I’m writing this in a Cretan hotel room early on the Friday morning before my daughter’s wedding. The wedding gown, hanging on the door, hides here from view until Sunday when I have the privilege of dressing the bride, my beautiful girl, probably for the last time.
When I would dress her as a child, I never stopped to think of the time I would be helping her into the most important dress of her life. I was instead negotiating an agreement on which outfit was most practical or appropriate before the last button was done up and she would slip from my grasp to change into something else, or even undress altogether on more than one occasion.
From a very young age, my daughter had her own ideas about what she wanted or didn’t want to wear, so it makes me smile when she looks at old photographs of herself and asks why I let her wear THAT? These days I find myself listening to her suggestions as to what I should wear and even gamely traipsed off to London with her before the wedding so that she could select my ‘Mother-of-the-Bride’ outfit, which turned out to be something completely different from what I had in mind. I won’t be wafting around like Meryl Streep in Mama Mia after all and hopefully will bear no resemblance to anyone from My Big Fat Greek Wedding either.
When she was about 7 years old, after a particularly cheeky and wilful episode, she calmly sat at the end of the table, half-listening to my exasperated ranting – all directed at her. She waited patiently until I had run out of steam, looked me up and down in my new outfit and asked: “So who told you orange goes with pink?” I suppose she had a point.
I wonder if choosing a hot country for her wedding has a subliminal connection to how she was swaddled as a winter newborn and left in her moses basket close to a radiator, so afraid was I that my first baby would freeze. She’s lucky I didn’t cook her! And as a toddler she would be wrapped in layers of woolies, gilets, padded coats, gloves, hats and scarves until she wobbled like a weeble – remember them?
I remember those moments when she would wait to be called with her dance classmates, all in pink leotards singing hand-clapping songs together:
When Susie was a teenager/A teenager she was/And she’d say/Ooh ah!/ I lost my bra/I left my knickers in my boyfriend’s car.
That line somehow found its way into the innocent version of When Susie Was she’d learned and when asked why Susie would’ve lost her underwear, she suggested Susie must have been changing for ballet. Obviously
Susie had a busy after-school schedule of dancing, piano lessons, gym club and swimming too.
I have so many memories of vibrant dance wear and swift backstage struggles to switch between costumes before the next dance piece and her uncomplaining compliance as arms went up in the air to have one creation whipped off before the next was pulled on, balancing on one foot, then the next to change dance shoes beneath a wide width of tutu or diaphanous folds of flowing fabric.
I remember our battles over sensible school shoes, just as I had battled with my mother and later the urge to throw a cardigan around her when she and her friends would be getting ready in her room for a night out, wearing less than I would wear to bed.
And now as we all gather here in Greece to celebrate my daughter’s marriage, I remember what I have gained since she came into my life when protecting my fragile baby was uppermost in my mind, much like the delicate wedding dress and veil in my care now. As others gasp at the stunning bride, I will congratulate myself for creating someone as breathtaking as she is to look at, but the credit for her beauty is not mine as it radiates from within her and shows in her pretty face, her ready smile and her ever sparkling eyes. Mine, no doubt, will be brimming with tears.
This piece isn’t intended to be depressing, but it is about depression.
As someone who teaches sixteen to eighteen year-olds in a very large college, I’ve learned to accept that during the inevitable spell of hormonal hell they experience, young adults are trying to develop their social skills in an environment of stress and pressure at a time when they are most at risk of emotionally crashing.
Most of my students have only just left the safety of their familiar schools, or were home schooled, and finding themselves in a college perhaps four or five times the size of their last learning environment, without their friends, can be the shock which tips their fragile minds into a state of extreme anxiety. But many bring with them mental health issues they have been dealing with for a long time. Are there more sufferers now, in this information age, or is this generation simply more open about their difficulties and limitations than previous ones who had less to deal with in terms of competition, choice and indeed information?
Sensing you are making a student ill because of the pressure you have to put them under to succeed is an uncomfortable feeling. James (not his real name) was crying in my office last year in the run up to the final exams; he’d crumpled the year before and so was retaking the course. He was seventeen at the time and I knew he was going to beat himself up for not attending his final exams again if I didn’t encourage him and, as he was an able student, the eventual success would boost his confidence. Unlike those who are looking for someone to blame for their shortcomings (usually a ‘crap teacher’ who likely hadn’t had much opportunity to teach a frequently late, lazy or absent student who would then fall hopelessly behind), James had been suffering from depression for a few years.
