Posted in Family

The Scent of a Mummy

(A post about the women in my family – grandmothers, mothers, daughters,  perfume, Proustian moments and the power of memory)

English: rose bunch, Rosa sp. cultivars, flowe...
Every one an English rose (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my study, tapping away on my computer, I suddenly become aware that my nine-year-old daughter Laura has sidled in quietly and is standing behind my right shoulder.

I sit at my desk with my back to the door – terrible feng shui, I know, but this is the only position that allows me a view of the garden while I’m working.

Just as I’m about to tell her tersely that she’s meant to be in the bathroom cleaning her teeth before bed, she presses her face in against the curve of my neck and breathes in deeply.

“I love the smell of you, Mummy,” she says sweetly. “I’m so glad you’re my mummy.”

Teethcleaning quickly slips down my agenda, and everything else stops while we have a cuddle and a chat. I’m feeling an utter heel for having so nearly dismissed her before she had a chance to speak.

Eventually, after she’s trotted off contendedly to bed, I begin to wonder exactly what smell she is referring to. I don’t wear perfume every day, but I do use an ever-changing mix of scented handcream, talcum powder and moisturiser. When I do wear perfume, my choice is a haphazard choice from the eclectic collection of ancient scents on my dressing table. Some came to me as gifts, others I acquired from jumble sales. I’ve only just finished off the Penhaligon Rose that my friend Elizabeth gave me when Laura was born. I wear make-up most days, so the distinctive smell of foundation must contribute to my personal aura. I’m conscious that this is not sounding very alluring.

Photo of Oil of Ulay before it was rebranded OlayMy own mother channels face powder, lipstick and Oil of Ulay. Yes, I KNOW it’s sold as Oil of Olay these days. It was homogenised for the sake of pan-European branding, around the same time that the Marathon bar segued into Snickers. (I bet the organisers of 26+ mile races still haven’t forgiven them.) But it will always be Oil of Ulay to me, because my first memory of it dates back to the time when instead of the many modern variants, there was only one kind: a pale pink “beauty fluid” that came in a clear glass bottle with a black label and top. And its perfume was Essence of Mummy.

A bottle of Just Musk Perfume from the early 1980s
A lingering scent

Unlike my mother and me, my grandmothers both had a regular perfume habit. My grey-haired, tweed and hand-knit clad Grandma, born in 1900, favoured Yardley’s Freesia. This was pumped out of a ridged glass bottle with a yellow lid. Mam, my maternal grandmother, was younger and more glamorous. She had black hair, (I was about 12 before I realised the colour came out of a bottle), and pale, arched, slender eyebrows in the style of a 1930s film-star. She preferred the heady scent of Just Musk, hidden inside a mysterious opaque black glass bottle.

Both perfumes were once popular mass-produced products, and for many years I’d occasionally catch a waft of one in a crowd and forget my grandmothers had died. They’ve both been gone for over 30 years now, but the slightest breath of either scent still summons up a sense of their presence. I still have an old, empty bottle of Mam’s perfume in the top drawer of my dressing table. I occasionally fetch it out, take off the top for just a moment, careful to ration what little of its contents remain, and take the tiniest sniff. It is an ethereal comfort blanket; it serves as a notional hug.

My daughter will not be able to do that with my perfume.

peachesTonight, my work at my desk finished, I creep in to check on her. She is fast asleep in her elevated cabin bed, her peachy-skinned cheek just at the level of my face. Before I realise what I’m doing, I’m leaning over her pillow to breathe in her scent. Clean, cosy, contented,  sleeping child. It’s the best perfume in the world. If I could only bottle it to keep for ever.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this post comparing the different lots of the four generations of women in our family: Laura’s Ambition or this bit of nostalgia: Don’t Leave Her Hanging on the Telephone

Posted in Family

This Week’s Homework Is A Family Affair

Laura's school homework book
Homework – it’s a family affair

When I first see my daughter’s homework assignment for this week, my first thought is “She’s got off lightly!”

These were her instructions:

Child: Now you are in a new class, you should start to do something new to show that you are getting older. Why not set yourself a new goal or target? Make your bed, get dressed without help, choose the clothes you wear, help with the cooking, wash up or tidy up, do your homework without being told.

But then I read on. There are instructions for parents too.

Parent: Now your child is in a new class, you might want to set yourself a target. Read a story with your child at least once a week, help your child spend some time with a friend, take your child to the park, walk your child to or from school, get up nice and early so you don’t have to hurry in the morning.

I’ve done all of these most days in the last week, so no novelty there – but the last one is a delightful surprise:

Have some time to yourself.

Suddenly I’m warming to this assignment.

As a family, we discuss which targets we will choose.

My husband’s is to take Laura swimming once a week. A keen swimmer himself, he’s been taking Laura swimming since she was tiny, but lately the habit has lapsed. He’s pleased to receive this prompt to take her again.

