Saturday, 26 February 2011

A little rain and sun magic

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I have been thinking a lot about memory recently. In the past 14 years I have watched three close members of my family succumb to one sort of memory loss or another. The first was my mother in law, who was brought down by Alzheimer’s disease some time in the 1990’s. Then in 2005 my mother had a very bad fall, from which the essence that was her never quite recovered. A few years later her cousin, my dear Aunt Cecil had some kind of mini stroke, and is now classed as having dementia, whatever that term is supposed to mean. In each case there has been, as one effect of these afflictions, a loss of short term memory.

This loss of day to day memory affected those dear souls in a variety of ways. For my Mother-in-Law the Alzheimer’s gradually robbed her of the ability to be rational. We moved her to live with us, “us” at that time being my ex husband, my daughter and myself. By then, for her there really were “monsters under the bed”, not in the sense that she felt there were strange creatures waiting to grab her ankles as she went to her rest, but that the whole world was out to get her. She was by nature not a trustful woman, and as the disease took hold, that distrust was intensified by her profound anxiety. She would spend hours looking for her things, convinced “that bloody bitch has took it all”. Another activity would be a desperate hunt for whatever it was she was “just going to do” – her drive for hard work and useful activity hadn’t died, she simply didn’t know what it was she was supposed to be doing any more. No attempt at distraction could override this need to be useful, yet she became incapable of undertaking any activity as she could never remember what it was she was supposed to be doing. Her days were spent in restless anxiety until the disease progressed to the point when all awareness was gone and we had to place her in care.

My aunt Cecil, known to my Facebook friends as the Kidmore End Fairy since that is where she lives, also has memory problems. They started in 2007 when she was 82 and had some kind of happening in her head which left her bereft of short term memory. She finds this both frustrating and frightening, in particular since her own mother succumbed to memory problems after a bash on the head. Cecil is a tremendous character, full of stories, since her mother, like Ganna, was a writer, yet sadly bereft of children since she never married. She reminds me of the Queen, both in her manner and her way of speaking. She worked, for the majority of her adult life, for the National Trust as custodian of Grey’s Court and secretary to its owners. In place of children, Cecil has always had dogs, and I recently had to drive up to stay with her as one of her dogs was to be put to sleep. Part of my role in this was to constantly reassure her that she was doing the right thing; with no recall of the vet’s diagnosis, given the previous week, she was sure that it must be done, but not sure why. The deed was done with great kindness and delicacy by the vets, as Jamie sat in her lap. 

After they had gone, I took Cecil out to lunch to "take her mind off things". Already the fact of his absence was receding from her awareness. I had to leave that evening, and I wondered as I drove home, how often during the following days, she might start up to look for him, only to realise at some point – how long would this take? – that he was gone. I went to see her again last week, this time for a trip to the solicitors to sign her will. We drove into Henley, had a very pleasant day and were treated to a delightfully humorous vignette by said solicitor’s son, who works with her. Again, by late afternoon all memory of the trip had gone, the laughter we had shared at a young man's antics was inaccessible to her. While this means that every time I take her to Henley her delight is new, as she’s sure she’s not been there for “at least a hundred years”, that delight soon fades as the experience can’t be revisited in the fullness of time. Her days are deprived of the pleasure of recollection and also, presumably, of any sense of existing within a sequence of events.

My Mum’s memory loss seemed to be combined with a dreadful inertia. After her fall, from which she emerged with multiple skull fractures amongst other injuries, I thought we’d lose her, but her tenacious spirit won through and she sort of recovered. I moved her to be with us; by happy coincidence the flat above mine came available. However, some vital essence that was her had gone.  She stopped doing things, while having no memory that nothing had been done. This, combined with a very vivid form of daydream, resulted in such problems as convincing her to eat. She would be quite sure that she’d cooked and eaten a large meal, and so had no appetite for food. Her poor little frame got thinner and thinner, yet I could not convince her to do more than nibble at the meal I had prepared for her. She would forget that I had been with her each day until I went upstairs. I would be greeted by the blazing light of her pleasure at my arrival, shining out of her blue blue eyes, as though each appearance was utterly unexpected. Rarely aware that I was with her many times during each day, a sense of having been deserted would trouble her. She knew that there was something deeply wrong, we would talk about her condition and sometimes a deep feeling of dread would overcome her. She would look at me with a sort of hopelessness and say “I’m frightened”, yet not understand why. Friends would visit and she would enjoy their company a great deal. She had what her mother called a “gift for friendship”, her pleasure in people was intense, as sometimes was her ire if crossed! Yet in those hours she inevitably spent alone while I was at work, she could not review these visits and happy conversations to glean more pleasure from them, they were gone.

