Monday, 17 February 2014

Rainbow hats and scarves

In my job I often meet 'members of the public' who want to comment on issues to do with the section of the public sector I work in.

Recently an older couple attended a meeting.  Afterwards the man was putting on his hat - it was brightly coloured in rainbow stripes.  'That stands for the Co-Op' he informed me.  'Other groups have taken it as their symbol, but the Co-Op had it first'.  He was wearing an USDAW badge.  'My heroes are Keir Hardy, Michael Foot and Tony Benn', he said.

He and his wife, who must have been in their 80s, had both asked interesting and interested questions at the meeting.  I could hear her talking to one of my colleagues. 'My passion is women's history,' she said. 

Her husband began to chivvy her to leave.  'I need to get to the university,' he said.  'Well, I was just waiting for you,' she said.  She put on her knitted, rainbow striped scarf, they found their sticks, and walked towards the lift.

They're not the only older couple I know who are full of enthusiasm and involvement in the world around them.  My parents are another.  Then there's the retired clergyman I know.  In his mid-80s he still plays badminton, leads services around the county, and he and his wife are currently hosting two bishops on a two-week visit from the other side of the world.  The wife of one of the bishops told me when I asked about where she was going next on their visits to various towns, 'We rely on K's itinerary, he's extremely well-organised'.

I hope that in around 30 years time my husband and I are like that.  Still interested, still wanting to make a difference, still passionate about our beliefs, still making a contribution to society.

As to what we'll wear, it may not be rainbow hats.  I'll talk about old people's 'uniforms' another time.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Moving further towards the empty nest

The invitations to daughter S's wedding have now been sent out, and people have begun to reply.  The RSVP is web based, so one or two people have had problems getting onto the website (could be their browser, could be that they're older), but it seems to be going smoothly in general.

I had a chat with S's fiance B's mum during the week and we discussed clothes.  I've got one of my 'outfits' in the sales, but am not sure which wedding to wear it to yet.  B's mum will wear a sari and I know will look stunning. My outfit is a traditional 'mother of the bride/groom' two piece.  We talked about various other issues to do with food and arrangements and we're both feeling quite excited.  We agreed that our children are a 'practical couple'.  We first met when S and B had just started going out.  At first it was just a short chat, but it progressed to having a meal together and we've now met several times and all get on really well.  I'm looking forward to continuing to become friends, and it will be particularly fun because we're from different cultures and it's interesting learning about them. 

Son G's parents live in another country and we've not yet met, only Skyped, but by a series of coincidences members of our family have met them in the past and in fact pushed K in her buggy when she was a small child.  So there will be some interesting reunions at their wedding, and I'm hoping we'll also have the chance to get to know each other whilst they're here for the wedding.

All the new relationships are exciting but I also feel a bit daunted.  Am I behaving in the way an 'in-law' should? Am I friendly enough, or too friendly?  I've always felt my social skills aren't great, so I hope I get it right. 

These new relationships are a kind of consolation for those that are changing so radically - our relationships with our children.  They will leave the nest and start building their own nests, but our empty nest will sometimes fill up with the new friends and family we are getting to know.

We are also filling the space with other things.  We've booked a holiday after the two weddings are over (my boss thought it hilarious that they are happening within a week of each other, but was very understanding about giving me time off around the weddings, and then soon afterwards for a holiday to recover!).  I'm involving myself in organising a monthly 'Cafe Church'.  And there are my two book clubs, which continue to thrive - one of them is still growing, with a new neighbour coming to the next one.

I'm also making the most of my time with the two children while they're still here.  G's living here this year, and the other night I played a favourite childhood game with him - Ocean Trader.  He beat me spectacularly as he always used to.  With S I've started attending a series of evenings on different types of spirituality, which I'll write about another time.  And we'll soon be attending a 'felting' workshop where we plan to make a bag for my mother.

