The Ghosts Of Christmas Past, Present and Future

Christmas usually finds me in a mess of contradicting emotions. It’s such a strange time. I have always found it to be emotional. I love it and I always have, but it gets me right in the feels, right in the guts. Even when I was a little child I had a real thing about Christmas. I can remember sitting next to the tree and staring at the fairy lights with tears in my eyes, just thinking how beautiful was. I couldn’t really articulate it then, but I was tearful because although I was happy and excited, I also knew none of it could last. That the beautiful tree would have to be taken down, the lights wrapped up and placed in a box, the paper-chains removed. I think I knew then, it’s both a happy and sad time of year. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I guess in this mid-life I now find myself in, I’m in a position where I can look back on Christmases of the past, think about the present and also envision what my future Christmases could look like. So I decided to blog about it. I decided to imagine myself as a ghost, like the ones that visit Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, revisiting sad and happy Christmases of the past, taking stock of the present and imagining the future…

PAST

I obviously don’t remember my very first Christmas but I do have photos that document it. I was exactly six months old on Christmas Day 1978. There is a photo of me being picked up by my father’s mother. It was only the other day that my mum told me something about that photo that I never knew. Apparently, my father’s parents decided to visit us that year from Kent and they did not even know that I existed. That’s right, my father had not even told them my mum was pregnant with me, let alone that he had a third daughter. Because they turned up unexpectedly, he was forced to get me from my cot, bring me down and hand me over. ‘Here’s another one,’ was apparently what he said. According to my mum, they were fine about it. The photo shows that my grandmother looks quite delighted. My mum reckons my grandad would have told my dad off later. But there you go. I think it just about sums up my relationship with my father since that day… I don’t know why he didn’t tell them. I don’t know how long he thought he could keep me a secret for, or why he would even want to. I know I was an accident, not planned, so maybe that has something to do with it. But there it is. Fucking weird if you ask me. I’m probably lucky that I don’t remember my first Christmas.

The rest of my childhood Christmases were better. In fact, looking back, they were always pretty magical. I remember thinking that the pile of presents was ginormous and I remember that pit in the belly excitement that just keeps you brimming over all day as the countdown runs on. I remember there being far more food than usual, things we were not usually allowed, like coke and lemonade, lollies and sweets. I remember we always had visitors and that even though I was shy, I loved this. I’d hide from them and stick my head in a book, but I loved it. My dad was always cheerful with a drink or two in him. I remember being surrounded by a sea of wrapping paper. The tin of Quality Street that seemed bottomless. The heavy stocking I could hardly lift up. The big, much wanted toy. A Charmkins house one year, a My Little Pony Parlour another, a beautiful baby girl doll another. I remember never wanting it to end and sitting on the landing after we’d been sent to bed, so I could eavesdrop on the adults downstairs, so that I could make it last longer. It was always a happy time.

There are two Christmases that stick in my head for being sad ones. When I was twelve, my parents crumbling relationship finally ended. It was messy and confusing as my dad continued living at our house some of the time, although they were divorced. Then he chose Christmas day to leave for good, to be with someone else. I think I was twelve or thirteen. I remember I got a Walkman that year and probably spent most of the time with headphones on to avoid the rows. After he left, my mum fell apart and hit the bottle. I tried to stay out of it. I looked after my sister’s dying guinea pig for her, while she looked after our mum. I think I knew then that it marked childhood being over.

The other one marked by tragedy was the Christmas of 2003 when I was pregnant with my second daughter. Just six days before Christmas my sister went into labour and her beautiful baby boy Harry was born asleep. I don’t think I’ve ever heard news as shocking as I did that day. One minute we were all excited that my sister was in labour with her third child and wondering if it would be a boy or a girl and the next… I don’t think I will ever know how she got through that Christmas without her baby boy. But my sister is one of the strongest most stoical people I know. She has looked out for me my entire life, worried about me when she didn’t need to, fought my battles and stood up for me when no one else has. I love her fiercely and the thought I had most during that christmas, was this should just not be happening to her. Not her. Not the nicest, kindest, sweetest person I know. At the funeral, she was stronger than anyone. I was a mess but she took my hand and didn’t let go. There has not been a Christmas since that I have not shed tears for Harry and wondered what he would look like now, what he would be like. We have always been determined never to forget him.

As a new parent, Christmas started to change. It had meaning again, I guess. We had our home, our little growing family. Those first few years I suppose we were finding our own way, picking traditions we’d enjoyed from our own childhood’s and creating new ones for our own family. Looking back, we tried too hard to please everyone and as a result there were a lot of years back then when I was glad when it was all over. It never felt quite right. It got too stressful, probably because I was asking too much of myself. Something had to change.

