Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lost in Translation - or "Sheeps are Disgusting"

I was in the post office the other day, trying to squeeze in one more errand before lunch.

Without warning my stomach began to rumble. It started as a low gurgle but the gurgle was soon accompanied by a strange and high pitched squeak.

A little girl who was sitting in the child seat of her mother's shopping trolley looked up from her stuffed toy and glanced around.

"There's a cat". She exclaimed. Her mother smiled at me but was too polite to say anything. I placed my hand across my stomach. "It's my tummy". I told the little girl and as if to prove a point, my stomach made the catlike noise again.

The line moved and the mother and daughter were called up to the counter.

When they finished their transaction the woman smiled at me and said, "Good bye".  I responded and gave the girl a little wave. She waved back but looked a me suspiciously, staring at my stomach as she passed.

I wondered what was going through her mind. Has she understood that my stomach sounded like a cat not that there was a cat inside it? Sometimes it is easy for things get lost in translation if an explanation is confusing or incomplete.

Seventeen years ago I was living and teaching in London. My daughter, Amy, was just about to turn three and attended the nursery (kindergarten) attached to the school where I taught. It was an ideal situation. The nursery was wonderful: large well equipped rooms, a lovely play area and an excellent staff. Plus it was  slap bang next door to a City Farm. It was also very convenient because I took Amy with me, to and from work.

We were driving home one day and I was aware that Amy was unusually quiet. She usually chattered non stop about her day as we drove home. In face the only time Amy ever stopped talking was when she was asleep. I watched her in the rear view mirror as she stared silently out of the window. I wondered if she might be coming down with a cold or a sore throat.

I was about to ask if she was feeling O.K when out of nowhere she announced, "Sheeps are disGUSTing."

I was rather taken aback. 'Sheeps are disgusting' is not a sentence you hear everyday.  I clearly couldn't let this go and so I said "Why?"

Apparently Amy's class had visited the city farm that day. A call had come through to the nursery that one of the ewes had gone into labor and if the teachers rounded up the children quickly enough they would have a chance to see the lamb being born.

The class had arrived in time to witness this wondrous event but Amy had not been impressed. "A baby sheep came out of its Mummy's bottom and it was covered in blood. It was DISGUSTING."

I tried hard not to laugh. I always loved child's eye views on life. It was one of the reason I became a primary school teacher.

But with this cute, child's eye perspective on an incredible but every day event, there was opportunity. Although Amy didn't know it,  I was nearly four and a half months pregnant at the time and I decided that this would be a marvelous time to initiate a conversation about where babies come from and the miracle of birth.

"Ahhhhhh." I said. "That's not disgusting. It's wonderful. A new sheep has been born. The mummy sheep must be feeling so happy tonight."

I glanced at Amy in the rear view mirror. She was listening, although she still looked rather doubtful.

"That's how you got here" I told her. "You lived inside my tummy and then when you were big enough to be born, you came out of my bottom (I decided to leave the introduction of vaginas until another day) and you were covered in blood. But the nurse washed you and you were beautiful and Daddy and I were SO happy."

Amy's eyebrows raised in disbelief. "Is that REALLY?" she asked.

"Yes" I nodded. "It is."

"Oh".  She said, she sounded quite surprised but she seemed satisfied with my story and let the matter rest.

Several months later,  a group of friends came round for lunch.

I was large, my due date was fast approaching and Amy was now well aware that there was a brother or sister on the way. People were constantly touching my belly to feel the baby kick. The conversation turned to where I would be having the baby and what type of birth I was hoping it would be.

In the middle of the discussion Amy suddenly piped up, "I lived in Mummy's tummy before I was borned."

"That's right." said one of my friends, putting an arm around Amy and giving her a little hug. "You did."

But Amy hadn't finished. "When I was big enough to be borned......" she looked around the room  and paused as if for effect.

"Yes...?" my friend prompted her.  Amy waited until everyone was listening.  "........I came out of Mummy's bottom, and I was a baby sheep."

                                                      * * * * * * * * * *

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The perfect sense of self.

At the weekend my cousin, Joanna's daughter, turned three.

It is easy to be biased where family members are concerned, but Freya Grace is truly one of the sweetest little girls I know.

Not only is she is very pretty, with shiny blonde hair and enormous blue eyes, but she is well behaved, confident and articulate. She is a joy to be around. We are a loud family when we get together and Freya is never in the least bit fazed. She visits everyone's chair in a restaurant and is happy to share all her news.

I am sure it is the same in all families. When a new member is born we are all keen to chase the connection and see how this perfect little person is connected to ourselves. A new shoot on the family tree. A chip off one of the already existing blocks. Who does she take after and why? So here are some links - just for starters....

From her father.  - Freya inherits her incredible blue eyes and her aptitude for sport.  (No sign yet of a passion for Luton Town FC but maybe that's a good thing....)

From her mother - many things of course, but when I heard that  Freya was excelling in her ballet class, I couldn't help thinking of the tap dance routines that Joanna used to perform for we the relatives.  Any hard surface would do....

From her Aunty Emma -  Strong will and determination. Freya recently found a way to scale the kitchen cabinets in order to steal a muffin from the counter top. The muffin was taken away from her and she was told not to do such a thing again. But Freya was not put off. She risked the fairly dicey climb a second time and was caught, muffin handed, once again. Freya's Aunty Emma was a notoriously strong willed and inventive toddler, so perhaps that trait came from her..?

From my daughter, Amy - A love of handbags. Both Amy and Freya's handbag collections would turn Paris Hilton green with envy as would the hair clips and rings and bracelets.

From her Cousin (a couple of times removed) Isabelle - the preference for dresses. Isabelle is famous for doing everything, including horse riding, bike riding, rock wall climbing, snowball fighting, water rolling......... in a dress. I have yet to see Freya wear anything else.

From her grandfather, Frank the Farmer, - an interest in horticulture. Freya had a plant in her room. Most two year olds would refer to it as her pink flower. Freya uses the correct terminology and calls it her pink pelargonium. She also remembers that it should only be watered on Sundays. Apparently it is reaching quite a size.

And so I could go on. Whose laugh is that? Whose smile? Who else in the family has a tendency towards x, y or z?

What would Freya think about all this? Not a lot, because she does not see herself as an extension of any other person. She has such a strong and healthy sense of herself.

 Last Christmas, Santa bought Freya a Cinderella outfit but she refused, point blank, to put it on.  In spite of her love of dresses and accessories she could not be persuaded to don the beautiful blue and white gown, the glittering tiara and delicate 'glass' slippers.  The family were astounded. They had expected Freya to love the costume and to put it on straight away. Everyone tried to talk Freya into wearing it. "If you put it on you'll be like Cinderella," they told her.

 Freya's answer was emphatic. 'But I'm not Cinderella. I am Freya Pueschel'.

When Joanna told me this I laughed. I could just picture the stubborn shake of the glossy blonde head and the upward tilt of the chin.  But when I thought about the conversation later I began to love the story for what it said about Freya. She does what she does because she is who she is. She is not copying someone else or trying to impress. She sports the clothes and accessories because she likes them, dances because she loves the feeling it brings, kicks a football and runs because she can and, if the opportunity presents itself and she is in the mood, will find a way to reach a forbidden muffin, even if it is high up on a counter top and she has been told a definite 'NO".

How wonderful it must be to feel so confident and free. To be completely happy living in ones own skin.

So now, when  I find myself wishing that I was someone different, (or at least a better, more organized, more successful version of myself), I will remember the words of my young relative and be happy being just being me. 

* Photo of Freya  included with kind permission from her mummy, my cousin, Joanna Pueschel

Monday, May 2, 2011

Celebrating a death?

Last night, along with hundreds of thousands of others across the world, I watched President Obama announce that Osama bin Laden was dead.

This was monumental news and we were witnessing history unfold. After the announcement, the cameras switched to the celebrations taking place outside the White House. Throngs of people, many of them waving flags and chanting "U.S.A." crowded together to share their joy.

All over the U.S people began to party in the streets and  not just outside the White House in Washington, and in Times Square, NYC .  Even over here on the west coast in Portland OR, far away from Ground Zero and the Pentagon, crowds gathered in the center of town to cheer and celebrate the death of the most wanted man in the world.

But for me there was something wrong about the images and I couldn't quite say what. Bin Laden deserved punishment that is certain. The people who lost loved ones on 9/11 deserve some kind of closure. And the world is probably a better place without him, (although Ayman al-Zawahiri is still free and there are plenty of others who will step into his shoes).   But regardless of how I viewed the situation I simply couldn't  feel the same level of excitement and elation that the people partying on Pennsylvania Avenue so clearly felt, and I wasn't quite sure why.

 And then, just a few minutes ago, I checked in on facebook. The most recent status update in my news feed had been posted by my daughter. What she wrote summed up what I had been feeling all day.