We are educators, not mental health experts.
Yes some do work the system, or try to, knowing that if they declare a problem with anxiety, the disciplinary procedure for continued absences from classes or lack of submission of work will not apply to them, but it doesn’t do to let them know you suspect they are faking as we are educators, not mental health experts and the whole story may not be apparent to us in our role as teachers.
Last month, when a student appeared to be blacking out in college one afternoon, the decision to call for paramedics was taken despite our strong doubts about whether her symptoms were genuine. Used to attention-seeking illness faking and how to spot it, the paramedics sussed her straight away and, after feeling inwardly furious at her for taking up the time of an emergency service, not to mention the college staff, we began to realise we were dealing with yet another mental health issue when the student had a panic attack two days later.
When an extremely shy and stressed student opted to become mute, I asked for help with how I should teach him if I couldn’t expect him to answer any questions (the basis of assessment of learning). Exasperated by having to find more practical solutions to mental health problems in the classroom, my team leader whined: ‘Oh there’s no point; he can’t hear you!’ Simon, let me explain ‘mute’; you are confusing it with deaf. But hey – your pain is my pain.
My colleagues and I are acutely concerned about the number of students for whom we have a duty of care who have problems functioning in our information-age world – they who have been growing up around fast changing technology, instant communication and one-click consumerism. You’d think they would cope better than us. The rate of mental illness is obviously (to us) climbing and possibly because of the cyber-space age we live in. My generation never worried about cyber-bullying, online safety, grooming, radicalisation and all the other terrors enabled by technology these kids are at risk from. We were too busy balancing as many vinyl records as we could on the arm of the record player while we waited for our blurry snaps to be returned in the post.
Alongside years of studying our subject to be able to teach it, more years training in delivering said subject and getting the wild ones to behave as well as learning how to include all types of able and differently-abled learners, we now need opportunities to swot up on mental health and wellbeing as part of our continuous professional development (CPD) if we are to be effective in education. At present, my strategy is always to send the suffering scholar to someone who knows how to deal with them, but this is becoming harder to do as more students with these needs enrol.
Before a recent CPD day we were told to select which workshops we wanted to attend and expected, as before, to be able to join in a number of fun sessions run by other lecturers demonstrating what they regularly teach in the sprawling college. These no-teaching days are always good for bringing staff from different departments together and advancing the having-a-good-time-at-work ethos (happy, healthy workforce blah, blah.) I fancied balloon modelling and drum lessons this time. To our surprise, transgender awareness was compulsory, and scheduled to take up so much of the day, there was little time left for the usual spell in the art block for example to splash around with messy materials or to make some noise in the music studios or practise how to photoshop the principal’s publicity shot into a recognisable primate in the Mac rooms. However, we all gamely processed towards the huge conference suite few of us could remember visiting before.
“Where’s Transgender Awareness?” asked someone.
“Between your legs,” replied another and,
“Why are we having a cross-dressing conference?”
We processed out again some time later shocked by the statistics, moved by what we had heard, thanking the transgender students who were brave enough to address us all on behalf of those who couldn’t, agreeing to meet their needs at the college and apologising for our ignorance.
45% of transgender kids commit suicide
I learned the statistics show 45% of transgender kids commit suicide – yes that’s almost half of them. Homosexuality doesn’t seem to be a significant isolating or bullying issue any longer among our students and I really hope compassion and acceptance for transgender teenagers by their peers follows soon because this generation changes things.
Whether you think ‘gender bending’ is a modern phenomenon or something which was always there, but not spoken of, I was surprised to realise there are significantly more students affected than I already knew of simply because many will not present themselves at college as the gender they prefer for fear of being ridiculed, or worse. Unsurprisingly, the transgender individual who does not suffer, or has not suffered poor mental health, is rare.
I’ve since read the following by Pearson McKinney:
“It wasn’t until Europeans took over North America that natives adopted the ideas of gender roles.”
He goes on to say:
“In Native American cultures, people were valued for their contributions to the tribe, rather than for masculinity or femininity.”
McKinney explains how those known as ‘Two Spirits’ i.e. transgender Native Americans, were considered to have the ‘gift’ of being able to see things from both sides. It’s obvious when you think about it. We however treat them as freaks.