PRESENT

I would say though, that the last few Christmases have been exactly as I’ve wanted them. I would even go so far as to say perfect. The Christmas I was pregnant with my fourth child (2013) pissed me off and I spent a long time afterwards working out why. Since then, I’ve made changes and the last five or six have been very close to perfect. What did I change? I just decided what I wanted to do that Christmas and stuck to it. That means they have all been different, depending on how I feel. It might sound selfish but I needed to be. I’m the one that ‘does’ Christmas. My husband doesn’t really get into it. He enjoys the day but he doesn’t do any of the work or preparation it takes to get there. I don’t mind this. I love Christmas and I love planning it all year, starting present buying in January and spreading it out over the year. I love adding new little traditions all the time, such as Christmas Eve boxes about seven or eight years ago, and Secret Santa within our family about five years ago, then celebrating Winter Solstice about three years ago. The kids get so excited and it’s one special day where they can get spoiled. They don’t get a lot the rest of the year so I do go a bit crazy at Christmas. But it’s me that buys all the presents, plans the stockings and Christmas eve boxes, plans the menus and buys the food, cooks the food, puts up the tree and other decorations. Everything. I do the whole thing so I now feel like if it’s me that’s done all the hard work, I should have the day how I want it. Last year, that meant inviting various relatives to dinner and cooking for nine people. This year it means seeing relatives on Christmas Eve and having Christmas Day just for us. Next year I might feel differently. I think you have to be careful not to fall into a rut where people expect you to do the same thing every year. That gets tedious and it allows resentment to grow. So my advice for a happy christmas would be; do whatever the hell makes you happy. See who you want to see, avoid who you don’t. Eat what you want to eat. Cook and bake if it makes you happy. Buy it all frozen or packaged if it doesn’t. Just do what makes you happy, especially if you are the one doing all the hard work!

FUTURE

A few weeks ago I was walking with my twelve year old son and talking about Christmas and I said to him; ‘do you know, one day I will wake up on Christmas Day and none of you will be there.’

I think it was the first time it had really hit me. They are all growing up so fast. 17, 15, 12 and 5. In another ten years my youngest will a teenager and the others may well have left home… It just hit me that one day Christmas morning will be very, very different. Now, it’s relatively similar to past years. They all still wake up ridiculously early and sneak into each other’s rooms to kill a bit more time and poke at their full stockings until they know it’s okay to come into us. We open stockings on our bed then traipse down to eat breakfast. No one is allowed into the lounge until breakfast is done and the animals are all fed. And then, the chaos commences and I love every minute of it.

Thinking about future Christmases got me feeling a bit teary for a moment or two but then as I talked it out with my son, I realised that it is what it is and everything has this natural cycle to it. It will go back to how it was before we had children. After our own childhood’s ended, we didn’t believe in Father Christmas anymore and we didn’t wake up at the crack of dawn to open stockings, and we didn’t hang about with our parents either. But we still had fun. When we left home, in that gap between moving out and starting our own family, we still put up a tree and decorated the house and cooked a dinner and it was great. I’m going to look forward to that when it comes around. I want my kids and their kids to know that our door is always open and that they may turn up at any unexpected moment and will get fed and welcomed and looked after, but if they don’t, we will be just fine. We will have the animals, and each other, and we will light a fire and start the morning off with a glass of something bubbly followed by Irish coffee! We won’t have the same responsibilities or demands on us. Our day will be our own. I will still get the food in and put up the tree and bake a Chritstmas cake and gingerbread house and all the rest of it. And we will probably have a long walk and then spend the rest of it in front of the TV or playing games before we nod off! It will be different. But it won’t be bad.

It’s emotional, I think, Christmas. If you’re religious it has emotion attached to it and if you’re not, you have to find meaning in it, because you can’t very easily ignore or avoid it. I think the key is to decide what makes you happy and just stick to it. Mix it up, change it around, keep it fresh. Don’t try to please everyone. Aim to please yourself because it’s your time too, your day too. There is so much emotion attached because we reflect back on another year gone by, whether it was good or bad, whether we lost anyone or made any dreams come true. We think about Christmas when we were young and we imagine Christmas when we are old, and we miss those who are gone, and we love those who are still with us and want them to know how we feel. So we do it with love and presents and food and drink, and that makes it a really special, magical time of year. It should be anyway.

I’ve enjoyed my journeys into the past, present and future.

