3: Send in the clowns

Continued from 2: Supping with the Devil (technically, posted on 6/7 – you might need to use the Search box)

It should have been funny, and it kind of was, looking back. Looking back, I can recall the struggles and contradictions of that afternoon as Mum and I listened to these two monolithic men droning on at one another about politics or whatever, beneath the ’70s artex ceiling and ghastly pine wall-covering, giant mugs of tea at the ready: exhilaration, a rather spiteful kind of satisfaction, sadness, anxiety and loss. Part of me knew that Ex had got to win, another part couldn’t bear for Dad to lose. Ridiculously, now, I am reminded of battling silverback gorillas and David Attenborough. (Who can picture a gorilla without David, whispering reverentially close by?) And I recall that last scene in The Railway Children – Daddy, my Daddy!

After twenty-three years or so I screwed up the courage to tell Ex I was leaving. He seemed unmoved, relieved as much as anything. Not long after that the lady I usually refer to as My Replacement came along – well, she’d been ‘along’ for quite some time, I just hadn’t really realised. That was probably the most painful bit.

On one particularly memorable occasion , which I now think of as my Send In The Clowns moment, I had driven across to the small town where Ex still lived. I had an appointment to get my hair cut at my old hairdressers. I had not anticipated that there would be a carnival procession going on, and so had to park some way out of town and walk back in. As I was walking along the road I realised that he – and she – were walking towards me in the far distance, hand in hand. I suppose they must have been out watching the carnival. There was no convenient side-road or alleyway to swerve into, and in any case they had already seen me. I just had to pin on a gruesome attempt at a smile and keep walking forwards on the pavement, one foot in front of the other – and so did they, of course. I found myself feeling sorry for them at the same time as I was feeling sorry for me. It seemed to take years, and he couldn’t exactly drop her hand. I can’t remember another thing about that day. That one memory was enough to last me for ever!

Although most of me knows that leaving, even in middle age, was the right decision, some disconsolate little remnant continues to prowl around my house on sleepless nights mewling Where are you? Why did you stop looking after me? Why didn’t you come and find me?  Didn’t you love me? And I realise it is not just the lost wife crying, but the lost child looking for her father.

daddy

 

In the 1980s Canadian Sister, also ADD-ish, married a man who looked not so very different from Dad. He was very definite in his opinions, very clever, very competent, would brook no arguments, etc., etc., but they remained married until his death earlier this year. Now she rages at him, in his urn on the mantelpiece. He was supposed to be her shield and protector, and in return she knew she must do what she was told and never argue; she went where he wanted to go, watched whatever he wanted to watch on TV; pretended not to be embarrassed when he was rude to shopkeepers and Indian waiters, resisting the urge to apologise on his behalf. That was the clear bargain struck on a cold May day in a black old Northern church all those years ago, and he reneged on it by going and getting cancer.

I have been wondering what conclusion to draw, what ‘advice’, with the benefit of hindsight, I would give to my parents, or any new parents of an unconventional child. Of course I have no right to advise. If I had been able to have children or my own I’m sure I’d have got it just as wrong, and probably more so.

The fashionable motto is that all you really need to be is a Good Enough parent. I would extend that a bit – I think you can be a pretty bad parent and your child will still stand a chance or surviving, more or less, if only she can get what she needs from alternative sources. Which is an argument for old-fashioned rural communal parenting as opposed to the nuclear family, in which any evils are concentrated, hidden and likely to be perpetuated.

I was saved by Nan and Grandad who, by the most enormous stroke of luck, lived at the other end of our street. Nan walked along to see Mum most days, and I spent every Sunday from about the age of three along with Nan and Grandad. To start with this was because Mum and Dad were engaged in building their own house, with Grandad’s help, whilst expecting my sister at any moment. After that it just became a tradition.