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
Martin Luther King Jr. -  via Amy Cleary, my wise and compassionate daughter.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Upcycling. I'd never heard the word until yesterday. It was brought to my attention by my friend, Nicky Stackhouse.

According to Wikipedia, Upcycling is . . .
 "the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value". 

Nicky is in the process of launching a business turning recycled bags into beautiful, exquisite, original, handmade greeting cards. The ones in the photograph below are made from used Trader Joe's bags. Hard to believe, but true.

The idea is fantastic, so simple and so now. The execution is skillful, the result a joy to behold.

But I think there is a whole lot more to upcycling than wikipedia describes. Upcycling can be applied to many things besides waste products or useless items. Therefore, I think a much better definitions is  "Upcycling - the process by which something that already exists is turned into something even better than before".

 Nicky is the reason for my definition. Nicky is upcycling more than just discarded bags.

Last summer Nicky was diagnosed with breast cancer and spent last autumn and this winter fighting to beat the disease. After many grueling hours of tests and doctor consultations, months and months  spent recovering from or preparing for bouts of chemotherapy  and a double mastectomy she is well again. And boy, is she now upcycling herself.....

Nicky always was full of energy and life. Whatever she did she did well and with enthusiasm and she was always fun to be around. But she seems to have taken things to a whole new level.  She is like a whirl wind. She radiates energy and a lust for life.

After lunch with a few days ago she left me on a high. She told those of us present that she had spent too long as a 'sofa slug' and now she was raring to go. Her eyes were bright, her skin was flushed and her eagerness to get out there and do something was infectious. Her ideas were flowing, her mind was spinning, there were not enough hours in her day.

And it doesn't stop there, this upcycling thing. Before Nicky's bout with the Big C she and I were friends but our lives sort of bumped at the edges. We knew people in common and met at the occasional party or lunch, but we did not see each other regularly. A crisis brings people together and that is what it did to us. Apart from being part of Nicky's Knockers, a team that entered the Race for the Cure, I got to know Nicky in many other ways.

During her illness she kept a Caring Bridge Blog. The entries were funny, poignant, informative and well written. Through her blogging and talks about writing we learned new things about each other and our relationship developed. Whenever we see each other, our mutual interest and respect for all things creative and innovative bring us closer.

Our friendship has also been upcycled. We are taking something that already existed and turning it into something even better than before.

So here's to upcycling. What will you upcycle today?

 ******* Cards are available at The Libertine ( ) and sure to be in many other places soon. ********

Friday, April 8, 2011

Short Story.

Today's post is something slightly different. It is not inspired by an actual person but by someone I have never met and whose name I do not know.  It owes its existence to the person who came up with the sentence"It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town." and invited subscribers of Writer's Digest to  finish the story in 750 words or less. 

I had never felt any previous desire to write about a traveling circus but writing outside an area of comfort or interest is even more challenging than writing about what you care about or know. So, I decided to give it a go anyway.  I didn't win or it would have been published in Writer's Digest, not here. But it seems a waste to work on a project that never sees the light of day. So I hope it is something that you will enjoy. 

It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town. Eliza stood in the shadows and watched the wagons rattle past. The moon was already high, casting its silvery light and draining all color from the scene. The horses hauling the loaded carts looked ashen. The men who held their reins were pale as ghosts. Eliza realized that she would not know him if she saw him and felt a rush of relief.

It was late September and Eliza had not expected to still be here. The harvest was over. The fields were dotted with mounds of fragrant hay and the silos were brimming with corn. Casual labor was no longer required. There was no reason to stay.

But three days ago, as Eliza was retying her bundle, a peddler had arrived in the small town square.

“I saw them myself,” he told the women who bent to examine his wares. “The tents and cages and that. I could hear the animals roaring and smell their stink from the road. Packing up they were. They’ll be here any day.”

Eliza stood close, fingering the spools of ribbon and lace, turning buttons and hairpins in her work-worn hands. She would wait now, and see her mission through. The bundle on her back was heavy and with winter coming, it was time.

Eliza remembered the day, almost a year ago, when she’d watched the circus setting up in her hometown. Men, muscular and stripped down to the waist, heaved on oily ropes as the blue and yellow big top rose and took on shape.

Women walked between the men, sloshing beer into large tin mugs and playfully shoving anyone who grabbed at their swaying behinds.

One woman in particular caught Eliza’s eye. She was older, matronly, laughing as she coerced and hugged and chastised. Everyone called her Ma and Eliza loved the way she smiled.

Eliza’s brothers had accompanied her to the show. She’d clutched at their arms as fearsome tigers swiped the air with heavy paws, and had laughed until her sides ached, at the antics of the clowns.

But the acrobats had left her wide-eyed and speechless with awe. Four men, dressed in tight, sequined leotards, sprang effortlessly from hands to feet across the ring. They were sleek as fishes darting through a stream. Then audience looked up, heads tilted, mouths open, as two men climbed to the top of the tent and swung on a trapeze. As they sailed effortlessly above the crowds, passing in midflight. As Eliza watched enraptured she was barely able to breathe.

When the acrobats took their final bow, everyone rose to their feet. The applause was tremendous, the shouting loud and full of joy. Eliza stood too. Her eyes shone and her cheeks were pink. She laughed and clapped and cheered. One of the men paused mid bow. He caught her eye and stared at her with a gaze so penetrating that she saw it in her sleep.

The next day her feet led her back to the field. She spotted him immediately, standing on the steps of a brightly painted caravan, talking with the woman they called Ma. Ma prodded his arm and wagged her finger. They laughed and Eliza saw that their eyes and smiles were the same, mother and son, so it seemed.

The acrobat spotted Eliza. He performed a low, sweeping bow and offered her his arm. With barely a second thought, Eliza placed a hand in the crook of his elbow, and the pair began to walk.

Later, much later, Eliza stumbled home. Her face was streaked with tears and her skirts were torn. She ran a comb through her tangled hair and changed her dress. Her father and brothers must never, ever know.

But by the time the frosts turned the grass rigid, the results of that fateful day were impossible to hide. Eliza’s father lamented her motherless state. Her brothers set their faces hard and old her that she could not stay.

Eliza took what she could carry and set out across the fields.

And now here she was, alone and far from home, waiting for the circus folk to pitch camp and retire. When the campsite was silent and dark, Eliza found the caravan she remembered and lay the baby down. Choking back tears, she crept away.

The boy was quiet. His tiny fists jabbed at the air.

On his shawl she’d pinned a note.

“I cannot manage. He is yours.”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The old hag at the castle gate.

If I had seen her anywhere other than at the door leading into a 16th Century castle, would she have looked quite as strange? Was it the back drop of crenellated battlements that gave her a ghost like quality or would she have unnerved me anyway?

Her hair was long and limp, hanging about her face like a nicotine stained net-curtain. It was so greasy I believed I could smell it, although I was several meters away.

Her hands were gnarled and corrugated with veins. They shook as she lit her cigarette. Her nails were  curled and grey like the fossils known as Devils Toenail.  They had not been cut or filed in many years. She was a female Fu Manchu.

She was sitting on the step, this old woman, her head bowed low to concentrate on setting fag to flame. The day was bright and clear and the spring sun warmed my back and yet she still looked icy cold.

I could not slip by and reach the gate unnoticed and so I said "Hello."

She raised her head and her eyes met mine. They were deep set, and dark as a the corner of a grave. She stared at me, not speaking, and I felt that she could read my mind.

Her back was bowed by age, her skeleton ruined by the sucking in of smoke. Her shoulders were hunched high and round and her head seemed to waver on the end of her neck, like a hungry vulcher seeking carrion.

But it was a face that gave me coldest chills. I could not believe that skin of any age could bear so many lines. Every inch in was marked, like inky letters of an unknown language scratched onto ancient parchment. This was no development of character but a sign of advanced and severe decay.

I toured the tower, seeing her out of the corner of my eye at every turn in stairs and behind each heavy  door.

When I emerged into the light of a dazzling afternoon, the old woman had gone.

(Inspired by a woman I saw at Bolsover Castle, Bolsover Derbyshire, England March 24th 2011

Monday, April 4, 2011

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Today I heard an interesting story and it was from an unexpected source.

As my facebook friends are probably aware, I am reaching the end of a long remodel. My house has been full of workmen for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Usually a tap on the door of the room in which I hole myself up during the day is a huge source of irritation. I dread hearing, "Have you got a minute?" or "Just a couple of really quick questions for you..."

Today there was the usual knock on the door. The painter apologized first and then was off with the inevitable "Sorry to disturb you but.."

 I was answering his inevitable quick question,  when he stopped me in my tracks and said "I have to say, I just love your accent."

Now this in itself is not unusual. As an English woman in America, it happens to me all the time. But the painter (let's call him Nick) is Russian and generally people who speak English as a second language don't hear the difference between accents in the way that other English speakers do.

