Airbrushing Great-Granny

Our Friday morning writers’ group met on Thursday evening. We’d been invited, by Pauline, to join her at ‘Salon North’. She’d been given complimentary tickets. We were mesmerised by three speakers, three TED style talks. The theme of the evening: revolutionary, uncontrollable, assertive women. It was a bonus that many were Northern. The downside, that many of their individual achievements had been forgotten; airbrushed out of history.

Next month I’m walking St Hilda’s Way, a pilgrimage to Whitby. It’s a trip planned pre-pandemic, twice delayed. I’m delighted that this 7th century woman featured high on the list of early influencers.

The talks were fresh in my mind as I perused a box of old photographs. My granddaughter was asking for pictures of her grandparents’ schooldays.

‘They’re doing you in history’ laughed my daughter.

I dug out a family tree. Several years ago, I started to make some notes on family stories. Mostly based on living memory, it began when my daughters were looking for help with a primary school project. It’s a happy memory now that, in the last decade of the 20th century, they were able to meet my Grandpa’s sister, born at the end of the Victorian age.

I began a line of female pictures next to my family tree. My grand-daughter, her mum, her granny and her great-gran, G-G. A picture of me with my gran. Finally, a newspaper cutting, with a picture, reporting my gran’s grandparents’ golden wedding celebration. Mr and Mrs Robert Robinson of Thornley, no mention of Mrs Robinson’s fore-name in the article.

I had photographs of six out of seven generations of women. I hadn’t identified a picture of Mrs Robinson’s daughter, my great-grandmother. There was an unidentified picture, of around the right era. I asked my mum, G-G to my grandchildren, if this was my great-grandmother.

She was sad to report that no, this was the wife of one of her great uncles. She said she didn’t think she’d ever seen a picture of her maternal grandmother. My gran barely spoke of her mother, she’d brought shame on her family. Her crime? She’d been abandoned by her husband; she was rumoured to have married a bigamist.

He’d left her as a single mother. She’d become an embarrassment to her mother and her daughters; they’d almost airbrushed her out of their history. It’s a sad story, one needing to be told.


Youthful resilience

The party, for a five year old, coming after two lockdown birthdays, was long anticipated and well planned. The cake was mum-made and, as requested, very pink; the party favours were all bagged up.

No-one expected that the birthday girl would test positive for Covid on the eve of her party. A tricky evening for the adults coming to terms with this result. A resilient girl, in the final days of being four, she took it in her stride.

By morning, the sun shone. Resourceful parents and the blessing of the weekend weather saved the day. A stream of visitors left presents on the doorstep, sent best wishes through the window, brought foil wrapped helium parcels:  ‘We thought a balloon would cheer her up’.  Not the hoped for manic hour or two of games and tears, but a gentle day of constant celebration.

There were no games in the village hall, no blowing out of candles on the cake. We had a mini garden party, with fish and chips, in the sunshine. For some, T shirts and shorts came out. For the birthday girl, a summer dress. Being at home, she was able to change as soon as a swirlier and pinker dress was unwrapped. Games in the garden for a March birthday, not something for which they would have dared to plan.

Next day, spurred on by the sunshine, I had a trip to Harlow Carr gardens. Tempted in the shop, I bought some young delphiniums for the blue garden I’ve been planning in my head. I planted them in a warm and sunny spot.

This morning, I dusted snow from them. This afternoon, maybe too late, I covered them in makeshift cloches, crafted from repurposed dry-cleaning bags. This granny is learning as she goes, picking up lessons in gardening and resourcefulness from ramblingrose. Hopefully, the young shoots will prove tough enough and thrive through this adversity.

The hills we climb

The headlines remain dark. The glimmers of light seem few.

I’ve not yet stumbled on my Lent reading of the psalms; there’s more comfort there than in the news. Words written millennia ago seem fresh and appropriate. Day 10, today, I read yet more words of lament: Why do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? But there’s words of reassurance and encouragement too, the psalmist speaking out that evil will not prevail.

It was just over a year ago that presidential poet, Amanda Gorman, inspired us all with her powerful words: For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it. Contemporary echoes of poetic hope emerged from the radio again this morning. Our much loved poet laureate, Simon Armitage, read his new poem ‘Resistance’. It ends with hope: An air raid siren can’t fully mute cathedral bells. Let’s call that hope.

My walk today took me, in spring sunshine, to the writing group. A place where we can celebrate our freedom to speak out. A place of much chatter as we set the world to rights.

I was distracted in the class by a WhatsApp message. A reminder that this is the weekend of a particularly hilly ‘just 10k’ that I’ve run before. Back in 2020, it was cancelled as pandemic began to affect daily life. Entries were rolled over to 2021, then delayed another year.

