Inspiration fails to strike, so I thought I would share some photos I took on my recent trip to Newcastle, to visit my youngest son. He left home for university 6 years ago and has stayed in the city since graduating. I wrote about leaving him there and my subsequent struggles to adjust to my now empty nest at the time.
Newcastle must be one of the friendliest and most vibrant cities in the UK, a complete contrast to our sleepy Suffolk village, and I always enjoy dipping in, despite the 500 miles distance we have to cover and the complexity of the Newcastle one-way system which never fails to tie us up in knots, particularly at the end of a long days driving, in the dark and wind and rain. Luckily, the policeman who stopped us as we were driving completely the wrong way up a road designated only for buses and taxis, despite trying to follow the signs, took pity on us and waved us on!
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
Whenever we visit Newcastle, I head straight for the Quayside area, with its fast flowing river, stunning bridges, bars and restaurants. The Baltic Gallery is housed in a former flour mill and is famous for its contemporary art collections and exhibitions and I love walking across the Millennium Bridge to visit. It looks particularly stunning lit up at night!
My oldest son visited at the weekend with his new young wife, the love of his life now, his lodestar, filling the house with their energy and optimism, eating more than I could possibly imagine, playing with the dog, walking, laughing, chatting, loving, sharing.
Then they were gone, as though
they had never been here at all, the house a thousand times more empty than
before they arrived.
And I sat for a while unusually quite alone, absorbing the silence, the
stillness, had a cup of coffee, walked the dog, picked some flowers
and waited for the emptiness to pass and my life to settle back into where it
is now and for that to be enough. More than enough.
Tulips are among my favourite flowers and I can never resist their bright hopeful colours each Spring. I remember I had some beautiful red tulips in a vase in my bedroom in North London where my second son was born 30 years ago now. A home birth, the best and easiest of them all, my mother asleep in the bedroom above me, my 2 year old waking early to greet his new brother, astonished by the arrival of the tiny person he would grow up with, who would always be part of his life. Every year they creep into my home or grow in terracotta pots by the front door, as long as the dog doesn't get to them first! These are the last tulips this year - I love the contrast with the deep blue hyacinths, perfect for my blue and white birthday jug.
People still come to view the house from time to time, but for the moment we have no offers so no decision can be made. I can feel myself letting go bit by bit of all we have come to love here in East Anglia, but it is a real limbo we are in now. Who knows what the right decision will be?
I spent some time in Kent last week staying with an old friend and it felt so good to be there again, the chance meetings with people I go way back with, whose homes I have visited, whose children grew up with mine, whose history I have shared. I know in my heart where I want to be, where my home will be. When the time is right.
According to a recent newspaper report, daughters spend, on average, two months of their lives chatting to their mothers on the phone and speak several times a week. My first thought was 'is that all?'. The mother/daughter relationship is one of the strongest bonds and possibly the most complex as we negotiate our differences. My mother was a huge and important part of my life and she was always the first person I would turn to. She was always on my mind and I miss her beyond words. I don't have a daughter and my experience of being a mother to my grown-up sons is necessarily very different. I adore my boys and I know they love me deeply but they only phone if they have something specific to discuss, an arrangement to make. Other than that there is pretty much radio silence unless I initiate contact (which of course I do!). So Mother's Day is bitter sweet - the day I miss my Mum the most and the day I miss being a mother the most too, as my sons are rarely able to be with me on the day, although I do try and arrange a get-together at some point in March, negotiating various birthdays, wedding anniversaries and other important commitments. And these were my Mother's Day flowers, picked from our emerging Spring garden by my partner, a parent himself who understands the complex interweaving of love and sadness when the young have flown the nest and their lives have moved on.
It was a very special day and despite still feeling drained by the wretched flu which is still pulling me down, I put on my best smile and dug deep. Wild horses would not have kept me away from my son's wedding. Of course there was a hat involved! Someone had to do it, and who better than the Mother of the Groom, smart for once in black and ivory.
