Posted in Family

In Praise of Pine Cones – and Grandpa

Pitch Pine. Pine cone.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(A new blog post about autumn, my father, my daughter and family relationships that bridge generations)

On my way to a routine hospital appointment, I’m strolling down a suburban street when I spot a perfect pine cone lying on a grass verge. Now, I cannot pass a nice pine cone any more easily than I can ignore a conker, freshly dispensed in all its shiny glory from the spiky lime-green case in which it’s been lying, fattening, since Spring. I slip the pine cone into my pocket, glad to be distracted from my imminent arthritis check-up. I’ve been a bit creaky lately and I’m not looking forward to my consultant’s review.

Pine cones, in contrast, are full of the promise of good things. Promise of cosy, autumn firesides; of sustenance for small birds in winter; of nourishment for squirrels as they bulk up for hibernation. Pine cones are a forerunner of Christmas, but in a more subtle way than the charity gift catalogues that have been landing on my doormat since July.

I always plan to collect and decorate pine cones and string them on the Christmas tree with tartan ribbon. If my daughter gets her way, they’ll be adorned with fake snow and glitter too. Or else we’ll douse them in melted fat, roll them in seeds and crumbs, and suspend them with string from trees outside our living room window. They provide an oasis for hungry birds on short, dark winter days and it’s a pleasure to watch from inside a warm house.

There’s an unnatural neatness about the shape of a pine cone. They’re reminiscent of the children’s drawings of Christmas trees that subdue nature’s disorder into a more manageable form. But even so, a pine cone is a pine cone is a pine cone.

Grandpa on his 80th birthday with a "Keep Calm You're Only 80" balloonOr so I thought until last weekend, when, on a walk in a Penzance park with my father, I learned to appreciate the pine cone in a different way. Just turned 80, he is a long-time lover of trees and their diversity. Stooping to collect a pine cone from the ground, he gives my nine-year-old daughter a spontaneous lesson in the identification of the originating tree, based on the arrangement and distribution of its spikes.

Unlike me, my father has an artist’s eye, full of wonder at the natural architecture of the world about us. An accomplished watercolourist, woodturner, carpenter and calligrapher, he has a keen understanding of the complexity of the tree’s task in creating what it has so casually dropped in our path. No matter what your religious beliefs, when you’ve heard my father hold forth about trees, you can’t help but be in awe of nature. His childlike sense of wonder is not restricted to trees. He’s ready to detect a miracle in everything he sees in the natural world.

Pair of watercolour paintings by Grandpa and Laura
Laura’s garden by Grandpa and Grandpa’s garden by Laura

I believe this attitude is one of many reasons why, at the age of 80, he remains so youthful in spirit and outlook – and why my small daughter relates so readily to his world view. She is as close to him as his shadow. They spend many happy hours together. Lately he’s taught her to paint in watercolours. We have a pair of paintings, one by him, the other by her, hanging in our living room, natural companion pieces. This summer, each of them took first prize in their respective age groups in the “original painting” category of our local village show. I see echoed in their relationship the closeness of my connection with my own Grandma, my father’s mother. It seems the baton of the bond is being handed down the generations.

Grandpa and Laura
Having fun with Grandpa

So, with my pine cone resting snugly in my pocket, I settle down in the hospital waiting room, beginning to feel a little more optimistic about my appointment. I know I can depend upon my lovely consultant to be supportive, and I’m sure she’ll have some sound advice for keeping me young by nature, as well as young by name. I want to make sure that when my turn comes to connect with my grandchildren, I’ll be ready to rise to the challenge. Goodness knows, I’ve got a hard act to follow.

This post originally appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser, October 2012 edition.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read about my relationships with some of the women in my family: Bowled Over By Fond Memories of My Grandma   The Scent of A Mummy  

Posted in Family, Reading, Writing

Cheltenham Literature Festival: It’s A Family Affair

Cover of Michael Palin's new travel book, Brazil
I’m not sure why it says “Ogres” on the cover behind him.

(A new post inspired by my recent trips to Cheltenham Literature Festival and Bath Festival of Children’s Literature. How cultured am I?!)