Nan and Grandad had a huge garden with a cherry blossom tree, a swing suspended from an apple tree, a lawn full of daisies and buttercups, and all sorts of flowers and vegetables. They also had a smelly old golden Labrador, a roaring fire in winter, stacks of Woman’s Weekly and Carpenter & Joiner magazines, a bookcase full of pre-War hardback books, an etymological dictionary (my favourite) and a tiny black and white TV set.

Nan cooked great Sunday dinners. She washed my hair and I sat in front of the fire to dry it. I was included in whatever she was doing. We put down newspaper and polished a mountain of brass with Brasso and blackening yellow dusters; we picked mint for the mint sauce – she chopped it fine then I stirred it in a little pot with sugar and vinegar. We sat on the back step shelling peas into an enamel bowl whilst staring up at the sky.

Over the course of the years she told me about the recent War, and the War before that. She told me about my Great Grandmother Sarah and her own many sisters. She told me the facts of life, taught me how to darn a sock and sew on a button. She chatted to me unselfconsciously as if I was just another grown-up, or she was just another child. On those Sundays with Nan I was a relaxed, ‘normal’ human being, but as soon as I returned to the other end of the road I became once again the freaky “Prima Donna” or “You Little Bitch”.

In writing this it has occurred to me that Nan had the advantage of having finished bringing up Mum – who had many of the same traits as me – considerably more pronounced, some of them – less than six years before, since Mum married at nineteen. Mum hadn’t had that advantage.

See 4: Imagine

4: Imagine

Continued from 3: Send in the clowns

I was also saved by my imagination and, if you like, the weird alternative-brain thing itself. That was – and is – by far the strongest form of defence, less costly than human relationships, far more flexible/portable than a husband. I always had the ability to tune right out, and this happened automatically whenever I began to get bored or things got rough. When things got very rough indeed I used to practice Silent Singing, most often The Sun Has Got His Hat On. I had my own way of distributing my consciousness between several places at once. I disappeared into books and stories, daydreams and plans. Inside my head was something like the Holodeck on the Spaceship Enterprise – the entire range of alternate universes on demand – and I spent many aeons away on my holidays on distant planets.

Later I started writing poems and stories. I found out how I felt through the poems and learned how I worked and what I thought through the stories. Together they became my Voice. I didn’t fret greatly that little I wrote was ever likely to get published – that wasn’t why I wrote. Much later I came to understand that a poem written (or a song sung, a painting painted, a love loved, an experience experienced) is engraved on the fabric of the universe, and will never be lost. You may have forgotten all the words or lost the old envelope it was scribbled on, but the poem is still there: all is taken in by the All That Is, which is constantly Becoming, in us and through us.

My parents were pretty bad until I left home. Almost as soon as I did they became pretty good. They did what they could to support me through the trials of what passed for my ‘adult’ life, though I never ceased to bewilder and exasperate them. I relied heavily on them for company as Ex seemed to be drifting further and further away, and when I found myself divorced, as a middle-aged ‘teenager’, basically – I had to learn how to change a light bulb and get petrol – I was glad of their support. I think they loved me. If only they could have told me so when I was young enough for it to have made a difference.

I would say to parents: even if you don’t understand what’s ‘wrong’ with your child – even if there is no medical word for it yet – even if (he or) she seems uncomfortably different to you or anybody else you have ever met – even if she is neither what you wanted nor what you anticipated – try to accept and love – or at least appear to love – what you did get. It works both ways. Your child has absolutely no choice but accept and love you, even as you shout abuse and raise your hand to strike.

When you are many years dead, do you really want your now elderly child to remember in technicolour what it felt like when you slammed her head into a door, trumping any good memories – like the day you taught her to swim; those Stanley Holloway monologues that made her laugh; the communal singing in the car?

If one approach fails, try and think of another. Watch and listen to your new child, as you would a new and exotic pet: work out what she needs. If you can’t work that out, talk to other people and be willing to ask for help. Be kind. Be gentle. Be creative. Think about what you are doing.