Laura suggests that she pledge to wash up. She’s not daft – we’ve got a dishwasher. After we point this out, she decides she’ll empty the dishwasher every day instead.

I think hard about my own target and come up with one that feels liberating but strangely naughty: I decide not to work at weekends. This, I realise, should benefit not just me but the whole family. I need no further persuasion to give it a go.

On Saturday morning, resisting the urge to turn on my computer, I feel as if I’m playing truant. My husband trumps my achievement by taking Laura swimming straight away, followed by a trip to the Chipping Sodbury Mop (the odd, historic name for the funfair that’s in our nearest town this weekend),  making it an all-day outing.

Which means even further liberation for me:  I enjoy the rare luxury of a day at home alone. In fact it’s so rare that for a few moments after they’ve gone,  I cannot think what to do. But then long-buried ideas bubble up to the surface, and I spend a pleasant day dashing about the house doing all kinds of constructive and satisfying tasks:

  • My Welsh dresserreorganising the utility room
  • sorting out the ironing
  • cleaning the birdbath and replenishing it with fresh water
  • hanging two strings of bird seed from the apple tree
  • picking a big bunch of sweet peas from the back garden
  • gathering two big handfuls of late cherry tomatoes  from the greenhouse
  • harvesting lots of runner beans and a couple of courgettes
  • making some vegetable soup
  • finishing a book I’d started reading on holiday a month ago (Susan Buchanan’s Sign of the Times, set mainly in Scotland, where we were holidaying)
  • giving the Welsh dresser in the kitchen a much-needed polish and rearranging the display on its shelves
  • Tidy kitchen windowsill with two pot plantsdecluttering the kitchen windowsills (a bigger job than it sounds, believe me)
  • bringing back into the house three huge succulent plants that were taking a summer break in the front garden
  • getting out all our winter hats, scarves and gloves, washing them and hanging them up to dry

And I didn’t even have to empty the dishwasher.

Sweet peas from my gardenWithout this assignment, I’d have spent the whole day sitting in front of my computer and have nothing tangible to show for my supposed day of rest. Instead, I feel like I’ve given half the house a face-lift and benefited the garden birds too.

Just as I’m sitting down with a cup of tea to admire my newly tidy kitchen, Gordon and Laura burst back into the house, all aglow after a lovely daddy-and-daughter day together.  They look very happy.

All in all, it’s been a very satisfying piece of homework for all the family.

I don’t know what mark Laura will get on her homework this week, but I’d give her teacher top marks!

In the mood for more homework? Here’s a post about some from my own schooldays: And So This Is Christmas

Or if you’re in need of further inspiration on the subject of tidying up, try: Tidying Up, Gary’s Way 

Posted in Family

In Search of the Perfect Pet

Black cat painted by Laura at the age of 2
Portrait of a black cat by Laura, aged 2

The suggestion of a Pet Show as a new PTA fundraiser fills me with  foreboding: it’s bound to trigger a renewed appeal from my nine-year-old daughter Laura for a cat or a dog.

Our household is currently a  pet-free zone. It’s quite a change from the fur-dominated home into which Laura was born. At that point I had four cats, Posy, Mabel, Dolly and Grace. Laura’s first word was not “Mummy” or “Daddy” but “Cat”, and her first proper painting was  a black cat with yellow eyes.

Before Laura was born, I’d worried for months about old wives’ tales of cats inadvertently smothering new babies by curling up and going to sleep on them. I  even invested in a “cat net” – a flimsy, over-priced bit of net curtain material,  meant to repel cats from cots. But I needn’t have worried. It was soon clear which of the small creatures in our house had the upper hand. All were in awe of Laura,  mostly keeping their distance from her shrill sound effects. The only one happy to linger was Mabel, our tailless white wonder who had survived a close encounter with a car in kittenhood.  (Not so her tail.)

Brownie the guinea pig with Laura the Brownie
Brownie the guinea pig with Laura the Brownie

Mabel was the most good-natured and sociable cat that I’ve ever had. Whereas the others would run away at the sound of the doorbell, Mabel would bound up to the front door to greet whoever was our visitor. It was therefore not surprising that she was also the most obliging in Laura’s games, letting herself be tucked in to Laura’s doll’s pram and wheeled around the garden.

Mabel also had the most caring nature. When my husband was ill, lying on the sofa feeling wretched, she looked at him analytically, trotted out into the garden and returned with a dead mouse in her mouth. She laid her prey gently at his feet. Just what the doctor ordered to build him up again – a high-protein snack.