I’ve long thought ancient peoples knew more than we know now, and the cost of living in a civilised society is losing touch with our emotional essence and introducing stress in our lives. For the fragile or vulnerable among us, the cost can be expensive if it is paid in mental health. Ideally, to flourish, we must be healthy, in fine fettle, robust in mind and body; our bodies and our minds need nourishment and care. Did we ever actively take as much care of our minds as we do our bodies?
For my part, encouragement and positive affirmations are pretty much all I have to offer my anxious students for now, but there is reward in that for me too. Being able to say ‘Congratulations’ to James when his results were confirmed last summer and seeing the satisfied smile on his handsome face is a moment I treasure.
Ref: Pearson McKinney (April 2nd 2017), Before European Christians forced Gender Roles, Native Americans Acknowledged Five Genders, [www.bipartisanreport.com]
Be honest. What goes through your mind at a funeral?
If, like me, you have been attending them from a young age, you might find yourself thinking about funerals you’ve been to before the one you happen to be attending at that moment. If so, does it make you feel guilty to realise you have been remembering someone other than the person whose life you are supposed be celebrating? I’m not saying I compare them you understand, rather I’ve noticed that funerals don’t get any easier the more experience of them you have and, if anything, they have a cumulative effect.
Painful as they are, we feel compelled to arrange and attend funerals as a mark of respect and from a need to make sense of our loss. Despite knowing every life surely must come to an end, our minds mostly have difficulty accepting that someone who was here with us, suddenly is no longer and so we gather together with our thoughts. But while thoughts are private and individual, are they really that much different from the thoughts of our neighbour?
I’ll admit my mind has wandered to wondering what’s so wrong with flowers these days? We are often told, ‘family flowers only’ and a donation to a relevant charity may be made via the funeral director instead. I don’t disagree with collecting money for a charity in memory of anyone, but flowers make a funeral smell good and give us something fresh and beautiful to look at while trying not to lapse into morbid imaginings. Would you admit to staring at a coffin and picturing what lies under the lid? If you ask me, it’s difficult not to, no matter how wrong it seems.
In the five years since we have been together, Drew and I have been to eight funerals. We are starting to lose count now, it might be nine, but even for people in their fifties, that’s a fair few. All of them have been at churches or crematoria, so I can’t comment on any other type, but the tradition of congregating with a coffin before you surely means there are others picturing a cold corpse too. So I’m in favour of flowers, especially atop a coffin – lots of tastefully, expertly arranged flowers. But please not those floral tributes spelling out ‘Mum’ or ‘Grandpa’ or whoever. Seriously, if only ‘family flowers’ are allowed, make a good job of it; spelling out names or other words in flowers belongs in municipal parks or similar, not at funerals. Just put their name on the card!
At a funeral, I always feel it’s best to have a look at the order of service before the proceedings commence and be prepared for the choice of music. I have often tried to figure out what lies behind the musical choices and make the lyrical connection between the deceased and the song or hymn – which isn’t always particularly obvious. I heard once that Robbie Williams was aghast at the popularity of his song ‘Angels’ when selecting funeral music although it seems a perfectly appropriate choice to me. However, the popularity of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ has rendered it a cliche which is embarrassingly inappropriate if the deceased led a conventional life in the town where he or she was born, working for the local authority for example. Though to be fair, that choice would almost certainly have been made by the deceased themself and who would argue with a last wish?
A word of warning here: if you choose music for a loved one’s funeral, think carefully about how often you might hear it again when you hadn’t been expecting to. The sudden, unforeseen loss of my father when I was still a girl was the hardest thing I have ever lived through and it affects me still, almost forty years later. It catches me unawares sometimes, especially when I happen to hear a particular piece of music which was played at his funeral, a piece I couldn’t hear for many years without silent tears streaming down my face.
When Elton John asked Bernie Taupin to revise the lyrics to his song ‘Candle in the Wind’ to be sung at the funeral service of The Princess of Wales, he vowed he would never perform it again afterwards. No doubt this was to save himself from many distressing moments as well as protecting her sons from having to endure hearing the saddest song of their young lives again.