The Winter Garden at the smart London hotel was the perfect venue for afternoon tea with the bride's parents, the first opportunity we had had to meet them, before the beautiful, simple ceremony at the nearby Registry Office. The Groom was suitably nervous and elated and the Bride, when she finally appeared, was beautiful and radiant as only a bride can be on her wedding day. Afterwards the newlyweds, family and friends piled onto the specially commissioned red London bus, to be greeted with glasses of champagne as the party began and we set off across central London laughing and chatting as the tension was released, children waving to us as we stopped at traffic lights - for once part of the sights of London!
The Thames-side pub/restaurant with its stunning view of the river was warm and welcoming after the short walk from the bus in the still freezing-cold late March wind. The food was delicious, the atmosphere relaxed and informal and the party took off. Meeting so many of my son's friends and having all three of my children, as well as my new daughter-in-law, together in the same room was a special joy, and it was a great pleasure also to welcome three of my step-children who joined us after the dinner and speeches, the first time they had met my son's new wife; we are a combined family that is still evolving and growing.
As the evening progressed, fancy dress clothes and wigs were produced from somewhere, adding to the fun. Of course, there were cupcakes and very delicious they looked too, I thought, choosing one and putting it down on the table for a few minutes while chatting to someone, only to find, when I came to look for it, that my ex-husband was sitting in my place scoffing it. It was My Cup Cake!
My maternal grandmother was a redoubtable woman. An Edwardian nursery governess, she spent her 20's and early 30's living in exclusive hotels in the North of England, where she ruled her nursery with a rod of iron. She didn't marry until she was 33, but nevertheless she and my grandfather (having by now emigrated to Canada where he had a farm) produced a large brood of their own; my mother and her four brothers. Needless to say, they were all brought up in accordance with her strict views on child rearing. Her voice can still be heard echoing down the generations. Granny didn't believe in celebrating Mother's Day, seeing it (wrongly as it happens - Mothering Sunday has a long and venerable tradition) as a recent and purely commercial innovation. My own mother, being strongly influenced by her upbringing, was also not inclined to make an occasion of it and I, in my turn, although delighted with the handmade offerings of my sons when they were very young, paid scant attention to the occasion. It wasn't until my marriage broke down and I realised too late that Mother's Day fell on a Sunday which the boys were to spend with their father. I didn't see the need to change this arrangement and fight my corner, the family script being so deeply ingrained, and spent the day alone, feeling lost and displaced, missing my sons on a day which focuses so strongly on the mother/child relationship. It was during that long, painful day that I began to think again about Mother's Day and to accept that it did matter to me, that I did want my children to think of me on this special day and from then on I have carefully nurtured it in my own family. Yesterday, it was a special joy to spend the day with my youngest son, down from University especially to be with me on Mother's Day, and to speak to my two older sons who couldn't join us this year but made special efforts to phone (they so rarely do - is this a boy thing?). In this family now, every Mother's Day will always be a special day. I am rewriting the family script.
Liverpool Street Station teeming with people, scurrying about their business as I plunge into the Underground, crowded escalators carrying me into the bowels of the earth, then jammed onto a Central line train packed with strangers, fellow travellers. Unknown, unknowable lives. The District line is quieter, room to sit down, closer to the surface and, finally, three hours after leaving my sleepy Suffolk village, I arrive at Putney Bridge Station surfacing, blinking, into the bright February sunshine and take a deep breath of fresher air.
I set out across Putney Bridge, red London buses, cars, taxis, bicycles, pedestrians, all suspended over the fast-flowing Thames, creating its own spaces, microclimate and ancient rhythms, indifferent to the world that has evolved around it. Then I saw him walking towards me, the tall, dark, handsome young man with his Grandmother's vivid blue eyes and a warm bear hug for me. My first-born son! We walk together, chatting and laughing, exchanging news, so pleased to see each other, into a bustling Saturday Putney High Street, then take a turning into a quieter residential road, following it through towards the Common and a quiet pub for lunch. The next time I see him will be his Wedding Day.
"What will you do now with the gift of your left life?"
Such a lovely evocative line from a Carol Ann Duffy poem. She has such a spare way with words and chooses and places them so beautifully.
And reading this made me think about my own left life, the children having grown and flown the nest, busy with their own lives, and my mother having recently died. This has been a time of great change for me and a chance to reflect, reassess where I am, where I want to be, what I will do now. What really matters.
