Keepsakes and memories

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Anyone who has lost their parents and has had the task of sorting through their belongings will understand what a daunting task it is. Firstly there is the sheer volume of stuff to go through and the decisions as to what to do with things at a time when one’s thought processes are blunted by grief, secondly there is the feeling that you are invading your parents’ private world. My parents died within ten days of each other, my mother after a long fight with Cancer, my father from a broken heart; they had been together for fifty years and I honestly don’t think they were meant to be parted. Although they had pared down their belongings over the years there was still so much to sort out and pass on to worthy causes; my brother and I together sorted through paperwork, diaries and photographs and packed everything that we wanted to keep in a family chest that we could both look through whenever we wanted. It was when I was sorting through my father’s clothes that I found an old Christmas card box that totally knocked me for six. I opened it and it was like going back in time; inside were all sorts of little treasures that would probably seem of complete insignificance to anyone else but which told me in no uncertain terms just how much my brothers and I had been treasured by our father.

I think he must have been putting things inside for years and years. There was a birthday card that I had written to him  when I was around seven, baby photographs and special school photographs, the fountain pen that he always used, a stick of shaving cream that took me straight back to how he always smelt at breakfast, the receipt from my brother’s first suit, a receipt from the hotel my parents stayed in when they took me to University for the first time, our brother’s name badge from his job in the bank, a wooden polar bear that our brother had made in woodwork at school and two little zoo animals. The last item held a special poignancy for me;  my father always used to bring me one of these back to add to my collection whenever he went away with work. I rarely played zoos with them but instead would build schools using a variety of building blocks and would use the animals as people. Certain figures were always used as teachers – an ostrich was a rather fluffy English teacher, a gorilla a gruff PE teacher and the zoo keeper was used as a rather ineffectual headteacher. A rather fragile looking gazelle was the head girl and a sturdy polar bear the head boy; they always ended up becoming romantically involved. I would play with my ‘school’ for days until our brother became involved and invariably enlivened the proceedings with pupil fights and canings by teachers. His school experience was perhaps somewhat different from my own! Anyway, inside the box my father had put a little monkey which obviously reminded him of me and a warthog which was designed, I think, to remind me how I nicknamed  my brother ‘Warty’ as he had a wart on his hand; I think it was my dad’s way of reminding my other brother and me that we shouldn’t feel guilty for having been typical siblings and that all children go through phases of being unfeeling and somewhat cruel.

We worry so much about what we will leave behind for our children but at the end of the day the very best legacy is happy memories. It is the little things in life that matter the most, taking notice of the things that our children do, remembering the small everyday occurrences rather than the big achievements.  When it comes to remembering those we no longer have we don’t need a multitude of keepsakes but just a few small reminders: in respect of my mum it is the recipe book full of all our family favourite dishes written in her beautiful handwriting,  my dad it is his little treasure box of keepsakes and a pair of braces which he always wore to work,   my brother it is two gorgeous shells that he found in the sea at Carnac on our last family holiday.

Little things, huge memories.



It’s not rocket science! [ex-files#3]

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Why, after being apart for ten years, does my ex-husband still find it so difficult to make arrangements to spend time with his children? Yet again he has left it to the last possible moment to liaise over the half term holiday and, as usual, is put out that either  the children or I have made arrangements and so the possible days for him to see all of them are limited. School holidays are published well in advance so why is it beyond him to sit down and do a little bit of forward planning? It’s always the same, everything is so last minute that it seems that they are the last priority on his list, it’s a case of fitting them in around everything else in his life rather than organising his life around them.

And wouldn’t it be nice if occasionally he could spare a thought for my needs? I still have to run my business during the school holidays so surely it’s not unreasonable to think that he could take on some of the childcare or at least offer? I’ve given up on all thoughts of an adult social life and definitely given up on the prospect of a romantic relationship – I don’t think many men would be interested in a mum of five children who only has a handful of child free nights a year! – but it would sometimes be nice to think that I could give my business the attention that it deserves. Surely, if he expects me to be able to support myself financially then he should participate a little more in bringing up our children?

