HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Family

daphne

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Sooner rather than later my aunt won’t answer her phone when I call. As I stride along bush tracks with our dog, waiting for her to pick up, there will be silence. Though in her heart she’d like to be at home for ever, sitting in her comfy chair overlooking her garden, we both know that she’s beginning to look for the door.

 

My aunt has a magical ability to make me feel special. Everyone needs someone like this in their life. Someone who can communicate, in the tone of their voice, that they’d be willing to drop everything to be at your side. My aunt is nearly blind and shuffles with a Zimmer frame, which makes the idea of her dropping everything for me high risk. Nonetheless over the years I’ve found it immensely comforting to know that she’s there for me.

 

I’ve never dropped everything for my aunt, nor would she ask it of me. Our relationship is, especially since my mother died, maternal. It’s nonreciprocal and binding. Which is why I’m struggling to let her go. Selfishly perhaps, I’m afraid of there’ll being no-one there to catch me should I fall.

 

My aunt laughs about her age, about being past her use-by date. Yet she’s not too old for my love. Whenever I call, at however inconvenient a moment, she has time for me. Not every occasion – she fusses whenever more than one thing is happening – but reliably so.

 

A week ago I called my aunt and she didn’t pick up. When I alerted her son he got back to me to say that she was in hospital with an irregular heartbeat. On calling her in hospital, a few days later, her voice sounded woolly. Was she being medicated? Had there been something more than a heart murmur? The nurses who picked up her phone couldn’t, for confidentiality reasons, inform me.

 

Last Friday they moved my aunt to her own room, upstairs from the ward on which she’s struggled to sleep for the noise. The nurses, she tells me, ‘are teaching me how to walk again’, which I couldn’t help but take as code for her desire to escape from her hospital bed and return to her own.

 

My aunt has entered a liminal space between life and death. Too old to recover fully, yet not actually sick, she is frail and very nearly blind – and was not a little angry when the doctors decided to replace her pacemaker rather than let her leave this earth in her own good time.

 

On those days that I don’t speak to my aunt I school myself on letting her go. It is, I tell myself, selfish of me to will her to go on living, given that she’s reaching the end of her wick. Her friends have gone and she is the eldest relative at family celebrations. And yet, I return, she has so much to give. Like the tone of her voice which never seems to age.

 

My aunt knows that she’s the only aunt I have left. She knows that I’ll be exposed to the elements once she passes and I edge my way up the family tree. Like the veins on my hands which stand out as my mother’s once did on her hands, we both accept that this is the way of things.

 

There are however things that I can do to return her love. I can keep calling her on the phone and make sure that she knows how much her love has meant to me – in particular her unfailingly positive view of me which issues partly from my likeness to her favourite brother, my father. I can get out my drawing things and keep my creativity alive. Just as she once did with her sketch book, which accompanied her everywhere. I can stop my busy life long enough to notice the daphne pushing into flower in our garden, as winter turns and spring waits round the corner. And I can try to love others in the special way that she has loved me, in the hope this may help them as much as her love has helped me.

iceland

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I was talking to a friend, my jacket collar turned up against the cold, when my son put his head out of the cabin below. ‘Helen’, he said, (he’s stopped using the ‘M’ word) ‘when you’re at sea you’re at sea. You’re not chatting on land’. I laughed. He was right, damn it. I was prattling on as if we were doing the washing up after dinner. And not as if we were in the middle of the harbour, waiting for the wind to fill the sails.

 

On a boat Alex knows exactly what to do. When to reef the sails, when to tack, and when to turn the engine on and turn home. With this he assumes a friendly diplomacy with his sister that, too often, escapes him at home. On a boat he’s in control. Not the captain of his ship – there’s no way he can afford the kind of boat he longs for – but very much himself.

 

If the New York Times Wellness column is to be believed, my son’s prefrontal cortex will not be full developed until his mid-20s. Does this explain how he can head up to the snow line on his mountain bike without a jacket, and in the next breath exhort his sister to wear her fluorescent jacket on her bike to school? Is this why he taunts Emma for not doing what he calls ‘real subjects’ in her final year at school? She, he claims, hasn’t been forced to study history and languages, as his father and I forced him into. She, clearly, is having an altogether easier time of it. I smile softly at Emma as she finishes calculations for a Housing and Design project, one of her so-called easy subjects, before returning to cooking supper.

 

That night, after Alex has washed up, I suggest a drive. Grabbing the car keys we’re on the road in minutes, Jack Johnson on the stereo, heading for the hills that we spent so much time in when he was learning to drive two years ago. Though he drives more carefully than he did then, he still rides the accelerator as if pushing through the gears of his bike. Relaxing into my role as passenger I find out more in that hour on the road, about where he is, than a whole of week of mealtimes has revealed. Details of the voyage he has just returned from, concerns about his future, the exorbitant cost of things he would like but can’t afford, his school friends’ mixed feelings about university life, more angst about his future.