My dear little Mum died last year, and the loss of her, of whom I think daily, is also in a way a loss of memory for me. She was the repository of our family history, not in the genealogical sense, but in the form of family myth and a sense of shared experience. I can no longer ask her to remind me of what my father said on such and such occasion – nor relive the shared delight of my great grandmother’s maid, exclaiming on the “striped ass” - a zebra, shambling down Arklow High Street when the circus visited. Granted my childhood wrongs are no longer visited on me either, but the sense of a void, where family companionship was once, is profound. I am an only child, so there is no one else to recall these vignettes with, just silence.

These thoughts on memory and its function in our lives come to me often, in particular as I have read and pondered a great deal about mindfulness, in the Buddhist sense. As I understand it, it is about letting go of all distractions and living wholly in the present, which is the only time and space we can be certain of. Our past is gone, our future a mystery, the present is here and now. In placing ourselves in that present, experiencing it to the full and releasing ourselves from the endless cycle of thought that traps us elsewhere, we are advised that we can find freedom from anguish and suffering; our yearning for something other than the lives we have will abate. I can accept this intellectually, it makes perfect sense to me and I try to live my life as best I can with an awareness of the value of now. Yet watching these poor souls suffering in their forced relinquishing of thoughts of recent things, I feel that our time spent revisiting recent events, conversations, happenings is central to our sense of being. We cannot thrive, nor move logically through our lives without thoughts of who and what and where. Without them, are we not abandoned souls, crying in the darkness?

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Down in the Dell Where the Badgers Dwell!

Spring is bustling in my garden There are all sorts of magics happening as moisture surges through the soil and the light moves round to fill the space.

There are magic trees, hazel and conifers

totems from a long ago, distant garden guarding a water source

a Japanese girl who welcomes you as you leave the house

 A little old man and lady, who converse in measured and discreet tones beneath the watchful eye of the sun and the moon

Tulips in our lovely new front garden catch the evening light,     
A watchful cat wonders when biscuits are due - always time for biscuits you understand

while his brother explores down in the dell where the badgers dwell .........

where things might soon be stirring as night approaches, birds flitter and flutter their way to bed .....
evening falls and sunset fills the sky with glory

catching the hazel catkins in its last rays

you can find more pictures here

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


I learned this week that an old friend of mine lost her son earlier this year, a tragedy for which there is no consolation.

Tomorrow I have the precious blessing of meeting my daughter in London for a day out together. Every hour, every second is a treasure beyond price.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The self igniting hot water bottle

Once upon a time, a little girl who lived in Petersfield was rather frightened by a fire, in fact by two fires.

The first fire happened just beside her when she was sleeping. Her Mum had draped a table lamp beside the bed with "something" to make it less bright so the little girl could go to sleep. Lo and behold, the "something" caught fire! Fortunately the little girl's Mum came in just in time and whipped that smoldering "something" off the lamp so no harm done - well, no physical harm anyway.

Then however, there was a proper fire, a chimney fire, a fire that involved very exciting firemen in uniforms, a fire engine, big smoke coming out of the chimney, flames in the fireplace worse than the usual flames, and the use of the little girl's favourite mug to throw water on the fire in the living room! "Don't break my mug!"

The little girl then started to have nightmares about fire, she wrote about them in her "freework" school book, like this

The little girl got really, really worried about fire and, with that delightful lack of logic that makes a small child's world full of irrational fears, was convinced that her hot water bottle was going to set the bed alight!!! She had to ask her Mum to go upstairs repeatedly to check, because if there was a hot water bottle fire, she wasn't sure how to put it out! This fear lasted for some considerable time.

