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imgresMy poor 11 year old has come down with chickenpox. It’s such unfortunate timing for him as he only has another two and a half weeks left at his current school before saying goodbye to many of his classmates and starting at secondary school in September. It’s also a very unfortunate illness for him in particular as he already suffers from acutely itchy skin from eczema and hay fever. But on a more positive note I don’t have the school run and I get to spend some lovely snuggly time with him; it’s a great excuse to forget about work too!

We haven’t had chickenpox in the family for 15 years. That time my second child had a mild case the week before the February half term and then very kindly passed it on to the rest of us including me who somehow, despite my mum’s concerted efforts, had refused to succumb to the virus as a child. So we had a housebound half term week: my 3 year old who was completely better and full of energy, my 5 year old who had been looking forward to a fun packed holiday from school, my 18 month old and me, six months pregnant with my fourth child. My husband was between jobs at the time but, true to form, seemed to remember various meetings he needed to set up which would involve him staying away from home. To be honest it was just as well as he was never terribly helpful at times of illness and was always a trifle (??) on the impatient side when it came to children crying or making the slightest fuss about anything. From starting off feeling as if we were going to have a miserable week we actually ended up having a lovely time together and it is a week that we often look back on fondly. Our chickenpox week also became known as the week we became part of Pontypandy, home of Fireman Sam. In between making cookies, playing with play dough, painting pictures, reading stories and having long baths to alleviate the itchiness, we watched episode after episode of Fireman Sam. We must have watched each episode several times over as I’m sure we only had one Fireman video but it didn’t matter as we needed to absorb every last detail so that we could then re-enact each episode ourselves. That week I became Bella Lasagne, the rather scatty Italian owner of Pontypandy’s cafe and the owner of Rosa the cat. I played the role to the full and ended up speaking in a broken Italian accent for the majority of the week. Even now 15 years later I still find myself becoming Bella if I need to cheer everyone up or distract people from meal time squabbles. I doubt if any of us will ever be able to watch an episode of Fireman Sam without thinking of that week, incredibly itchy, housebound and isolated but full of fun, laughter and jollity.

So I am going to view the next few days as a chance to do some fun things with my youngest child ahead of the school holidays. We can play in the garden, read our current book, do some crafts, bake and watch some films together. Hopefully he too will be able to look back on his chickenpox week with fond memories that will stay with him forever. Which character should I be this time?


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! 





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.



In Praise Of Older Children

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I often find myself wishing I could turn back the clock and relive all those early stages with my children. How much easier it would be with the benefit of hindsight, above all with the knowledge that time passes so quickly and, almost in the blink of an eye, your children are no longer cute little bundles but handsome young adults who tower over you. I have loved all the different stages of my children’s lives; I was one of the really lucky ones for whom breastfeeding was a breeze (which is fortunate as I never could get the hang of sterilising bottles), I thrived on lack of sleep, was super organised and an ace at multi-tasking. I adored having lots of little people around me who all thought I was the most wonderful person in the universe. Life was hectic, I was always exhausted but I was happy. It was always so easy to solve my children’s problems and so easy to make them happy. I literally could “kiss them better.” How different it is as your children grow older. My mother always said to me. “the problems don’t go away as they grow older, they just get bigger”  and how right she was! it is so difficult to watch your older children struggle with obstacles and anxieties and to be able to do no more than offer reassurance that you will love them no matter what. And sometimes you have to stand well back and let your children do it their way even though you know from experience that it will all end in tears. Instead of keeping Humpty Dumpty away from the wall you have to figure out a way of putting all the pieces together again.Sometimes you need to adopt a policy of tough love (easy to say,not so easy to do) and leave your child to deals with the problems they have caused, all the time desperately wanting to demolish every obstacle in their path like a giant wrecking ball. Letting go is so very hard but necessary and definitely gets easier with practice (or so people tell me).

I remember when I was a teenager telling my parents to have faith in the way they had brought me up and I often remind myself of that when dealing with my own children. I always told my parents they had done a good job and had instilled good values in me so why were they so worried? Now, of course, I understand perfectly – the worry starts the moment they enter the world and it never abates, just the same as the total all encompassing love that you feel for them no matter what.

