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Mother’s Day – A Matter of Family Values

In my country, we have Mothering Sunday.   That’s today.

It’s the fourth Sunday in Lent, if anyone is interested in the jigsaw puzzle of the St. John of the ladderChristian calendar, and it remembers St. John of the Ladder, or St. John Climacus (Climacus – climb – ladder; gettit?  Don’t you just love Latin?).  It was once called Laetare Sunday, and is variously still known as Refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday.  The latter because, apparently, of a golden rose traditionally sent by the Pope to Christian sovereigns.  Why?  Because Wikipedia says so, that’s why.

These days, Christian sovereigns are probably sick of an ever-growing stack of golden roses:  the pot in the royal throne room (the one just beneath the self-portrait of George W. Bush) is likely to be over-brimming with the things.   As for refreshment Sunday, that’s intended to mean refreshment of religious vows, rather than setting up a canteen in the vestry – or so I’m told.  Anyway, moving on.

In secular terms, as our beloved Archbishop is fond of saying, Mothering Sunday has simply become Mother’s Day, and though its origins are different to the American version, the essence of the festival is much the same.

It’s the day the chickens come home to roost.

For our grown-up chickens have a duty that must be fulfilled.  Our door must be visited, flowers must be presented, platitudes offered.

“Sorry, I know it’s not much this year, Mum.  We’re seriously short of money. What with the alterations to the house, the new Jacuzzi and Amanda’s kitchen makeover, there’s not much left to go round.”

“You’ll be planning your budget really carefully, then?”

“Yes.  That’s what the weekend in Florence was all about.  Just sitting down in a nice Trattoria with some wine and talking it over.”

‘I don’t suppose the 5K your father lent you entered your thinking?’  No, that’s a question that remains unasked; more because you fear the answer, than the risk of killing the conversation.

As for ourselves, we are past the age when we have mothers of our own, so Mother’s Day represents no major digression from our usual Sabbath routine.  Were we church-goers it might mean a service in a church where the faithful have made a bit of an effort:  a few flowers, some of what only a Christian congregation can call ‘gaiety’.  As it is, all we have to sacrifice is our sleep.  Rising at the crack of dawn is strongly advisable, because the progeny will be queuing at the end of the road waiting for sunrise.

The first knock comes at seven am.

“Hello Dad – not too early, is it?”

“My, those flowers look nice.”  (The all-night garage always raises its act for Mother’s Day).

The next knock comes at eight-thirty.

“Hello, Mummy, you look a bit pale.  Are you ailing?”

“Lack of sleep, dear.  My, those flowers look nice.”  (Discretion demands you conceal the first bouquet because the second one is likely to be identical).

By ten o’clock the fog of children will have dispersed and life will have returned to normal.   A day of creative flower-arranging beckons while we try to analyze our success-rating with our offspring (tricky, this one:  do we regard the very earliest arrival as the most ardent, or simply the one who wants to get the onerous event over soonest?)  and express our admiration for the innate sense of timing involved.  The earlier visitor will always contrive to be gone before the second arrives, because they do not ‘get on’ with one another.

What then, if anything, does Mothers Day signify – for us, the ex-parents, the holders of the torch everyone is waiting so eagerly for us to put down?  Enjoyment of a traditional family day when those we withstood for eighteen or so childhood years return to haunt us, briefly; or merely another clutter of cards, a few more needlessly sacrificed trees?   Or something in between?   Do the fruits of our loins observe the tradition because they want to, because they feel that need to reconnect to their roots, or rather through a desire to check that we haven’t sold the Ming vase that sits in their half of the will?

It is hard to give answers.  A wise owl on one shoulder might express the opinion 0wl 1owl 2that there are too many days in a year when family is meant to honor its obligations to its adjacent generation, whilst the wise owl on the other might claim that family unity is the cement that binds society together, and therefore cannot be reinforced too much.  (At which point I might remind myself that certain Sicilian families of recent history were very strong on the use of cement in resolving family issues).

My solution?  I accept what I cannot change.  I do not seek the answers.  After all, these shoulders are big enough for two owls:  why put one in a position where it has to peck the eyes out of the other – and which owl would win?

Which of our prodigal children will stay long enough to convince us they are happy to be here? Who will listen rapturously as we regale them with  details of our IBS symptoms, or try to persuade them to join our line-dancing class?  Who might even stay to lunch?

Ah well, tick the diary for another year.  Then cast forward to their next return to the fold – about a week after my birthday, perhaps.

From a Bedside Table Long Ago

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I want to share this picture with you.

I know it doesn’t inspire.  A dog-eared, thumbed-to-bits volume with its spine all but destroyed, its covers stained with use.  In resale terms it would be lucky to get a bid at an auction, or even a second glance.

Kipling’s ‘Animal Stories’ sits among the other volumes on my bookshelf.  In a day I might pass it by many times, reluctant, almost, to disturb it in its age; because once it was never given time to rest – never closed, never far from my pillow.  It taught me to read when, at maybe three or four years old I learned the first magic: it sang me to sleep when my mother read from it, it showed me pictures of other lands, other worlds for my imagination to ride upon. 

