Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mad old ladies

My four-year-old came in with a tightly folded piece of paper. He said: "Happy Birthday Mummy." Bleary, I pushed a pillow underneath my head. I said: "Darling, how lovely." I unfolded the A4 paper to admire the coloured pencil scribbling. I unfolded it some more to reveal the words: "To Granny and Granddad, love." I said: "This says it's for Granny and Granddad." "Yes," he nodded, "but they can't have it. It's yours." I kissed him. When I came down to breakfast, my six-year-old had marked the occasion by peeling a satsuma and making plate faces with it for his brother and sister and chopping up an apple for me. He must have been awake for some time because the apple was brown and deep scars striped its flesh; it looked like it had been in a knife fight and lost, badly. Technically, he is not allowed to use knives when I am out of the room but since there were no fingers among the slices, I pretended not to notice. The only injury of the morning was in fact mine when I was helping to dress him for school and an arm shot out of his sleeve and he socked me in the eye incredibly hard. I thought: "No one's ever given me a black eye for my birthday before."

Once the older boy was at school, my four-year-old and I went to the local ice cream parlour. It is a little how I imagine American milk bars to be; a long counter with stools which you draw up and occasionally fall off. Or perhaps I am mixing up my bars. This year, it finally recognised Britain's membership of the European Union and introduced cappuccinos and lattes. Before the arrival of the big glittery coffee machine, I once asked for a cappuccino and was told: "We don't do cappuccinos pet. We do coffee and hot milk." I love this cafe. It serves milk shakes in glasses whose sides bulge with pressed glass fruit. Next to the frothing trophy of pink, bubble popping milk, an aluminium vat stands with more shake; ready, when you drain the glass, to fill your life again with thick and chilly sweetness. Here, bar flies stuck fat and happy on their stools, eat bacon sandwiches and watch cold tourists buy colder ice cream cornets at the window. Hands wrapped around your coffee, you can sit there and think: "I live here. I know you do not have to stand at the window. You can come in and sit awhile." You do not call out an invitation to the strangers.

I think my birthday was all the better for being spontaneous. I like the idea of spontanaeity, I just find it difficult to work into my schedule. But as soon as I decided to stay put, it was make do and mend and the better for it I think. My four-year-old and I bought a blue marbled plastic bucket, a red spade and a fishing net to celebrate the day, snatched up the baby and headed for the beach. I always thought myself a silent soul before I became a mother. Silence was easy for me. I could hold my peace and never felt the need to chat and chatter. Then children come and you think: "I have to talk. I have to teach or my child will grow silent and grave as his mother. Which would never do." So you talk and you do not stop. You say: "Look at that..." Whatever it may be. You say: "Did you see...?" and "That's because..." till any sensible child blocks up his ears with peas. Then, children leave. "Bye Mum". There is silence in the kitchen and the car and everywhere. But I do not think there can be silence in the heart of that woman. I think in her most secret places, her mother's chatter plays out, regardless of the emptied nest. An old woman, shabby in a mac and slippered feet, holding a shopping carry-all; her hair, tousled; her mind worse. Sometimes then, the words escape again, she calls long gone children to her side and loud mumbles to them of birds and trees and passing marvels that she sees.

I have not yet become that ghost but as I watched my son walk ahead of me, intent on the sea, resolute in his wellies, his net in one hand, his bucket dangling from an arm, the spade in the other. I thought: "This is how the man will be; looking out to the horizon, armed and ready for his task, his mother hardly more than a memory. This is how I will be, trailing behind him, hoping he will stay safe, hoping he is happy, that he will turn round and remember me." He found his spot in a wash of water running across the beach while the baby girl and I squatted down, gathering seashells and pressing them into sandy walls of small castles. I got older. Despite that, it was a good birthday.

Today I discovered, my friend has taught my daughter to say "Princess" when she is asked: "What are you?". I said: "We're republicans" when I heard it first. Then I wondered: "Is it right to teach a daughter that she is a princess? That she is your princess? That she is special, different, richer, that life is a fairy tale, that she may need rescuing, her wishes will come true and her endings all be happy ones?" In the event of revolution, I have set before her a different path. Tonight, I taught her answers to a different question. "Who will you be?" The answers she can chirrup: "Docdor. Loya. J'neer." I am working on "Astronaut". "Physicist" may defeat me.

20 comments:

aims said...

Many happy returns on this day of yours...

My Mom passed away on my birth day 3 years ago. Knowing I have a sporadic memory - I think she did that so I wouldn't forget the date.

It's a good enough reason for me not to celebrate them anymore....

sunshine said...

Wifey, I am so glad you made your birthday special. One's birthday should always be celebrated, I think -- it shows defiance at the forces of life that, as each year comes and goes, conspire to make that year our last.