What about you? What were your childhood Christmases like compared to your present ones? What do you look forward to or fear about future ones?

Please feel free to comment!

If You Could Turn Back Time…

I’m curious. If you could turn back time, first of all, would you? Second, when would you go back to and why?

I think I’ve always been a nostalgic sort of person. It’s not that I look back at the past through rose tinted glasses, it’s just that I’m ruled by my emotions, and all it takes is one song, or smell, or random memory out of nowhere and I’m transported back to a part of my life that is now over, or different. Maybe it’s just hard trying to come to grips with how fast life goes. It goes faster as you get older, right? I think we could all agree on that. I was talking about this with one of my kids the other day and we decided that the reason summer seemed to last forever when you were little was because you had no concept of time. For my youngest child, every day lasts a lifetime, whereas for my oldest child, her life is lived against the clock just like mine. As we age we are increasingly ruled by time and schedule. We have to do things by a certain time or on a certain day, and for this reason, we are far more aware of time passing. So it feels faster.

This got me thinking about time and schedules and life in general (it doesn’t take much to set me off…) and it got me wondering, if I could turn back time and go back to any point in my life, not for good, but just to enjoy it again, soak it up, experience it one more time, what part would it be?

It came to me instantly. If I could go back, just for a while, I would go back to when I was a young mum and my two eldest children were a baby and a toddler. And the reason is because life was so unbelievably simple and carefree at that time.

I had my first daughter at 24 and nineteen months later her sister was born. Looking after my daughters was my job, my full time job, my only job. I had started some of the training that would eventually lead to me qualifying as a childminder when my eldest was three years old, but back then, at one point, they were my only job, my only responsibility. They were my world.

And what a simple, sweet time it was. I’m not sure I realised it at the time but I do know I was happy. I had wanted to be a mum for a long time and felt like all my dreams had come true. I had these beautiful little girls and my entire life was looking after them, keeping them happy, having fun. I didn’t drive back then, so I walked everywhere pushing my double buggy with pride. I look back and I can see my face smiling. I remember strangers saying the predictable; ‘havn’t you got your hands full?’ and I would always say no, not really, it’s fine, I love it.

There aren’t always that many positive narratives about motherhood. Mostly, you hear horror stories of pregnancy, birth, ruined bodies, sleepless nights, dirty nappies and temper tantrums. Obviously, that’s all part of it, but I remember being surprised by how much fun it was, how much I enjoyed being with these two tiny humans.

Our lives back then were so simple. No nursery or school or work, so our days were our own. We did not have to be anywhere by a certain time. We did not have to pick anyone up or drive anyone about. It was just me and them and days to fill with fun. Good times. The best of times. And that is not to say that going on to have my two gorgeous sons was not as good. In many ways, my sons have always been easier than my girls! But because I qualified as a childminder before my third child came along, life was different. The eldest started school, the next nursery, and my son had to fit into this very scheduled life, of work and school run and dashing here and there. Same for my next son. Life is tiring. Often it is stressful. Often I start a day wishing for it to be over. I look forward to Friday and think about it as the week marches on. Sometimes there is not enough time to breathe or think. Sometimes I am horribly aware of how fast I am hurtling towards cold, final death. Sometimes I look in the mirror and do not recognise the tired eyes and fine lines staring back at me.

Back then, I was so young. So hopeful, so happy, so vibrant. I had my two longed for children and we could do anything we wanted. Life was an adventure, not a chore. I also actually liked my body. Having my daughters had shook me clear of the eating problems I had lived with for so long. For once, I was proud of my body, for growing, nurturing and feeding my babies. I was young enough to bounce back quickly after birth. I felt slim and young and attractive. The opposite to how I feel now!

So, that’s mine. If I could turn back time that is where I would go back to, just for a little while. Not that I would trade or change my life now. I wouldn’t. I just realise now how much more complicated and tiring it is. I would go back and spend some time in my young, slim body, cuddling my two tiny girls, who were the only people I had to please and who were so very pleased with every little thing I did. Simple times.

What about you? If you could turn back time just for a bit, where would you head back to and why? I would love to know.

