Sunday Read

It rained on Sunday. I could hear the pitter patter on the window as I woke up. Although we have finally succumbed to the cold and turned the heating on, the boiler had not yet fired when I first became aware that my sleep was concluded. My bedroom was cold but I was snuggly warm under my duvet. The pitter patter of the rain on the window was comforting.

When my need for coffee became greater than my need to rest I wandered downstairs. A great advantage of parenting teenagers is the peace and quiet of the early mornings at weekends. I had time to appreciate the contents of a freshly set coffee pot, and to browse the news sites, before I was required to act with any sort of coherency.

The rain looked to have set in for the day. I decided to leave the family to cope as they so often claim they can. I retreated to my library with my coffee, selected a book that I have been saving for just such an occasion, settled in my armchair and gave myself up to the pleasures of another world.

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors. I admire the way that she can write historical, contemporary and futuristic fiction with such depth and believability. On Sunday I read a book that had been favourably reviewed on the sites that I turn to when considering purchasing a book. ‘Cat’s Eye’ did not disappoint.

The book tells the story of the life of a painter. From the perspective of middle age, she looks back and tries to make sense of the moments and memories. From the first chapter I was gripped: ‘Time is not a line but a dimension… like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.’

The narrator reminisces about a life that is so different to mine, yet I could empathise with many of her thoughts. From the third chapter: ‘… everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.’

The plot covers the narrator’s relationships with her childhood peers and the adults who took care of them. The author manages to convey so many thoughts and feelings that I recognised from my own nine year old or thirteen year old self. She captures the insular fear and the impotence of youth, but also the irrelevance of adults. They exist but are not understood or considered. They are an alien species to be wary of.

I gain pleasure from thinking back over my life. If I am lucky and can maintain my good health then I will now be a mere half way through the time that I can reasonably ask to spend on this earth. I hope that there are many more memories to be made, but the one’s that have gone are precious to me. My own childhood and that of my children are my treasure, that I take out and polish with some regularity.

A book such as ‘Cat’s Eye’ reminds me that these memories have a tendency to be rose tinted. I remember a happy childhood, and I consider that I had one, but there were also times when I felt belittled or sidelined by my peers. There were times of rejection and loneliness, when I did not act the part required of me. Children are, too often, power hungry and ruthless in their play. I was never a leader; never cool.

Yet still, it is the friends from my youth that I seek out at every opportunity. I enjoy and value their company for the shared life we have led, that I look back on with fondness. In this book the narrator returned to her home town a success and was preoccupied with the thought of encountering a frenemy. Despite, or perhaps because of, the damage that the early acquaintance had inflicted she was constantly distracted by this possible rencounter. She recognised her flaws and sought answers from her history.

I enjoy many different genres but feel particularly satisfied with a book when I feel that I have got inside the head of a character and gained an understanding. People fascinate me.

On Sunday I spent much of my day avoiding social interaction. I put out food, prepared dinner, but did not seek out company. I was immersed in the world that I held between the pages of my book. Such escapism can be satisfying and enlightening but, for me, should be rationed. I find books so hard to put down. I need to know what happens to the new friends I have encountered between the pages; I feel bereft when I have read their story and must consign them to memory.

‘Cat’s Eye’ is not one of the books that I will rave about to those who will listen, but I would still recommend it. I will not start another book until I have had time to digest the many thoughts and feelings that it evoked. Reading it filled a day, and it was a day well spent.

Cover of "Cat's Eye"

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Tired but happy

For a few days at the end of last week and the beginning of this week I have had a carpenter in the house doing the structural work in my remodelled book room. I knew that he had done some good work for a few friends in the village and came recommended. He turned out to be a quiet, tidy and competent worker so no problem to have around. I still found that I couldn’t relax.

My days tend to vary depending on what I need to do that day and what I feel like doing when I wake up. I realise that I am incredibly lucky to have this flexibility. With someone around I started to fall into more of a routine. I would try to get out each day to walk or swim, but when I was at home I would shut myself away for much of the time he was around. A lot of dust was being generated by the work, which was a good enough excuse to limit my attempts at housework. I found myself spending even more time than usual on line.

And then this stage of the work was completed. I am delighted with the result, and suddenly find myself with a vast amount of tasks that need doing all at once. Not only does the entire house need to be cleared of a thick layer of dust, but all the displaced furniture needs to be sorted and moved. The bookshelves that had been in the room that is being worked on were to go in my elder son’s room; my daughter was to get his bookshelf along with their younger brother’s. We are redoing my daughter’s room so space needed to be made for her new bed by dismantling her old one and moving her desk. As each piece of furniture is moved, the dust and cobwebs that lurk behind need to be cleared and cleaned.

