Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Cardigan

WIN_20141120_133852 I was with my mother when she bought the cardigan, about a year before she died. We went on a ‘girls shopping trip’ – my mother, my daughter and I, to the Trafford Centre. I had planned it carefully, to take account of her limited mobility combined with her refusal to acknowledge her physical limitations.  So we parked directly outside one of the main entrances in a disabled parking place, using her newly (and begrudgingly) acquired blue badge and only took in one shop.

The cardigan caught my mother’s eye almost immediately. Baby soft cashmere, with coloured stripes over a gentle cream background. Her fingers stroked it, feeling its softness, but she moved on after checking the price and then shortly afterwards said that she would have to sit down. My daughter and I dashed around the shop whilst she sat, fulfilling our ostensible purpose of finding a swimming costume that my mother could buy for my daughter.

When we arrived back at the bench, she glanced quickly back in the direction of the cardigan and commented casually ‘I could just try it on here I suppose?’. It was duly fetched and she tried it on at her seat. We looked around for a mirror and saw one on the wall about ten metres away. She stood up slowly, finding her balance and set off on the short walk to the mirror with her characteristic lurching start as she launched herself on her mission.

As she glanced in the mirror, I saw her appraise herself from the front and then, very briefly, turned to at a side angle, whereupon she grimaced at her bent and broken back and commented that she couldn’t get used to seeing herself look that way.

I was despatched to pay for the cardigan for her and my mother and daughter sat together back on the bench whilst I dashed through the shopping centre to buy us all ice creams. My mother always prided herself on being an ice cream connoisseur and I can remember very many occasions when ice creams purchased at various venues around the country fell below her exacting standards. But this day, she gave a nod of satisfaction and pronounced ‘now that is a good ice cream’ and I felt proud and happy at the resounding success of the trip.

The cardigan remained a big hit with my mother, quickly becoming a wardrobe staple. Light enough to be worn the rest of that summer, warm enough to be of use during the Scottish winter, and gentle on increasingly tormented bones and skin.

And a year on, it was one of the few items of clothing which came to the hospice with her. As she fell asleep whilst we watched the Wimbledon final together on her television in her room during my first visit, I laid it over her. When we took her out in the wheelchair into the hospice garden on my last visit, it was light and soft, tucked around her shoulders.

So after she had gone and my father invited me and my sisters to ‘claim’ any items of clothing which held significance for us, I asked for the striped cashmere cardigan. My father brought it to my house in a plastic bag, tied at the handles. As I opened it, the sweet, characteristic smell of the hospice seeped out and overwhelmed me and I quickly resealed the bag, unable to open it again for a few weeks. When I did, the same thing happened. I decided I had two options: keep it in the bag forever, or wash it and wear it.

I decided on the latter. So far, I have only put it on once or twice, in the house.   This year, I found myself back at the same shopping centre on Remembrance Sunday, delivering my youngest child to a birthday party. After dropping him off, I took my place amongst the crowds gathering to watch the television pictures transmitted from the Cenotaph in London on the big screen. As the poignant strains of Elgar filled the hall, followed by the cannon and then the silence, I was undone, suddenly and unexpectedly, by grief. I was not crying for the soldiers or the families, or for my ancestors affected by wars. I was crying for my mother, a war baby, and I was crying for myself and the renewed shock of realising what bereavement feels like. It’s the little things, like the cardigan. And it’s the big things, like knowing you will never see them again.

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Filed under dying, parenting

Eleven

cake popsMy only daughter is celebrating her eleventh birthday this week. Sometimes, I wish I could freeze her now, at this perfection. At this wonderful pause between young child and teen.

I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that before though. I have wanted to stop her getting older so many times – aged four, proudly wearing her pink ballet leotard and matching crossover jumper; aged six, her face covered in chocolate cake mix licking out the bowl; aged nine, teaching her little brother how to make a daisy chain. And countless other moments in between. But I’m glad now that I wasn’t able to stop time when I wanted to. If I had, I wouldn’t have got to know her now, with everything that makes up being eleven.

Eleven has honed a fabulous sense of humour, sharp wit and sense of the absurd. About eighteen months ago, we went out for a pub lunch and she and I visited the ladies’ toilets there. With a painted wall in front of me, and a door painted the same colour into the toilets to my left, I mistook the wall for the door and pushed against the unyielding concrete to try to open the ‘door’, baffled at my sudden weakness. My daughter was vastly amused by my ineptitude and spent the next few days periodically doubled up in mirth at my expense, gleefully recounting the tale to anyone who would listen. A year and a half on, if she sees a similar wall/door configuration, she will silently approach it and push on it, eyebrow raised quizzically in my direction. Recently, she went to the toilet, alone, in a restaurant and came back commenting casually, ‘there was one of those walls Mummy, so I pushed on it, just to amuse myself’.  I believe her.