Slipping Through My Fingers…

Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning
Waving goodbye with an absent-minded smile
I watch her go with a surge of that well known sadness
And I have to sit down for a while

I’d never even heard the song until I took my daughters to see Mamma Mia at the cinema. They were only little at the time, just four and five years old. And I don’t even like Abba, or any ‘pop’ music for that matter. But when that song came on, accompanied by the character of Donna helping her daughter get ready for her wedding day, well, the tears just flowed down my face. It was quite ridiculous and embarrassing. But it was just every word, you know? And I got this image in my head, of the first time I’d had those same emotions about my little girl. My eldest, two years old, running off ahead of me down an alley behind the flat we lived in at the time. I remembered watching the back of her, her long blonde hair swinging from side to side, and I had this sudden, startling image of her starting school, which up until that moment had always seemed an impossible thing. But I could suddenly see her, school uniform on, hair in neat plaits, school bag on her shoulder…

It hit me in the cinema, maybe twice as hard. They were both already at school by that point, and my third child was just a year old, and I already knew how fast it went, how the time, and the children, slipped through your fingers.

Well, my eldest turns sixteen this very week, so this song is back in my head again. And tomorrow, my fourth and youngest child starts school. Gulp. I had tears in my eyes for the duration of my dog walk this morning. And that bloody song going around and around and around…

The feeling that I’m losing her forever
And without really entering her world
I’m glad whenever I can share her laughter
That funny little girl

These words come back to taunt me now my little man is about to start school, and I can’t deny that’s exactly how it feels; like I’m losing him forever. Of course, I know I’m not and in many of my more rational moments, I imagine how much more work I’m going to get done now. And how he won’t have to be dragged out on so many dog walks, and I won’t always be saying; come on, come on, hurry up.

Slipping through my fingers all the time
I try to capture every minute
The feeling in it
Slipping through my fingers all the time
Do I really see what’s in her mind
Each time I think I’m close to knowing
She keeps on growing
Slipping through my fingers all the time

I’ve tried, since he was born, to capture every minute, to soak up every part of it, to live and exist in that one moment, that one speck of existence. I breastfed him much longer than the other kids…there was no hurry for any of it to pass…I carried him in a sling until he was too big, just clinging to that feeling, the weight of his little body against mine, the feel of his soft, fat cheek, the smell of his curly, wispy hair.

And it never feels possible or real that they will grow older and go to school. It just doesn’t. Because you live in the moment with small children. They are always just the age they are. Soon you can’t quite remember or grasp who they were last year, what they looked like, what they could do and not do, and in the same way, you can’t see too far forward. You can’t imagine them much older. You just can’t. They are always just sort of stuck.

So it hits you hard, I think. Letting them go. And I know, he will have so much fun, and he will learn so much more, and I understood a long time ago that motherhood is really just a long process of gradually letting go. From the moment they start to walk and talk, to the first moment they pull their hand out of yours, to that all-important milestone, the first day of school.

This week I have watched as countless Facebook mummies have posted back to school pictures of their children, and it gets to me every time. All those fresh, smiling faces. Polished shoes, neat hair, book bags waiting to be filled. You can see all their potential and hope and optimism and you hope they get to hang onto all of it for as long as possible. You want each and every one of them to feel excited, and curious and valued. You want them all to be okay. And I know, that behind every back to school photo, behind every beaming smile, is a tearful mother feeling a mixture of so many things.

Bewilderment that it all went so fast. Relief, that they are going to get some life and time back for themselves. Perhaps excitement as they start a new chapter in their own life, maybe a new job or another opportunity that had to be put on hold. Worry for the child. Will they fit in? Will they be able to cope? Will they have nice, understanding teachers? Will they make friends? Sadness that an era has come to an end. That you can’t ever go back. Can’t stride into those photos you took when they were just a baby, can’t scoop them back up and feel them rest their tiny head on your shoulder. It’s always onwards. To the future. The next part of life.

Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture
And save it from the funny tricks of time
Slipping through my fingers (Slipping through my fingers all the time)

With those words ringing in my head, I just ironed all the little name labels onto his uniform, and double checked his book bag, shoes and PE kit are all ready to go in the morning. He’s only doing three hours for Christ’s sake! It will be time to go back and get him before I know it! But the first day leads to the second, and eventually to full-time school, to years slipping through my fingers that I won’t be able to grasp onto no matter how much I want to slow it all down…

So, this mummy will try to be brave in the morning. I’ll have a mantra in my head, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry… I’ll have a great big smile on my face and I will have to absolutely refuse to let that song inside my head. Not even for one second. I’ll get him ready and I’ll see him off and I’ll do the hardest and most important thing you do as a mother.

I’ll let go.

Just for a bit.