Love the one you’re with

We recently lost Bruce Forsyth, the all round entertainer and game show host. I must admit he wasn’t one of my favourites but I recognised his abilities, his professionalism, his popularity and his longevity. He had many catchphrases but his most recent and best-remembered is “You’re My Favourite”. Hosting one of the BBC’s most popular shows, Strictly Come Dancing his job, in a way, was to protect the contestants from the judges.

Each couple went on and danced. Some were brilliant, others made a bit of a mess of it, but invariably at the end he would greet the bespangled, lycra-and-satin clad couple as they sashayed towards him trying not to look as if they were gasping for breath, with a huge smile. And before they turned to face the judges he would reassure them in a stage whisper “You’re My Favourite“. Nobody believed him of course, but I bet it mattered to hear it at that point. Sometimes we have to pretend, and pretending can be enough.

Growing up, both Canadian Sister and I understood that English Sister was Mum’s favourite. Her last-born, her surprise baby. This was just a fact of life though we may have grumbled about it between ourselves, every now and again. Anyway, Mum got old and she got galloping dementia and other stuff, at which stage all sorts of things that might best have been kept secret began to be blurted out. During one of my Sunday visits she said “Of course (Canadian Sister) was always your Dad’s favourite”, and that cut like a knife. She had lost the ability to make connections between things by that time – logic was one of the first things to go – and I suppose it didn’t occur to her that that left me as nobody’s favourite. It’s simple when you think about it – two parents, three children – if there must be favourites then one of them has to be out in the cold. Why had it taken me so long to realise?

However, life isn’t fair for anybody, and we survive these things.

I can’t blame my Mum. I have eighteen cats and it’s difficult to share the attention and affection out equally. Often I’m harassed and worn out, wading through this sea of cats, all demanding something. And some cats, lets face it, are especially charming. It’s easy to love short-sighted George, for example, a goofy, clumsy cat who falls off everything and falls over himself in sheer excitement if he gets to sit on your lap. George is beautiful and fluffy, and he needs someone to look out for him.

Not so easy to love Kitten, who is ancient and deaf; who wakes me in the middle of the night bellowing for attention; who hauls pieces of food out of her bowl and distributes them over a wide area for me to clean up; who is voluminously sick on the carpet at least twice a day; who may die at any minute, so every morning when I find her curled up in her favourite cardboard box I have to wonder, is she going to lift her head when I tap on the edge to wake her, or is this going to be The Day?

Not so easy to love Rufus, either – that bony little ginger chap inherited from the disabled woman over the road. Rufus was left mostly to his own devices, I think. He lived a hard, tom-cat sort of life and he hung around outside most of the time. He got fed by anyone who happened to remember. Rufus now has a cauliflower ear and a weepy, half-closed eye that the vet can’t do anything about. He likes to curl up in the bed with me on winter nights, which means I can’t get to sleep in case I squash him, so I lie and wait for him to leave of his own accord. He sometimes bites – luckily he has very few teeth nowadays – and sometimes spits. He has never forgiven me for stealing him away from Old Mummy, not understanding that Old Mummy died.

So I pretend, and I keep reminding myself to do so. I remind myself to talk to them and make a bit of a fuss of them in passing. I remind myself that ultimately we are All One and that Kitten and Rufus have souls no less valuable than mine, and no less beautiful than the souls of the other cats. That’s about all anyone can do, isn’t it?

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The moon’s on a biscuit

This is apparently the only statement of note uttered by me during my infancy. As far as I recall I was walking down our street after dark with Mum – no idea why – and happened to look up at the moon. Observing it surrounded by a circular, brownish haze I exclaimed Oh look, the moon’s on a biscuit. It is not a clever statement. It is not even a poetic statement. I have since written poetry, some of it rather good if I say so myself, but that night I was being drearily literal. I had never seen the moon surrounded by brownish haze before and a biscuit was the only half-suitable circular object I could think of to liken it to.