I know that the situation will never change, after all if I couldn’t convince him of his skewed priorities when we were married then what hope do I have now? But it infuriates me! I’ve tried lots of different techniques but at the end of the day I think I need to fall back on the old proverb: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.



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imagesIt’s Friday night, the start of half term and a welcome break from revision and exams. Two of my sons are out with friends and I’m on standby waiting for the text to say they’d like to be picked up. We’ve agreed a latest time for collection but they know that they can contact me anytime and I’ll set off to get them. 

I’m filled with apprehension, so many things could go amiss. My sons are lovely, they’ve given me very little trouble over the years, they’re polite, caring and considerate. Best of all they’re good at choosing loyal friends. They’re all pretty sensible and they look out for each other but once they reach an age where alcohol is involved anything can happen. It only takes one person in the group to have one too many drinks for things to go wrong and that puts everyone in danger. One drink too many may cause someone to become outspoken and lead to a fight. One drink too many may result in someone being stupid and getting everybody into trouble. One drink too many may stop someone from being careful when walking through town. One drink too many may lead them to take risks and get in a car with a driver who’s been drinking. One drink too many may lead to an encounter with the police. One drink too many may result in a night at the hospital.

I try to relax, I try not to worry, I remind myself that my boys are sensible but at night the demons in my head don’t go away and I can’t settle. It’s on nights like this that I really miss having a partner, someone who can allay my fears, someone to lean on if things do go wrong. Instead it’s the turn of my 15 year old to keep me company until I get the text to set off and collect his brothers. He understands that I worry and he lifts my spirits with his cheerful conversation. I know he will stay up until we return, just in case he’s needed. It makes me sad that he has to give me this support but it makes me so proud that he wants to do this, not just for me but for his siblings.

So I sit and I wait. I perpetually look at my watch, willing the time to go more quickly. Why is it that during the day I never have enough hours to get all my work done and yet now, when I want it to go fast, time seems to stand still. Soon I’ll be able to set off and collect them. We’ll drop off various friends on the way and finally we’ll be home, safe and sound. They’ll be happy and chatty and probably keep me up for another hour or so playing me songs, telling me about their escapades and even though I’ll be desperate for bed, I’ll stay up with them, enjoying the moment and rejoicing that once again all is well. 


Why I like May

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Traditionally May has always been an important month with the first day of May being celebrated in many different countries. People come together to celebrate the approach of summer with customs that express their joy at the end of a long winter and their hope for the future. May Day celebrations date back to Roman times and their festival of Flora, goddess of fruit and flowers. Traditionally in England people would go a-Maying early on May Day. Houses would be decorated with flowers and greenery in the belief that the vegetation spirits would bring good fortune to the householders and children would make posies of flowers and leave them on the doorsteps of houses to bring good luck. Girls would wash their faces in the early morning dew in the belief that this would make them beautiful for the following year. They would make garlands by covering two hoops, one at right angles inside the other, with foliage and flowers and would sometimes put a doll inside to represent the goddess of Spring. Often a May Queen was selected who would be lifted by the men in a flower bedecked throne and would watch over the village festivities: dancing, archery, sports, Morris dancing, and, of course,Maypole dancing.


I have always loved the month of May, partly because it is my birthday month and who doesn’t enjoy the month of their birthday even when they’re grown up. But it’s much more than that. To me May is a month full of promise; Winter is finally over and, even though there may still be a few cold snaps, we know that Summer is just around the corner. The garden starts to come to life, we start pulling out summer clothes and shoes, we take a critical look at our bodies and desperately start a strict exercise regime so we will be ready for shorts and floaty summer dresses. The swallows and house martins return and busy themselves readying their old familiar nests for this year’s offspring and we bustle around the garden mowing and weeding and planting, restoring order to the chaos that has ensued over Winter, making things as perfect as we can for our longed for summer days. School playing fields go through a similar transformation and soon it is difficult to remember the rugby and football games played in mud as we see pristine cricket pitches, tennis courts and athletic tracks. It’s that wonderful time of year when children can actually go on the field at break and lunchtimes and run around in the way that children should or simply laze around on the grass making daisy chains. Time slows down, people start to relax, they smile more, they’re kinder to one another. There is an air of anticipation as summer approaches. Will we be lucky, will it be a good one, will it live up to expectations? At this moment, in May, it doesn’t really matter, the joy is in the expectation, the promise of good times ahead, the joy of no school, no routine, family holidays. 