 

In theory Alex accepts that he’d be miserable if he were locked into a sensible university course. In theory he doesn’t envy his schoolfriends’ long-term futures. In theory he agrees that he can’t have the kind of freedom he currently enjoys as a deck hand on tall ships, and also have long-term security. However he has just turned 20 and is full of contradictions. He hates cars, preferring to get around on a bike. Yet he loves to take the wheel on country roads as the car turns with him into each bend. And however much he’d like to know what he’ll be doing and earning in three years’ time, we both know that he wants adventure more. Iceland and Canada and the Gulf of Mexico beckon – and already he’s been to more continents than I’ve visited, or am likely to.

 

As we swing into the car park next to our darkened house we agree that we’ll turn off the Internet in half an hour’s time. However even after I’ve forced myself to pay a few bills and reply to emails his light is still on. ‘Can I turn off the Internet now?’ I call down to him. ‘Can I have ten more minutes?’ ‘Sure’, I say, wanting to sound reasonable while not actually feeling it.

 

‘What will you do when Emma eventually leaves home?’ Alex asks me the next night, walking the dog before dinner. ‘I know it’s hard for you to imagine’, I say, ‘but I was on my own for a long time before you and Emma came along.’ ‘But you’re so good at looking after people’, he says. ‘What will you do when Paul is off in Europe and you are on your own in the house?’ ‘I don’t really know yet’, I reply, halting. ‘I guess I’ll have more time to work. Of course it will be weird. It’s been ages since I’ve really been on my own. Although, even with travel Paul will be at home most of the time.’ A pause. ‘And I do realise’, I add, ‘that Emma must feel free to fly when she’s ready. It’s important that she doesn’t feel that she has to stay at home to hold my hand.’

 

‘Perhaps you’ll be able to travel too’, he suggests. ‘Oh, I don’t know’, I reply, ‘I’m not planning on going anywhere. I like being at home and anyway travel is expensive. Besides’, I say, starting to sound defensive, ‘I’ve still got the house and garden to look after. And there’s Pippi, of course’.

 

Pippi the dog pushes up the hill. I follow on behind as Alex strides ahead. We fall into silence as we near the top. That’s when it strikes me. Neither of us knows what the future will bring. Neither of us has a five-year plan. Neither of us knows how our lives will look after one door closes and another opens. But I don’t say any of this out loud, knowing that he’ll tease me if I do.

 

I break down in a Yoga class, crying in the low light of the final meditation – for me closer to thinking with my eyes shut. The Yoga teacher, a friend, sees my distress and puts pressure on my legs.

 

I throw myself into helping Alex pack, sewing name tags that I ferret out of the sewing basket on to his wool leggings and tops, and writing his initials on every tag I can find with a permanent marker. He washes his sea boots and leaves them out to dry. He empties whole drawers of clothes on to his bed, and pretends to sort through them. He picks up the bin bag into which I’ve thrown a few stray items, and retrieves worn out socks.

 

On the weekend he spends a couple of hours chopping wood, before opening the sitting room window wide as, together, we stack it behind the sofa. Most days he stays in his room, reading magazines, chatting with friends on facebook, and generally wasting time on-line. Cross with himself by mid afternoon, he’ll disappear up the mountain on his bike, even without forking out for new brake pads. Or he’ll join friends for a meal, look at other people’s boats on the harbour – or spend the morning doing a refresher course in First Aid.

 

After dinner one night we flick through old photos on the computer. ‘You know’, he says, ‘on my last voyage I had a lot of time to think’. ‘Oh yeh’, I say. ‘Yes, I had so much time that I started remembering bits of my childhood that I’d forgotten about. All the things that we used to do. I’m really glad that we did those things, they were good times.’ ‘Thank you’, I say, and we continue flicking through the photos, laughing here and there and causing Emma to thump on her bedroom floor to make us quiet.

 

Last Friday Alex’s fortnight at home was up. On Sunday he left Tasmania for Iceland, flying from one end of the world to the other, to wait for his ship to come in. ‘Climbed a mountain today’, he texted on Monday from the north of Iceland. ‘Glad you are up to climbing’, I texted back. ‘Good luck and’, I added, ‘eat blubber!’

 

 

 

 

Sunday afternoon

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‘Can we go sailing?’ his sister asks, her voice edging on petulance. It’s the fourth time she has asked since his return two weeks ago. He stares up at the dark sky and down at the wet courtyard. ‘Come on’, she says. ‘Okay’, he replies, ‘let’s go’. Within five minutes they are gone, with a quick dart back to collect a phone, disappearing in my car down to the boat that he has use of during his stay.

 

The dog yaps her surprise at being left in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I feel it too but don’t yap. Instead I sit on the carpet, stroke the dog’s tummy, and wonder how to spend the next few hours. In my heart I thank my son for taking his sister out sailing, even knowing that it was premised on his leaving the next day. Picking up a rake I lose myself raking leaves which rise up like lava as I squish them into the already full compost bin. Then without a thought I clip the lead to our dog and drive down to the harbour for a walk along the waterfront.