Eleven has a strong, lithe, skinny body and is still reassuringly unselfconscious about it. Her ethereal, freckled beauty and pale, somewhat frail, appearance belies a considerable strength and agility. She is committed to her gymnastics classes, spending four hours a week with like-minded girls perfecting backward walkovers, back-flicks and flips, jumping into splits and shinning up ropes. At home or out and about, she will spontaneously throw a cartwheel when entering a room or walking along the road. She even tried to put her own stamp on the family cricket obsession – bowling with an integrated cartwheel manoeuvre.  I delight in her body confidence and hope that her current focus on what she can do with her body will continue through the hormonal years which are knocking increasingly loudly at the door.

Eleven is also making her perception of femininity felt in a house of brothers, embracing nail varnish and hairstyles with a reasonable amount of dedication. It is not done in a vain way, though, but rather as a way of expressing her personality. She tries to tease her long hair into a giant bow, for example, or paint each of her nails a different colour just because she likes the colours. But she does not do it merely to look pretty (although I am sure that is part of it). She does it for the challenge of learning a new skill, like a complicated plaiting arrangement, or because it delights her to match the exact shade of nail varnish to her fluffy socks, or her duvet cover.

Eleven is developing a consciousness of how to present herself to the world, of what she sees as the need to be ‘into’ things as a way of marking her presence in her peer group. She uses Pinterest and has pages for hairstyles, for cakes and for animals. Not just any old animals though – only the especially small, furry, cute ones. Her favourite picture? A photo-shopped creation of guinea pigs wearing fluffy jumpers riding bikes. She appears to have made it a self-defining characteristic at the moment that she will only like something if it is somehow in miniature. She loves tiny dogs (preferably wearing something fluffy, preferably being carried in a bag with its nose peeking over the top), tiny (pet) rodents of all varieties, miniature pens, pencils, rubbers in the shape of a miniature flip-flop, pointlessly tiny post-it notes. Even miniature bananas were spotted on a supermarket shop. She does not normally like bananas but she squealed and wanted them because they were ‘so cute’. She then ate one and declared it to taste acceptably different to the normal giant variety (it didn’t). She also insisted that we bought miniature custard pots for her custard loving older brother.   Aged thirteen, he railed at their pointlessness and ate four in one go. For her birthday party, she wants miniature cake pops, not a big cake.

Eleven can be breathtakingly thoughtful and mature. Two short months after my mother’s, her grandmother’s, death from cancer this year, I held a fund-raising coffee morning whilst the children were at school. Before we set off for school, she ran upstairs, found her pocket money and came down placing a two pound coin in my empty collection tin. She came and gave me a hug and whispered ‘something to get you started’. Along with this sensitivity is a startling and impressive amount of emotional resilience. She absorbs body blows, like realising that she and her best friend will be attending different secondary schools next year, rationalises them and moves on. She has already developed the ability that feels like an adult’s ability to express her upset, find her own way of dealing with it and recover.

Eleven is kind and caring to her brothers and is an especially wonderful big sister who has a particularly devoted little brother.   They will still play happily together and, being roughly the same height, delight in trying to find new ways to lift each other and devise dance/gymnastics moves, with her in charge. This often involves her being carried by him, as she is considerably lighter than he is and I expect she will not be (marginally) taller for very much longer.

Eleven is a very busy little thing with a packed weekly programme of violin, piano and recorder lessons, gymnastics and art classes. I periodically urge her to give something up and not exhaust herself, but she cannot and will not choose what she could possibly stop doing. We still read together, ploughing through the books of my girlhood and she seems to genuinely like the world of Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden.

Eleven does not yet appear to be embarrassed by me in public and will also almost always still hold my hand on the way to and from school and kiss me goodbye. I really don’t want that bit to stop but I know that change must be somewhere around the corner, as we hurtle our way through the last of her primary school years.

I know that I not only love my daughter, I like her enormously and enjoy her company. I can’t wait to see how she grows up.

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Little big boy, big little boy

202As the youngest sibling of a precocious brother and sister, the age gap separating no.2 son from our other children can seem greater than that of their birth dates. Yet, his closeness to his sister and ability to compete physically with his brother can also concertina those years and months. Eight years old and capable of being the little boy and the big lad.