I have loved being a mother. For me, it has been the best thing in my life and, now that I find myself only a small part of my children's lives, it is hard to find something meaningful to fill the huge space they have left behind in mine. I could spend hours listing the things I miss about having my sons living at home with me. Not that I would want them at home all the time now that they are young adults - they need to have their own lives and I need to have mine. Nor has it always been easy; far from it! Yet somehow the only time I really feel whole again, and at peace, is when they are here with me, chatting and laughing in the kitchen while I cook at meal for us all, bake a cake I know they like, feel the warmth of that unique relationship we only have with our own children.
coming near Christmas, they're cuttin' down trees
puttin' up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace".
always magic in the air at Christmas. I love to think of people
through the ages celebrating the Winter Solstice in one way or another,
from the ancient pagan tradition to our more recent Christian era. Despite the commercialisation, it is a wonderful occasion to have a
family get-together, share a feast, the warmth of our homes and the
giving and receiving of gifts. I cannot think of a better way to
distract us all from what can be a rather depressing and miserable time
of year, the short days and often dank weather. I love the sense of
anticipation and goodwill, the lights going up on trees in houses and
gardens, the bustle of Christmas markets and the smells of the Christmas
cooking wafting through the house.
And yet, increasingly as time passes, there is
such a complex layer of emotions simmering away beneath the surface and I
think this is particularly the case where marriages have broken down
and families have been fractured and reconstituted. More than anything,
I miss my small sons and their joy and excitement at this time of year,
the carol concerts and nativity plays that used to fill my days, whilst
at the same time I look forward to seeing the grown-up versions of my sons and spending some time with them. My partner, too, misses the
family Christmases he shared with his own children when they were an
intact family and from which he is now excluded, even as we prepare for
them to come and visit on Christmas Eve, knowing that they will be
leaving early on Christmas morning to spend the rest of the holiday with
their Mother and her new husband.
And, of course, this is the
first Christmas without my Mother. Bittersweet.
is full of challenges and changes, adjustments and adaptations, the
weft and the warp. Christmas puts our lives under a microscope and
exposes the flaws as well as the beauty of what we create. It is a time
of joy as well as sadness, but this Christmas I hope, mostly joy.
It was 21 years ago when I first came face to face with my youngest son. The time just flies by from baby to toddler, small child to large child, teenager to young adult.
We met for lunch in a bustling
London bar, all Farrow & Ball and mismatched tables and chairs; red buses
swishing by on the busy, wet, Saturday streets, people scurrying under
umbrellas in the relentless icy rain, but we were warm and cosy inside.
I miss my boys and the homes we made together, the lives we shared, but how
lovely to meet up like this and share a birthday lunch.
I'm sitting here alone in my house tonight with a glass of Kentish white wine and a frittata, made with vegetables from a neighbour's garden. I bartered the vegetables for a pot of the marmalade I make every January, a popular present. Yesterday afternoon was spent sitting in the garden with another neighbour in the village, together with the latest additions to the next generation. Tomorrow my next door neighbour and I are planning a blackberrying expedition in the country lanes that surround the village.
It's been just over a year now since my partner and I made the move from Kent to Suffolk and it's been a challenging and sometimes fraught time. I have often been horribly homesick for my old life and familiar people and places, but having decided to leave my comfort zone, I am slowly beginning to reap the rewards. Friendships take time to grow, but there are some promising beginnings.
Today was spent sorting out the garden, a new challenge for me after years of living in rented houses. It is a continual puzzle to me, what should go, what to keep, what will thrive and where. There have been some successes and some ignominious failures. I am currently trying to work out what to grow beside my pink climbing rose, now planted in the courtyard outside the kitchen - should it be Nepeta, Lavender or a deep blue Hebe? And what will do best in the very dry corner of the bed by the front door when the Cosmos has finished? I'm tempted by a deep red Lavatera framing the herbs - the silver thyme I planted there is spreading itself very nicely indeed. There is so much more to do, so many plans to make, but it's been a good first year and I'm enjoying myself, rootling around deep in the Suffolk soil. It certainly keeps me grounded.