My feelings about May are summed up perfectly in this extract from Robert Browning’s Home Thoughts From Abroad:

And after April, when May follows

And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover        

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That ’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over

Lest you should think he never could re-capture

The first fine careless rapture!

And, though the fields look rough with hoary dew,        

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower,

Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!


As a child I would fling open my bedroom window and breathe in the scent of the lilac tree in blossom underneath, listen to the song thrushes, watch the birds darting around building their nests and would feel totally content.

The world was a beautiful place and life was good.



Say No To Bullying

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imgres-1The other day my son told me that he’d been bullied throughout the course of two school years by a couple of boys in his form. It was the first time he had mentioned it and I was totally shocked as I had never had any inkling that anything had been amiss. It seems that the bullying was carried out by two particular boys who have a reputation for bring thoroughly unpleasant. Luckily for my son form time was a short affair and he did not have to endure these boys during lessons or at break times but it was clear that he had been through a terrible ordeal. When I asked him why he’d never said anything he replied that he was afraid things would be made worse, that he would gain a reputation for telling tales,  that he would suffer retaliation. I am glad that finally he was able to speak out but I am mortified that it has taken so long to do.

I have failed him, totally and unequivocally. We talk about things in our family, we talk about world events, death, sex, drugs, alcohol, money, morals, ethics. I have tried never to shy away from any topic that has been brought up even if at times I have had to talk separately to older and younger children. So in a home where there is free and open discussion, why oh why was my son unable to talk about being bullied? 

But I know that I mustn’t be too hard on myself. There were no signs that anything was wrong: he didn’t stay off school, he wasn’t quiet and withdrawn, his schoolwork didn’t seem to suffer, he didn’t come home with cuts and bruises or with torn clothes, he didn’t bully his siblings. We can only deal with problems if we know about them and sometimes people don’t want to share, perhaps because by saying it out loud it becomes real or they feel the problem is their fault or they want to protect other people from anxiety. 

And I know that his school bears responsibility for failing to act. It seems that on one occasion the bullies were seen doing something to my son and all the boys were sent to see their Head of Year. My son went along with their version of events that it was a game for fear of reprisals but really his teacher should have realised that these boys were unlikely to be part of his social group and should have investigated the matter further or at least alerted me to the possibility that there may be something untoward going on.

We need to be aware that just because a school has a policy of zero tolerance where bullying is concerned this does not by itself eliminate bullying. Our children need to be told time and time again that they must not allow themselves to become victims and that they must report bullying whether it is against themselves or someone else. Children need to really understand what constitutes bullying; it is not simply physical violence but includes ‘teasing’, name calling, excluding children from games, spreading rumours, taking belongings. And we need to be on the lookout in case our own children are the ones who are being the bullies.

I wish I could turn back the clock and put things right but of course I can’t. All I can do is be even more vigilant with his brothers to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again and offer as much support to my son as possible as he deals with the aftermath of what happened to him: anxiety, feelings of low self esteem, fear. I wish I could take the hurt away and make him whole again but that is a slow process, he is a different person now than he would have been, less trusting, more wary but probably also with more compassion and more understanding of how easy it is to become a victim and how hard it is to forget.


I carry your heart

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[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]


i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)

                                                      i fear

no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want

no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

“[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” Copyright 1952, © 1980, 1991 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust, from Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Source: Poetry (June 1952).