I think what depresses me is that so much was made of it. Did I never say anything else, that anyone can remember? I believe my niece’s first words were something to do with the stock market having declined by three points. Or maybe that was somebody else’s niece… no, I think it was mine. Now that was spectacular, though I doubt if she actually understood the risings and fallings of the stock market. Who does?

I can also remember my mother confessing to mistakes she had made in parenting which had resulted in my ‘turning out the way I did’. Apparently as a young first-time Mum she had been very much under the influence of Dr Benjamin Spock’s book Parenting and Child Care which had advocated not picking a child up when it cried – ever, according to my mother. So when I was a baby she had stood outside my door crying because I was crying, not daring to open the door and pick me up for fear of incurring the Wrath of Dr Spock. This is a particularly stupid idea and I wouldn’t be surprised if its implementation did cause a great deal of damage, but that wasn’t what bothered me. It was her saying that I had ‘turned out the way I did’. Until that moment I had assumed I was more or less normal and that it was my parents who had ‘turned out the way they did’. After that I felt like a mug with a missing handle or a toy soldier with only one arm.

Anyway, moons. This post was going to be about full moons. It is early evening as I write this and I keep going to the back window to look out, since tonight is the night of the November full moon known as Moon Before Yule according to Old English almanacs. It is the last full moon before Christmas. The dates vary from year to year.

Full moon names have also varied over time and from one hemisphere to another, since seasonal changes take place during ‘opposite’ months in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The sequence for this particular calendar for 2015 has been running:

  • Moon After Yule (January 5th)
  • Wolf Moon (February 3rd)
  • Lenten Moon (March 5th)
  • Egg Moon (April 4th)
  • Milk Moon (May 4th)
  • Flower Moon (June 2nd)
  • Hay Moon (July 2nd)
  • Grain Moon (July 31st)
  • Fruit Moon (August 29th)
  • Harvest Moon (September 28th)
  • Hunter’s Moon (October 27th)
  • Moon Before Yule (November 25th)

and 2016 goes on:

  • Moon After Yule (December 25th)
  • Wolf Moon (January 24th)
  • Lenten Moon (February 22nd)

I found Wolf Moon in a Witches’ Date Book earlier this evening – which is what started me off on the moon-post thing. I bought the Date Book for a friend of mine, who is a witch. I try not to read people’s Christmas present books, but never succeed. As least this one is spiral-bound, so it won’t be all creased around the spine when she gets it. If she gets it. At the moment I’m too fascinated to wrap it up.

Naming full moons was a good way of recalling the passage of time and important events in a time before clocks and calendars. The Algonquin tribes of New England and westward to Lake Superior, had their own names. For example January was their Wolf Moon, February the Snow Moon, March the Worm Moon, April the Pink Moon, March the Flower Moon, June the Strawberry Moon, July the Buck Moon, August the Sturgeon Moon, September the Harvest Moon, October the Hunter’s Moon, November the Beaver Moon and December the Cold Moon.

Most seasons have three full moons but occasionally a season will have four full moons, and the ‘spare’ one is known as a Blue Moon.

And, apropos of nothing, the Matala Moon referred to in Joni Mitchell’s 1971 song ‘Carey’ refers to a place called Matala on the Isle of Crete, where hippies hung out in Neolithic caves for a while, in the 60s.

A few days later, Penelope and I were on a ferry to see what Matala was all about … Most of the hippies who had traveled there slept in small caves carved into the cliff on one side of the beach.

After we arrived, Penelope and I rented a cinder-block hut in a nearby poppy field and walked down to the beach. As we stood staring out, an explosion went off behind us. I turned around just in time to see this guy with a red beard blowing through the door of a cafe. He was wearing a white turban, white Nehru shirt and white cotton pants. I said to Penelope, ‘What an entrance—I have to meet this guy.’ … He was American and a cook at one of the cafes. Apparently, when he had lit the stove, it blew him out the door. That’s how Cary [Raditz] entered my life—ka-boom.