You may have reached the stage when, at a funeral, you begin to consider what you would want at yours. I know I have. Were you so impressed or moved by a little touch that you have earmarked the idea for your own service? Cardboard coffin? Your portrait on an easel perhaps? Flowers? I want lots of lovely flowers. And just to be sure, the music I’ve chosen is ‘The Flower Duet’ (Duo des fleurs) from Delibes’ opera, ‘Lakme’. I don’t expect many people I know will follow the words because they’re sung in French, which is just as well. It ends with …
At the risk of offending equality campaigners, I’m aware that I’ve gravitated backwards regarding my working relationships with the opposite sex. I’m surprisingly alright with it now that I’m closer to retirement age than I was when the natural male-female interaction became skewed for fear of sexual inappropriateness or harassment accusations.
When I was much, much younger and prettier, I was sexually assaulted at the office where I worked. It was a very physical attack which hurt and bruised me, but I meekly decided not to make a formal complaint for a number of reasons. Firstly, my attacker was senior to me with a wife and two small children. Secondly, I was relatively new to the company and keen to progress in my career without inviting any unnecessary obstacles. Thirdly, there was a culture at the time which cannot be compared with today. In other words: things like that happened and I regretfully accepted it had happened to me. I never forgot it though. No-one who has ever been sexually assaulted forgets how it made them feel.
Of course that kind of thing can’t be allowed to happen – I’m opposed to that sort of thing!
In my second career as a teacher, my time has, up until recently, been spent with mostly female colleagues which is not unusual in education. But since the beginning of this academic year, I have found myself based in a male-dominated department of the large college I work in, alongside staff with whom I’d previously had little contact. It’s been an unexpectedly pleasant change.
I realised they had all been working together for a long time and having two new female English teachers in their space was perhaps something they wouldn’t have chosen. So mostly adopting a keep-your-head-down and get-on-with-it approach, I didn’t seek or expect much attention, so little attention, in fact, that on one occasion, I unwittingly managed to surprise all my male colleagues by emerging from a cupboard in the staffroom and shocking one of them into gasping: “How long have you been living in there?”
The two of us came as a pair, almost an invasion as far as our male colleagues were concerned, and we had been happily working together in another department for a while. A nickname has since been bestowed on my female team-mate (Hockeysticks, on account of her posh accent) and I suppose on me too as I’m sometimes referred to as The Other One and more recently, Typhoid Mary, on account of my insistence on continuing to work during a spell of illness, risking their health.
Within a few days of us settling in to our new environment, I felt it necessary to assure the guys that Hockeysticks and myself were classy enough to say F-, and the team leader laughed: “Now you’re part of the team.” Apologising every time they realised some swears had been uttered was becoming a strain for them, but they were concerned about offending either of us.
No-one bothers to modify their language or conversation any longer which is why I was recently surprised to hear myself loudly deploring: “What has your foreskin got to do with me?” A sentence I never thought I would need on a regular workday and one which had more impact than the often repeated: ‘Too much information!’ when relaxed conversation becomes intimate.
Humour is one coping strategy which clearly works for these guys. They would no doubt consider their humour sophisticated – all of them being academic, accomplished, passionate and professional, but they are not above taking a moment to be, or look silly and they know how far they can go. Before a recent demotivating data update meeting (yawn), we were invited by one of the team to don vivid, vastly oversized sombreros and it didn’t occur to us to decline. It was a small attempt to ease some of the tension which builds up over the first term. When eventually asked by the Director of Learning what was “with the hats,” everyone replied from beneath their brims, one after the other: “What hats?”
I knew I was beginning to be accepted as one of them when I was asked: “Can I come and stay with you until all this blows over?” during the beginning of term chaos and what sort of woman would seriously object to being addressed by a bearded workmate with the words: “You’re a woman; do you want some chocolate?” I did fancy some chocolate and it was clearly meant as a joke, not an invitation to assert my feminist self. Just ‘banter’ as the students would say.
That said, I have never been comfortable with touching my co-workers and actively discourage it in my classes. Now however, it is not unusual to be given a hug from someone on the team when the moment calls for one. The office/staffroom we are in is a pressure release unit where teasing, joking, listening and cake or biscuits are available for mini-meltdowns, struggling on through sickness and stress as well as the upsetting moments. It’s normal to touch in circumstances such as these and now, when arms are opened to me, I won’t back away – not for fear of offending, but because it’s natural human behaviour, often extended because the one offering a hug needs to do it as much as the person who will be hugged benefits. It is often said that we spend more waking time with our workmates than with our families which can starve us of warmth if our working relationships are cool.