To further pique my curiosity he added, "You sound just like my, Uncle."
"Your Uncle is English?" I asked.
"No" he shook his head. "Actually it's an interesting story. Have you got a minute?"

I said I had and so he told me this....

During the second world war his Grandfather was gunned down by a German soldier. His grandmother was left to raise seven children, alone in Belarus. In desperation she had to find ways to house, feed and clothe them. It was a huge dilemma and caused her enormous pain. Some of the children spent time in foster homes. She selected families who lived close by so that she could see the children regularly and take them back when times were not as harsh.

She did the best she could but some were sent away. One of Nick's Uncles was sent to military school in Moscow. He was just five years old at the time.

Being away from his family was tough but he received and excellent education and learned to speak English perfectly, with no hint of an accent. He literally sounded like a native.

As he entered adulthood he was singled out by the KGB.  They wanted to send him to London where he would operate as a spy. He would move in elevated circles, live well and at the USSR's expense. A life of glamour and opportunity beckoned.

However, his mother, (Nick's grandmother), had never recovered from the traumas and losses she suffered as a result of the second world war. She was adamant that he should not become involved in espionage because she believed that it could only stir up trouble between countries and lead to more death and despair. She told her son that if accepted the position,  he would be dead to her.

Nick's uncle chose his mother over his country and refused the position offered by the KGB.

As a result his life would never be his own. Rather than having a profession, he labored in a factory. Whenever he traveled he was interrogated about the reasons for his journey. He was even followed and spied upon at times. The KGB could not believe he had turned down the appointment because his mother had begged him to. They assumed he was working for another government and would not leave him alone.

As Nick talked I was captivated. I no longer felt irritation at having been taken away from my own work. I listened as he told the story in his rich, rolling accent. I waited patiently as he searched for the right words. The ones that would accurately convey his uncles triumphs, frustrations and pain.

 "So" he said, shrugging his shoulders and pursing his lips when he had finished. "That is that."
I was stunned. "Wow" I said, for want of a better word. "You really should write all that down."
He laughed "Everybody say that." he replied.

His uncle is living in Portland now. He moved here to join Nick and his family when they were all given refuge status by the USA after facing persecution in the former USSR - But that's a whole different story.

I never ceased to be amazed at the stories of other peoples lives.

 I will keep in contact with Nick long after the painting is done. I would love to meet his Uncle, the one who sounds just like me, and maybe, just maybe, we could get together and write this stranger than fiction story down.

Monday, March 28, 2011

There's always one.

When my son and I arrived at the airport the day before spring break, we got off to a very smooth start. We had printed or boarding cards at home and the airport was surprisingly quiet.

However, we had barely even joined the line at security before a woman began to spoil things for everybody else. At first she was just being obnoxious. She pushed and shoved at every opportunity she got. She forced her way between me and my son even though we'd been talking to each other and were clearly together. She huffed loudly as she bumped her pull along carry on against my leg and whacked my sons back pack out of her way as she tried to get past him. She'd taken me by surprise and I had stepped back and let her go. But my son is 6ft tall and stubborn. He braced his legs and blocked her path.

"Is your gate about to close?" I asked, in case my son was obstructing the path of a genuinely panicked and short on time passenger.
"What?" she snapped
"What time is your flight?"
"What's it to you?"
I shrugged. "I thought you might be late."
"If you are late", she sneered "you should have left earlier."  I rolled my eyes. Just rude after all. So now as she tried to get past my son and he 'innocently' stepped in front of her each time she shoved, I let him carry on. In fact it was quite fun to watch.

The line snaked closer to the carts loaded with  trays and people began to slip out of their coats and unfasten their belts. A tall man with a long white beard and a turban  reminded everyone to take out their computers and remove their shoes. He repeated instructions like a friendly parrot and kept the line moving at a reasonable pace.

The security area was getting busy, so a new line was opened up. The unpleasant woman used the partial change in direction to force her way in front of my son. He turned to say something to her. I touched his arm, "Just let her go."

Suddenly the grumpy woman called 'Hey! You!" The turbaned officer looked up and she then began shouting questions regarding cell phones and cameras. She wanted to know if the machines were safe. The man assured her that they would cause absolutely no damage, but she still insisted she wanted to carry her items through.

"If you know I've got them, how can it make any difference?" she retorted when the officer told her that she was not allowed to do that. "Do I look like I'm carrying a bomb?"

The line behind her began to quiver with a mixture of impatience and interest. These days making a scene going through airport security does not just cause a few raised eyebrows and provoke a chorus of sighs and 'tuts'. It can lead to a full on event.  Was this middle aged woman in a frumpy brown skirt and shapeless sweater about to try something on? We watched as her drama unfolded.

I am sure we all have stories related to incidents involving people who refuse to shuffle along and obey the rules; most of us are prepared to remove clothes, open bags and let strangers pat us down because, in spite of the frustrations, the alternative inconveniences us all. "She's lucky" I whispered to my son "that this is Portland. In Washington or Frankfurt she'd already be pinned to the ground."

The woman was loud and unpleasant. The security guards were patient but firm. I found myself thinking uncharitable thoughts, hoping someone would twist her arm into a half nelson and march her away. The other half of me just hoped that she would put her camera and phone in the tray and get a move on. I wasn't in a hurry but my feet were cold and my jeans were loose. I wanted to reassemble myself and go and get something to eat.

"Do you remember that time in Schipol?" my son whispered.
"Funny." I said "I was just thinking about that."

Once, when traveling back from Europe my children and I were flying through Amsterdam.  As we approached the scanners, sirens sounded and all the people in uniform started shouting to us all to 'Freeze!"

This was unusual so we all instantly obeyed.  The security area looked like a game of Musical Statues. Everyone fell completely silent and remained ridiculously still. People stood with arms out stretched about to retrieve bags, or stayed stooped caught in time as they bent to pull off a shoe. Even young children, sensing that this was not a joke, clamped their little mouths shut and stood like shop mannequins at their rigid parents sides.

The sirens kept blaring and the staff kept shouting "Stay still. Don't move. Stay still. Don't move." Then, just as I was beginning to wonder if we were being filmed for a Candid camera style show, police, wearing helmets and body armor and wielding some very large guns, surged into the area. They stormed the barriers shouting instructions to each other as they ran. I wondered what would happen if I jumped up and down or waved my arms. I wondered, but didn't try it. This was clearly a serious thing.

After a few moments the sound of their shouts and running feet faded completely away. The machines hummed back into life. Bags trundled along on the rollers and disappeared through the rubber flaps.  People strode purposefully through the metal detectors to collect the bags on the other side. No one asked or explained what "all that" had been about. It was just one of those things.

We were not, as it happens, about to be entertained by another big security event. The guards were polite but firm. The woman gave in and flung her electronic items into a tray along with her coat.

But as my son and I sat on the metal benches to put on and retie our shoes, we glanced sideways at each other and smiled.

Grumpy old cow had been singled our for a bag search. She complained loudly as a woman ran a pair of tweezers holding what looked like a wet wipe (what ARE those things?) around every zip, pocket and seam. As we got up to leave, the officer was just beginning to empty the contents of her carry on onto the table. We could still hear her whining as we made our way to our gate.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shades of grey.

I was in another supermarket, in line behind a woman dressed in turquoise shorts, yellow leather ballet flats and a T-shirt, so dazzlingly white that it had to be brand new. Her necklace was also turquoise; large round stones lying smooth against her dark and slightly peeling skin.

 She stood out from the crowd like an exotic bird in amongst a mass of crows. The steely grey sky had settled low this morning and was leaking heavy drops of rain. The rest of us were wearing coats and boots or shoes, not yet ready to shed our winter camouflage or show the world some skin.

"My body's in shock." She told the cashier. "I've just come back from Hawaii and I can't get over the all this rain. And the sky it's just so grey."

The cashier ran an item over the scanner.

"In Hawaii, where I just was, the sky was bright blue. This is so depressing."

The cashier made a sympathetic but disinterested noise.

"Where are you from?" asked the girl who was packing the groceries.

"Oh I'm from the Portland area." The woman said, rubbing her bare arms. "Lake Oswego originally."

"And you're surprised? That it's raining? In March?" The girl loaded bread and milk into a bag. She sounded innocent enough.

The cashier focused her attention on the contents of my cart. "In shock." she muttered as the chilly woman left. "She ought to have known better." Her line of customers agreed.

"I had a lady in the other day,"said the bag packing girl, joining in.  "She was lovely. She really made me think. Someone else was complaining about the weather and she just said. "I think grey can be quiet soothing."

We all thought about this for a while and I peered out through the window watching the puddles vibrating with each and every splash of rain. People dashed about, heads down, running for the safety of their cars or the awning stretched out above the store.

"She said it was a kind of back drop to everything else." The girl continued. "I guess that's one way of looking at it."