Laura admires a long-haired rabbit at Puxton Park
Borrowing a bunny

When Grace, the last of our cats, died of old age, Laura was too little to feel real grief, so missed the opportunity to learn a useful lesson about death from her pet. My tears were copious tears. But soon after I’d dried them, I started to notice how much cleaner the house had become without a cat. There was another significant benefit: our cat-allergic friend could at last come to stay.  Helen’s allergies turned into a blessing: they became our main ally in fending off Laura’s requests for another pet.

Even so we weakened around the time of her sixth birthday. Unwilling to take on a house-dwelling pet, we acquiesced to two rescue guinea pigs. Laura chose their names, calling the ginger one, erm, Ginger, and the brown one Brownie, as she’d just become a Brownie herself. Sadly, like all small pets, they didn’t last long. Only Brownie made it through to Laura’s seventh birthday and only hung around for a couple of months longer after that. Again the loss hit my husband and I much harder than it did Laura, and this experience steeled our resolve to remain pet-free.

Until this summer, that is, when Laura came up with a new and effective solution to the problem: she acquired some invisible dogs. Now here is a pet I am happy to recommend. Invisible dogs don’t make a mess, leave no fur on the furniture, cost nothing to feed, and you don’t have to pick up after them when you take them for walks. The only real danger  is sitting down without noticing they’re already on your chair. Fortunately they have a very forgiving nature. I just wonder how the judges at the PTA pet show will tell them apart.

 If you enjoyed this post, you might like another one I wrote about our pets – but this time with my own suggestion of an alternative: Garden Birds – The Perfect Pet

Posted in Family, Travel

A Day At The Beach On The Isle Of Skye

On the beach at Glenbrittle, Skye
The ambitious new sand palace begins to take shape

I’m concentrating on turning out the perfect sandcastle from Laura’s small pink bucket when I feel a sudden, unaccountable cold sensation at the back of my skirt.

Only when I realise that it’s also a very wet sensation do I swivel round to check the advancing line of the tide. In best pantomime tradition, it’s behind me. It’s taken me by complete surprise, as if playing an oceanic version of Grandmother’s Footsteps.

Building a river as the tide comes in at Glenbrittle beach, Skye
Building a river

Our planned sand palace for Laura’s toy dog, Candyfloss, is fast segueing into a water park. But are we downhearted? No, we are turncoats. We immediately set to work making a river, digging a trench from the water’s edge to the rocks a few yards further up beach. We are the antidote to King Canute.

“Come on, sea!” Laura coaxes. “You can do it!”

On this broad, shallow beach on Skye, we’re on to a winner. Our labours are soon rewarded. Laura is disproportionately joyful; I do not reveal how startled I am by how quickly the tide has encroached.

It is a sobering reminder of man’s powerlessness against the forces of nature. Against the almost primeval setting of the vast, bleak landscapes of the Cuillin hills, it’s not hard to feel small and insignificant – but it’s also exhilarating.

Laura beachcombing at Glenbrittle,Skye
“Anyone seen Sponge Bob about?”

What’s more, it’s a useful educational experience for Laura. I’m hoping an hour or two on the beach will counteract the hours misspent watching her favourite television programme, Sponge Bob Square Pants, set at the bottom of the ocean and defying all laws of nature. In Bikini Bottom, life carries on much as on dry land – only sillier. Repeated exposure colours your perception of reality.

Even I find myself pleased to spot a starfish (as in Sponge Bob’s best friend, Patrick Star) when we take a glass-bottomed boat ride a couple of days before. On the kelp beds beneath the Skye Bridge, there  are numerous sea urchins – beautiful, fragile, spiny domes in ethereal shades of mauve, pink and flesh. “So why are there no sea urchins in Sponge Bob?” I wonder, before I can stop myself.

Paddling in the warm shallows at Glenbrittle, I scoop up a tiny crab in one of Laura’s plastic spades. What’s the first thing I think of? Mr Crabs, the miserly fast-food entrepreneur who is Sponge Bob’s employer. I really need to get out more.

Finally, Queen Anticanute’s work is done.

Laura's river is a success
We did it!

“I’ve made a rock pool!” she rejoices, waving her spade.

Promptly abandoning her post to let the tide demolish her sandcastles, she skips off to romp through the shallows with the energy and enthusiasm of a puppy, kicking and jumping about until she’s dappled with saltwater splashes.

Picking up her abandoned turquoise fleece to save it from the encroaching tide, I take shadowy snapshots against the westerly sun, vicariously enjoying her childlike pleasure in the sea.

Little girl in a big sea at Glenbrittle, Skye
Little girl in a big sea

She’s not really dressed for a dip, but in budding rock-chick style is wearing scarlet pedal-pushers beneath her new black “Stonehenge Rocks!” t-shirt. Her thick dark blonde hair has been dragged into a plait down her back to guard against the tangling effect of today’s strong winds, currently buffeting her daddy along the top of the Cuillin hills behind us. I wonder how long it will be before she’s a rock-chick in earnest, jaunting off to Glastonbury with her boyfriend. But for now I capture these moments in my camera in hope of freezing the passage of time.