 

There is only one boat on the water, with two white sails. At what point, I wonder, did my son learn to handle such a big boat? From a distance it looks like every other boat that sails on the river. Except that this afternoon it’s the only boat beneath a slate grey sky. For a smug moment I feel proud of having kids who are out on the water when everyone else is sensibly indoors.

 

A text buzzes on my phone. My husband, in reply to my message, is glad to hear that our kids are out on the water together. A blast of wind skuds across the water, leaving ripples in its wake. As I walk along with our dog, keeping my distance from fellow dog owners in case my dog lunges, I wallow in my unneccessariness. I am watching my kids sailing from the shore for my sake, not theirs. I am thinking about them knowing full well they are not thinking about me.

 

Another blast of wind comes through – a blast not a gust – forcing me to turn up the collar of my jacket and wish I had gloves. The only boat on the harbour lists to the right. I force myself to look away and resume my train of thought. It’s no good. The boat lists further to one side. My heart tightens into a horrible parental knot. I don’t like what I see yet can do nothing, not even a speck on the shore. Clutching my phone I have the distinct thought that even if my son were in trouble it would be someone else he would call, not me.

 

I stare out at the water, yanking our dog back from sniffing a rubbish bin. Are they in trouble? Even as I worry I know I am overreacting. Giving a yank to the lead I train my eyes on the only boat on the harbour, giving up any pretence of thinking my own thoughts. A sail comes down. Thank God for that.

 

Ditching my plan to do some writing in a café I make my way to the sailing club, leaving the dog in my husband’s car. The sun is low and it’s freezing. Wind whips under my rain jacket. The boat makes large sweeping tacks as I enter the marina, the gate left conveniently open. ‘Is that someone you know?’ asks a kindly looking sailor pushing a wheelbarrow. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘it’s my kids’. ‘Oh’, he says, giving it a moment’s thought. ‘I’m sure they’ll be alright’. Even though I know he is reassuring me I feel certain in this moment that they will be.

 

I know that I have to do this letting go thing, to make myself redundant in the knowledge that they’ll be fine without me. That their lives will go on no matter the longing that pulses through me, filling my eyes with tears.

 

I make out two figures on the boat, my son steering and my daughter on deck. Standing at the end of the marina, my daughter sees me waving and waves back. I head back to the mooring to help with the ropes as they motor the boat in. ‘Very successful’, says my son, jumping on to the pontoon and taking the rope from my hands. ‘Well done, everyone.’ My daughter’s face is flushed red, with cold or excitement I can’t tell. Whichever it is it makes her more sure-footed than usual, as she clambers round the boat pulling ropes and packing sails.

 

Standing on the pontoon once more I feel redundant. ‘Right then’, I say, ‘I’m heading home to start the fire and then supper’. ‘Great, I’m starving’, replies my son, not looking up from what he’s doing. ‘See you later,’ says my daughter, concentrating on tying a knot. As I head back to our dog, who will be wondering why she’s been left in my husband’s car, I quietly thank the world for this Sunday afternoon.

boat

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‘But I like odd socks’, he says, exasperated, when I hand over five odd socks from the wash. ‘I like knowing that all I have to do is find another sock and I’ll be right’. He looks over and grins. I smile back, squatting on the floor as he goes about packing for another voyage. His small bedroom, the room furthest from the main house and dampest by far, heaves with stuff. Tshirts that I’ve washed and folded he grabs with his large hand and stuffs down the side of his rucksack. Picking his way over the strewn floor like a goat he makes his way to the desk by the window and loses himself reading a pamphlet about the fjords in Chile, his last but one voyage.

 

These days my son needs me less and less. Though he does like it when I leave him cheese and pesto sandwiches in the fridge, and serve supper on time. He may want little from me – I have no idea what to give him on his birthday – yet still he refuses to let go of anything. The squares of thick leather on his desk. The metres of furled ropes in his room. The stacks of boat magazines. The broken boat in the driveway. The ragged tshirts. The odd socks.

 

Friends come for dinner, keen to hear about his adventures at sea. Initially reluctant to join us at the table the moment he appears he slips into an easy affability that he has developed as a deck hand on board a ship with fifty others for stretches of up to fifty days at sea. As we eat he sketches his seagoing life – shifts of four-hours-on, four-hours-off, losing touch with world events, fish guts at the equator crossing, possible voyages to come. When the inevitable question arises – ‘How long will you stay at sea?’ – he answers with practised ease. ‘I’ll do it’, he replies, ‘until I get sick of it’.

 

The young man who claims to be not very good at traveling, who left home for Europe nearly a year ago, has already sailed to four continents, including two trips to Antarctica. Yet this same young man doesn’t know what to do with himself after five days at home, unsettled by the sudden lack of routine in his day and mates to help him make sense of it. He is, by his own admission, more at home on board the ship than in the home he spent his adolescence in.