Eventually the little girl did grow up (more or less) and forgot all about it. Until, that is, she found her childhood in a suitcase, including her "freework" books, and coincidentally happened upon a posting on her friend Pen's blog here.

If you look very closely, there is a hot water bottle under her notebook. Just for a second, there was a brief childhood pang - hope that hot water bottle doesn't cause the technology to explode, notebooks get hot underneath!!!

I's OK, I think I've grown out of it now - oh, and Pen assures me there was no hot water in the bottle, so that's all right then!!!!!

Saturday, 12 February 2011

First quilt top

I've mentioned it several times now, so perhaps you should see it.

I'm not sure what I think of it, here draped over the sofa in the old place. The light was poor that day so it looks a bit unbalanced. I was trying to get a flow of light and dark across the piece, and use the bits I had to their best without creating a "traditional" symmetrical pattern and style.

There are so many fabrics in this from my childhood and teenage years. The centre panel had a blue and white print from a circular skirt of Mum's that I cut down for myself at one stage - I loved the way it flowed out around me as I skipped down stairs. Then there is fabric from a dress Mum made me to go to my cousin Dot's wedding, some from a  dress of Mum that she wore when I was a very wee thing, and two patches from a dress I made for my "O level" needlework (a VERY long time ago!), given to the daughter of a friend of Mum's. She kept it and gave it back to me when Jen was small, then I gave it to another friend for her daughter when she got to a similar size. I have no idea where it is now, but hope it has given pleasure to more little girls over time.

Jen very small at the
 butterfly garden

front garden thoughts

Last week two very nice men built me a front garden. They are Ray and Dan of Rotherview Nurseries, just North of Hastings.

It has gone from this rather bleak shingle desert

to this

We’ve known them for some years, our old home being two doors down from Dan’s. They build us a lovely pergola, patio and path in the old place, with alpines tucked in here and there round a strange little rockery we made from large pebbles and odd bits of Victorian groyne collected one by one from the beach. 

This was where the golden yew lived, at the end of the path to the ponder spot.

This time more planting was needed. We planned it together, combining those plants I  had propagated from the old place with plants from the nursery, Ray having skilfully teased out of me what I wanted from the vague ideas in my head – “well sort of flow’ey with colours ranging from red to purple”, while Dan provided added suggestions.

The garden is south facing, the only really sunny spot so far, as the back is so shaded by the house. I want to catch the light, as I have indoors, but this time with plants. There are grasses to waft in the breeze and shimmer through much of the year, a weeping silver birch, one of my favourite trees, low growing plants to spill over the wall facing the house and a wisteria in a huge pot that I hope will ramble over some trellis and provide a wall of soft purple when it finally flowers. I so look forward to it all growing to maturity.

 My lavender cuttings were just about enough to provide a hedge right across the front, where I hope it will spill through the black picket fence and delight passers by with its scent and texture. Here they are all lined up.

Just now it looks rather empty as the plants are all little and are waiting to put on their spring/summer splendour. I can't wait!

I do feel very strongly that the front garden is the bit you share with the world – it’s not so much there for show, in a look at me sense, rather a collection of flowers, textures, scent and colour that you give to the people around you. When I was still at school, I often walked the 3 miles or so home when the weather was good. The walk started up on a high point to the North of Hastings called The Ridge – a final sweep of the South Downs before they merge into the Weald of Kent. The view from up there was wonderful, so as I walked, with my schoolbag bag clasped heavy in front of me, I swooped and swam in mind, out above the rooftops over the far sparkling sea to Beachy Head. Then as my route flowed down the hill, I walked through seventies suburbs with heather, azalea, birch and well tended lawns until it levelled out onto a busy bit of main road where the houses hid behind high fences to shelter from the noise. Once past that I dipped down again, the road meandering along the side of Alexandra Park  and through time from the thirties right back to Victoriana. This was where I lived, sheltered on front by the park, and behind by a steep hill of allotments and scrub where, in the thirties/forties my great aunt’s companion kept a mushroom farm. Through all this urban part of my walk, I would watch front gardens; some scruffy and weedy with unkempt edges, or no edges at all; some beautifully, almost artificially manicured, with green moss free lawns mown to within an inch of their lives and the odd gnome. In between these extremes were those gardens with blowsy irises or beautiful trees that attracted me, gave me pleasure. These I watched through the year as I walked past them until, at last, I would dip down yet again, crossing the park to reach home. There Ganna would be waiting for me since, for much of the time, Mum was out at work. I loved those gardens, they allowed my mind to disengage from school, where I always felt out of place, to drift for a while in dreamland, until I had to reengage with the curious world I lived with at home, quiet and sedate and, now I look back on it, from another time period entirely.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Do we all become orphans?