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A Writer’s Confession To Her Family…

Dear Family,

There’s not a day goes by that I don’t feel the guilt for one reason or another. I love what I do and I will never stop doing it, but it does make me feel bad at times, to the extent I feel I need to apologise to you all. I also feel the need to make several confessions, so here goes…

 

  • A lot of the time, I’d rather be writing… I’m so sorry, this makes me sound like a monster and maybe I am one! This doesn’t mean I don’t love and treasure our moments together. Whether it’s mucking about down at the river, cuddling up for storytime, watching a DVD together or simply laughing. I do treasure those times, and I do savour and soak up every single precious moment whenever I can…But some of the other stuff? You know, helping with homework, doing the washing, making the dinner, playing certain tedious games, answering endless questions, going to the park…well, some of the time, but not all of the time, you understand, I sort of wish I was writing. I can’t really help it, so please don’t misunderstand. It’s not that I don’t love you all and adore being with you, it’s just that the writing has somewhat possessed me and taken over my mind.
  • A lot of the time, I can’t concentrate on this family stuff…Ugh, it’s true, and today was a fine example, forgetting my son’s sports day entirely until it was too late! But I did sit through two hours of clapping at Achievement evening for one of you last night and that will occur again for another next week…But I admit it is true, my head is not always where it should be. I know you all get fed up of me drifting off, not listening to you, forgetting things, being a bit dreamy and out of it. Truth, is I’ve always been that way! Now I’ve got to muddle along with the whole parenting thing as well, and sometimes it gets messy! I try my best. I’ve got my to-do lists and my calendar and my little notes scrawled on paper and stuck to the wall! I try and stay on top of things and most of the time I do pretty well! It’s not easy though. These stories and characters are living in my brain, demanding of me and I suppose it’s a bit like they hold me hostage, sometimes?drink-coffee-meme

 

  • Sometimes when you’re talking to me, I’m not really listening… Shameful to admit, but true! I think you guys are good at recognising the signs by now. My eyes glaze over. I get a dreamy look on my face. Sometimes you get cross and accuse me of not listening. Sometimes you make the most of it and get your revenge by administering your evil jump scares. I’m so easy to scare and scream like a baby which you all find hilarious, but the reason I’m so easy to startle is how far away I have drifted…It’s not deliberate, please believe me. It’s just some part of a plot or a character’s personality has clicked into place at the very moment I should be paying attention to you! I’m sorry!
  • Sometimes I use you in my writing and my books… Eek, sorry. Again,  not deliberate! A lot of the time it’s accidental and subconscious! I don’t always notice it until later. But I feel I can get away with this somewhat, as hardly any of you read my books!
  • You inspire me in ways you will never know… True. Two of you have inspired a new novel idea I really didn’t want! Thanks for that. But you will never know. Some of you have been weaved into my characters personalities, some of the things you’ve done or said over the years, some of the complex relationships and insecurities have helped shape characters. Sometimes one of you will tell me something or sing a song, or play some music, and bam. I’ve got an idea.
  • I wish I could talk to you more about my writing… Some of you are quite good at listening. Some of you even ask! Some of you try really hard not to sigh or roll your eyes when I’m repeating something about a storyline or a rewrite that I’ve probably bored you with a million times…Some of you never ask about any of it…Some of you hear way more than your fair share, but the thing is, I love talking about writing, which is one of the reasons I set up my writing group. I can at least offload on them and vice versa! Writers may be quiet folk but they love talking about writing!
  • Sometimes I count the minutes down to bedtime… Not every day, mind you! Just some of them! Confession, sometimes I start looking forward to bedtime in the morning! Usually, when there is a lot going on, I’ve started a shiny new project, or I’m dashing towards the finish line of novel writing, or I’m launching a book and it’s occupying my every thought…
  • Sometimes I wish you would leave me alone when I’m trying to write… Ugh, one time I even stuck a sign on the door; do not disturb! But none of you seem to get it. Writing time is precious to me and hard-won. Often it’s just the evenings, me trying to squeeze as many words in as I can before exhaustion wins. And then the tapping at the door starts. You traipse in and out constantly with various demands. Other relatives are just as bad at other times. I have one precious day a week when I can write almost all day, and I really, really don’t like to be disturbed!
  • I couldn’t do it without you… It’s true. I love you all really. Wouldn’t be without you in a million years. And with you all growing and changing so fast, becoming so grown up and independent, I’m reminded daily how ridiculously fast this life goes by. So I’ll hang onto you as hard and as long as I can…Just hope you can forgive me when my mind wanders away from you, or when the characters drown you out, or when the urge to write is like an itch I just need to scratch. I hide in my room and I tap away at the keyboard, feeding my addiction. I just hope I make it up to you the rest of the times!

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