I spent yesterday afternoon cleaning the book room and moving furniture back into it. My children have instructed me to start calling this the library, which I find rather pretentious but will acquiesce as it is quite amusing given it’s size. It now contains two comfy armchairs with a cushioned footstool between them and two little tables at the side of each for my coffee or wine glass. The room also contains my desk and our piano, thus providing my perfect environment: books, writing, music. As no shelves have yet been fitted in the structure built to support them it does not yet actually contain any books. Hopefully this will be rectified later this week when the carpenter hopes to deliver the shelves he is currently making to fit.

I have been hassling my daughter to clear out her room so that I can get it sorted ready for the new bed to be delivered at the end of the week. Last night she completed this task so, today, I started to take things apart and move things around. The shifting and cleaning was hard work; no need to visit the gym today. In between pulling large items of furniture around and apart I was carrying armload after armload of books downstairs ready to be sorted and placed on our new shelves when they are delivered. I nearly ran out of rags wiping down walls and skirting boards that had been unseen for years.

Having got my daughter’s room looking pleasingly clean and tidy I moved into my elder son’s room. All I needed to do here was move one tall bookshelf out and two in; these were very heavy to shift. He will need to sort through his own things before the room can be properly cleaned. It would be nice to think that he will do this quickly but we shall see.

My younger son’s room did not take long to sort out as it is small and never seems to get into the same mess as his brother’s, probably because he spends so much of his time on his computer. I was able to move everything out, clean and replace in just over an hour. By then though, I was feeling the effects of my busy day.

I still have the study to sort and the rest of the house to clear of dust. I dislike having jobs hanging over me but realise that there is only so much that can be achieved in one day. When I was younger I would just go at a list of tasks until they were complete, sometimes working into the night. These days my mind is willing but my body cannot cope. I need to prioritise and delegate; the latter is no bad thing.

I can understand that the children do not relish the task of sorting and tidying their rooms, but they do like the finished result. If I can get them to act before things get too out of hand then the results are more likely to be pleasing for all. They know where they have put their belongings so can find them again; I can get in to clean without having to step over random piles of stuff.

I am writing this from my desk in my (a’hem) library. I am going to enjoy having this space. I suspect that it will take me some time to get the books in place once the shelves are in, but what a fabulous room it will be. I must make sure not to become too antisocial. Perhaps I should allow a family member to sit on that second armchair rather than the pleasing collection of old teddy bears who already look so at home.

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My weekend

I believe that I may be unusual amongst my friends in liking Mondays. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy the weekends. There is just something about a new week beginning that makes me feel positive.

With September drawing to a close I realised last week that I had been procrastinating about many of the tasks that I had decided needed to be done. Over the weekend I took myself in hand and set in motion a number of things that need to happen before these can be completed. I am now likely to be kept busier than usual for a few weeks to come.

It was a fairly typical weekend in many ways. I picked up the children after school on Friday and took my younger son swimming. For a lot of the time we had the pool to ourselves, which was lovely. None of us had particular plans for the evening so we watched a daft but light hearted and funny film (Johnny English Reborn). I like it when we all sit down as a family to watch a film, not least because we can then discuss it together afterwards. On this occasion, however, my daughter could not be persuaded to join us. As she is currently swamped with school work and trying to sort out work experience placements I think she just needed some time to herself.

I didn’t sleep well so, rather than disturb my husband with my tossing and turning, got up stupidly early on Saturday morning. As is usual, my day was spent cleaning, tidying and sorting the laundry. The boys had a hockey match and my daughter went to the gym in the afternoon so I made the most of a quiet house to enjoy a couple of hours writing. This put me in an excellent mood for the evening. We had a late dinner and I then went to bed. I find that I now need at least a couple of early nights each week or I start to feel very run down.

On Sunday morning I took my daughter shopping as we are planning on redoing her bedroom. She is still sleeping on the bed we got her when she was eighteen months old. The mattress is no longer supportive and a couple of slats on the base are broken. We cobbled together a fix for these but a replacement is overdue. I had been putting this off as I had expected her to move out in a couple of years when she hopes to go up to university. However, she is going to try to get on a course that will take six years of study so will be returning home regularly for some time to come. I think we can justify spending some money to get her room as she would like it.

Most of Sunday afternoon seemed to vanish as I searched the internet for the bits and pieces we couldn’t find in the shops we visited earlier. Most of the things are now ordered so it was a successful enough day. I did manage to fit in a bit of gardening before I had to prepare food for the evening meal. I did not manage to tackle my pile of ironing so that is a job for today.

Sunday evening we had pancakes for tea which was a lot of fun; my kids love pancakes. I make up bowls of fillings and they sit round the island in our kitchen chatting and eating as my husband cooks and tosses the batter. My daughter is trying to persuade her brothers to join her in taking part in NaNoWriMo this year; I may even give it a go myself.