I had an interesting chat today with two good souls, a mother and daughter team, who run a knitting shop near where I work. More than just knitting, there is sewing, crochet and a weaving class that I’d love to join if I can allow myself to. I walk past this shop when I leave work each day – imagine the temptations! However, in amongst the crafty chat there was deeper thought. We found ourselves talking about losing loved ones, in this case our parents. The mother, whose name I don’t yet know, lost both her parents four years ago. I lost Dad when I was 7, then my dear Ganna, who had become a surrogate parent, when I was 21 and finally Mum last year. We pondered on the way that this loss touches us daily, little things that might trigger emotions that veer between a soft, aching sorrow and an overwhelming need to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
Mum was a daily light in my life, despite all the trials that come with caring for a strong willed woman, who was progressively losing her connection to reality. I would go upstairs knowing that her deep blue eyes would fill with unconditional joy as she realised my presence. We argued at times, at times she could be dreadfully difficult, and the anguish of watching her get lighter and lighter as she ceased to eat, convinced that she’d already cooked herself a “lovely lunch” was at times too much to bear. Yet each day this shining smile would greet me, blue as the sky, bright as the sun. All my life I understood that she was “fragile”, though we didn’t realise the nature of that fragility until I was diagnosed, in adulthood, with the same condition, in diluted form. As a child she broke bones with frightening regularity, as had her mother, aunt and grandfather.  She started breaking again once menopause set in, first a finger, then an elbow, a knee smashed to smithereens, her pelvis, sternum, spine, skull, neck. I watched her little body gradually crumple and deform as Osteogenesis Imperfecta added inexorably to the normal loss of bone and muscle that goes with ageing. Yet through all of this her soul remained gloriously strong, her smile generous and her sense of fun undimmed. She was my inspiration. And now she is gone just as, in the natural order of things all our parents go before us “into that good night”.
So we women, chatting in a small shop in Hastings, pondered on this loss and the way in which we felt, despite our years, orphaned. The dictionary defines an orphan as a child whose parents are dead. But do we not all feel, from time to time, helpless as children, frightened by the demands of life, intimidated by the responsibilities we expect ourselves to bear? I know I do, and have often in the past. Yet we put on a brave face, rarely answer the query “how are you?” with true replies, understanding the shallow nature of this reflex social patter. Why can we not feel orphaned, even as adults, when the person who has been our benchmark in life has gone forever? I miss Mum every day, in scraps and starts, between the contingencies of living. She is a hollow place in my heart. I know my daughter misses her beloved grandmother too – as I did when Ganna died. We feel bereft, while understanding that this is the nature of being. Our only certainty in living is that we will die; the only true, mindful response to this is to live our best lives while we can. But in amongst this trying and accepting, understanding and letting go, perhaps we could allow ourselves to be orphans once in a while. Perhaps that is natural response, at any age, to this inescapable loss.

Monday, 7 February 2011


When I've taken some more pictures, I will post about my new front garden, but for now, I can't better this lovely post from Terri Windling's magic studio.
Angels indeed

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Today I found my childhood in a suitcase

It was all here

These beautiful suitcases contain a myriad of family memories. I feel privileged to own them, and pay tribute to my dear little Mum, who treasured them herself all these years.

I have always had them in the back of my awareness, part of my childhood's fabric. I peered into them when I was much younger, but in recent years, as she declined, it seemed an intrusion on her privacy, so fragile she was, yet enduring.

I wept with relief to find them intact, such poignant things

There are sad things, to do with my father's death, but also happy things like this!

The Beatles circa 1964 - by me - aged 3!

And wonderful things like Mum's diaries kept during the war 1940-1947.

I am almost afraid to read them - she is still so close.