition. Two pattern repeats a day, I think I promised myself. It was to be done by June.

The following March found me on the beach at Sand’s End, still knitting. The same rug was spread beneath me, and I was ostensibly minding the picnic things while John and the children skimmed pebbles over the slate grey sea. They threw sticks for dogs, on walks, and ran about, and shouted. I huddled in my hat and scarf, back to the wind, knitting 408 stitches of collar one way, and then the other. After two long rows my fingers were numb and I went to warm them between John’s hands.

It was far and away my biggest project. I’d broken off twice: once for new school jumpers for Fliss and Seb, and again for a thick aran pullover for myself. I was nearly there, though, and that kept me going, until one day it was done.

Every so often I find it draped over the back of a wooden chair, or left in a heap on the floor. Sometimes I have to brush bits of grass or other signs of his day from it. Perhaps I ought to mind. It took a long time to make.

But I don’t. I don’t because I can see that he loves wearing it, and to nag would change that. I don’t because I know a snag or hole can be mended. Because I have no doubt that this knit will still be around forty years from now. All those children’s jumpers, the hats and socks and baby knits, will have been long since lost or worn out or passed on to younger cousins. I will have frogged my own knits to make something fit for a new phase of my life. But that cardigan will be a constant.

I’ll find it on the back of a chair one day. John, I’ll say, you really must let me throw this old thing out. He’ll shake his head at me. You see, this is how it works. I knit things, he wears them, and we both know what it means.

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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.

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