This year, my knees said no. Just don’t do it. So I won’t. That said, they are well rested now and they’ve managed two short, and fairly level, runs. With care, they may climb that hill again. There’s always hope.

Stumbling through Lent

Easter is late this year. Which means that it was already March before we celebrated Shrove Tuesday and marked the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

Lent is sometimes viewed as a time of ‘giving up’; some abstain from sugar or chocolate or alcohol. The tradition of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday stems from using up rich food ahead of Lent.

This year I am aware of busy-ness creeping back into my life. I’d like to regain some balance; restore a daily rhythm, get back to running…

I thought I’d try a daily discipline of reading a psalm and walking with it. There’s forty days of Lent, 150 psalms. A rough calculation takes me past mid-summer…or longer if I stumble. I’ll see how it goes.

Today, being day 2 of Lent, I haven’t stumbled yet. I read psalm 2. It begins: Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? And ends: Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

I walked one of my running routes. If I’m honest, I haven’t run at all this year; my knees have been complaining.

As I walked, my mind turned to those driven from their homes by the horror of war. I have heard stories this week of people travelling to rescue family and friends from the border of their invaded homeland. They have brought glimmers of hope and light into the darkness.

Through the morning mist I heard people talking, loudly, disagreeing on an issue of the day. ‘And another thing,’ a voice boomed out, ‘they wouldn’t want to come here, where everyone’s a foreigner.’

How sad I felt that there seemed to be so little compassion in the voice for those who’d lost everything they owned, who’d been uprooted from their homes. The sentence haunts me, maybe I misheard or misunderstood the context. Surely we will welcome those whose lives have been so shattered?

‘Where will this all end?’ I lamented; ‘when will thy kingdom come?’

Cheers for Brigid

I spent too much of this week procrastinating, delving into online media. Amidst the bleak news, and worse fake news, I spotted a CAMRA survey on diversity. It seems that they are seeking to address diversity issues; to recruit minorities, including women.

I’ve been a beer drinker for nearly half a century. It began in a Cheshire pub, with a pint of Boddingtons, it seemed normal enough to me. My Dad did suggest that pints weren’t very ‘ladylike’. I discovered, as I mixed more widely, that his view was not unique.

I also learned from the week’s online meanderings that, from 2023, there is to be a new public holiday on 1st February.  It seems that Ireland’s lesser known national saint, Brigid, is to be more widely recognised.

An annual holiday, to celebrate the end of January, sounds a great idea. But don’t get too excited, this is limited to the Republic of Ireland.

Brigid is renowned to have been a woman of great hospitality. A practical woman, a skilled brewer. No doubt, a useful skill in days with no drinking water on tap. There is even a story that she turned bath water into beer.

Googling further on St Brigid, I discovered that she was also known as St Bride. The Fleet Street church of that name is associated with journalists. It’s ironic that I fell down this rabbit hole of thought whilst running from the news.

No, I won’t be joining CAMRA, but I will raise a glass to getting to know more of Brigid. She must have been good company.

Failing wisely

January blues have been in the news. We’ve passed the grey sadness of blue Monday; that moment of sinking into the reality of a new year that looks so similar to its predecessor.

Spare a thought for those with birthdays around this time. We didn’t choose our date of birth, our wintry celebration. Maybe for us, blue Monday could be marked by sapphire blue, sparkling sunlit skies; a brisk crisp walk beneath a dawn of red blue hues.

We had fish and chips for my birthday tea, washed down by fizz and Yorkshire tea.

Of course there was cake as well, essential, to differentiate our party from a meeting. Risk assessment presented me with a Covid friendly cake, no candles to blow out. Instead, a firework that looked set to hit the kitchen ceiling.

I shared my birthday weekend with a one year old grandson.  We celebrated his baptism too. Teaching from the book of Proverbs, the minister spoke of Solomon’s wisdom, and asked us what we’d wish for.

It’s my wish this year to fail. To fail wisely and to fail well. To fail big. To show I’ve tried, and through it failed, dusted myself down and tried again. I shared my wish with friends. We agreed together to celebrate our failures; and risk success, the icing on the cake.

I don’t wish failure as an end in itself on myself or anyone else; but I do wish the blessing of learning from good failures.

Epiphany: Eulogy for the tree

Twelfth night is passed, it’s Epiphany. The Christmas tree is down, chopped in the bitter cold into the green garden bin by Mr A.  

The end of its short life was marked by three weeks indoors adorned by lights, and baubles accumulated over four decades. It brought great joy to the house when it arrived. It brought a little more joy when it left, creating space for an additional chair where it had stood.