But a part of me still feels a little bit sad.  The invitations have gone out - it's really happening.  Everything will change soon.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

A lifetime

I've just been finishing reading Christmas letters from friends.  One friend, J, sends a booklet every year and I spent a couple of pleasant hours yesterday afternoon reading through it, taking in the rhythm of her life through the year.  Christmas letters are often vilified and scorned by journalists, who mock them mercilessly, but I always enjoy the annual updates from friends, and look forward to receiving them.

This year the booklet from J included sad news of the death of one of her friends, B, who she'd met in Greece in 1977.  This was the year I met J, when she arranged for me to be an au pair for a summer vacation.  She was already working in Greece, also as an au pair, and B was a dance teacher.  I used to meet J and B on Sundays and they showed me the sights of Athens.  We sat in Omonia Square drinking thick Greek coffee and eating delicious ice cream.  I have a photo showing the three of us, standing in the hot Athenian light, smiling down the years.  It was literally a lifetime ago, and now I feel sad thinking about the end of one of those lives.  I didn't keep in touch with B, so I don't know what her life brought her, during the years when both J and I have married and brought up our children.  I hope she was happy.

A lifetime passes so quickly, yet when you're young it seems you have such a long time in front of you, to fill with all sorts of experiences.  I was listening to the Carpenters yesterday, the song 'For All We Know'.

'Love, look at the two of us
Strangers in many ways
Let's take a lifetime to say
I knew you well...'

It's become a bit of a convention to say that nowadays it's difficult to keep a marriage going for a lifetime, because a lifetime is so long.  In the old days, the modern wisdom goes, people didn't live very long, so they didn't expect to be married for as long as 50 or 60 years - they might only be married for 10 or 20.  So it's not surprising that nowadays, when most people live longer, they can't sustain their marriages, but must move on, and have serial relationships.

But I don't necessarily agree.  I like the idea of taking a lifetime to get to know someone well.  I still want to find out more about my husband.  I still think it's worth working at the relationship so that I can say 'I know you well'.  It's a wonderful gift to have a whole lifetime to build that closeness, and I'm grateful that we've had the years we've had, and hope we will have many more.

A lifetime built on the friendships detailed in the annual letters.  A lifetime framed by love for another person, strengthened through the ups and the downs. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The ancient paths

At New Year we travelled to cousins in the north.  There we enjoyed a family party - unfortunately S and G couldn't come as they were with their respective fiances in the south, but we had a great time catching up with 24 relatives we hadn't seen for a while.

After the party and the games and the fireworks on New Year's Eve, husband R led a short reflection for the family on New Year's Day, based on a verse from the book of the prophet Jeremiah: 'Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.' (Chapter 6, verse 16)

He talked about how the life of faith does not always have a single, easy answer when hard things happen. He talked about how we all make mistakes, and fail to live up to what we hope to be, but it's OK to say sorry and start again - indeed that is the basis of our faith.

And he talked about how the ancient paths can be the traditional ways that earlier generations have found helpful - maybe the old prayers, or some of the old customs, or the old communities.  It seems a strange message in a world where the new is what we prize, but it felt strangely comforting, and redolent of dim churches, smelling of wax and incense, and with the ghosts of harmonising voices hanging in the air.

I will draw on some of this as I go forward into 2014, facing all sorts of new things.  When daughter S returned from her New Year celebrations, she'd been making wedding invitations, and gave us the first one (an invitation from ourselves, as the bride's parents, to ourselves!).  I felt tearful.  I didn't cry when she tried on the wedding dress she finally bought (although some of the earlier ones she tried on had raised a tear) but the invitations brought home again that the weddings are soon, and after them the household will be different - not for a term or two, like when the children went to university, but for good.

But the ancient ways remind me of the old rhythms of life - the rites of passage around birth, marriage and death; the ceremonies and rituals that have been created over the centuries to help give weight to the changes we know are important, and want to mark appropriately.