Sitting with my sister in a Cheltenham cafe on Saturday with the cheerful hubbub of the Literary Festival all around us, I’m scanning the room to catch a waiter’s eye when a mother and daughter at the next table distract me from placing my order.

Like us, they are clearly here to enjoy one or more of the many authors’ talks in today’s Festival programme. We’ve just come from hearing Michael Palin talk about Brazil, his new travelogue, at Cheltenham Racecourse, and we’re shortly to catch an audience with Alexander McCall Smith. I wonder which events this mother and daughter will attend. There’s certainly something on offer for every age and literary taste.

But it’s not their itinerary that holds my attention. What mesmerises me is their mature, measured mother-daughter relationship, conducted over a very grown-up lunch – a sharing platter of French hors-d’hoeuvres.

The daughter has the sleek, healthy hair of a young woman in her prime. It’s still long enough to be girlish but it’s firmly under control, the top layer swept back and held impeccably in place by a patterned clasp. She wears well-tailored, elegant clothing, but carries a ridiculously tiny handbag – the mark of a woman who thinks she’s grown up but has, as yet, no need to accommodate the inevitable luggage that accompanies motherhood.

Laura's favourite Hello Kitty handbag
Laura’s favourite handbag of the moment

Her mother, with steely grey hair, is equally well groomed. They share manners and mannerisms as they sample the food before them, chatting companionably. The lack of urgency about their meeting suggests they see each other often. This is no major catch-up or landmark meeting. Sometimes they don’t speak at all, but neither seems to mind. They are just comfortable in each other’s company, mutually respectful and at ease. They finish their modest meal, and when the daughter slips off to the ladies, clutching her small handbag, the mother picks up the tab.

I fast-forward 15 years, to when my daughter Laura, now aged nine, will be about the same age as this young woman. I try to picture her grown up, docked of the plaits with which we currently try to subdue her unruly thick hair. I imagine her with smooth, loose, tangle-free locks resting on the shoulders of a woman’s carefully chosen, matching clothes, rather than on the mad mix of patterns and colours that she’ll wear if left to choose her own clothes for the day.

Opposite her, in my mind’s eye, I see myself – older, greyer, but contented. I hope I will be as healthy and in as good shape as this mother is before me.  I fall again to wondering which event they’re heading for next. Which events will Laura and I attend, in fifteen years time? Where will her interests lie? Will she even be interested in the Literature Festival, or will she prefer the Cheltenham Festivals in other disciplines: Music, Science and Jazz? I’ll have to wait and see.

Laura in conversation with  Gruffalo author and illustrator Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
Discussing the finer points of their new book, “Superworm”.

But my money’s on the Literature Festival. Just a week before, Laura and I were lucky enough to attend the launch event of the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature, featuring  Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler.

Getting ready to go to it, Laura had chosen her own clothes: a pink and grey velvet and tulle floral party frock, with vertically striped sun-top beneath it and on her feet violently coloured stripey socks that remind me of liquorice allsorts.  Coaxing her out of the socks into plain tights and boots, I felt guilty for censoring her style for the sake of what others in the audience might think.

When we arrived at the talk, she was shy at first, but soon gained enough confidence to put her hand up to ask Julia and Axel a  question and to speak directly to them afterwards when we queued to have a book signed. I was proud – but then I’m always proud of my daughter – and I was glad that she doesn’t yet feel too old to openly enjoy good picture books. I wanted the moment to last.

But now, just a week later in Cheltenham, I realised that I don’t really want her life to stand still at all. Watching the mother and daughter leave the cafe, I discovered a small part inside of me that’s looking forward to every next step. But please, not just yet. I’ll even let her wear her stripey socks in public if it clinches the deal.

Laura's stripey socks

If you enjoyed this post, you might like these other accounts inspired by days out with my daughter:

All Aboard for A Trip Back In Time

Never Too Old For A Trip To The Zoo

Posted in Family, Personal life

Mermaids, Magic and Medals

(This new post is about how the Olympics has transformed my dawdling daughter into a clock-watching competitor in the swimming pool.)

Mermen. Russian lubok.
Russian mermaid and merman. Crikey, they must be cold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wading into the warm, quiet waters of Monmouth  public swimming pool on Sunday, I am mentally prepared to drift about for an hour playing whichever lazy games take the fancy of my nine-year-old daughter Laura. We’ve been taking her swimming since she was tiny and she has developed into a real water baby.

