HelenHayward

life writing

Tag: Christmas

pickles

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Watching my mother eating pickles on an open sandwich for lunch mystified me as a girl. How could she like eating something that was both salty and sweet? Yuk, I’d think to myself, as I tucked into my cheese and tomato sandwich.

 

Every year, around this time, in my part of Adelaide, home-made goodies would appear like mushrooms, tucked behind the wire screen and front door of our porch, out of direct sunlight. Pickled cucumbers with fennel, and onions stuck with cloves, were bottled and wrapped in an elaborate Christmas present exchange as complex as the bartering systems used by the Pacific islanders that I wrote essays about as an Arts undergraduate. Tiny rectangular cards with Christmas cheer would tell my mother who the gift was from, causing her to catch her breath when she hadn’t thought to wrap one for the giver. Shortbread biscuits, thinly disguised in cellophane, often didn’t make it through Christmas, pilfered by my sisters and me as they sat innocently under our decorated tree. White Christmas was another of my sisters’ and my favourites: golf-ball sized lumps of copha, glace cherries, icing sugar and rice bubbles. But the jars of pickled something always made it through Christmas untouched, before being stored, label out, in a cool cupboard.

 

The things you find exciting when you’re young often aren’t, the psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, the things that you end up liking as you get older. Yesterday, standing at the kitchen bench, eating slices of pickled cucumber, cheese and cabbage on bread for lunch, I caught my daughter out of the corner of my eye and imagined her having the exact same thought I’d had, all those years ago, watching my mother eat pickled guerkins: pickles, I sensed her thinking, yuk!

 

What we end up liking – be it pickles or botanical drawing or marzipan – generally isn’t what we found exciting when we were young. My liking for pickles – straight from the fridge with crisp vegetables and cheese – surprises even me.

 

Early this morning I caught the tail end of the ABC news on radio. As I stood in the kitchen making my breakfast, a four-boy choir, who’d just been interviewed in the radio station, sang ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. My husband was in bed in avoidance of an early dental appointment for a root canal. My daughter was also upstairs, waiting for me to leave the house with our puppy before coming down to have breakfast in peace. Rooted to the floor, I looked out the window as a 12-year-old soloist sang the first verse. By the time three other choristers had joined him I was in tears at the beauty, comfort and clarity of the impossibly high notes they were sounding, cutting through the news headlines, and my Scrooge-like attitude to Christmas, like so much shattering glass.

 

This, I thought to myself, is what Christmas is about. It isn’t about nuclear families cleaving smugly to themselves. It isn’t about fielding unwieldy emotional demands, making tasteful Scandinavian decorations, or buying guilt-induced presents. It always was and is still about transcending the ordinary. It is about living more deeply, tasting whatever is your equivalent of pickles, and giving back. Often, when Christmas carols are sung, I find myself wishing there were fewer verses. This morning, despite my hurry, I felt sad there were only four.

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the two wolves

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‘There is a battle between two wolves that goes on inside each one of us’, the wise Cherokee Elder tells his grandson. ‘One wolf is anger, desire, pride, jealousy and ego. The other wolf is love, compassion, kindness, goodness and patience’.

Staring at the glowing embers of the campfire, the grandson imagines the two wolves circling each other, wary, vigilant, teeth bare.

‘Which wolf wins?’ the boy asks his grandfather.

The older man doesn’t hesitate. ‘Whichever one you feed’, he says.

taken from David Mitchie, ‘Enlightenment to Go’

 

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.

Sleepovers

 

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The woman over the road had invited me in for a Christmas drink, along with a clutch of other neighbours. Having recently moved into the area I was keen to be friendly. And, with any luck, charming.

The men and women had divided between the lounge and kitchen before I arrived. Perching on a sofa I introduced myself to three women who were chatting about their children. I felt drawn to one of these women, a slightly haughty woman with startling red shoes.

As I entered the conversation she was telling the two other women that she’d barely seen her 13-year-old daughter for days. ‘As soon as school ended she got out her sleeping bag and had two sleepovers with different friends, and then went straight off for a tennis coaching weekend!’ The women laughed and nodded, as they took some smoked salmon on toast, offered by my neighbour’s mother.

‘I’m not such a fan of sleepovers’, I said, without thinking. The laughing stopped. The three women turned to me. ‘I mean’, I continued, regretting my admission, but pushing ahead. ‘I think it’s a really intimate thing to go to sleep in a room with someone you don’t know very well – and even more so when a whole group of friends is in the room together’. Still more silence. ‘And so often my children arrive home the next morning with rings under their eyes and then take two days to recover’.

‘But’, said the woman with the red shoes, ‘it’s so important for them to experience this kind of thing. And a bit of lost sleep doesn’t really matter’. And the other two women nodded their agreement.

‘So much for being charming’, I thought to myself, wishing I hadn’t said anything. But I had. Within six minutes I’d blown it as a savvy new neighbour. I was nothing more than a protective mother who likes nothing more than curtailing her children’s freedom. A mother who would rather have her children at home with her than have them sleep on someone else’s floor, and learn about life. A mother who isn’t wearing the sexy shoes that her husband would kill for her to wear – and not because I’m against them but for fear of the foot surgeon’s knife.

The conversation rumbles forward and I hold my tongue, feeling outnumbered. The woman in the sexy shoes mentions, in passing, that she is a child psychiatrist, telling me in code that if anyone knows how to understand children, it’s her.

‘What does it matter if they see a few adult films?’ she continues, looking across at me. I stay silent. ‘Don’t you think?’ she persists. Given that I’ve already blown it, I decide to respond. ‘Well, no. Actually I do think it matters if kids see adult films before they’re ready for them. Anyway, what are we really talking about here? For me, it’s not just violent films. For me the bottom line is this’, and I take a deep breath. ‘Basically I don’t want my kids to see other people having sex before they’ve had it themselves. It don’t want them watch other people doing something that they have no experience of. So, yeh’, I finished, ‘I do think it matters if they watch adult-rated films’.

The woman with sexy shoes frowns. The other women wait for her to reply. ‘Oh my God’, I think to myself. This was only meant to be Christmas drinks, a gesture of goodwill towards the people I meet wheeling their bins out on the same night of the week. Nothing more. And here I am sounding like a Christian Fundamentalist.

‘I see. Yes, it is a tricky topic’, the woman with the red shoes says after a pause, weighing her words, making me feel more like one of her psychiatric patients, than a woman of the world like herself.

And so I take the easy way out. We change the subject. I tell her about my background in pyschotherapy in London, some of which involved working in psychiatry, and she in turn describes to me her role at the hospital. The more we talk the more we stand on even ground, and the more comfortably we both speak. The other two women take the conversation off on their own tangent, and we relax back into four neighbours chatting on adjacent sofas.

An hour later I leave the party, and cross back over the road. My children are engrossed in watching a Top Gear DVD, waiting like baby birds for me to cook them supper. ‘Hi’, they call out. My husband waves a short wave as I pass his study door. ‘How was it?’ he asks. ‘It was really quite nice’, I say, passing down to the kitchen, ‘you should have come’.