Out of the corner of my eye, I espy four young German boys clambering over the black rocks that line the bay. I hope they have an eye on the tide and will not be cut off from a safe return.

Time and tide, my friends, time and tide.

Looking out to sea at Glenbrittle beach, Skye

Posted in Family, Travel

The Disarming Charm of Her Broken Arm

Laura's new scooter
Have scooter, will travel

When towards the end of July, my nine-year-old daughter breaks her arm, my plans for her school holidays flash before my eyes like the life events of a drowning man.

No more scooting on her brand-new scooter, a start-of-holidays treat; no more swimming in the village school’s pool nor making waves in the high-tech leisure pools that we love to visit in Scotland; no flute duets with her best friend; and a no-show at the four art classes that I’ve booked her into for the following week. (She is right-handed and it is, of course, the right arm that she has broken.)

Laura is more optimistic than I am.

“Is it ok to do handstands?” she asks the kindly young doctor at the emergency fracture clinic.

Suppressing a smile, he shakes his head solemnly.

We’re lucky in that at least her arm doesn’t require a plaster cast.

“If you were a boy, I’d give you a cast, because a boy would just lark about and make it worse,” says the nurse. “But because I can see you’re a sensible girl, and the fracture is stable and self-supporting, we’ll make do with a sling.”

Laura is disappointed. She rather fancies a cast as a vehicle for autographs and a means of generating sympathy. We compromise by allowing her friends to write on the foam-padded sling.

I query whether the planned art classes count as larking about.

“No, you’ll be fine. Just rest the arm if it’s sore.”

Numerous charcoal and pastel drawings later, and with a clay sculpture of a beaming head to her credit, it’s time for us to fly north to join her father, already in Scotland with our camper van. With a heavy heart, I don’t bother packing her swimsuit or enquiring about the extra fee to take the scooter on the plane.

But on day one of our tour of the Highlands, it becomes clear that not only will the broken arm not put Laura at a disadvantage; it will bring her positive rewards.

We’ve stayed the night in our camper van outside a small parade of shops near Fort William, so in the morning I pop into a few of the shops to bolster the local economy. Laura comes with me to the charity shop. Choosing two small toy dogs at 50p each, she fishes a pound coin out of her purse. The lady at the till asks what she’s done to her arm.

“I fell off the monkey bars,” Laura tells her. “I’ve broken my arm.”

“Och, what a shame, dearie!” the lady says kindly. “Just put that pound coin away and we’ll call it 50p for the two.”

A little later, we enjoy revisiting one of our favourite local tourist attractions, the Treasures of the Earth mineral and gemstone museum. Laura’s already spotted that if you spend £20, you get a free gift from a lucky dip, and bemoaned the fact that her holiday money (and her mother’s indulgence) will not stretch to such extravagance. In the gift shop, she asks the lady on the till to help her find a souvenir that features the gemstone designated by the museum as her birthstone: an aventurine. The lady helpfully finds a small pendant priced £3.99. While Laura struggles, one-handed, with her purse, the lady enquires in a kindly voice what she’s done to her arm.

“I fell off the monkey bars,” Laura replies. “I’ve broken my arm.”

“Oh dear, you poor thing!” says the lady, scrabbling about behind the counter in what I suspect may be the lucky dip. “Never mind, because you’ve bought something, you’re entitled to a free gift.”

Opening the bag on leaving the shop, Laura finds, to her delight, a pair of rose-pink heart-shaped abalone shell earrings.

“Although I haven’t got pierced ears, they’ll look lovely on my toys,” she decides, satisfied.

Eilean Donan Castle, ScotlandWe press on, heading for Skye. We spend a pleasant hour en route at Eilean Donan Castle, billed as the most romantic castle in Scotland. It is also in demand as a film set, featuring in many films from James Bonds to Highlander. In the banqueting room, an enthusiastic guide in full highland dress, a two-foot-long feather in his tartan bonnet, tells us all about the castle’s latest role. It is in the new Disney Pixar film, Brave. We’re hoping to see the film while we’re in Scotland. Our resolve is bolstered by the guide’s praise for the crack team of artists that Disney sent in to sketch the castle. Pausing for breath, he notices Laura’s sling.

“So what did you do there?” he enquires.

“I fell off the monkey bars and broke my arm.”

“Och, no! Well, here’s a wee present for you,” he says, extracting with a flourish the  feather from his hat.

Laura is delighted with this unexpected gift. I’m not so sure. At this rate, instead of removing her sling at the end of next week, in line with doctor’s orders, she’ll be wanting to wear it ad infinitum. I’m starting to see a whole new meaning in the phrase “a lucky break”.

Laura at Castle Eilean Donan near Kyle of Localsh, Scotland
With the feather from his cap