Family Holidays (Part One)

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I have so many lovely memories of childhood family holidays. My father loved planning holidays and always had a stack of holiday brochures in his bedside cabinet. Growing up we never had lots of spare money but he considered a holiday to be a priority and so every year carefully worked out the household budget to ensure that this was possible. It didn’t matter if we could only go away for a few days and didn’t matter if we stayed in the most modest of places, what was important was that we went away together and spent some time away from the usual interruptions of normal life. It was his way of giving our mum a break, of thanking her for all she did for the family, and it was an opportunity to show us more of the country in which we lived and then later, when there was a bit more money and we could travel abroad, to show us different cultures. I didn’t realise until later that it was also his chance to mark our parents’ wedding anniversary.

Many of my best holiday memories actually derive from things that went wrong: breaking down in France miles away from anywhere and before the days of mobile phones, my parents sticking their head in a gas cooker in a holiday cottage trying to light it and losing their eyebrows, being woken by concerned parents sure I was having an asthma attack only to discover it was a donkey roaming around outside. Holidays are just like normal life in that they are unpredictable, you have to be prepared for all the best laid plans going wrong. We had two nights in Paris at the end of a French camping holiday and my father had devised a busy sightseeing schedule which would culminate in an evening walk along the Champs d’Elysee and a special meal  to mark another year of being happily married. Unfortunately I started to feel unwell during the day and by evening had a raging temperature so much to his frustration my father was forced to go with just my brothers while my mother remained in the hotel to tend to me. My abiding memory is waking hours later to find that my fever had abated, my father and brothers had returned after having a very pleasant evening together and I was ‘forgiven’. We celebrated with  some extortionately priced ice cold bottles of coke from a vending machine in the hotel lobby and some food that my mother seemed to rustle up from nowhere;  what had been a miserable day for me was transformed into one of warmth, love and laughter which will always remain in my memory.

Many of our holidays involved driving long distances, a burden  which fell solely on my father’s shoulders as my mum never passed her test. My mum was sacked from navigating when she told him to turn right as we approached a roundabout with about seven exits. I will never forget his exasperation with her, caused entirely by the heat, fatigue and hunger. As a result my oldest brother took on the role of navigator although it soon became clear that this was a mixed blessing. Although his map reading skills were exceptional and he gave clear instructions, he would never ever take the shortest route between two points but instead would opt for ‘the scenic route’. This would invariably involve a multitude of winding roads miles from anywhere (probably a major contributor to our breakdown) but my father stoically drove and we all enjoyed the varied sights along the way although we could have done without  the frequent fear that we would run out of petrol far from civilisation!

There was the year I ate only wholefoods and so refused to eat any white bread. My dad would uncomplainingly drive for miles to find a boulangerie that sold ‘pain complet’ just for me. There was the time my mum tried on some wellies at the market (I’m not sure why as we were in Provence and the weather was consistently hot, sunny and very dry) and then found that she couldn’t get them off. I was of absolutely no help whatsoever as I was convulsed with hysterical laughter.

My father had a range of shirts which he kept specially for holidays as they were short sleeved, natural fabrics and very comfortable. For some reason his holiday shirts were all in orange and red tones and my mum always used to joke that at least we would be able to spot him anywhere. Until that is we lost him in an enormous  French hypermarket on a day when it seemed that every single man over thirty  was dressed in red or orange. 

And there was the holiday in France where we rented a gite for the first time. The first week of our stay was unseasonably cold and wet and the gite was draughty, dirty and cold. Although it had been advertised as having inclusive heating this did not work so we decided we would have to contact the owners to see what could be done. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing we managed to get the owners out to discuss the issues we had with the gite. I was studying French at ‘A’ level so wrote down everything that had to be said but refused to do the actual talking (too shy) so instead made my mum do it, grimacing all the time at her bad pronunciation (what a brat I was). Eventually it was agreed that the gite would be thoroughly cleaned and the furnace would be repaired so that the heating and hot water systems would work properly. By the next day the system had cranked up, the heaters were all fired up and…. the weather changed. For the next four days we absolutely sweltered as even with heaters turned off the furnace was generating masses of heat on its own. 

There are so many tales most of which probably seem so humdrum and ordinary  but which made our family holidays so special. We explored new places, we tried new foods, we experienced new cultures but fundamentally our holidays were about being together, no telephones, no letters, no other demands on our time. We would all return home feeling happier, more relaxed and closer to one another. 

So what’s the key to a successful family holiday? Planning, enthusiasm and a willingness to adapt, to accept that holidays with children are different. For my part I love travelling with children and have had so many adventures with them (more of that in part 2). We’ve had our fair share of holiday ‘disasters’ ourselves but overall I think we’ve done pretty well. I can’t wait until our next one! 