The aspect of our identity which becomes the most important at any one time is the one that marks us out as different.
In our team there is clearly mutual respect. We don’t need legislation to remind us of our obligations to our workmates. We are individuals who are safe with each other and learning how to treat one another, not because we are all the same, but because we are not. The aspect of our identity which becomes the most important at any one time is the one that marks us out as different in that particular instance whether it is age, origin, skill, status or anything our identity is composed of. None of my comrades would hesitate to lampoon another for any of these reasons, so why should making fun of someone because they are female (or male) be any different?
Recently in conversation with the team, I mentioned I realise I have an issue with objectifying women. The response was: “Stop doing it then.” I don’t know why I needed to mention it really.
I didn’t want to be the person sitting next to the person diagnosed with cancer.
I can’t sayI envy those who say they have found their purpose in life. I don’t mean the ones who have managed to work out what they want to do for a career and then made a success of it. No, people like that are lucky compared to the rest of us who manage to give off an air of knowing what we are doing, make it look like it’s what we aimed for, while secretly living in fear of being found out. I’m talking about the ones who believe they have realised the meaning of their lives, why they have been put here.
I once knew a young woman who had given birth to a cruelly disabled and sick baby whose condition was so rare, limited medical help was available. She dedicated herself to her daughter’s short life and went on to promote awareness of the condition to be able to raise funds for research. I was humbled by her conviction that she had been sent a daughter in whose name the campaign was founded and that the purpose of both their lives was clear. Humbled; not envious.
What if your calling, your raison d’etre, has to work harder to convince you? Is it still genuine? Worse, what if you are pulled in its direction, but don’t want to go that way? Or don’t trust you are up to the mark? Fear of failure could prevent you from fulfilling the ultimate objective by which your time spent on earth is divinely measured. Would you be sent back down to learn your lesson or punished in some way?
The only careers interview I remember having at school was a ten minute audience with the Latin teacher who asked each of us in turn which university we would be applying for. She ‘advised’ me to be a teacher which I dismissed as unimaginative coming from an out- of-touch, elderly lady at the end of her working life spent educating girls in the vocabulary and grammar of an archaic language. I rebelled by studying Business and Finance – I know, shocking. But then, years later, I retrained as a teacher and it was the best career decision I have ever made. It took a little longer for my ‘calling’ to find me, I suppose. That’s if it is a calling; I just think it’s what I want to do.
I didn’t want to be the person sitting next to the person diagnosed with cancer. I was compelled to be there by love and loyalty. Someone has to be in that seat. Someone has to remain calm enough to be able to listen to the words the doctor says after he says the word cancer, when all the patient can hear is white noise. Someone has to find a pen and make notes of the unfamiliar codes, abbreviations and terms to be able to google them afterwards. Someone has to drive the shocked patient home. Someone has to say, “We can deal with this,” “I’m right here,” and “You can count on me.”
Then I thought perhaps my purpose was to be the cancer fairy.
I didn’t imagine I would be sitting in that seat again some years later and then again for a third time. Why was this horror coming after the people so close and so precious to me, one after another? I wondered if it could even be some vicious punishment for something I had done, something I hadn’t done right, or something I should have done. Then I thought perhaps my purpose was to be the cancer fairy. Was I up to it? Could I pick a different one?
When cancer chose my mother, she drew on her faith to give her strength. I stood beside her in church and sang each hymn loudly to show I was fully participating while secretly railing at God, in my head, for testing someone so good in this way.
When cancer picked my closest friend, I did my best to amuse her at seemingly endless, dignity-stripping appointments.
When asked: “How can I help you?” I’d respond with: “Two gin and tonics and a table by the window please.”
“How are you?”
“Well, I’ve got a bit of a tummy-ache, but it’s my friend you should be asking.”
And, “On a scale of 1 – 10, what’s your pain level?”
“She’s clearly just attention-seeking.”
Soon after that, I sat next to Drew, my life-partner, when he heard cancer had come for him. I promised I wasn’t going anywhere, but I couldn’t find anything to try and joke about in anything cancer brings with it anymore.
And then a colleague told me she needed me. She said she didn’t like to burden me after what I’d been going through, but she’d been diagnosed with cancer, knew nothing about it and didn’t know who to turn to. I didn’t hesitate. “We can deal with this,” I told her, “I’m right here,” and “You can count on me.”