 

For all his exotic sounding voyages the trip my son most enjoyed he expected to enjoy least. Complaining of what he called ‘the plague’, he set off with three science students on a small boat in Chile, hiking up whichever mountain took their fancy from the fjord below. This trip, this sense of possibility, and these splendid landscapes had more impact on him than all the icy splendour of the Antarctic, with its prolific wildlife, whales a dime a dozen, and fears of losing passengers into ravines in the ice.

 

My son’s hands are rough and calloused, toughened by scouring the ship’s galley below deck and greasing the ropes above it. Yet for all his responsibilities on the ship he still manages to lose his wallet every time he goes out, diving back into his bedroom for ‘just one more look’. To be fair he does jump up to do the washing up after meals in a way he never did before he left home. And unlike the mane of hair that he forfeited on his first equator crossing these days he hair keeps his hair short, cutting it with blunt kitchen scissors in the bathroom.

 

At first I assume he is wasting time in his room, watching Netflix as of old. But no, he is looking up boats for sale, or texting friends in Europe. Now that he is on the edge of twenty he is careful with his hard earned money, converted from Euros and taxed at source. He refuses to repair his mountain bike, choosing to stick to his road bike. Disdainful or despairing of shopping I can’t tell, he returns from his one foray into town with not one but two parking tickets, along with two pairs of shorts and a pair of trousers.

 

After nearly a year away, two and a half weeks at home pass slowly. His friends are all busy and much of the time he seems at a loose end. I try to coax him out of it, but to no avail. He loves me, I know this, yet he doesn’t want to do things with me. He’d rather go up the mountain behind our house on his bike than walk on the mountain with me. Besides he has a lot on his mind. He is waiting for a text from the ship to find out when, even if, they next want him; an uncertainty that he wears like a thick cloak. Instead, at his suggestion, we play Monopoly, a game which stretches over two nights and that his sister narrowly wins. We also play Risk, a game I play so cluelessly that both he and his sister despair of having to play against me.

 

Finally the text he has been hoping for comes, releasing him from his long wait. He will not be stuck at home, moored without a boat forever. He will sail on a smaller vessel to Greenland, and after that who knows? Two friends are marrying in Norway in July, and he might join them there for that.

 

Yesterday, it seems, he was carving ‘BOAT’ into the side of an apple with his pen knife, anything rather than study for his looming final school exams. Today he is floating the idea of attending a friend’s wedding in Europe and sailing round Greenland over the northern summer. In the meantime in a few days he sets sail across the Pacific in a small yacht with a friend’s father and a crew found on the Internet. Not bad for someone who claims to be not very good at travelling.

rooftop

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I was in my late twenties by the time I got round to reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It was the kind of book – like Tolstoy’s War and Peace – that were it not for its doorstop thickness I might have read already. Somehow it had never been the right time: never rainy enough, never sick enough, never curious enough. Until one September I began post-graduate study and went into therapy in the same month. My therapist lived in North London and I lived in South London, involving a long Tube trip twice a week, and it was during this commute that I picked up The Second Sex.

 

Reading Simone de Beauvoir’s book confirmed every misgiving I’d ever had about the pitfalls of domestic life. The timing of my reading, in the arc of my life, was impeccable. On the one hand I was entertaining the idea of having a baby. On the other I feared the snare that might drop on my head if I gave in to this wish. ‘Washing, ironing, sweeping out fluff from under wardrobes – all this halting of decay is also the denial of life; for time simultaneously creates and destroys, and only its negative aspect concerns the housekeeper’. It was hard enough keeping my life afloat even without a baby in the mix. What would it be like if I started a family and my ambitions were reduced to ferreting out fluff from under wardrobes?

 

Around this time I attended a friend’s wedding, thrown by her father and new stepmother. On arriving at the reception my friend’s stepmother opened the front door, greeted my partner and me, and immediately bent down to pick some confetti off the carpet. This was a tiny thing. Yet for me it captured why my slightly messy friend might be struggling to get on with her neat-loving stepmother.

 

At the time I felt critical of my friend’s stepmother, caring about confetti on the carpet when a marriage was happening around her. But the next day I realised that my criticism of my friend’s stepmother was really self criticism. Because I knew that, in terms of domestic affinities, I was closer to my friend’s stepmother than to my messy friend. I knew if ever I entered family life there was a high chance that I would join my friend’s stepmother and women like her in their preoccupation with Things That Don’t Matter. I knew that if I had a family of my own I may well spend my best energies, my most fertile years, in the business of eradicating mess, and so fail to create anything substantial to show for my time on this earth. I knew that if I joined the company of housekeepers, ‘who wage their furious war against dirt, blaming life itself for the rubbish all living growth entails’, there was a good chance that I would end up in the company of women who picked confetti off carpet at weddings.