As I drove home, I thought about this. Anything that makes the grey seem less oppressive has to be worth a try.

The more I thought, the more I wondered. Is grey an overly maligned color, too often referred to in derogatory terms?  Grey so often equals drab, dreary, somber or. It describes battle ships, the barrel of a gun, flinty blades and unhealthy skin.

But grey is also the color of rocks that line a beautiful sea shore or the smoke that rises from a warm and welcoming fire. Doves are grey, and so is the graphite running through the center of a newly sharpened pencil. Grey it isn't all bad.

The trees looked different now I saw them against a restful backdrop instead of overshadowed by a glowering sky. The evergreen branches looked so rich I could almost smell them and the patterns in the dark bark of the trunks stood out so clearly, I could feel the roughness of the wood against my fingers tips and across the palms of my hands.

I wonder who the lady was, the one who had referred to grey as 'soothing' and has given me a new perspective. I would thank her if I met her and I will remember her words and use them as a panacea against another rainy day.

And now, do I long really need to see a blue sky that stays around for more than just a single day.............?

Are you kidding?    BRING IT ON.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Unimaginable Pain.

I thought I already knew what I would be writing about today but my original subject matter required a frivolous and flippant tone and I cannot bring myself to write like that in light of everything that has happened during the last thirty plus hours.

The earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan have captured the worlds attention. I know I am not alone when I find that regardless of what I am doing, my thoughts are constantly turned towards that island in the pacific and the people who live there.

As I write this on Saturday morning, CNN is playing on the TV and I feel numb. It is as if my mind won't allow me to think too deeply, a form of self protection perhaps. I feel sympathy and will be reaching for my credit card to help in some small way, but I simply cannot wrap my head around the enormity of the situation.

On the afternoon of the earthquake, several people I know were working over in Tokyo. Through the marvels of technology, and in spite of the major system breakdowns, messages were posted on facebook,  texts were received and sent.

By evening of day one, the people I know all accounted for. However, a good friend of my husband is still trying to make contact with family and friends who live near to Sendai. With 9,500 people reported missing in the region, we can only hope he has some good news soon.

Yesterday was an inservice day for students in the Beaverton school district so, like many parents, I watched the news unfolding with my son. We sat in silence, full or horror and awe.  We could not believe what we were seeing, as the tidal wave swept across the countryside, poured across poly-tunnels and roadways, gathered up lorries and cars and crushed buildings, creating a bizarre and evil soup of mud and metal and wood.

 I can still barely allow myself to think about the people - the fathers mothers and children -who were inevitably mixed into that heaving broth.  Even thought the image has been replayed many times, the visual impact is no less.

As is often the case, it took one story, one shot captured by reporters on the ground, that will stay with me forever. It is not graphic and not so very different from many posted across the world wide web.

A father and son, surveying the scene. They appear to be standing absolutely still. In shock one can only suppose. Are they looking at a pile of debris that was once their home? Or are they simply trying to get their bearings in a neighborhood that they could once walk through without thinking, and is now as unfamiliar as a landscape on the moon? The boy is clinging to the man and I can't help think that in a world that has literally been shaken to the core, is his father now the only thing he can rely upon to stand steady and firm.

Looking at the photograph I cannot help but wonder about the woman; the wife and mother missing from the scene. I can only hope that she is safe, as we  all hope that other mothers and wives are safe.

The fact that the picture is taken from a distance is poignant. It suggests that the photographer can see and feel their grief and respectfully stands far away.

 The disaster is on a scale larger than most people could ever comprehend, but the tragic consequences will affect people deeply and personally, creating many tiny pockets of unimaginable pain.

Words can't describe the magnitude of the event and we are all left feeling helpless. The footage of the churning water left me speechless but this photograph touched a chord and brought real tears to my eyes.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The sweet old dangerous driver.

There seems to be a theme this week. Another elderly lady in a car park caught my eye.

 I was outside a local store (not the one with the peculiar smell), wandering between the pots of pansies and summer bulbs lined up in the covered area.

A grey Toyota Corolla pulled into a spot close by. Something told me it wasn't going to stop in time and I was right. The worn front tires jolted against the curb then breached the side of the path. The whole vehicle rose up, paused for a moment, like a swing curving upwards through the air, then dropped back into place.

I expected to hear the growling engine to go quiet. The woman inside must surely have realized that she was as far into the space as she could go? But this did not seem to be the case. In fact the driver pressed her foot against the accelerator and the car mounted the sidewalk once more.  People glanced over, looking nervous. A woman with a child stepped back.

But this time when the car came to a halt the engine was turned off. Although two wheels where still in the parking spot and two butted up against a pallet piled high with bags of compost, the owner seemed happy with her parking.

An employee of the store stepped forward. "Er..." he began as the elderly woman pushed the drivers door open wide. She applied more force than was necessary and we all heard the door hitting the side of the vehicle in the next bay. Fortunately the nonchalant driver had she'd clipped a monstrous SUV and had made contact with a mudflap the size of an elephants' ear. If any damage had been incurred it would be to the Corolla.

The lady slowly emerged. Her hair was white as duck down. It floated above her head as if pulled and teased by static.  She was short, dumpy and rosy cheeked. I could picture her baking apple pies.
Steadying herself against the door frame of the car, she reached inside and grabbed a stick. She leant heavily on the cane, trembling with the effort, as she hoisted her bag onto her shoulder and straightened her curved back.

The next task was to close the door.  She placed her hand flat against the window and pushed hard.

The door slammed into place but bounced open again. She tried again, applying even even greater force. But the same thing happened. The second time we heard a crunching sound. The sound of metal being squeezed by metal. The old woman was oblivious. She got set to slam the door again.

The employee, who had been watching, leapt forward.

"It's the seat belt," he explained. "It's hanging out the door. The buckle's getting caught."

The cloudy haired lady frowned and flung the seat belt inside. She closed the door, and began to walk away.

"Did you lock it?"

"Oh!" The lady paused mid step. After rummaging through her bag she said she thought perhaps the keys were still inside. The helpful young man re-opened the door. He reached towards the ignition and removed the keys. He then locked the car and handed the fob to its owner.

The pint-sized woman smiled and shuffled off. As she made her way between tables loaded with spring annuals, she caught her bag against a tray of pansies and knocked them to the floor.

The store employee sighed and bent to pick them up. He caught my eye and said, "When is old, too old to do you think?"

I thought about this as the little old lady stood pondering how to enter the store through the door marked 'exit'.

"That car's probably her life line." I said, watching her searching for buttons to press and stamping on the mat -  in the hope of triggering a sensor I supposed.

"I know," The man agreed "But it could also be a death trap."

The exit doors slid open as a couple with a loaded cart came out. Our  lady swung her stick, walked into the store and disappeared.

The young man shook his head and straightened the last of the pansies. "I just hope she takes care." he sighed.

I agreed and carried on my way.

But it left me wondering.  When does 'just old' become too old? And on what criteria must we all decide?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Someones' Grandma.

       I was in a super market this afternoon. It's one I rarely visit. I don't like its lay out and it has a funny smell. The one upside is that it is an outlet for TicketsWest so sometimes I still go in.

     When I do brave the strange aroma and the disappointing range of veg,  I find myself scanning the faces and profiles of the other shoppers. I am searching for one woman in particular. I don't know her name, we only met the once, but I am on the look out all the time.

      About two years ago I was cruising the aisles in the afore mentioned store. It had just been updated and I was hoping to be impressed. Nothing had changed. The produce was still poor quality, the range of   products limited and the smell, if anything,  seemed to be worse.

      I wandered around, leaning wearily on the handle of the shopping cart, looking for things I knew I wouldn't find. In the canned goods aisle I felt a tugging at my coat. I turned, expecting to see a small child who'd mistaken me for its mother, or to discover that my jacket had snagged on a passing basket or shelf. Instead I saw a tiny old woman. She smiled and bowed 'hello'.

        I wasn't sure of the correct etiquette. She was clearly Japanese, but I was English. Should I bow back, and if so, how low? While I was still pondering the question she tugged at my sleeve and pointed to a place above my head. I turned and followed the line of her extended finger. Apparently she wanted me to help her pick up something that was beyond her reach.

       This happens to me all the time. I'm not excessively tall, but I'm above average height. And, unless I'm on an aeroplane,  I tend to make eye contact with strangers and this seems to make me easy to approach.

     I lifted up my arm and rested my hand on a random tin. "This?" I asked. "Or this?" I continued touching items on the shelf she pointed to until, at last, she nodded and her mouth gaped into a smile.

     I handed her the item. There was much bowing and nodding but as I set my shopping trolley into motion, she hung on to my sleeve and pointed down the aisle. She clearly had more shopping to take care of.