 

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Every child is an individual

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When I look at my children I see five sons who are individuals; they are all an amalgam of different genetic traits which can easily be attributed to various strands of their father and me but each one has other personality and physical characteristics which are totally their own, perhaps a throwback to a previous generation, perhaps a result of environmental factors. Who knows? I love the fact that they are a close knit band of boys but even more I celebrate the fact that they are their own people. Together they make the most amazing group of boys/men who bring me enormous joy and who, I know, have much to offer the world. In bringing them up I have had a set of family rules within which we broadly operate but I have always tried to embrace their individuality and to recognise that different children require a different approach. I had the child who had to eat frequently or he would lose the plot, I had the child who liked a strict regime, I had the child who liked to have things done for him, I had the child who liked to do everything for himself, I had the child who needed to be in bed at the same time every night, I had the child who needed a flexible bedtime. The variety is what made it a challenge but it also made it an adventure. Children are constantly changing, what works one week won’t necessarily work the next, there is no ‘one fits all’ approach to child rearing and people who refuse to see that do so at their own peril. Just because a child is shy at the age of two doesn’t mean that they will always be shy. Just because a child is restless and ‘boisterous’ at eight doesn’t mean that they will always be that way. Children learn to do things when they are ready and yes, sometimes, they need a nudge in the right direction, but that is all it should be, a gentle toe in the water to see how they react. If they are ready they will get stuck in and surge forward. 

It seems to me that nurseries and schools are, more and more, labelling children as having behavioural and developmental issues far too quickly even though, paradoxically, when there is a genuine educational need they often seem to refuse to acknowledge a parent’s concerns and refuse to press for an educational assessment. I know there are constant news stories about how many children are still not toilet trained at secondary school and how children are out of control but do we really know the true extent of this problem? And do we truly understand why this problem exists? is it because discipline is too lax or is because discipline is too rigidly enforced? Is the problem so great that we need to assess two and three year olds and move away from child-centred learning. There is a vast difference in expecting a fourteen year old to be able to sit still and concentrate for an hour and asking the same thing of a three year old. What is happening to our children’s childhoods?

I hated the first primary school I attended. My mother had chosen it when we moved to the area as it had a good reputation and was linked to the Church that we attended. I cried every single morning going into school and almost had to be dragged into the building; my parents were concerned but thought my distress was perhaps due to the fact that I was generally a clingy child. I hated that school; I hated the strict nonsensical rules, I hated being forced to eat food I didn’t like at lunchtimes; I hated how sarcastic the teachers were and how they openly favoured some children over others; I hated the way I was made to start learning to read from the prescribed reading scheme even though I already could read;  I hated the way we were constantly being told to ‘sit up’, to ’be quiet’, to ‘try harder’. My salvation came in the form of a severe dose of whooping cough which led to an absence from school of several months. My parents saw such a change in my personality that they decided to move me to a different school. I blossomed; this was a school that celebrated the individual. It was chaotic, filled with laughter, had very few rules and yet operated smoothly and efficiently. The Headteacher was the most inspirational man one could ever hope to meet (I still find myself retelling many of his stories to my own children), the teachers were happy, the pupils were happy, every one was valued for who they were and academically the school became the top performing school in the area; not through selective admissions, not through pressure, but by nurturing the individual child. My mother did a small stretch of supply teaching there and couldn’t get over how relaxed it all was but how it worked so fantastically well.  My father, who worked in Social Services, always tried to place foster children at the school as it would always do everything possible to integrate children from difficult backgrounds. A boy in my class started to go blind at the age of nine and the school bent over backwards to make it possible for his disabled mother to keep him at the school until it was time for him to start secondary education. I dread to think what would have happened to me had I stayed on at my first school; I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now.

Every day I become aware of yet another child who seems to have been unfairly treated by the education system. Flimsy excuses are given to explain why a child (with a known learning disorder) can no longer attend a particular school, parents are told their young child is hyperactive simply because he talks to another child during a writing exercise, parents are dragged into nursery to be told their three year old child is autistic without any previous warnings or concerns being expressed, parents are told that their school can no longer cope with their disabled child despite the fact that it has successfully done so over the course of the previous four years and the only thing that has changed is senior management. 

Why do we have this situation. Is it all about league tables? Is it lack of training? Is it a change in the make up of educators? Is it a by-product of constant new government initiatives? Is it a lack of funding or mismanagement of available funds? Is it a combination of all these things? Is it a case of people just speaking out more about their experiences? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that somehow we need to save the current generation of children. We need to give them back their childhoods, let them play, let them find themselves in their own sweet time. 