 

*     *     *

 

It was a hot summer evening and my partner and I had met up with my mother and her friend in the French town of Uzes. My mother’s friend led gardening tours around Europe, and together they were doing a reconnaissance of gardens in the area. After catching up over drinks and dinner my partner and I went up to our room, where my partner fell into reading a novel. Too hot to sleep, I found my way on to the roof of the hotel, where the air was cooler and my thoughts could roam. Sipping a cup of tea I heard women’s voices on the adjoining roof. Only after a minute or two did I realise that my mother’s voice was one of them. It was another voice I heard – softer and more modulated – than the one I remembered from childhood. Then I heard the clink of a bottle in ice and, as I looked up, two plumes of cigarette smoke rose into the sky.

 

Sitting cross-legged on the rooftop, trying not to eavesdrop more than a few words, it struck me how happy my mother sounded. Now that she no longer had to care about a whole host of domestic things that had dictated much of her life as a mother, she sounded lighter, more playful. She sounded like someone else.

 

For thirty years my mother had put family and home first. However now that she had flown the nest and was experiencing life first hand she sounded quite different. Free of housekeeping, of shopping lists and baskets of wet washing and trips into town for new school shoes, she could speak her mind and let her voice sing.

 

Delving into myself I realised the magnitude of my mistake. For years I had claimed breezily that I didn’t want to turn into my mother, an assertion that was followed by a subsequent sweep of years during which I insisted that I didn’t want to have children. Sitting on the rooftop I realised that it wasn’t my mother any more than it was children that I didn’t want. It was the housekeeping that seemed to accompany family life that I was afraid of. It was Simone de Beauvoir’s maniacal dirt avenger who brandished her household schedule like a sword as if to ward off the meaningless of her existence.

 

I was shy of starting a family because I was afraid of taking on domestic responsibilities that would leave me stressed and harried, as my mother had often seemed when I was growing up. I was afraid that if I went on and had a baby with my partner that I’d end up caring about a host of domestic things which in my heart I didn’t give a damn about.

 

I already felt that I didn’t deal well with domestic stress. I often felt that I should be more on top of the day-to-day running of my life; that I should be doing something more important than whatever domestic task I happened to be doing; that I should be doing that task more quickly; that other people dealt with domesticity more easily than I did; that more of these tasks fell to me than to my partner simply because my resistance to doing them was slightly lower than his; and that the only thing worse than spending however many hours housekeeping each week was having to live in a dirty flat.

 

Sitting on that rooftop I had reason to worry. Even without a family to look after I cared about All The Wrong Things. I already did the washing up before going to bed after friends came round for dinner. I already scanned the household tips section of magazines. I already admired people with smoothly-running homes. I already knew that, in my mind, so-called trivial things had a way of becoming big powerful things.

 

As I sat into the night I wondered about my life to come. Would I, should my partner and I go on to have a child, pride myself in staying on top of housekeeping? Would I, like my messy friend’s stepmother, pick confetti off the carpet the second after shaking a guest’s hand? Would I, in identifying with a well-kept home, leave behind a misspent life?

 

Or was there another way? Was it possible to take on domestic responsibility for the well-being of loved ones without it leading to stress and strain? Might Simone de Beauvoir have been wrong? Might it be possible to run a lovely home without sacrificing my further ambitions? Looking around at the rooftops of Uzes, the house lights blinking off, it didn’t seem too much to ask.

 

goldfish

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I was listening to Mel Robbins give her TED talk on the five-second rule, rubber gloves on and freezer door hanging open. I had a metal spatula in one hand and was doing what every household expert says never to do – attack ice in the freezer with a metal object. ‘Why is it’, Mel Robbins was saying, as ice came out in pleasing chunks, ‘that we are unable to get ourselves to do the little things that would make such a difference to our lives?’ Yes, I wondered, why is that?

 

Less than a minute into the talk it struck me. ‘Damn it’, I thought. Not only had Mel Robbins launched an entire media career on the strength of a glitch in human nature. Even worse, she had nailed it. Thanks to her rule I was able to do something that I’d ordinarily avoid like the plague – defrost the freezer – simply by counting back from five to zero and opening the freezer door.

 

Repacking the contents of the freezer, labeling containers and diverting old food to compost, a small ziplock bag slipped through my fingers and fell to the floor. Next to my shoe was Eric, the goldfish I’d put in a plastic bag the weekend before after finding him dead in my daughter’s fish-tank while she was away.

 

Perfectly preserved in a ziplock bag Eric stared at me. This was the goldfish that had kept my daughter company from a corner of her bedroom for four years, his long swirling tail now curled into the corner of the bag. He had watched over my daughter through good times and bad, surviving his mate by a year, before awaiting his fate in the freezer.

 

When I brought up the idea of burying Eric in the garden, as with previous goldfish, my daughter shrugged. ‘He was old anyway’, she said flatly. ‘I knew he would die soon’. The moment she said this I felt sad. Because I knew that the younger more sentimental side of my daughter wasn’t listening. Given the pressure she felt under in her final year of school I knew that she couldn’t afford to be upset by the death of her goldfish.