     I followed her round the shop for another quarter of an hour. The tip of her conical bamboo hat barely reached my shoulder and her worn, cotton espadrilles made no sound on the linoleum floor. She was swift and efficient. She knew exactly where to go and what she wanted. Her cart was soon full. Mine, on the other hand was empty, so when she indicated with a decisive nod of the head that she was done, I smiled, waved goodbye and hurried off.

     I knew I wasn't going to do my 'big shop' that day, but the store is not so bad that I couldn't stock up on basics like eggs and milk and flour. When I reached the  cash registers, the diminutive shopper had gone.

     I went through the check out, (remembering that another reason I hate this place is that they still offer plastic bags) and set off outside to my car. I dumped the single bag of shopping on the back seat and closed the door. As I stepped back I tripped against something  low and small. I turned round and there she was. She'd popped up out of nowhere, like a leprechaun or gnome.

      The miniature lady  pointed at her chest, then at her shopping and my car. I cocked my head on one side. I thought I knew what she meant, but I needed to be sure.

      She pointed at me again, then mimed gripping a steering wheel and driving. She pointed at the bags of shopping in her heavily loaded cart and mimed staggering under the weight.  I involuntarily glanced at my watch. This expedition had already taken twice as long as it should have done and I had other things to do. She saw that I was having doubts and held her hands out in front of her, palms inwards, just a few inches apart, indicating something short or small. The distance to her home, I guessed.
 "O.K." I said. "Get in."

     Of course, I couldn't day 'no'. This fragile woman, who spoke no English and looked as if she had only recently stepped off the boat, was unlikely to produce an axe or gun. But besides that, stirred something had stirred within me, and I knew just what it was.....

      My grandmother lived until she was ninety seven and she only gave up cycling a few years before that. The roads around the house she had lived in for over seventy years (yes, seventy years, really) grew busy towards the end of her life. She had a few near misses and, I seem to remember, a fall.

      There were two ways into town from where she lived. One took her along main roads and the notoriously busy and narrow Stone Bridge. The second was picturesque and ran along side one of the prettiest embankments in the world. The path by the river was, understandably, the one that she preferred.

      Even so, in spite of the graceful swans gliding by on the fast waters and the flower beds full of colour almost all year round, there was a downside to this route. She had to get over Bedford's landmark suspension bridge and although it wasn't particularly high or very wide, it involved a considerable number of steps.

     Grandma's bike was old and heavy, she was also old and no longer very strong. To get over the bridge she had to ask for assistance. And this is what I thought of when the tiny Asian woman pointed at me, herself and my car.

     The teenagers my grandma asked for help where the sort other people steered away from altogether. In fact my grandfather (who died several years before she did), used to complain about them al the time. He was wary of the glowering youths who gathered on the bridge. He didn't trust them - what with all their chains and leather jackets, their safety pins and ripped up jeans. He eyed them cautiously and suspected they were up to no good.  

     My grandfather warned my grandma to avoid their type entirely. He assumed that one of day soon they would run off with her bike. It was hard to imagine what a group of punk rockers could possibly want with a cast iron, sit up and beg, nineteen forties ladies bicycle, but my grandfather wouldn't have put anything past them.

    My rosy cheeked, white haired grandmother, on the other hand, walked right up to them, smiled sweetly and asked if they might lend a hand. She maintained that if she was polite and kind to them, they would act the same way towards her. It turned out she was right. She never had any trouble from them and they always helped her up the steps and to the other side.

     I thought about all this as my trusting and grateful passenger pointed left and right. She really did live  close by but it would have been a long and difficult journey for a small, elderly woman carrying a heavy load.

When we said goodbye she spent many minutes expressing her gratitude. Her words were in a language I had no knowledge of but the message in her eyes was articulate and easy to understand. I assured her that it had been my pleasure.It was the least that i could do. She was probably someones' grandma, so how could I ever have refused?

Bedford Suspension Bridge. Not huge but difficult to cross if you are an octogenarian carrying a cumbersome bike.

The Stone Bridge back in 1916 (when my grandma was six). It wasn't such a bad bridge to cycle over all the way back then....

Saturday, March 5, 2011

But what about the others? Part 4 -Francesca

 If Magda and Nicholas' arrival on the ward had caused a stir,  it was nothing compared to the circus that accompanied Shelly and Francesca.

Francesca had been born on the same day as the others but with only a few minutes to go until midnight it was deemed too late to disturb us and they had spent the night in the delivery room.

Shelly, Francesca, and their entirely female entourage, arrived just after breakfast.  We were nicely settled in now, it was warm and we were protected from winter storm that had begun to rage outside.

We heard, and smelt,  Francesca's clan before they entered the room. They were proceeded by a ruckus of guttural shouting and the stink of stale tobacco smoke .

Shelly, sixteen if she was a day, was wheeled in like a queen by a woman who staggered on high heels. She was only in her thirties but she wore a large badge announcing "I'm a Nan,". Another woman, probably a sister or possibly an aunt, clattered through the doors with an armful of teddies and balloons. Her face was sour and she kept glancing at her watch. An older woman, great grandma perhaps (although she couldn't have been much more than fifty) carried the suitcase and a stack of coats. She moaned about the heat in the room. Looked at Hyacinth and muttered something about 'blacks'.

Once Shelly was settled into bed, they discussed the baby's name.
"'Ow do you spell Francesca any way?" asked the Sister/Aunty picking at the varnish on her nails.
"F.R.A.N.C.H.E.S.C.A" Shelly told her.
"There 'aint an 'aich in Francesca." Sister/Aunty scoffed.
"Course there is or, 'ow do you make the 'CH' sound?" Shelly snapped back.
"I dunno. But I  know their 'aint a fuckin' aich."

There was much debate, until 'Nan' pointed out that it didn't matter. They could spell their babies name however they fuckin' wanted to and no one could tell them that they fuckin' couldn't. The rest of us pretended not to listen, and no one chose to enlighten them on the actual spelling of this poor child's name.

Further proof of the general lack of intellect came when they made a telephone call. Shelly was talking to someone they all referred to as 'Bird'.

"She weighs 6 paands, and she's 54 inches long." Shelly shouted down the 'phone. Bird must have contradicted her because Shelly frowned and pouted into the receiver. "Well the nurse said she was 54 inches. " She continued to scowl as the other person spoke. "Well centimeters then. I don't fuckin' know."

As the morning wore on, the entourage drifted away. Shelly fussed over Francesca, like a little girl playing with dolls. But after half an hour or so, Francesca began to cry. Shelly looked desperate. "What should I do?" she hissed. I looked up. Hyacinth was sleeping and Magda just looked plain out of it. Shelly's plea for help had been addressed at me.

"Does she need feeding?" I asked. "Or changing?"

"I dunno." Shelly's eyes filled with tears. "What should I do?"

I went across to their side of the room. We talked about when Francesca had last been fed. Only a couple of hours ago, but it could be that. She wasn't sure when her daughter had last been changed. I suggested she looked.

For the entire stay Shelly asked for help every time Francesca cried. Nan and the other female relatives visited less frequently. I didn't see a dad or second set of grandparents at all. Shelly was not taking to motherhood well, and Francesca's dad, was of very little help. He didn't even put in an appearance until almost two days after the birth. When he finally did turn up he sat with his head bent over drooping hands staring at the floor.  He rarely spoke but neither did he listen to Shelly's dramatic rantings or respond to her outbursts and tears.

 He usually stayed for ten minutes. He hovered by the door as Shelly reeled off a list of things she needed him to bring. He looking shocked and unprepared. His eyes were empty and distant. He had not heart for the task at hand. In his mind he was already gone.

When I think of Francesca now, I fear the worse.  This may seem heartless and pessimistic but trends are set, history repeats itself and statistics speak for themselves.

And in addition to that, in 1991, when these four children were born, we were fighting a seemingly pointless and futile war. Twenty years later, things are eerily the same. The allies are still scrambling round in the middle east for reasons that seem more to do with oil than humanity. And it begs the serious question; Do people ever look at what has gone before and say 'we cannot let this happen time and time again,' or does no one ever really learn?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

But what about the others? Part 3 - Nicholas

Nicholas and Magda arrived on the ward sometime after ten. Lights had been dimmed and all visitors had left, but there was nothing quiet or subdued about our new room mates arrival. Nicholas was crying, Magda was crying and Magda's husband, Paul, was flapping like a mother hen with a brood of unruly chicks.

Every time Magda moved, she groaned and called to God for help. Nicholas was tightly wrapped in a hospital blanket but managed to buck around in his cot like a maggot on the end of a hook. Paul would not stop giving advice. Advice that, as a first time father, was based loosely on things he had picked up in books and things his mother might have said.

Nicholas was the only boy on the ward and if there was a ever a male who proved that it was NOT good to have a man about the house, Nicholas was it. Next to my own sweet and easy going Amy and Hyacinths' adorable Hope, he was a horror. After just a day on the ward he brought to mind the children's nursery rhyme, "What are little girls made of?"