These will create for me a framework for the changes I'm facing, some rules to follow which will help to make it easier to go through the changes.  We've used wording on the invitation that was on our wedding invitation.  We will follow a marriage service which has evolved over hundreds of years.  And we will weave into the celebrations some of the traditions of the other culture into which daughter S is marrying.

Doing this will give a richness to the changes which also provides a mitigation to the difficult aspects - the partings, the new ways of relating that we will have to develop. We join the ancient paths, and they turn out to be the familiar paths that have been trodden by so many before us.

The best thing about this week was the amazing firework with which we celebrated the New Year - it went on for two minutes and was completely spectacular.
And I've just listened for the last time this Christmas season to John Rutter's beautiful Christmas Album.
The worst thing was missing the toy duck race on New Year's Day because of a migraine brought on by all the excitement of Christmas and too much cheese, red wine and chocolate.  But my duck won even though I wasn't there.

Monday, 30 December 2013

An unexpected wedding dress

Christmas is over.  It was fun and exhausting.  On Christmas Day we hosted 12 people for lunch, including an overseas student friend of son G, and G's fiancee, my sister and her family, and our parents. 

On Boxing Day we made our annual trip to the nearby city where my parents live to celebrate Dad's birthday.  We joined half the city to walk around the lake in the local park.  It was very atmospheric - there was a faint mist through which we could see the lake in one direction, a sheet of silver, and in the other up the hill the park's stately home looking faintly sinister and gothic.  Everything was monochrome - black, grey, silver, and trailing white mist.

After lunch further friends and family joined us and after tea we played Mornington Crescent.  I 'won'.

On 27 December we went to husband R's family tea, when we commemorate his late Mum's birthday.  This time the games involved pulling names out of a bag and defining them in as few words as possible so other people could guess them. 

In between all of this, son G and his fiancee met friends and looked at where they might live once they're married.  Meanwhile daughter S felt sad because her fiance was with his grandparents and couldn't join us for Christmas.  She also felt sad because everything is changing.  But we've already talked about creating new traditions in the new families that will come into being after next August.  In some ways it will be a plus - the children will no longer have to endure rice pudding on Christmas Eve - a tradition I created after reading about it in a magazine article as something some European countries do.  They hide almonds in the rice pudding, and anyone who gets an almond receives a prize.  I thought it was a good idea because a milk pudding would be easy to digest before the richness of Christmas food, and also because it was fun to have the presents (usually little Christmas novelty chocolates from Thorntons, or, when they made them, Body Shop soap animals).  But although they put up with it for the sake of the prizes, the children have always disliked the actual rice pudding and asked for the smallest portions possible.  So this is a tradition they can discard.

Another tradition has been visiting the sales.  We've always done this in a somewhat desultory way, so haven't queued through the night for bargains, but nevertheless we like to see what's been discounted.  This time though, S also used the opportunity to go into the Oxfam shop and see if they'd had any additions to their second hand wedding dress rail.  They had, and one of them was lovely, and we bought it.  S was very pleased because it combined all the elements she'd hoped for in a wedding dress, whilst enabling us to make a donation to Oxfam.  She'd often said she wanted to buy her wedding dress from Oxfam because she felt it was more ethical, but she'd tried on dresses in other wedding shops to see what suited her and what she liked.  I had been shocked to find what poor quality material the 'new' dresses were - several had lace so harsh it actually brought S up in a rash.  But the Oxfam dress is made of lovely material - it will need some alterations to help it fit, but it's gorgeous.

And today I found my first 'mother of the bride/groom' outfit, at a sale price in a small shop that specialises in special occasions.

So we are inching further towards being ready for the big days.

Meanwhile, G's fiancee has taken delivery of her bridesmaids' dresses, which are charming.

Christmas has brought us the gifts of fun, and family time, and slightly unexpectedly some important clothes.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Letting go

This year the run up to Christmas has seemed much easier.  Even though we went away for the weekend at the beginning of December, thus cutting out some valuable preparation days, it has seemed less pressurised.

Why is this?