The more satisfying the celebration, the more it shows our delight in still being viable; still growing and learning! The older we get, the more important that the celebration come from inside us, not be applied like frosting to a used-up life.

A beach with new little waves, shared with new little beings like yours, sounds the perfect setting!

Jeff said...

It is absoutely right to teach your "young 'un" that she is a princess--your princess. Children naturally encounter and encompass the magical. Indeed, the magical is essential to them, and your dear daughter needs to live those magical princess moments to fully unfold.

And prepare yourself for the fact that the eventual answer to "Who will you be?" will be completely different from the answer to "What will you do?" For, ultimately, we're human beings, not human doings...

Happy birthday!

I Beatrice said...

Oh, let her be a princess - at least until she's six!

At six, it seems, the real world blunders in, and the little girl's dreams begin to collapse in on her. At least that is how it has seemed to me, watching my grand-daughter.

For me personally, it took much longer to give up being a princess - and somehow I never had the time to watch my daughter make that painful transition...

Crystal Jigsaw said...

My little girl will always be my princess. So glad you enjoyed your birthday, you have beautiful children who clearly adore you.

beta mum said...

Happy Birthday.
We've never called our 6 year old daughter a princess, but she often says -
"I wish I could be a princess" so princesses will intrude whatever, I fear.
It's hard to ignore the pernicious influence of those shelves and shelves of pink books.

debio said...

Just love the description of your son ahead of you, and you hoping that he will look back - sorry for the clumsy paraphrase.

It is my hope that my daughter will go and not look back - well, not immediately - then I feel I shall have given her herself. But it is hard.

You have such lovely children, WITN. Your birthday 'celebration' just spot on.

Mopsa said...

Your daughter could be a "righter", or a "norther" or perhaps a "neditor"? Why didn't folks say I could be a farmer, or park ranger or vet or something interesting? Careers advice say "nurse", "doctor", "lawyer", "police officer", "secretary". But the world is full of other things.

bluenoser said...

So many times, as a working mom, I have looked at my daughters and wondered if I have spent enough time, taught enough lessons, had enough fun with them. It is so interesting to hear your concerns, as a stay-at-home mom, about the same issues. Maybe motherhood comes with a built-in case of insecurity ... how will we ever know that we've done it right?!

knifepainter said...

I well remember leaving home to join the RAF at 18, and spying my Mum simultaneously weeping and hoovering as I passed the front window.

I didn't really understand how that felt then. Being a proud father of two, I do now.

Happy Birthday for yesterday, and how about teaching the Princess to say "painter"?

Supernight said...

I think you're totally right about the princess issue. It's not that little girls shouldn't feel special, but just that such a dull stereotype shouldn't be passed on. it seems a small leap to me from there to 'celebrity' when she's older. I think you're right!

merry weather said...

So where are the mad old ladies then? That's not you!

They'll not stride off just yet. Soon you get the time when they surround you, with their good looks and easy chatter, and you feel a million dollars to be their mother. Enhanced by your kids - without surgery!

Happy Birthday...

The thinker said...

No labels or names just teach them to say 'I'm Me' - and to be comfortable and confident with it.

@themill said...

Never mind the mad old lady shuffling behind - it's a sort of liberation. I can start buying clothes for myself now.
You make of it what you will.

mutleythedog said...

I sit on trains and still have to quash the need to say "Look a cement mixer"!! whilst pointing, brightly.. Have a Happy Birthday,I hope you get all you want.

L&K

mutleythedog said...

By the way my lovely daughter told a packed assembly when she was six that she wanted to be a pirate.. a good idea I thought..

Livvy U. said...

Happy belated birthday to you
Happy belated birthday to you
Happy belated birthday
Dear Wife in the North
Happy belated birthay to you!

Ok, so it's not original, but nobody else sang you a comment, did they.

And may I say, the happy bit is most sincerely meant.

Motheratlarge said...

My husband would agree with you 100% about the alternative role models. He is the avowed enemy of all pink plastic princess kit - and nothing if not ambitious, bless him, in pushing other career options. When daughter was only a few weeks old, he started talking to her about Isambard Brunel. "Beanie bridge builder!" he used to sing to her. I feel so defeatist in comparison to him. Think it'll be good for daughter though.

The Rotten Correspondent said...

Happy Belated Birthday to you. As a Californian transplanted to No-Ocean Ville, I envy that you could spend it on a beach. I also envy, I must say, the amazing way that you string words together. Magic!

Dorothy & Michael said...

Happy belated birthday, and I'm sorry to hear of the black eye. My daughter got a speeding ticket on her birthday in 2005, and my son got a compound fracture of his left arm on his 16th birthday in 2001! So which do you think is the worst? I'm sure it was poor Josh, who had to suffer the consequencies for 12 weeks or so with casts, doctor visits, etc.