Amy and Hope were indeed sugar and spice and all things nice. They fed efficiently, made no fuss when  bathed and changed, and gazed into the eyes of anyone who held them, pulling cute little faces and waving with their tiny fists.

Nicholas, on the other hand, was frogs and snails and puppy dogs tales in the form of projectile vomiting, exploding nappies and snot. He cried if held, cried when put down. He screamed when he was changed, and howled when he was bathed. We all tried to calm him, if only to give his mother something of a break.

The first time I held him Nicholas I was shocked. The boy was huge. He had entered the world already weighing 13lbs (5.8kg). I was used to holding Amy who had been born at a reasonable 7.12oz. Nicholas felt simply enormous.

We all remarked upon it.
 "I shood 'av known," Magda told us in her thick, southern mediteranean accent, "my 'usbands' farder, 'e weigh 20lbs."
"Wow" The rest of us murmured, appalled at the thought of having to give birth to such a child. "That must have been awful for his mother."
" She dye-ed". Magda told us, swiping a hand through the air for emphasis. "She never see baby. She dead on bed. She reeeeep apart -  and blood, blood, blood." Magda mimed a river, a flood, pouring from between her legs. We all nodded our heads to show we understood. None of us were surprised. And we were all glad we hadn't heard the story a couple of days before.

On the day of the bomb scare, Nicholas wailed the whole time.  Whilst we sat parked in the lobby, he opened his gummy mouth and bawled. New borns generally attract oos and ahhs, but Nicholas was grating on people's already fragile nerves. A few of the more able bodied elderly women who were sharing our small corner suggested things to do. "Fold him in half." "Rock him harder." "Lay him on his tummy." Magda put her head into her hands and sobbed. "I have c-section. I can not leeeft him. He so beeeg."

Nicholas had colic. Magda had mastitis. Both of them sobbed when it was time to try another feed. He needed changing at least once an hour making us wonder how it was possible for a baby to expel so much fluid when he took in so little. The greenish- black meconium soon giving way to yellow streams of diarrhea and he was almost permanently leaking a dribble of sour, milky spit-up from the corner of his cavernous mouth.

A midwife reluctantly suggested a bottle and things began to improve. Not least because Nicholas' father could now help out. As soon as Paul arrived on the ward, Magda would hand the squirming bundle over, close her eyes and go to sleep.

I saw Nicholas and Paul a couple of years later. I was visiting my doctor to confirm that I was pregnant again.

Paul and I knew each other immediately and the children, though physically unrecognizable, had not changed at all. Amy sat quietly, swinging her legs as she concentrated on a book. Nicholas shouted for attention and flung bricks across the room.

"He's a bit under the weather," Paul told me when I asked if everything was O.K.  As I watched Nicholas scale a sofa and jump onto a coffee table, I wondered what he looked like in full health.

"And Amy?" Paul asked. "She's O.K"
"We're here for me", I told him. "I'm pregnant again."
Paul was very sweet. He congratulated me and wished me well. But then he sighed. "No more for us," he said, "Magda say 'theeees fac-torree close!' " He sighed again. "He broke the mold did that one." We watched Nicholas empty a box of farm animals into a box of cars. "But he's lovely sometimes." Paul laughed ruefully. "Like when he is asleep."

I think Nicholas is probably doing well. He was at least lively and enquiring (for want of a better word) and he certainly knows how to assert himself. As long as Magda and Paul have been able to channel his energy, he is probably O.K.  I picture him running marathons or whacking a ball around a squash court. He would, I'm sure, be excellent at free running and parkour. I try not to picture him vandalizing his surroundings and generally causing chaos wherever he goes. But I'll never know for certain. Nicholas is the question mark.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

But what about the others? - Part 2. Hope

Hope was the eldest of the babies on the ward. By the time Amy and I arrived she was curled up in a cot and her mother, Hyacinth, was propped against her pillows, half dozing and half flicking through a copy of  "Hello.".

As we were wheeled in, Hyacinth raised a hand and smiled. I smiled back, but neither of us spoke. A nurse settled me into the room. I was shown the baby changing station, how to operate the emergency button and where to put my things. Hyacinth concentrated on her magazine and pretended she couldn't overhear every single word being said.

My husband went off to the canteen. I was starving after such an active day, and I needed chocolate. NOW.

Once we were alone, it seemed impolite not to speak, so Hyacinth and I introduced ourselves.
"Boy or girl?" She asked after we had exchanged names.
"Girl. Amy. You?"
"Girl. Hope. She's My fourth."
"Fourth baby?"
"Fourth girl."
"Any boys?"
She shook her head. "Just girls." She touched the bundle lying in cot at her side and we both returned to our thoughts.

There is an etiquette to sharing a room with a stranger. It's like sitting next to someone on a 'plane. Just because you are going to be in close proximity for an extended period of time doesn't mean you have to become best friends. Polite but distant is a good way to start. Get the measure of a person before you strike up conversation or you could be in for a very long ride. I could see that this woman shared my approach and I liked her just for that.

The door to the ward opened and a man came tiptoeing in. His coat was damp across the shoulders and his face was dark and shiny from the rain. He was carrying a plastic bag in one hand and in the other, a great bouquet of flowers.
"For my girls." He whispered, bending to kiss his wife. He let his coat fall from his shoulders and rubbed and blew on his hands. When he was satisfied that they were warm, he reached to scoop his daughter from her cot.
"I've only just put her down," Hyacinth whispered, reaching out and touching him on the arm. "Let her settle. Just a few more minutes and she'll be good and asleep. You can hold her then."
"O.K" The man sat down. He noticed me for the first time.
"Hello". He was still whispering, but he made sure I could hear. "Congratulations."
"Thank you."
"Boy or girl?"
He turned to the bouquet, pulled a pink carnation free and came across the room. With a little bow he placed the flower across the end of Amy's cot. "She's beautiful" He whispered. "Just like her mother."
Hyacinth laughed and shook her head.
"What?" he asked, looking innocent.
"You're in maternity ward. Stop flirting, you old dog." She looked at me and smiled. "I apologize." She said.

"Can I get her out now?" Hyacinth's husband hovered over Hope's cot. Hyacinth nodded. He gently lifted the baby into his lap and stroked her bouncy, black hair. He curled her fingers round his own.  I  wondered if, after three other girls, he wished Hope had been a boy. But judging from they way he held and rocked her, kissed her cheeks and whispered in her ear,  he truly did not care.

The next day when he visited, three girls followed him into the room. They were dressed identically in green and red plaid skirts and navy tights. Their hair was immaculately twisted into neat and even cornrows, the ends of which were adorned with tiny bows.

The girls crowded round the cot, taking turns to kiss their sister. Then they removed their shoes and climbed onto the bed. Hyacinth took them into her arms. They whispered and giggled together, telling stories or news from outside. And all the time, Hope's dad held her, gazing into her velvety eyes and kissing her fingers and toes.

Each time he visited, he sat in the chair holding Hope, his youngest daughter, as if he couldn't bear to put her down. Her sisters brought her cards they had made, and pictures they had drawn.

The older girls, Grace, Faith and Joy, were always quiet and well behaved. They read books with their mother, played cats cradle and noughts and crosses. They said "Hello" when they came in and waved goodbye to us all when it was time for them to leave.

When we were moved to the new room to make way for wounded soldiers, they were full of questions and concern. They asked questions about the war, asked when it would be over and would their daddy have to fight.

Before evening visiting time on the day of the afternoon bomb scare, Hyacinth made a request. Could we please not talk about the incident while her daughters were in the room. She didn't want them to worry or to be afraid. Nothing had happened. We were all safe. There was no need for them to ever know.

  I didn't see Hyacinth or Hope once we had gone our separate ways. But in those brief few days, I felt I'd had a glimpse of how they lived their lives. It was easy to see how much they all loved and cared about each other. They were a strong family.

When I think about Hope, I am certain she is doing fine.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

But what about the others? Part one.

On February 22nd 2011, my daughter will be twenty. She has grown into a confident, generous, smart and beautiful woman. I am sure she will reach her full potential and go on to lead a happy and meaningful life. She is everything I could have ever hoped for in a daughter, and I couldn't be more proud.

Amy was born in Kings College Hospital, London. We shared the room with six complete strangers. Three other mothers and their babies. The children had been born on the same day.
We were a mismatched group; different ethnic, cultural and socio economic backgrounds and the mothers ages ranged from 16 to 45. Me and Amy. Magda and Nicolas. Shelly and Francesca. Hyacinth and Hope. In normal circumstances our paths would never have crossed, but for a few intense days, we were thrown together and shared an eventful and intimate time.