I think it's because the 'children' have been quietly completing some of the tasks I usually feel I need to do.  So daughter S helped me buy and bring home the Christmas tree last Saturday, and then decorated it, and I didn't need to do anything - with young children you still have to dig out the decorations and supervise the hanging of them.  When son G's fiancee arrived (she's staying with us for Christmas) he was mildly irritated when I checked if he'd offered her a cup of tea - of course he had, he's an adult in his mid-20s. 

Even though I still prepare a stocking for the children, and indeed this year have bought stocking gifts for their fiances, it's still felt less anxious than the years when I was frantically wrapping little gifts at 11.30pm on Christmas Eve.

The internet helps, because we could order various presents online.   

As I sit here, daughter S's fiance B has just brought us a slice of pizza, as we're ensconced in the study whilst they have a party with S's old school friends.  (It's actually the second party today - we had mulled wine and mince pies for neighbours and friends from 11am-1pm, and then S's friends arrived for their party.  It's finishing with a trip to the cinema.  This would not have been possible a few years ago because the double organisation would have defeated me.)

I'm enjoying this because it makes Christmas more fun.  I've always loved it but got quite stressed.  But I suppose a part of me feels strange that they no longer depend on me in the same way, and that in fact I can begin to depend on them to be involved, as adults, in all that family life requires. 

This time next year the Christmas cards will just be sent from two of us instead of four, and we will be negotiating with other families for time with the two newly married couples.  It will be different.  But letting go brings new pleasures, and no doubt this will continue as they begin to develop their own traditions, and involve us in them.

It's a Christmas of transition, but it's less difficult than I expected.

The best things this week: Finding a bizarre Fairtrade toy octopus as a present,  listening to wonderful John Rutter carols, and having all six of us (including the two fiances) together for the wekend
The worst thing this week:  We keep waking up at 3 o'clock in the morning for no reason and then it's difficult to get back to sleep



Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Joy

Daughter S and I visited a Victorian Christmas fair the Sunday before last, in a local market town.  We went on the train.  It was a cold, sunny day, and we ate roast chestnuts and bought Christmas tree decorations in the shape of tiny gingerbread men.

One of the attractions was a small old-fashioned 'ferris wheel', only large enough for young children.  One little boy was so excited that he was screaming with joy every time his chair went over the top of the wheel, waving his arms and legs, his face a picture of delight.

We enjoyed ourselves in a more sedate way, but it was a magical afternoon, which finished with a beautiful sunset, the bare trees silhouetted against flame coloured clouds.  On the train, the guard was wearing a contraption which blared out Christmas hits - it was bizarre but fun.

Last weekend we went in a family party to France - Husband R and me, Dad H, son G, sister T and her husband C, and friend B.  We stayed in a restaurant with rooms, taking up four of the five rooms, and pigged out on gourmet food.  On Saturday, some of us visited nearby Hazebrouck, once again on a train, but this time a double-decker train (the restaurant Le Buffet is literally opposite Isbergues Station). We met St Nicholas outside a cafe, who gave us delicious little cups of hot chocolate.

At the end of the visit, when we paid the bill, the proprietor's wife presented us with two bottles of wine, to enjoy when the family is together at Christmas.  Before going back through the Tunnel we walked on the beach at Calais, and saw the White Cliffs of Dover.

Now I'm back at work and have just finished a lengthy report about a piece of work which I've had to do in a very short space of time.  I feel exhausted, but it's done, and it's been an example of how a team can pull together and create something worthwhile.

The empty nest is getting closer - this time next year we can still visit the Christmas fair, or take a trip to France, but the family unit of 4 will be 2 - or sometimes  6. 

I'm relishing the joys of these times, a bit like the small boy on the ferris wheel, making the most of them.  And looking forward to new sources of joy when everything changes next year.

The best thing about the last week:  Hard to choose one, but probably travelling  upstairs for the first time on a French double decker train
The worst thing:  having to get up really early for work when I'm not a morning person