 

As I picked up the compost bin to take it outside my hand slipped in, retrieved Eric the goldfish and put him back in the freezer, thinking quietly to myself that on the weekend I would use the five-second rule for his burial.

 

 

 

the holes in my husband’s study door

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A week ago our dog ripped out a claw playing soccer on the back lawn, requiring a trip to the vet. The vet bandaged her up and sent her home with three days’ worth of painkillers. When, while I was there, I mentioned our dog had gut issues, the vet suggested that I try wetting her dry food to ease her digestion. The next day the combined effect of the painkillers and wettened food weakened our dog’s muscles, causing her to wee and poo on the rug in my husband’s study. Luckily I was the first to smell the mess – late for the school run – and cleaned it up before my husband found it.

 

A few days later our dog wee’d and poo’d on my husband’s study rug a second time. I had just started working when a call came through from my husband, a stressy call in which we talked through the best way to clean up his carpet. Yesterday I got another call. This time I felt in two minds about answering. ‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘It’s the dog again but I’m fine. I’m just calling to let off steam’.

 

On returning from my daughter’s sailing, later in the day, I noted the study door was closed and breathed a sigh of relief. An hour later my husband came in from tennis with the news that the lock in his study door had broken. Fired up from sailing my daughter headed down to the basement and returned with a few tools. She jiggled and poked the lock but to no avail. She returned to the basement and came back with a power drill and goggles. ‘This is going to be messy’, she said. ‘Don’t worry’, I replied. ‘It has to be done’.

 

Holding the drill firm my daughter cut a large square out of the wooden panel, allowing her to reach through the door to try the handle from the other side. ‘It’s no good’, she called. ‘The lock is broken on the inside’. This time she made a small rectangular cut around the lock, spraying wood as she went, watched by our dog from a safe distance. Then she pushed the whole square, with the lock inside it, on to the floor. As expected, our dog had made another mess on the rug, which I promptly cleaned up. Bringing the lock into the kitchen my daughter took it apart on the table, prising out the broken piece and putting it in a zip-lock bag with blackened fingers, and saying something about mending it with the school welder. Perhaps, I thought to myself, my daughter really can fix the broken lock. Or perhaps she can’t.

 

A week slips by, an eventful crushing school week during which there is no mention of the lock, safe in its zip-lock bag in the bottom of my daughter’s schoolbag. All week long I keep a wary eye on our dog who has clearly decided that it’s okay to relieve herself in my husband’s study, the door to which now can’t be shut.

 

A few years ago my husband would have jumped up and down at the annoyance of it all. A few years ago he would have sworn at our dog. A few years ago I would have tactlessly asked if the hundred-and-fifty year old lock in my husband’s study door had broken as he slammed the door shut. A few years ago my husband and I would have wrangled over what to do about his stained carpet, undeclared affect sticking to our every word. But actually for a whole week neither of us has mentioned the broken lock or the stained carpet or for that matter the holes in his study door. While this might suggest maturity, I rather think that it reflects our unspoken acceptance of the messiness of things.

playing cards

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There comes a point most evenings, supper over, when my teenage daughter can’t help herself. Too tired to take herself off to bed she directs one small insult after another in the direction of her father. None of her remarks are wrong – her father needs a haircut, he eats loudly, he taps his phone – and all of them hit the mark. Even though my husband mostly agrees with them my daughter will then apologise. Until, before a minute is up, another taunt pops out of her mouth.

 

Sitting at the table my daughter props herself up on one arm and refuses to go to bed. Not because she isn’t tired but because she is too tired to drag herself up the stairs. Besides the sooner she goes to bed the sooner she’ll have to get up the next morning and face the school day all over again.

 

‘Shall we play a game?’ I ask, wanting to move things on. ‘Good idea’, says my husband, ignoring my daughter’s automatic ‘No’. My husband likes to play cards at the kitchen table however my daughter likes us to keep our dog company next door which means sitting cross-legged on a rug on the floor. But first I grumble about having to do the washing up – our dishwasher hasn’t worked for five months and my husband and daughter know that by rights they should do it, and sometimes they do.

 

After cleaning up the kitchen I cut some fruit and break off a few squares of chocolate which I put on a plate to share with my husband and daughter on the rug next door. This is when the magic happens. As we pick up our cards my daughter’s taunts stop along with my kitchen grumbles. My husband slips his phone inside his jacket pocket. Our dog walks into the middle of our card game, puts up a paw for attention, and one of us gently pushes her aside. Then we squabble about who will go first, and the game begins.

 

The game we play most is Monopoly Deal, a card version of the famous board game complete with property, chance and community chest cards. My daughter, who is shrewd and quick, nearly always wins. She’ll play to the death, squeaking and pounding her fist on the floor if her plans go awry. My husband plays his cards close to his chest with all the zeal of a merchant banker. Meanwhile I just play – at times so stupidly that my daughter claps her head in amazement.