It’s strange that, at a time of year when friends and families gather together inside (covid permitting) we choose to remove a chair and replace it with a tree. Sadly, we weren’t quite so pressed for space this year. We didn’t need a seat for great-gran, Gi-Gi. She’s been on lockdown since Christmas Eve. She tested positive, but shows great resilience. Grateful for her ground floor window, three generations were able to visit.

Every year our tree stands proudly in a barrel, repurposed as a coal scuttle by my Scottish grandad in the nineteen fifties.  It was used for Christmas trees when I was a child. The advent of a tinsel tree, and central heating, left it somewhat redundant for a couple of decades. I was happy to revive its usefulness. Now, when it’s not in use for the tree, we use it to store the kindling and firelighters for a wood burning stove. Its upholstered lid can provide a useful extra seat.

I wonder, when Advent comes around again, will I remember that I am minded to turn my thoughts towards a more sustainable alternative to a short lived, space invading, tree in December twenty-two-two?

Lost weekend

Friday afternoon, in the cold and damp, I went to a local pharmacy. It’s best known for the queue reputed to be waiting for methadone. I went for my COVID booster. I was early, there was no queue.

‘Go straight in, the vaccinator is waiting,’ said the cheerful woman behind the counter.

The vaccinator did not speak, beyond handing me a clumsily handwritten list of questions on a clipboard. ‘Can you say yes to any of these?’ he asked.

I barely had time to say no before the needle was in, and I was out of the door.

That evening I had an arm ache, not too bad.

Next morning I said, ‘It’s cold in here.’

My feet were blocks of ice.

‘I’ll put the heating on,’ said Mr A.

I wrapped myself in a duvet, and slept all afternoon.

That evening, I shivered. I watched Strictly by the fire.

All night, I sweated through angry dreams.

On Sunday, I felt drained.

By Monday morning, I bounced right back to the Zumba class. It was over. A weekend lost, but I’m protected and privileged to receive the vaccine. It was free, courtesy of the NHS.

But, we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves, we need to share it across the world. I went online, found a world health charity and ‘paid it forward’. I hope it will give some protection to someone with fewer privileges. It wasn’t much, but the least that I could do.

Reading on the train

December 1 marked the start of the Advent candles and calendars.

I went searching for an anthology of advent poems I’d ordered last year. It arrived late, I hadn’t used it. I found it, together with the Advent candles bought in the January sales. I spent the day travelling north. I went to look at Christmas windows with daughter#3 on the last day of her maternity leave.

The morning train was quiet, I read the advent poem before turning to my book.

Travelling home, I hoped to finish the book club novel. It’s a short and happy book: The girl who reads on the metro. Albeit that the book is set in Paris, I enjoyed the meta-moment of reading a chapter or two on the Tyneside metro.

My train home left from platform 1. I’d not noticed before the strange layout of Central station. With little time to spare, I could see platforms 11 and 12 right in front of me and a sign to platforms 3 to 8 over the bridge. I had to guess that the Cross Country train beyond Costa and Boots was at platform 1.

The train was busy; I found a double seat, sat by the aisle to selfishly guard my privacy. As I opened my book, the woman across the aisle opened her mouth to speak. She was heading home, away from the trauma of a court case. As she left the train at the first stop, she thanked me for listening.

As I turned my eyes back to my book, a man crashed into the recently vacated seat. ‘That’s it, I’ve left. I’m not going back’ he said. He turned to me and asked: ‘You don’t mind if I talk, do you?’

He was travelling further south than me. I put my book aside.

No empty seats

September has arrived and next week, I will be granny to a schoolgirl. Yes, I must be getting older too.

Times are changing quickly. Last week, I met my granddaughters, and their mum, on the train. We were heading into Leeds to see the dinosaurs. The train was busy, very busy. It got busier. It was reminiscent of pre-covid commuting days. No announcements on social distancing; just the regular ‘move down the carriage’ and ‘use all the available space’. So very different from the silent journeys of the last year. We’d overlooked the fact that there was a test match at Headingly.

We had a great day out, but made sure to get home early to avoid another crush.

The Friday writers’ group, still meeting by zoom over the summer, will be back together in September. But we also enjoyed an evening out. We were packed into a local church to hear Simon Armitage read from his work. His stories and poems brought laughter, but he also gave a moving tribute to his Dad, who died this year.

He made no apology for talking bluntly of death and dying. He said that he preferred the harsh real words to euphemisms. I was taken back to a memory of a shopping trip with my Gran. ‘I lost my brother’ said the friend. A pre-schooler, with an enquiring mind, I needed to know why she was in Marks and Spencer and not out looking for the missing brother.

Older now, and maybe just a little wiser, I can recognise the pain of loss, but I can’t deny my admiration for the poet laureate’s realism. I will remember it as I do my best to avoid the use of careless empty words to friends in need of comfort.