Many of you will recognise this poem from the film “In Her Shoes” starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Colette. It’s a love poem which  to me sums up perfectly the feeling that we carry our loved ones, both living and dead, in our hearts. They are always with us and  our thoughts rarely stray from them. We have a girls’ day out shopping and end up buying things for our children, we have an adult meal with friends and end up exchanging family anecdotes. We crave some time away from our families but then miss them desperately when they’re not there.

The smallest things remind us of the loved ones we have lost: a snatch of music, the scent of a favourite flower, re-telling a story that they once told us.  We see them in the mannerisms and expressions of the ones left behind and in that way they never completely leave us. Above all, we carry them in our hearts, an intrinsic part of our very beings, a part that can never be taken away from us.

We fear our children starting nursery, then school, then leaving home altogether but really there is no need. We may not be with them physically but we are with them in spirit and they can feel our love and support no matter where they are. And even when we are no longer here in this world to protect them we will still be carried in their hearts helping them on their journey through life.



A bump in the road

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It always happens; family life is going smoothly, everyone seems happy and then, without warning, you hit a bump in the road. We had one last year when my then seventeen year old turned my feelings of complacency upside down. There had been signs that all was not right but nothing really that couldn’t be explained by normal teenage angst. Unwittingly we all started to walk on eggshells around him. He got to choose what we did, no-one contradicted him, we made life as easy as we could for him because after all he was doing exams, it was a stressful time for him. But then one summer’s night, the first day that everyone started their long holiday, all the anxiety that must have been bubbling under the surface suddenly came to a head. He was abusive, both verbally and physically, harmed himself, punched others, told his youngest brother he was leaving home, told people he had to get away or he’d kill himself. I don’t think we’ll ever really know what sparked all this off. Alcohol certainly added fuel to the fire but I think it was inevitable that the dam would burst at some stage. The repercussions were horrendous and shook the whole family to the core. He said some pretty hateful things to people and whether they were meant or not they certainly had a damaging effect. His youngest brothers were scared by both his venom and his physical strength, his other brothers felt angry with him for behaving in such a way but also protective of him and sad that the closeness that had always existed between them seemed to have disappeared. And me? I was utterly devastated. None of my children had ever used the ‘hate’ word to me before and I took it at face value. My confidence as a mother was shaken to the core and I felt that I had obviously failed completely as a parent. I totally blamed myself for making my child unhappy and believed that our family unit would never recover. I found it impossible to remind myself of all the other happy times we had had and could only think about this particular night, replaying the events over and over in my mind trying to make sense of what had happened. 

It was a tense summer to say the least. After a couple of weeks staying with his dad my son returned home and we all tried to move forward but it was difficult. We all felt wary of him, unsure what might trigger another outburst. And we all felt that he looked down on us, that ‘hate’ word was hard to shake off. Primarily though we were concerned for him; he was obviously suffering and was obviously scared himself. Anyone who has ever felt depressed will know that sometimes people can just feel awful all of the time without knowing why. As friends and family we tend to want to find solutions for them when really there are none; all we can really do is be there for them and follow their cues.

September came and with it a new school, a fresh start and very slowly we started to see him return to his former self. At the start it was a tentative journey to recovery but then one day we all realised that he had returned to us. Once more he is  becoming that lovely, thoughtful, generous young man who cares deeply about his family. Once more he is showing his love for his family in affectionate gestures and in his words. I think he still has anxiety issues but he is learning to acknowledge these to himself thereby learning to deal with them. 

I have always been proud of him but never more so than now when I see him working so hard to move forward in a positive fashion. It is so easy for people to hit a bump in the road and to allow the rest of their life to be defined by that event; it is so much harder to pick oneself up, shake oneself down and start again.And I have been so proud of his brothers who have stood by him, who have understood that we are there for each other no matter what, who never turned their backs on him but instead went out of their way to reconnect with him. The experience has changed us all; it has made us more aware of our own human frailty, more understanding of others’ frailty and more conscious of the fact that we must never take our family for granted.