My peaceful time will end tomorrow, as it should. I really wouldn't enjoy it so much if I had too much of it. My youngest son, home from university for the summer, will be returning from his visit to his father in London, soon to be joined by my oldest son and his girlfriend, staying for a couple of days rest and relaxation - them, not me! Then it's off to Holland on the ferry to join my partner, who took the boat over yesterday, for a week or two of cruising the Dutch canals and inland seas before it's back to earth with a bump and perhaps an end of summer Pimm's party for all our new friends and neighbours.
I call them my shadow children, the ones I lost over 30 years ago; the embryonic lives that were never lived. Their spirits stay with me, on the periphery of my consciousness, the what ifs... the might have beens...
Of course I grieved for them
deeply at the time, even though I never held them in my arms, never kissed them
and changed their nappies, never left them at the school gates, chivvied them
to do their homework, saw them launched onto lives of their own; lives in which
I would have only a small part to play. I never knew the colour of their eyes,
the texture of their hair, the smell of their skin, their personalities. I
planted a rose in memory of my lost little ones and it has moved with me from
one house to another over the years. It helps to embody them somehow, gives me
a quiet focus for my private thoughts.
I was lucky. Despite the early difficulties, I now have three handsome,
hulking, grown up sons who have filled the empty spaces in my life and given me
little time to dwell on what was lost. But I have been thinking of them
recently, following the sudden, unexpected death of an old friend's 16 year old
daughter, a lovely young woman, full of bright promise; she had shared her life
and filled her thoughts and dreams. She should be eagerly awaiting her GCSE
results - she would have excelled - gone into the sixth form, fallen in and out
of love, spread her wings, gone on to university, had a career, married
perhaps... children of her own. All wiped away, never to be.
What solace can anyone possibly
give to a grieving mother? What can ever even begin to help her to heal? She
wakes up every morning to experience her loss afresh, as though for the first
I shall give her a rose to plant
in memory of her daughter. It's not much, but apart from being there for her if
she will let me, it's the best I can do.
I abandoned my youngest son in a cold Northern city one fine autumn day.
It's what we do with our young; it's our way of pushing them out of the nest. We hope and pray that they really can fly, that they won't crash and burn. And suddenly, there's a huge hole in my life, in my heart, in my home. The house is often silent now, peaceful, serene, still, and I love it, so why do I still crave the noise and mess and sheer vitality of my son? He regularly used to drive me to distraction and I often longed for the day when I could reclaim my life for myself, it having been so well used by my children for so many years.
Everything in my life now is so different, it's hard to know where to begin counting the ways in which it has changed, but this has to be the most significant. I'm now living in my new home, with my new partner in a different part of the country and slowly trying to put a life together, pretty much from scratch. I think we must have been mad to do this, but at the same time, it seems terribly sane. Time will tell.
Create it says at the top of the
page, and that is what I'm trying to do. Create a new future, a different sort
of life for myself, as the old one collapses around me.
One thing is for sure, things cannot go on as they are. I know I can no longer
afford to live in this house, now the maintenance payments have slowed to a
trickle and could dry up at any time. I know my youngest son will leave school
this year, hopefully to start a more independent life for himself at
University. And I know that my hands are telling me in no uncertain terms that
I can no longer earn an income with them, as the joints swell and burn. No
ambiguous messages there then, so what next?
We have talked through the
worries we both have about moving in together, my lover and I, about making a
life together, and it's exciting and scary in equal measure, but somehow we
seem to have moved from 'shall we live together' to 'where shall we live
together'. We could go almost anywhere, all our children now being young
adults, and that's both liberating and frightening. We have a life here,
friends, work, things we enjoy doing together. Could we find all the things we
need in a strange place? Can we make a fresh start somewhere new?
We have looked at possible houses and they all have problems - one is a
complete wreck and needs renovating, another is perfect, but a little too
expensive and in the middle of Suffolk, another was snatched from under our
noses, and yet another is liable to flooding.
I keep looking for a sign, a way forward. These are tough decisions and there
are no easy answers. Where are the angels when you need them?
After the recent stormy weather, it wasn't hard to fill the car boot with fallen branches to build a fire in the orchard. My son and I carved out pumpkin faces, threaded lanterns through the apple trees and borrowed bales of straw from a kind neighbour, scattered around the fire for seating. We put the stereo outside on a long extension lead, playing party music and waited for the guests to arrive.