When all had eaten their fill I sat down with a glass of wine and some music to catch up with the on line news. The children had dispersed to their rooms and my husband was engrossed in his book; he is reading his way through George R.R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Our weekends are now so different to the way they used to be when the children were younger. There seemed to be years when we spent day after day driving the children to: football or hockey matches; taekwondo or judo training; swimming or music lessons; drama; dance; and, of course, the ubiquitous birthday parties. These days life is calmer and we have more time to ourselves. We also spend more time together as a family rather than rushing off in different directions to take part in the next activity.

Even so, when Monday morning comes I am happy to be able to spend some quiet time on my own. Perhaps this is why we need to have our children when we are younger and still have the energy for all the running around that is required. Either that or I have just grown used to being able to take life at an easier pace. I guess we adapt as we need to.

This week my daughter and I need to empty her bedroom in readiness for it’s remodelling. With the work still ongoing in our book room downstairs it feels like a lot of change. There are items of furniture, books and pictures being stored all over the house as we wait for jobs to be finished or items to be delivered. Having set everything in motion I now need to keep on top of the necessary preparation.

For myself though, I want to sit peacefully and write. I can only indulge myself so often; there are too many other demands on my time. I am enjoying a feeling of satisfaction that I have made progress with the tasks I had been procrastinating about, but the busyness that this has generated does not suit me. I like my thinking time and my quiet creativity. Having found this good place to be it can take a force of will to leave it.

If I can make a good start to the week then the rest will generally fall into place. The days seem so short though; I guess I must be enjoying myself.

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The making of an incompetent cook – Part 3

(If interested, the beginning of this saga can be read here: The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1)

When I first got together with my husband he quickly realised that, unlike him, my skills in the kitchen were limited. He mocked many of my efforts so I left it to him to produce food for us. Gradually, as I watched and learned, I picked up enough knowledge to know how to treat various foodstuffs without the need to constantly refer to my cook book. I also started to bake the occasional loaf of bread or experiment with a tasty pudding. I found that area of food production more rewarding.

With the arrival of our children I left full time work and took on the task of running our home. I was determined to feed my little daughter and then my sons well, cooking up and liquidising batches of baby food for the freezer so that I knew exactly what was being consumed. As they grew older I would allow them some of the kiddy food that they tasted at friend’s houses and adored, but I was never comfortable serving fish fingers, sausages or chicken nuggets. I always insisted on large, daily portions of vegetables; puddings were most often made up of yoghurt and fruit. Even if I had missed out on the cookery, the healthy eating lessons that my mother had passed on had been well learnt.

When my third child started school I found myself with more time on my hands and dug out my mother’s recipes for wheaten, soda and treacle bread. I would try to bake a couple of times a week, a task that was welcomed by my family as I would produce a cake, crumble or a batch of cookies while the oven was on. Somehow this period saw many successes as I relaxed into the task.

As our family grew our house seemed to shrink so we planned an extension out the back. Along with this work I chose a new, large and airy bespoke kitchen. The work on the house took six months, during which time we lived out of one room downstairs. When it was finally finished I planned a big party with all our local friends invited. Naturally, I provided a supper.

My husband and I hosted many parties and dinners around this time with the majority of the food cooked from scratch by me in my fabulous, new kitchen. I would still try out new dishes for these events, but would back them up with trusted standbys. It was only when we started being invited back, to the reciprocal parties organised by our friends, that I began to feel that my efforts were not as impressive as they had seemed to me. So many of these ladies were admirable cooks, as well as having talents in table decoration and flower arranging. I should not have judged myself against their high standards, but my confidence in my abilities was knocked.

Why the disasters started I have no idea. My cakes started to sink, my bread became doughy, my puddings were undercooked. I began to dread having to produce food for anyone other than family, who ate whatever I produced although often with bad grace. I stopped inviting people round for meals, except for my in laws. They were always presented with the same sort of offerings; even I rarely went badly wrong with a roast dinner.

There were other things happening in my life around this time of course, many of which I have blogged about previously. Perhaps it was a culmination of everything that was going on that caused me so much disquiet; perhaps it was this that was affecting the shaky results I was achieving as I persevered with the daily grind of feeding my family.

One thing that my overall experience of cooking has taught me though is the importance of introducing my children to basic food production. My daughter has responded well to this challenge, producing a variety of pasta and rice dishes recently as required. Her desire to prove that she can be trusted to look after herself has encouraged her to take note of how certain dishes are prepared.

My younger son is less interested in cooking savoury dishes, but can at least make decent cheese or tomato sauces to go on pasta; he will heat up a frozen pizza for himself if left on his own at a mealtime. His pleasure in cooking comes from the yummy cakes and cookies that he will make unsupervised; these are often requested by visiting friends.