Education isn’t just about exams and grades. It isn’t just about preparing children for the workforce. We need to equip children for life. As

Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner maintained, education needs to include the cultivation of the moral, emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the child. It means looking at the whole child, not simply a narrow range of skills. In the past children were part of extended families and village communities which would bestow on them all manner of life’s experiences. Children learned how to cook, how to chop firewood, how to build a fire, how to navigate, how to raise animals before they started formal learning. At this stage, schools could concentrate on a more narrow range of activities. But as our community has become narrower and families have become more fragmented we need to look at schools to ‘close the gap’. Let’s forget about formally teaching young children to read and write and instead focus on the ‘softer’ activities: painting, dressing up, making dens, playing in sand, water, mud. Let them learn how to co-operate, how to take turns, how to co-exist with children and adults who may not be the same as them. Let them learn who they are and to respect what others are. Let them learn to be resilient, to be able to cope in the whole world, not just within the narrow confines of a workplace. Let our children be children. Let them learn as children learn best, through play, through observation, through the natural stimulus of the wonderful world in which we live. Let them learn to love learning and the learning will never stop.

 

Why I like June

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I have always loved the month of June. As a child it was a time of celebrations as both my brothers had June birthdays and even though later my parents dreaded the month, as it marked both the birth and the death of their middle child, for me it has  always held a particular charm. It is the month when the garden really comes to life with flowers blooming everywhere. Even when the garden seems to be taken over by long grass and weeds the whole picture is one of vibrancy, an inexorable display of God’s glorious creation. My Grandmother had a tapestry in her house which included the following extract from a poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney: 

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on Earth.

This seems to ring so true in June when the garden is alive with colour and activity.

As a child, June meant making ice cream, days on the beach, playing badminton in the garden every evening, cycling with my friends. Later it would be dominated by exams but my best friend and I always made the most of the sunshine. We would plaster ourselves with sun oil and sunbathe in one another’s gardens while testing each other on our exam subjects. After a couple of hours of work, it would be time to reward ourselves with ice lollies or coke floats and then back to our studies. We worked hard but it never felt like it as the longer the studied the more likely it was that we would have noticeable sun tans.

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Traditionally, the date of the June solstice influenced when people planted and harvested crops. Many believe that Stonehenge and similar megalith structures were built to help establish the occurrence of the summer solstice. Since ancient times people have gathered to celebrate the triumph of light over dark. Years ago people used to light bonfires on Midsummer’s Day to encourage the sun to shine. People would gather and roll blazing wheels down hill to imitate the journey of the sun across the sky. It was traditionally a time for love and marriage, a time for magic, a time when fairies would feast and dance from midnight until dawn.

Nowadays the majority of us simply focus on it being the start of Summer and we enjoy a lightening of spirits as a result. It is the time of Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, jugs of Pimms and Sunday barbecues with friends and family. There is the flurry of exam preparation followed by a gentle winding down of school work, rehearsals for end of year performances, sports days, long drawn out cricket matches on village greens. We polish off our bicycles and go off on cycle rides with our children seeking out pretty villages in which to enjoy a welcome drink or ice cream. The strict bedtime routines become relaxed as we take advantage of balmy summer evenings and stay outside for as long as we can, desperately trying to take full advantage of the kinder weather. We pack up picnics and set off on day trips to stately homes, the seaside, country shows and store up happy memories to see us through the darker months. 

Now, as my children have started to study away from home June marks the beginning of the long holidays, the return of the older ones to the fold of their family. It offers completeness, a chance to renew the tight bonds between siblings, to experience again the joy of a large, loving family, an opportunity to fill the house and garden with the sound of joyful laughter, fun and games. 

June

It’s beautiful the Summer month of June
When all of God’s own wildflowers are in bloom
And sun shines brightly most part of the day
And butterflies o’er lush green meadows play.

Light hearted skylark songster of the wing
High o’er the quiet and lonely moorland sing
Above her nest cloaked by the tangled heath
Her charming song so exquisitely sweet.

So mellow the gentle breath of june day breeze
The birds rejoicing on the leafy trees
And dappled trout in pool bed of the stream
Bask in the sun their spotted skins agleam.

God gave us June and all her lovely flowers
Bright sunny days and pleasant evening hours
Shady green glens and serene sunlit dells
And leafy bowers adorned with blue bluebells.

But god June’s maker has the final say
And what he give he also take away
And God’s own larks will trumpet in the sky
To celebrate the birthday of July. 

Francis Duggan

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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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Waiting

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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.

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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!

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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.

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