There was a nail-biting hour or so, when it seemed no-one was going to come. My son kept smiling somehow as his friends phoned and texted, changing arrangements, re-making plans, but finally a friend arrived, then a couple more. An hour later, there were a couple of dozen young people gathered around the blazing fire, seemingly immune to the damp and cold, eating pizzas and hotdogs, drinking beers, chatting and laughing.
Much later, when everyone had left, I wandered around the dark, quiet garden, collecting whatever needed to come in straight away, leaving the rest 'til morning, stopping to gaze up at the clear, cold, starry night sky and enjoying the sense of peace and the pleasure of another successful gathering. Memories that I hope my son will carry with him when his life takes him away from this quiet corner of the countryside and into the wider world where he must make his own way.
Today is my day off. I'm listening to the 12 o'clock news on Radio 4, the only sound in my quiet kitchen apart from the traffic that swishes past my house on the wet road; white noise now.
Since I tore myself out of my warm bed after a restless night, woken by the shrill alarm clock, I have driven my 17 year old son to school, shopped at roadside stalls for Bramley apples, proper free range eggs and brightly-glowing sunflowers. I have bought a large round pumpkin with the earth still clinging to its bottom, to be stored in the woodshed until Hallowe'en.
I have mucked out the messy rabbit, cleaned up cat sick and spread the ashes from our weekend fire around my recently planted parsley to keep the scavenging slugs at bay. I have washed dishes, sorted laundry, put yet another load in the washing machine (where does it all come from)? I have got to the bottom of my son's pile of discarded clothes, a once a week task I cannot quite relinquish - yes I know he should do it himself, but I live here too. Smelly socks, dank CCF uniform, crumpled suit, rank shirts - what is the problem with deodourant?
There are a hundred things to do in my home today, yet I'm sitting at the computer writing up my blog, dipping into other people's lives, because I have to do something for myself. It is, after all, my day off.
The sun came out briefly as we assembled by the white five-bar gate which separates the farmhouse from the busy B road connecting two villages which, a decade or so ago no doubt was just a quiet country lane. Today there was little traffic on the road and we soon headed off into deep countryside, following the thin trails linking one footpath with another, chatting and admiring the beautiful, unspoilt, wintry scenery, always keeping the Church Tower in view. Our lodestone. After a while we met the road again briefly, beside the old abandoned windmill on top of the rise, before crossing the ancient churchyard shaded by yew trees, and back into open country.
An hour or so later we emerged by a lovely hop-strewn pub, log fire blazing, and a very welcome drink and lunch. One or two people peeled off after lunch, but the die-hards set off back across country, following The Man in the Woolly Jumper who had the map, losing our way occasionally, finding ourselves in someone else's driveway at one point, but always finding a way through in the end.
The light was fading by the time we got back to the farmhouse, my sons grumbling by now. Friends rallied round, someone put the kettle on, The Man in the Woolly Jumper lit the fire and mince pies were warmed in the oven. After a reviving cup of tea a few more people arrived and bottles of fizz popped as the fire warmed us through, conversation flowed and friends and family relaxed together by the brightly lit Christmas Tree.
Nothing ever goes completely smoothly. The new school year started so well, with such good intentions on all sides, but gradually things have slipped. We are back to the usual early morning routine. 'I'm not going to call you again!' 'If you aren't ready, I shall just go without you and you can find your own way to school!' Six miles across country and no buses unless he catches the 7.45 from the village - fat chance! The letters home - broken bounds, coming home at lunchtime if he doesn't have lessons, work not done or handed in, threatened suspensions, lectures from tutors. All the old familiar themes. How could I ever have thought we had cracked it this time?
Which isn't to say that there hasn't been progress, that things aren't moving in the right direction. I hope. But I fool myself if I think things have resolved. And, to make me feel really bad, apparently it is all my fault, he tells me. The way he is. That's the hardest thing to take. I look deep inside myself and wonder, and worry. Perhaps he is right. All the times I got it wrong, when I was too tired or emotional or stressed to be the perfect mother I wanted to be and we certainly aren't the perfect family, but in the end, you do the best you can with the cards you are dealt and that is the only positive message I can give my son today.