It is my older son whose attitude towards food reminds me more of myself at his age. Although he enjoys his food, he shows little interest in feeding himself beyond hydrating a pot noodle to go with his cup of tea and numerous slices of toast. I guess it is hard to interest a recalcitrant teen in anything unless they choose to participate.

My sister first picked up the basics of cooking from my mother, and I should have been able to do the same. When the lessons were being offered, I suspect that I just wasn’t paying attention.

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The making of an incompetent cook – Part 2

(If interested, this saga starts here: The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1)

I moved into my first flat late in 1988. I had started work the previous summer and was eager to make the home for myself that I had been dreaming about and working towards for the past eight years. I arrived with my newly purchased bed, fridge, kettle, toaster, crockery, cutlery, pots, pans and an iron. The previous occupants had left their rather tired looking oven and washing machine. Although I had no other furniture, no curtains and no idea how to work the heating system, that first night spent in my own home felt blissful.

Over the coming months I started to gather together some of the other things that I both wanted and needed. I bought a squishy sofa, table and chairs, shelves for my many books and a cabinet to store my hi fi. I replaced the washing machine when I discovered the old one leaked, painted my bedroom and hung curtains at the windows. In the spirit of the times the decor was a mix of black, white, grey and red; to my eyes it looked fabulous.

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Having built my nest I wished to show it off so invited a few of my new friends from work round for a meal. When my parents socialised this is what they did so it seemed a perfectly natural course of action. I did not consider that I still had no experience of cooking. Having received five acceptances to my invitations I consulted a recipe book for a suitably impressive three course meal for six. Starter and pudding could be prepared in advance and I sensibly opted for something that sounded straightforward for the main course. I decided that I would roast my first chicken.

Instructions on the cellophane wrapped bird that I bought told me how many hours it needed to be cooked for. Having cleaned my flat from top to bottom, bathed and chosen what I would wear for my exciting evening, at the prescribed time I switched on the oven for the very first time. As it began to heat up black smoke gushed out, filling the flat with a noxious smell. Panicking a little I threw open all the doors and windows before frantically attempting to clean the beast as best I could. With my inadequate supplies and lack of experience (I had never cleaned an oven before) I felt impotent, but knew that I needed to try again. By the time my friends arrived the chicken was bubbling away in it’s juices and only a little smoke was puffing out the oven door. A few comments on the strange smell that permeated the now freezing flat were made, dinner was served a little later than planned, but we survived the food and an enjoyable enough evening was had by all.

Perhaps I should have learned my lesson, but I would continue to invite people round to eat, and try out new, exciting dishes on them. Most of the food that I cooked for my many dinner parties was tried for the first time on the night and never repeated. There were many close calls and disappointments that went unmentioned: the soup starter that took me five hours to prepare; the range of expensive spices that went into the only curry I have ever made from scratch and which tasted totally bland; the prime cuts of meat whose potential succulence I failed to appreciate, ending up with a jaw challenging dish that resembled biltong.

At home, alone, I was still content to live on simple fare, although I did begin to cook a little more often for myself as time went by. I’m not sure that I ever got the oven in my flat properly clean though; it was only ever used when I had people round.

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The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1

I was seven years old when I first tried my hand at baking. My brave teacher, Mrs Dodds, who was also instrumental in encouraging me to push ahead with my love of Maths, decided to run a lesson showing how yeast reacted when added to other ingredients. I missed the end of this fascinating experiment as, for the only time in my entire school career, my parents took me out of class early. They were driving across the country to visit friends who had moved from our area to run a pub several counties away. I remember the excitement of being allowed to stand behind the bar that loomed taller than my head, before the pub opened to the public. I knew that this was distant, adult space, banned to children in those days.

My teacher had whisked my tiny little bread roll out of the oven early for me to take with me, and I nursed it’s warm crust throughout the long car journey. When I eventually ate it I remember it’s hardness and the strangeness of the taste. My mother made delicious bread regularly, but not with yeast. I ate it in the car, feeling guilty that it was too small to share. I would have liked to split it, spread on some butter and show it off. There was too much going on that day to seek attention. I nibbled on it dry, trying not to drop crumbs on my father’s car.

A year or so later I became a Brownie Guide, where we were entreated to ‘do a good turn every day’. I took this mantra seriously. We were told that giving our parents breakfast in bed would be a big treat for them; looking back I am not convinced that my parents wished to risk crumbs on the sheets and would have preferred to rise at a time of their choosing. Ever eager to please, and having recently learnt how to scramble eggs, I went through a phase of getting up early on a Sunday morning to make them a breakfast which I carefully carried to their bedroom on a tray. This ‘good turn’ came to a halt when, unbeknown to me, the clocks changed from summer to winter time and I ended up making their breakfast an hour too early. My sister heard me going through my routine and intercepted me before I disturbed our parents. I returned to the kitchen and cried hot tears of shame and frustration as I tried to keep the food warm. It was the last time I made anyone breakfast in bed.