 

In my mind it doesn’t really matter what we play. What matters is that we play a game that allows us to drop our kitchen table defences for a while – the sparring that starts the second we sit opposite or next to each other at supper each night. The mask that defines and limits who we are in relation to each other, a dynamic far more powerful than I’d have imagined possible had I not experienced it during my own childhood with my parents and sisters.

 

Playing cards in the evening helps the three of us come to terms with the oddness of our life together. It also brings my son passingly into the room – the big brother who could never bear to let his younger sister win.

 

By the time we’ve finished a second round of Monopoly Deal the fact of school the next day can no longer be ignored. My daughter grabs the cards off my husband who, she claims, can’t shuffle properly. She puts the cards face down on the rug, moves her hands through them like dry ingredients, before bringing them together into a satisfying pile which sits on the mantle piece until our next game.

going home for christmas

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‘Never go back to the place where you were happiest as a child’, a friend once told me. ‘The place you went on holiday to, a garden from childhood, a tree house in the woods. It’s gone, lost’, she said firmly, ‘and you can’t refind it’.

 

My friend spent her childhood in a house high up on a hill in Wales, surrounded by trunks full of her mother’s textiles upstairs and a bosomy garden below. Her children meanwhile have spent their childhood in a semi-detached house in Brighton, set affordably back from the beach. Her lawyer husband tutors their son during school holidays to keep his grades up, and her daughter’s skin condition flares whenever she eats anything sweet. Years since she visited her childhood home in Wales, my friend has a business in interiors and is a trained cook.

 

Yesterday I drove home with my daughter – a sixteen-hour drive and overnight ferry – after spending Christmas and New Year in the city I grew up in. My daughter was crewing in a sailing regatta and I wanted to catch up with my family. On my second day in Adelaide I took a walk past my childhood home. Standing in the rain opposite our old back gates I drew the attention of the owner who came out to talk with me. Not for a moment did I want to live in that house again. I didn’t want my childhood back. Yet for those five minutes I felt rooted to that spot on the pavement, the last thirty years a blur against the sight of our old back door and garage.

 

To break our drive home my daughter and I stay overnight on the coast of South Australia with my cousin Sam – a farmer who took over his family’s cattle property at the age of twenty two. Waiting for fish and chips on the main street his wife tells me jokingly that Sam never grew up and left home. I disagree. ‘Sam seems perfectly grown up to me. Perhaps’, I say, ‘it takes more maturity to grow up at home than to take yourself off to another country – as I did – to do your growing up there’. His wife smiles briefly and we chat about other things.

 

After supper five of us take a walk round limestone cliffs with their rocky shelves and sea lapping green below. A dipping sun stains the sky red, suggesting a hot day to come. My daughter and her cousin, tired from surfing, drop behind.

 

Despite the beauty around me I feel empty, melancholy even, as I remember past New Years’ Eves when I partied as a teenager on these same cliffs. Sam tells me of his decision to sell his share in his family beach house – pushed out by hefty land taxes and off-shore winds. ‘We live on a windy farm’, says his wife unsentimentally, ‘and we come on holiday to another windy place’. Sam isn’t bothered by his decision. He has grown up on these cliffs, scampering down rock faces to swim in the coves below, and doesn’t hanker for his childhood.

 

Like me Sam’s one remaining parent recently died. Yet he seems content with his life. His son will one day take over the farm from him, his second wife couldn’t be nicer, and his two daughters – one of whom is training for big things in sport – are coming up in the world. Perhaps, with the money from his share of the family beach house, and as his son takes more responsibility on the farm, he and his wife may travel.

 

My daughter and I are away for a fortnight. On returning home late yesterday my husband – who stayed home to work – says that it felt like we’d been away for five years.

 

This morning I wake up early, do some yoga, take our dog for a walk and write in a café, just as on hundreds of other mornings. A friend sends a text while I’m walking – did I enjoy being home for Christmas? I stare at the screen. Have I been home, I wonder? Certainly the twenty-three people round the table on Christmas day made me feel I was at home. Getting lost in the city that I felt I should know my way around, on the other hand, made me feel like a stray. Watching my daughter surfing with her cousin, silky white sand between my toes, wasn’t that home?

 

Standing on a beach that was considered too wild for swimming when I was a girl I watch my daughter and her cousin in the surf. Pacing up and down the beach – the eternal parent – another day fades into dusk. As light rain falls I pull a stripy red beach towel tighter round my shoulders. A kite surfer zips across the waves, back and forth, faster than I’d thought it possible to surf.