With the encouragement of my husband, who is a much more enthusiastic swimmer than me, (I think he may have been a merman in a previous life), Laura quickly graduated from a floating baby seat to inflatable armbands to being a free swimmer. However, we’ve never signed her up for swimming lessons, unlike many of her friends, who are called up regularly in Friday celebration assembly to collect swimming certificates for ever-greater distances. She’s never wanted lessons either, preferring to mess about and play games, in between short bursts of very competent swimming, much of it completely underwater. Our only concern about her performance in the pool is that we sometimes wonder whether she’s ever going to come up for air. The child has the lungs of a seal.

Laura’s games in the pool have of course changed over the years, from having me drift about the pool with her in my arms singing songs about water babies, to having to impersonate tug boats when she was about 4 and obsessed with a video called Tugs (a sort of floating Thomas the Tank Engine), to pretending we’re various sea creatures.

I’ve had the occasional twinge of guilt at not making her take swimming lessons, but at the same time we’ve not wanted to spoil the sheer pleasure she has in being in the water. When she was about two, we spent hours on a beach in Greece watching her repeatedly climb on to a small rock and jump off into the water, with as much concentration as if she were trying to mentally calculate the volume of the water she was displacing, like Archimedes in his bath.

Image from the hit teen TV series, H2O, about mermaids
Laura wonders how they ever manage to go to the toilet if they turn into mermaids every time they’re in contact with water.

Not surprisingly, her current favourite television viewing is an Australian teenage  series called H20: Just Add Water. This is all about three mermaids -0r rather, teenage girls who, after a trip to an enchanted island, discover they turn into mermaids every time they come into contact with water. So in Monmouth I’m fully expecting that we’ll have to play H20. I’m just wondering how to persuade my husband to be one of the mermaids when she takes me completely by surprise.

“Come on, let’s have a race!” she cries, and immediately starts to swim with great concentration towards the deep end.

I follow, feeling slightly put out. Usually I’m begging for time off from her watery games to do some actual swimming, but I hadn’t anticipated being made to race. She beats me easily to the far end of the pool.

Then she spots the clock above the pool with its big red second hand ticking round.

“Time me, Mummy!”

And she’s off again.

This happens several times before we revert to our usual improvised games with woggles (you know, those great long bendy sponge sticks), and it’s not long before every child in the pool is trying to do the same as her. She is very inventive with them. I’m left wondering what has brought on her sudden need for speed.  Previously, I’d have said Laura doesn’t have a competitive bone in her body. While many children can easily be chivvied into doing things faster – dressing, eating meals, bathing – by turning the activity into a race, Laura has always resisted. In fact, trying to make her race usually only slows her down, as she resists any attempt to hurry her, no matter how subtle.

British stamp of London 2012 Olympic gold medallist Ellie Simmonds
Did they put silver medallists on second class stamps, I wonder?

I can only blame – or rather, thank – the London 2012 Olympics. We spent a long time glued to the aquatic events this summer, especially those involving the wonderful Ellie Simmonds, whom Laura really admires. Perhaps it is this that has transformed Laura’s take on clock-watching from something irritating that Mummy does in the mornings to something really valuable that wins gold medals for her heroes. I am delighted. Either that, it might be the superpower that the H20 mermaids have – they can swim as fast as speedboats when they’re in a hurry. Either way it’s – dare I say it? – a sea-change in Laura’s attitude. Their magic is catching.

It’s not just in the swimming pool that Laura’s got her eye on the clock. Voluntarily, she’s dug out her watch, which I suspect had been strategically hidden some time ago, and she has started wearing it every day, even in her sleep. She’s timing herself on other activities too. I dare not intervene for fear of breaking the spell. I guess it’s another milestone in her growing up, taking responsibility for her own time management, and I am truly grateful.

All the same, I hope our days of playing mermaids will not be over any time soon.

If you enjoyed this post, here are some others you might enjoy:

Unlike Laura, I was not a sporty child. This post compares our experiences of school sport: Keeping Up With My Sporty Daughter.