Shopping with Mother in the Middle at the start of the week, no.2 son saw a teddy bear as tall as he is. He played with the oversized ted in the shop and declared he wanted it for Christmas. For the next few days, no.2 son would observe that big ted could be having breakfast with him, keeping him warm at night or sharing the joke in “You’ve been framed” reruns. A little boy craving a tactile toy.

Monday night at football training, no.2 son put in his usual shift. Running, tackling, passing – with an appetite for the ball and presence on the pitch that was rewarded with ‘Man of Training’ award for the third time already this season. With that accolade came the appointment as captain, signified with an arm band, for Saturday’s cup match. Not merely a big boy, but ‘Man of training’.

Twice in the week, I was on duty with the kids in the morning and walked the younger pair to school. No.2 son required, as he always has, reminders to and beyond the point of nagging to get himself dressed and equipped for school. Once out of the door, his hand finds mine. And so we walk, clasping paws, for the three-quarters of a mile to school, inside the gate and across the playground. A little boy whose need for the security of hand-holding remains stronger than any self-conscious anxiety about how that might look to his peers.

On Wednesday evening, I drove into Manchester with the two boys. As we approached our parking spot, we saw unofficial bonfires and ad hoc fireworks lit the sky. Stepping out of the car, there was a volley of bangs. No.2 son grabbed my hand, and dragged me in a direction away from the noise. I pointed the way we had to walk to the Etihad Stadium and he gave me a fearful look. We set off, his hand clinging to mine and pulling whenever he started at the sound of an explosion.

At the stadium concourse, Manchester City, the club with money to burn, held a dramatic firework display, which was too much for no.2 son. We retreated to the club shop and then to our seats inside, where the little boy recovered with a bag of sweets and watched his team lose its Champions League fixture.

Friday night brought indoor cricket. We arrived promptly and the hall needed reorganising before we could play. I set about moving benches and handed a ball to no.2 son, asking him to play with his teammates. Having cleared the hall, my attention returned to the team. No.2 son had organised a warm-up where each player took a turn fielding and catching the ball fed to them by my big boy.

Bowling first, no.2 son was disappointed with his effort. This, he explained to me later, motivated him to bat ‘properly’. For the first time, I see him guide and coax the ball, feet moving fluently, weight transferring to give enough momentum to the bat swing. Gone are the wild swishes and unbalanced swipes. He accumulated a run or more a ball and completed his overs without being dismissed.

I am umpiring at square leg, squatting on a gym bench, chatting with the county cricket coach. No.2 son, his innings over, pushes past the county coach and levers himself onto my lap. The mature, sensible cricketer reverts to the little boy in need of parental physical contact.

The following morning, Saturday, no.2 son and I walk – holding hands, of course – to the playing field for the cup match. At the ground, I tie the laces of his football boots, give him a tap and away he dashes to join his team. He starts the match in the position he has decided is his favourite – centre midfield. Under early pressure, prompted by the coach, he instructs his teammates where to defend at a corner. The match settles into a rhythm – one that no.2 son is doing more than anyone else to syncopate. He intercepts, tackles, dribbles, covers teammates, slips balls into their path and when the ball breaks to him on the edge of the area, he side foots it into the far top corner of the net. That it stays the only goal of a tight first half, owes much to his sprawling goal line block to a shot that has beaten his keeper.

The second half continues with no.2 son and his team driving forward and being caught by the opposition breaking fast. He intercepts one of their attacks, weaves past a couple of players before passing the ball wide. Seconds later the ball is returned to him in the penalty area. A clean strike sends the ball past the keeper. With a two goal lead, no.2 son is rotated off the pitch. The opponents rally, pull a goal back and the coach sends no.2 son back on the field with instructions heard on our side of the pitch: “Protect the lead”. Tackling and running hard, he plays his part.

Captain, goalscorer, midfield rock, recipient of the touchline dads’ plaudits and Man of the Match. I ruffle his hair and we walk across the field and back home – holding hands, of course.

We end our week of teddy bear envy, firework fear, cricket maturity, football achievement in the park. We have a kickabout, (pausing as no.2 son stands frozen by the presence of dogs) enjoying taking turns lashing shots at each other in goal. As the sun gives up on the day, the big boy’s biggest fun is had in the playground, being rotated on the hamster wheel and bounced on the see-saw.

Our youngest child is growing up at his own pace, which is both thrillingly quickly and reassuringly slowly.

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Filed under individual development, old head, young shoulders