When I moved on to grammar school I was required to study Domestic Science with a characterful teacher with the apt name of Mrs Pepper. I was truly hopeless at the subject. When we made shepherds pie I could not get the potatoes to boil soft enough to mash; how did I find this so difficult? Mrs Pepper had little time for such incompetence and I dropped the subject as soon as I was allowed.

At home I had learned to grill cheese on toast, cook eggs and heat up tinned food, but was rarely required to produce food for myself or anyone else. The only exception to this that I can remember was when my mother fainted one afternoon and had to spend a night in hospital under observation. My sister was elsewhere so I felt that I should produce dinner for my father and I. Fish had been left in the fridge, to be grilled for the evening meal. I had no idea how long to cook it for and ended up drying it out completely. We manfully chewed our way through what should have been a soft and succulent dish, but I have not attempted to cook plain fish since.

When I first moved out of the family home I lived on cereal, toast, cheese, soup, salads and fruit. With a kettle, toaster and microwave to hand I could avoid the oven and hob entirely. In a series of shared houses, with others who seemed comfortable in the kitchen, I was too embarrassed to demonstrate my lack of skill. It wasn’t until I was able to buy my first flat, at the age of twenty-four, that I began to cook hot meals from raw ingredients.

My mother had produced most of our family dinners in a scary device called a pressure cooker. She would chop up and throw in the meat, vegetables and potatoes before adding a little water and heating it all up until there was an audible whistle. The heat would then be turned down and a heavy weight put over the vent at the top. Occasionally the weight would be blown off resulting in a frightful clatter and a rush of steam. After a prescribed time the pressure cooker would be placed in the sink and cold water run over it before the weight and then lid could be removed and the food served. I have never wanted to own a pressure cooker.

All of this meant that I had not regularly observed other types of cooking first hand, and had little experience to fall back on. I had paid scant attention to what was being done in my mother’s kitchen; I had no interest in participating and learning. My mother was an advocate for healthy eating long before this became popular. I may not have picked up her cooking skills, but I had taken on board her message that processed food was bad; that fat and sugar should be avoided; that puddings other than fruit and yoghurt should be a rare treat.

For the first few months after I moved into my flat I would pop down to the local convenience store after work and buy whatever I felt like eating that night. I continued to survive largely on breakfast cereal, cheese, toast, tinned food, salad and fruit. Once I had managed to save up enough of my wages to furnish the flat, I decided that I wished to show it off and planned my first dinner party. The fact that I had little knowledge of cooking did not present itself as a problem to my naive mind. This first event set the tone for the many to come. For me, preparing the food for each of my dinner parties became a memorable, if fraught, experience.

TBC

English: A pressure cooker with a simple regul...

Intermission

A summer’s evening: glass of wine to hand, I sit with my computer. The sun has set; the dishwasher is on; my little family are occupied, each doing their own thing; a typical family, post dinner scenario.

Earlier this evening I dropped my daughter off at a friend’s house. She has been invited to attend an open air theatre show with a girl that she knows through their creative writing courses. I have not had the opportunity to get to know the family but, from the brief conversations we have had when I have dropped my daughter off on previous occasions, I suspect that I would like them a lot. They are my daughter’s friends; she has made good choices.

My youngest son has chosen to spend his evening watching a few episodes from our Red Dwarf  DVD box set. These shows never fail to draw laughs. My elder son eschewed this choice of entertainment initially but succumbed when it became clear that there were no better options. Aged parents will rarely be attractive company for their teenage children.

My husband has unspecified things to do. Having poured himself a glass of wine he has abandoned it on the kitchen worktop. I suspect it will not be attended to before he retires for the night. Setting off for work at 5.30am each morning demands an earlier night than most would consider acceptable. We have grown used to his habits.

I had a lovely birthday yesterday. So many of my family, friends and acquaintances sent me messages of good will. I had enough cards and parcels; presents and messages; physical and virtual indications of care to convince me that I was wished a good day. And I had one. I celebrated quietly with my family but was assured of other’s regard. It was truly heart warming.

Tomorrow is exam results day. However much I may feel concerned about my children’s reactions to whatever results they may achieve I am aware that the results are theirs; I am merely a bystander. Of course I care and am affected by the fallout, but it is not my ability that is being judged; I must put myself aside. Children will never understand that they are physically a part of their parents. What was conjoined may have been sundered at birth but the link is never truly broken. They where and will always be a part of me, and I feel their joy and pain as my own.