But I do like to run. Here’s a post about the magic of running: Running in Wonderland  – You Can Call Me Al(ice)

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

Living With Fussy Eaters – By One Who Knows

An iteroparous organism is one that can underg...
This little piggy went to Hawkesbury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This new blog post is about catering for my fussy, faddy family – my vegetarian daughter who doesn’t count bacon or sausages as meat, and a husband who professes to be omniverous but prefers not to eat pasta, rice, fresh tomatoes, etc.)

“Mummy, can I please have some bacon for breakfast today?”

My nine-year-old daughter Laura’s request surprises me. She has been an ardent vegetarian for the last year.

“Bacon? Really? Are you sure?”

I know the smell of sizzling bacon is said to be the cause of many a vegetarian’s downfall, but ours is still in the fridge.

” Yes, because I haven’t had any bacon for such a long time.”

The way she says it suggests that it’s me that’s been wilfully depriving her, rather than her fussy, faddy eating habits holding her back.

In her carnivorous days , bacon was one of her favourite foods, especially the cold, crispy pre-cooked strips you can buy for salads, christened ‘sun-dried pig’ by my nephew. But lately no meat has passed her lips, save the occasional sausage or slice of pepperoni, which, I have to admit, doesn’t look like it comes from an animal. She also doesn’t care for nuts, cheese or any yoghurt with bits in. As such, it has been difficult to provide her with a full protein ration each day. I would therefore not object if she regained her taste for bacon, even though there are leaner, healthier meats that I’d prefer her to eat. But she is specific about which bacon she wants.

back bacon, better known as pork loin chops
Are you a fan of bacon? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I don’t want to eat any bacon that comes from a pig that I actually know personally,” she declares, tucking into a couple of rashers from the Black Farmer, whose livestock are strangers to us.

Living where we do, hers is not such a far-fetched consideration. In a field a hundred yards from my house live several large pink pigs. Some Gloucester Old Spots reside at the far end of the village.  We’re on first name terms with the two big pigs at Severn View, a small organic farm just down the hill from us. We’re frequent visitors to their excellent farm shop. While practising humane animal welfare, the proprietors remain unsentimental.

“Meet Bacon – and More Bacon,” is their opening line by the pig-pen.

I can see Laura’s point.

They say parents get the children they deserve. I am a reformed fussy eater myself. I vividly remember bursting into tears at the age of 5 at a birthday party, when I bit into what I thought was a “safe” bread and butter sandwich only to discover it was filled with cheese. My horror of beetroot, acquired when a school dinner lady tried to make me eat it, will be lifelong, I’m sure. But otherwise, as an adult, I am pretty much omniverous. So how have I earned not only a fussy daughter but a faddy husband too?

“Do you know, I much prefer tinned plum tomatoes to these because they don’t have skins,” he says, disdainfully prodding some beautiful home-grown tomatoes, as sweet as the cherries that gave them their name.

“I don’t much like rice,” he says, pushing to one side an empty plate where previously a delicious curry nestled on basmati. He’s eaten the evidence.

“I don’t see why people make such a fuss about Italian food,” he declares, while I’m still savouring a delicious Pizza Express meal, all the more tasty for having been paid for by free Tesco vouchers.

“What’s the point of pasta?” he queries, dismissing a foodstuff that is God’s gift to busy working mums.

Diagram of how a pig is turned into pork
A cut above the average pig

The complexity of my husband and daughter’s catering requirements is compounded by their both being Type 1 diabetic. This means all carbohydrates consumed have to be carefully weighed and counted, so that they can take the right amount of insulin to process their food. (They’re both on insulin pumps, which have to be worn 24/7 to keep them fit and well – and alive, in fact.) The insulin must be taken at just the right time to match the speed of digestion, which varies from one dish to another. There are easier diners to cater for.

Pondering pigs while I clear away the breakfast things, I consider their reputation for eagerly eating and savouring any scraps put down for them. It occurs to me that it would be much easier to cut out the middleman and just keep pigs instead of my family.

But then I don’t think I could train pigs to empty the dishwasher or put the bins out.  So fair exchange – I’ll stick with the status quo. I have my aversions too, you know.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read about the time I really did keep animals in my garden – not pigs, but chickens – in Recharging Battery Chickens.