Personal pronouns make a difference – something else my Latin teacher knew before me.
My children grew up without me noticing and without my permission.
I wasn’t prepared for the excitement of finally moving in with Drew to be as emotionally exhausting as it turned out to be. Irrational feelings of maternal guilt and sadness over the end of an era surfaced last Christmas when the realisation that the family home, where my now adult children had all last lived together with me and their father, was to be transferred to another family.
When their father left in 2008, my three had bonded to form a loving unit which was uniquely theirs. It was no longer them against us – we had been outnumbered when Rosie arrived – it was them against the world. In those early days, if one of them was upset, they would squash themselves into my bed together leaving no room for me. Phsychologists would, no doubt, have much material there; the three of them instinctively found their own coping strategies. They all still needed me and their dad, but they needed each other even more.
I hadn’t planned on being separated, of course. I was conventional, ordinary and Catholic, but that wasn’t why I couldn’t contemplate divorce until years later. The reason was, I couldn’t risk projecting a sense of regret about having them and I wanted to be able to keep their home for as long as they needed it. Five had become four; our family had fragmented and the house became a symbol of security.
When Liz, the eldest, later told me she would be moving in with her partner, we cried together over the wrench from her brother, sister and me in a way I hadn’t let her see me cry over my husband moving out. She told me she wanted to be a good sister, but she was ready for the next stage in her relationship with Tony. It’s natural for a child to grow up and move out of their parents’ house, but how often have you heard about the loss younger siblings feel or indeed the eldest child’s emotional confusion? Four inevitably became three, another fragment had formed and although the family home was starting to feel too big, I was even more determined that the three of us left should stay there where we felt safe and stable.
Children grow up and move on – it’s what we raise them to be able to do.
Then, they did that thing you always knew they were going to do, but are strangely unprepared for. They grew up – without me really noticing and certainly without my permission. By this time, my relationship with Drew had become permanent and he had been patiently waiting for me to be ready to live with him and to notice that my two youngest children, Jonathan and Rosie, had outgrown living with their mother. Eventually, after waiting in vain for the penny to drop, Jonathan gently suggested that it was time I got on with my life with Drew, and that the big, old house I’d been struggling to maintain could be sold. Rosie and Jonathan didn’t need to live with their mum anymore, they just needed somewhere to live – preferably with each other. Jonathan’s touchstone had transferred from me to his sister and the only thing Rosie was concerned about taking from the old house to a new home was him. So unconcerned was she, in fact, that she appeared to think the move would happen by magic and fairies would be on hand to select anything she might find useful to take with her.
Packing up the family home and dividing its contents between the two new ones seemed a massive project after living there for so long. Jonathan and Rosie needed many of the ingredients I’d mixed over the years as homemaker; Drew clearly did not. In order to fit myself into the house he owned and to fit Jonathan and Rosie into a much smaller place, numerous trips to the local tip were made over several weekends – so many, in fact, that the staff there stopped asking for proof of our address and instead began checking out what we had loaded into our cars, occasionally marching away from the cavernous drop of sorrow into which we hurled forgotten toys and bits of furniture armed with ‘treasure’ fit for saving. I felt quite proud to have been identified as a better class of visitor to the local recycling and refuse plant, which took the edge off the experience if I’m honest.
And then, not long after I came to terms with my children telling me it was time I moved out, we three set up two separate households.
Several offers of help on moving day were gratefully accepted, but on reflection, prospective candidates should have been screened. As boxes on legs paraded past me from the house to the van, I realised they were empty ones left in the hallway for last minute chattels and cleaning products and I spent time I couldn’t spare unloading them again.
A little later, Jonathan magnanimously insisted his sister should be the one to unlock the door to the place they had chosen together and we all held our breath. Jonathan wanted it to be memorable for her, but after a few moments of wiggling and jiggling the key, checking it was the right one again, she had to ask for help and the ceremony became something of a farce. It was all I could do to supress my maternal anxiety as a voice in my head shouted, “You can’t leave her here – she can’t even get in.”
We left them eventually and after a day of lifting everything from washing machines to mattresses up to the second floor, Drew’s last lifting task was to carry me over the threshold of our home without bumping my head on the doorframe. He managed it – just.