Yesterday we opened a bottle of champagne in celebration of my birthday. Another bottle sits chilling in our fridge in anticipation of expected cheer tomorrow. A table at a local restaurant has been booked; a joyful, family occasion is anticipated. At the back of my mind niggles a fear that we are tempting fate in expecting events to proceed in a certain way. What if, what if, what if…

The unhappiness that I have experienced in my life has been triggered when I have felt that I have not lived up to the expectations of those I care about; when I have believed that I have let loved ones down; when I have not achieved the results that were demanded of me, even if only by myself.

Whatever my children become, I would wish for them self fulfilment and contentment. They are amazing young people and I love them unconditionally. Whatever grades an exam board awards them they can fulfil their ambitions if they have the drive and the determination to make it happen. And I will always be there to cheer them on their way.

As parents we desire the best for our children. There comes a time when we must let them go to make their own way, wherever that may lead. My children are expected to do well in their exams and, for their sakes, I hope that they do. Not for my sake though; let them do what they choose for themselves.

I will continue to sit, glass of wine to hand, and look over them. A summer shower patters gently on our windows as I await my daughter’s return. Life goes on.

The stress that the world piles on our young people to achieve a grade too often overshadows the importance of developing a tolerant, rounded and diverse personality; of becoming a good person, whatever that may mean. I wish only that my children may be true to themselves and find their niche in life, content with whatever they become.

So easy to say and so hard to do. I must listen to my own council and be true to myself. Those who love me will accept that.

This image shows a white wine glass (WMF Easy)...

Dealing with poorly chickens

Warning to those who may be easily distressed: this post deals with death and dispatch.

Hen keeping is a fun and rewarding hobby but, as with most things that are worth doing, it has it’s challenges. On a day to day basis there is the poop and the general untidiness that is inevitable if a flock of hens are allowed to free range in a back garden. There is also, from time to time, the issue of what to do with a poorly chicken.

I have bought a total of twenty-two pullets over the five and a half years that I have been keeping hens. I have also been given one hen of indeterminate age. My two coops currently house ten girlies so, from the maths, you can work out that I have had to deal with a fair few fatalities. Some of these birds have died of natural causes, others we have dispatched to end their suffering.

I spend time with my flock every day, observing their behaviour to ensure that all is well. When a chicken is ill the signs can be fairly obvious: their stance is hunched and their manner lethargic; they will not run with the flock with their normal enthusiasm; poop may be runny or blood streaked; feathers may not be as clean and glossy as normal.

Internal injuries can be caused by egg laying. This may manifest itself with blood on the egg or the vent; it can also cause a painful looking gait. In the worst case the chicken may prolapse which is very hard to put right. Treatment is painful for the suffering hen and the risk of repeat high.

Any sign of blood on a hen will draw the rest of the flock to attack. A minor cut from a nasty peck can be disguised with gentian violet antiseptic spray, but a major injury such as a prolapse can turn a friendly flock of happy hens cannibalistic. In the worst cases that I have had to deal with I considered it kinder to dispatch the suffering bird rather than treat and then risk a possible repeat followed by likely attack if I were not on hand to remove the afflicted fowl.

Our hens are more than just egg producers but probably less than many family pets in our family ‘pecking order’. I am not a particularly sentimental sort of person but cannot bear to see any living creature suffer; deliberate cruelty, particularly to trusting animals,  makes me intensely angry. However, I am fairly stoic when it comes to allowing nature to take it’s course. With my flock of chickens I will assess each situation as it arises and decide on what I think is best for the individual hen.

Unless I am convinced that the chicken is in such pain that she is suffering badly and is unlikely to recover, I will try to treat illnesses. Simple remedies such as adding poultry spice, cod liver oil and apple cider vinegar to the food and water will often be enough to aid natural recovery. Minor injuries may require that a hen be temporarily removed from the flock for her own safety but, in many cases, recovery is possible.

Sometimes I get it wrong and will come down in the morning to find that the poorly looking hen has not survived the night. It is a very unpleasant task climbing into the coop to retrieve and dispose of what had recently been a funny and feisty little character. I always wonder if it would have been kinder to dispatch. However, when a hen recovers from an illness, I am so grateful that I gave her a chance.

Hens require a warm, dry house in which to roost, plenty of open space in which to scratch and a plentiful supply of food and clean water. They thrive on routine. I would not take a hen to a vet as I feel it is kinder if I can work out for myself how to deal with each bird. The stress of travel and treatment can negate any benefit from medicine; many ailments can sort themselves out in time with minimal intervention.