It was warm inside and we felt cloistered. We could see the winter raging through the windows and smell the cold on the coats of visitors when they came in from outside. But we had no reason to care. If the pavements were slick with ice we did not have to walk along them and if the wind was bitingly cold, we did not know. We had our babies and our new routines. We were protected from the world. Or so we thought.

During our brief time together we shared more than just the experience of giving birth or being born.  Wars and conflicts did not stop just because the centers of our lives had shifted focus, and although newspapers and television held little interest when there was a baby to coo over, we could not avoid events unfolding in the world outside.

On February 22nd 1991, George Bush Sr. issued an ultimatum. Iraqi troops were to be withdrawn from Kuwait by midnight. If Iraq did not comply, he said,  the USA and its allies would step up military action. Iraq did not comply and so the ground assault in region began the very next day. As mothers we wondered what this would mean for the world our babies would grow up in. There was talk of escalating hostilities; attacks on our won shores. This was all speculation. We did not think it would affect us quite so soon.

On February 24th, when the babies were barely two days old, we were told to gather up our things and transfer to another room. Orderlies arrived to help. Nicolas and Hope had been delivered by c-section so Magda and Hyacinth were in great pain. The move seemed so unnecessary, as well as ill advised.

"What's going on?" we asked. It seemed ridiculous to expect new mothers - two of whom had had major surgery- to pack their suitcases and move.
"They want to paint these rooms." The orderlies told us. But the story didn't fit.

 We pressed for more information and soon learned that the upper floors of the hospital were being prepared for casualties of the ground war. It was happening all over the county. Seriously injured British troops would be flown from Iraq and travel, via airbases in Germany, to hospitals throughout the UK. We packed our things in silence.  It made the situation real.

At the same time, London, was still a target for the IRA. On February 18th they had exploded two bombs. The first, in Paddington Station, had caused damage but no casualties. The second, planted in Victoria Station, injured over fifty people and one of the victims died.

The day after we had settled into our new room, we were visited again. A doctor explained, in quiet but serious tones, that there was a bomb threat. The hospital was being evacuated. We were to put clothes and coats on over our pajamas and wrap our babies up in hats and as many blankets as we could manage. This time we were going outside.

Wheel chairs and staff arrived to ferry us downstairs. The lobby was full of  police wearing body armor and leading German Shepherds. Through the doors the car-park looked like the set for a disaster movie. It was full of people dragging drips, hopping on crutches, or nursing plastered limbs. The sky was leaden and grey. Flurries of snow swirled about in the frigid air.

 The eight occupants of our little room joined other mothers and new babies. We were moved to a cordoned off area that was also full of the very old and frail. We were to wait inside for as long as we could. The bitter cold was such a threat to the new borns and elderly that we were not to be taken outside until much closer to reported 'detonation time'. Shelly began to cry. We waited.

 Either there was no bomb or it was successfully defused. An announcement was made; we could all return to our rooms.  Magda and Hyacinth thanked the Lord and prayed. Shelly, who was just a child herself, shook uncontrollably and continued to weep. I made a mental note of events. I would write about all this one day.

The ground war ended on February 28th and there were no more IRA attacks in London until, (coincidentally), February 28th the following year. This time London Bridge Station was the target and twenty nine people were hurt. I remembered the bomb scare of Feb 25th 1991, but by then Amy was a happy and healthy one year old. She was already chatting up a storm. Our lives were full. There was no time for looking back.

But every year, when her birthday approaches, I think about them all.

Nicolas, Francesca and Hope will also turn twenty on Tuesday and I wonder how they are.

 I can only speculate based on what I saw during that long weekend two decades ago. I think one of them has probably done well. One is a question mark. The other, I fear may have become a victim of the circumstances into which she was born.

I am very glad that Amy has turned out so well. I m delighted that the bomb was non-existent or at least that it did not go off.

I just wish we could do something to stop this latest war....

(To be continued).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Whining Woman and the Elderly Couple - another blog about love.

I was at the hairdresser's yesterday, waging war against my grey. As I and waited for the colorant to work, I half read and half tuned in to conversations between other people in the room.

"Did you have a nice Valentine's day?" I heard a stylist ask.
"No I did not." Her client snapped. "I am still really pissed off". 
"Oh dear." The stylist tried to laugh. "What did he do?"
"It's what he didn't do. He totally forgot. No flowers, no chocolates. No card."
 "But it's all O.K again now? Right?" The stylist sounded hopeful.
 The woman sniffed "Well, let's just say he learnt his lesson. He won't forget again."

 I studied her out of the corner of my eye. She wasn't young. She must have been at least thirty.  Not a great age it's true but definitely old enough to realize that relationships are about more than an over looked Valentine's day and words on a shop bought card. It was February 16th and she was still whining?  It was a miracle that such a high maintenance and unforgiving woman had found anyone to marry her at all. I saw another customer staring, we raised our eyebrows, shook our heads and and turned back to our books.

Six months ago I witnessed a very different scene. Here, in the exact same chair, I had watched someone who could have taught that princess a thing or two about true love.

I had been doing pretty much the same thing that day;  sitting, reading and waiting for the color to soak into my hair. Suddenly there was a commotion at the door. Everyone looked up. One of the stylists jumped forward and ran to the front of the shop.
"June...." she cried. "Hello, June"
"NO! NO!" I heard somebody shout. A frail, elderly lady was clinging to the door frame, refusing to come in.
"Hey, June" the stylist repeated. She spoke slowly and quietly this time, as if addressing a child. "Remember me?"

The owner appeared from somewhere out the back.
"June." She exclaimed and offered out her arm. "It's good to see you again. Come on in. I've got a chair already waiting."

It was impossible not to watch. As you would expect in a hairdressing salon, there are mirrors everywhere. From my seat in a cubicle at the front I could follow the proceedings without needing to turn round. I could see an elderly man now, he was holding June by the elbow and urging her to come inside. After a few minutes, June stopped repeating "no,no, no" and allowed him to help her over the threshold.

"This way, June," the elderly man said. "This way."

The man was probably eighty years old. His dress was formal, almost dapper. But his carefully pressed trousers were scrunched at the waist by his belt, and hung loose around his hips.  It was clear that since the man had bought them, his muscles had begun to disappear. As he stood by the door with the trembling shell of his wife, it must have seemed as if his whole life was wasting away.

The couple shuffled forward. There was fear and confusion in June's eyes. They paused next to my chair.

"We're going to get you looking beautiful." the man told her.

"No!" she shouted. "Don't want to." And she rooted herself to the spot.

Close to, I could see that her slip on skirt was pressed and clean. Her sweater was neatly buttoned and her brown leather sandals were polished to a shine. He had done all that for her, I was certain, and it had probably taken him all day.

  June's hair was the only thing that let her down. Although it was neat and held back by a clip, the white was turning dirty yellow and it was so greasy that a comb had left tracks across the tops and sides of her head.

"Sit here. " The man gently suggested. "She'll wash your hair and make it pretty again."

"NO. NO. NO"

"I can sit next to you."


The rest of us studied our books and magazines; our stylists feigned deep concentration as they snipped and straightened and brushed.

June was crying now, sobbing into her shaking, wrinkled hands. "NO" sob. "NO". sob. "NO"

The old man looked sad and defeated. He turned to the stylist. "Sorry" he mouthed, and slowly shook his head. He turned back to his wife.

"It's OK, June-bug." He whispered. "We'll try again another day."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love and Heartbreak

 On a day when so many people are talking about love, the word heartbreak seems inappropriate and out of place. But love is many things and a heart isn't always broken because love is lost or unrequited. Sometimes love is the very thing that helps us heal.

Yesterday my brother, John, updated his status on Facebook. He wrote that my nephew had gone to bed in tears. Apparently, after spending two days working on a Lego model, Isaac had been re-docking the satellite onto the space shuttle when one false move had resulted in nothing but a pile of plastic bricks.

Comments began to go back and forth. At first things were relatively light hearted. Surely he could do it again?  After all, building the model is half the fun. My daughter was wistful, longing for the days when all there was to worry about was a broken toy. Even my brother made a "Houston we have a problem" type joke. The story was sad and sweet, but Isaac would recover. Tomorrow was another day.

But a few minutes later my brother added another comment. This one completely changed the tone, John wrote (and I quote), "He managed to sob, "I'm more than heartbroken", before finally going to sleep."

At that point, my own heart seemed to twist and break, a lump rose in my throat and my eyes filled up.
For a nine year old boy to declare that he was 'more than heartbroken', meant that he must have been feeling very, very sad. In addition to this, Isaac is not a crying kind of boy. I remember the last time he suffered a loss that had ended in tears, and it was several years ago. He'd been on a roller-coaster and, while traveling at high speed, the wind blew off his favorite hat.....

I pictured him, tears rolling down his face as he watched the Lego spew across the table and the floor. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do.

I was curious to see what is was that he'd been building and, thinking I might be able to offer John some long distant advice, (don't ask me what),  I looked the model up on line.