 

Eventually the kite flops and the surfer walks out of the waves, his large frame testament to his strength and speed. Standing on the beach, our backs against the dunes, we chat about kite surfing – though a fellow surfer became a parapelegic a week ago ‘doing something stupid’ the surfer insists that if you surf according to the rules kite surfing is safer than driving a car. We talk about risk taking in general and the importance of it. Then he tells me that he loves food and wine just as much as surfing. And that his daughter, a whizz at marketing, is currently writing a book about food in Tasmania – as coincidentally I too, though not a marketing whizz, have done. Water dripping off his nose, and without saying goodbye, he turns away to tend to his sodden kite.

 

Glancing at my watch I wave my hands in the air to signal to my daughter and nephew that it’s time for them to get out of the water. Just I used to do, when my mother waved to my sisters and me when it was time to get out of the water, they shake their heads in unison. Then they turn their boards out to sea and wait as if there is no tomorrow for the perfect wave to come.

on not writing christmas cards

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Every year the list of people I send Christmas cards to gets shorter. Every year I put off writing them until closer to the postal cut-off date. Writing Christmas cards has come to feel like an admission that the year is ending, a feeling of defeat that may explain why I put off writing them.

When I finally do put pen to card I know, when I take the envelopes to the post office today, that – like everyone else’s cards in the post office – mine won’t arrive in time. I know they’ll be opened as afterthoughts, as well-intentioned yet misguided gestures.

I’m not the only one who feels overwhelmed by the festive season, who feels convinced that each year the rate at which the months roll speeds up. Even my kids feel this. Nor am I the only one whose heart sinks when gold tinsel goes up in the town square a full month before Christmas, who cynically thinks that buying things is a commercial sleight of hand designed to distract us from Trump’s new appointments, the crisis in Aleppo and a new coal mine in Queensland that risks bleaching what’s left of our Great Barrier Reef.

My mother used to write Christmas cards under a tree by a friend’s pool while my sisters and I mucked about in the water. Having grown up in the country my mother always insisted that she couldn’t swim. Looking back I can see that writing Christmas cards under a shady tree – engaging with absent friends and ticking names off her To Do list – gave her more satisfaction than cooling off with us in the pool. Just as she gave half a dozen bottles of beer to the postman, and a box of shortbread to her hairdresser, she knew the right thing to do at Christmas.

I am similar in age to my mother when she wrote Christmas cards by the pool. My To Do list is shorter than hers ever was and I’ve never given half a dozen beers to the postman. Moreover these days my Christmas card list has whittled down to a manageable ten.

Even so this year I struggle to write Christmas cards. Because this year my life has got the better of me. This year I’ve felt as overwhelmed by my family as I did when my children were toddlers. These days my children, now teenagers, demand things of me that I can’t give – even as they reject my efforts to provide them.

I’ve always struggled to describe an entire year in a hundred words inside a Christmas card. I find it even harder this year. Because this year it’s clear to me that my life isn’t going to plan. There is nothing wrong with my life, most of which I’m very happy with. It’s just that over the course of this year I’ve realised that the things which seem to come out of nowhere, to excite and unsettle me, are the stuff of my life. They aren’t things that I’ll ever recover and move on from. They are my life. And this awareness changes everything. It makes catchy summings in Christmas cards up impossible.

When my daughter saunters into the kitchen yesterday afternoon I moan to her that I can’t get myself to write Christmas cards. She tells me airily not to bother. ‘But I still want to’, I say, wanting to explain. ‘We could make potato print cards,’ she suggests, trying to be helpful. I roll my eyes in response, hoping that she can’t see my face – potato prints at the kitchen table being as far from what I feel like doing at that moment as a weekend in space.

Ten minutes later she brings in the mail and I open a demand to pay a water bill that I’ve overlooked in the craziness of these last few months. Trawling through paperwork in my study I discover that my car insurance is also four months late. I knew I’d been lax in keeping our accounts, I knew I’d been sticking my head in the sand. Even so I felt amazed that four whole months had slipped through my fingers leaving hardly a mark in my accounting book.

I sat up late last night. After putting all my paperwork on my study floor I forced myself to order it into piles. I attempted to make good our household accounts. I wrapped up Christmas presents and put them under the tree. I made a To Do list for today. I addressed the four most important Christmas cards that I’d already written and addressed envelopes for a few more.

In the cards that I’d written in a moment of peace in a café, earlier that day, I didn’t sum up my year. I didn’t list my kid’s achievements or my husband’s travels. I didn’t mention my writing projects. I kept it simple. I wrote about our garden made lush by spring. And the building work on our old house that is at last finished. I wrote about driving interstate for my daughter’s sailing regatta on Boxing Day in ten days’ time, and about my plan to have a Christmas picnic with my near-blind ninety-year-old aunt. And I left it at that.

It was late when I went to bed, and I lay awake for a while. It was done. I’d pulled my head from the sand and the panic that goes with keeping it there had ceased. I could feel my desire for Christmas distinct from the demands that – when I’m stressed – they so easily turn into. I could hear the wind in the trees outside the window. I had let the year come to an end – the moon outside was full – and made my peace with this my funny lovely life.