I don’t think of us as fragments of a family any longer. Children grow up and move on – it’s what we raise them to be able to do. And sometimes mums are lucky enough to have the chance to move on too.
Why monetary value is low on my ‘right gift’ checklist
I’ve never been impressed by grand gestures or expensive gifts. In my opinion, they say more about the person who gives them than the recipient. Men – and it’s almost always men – who spend lavish amounts on their women, I fancy, are satisfying their own egos rather than focusing on pleasing the one doing the unwrapping.
I never want to hear Drew say: “Show them what I got you,” in order to bask in the approval of an impressed audience and as for trying to keep up with the guys he knows when they buy presents for their wives or girlfriends, well, that would have nothing to do with me at all, would it? Instead, I see the right gift as saying: “You mean something to me and this is how I know you.”
As monetary value is low on my ‘right gift’ checklist, I’m either the easiest person to buy for, or the most difficult.
Being the conventional sort, Drew had always bought his now ex-wife jewellery on anniversaries and stuck pretty close to that on other occasions. He knew it would please her and he considers jewellery an intimate gift. It always had to be worth a few bob so’s not to suggest she wasn’t worth spending a decent (or indecent) amount of money on. So can you see how confusing it was for him to hear that I don’t expect or want the same treatment? I also had to explain that chocolates in a heart-shaped box and weekends away in a four-poster bedroom are too cliched to be heartfelt. If Drew’s perception of what women want was accurate, I’m not a proper woman.
I have a friend who was swept off her feet by a tall, handsome gentleman with a smooth voice who regularly showed up with flowers from a particular florist or salmon to cook for her and who took her for mini-breaks in carefully chosen hotels. I had my doubts about his sincerity, but kept my mouth shut even when I found out from his previous girlfriend that she had been to the very same hotels and eaten the same dishes while enjoying frequent bouquets. It all began to unravel for him when he made the mistake of taking my friend along to help him choose a funeral tribute for a family member. Florists are not as discrete as you might have imagined.
I’m from an era when most proposals of marriage happened in bed.
These days, it seems, the most romantic of romantic moments is thought to be an over-orchestrated marriage proposal at an exotic holiday location on top of a mountain or an elephant. I suspect the proposer might be more concerned with the question his fiancee will surely be asked about where and how he did it than the life-changing question he is asking her himself. And the cost of the ring is required to be some set multiple or other of his monthly salary, I’m told. You might think I’m cynical, but then I’m from an era when most proposals of marriage happened in bed, after which you probably got up, had a wash and went out to choose a ring together.
So, what would be going through your mind if you were handed a delicate, little box in front of 100 onlookers at the top of the Empire State Building? Well, when my flustered friend read the words, ‘Hot Diamonds’ on what she found in her hand, she suggested moving away from the crowd in order to have time to compose something in her head about touching sentiments, deep feelings and NOT being ready to take that step quite yet. No doubt he considered his plan romantic; he was, however, spectacularly wrong. It didn’t occur to him that his gift of diamond earrings would be received in the way it was. But then, he really wasn’t thinking, was he?
For me, it really is the thought that counts and after years of doing his best to meet the high expectations of her who went before me, Drew has tried to adjust by listening to what I reveal and making mental notes (or sometimes even written ones) so’s not to be without inspiration at the appropriate time. But I don’t think I’m the transparent hint-dropping, manipulative sort – well maybe just a feminine smidge if I’m honest. What I mean is, he listens to me when I rattle on about my passions and notices what I’m drawn to when we are meandering around whichever town we happen to be visiting.
The gifts Drew has given me have been memorable, meaningful or occasionally just the right side of practical. The most extravagant was a surprise pilgrimage to my spiritual home, Stratford, where I was allowed to indulge in all things Shakespeare. Drew trusted, against his instincts, that if I reap such immense pleasure from Saint Will, he might not completely hate the experience and he would be learning more about me over the weekend.
I’m truly impressed by how Drew aims to get it right, but probably not as much as his youngest granddaughter who reached the splendid old age of three this month. On opening her birthday present from Grandpa (a relatively inexpensive, plastic Bubble Guppies hair salon set), she leapt up onto his lap; circled his neck tightly in her plump, little arms; covered his face with countless, grateful kisses and wept the joyous words: “Grandpa – I’ve wanted this my whole life!” I like the way she thinks.