It was not a straight forward affair. Rebuilding it was going to take up lots of time. Isaac is an incredibly bright kid (and that's not just a proud Auntie talking), he doesn't give up easily and he is a Lego genius. Watching him build something is like watching a film clip from the 1920's. His hands fly about so fast,  his movements are unreal. But the space-shuttle looked detailed and complicated. I also notice it was targeted for age 16+.....  No wonder Mr. Lego himself had been so upset. Imagine, all that work ending up as nothing but a sorry mess. I wished I was five minutes and not five thousand miles away. I wanted to  race round and and help my brother repair the damage. I wanted to make Isaac feel better. To help heal is broken heart

  John did indeed spend the evening working away.  He loves his son and he is a fantastic dad. Instead of relaxing and preparing for the week ahead, he crouched over what must have been complicated instructions and scrabbled about for pieces in the pile and on the floor. Those things are tricky enough when the parts are neatly packaged up in little bags. Searching for miniscule lights and levers, some of which may have skidded and spun every-which-way across the room, took devotion and a lot of time.

But it ended up being worth it. I contacted John today and he told me that the first thing Isaac asked when he woke up was if the model was repaired. When John told him that it was, Isaac beamed, his face lit up, and he ran downstairs to see.

Sometimes we have to let our children find away to get over heartbreak by themselves, and sometimes we can't do anything practical, just let them know we're there.  But when they are young, there is no better way to make them feel supported and secure than by taking positive steps to heal a broken heart.

 I am happy because Isaac is happy. And I'm happy that, because Isaac is happy, John is happy.

And so, on a day when we are talking and thinking about love and what it means, this sums it up for me........

"Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own."
 (Robert Heinlein. 1907 -1988)

Happy Valentines Day.

P.S A huge thank you to John and Isaac for allowing me to share.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Incredibly Annoying Salesman.

A well known American department store. Feb 11th 2011

  My 16 year old son belongs to a school group and their spring trimester conference is this weekend. The dress code includes 'business attire'. The suit and shirt were all sorted, but he needed a new tie.

 Being the kind hearted, push over mother that I am, I agreed to get him one this afternoon. He assured me that there was nothing to it; the shirt he'd recently bought had been displayed on a mannequin and the mannequin had been wearing a tie.  "Just get that one," he told me. "It's a kind of dark purple. Plain. It'll be fine." It seemed like a simple enough task, only slightly complicated by the fact that an old back injury has flared up and I am finding it difficult to sit. Or stand. Or walk.

  I drove to the shop, parked as close as I possibly could, swung the car door open - and gasped.  I had only driven for fifteen minutes but the muscles in my back spasmed and twitched as if I'd been on the road for days.
I took a deep breath.  The entrance to the shop was no more than thirty feet away. The men's department was close, and on the same floor. I would shuffle in, grab the tie, throw cash at the assistant and hobble out. I wouldn't even have to stop walking, and motion was good. Driving home might be a problem, but at least by then I'd have the tie and could text one of my neighbors to help me back into the house.

  I tried to make my walk look casual and unhurried rather than tottering and pained. Old people with frames and orthopedic shoes raced past. Once inside the shop, I moseyed over to menswear and found the shirt almost at once. But it wasn't on a mannequin and there was no sign of a tie. I carefully inched around the display, as my back screamed out for help.

 The sales assistant must have heard it.
"Can I help you?"
The poor man looked terrible. He was ashen and wan, faded and worn out. His taste in clothes was appalling, and did nothing to improve his sickly looks. But he worked here, so he should  be able to help.
"I'm looking for the tie that was on display with this shirt. Do you remember which one it was and could you show me where it is."
He shook his head. "Sorry. This was never displayed with a tie. I have a similar shirt over here ....."
My back began to cry.  It was as if someone was playing with the muscles like children playing with Plasticine.
"I need a tie for this shirt. It's for a sixteen year old boy. He's not too fussy. Something plain in a matching or contrasting color. He mentioned purple...."

 The man raised a finger and cut me off. He wrapped his left arm around his body and placed his right hand on his cheek..
 "Describe him."
"I'm sorry?"
"Your son. What does he look like."
"Um. Six foot two, medium brown hair, green eyes." My back gave an impatient twinge. "Why?"
"Because we're not just matching a tie to a shirt here. We're matching it to a person. Take me, for example," he waved a hand up and down in front of himself, like a magician performing a trick. "I chose my shirt to compliment my skin tone; my tie brings out the color in my eyes. "
 His shirt was chewed gum grey and his tie was an insipid pink.
"I .... see......" How could he not hear the distrust in my voice?
"What kind of kind of green are his eyes?"
"Are they the same as yours?" At least leaning back to look in the mirror gave me a chance to stretch.
"No. His are more grey/green. Greenish/grey."
"Like sea glass?"
"If you like. Look. Honestly. I don't want to bother you. I think I'll just...."
"Fair or tan?"
"What?" My back was clenching even harder. If I didn't get the chance to touch my toes soon, I was going to go mad.
"His complexion? Fair or tan?"
"You know what, I'll  just take a look around." I tried to move away but all I did was creak. I was the Tin Man. There was no oil can in sight.

 He grabbed my arm. "Come. Follow me".
If he hadn't pulled me along I may have never moved again, but my legs jerked into action and he propelled me between the socks and pants.

 "Suit color?"
"Charcoal? Steel? Smoke? Dove."
"Err. Darkish."
"Yes." Oh please shut up.
He slid some suits along a rack.
 "I bet it's something like this?
The salesman placed the shirt inside the suit. I waited, resisting the urge to assume The Downward Facing Dog. The Salesman stepped back to admire his handiwork. He clasped his hands beneath his chin.
"Now for the ties!"
 The Salesman set of, flapping his hands and urging me to keep up. He minced along up ahead, I dragged along behind. My left leg jerked like an artificial limb and I had to stoop forward to alleviate the pain. We looked like a wacky gender reversal of Esmerelda and Quasimodo. A cross-dressing take on Beauty and the Beast.

The salesman selected six boldly patterned ties, and flamboyantly flicked them back and forth.
"None of them are plain". I pointed out as he examined their effects.
Salesman shook his head. "Boring" he said.
"But that's what he wants".
He shook his head again and carried on, switching paisley for check and tartan for dots.
He picked up a wild, indescribable print. "This one picks out the shirt, and his skin tone,"
"You've never met him."
"And this one has the green, to pick out the color of his eyes."

 On a normal day I would have been firm, thanked him for his help, and high tailed it off to somewhere else. But I was in pain and could literally, barely move. I didn't have the strength, or ability, to escape his over zealous attentions. Fortunately I came up with a plan.
"I'll take photos, and text them to my son. Then he can choose."
 My son would hate them all and I would be able get the heck out of there as fast as my seized up legs would carry me.

 The Salesman was back on board. He clapped his hands with glee and began arranging the shirt and ties. Anyone would have thought I was holding a top of the range Nikon not an iPhone, and that the photos were going to appear in Vogue. The Salesman hovered close to me, peering over my shoulder as I mms'd the pictures to my son. There was, of course, no reply. We waited a few minutes, I looked at the hard, flat floor. I longed  to lower myself onto the stripy carpet tiles, put by bag under my head and stre........tch.

 "Call him?" the sales assistant suggested.

 Just as my son picked up, the Salesman was summoned to help with a long queue forming at the till. Under normal circumstances, this would have been my chance to run away. But the best I could hope for was to furtively bury my way into a rack of trousers and hide until his shift came to an end.

 "Hi." I hissed into the phone. "Help me. There is no specific tie to go with that shirt you bought. I'm being railroaded by a lunatic and I am in real pain. I can't run away. What exactly do you want? Paisley? Stripes? Tartan?  Dots? Or plain?"

"A PLAIN one"
"That's what I thought."
I had no choice, I had to get away. Salesman was coming back.

 "Well," I exclaimed cheerfully holding out the paisley tie. "Your first choice was spot on."
Salesman flushed and beamed. He took my card, punched in numbers, and made a great fuss with tissue paper and tape.  As he wrapped and scribbled, he jabbered on about his years and years of experience. He told me how he could read any customer, even if they were "channeling through their Mom". I paid up, made sure that the receipt was safely in the bag and slowly hurried away.

 I  limped pathetically towards another department store. I told the assistant that I wanted a plain, dark purple tie. She showed me two, I picked one and BINGO, I was making my agonizingly slow trip back to the car.....

 And now, just five hours later, my son has picked the tie. Was it the plain, dark purple one you ask?

 NOOOOO. He's gone for the paisley. And very handsome he looks too.

 So the anemic looking,  badly dressed, incredibly annoying salesman was right.  Which only makes him even more annoying.

 And to make matters worse,  now I'm left to  wonder.... Do I really channel my son.........?

 (P.S. The picture really doesn't do the ensemble justice.)