After a particularly harsh winter I had three hens in my flock looking poorly and not laying. They were amongst my older girls and had each had previous issues with sniffles and deteriorating condition that I seemed to have successfully treated. During one week in the spring I lost all three of them; it was a distressing time. It seems likely that the flock picked up some bug and the weaker birds succumbed. I treated the remaining girls and put off buying the Easter pullets that I add each year until I was happy that all existing girls were well. Happily I now have a healthy flock, all of whom lay.

Commercial hen keepers recognise that a flock of hens of varying ages will be more susceptible to illness and cull all birds at a certain age, replacing the flock entirely. As a back garden hen keeper I allow my hens to run free until I feel it is not in the individual bird’s best interests to keep going. As I have said, they are more than just egg producers for my family.

The key to keeping hens in this way is the ability to dispatch a bird quickly and humanely; it is not a pleasant thing to have to do. For those keepers who regard their hens as much loved pets it would be too distressing an option so will not suit everyone. Others will not feel confident enough to do the deed themselves.

So long as my birds have been treated kindly and given a happy life then I see a quick death at the hands of a keeper who has regularly handled them as the kindest way to end suffering. I still see it as a last resort though. I much prefer to allow my birds to reach the end of their natural laying life and then enjoy a retirement spent eating, pooping and demanding respect from the younger members of the flock. Even when they are not providing us with eggs, they are still a joy to have in the garden.

Chickens

Clear out

Who decided that boy’s shirts should button up a different way to girl’s shirts and why? I mean, it makes no sense. I am sure that both could cope with fastening to the right or to the left if that was the way it had always been. As it is, I am throwing away school shirts that are still perfectly serviceable because my daughter no longer needs to wear school uniform and my boy’s will not countenance the idea of wearing a girl’s shirt to school. Knowing the environment that they must face there each day I don’t blame them.

My daughter is my first born but I was pregnant with her brother before she was six months old so I was always planning ahead when buying her all the things that a child may need or benefit from. Not for her the pretty, frilly, pink things that shops love to promote for our little princesses. My girl wore onesies in bright, primary colours with cartoon animals or stars on them that could suit a boy or a girl.

As the years passed by my daughter was provided with shorts and t-shirts; tartan trousers and roll necks; easy to wear, pull on clothes that she could manage herself, play freely in, and that could then be passed down to her brothers. Kids grow so fast the outfits could just about be made to last until my third child had outgrown them before being consigned to the recycling box, stretched and stained beyond use by anyone else.

I would gratefully accept hand me downs from my sister’s twin boys and from friend’s children who never seemed to hammer their clothes as mine did. Perhaps they were just bought more to start with so each outfit saw less play. Most of these clothes were designed for boys but looked just fine on my daughter. I made sure that she had a dress or a skirt for parties, but these pretty, girlie clothes always seemed an extravagance and would be disposed of, outgrown well before they had worn out. Sure she looked cute, but tights are not as easy to deal with on an active child as a pair of elasticated shorts or trousers.

My daughter does sometimes comment that I dressed her in some odd looking outfits. This might concern me more if I didn’t have the same view of the clothes that my mother put my sister and I in when we were that age. My mother thought we looked so gorgeous; I look back at the photographs and cringe. My mother was a dressmaker, interested in fashion and liked to knit. To this day I hate hand knit clothes and refused to put my children in any such thing. I fear I offended a few elderly relatives with this hard line attitude.

I still try to get the most out of the clothes that I buy my children, although the days when things could be passed down are long gone. My boys are more or less the same height despite having a two year age difference, but they are very different shapes. They also have their own ideas about what they wish to wear and these differ markedly.

Meanwhile, my daughter has developed a more individual dress style. Her clothes are very much her own, although she will sometimes find something in my wardrobe that she can make use of without asking. I can’t complain too much. I only realised that she had taken a pair of sandals on a school trip to France, that I had bought myself for the summer, when I noticed she was wearing them in the photographs she showed me on her return.

Unlike their casual clothes though, many items of school uniform can be passed around. When a PE kit has been forgotten in a locker, a spare can be pilfered from a brother’s wardrobe; if mother has failed to wash enough shirts as quickly as expected, the name label inside the clean ones available can be ignored.

My daughter took great pleasure in throwing away the very tatty and rather tight, grey, school skirt, that should probably have been replaced six months previously, when she finished her exams in June. All being well she will enter sixth form in September where no uniform is required. In the meantime I have shared her school sweatshirts between her brothers who seem able to shred the sleeves of these garments within months. My daughter has worn hers for two years and they still look in reasonable condition, certainly good enough to act as spares.

But the shirts cannot be shared out. They have been worn for a couple of years so are not sufficiently pristine to pass on to another family; they have been bagged for recycling. I feel so uncomfortable throwing away clothes that have not developed tears or holes or stains that cannot be sorted. It feels so profligate and wasteful, which goes against my nature.