Through his pen, the writer taught me love and respect for the wild creatures around me.  He gave nobility to the elephant, cunning to the tiger, valour to the mongoose, loyalty to the wolf.  Those  creatures are as real to me now as the first evening when ‘The White Seal’ swam into my mind, or when Rikki-Tikki-Tavi first faced a cobra on the veranda of my dreams.  The simple morality they taught has lasted with me.

Upon the flyleaf of this tattered book there is a pencilled note.  It says, simply:  ‘To Joan, from Uncle,  Xmas 1935’.  Joan was my mother.

So there it sits amidst the company of its fellow volumes – some as old, some much younger than itself, evoking memories of someone passed who must, in her time, have valued it as much as I.  And it has travelled with me through my life as once it guided her through hers; and when my life closes?  Who knows what then?

The tablet of my current ‘reads’ glimmers back at me:  ‘Dombey and Son’, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.  The pages are easily wiped across the screen, the words are any size I want, my vast library of titles has no need of shelves.  This is progress.   But they will last, these current thousand, for how long?  Their flyleaves bear no treasured mark, there is no familiar paper smell and when my tablet has run its course a year or so hence they will leave as swiftly as they came.

When we lament the passing of the printed word, you see, I believe we make a basic error – a mistake.  We revile the computer for stabbing our paper fantasies in the back when really the paper fantasies themselves sealed their doom.  The blame truly lies with the throw-away, the paperback.

In pushing up the hardback price beyond the common reader’s means publishers let paperbacks in, but more than that, they changed the role of the book in the home, in a reader’s life.  Few unbound books will survive as ‘Animal Stories’ has, or support such enticing insights into family history.   Few will live on bookshelves or decorate our homes because they simply do not look nice; they will circulate a few times, in charity shops or care homes maybe, then be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The writer’s art has become as impermanent as the actor’s.  So if you are riffling through the titles of today seeking the classics of tomorrow seek no more.  The onward march of software will leave each one behind.  There will be no survivors.

 

Nostalgia

I hereby state, in the clearest possible terms, that I am not, by nature, nostalgic:  but I remember a time when I was……

Is this the least acknowledged  of those tell-tale signs of aging?  Why do we feel compelled to regale our youthful listeners with tales of our colorful past?

“I remember the Easter of sixty-two.   Robert, that’s Michael’s dad – you won’t know him – and I were stuck in Hong Kong.  Of course, the flights weren’t as reliable in those days….”

Our eyes, with our minds, float away to distant times in far-away lands.   Our young audience’s eyes, meanwhile, are glazing over.  Do we listen to the shuffling of impatient bottoms or heed the sudden needs to be somewhere else?  Sadly….    ImageAs long as one bottom is still shuffling, as long as one ear is still bent, we plunge on and deeper until at last we are merely talking to ourselves.  Those of us who suffer with the severer cases of pernicious nostalgia walk about within a youth-free zone; entirely untroubled by children except, maybe, those who shout things at us from a distance.

You see, we will never tell the tales youth wants to hear – the stories against ourselves.  We won’t recall the day grandma sitting on the window-sill over there got drunk and fell out of that very window, or the dinner party with the in-laws when, anxious to impress, we whipped a family photo from our wallet and, along with it, a condom which landed in the gravy-boat.   We don’t revive memories we ourselves would prefer to forget.  We preserve our stature at the expense of being boring.

Nostalgia is a disease a little like Malaria, that will attack from time to time, revisit us without warning.  It is no respecter of occasion.   Elderly ladies, for example, seem particularly prone to episodes in the doorways of stores or the aisles of supermarkets, and there is nothing to test the efficacy of a narrative quite like a gathering in front of the sugar, or before the prescriptions counter at the chemist.  Who has not been ‘caught’ in a shop by a line which begins:  ‘Do you remember when you used to get these for half that price?  I seem to recall this place was a Woolworths then…’   Or seated in a speeding car approaching traffic lights when the driver beside them suddenly gets that far-off glaze:   “Of course, these engines aren’t a patch on the ’95 model.  I had a green one, you know; the T$4 it was….”

In its most acute form, nostalgia can become severely debilitating and at times terminal.  It is essential to avoid these cases.  They have the power to utterly demoralize you and they use it mercilessly.  Sufferers live determinedly in a vanished world where bus fares were rarely more than a shilling and beer was one-and-eight-pence a pint, and they never baulk at arguing with anyone who tries to charge them more.   You can recognize them by their warning bugle calls:

“Service was service in my day.”

“Where’s the b****y porter?  Get me a porter!”

“I’m not paying that!”

Such poor souls, lost though they regrettably are, are best left well alone.  Even, insensitive as it may be to suggest, when they insist on crossing the road at this specific spot because: “It wasn’t a motorway when I was younger!”