So I look at my own children and yes, of course I worry for them, but at the same time I can see that I’ve done a good job and that I’ve succeeded in raising five incredibly well rounded gorgeous boys. They can be infuriating. untidy, lazy and inconsiderate but if I’m honest a hundred times less so than I was at the same age and I wasn’t a difficult teenager. Most of the time they are a joy to be with. They make me laugh every single day, they support one another, they support me, they are interested in one another and always take time to ask me about my day with genuine interest. They behave well at school, are sociable, hospitable when we have guests. Yes, they often need to be reminded to put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher or throw their rubbish in the bin and even after five years still seem totally incapable of understanding the recycling system but they do respond to clear, direct instructions and will pull together if the house is a mess and “I absolutely must have it tidy right now or I will explode!”And sometimes they surprise me by emptying the dishwasher without being asked, bringing the laundry in off the line if it starts to rain, making me a cup of tea because I look as if I need one or by just giving me a hug when it’s all getting too much and I’m on the verge of teas.

The teenage years are tricky ones but also so much fun. I love the discussions about world issues we have over dinner, I love he fact that sometimes my children will tuck me in bed at night when I’m so tired I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. I love the way they put so much thought into birthday and Christmas gifts for me. I love how they introduce me to new music and also how they check my recent downloads to see if there’s something they can “steal”. I love how polite their friends are when they come round for meals and how kind they are to the eleven year old. I love how protective they are of me and how thoughtful they can be about keeping in touch by text when they are away from home or out late. I love how they have the courage to tell me very calmly when I’m in the wrong and also how they are generous enough to admit it  when they’ve been proved wrong.

I would hate to be a teenager in today’s world; there is so much pressure on them from such an early age to perform well, to look good, to be sporty, talented, cool. And all the time they seem to get such a bad press. Yet, for the most part, the teenagers I encounter on a daily basis are incredible:they are confident, caring, polite, enthusiastic young adults who do us all proud. I know that tomorrow I will have to nag my teenagers to make their beds and tidy their rooms but I also know that they will hug me when they leave for school, hug me when they return and when they go to bed, and they will make me smile and laugh many times in between.


Make The Most Of It!

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Whenever I took my firstborn out in his pram I would invariably be stopped by elderly ladies who would coo at the baby and then tell me to “make the most of it, they grow up so fast.” At the time the days seemed to crawl by at a snail’s pace. I was blissfully happy with my baby, totally head over heels in love, but for the first time in years I had so much time to fill. Being used to long hours in a stressful job and used to fitting all the household chores into odd minutes here and there I found it simplicity itself to keep on top of things. (I know, I was lucky.) Although my baby didn’t seem to like napping he was very easy and happy, especially when being cuddled, talked to or breastfed. My best friend would phone me every day during her lunch period which helped to break up the day but apart from that I had hours between when my husband left for work in the morning and when he returned in the evening. This was even worse when he travelled abroad for business. I was the first of my peers to start a family and had been too busy at work to attend antenatal classes so knew no other mums. The days seemed endless and it appeared to me that I had all the time in the world. Like most mums I couldn’t wait until the next stage-an  end to sleepless nights, solid food, walking, talking, toilet training,school, independence.

Now, twenty year sand five children later, I wonder where all that time went. I look at my eldest son and it seems like only yesterday that we brought him home from hospital wearing his Winnie the Pooh sleepsuit. So much has happened, so many ups and downs, and I realise that some of the happiest memories and the funniest family stories came from the trivial events of everyday life: a baby emptying his bowl of porridge over his head (EVERY day), a toddler helping himself to all the cooking chocolate from the cupboard, one son asking if his little brother would be a girl when he grew up, another asking me in a very loud voice (in a loo in Amsterdam of all places) what had happened to my willy. The stories go on and on and yet at the time seemed so mundane, so unimportant. I wish it was like in Harry Potter where with a flick of a wand you could extract all your memories and watch them over. But in reality there isn’t time; we live in the here and now and are too busy making the next set of memories.

So now, I too tell new mothers to make the most of it, to enjoy every minute because life rushes by so quickly. And when I’m having a bad day and everything seems to be going wrong I remember that some day in the future I will look back on my day of ‘disasters’ and remember instead something funny or sweet that my children said or did; well, I hope so anyway!