And then, of course, there will be the issue of what my daughter is to wear to school next year. When she is in civvies every day she is going to need a bigger selection of outfits than she currently possesses. My boys are always running out of garments of one sort or another in the holidays because, for most of the year, they only need to be out of uniform at weekends. I can see that an expensive shopping trip is going to have to be endured later this month.

I would happily take my boys along but suspect they will decline the opportunity to supplement their meagre collection of clothes. In their eyes, such shopping trips are unbearably tedious; my daughter likes nothing better than to get me into her sort of clothes shops where she can charm my credit card into action.

I have had a very successful clear out over the past few days. Bins have been filled, the local recycling centre visited and space created in the house and garage. Now I need to make sure that we don’t just fill those spaces up again too quickly. Certain items of outgrown school uniform will need to be replaced, and I don’t expect the house to stay this clean and tidy for long. It would be good though if we could manage to get by with a little bit less than we have just thrown away. I suspect that my children are unlikely to agree.

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So many boxes and bins; unwanted items must now be sorted for recycling. 

Possessions

A number of years ago we had the roof of our house converted into rooms leaving just the space above one bedroom for the water tank and miscellaneous storage. By the time the Christmas boxes and suitcases have been squeezed into this small area there is little room for much else. We have to be quite ruthless about what we keep that is not required regularly.

A water leak, now dealt with, caused some damage to a few pictures I had stored here recently. These needed to be disposed of so, last weekend, I decided to go through the accumulated boxes and clear out anything else that I felt we could part with. I find clear outs therapeutic. I am not a big hoarder but, over time, things do tend to be put away just in case they may one day be used again. They rarely are.

Unlike many people, we put our cars in our garage so have limited space for other things here. We have a shed for our bikes and a second shed for chicken feed, a few garden chairs and outdoor toys. As all require regular access they have to be carefully managed to prevent them being overrun with what is, essentially, junk.

Having gone through all of these spaces I now have a very full bin and a sizeable pile of items that need to be driven to the local dump. We still have far too much ‘stuff’ sitting around, but much of it is treasured by the children so will be held onto for the time being. It would be too much of a wrench for them to be made to get rid of the papier-mache and clay creatures they lovingly created, or the many DT projects of which they are proud.

As a teenager my bedroom evolved into something of a shrine to my memories of travel and romantic attachments. When I moved out of my parent’s home to start work in England I unceremoniously dumped most of the items that I had gathered over the years. In my mind I was starting afresh and wanted to put all of these things behind me. I think that my mother was more upset than me as she watched the cards and tokens of affection that had adorned my shelves and walls for so many years being consigned to the bin.

Although I like my home to be clean and comfortable I do not like clutter. I have photographs of my family on display but no longer hang pictures on the walls. The ornaments that remain generally have some sentimental value having been gifts from loved ones. I try to keep my home in good condition but will not fuss if marks or stains are left on furnishings in the course of using them. I prefer a relaxed and happy environment to a pristine one.

As I have got older I have found that my attitude to my possessions has changed. I no longer feel a need to put on a show or to try to impress. I like order and to know where I can find things, but beyond this I aspire only to comfort and reasonable hygiene. I have never felt the need to follow fashion and can live with a chosen decor for many years before tiring of it.

None of this means that I do not value the things that I have, but more that my priorities have changed. My reasons for holding on to possessions tend to be practical (they are in regular use) or emotional (they make me feel good). I hope that I will always be able to keep my books and teddy bears, however much space they take up or dust they gather.

I think it is important not to place too much value on material things. Perhaps this is just easy for me to say from my privileged perspective; I am well aware that I have all I need and more. I can get quite frustrated when my children seem to want so much; I need to remember that they have still to build their nests, that they are just beginning to create their own spaces.

My big clear out has inspired me to continue to sort through the things that we are using less than we once did. Our large collection of CDs could be put away as they are only used regularly in one car now so do not need to be kept beside our in house music player.

Sometimes my tidy ups unearth items that intrigue my children. I have held on to my original Sony Walkman only because it amuses one of my sons by it’s bulk and ability to play only a single cassette tape when the memory card on his phone can hold his entire music collection. Likewise my other son wishes to retain the first laptop my husband bought, which still works but has such limited memory and processor power that it cannot handle most modern software. These museum pieces entertain them, especially as we remember them as being so innovative.

The things that we have, that we choose to surround ourselves with, can say much about the people that we are. I wonder what others make of me from the way I have organised my home; what impression is given of the sort of person that I am. It is my sanctuary and my safe space; I am happiest when I am here. Would I even want to know what others may think that it tells them about me?

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