One Toothbrush – A Tale of Days Gone By

At my mother’s house, there is just one toothbrush in the bathroom. And I think about that a lot.

I noticed it a few months ago and it hit me hard. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s become a sort of marker in my mind of life, death, time and family. I realised that one toothbrush is my future.

My mother brought up four children, five if you count the one that wasn’t even hers. At one time she would have brushed her teeth at the end of the day, weary, perhaps frazzled, and there would have been seven brushes in the pot. Then six. Then five when my oldest sister left home. Then four when my father left. Then three, two and then finally, one day, (surely a day that was hugely significant and heartrending for her, but didn’t seem to register at all in my mind…) there was one.

And one day, this will happen to me. Assuming I outlive my husband, after all my children have grown up and left home, it will be just me. Where once there were six toothbrushes, there will only be one. Mine.

And now I think about this every time I brush my teeth and look at their brushes, one less already since my eldest left home for University. One less again when my next daughter leaves in September… One by one, they will all fly the nest and one day, it will be just me.

I think about how that will feel…

Sometimes when I’m really tired, when the demands have come thick and fast, when I crave just a few peaceful minutes to myself to pull myself back together, I look forward to being alone. I’m quite a solitary person and I don’t mind my own company at all. As the years go by I find myself becoming even more introverted, and even less likely to socialise or mingle with crowds. I imagine what it will be like to wake up to a quiet, still house. To go to sleep at the end of the day alone. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me at all. Other times, it fills me with shock and dread. Shock because it slams home how short and fleeting this one life really is, and dread because I sometimes feel motherhood has defined me, so who will I be when they have all gone?

I guess I will find out, just like my mother did.

That single toothbrush caught me off guard. Made me see my mother in a new light. I had never stopped, not once, to think about how she must have felt as we one by one drifted away. I had never, until that moment, stopped to wonder if she ever feels lonely, living alone. Waking up alone, going to bed alone. I felt a surge of guilt and then a surge of fear. That solitary toothbrush stood for so much. A life lived in love, giving more than taking, nurturing, protecting, feeding and clothing and then at the end of it all, sitting alone in a small house, with one of everything.

I wonder how often she looks around and thinks there used to be lots of pairs of shoes in the hall, lots of coats on the hook, lots of mugs in the cupboard, lots of voices and songs and footsteps and calls in the night. I wonder if she wakes up in the morning and thinks, what shall I do today? Who needs me? Is it liberating or lonely? Or both?

I will one day find out.

I have loved being a mother. But I have also understood that a big part of being a mother is learning to let go, almost as soon as you hold them for the first time. They grow so fast and growing is always a form of leaving. They start to crawl, then walk, then run. One day they pull their hand out of yours in case their friends see. One day they tell you not to kiss them in public anymore. One day they ask if they can go out on their bike without you. One day they leave home and you have no idea where they are or what they are doing most of the time, and you have to live with it. Because they have to do it.

At the moment, my eldest is almost twenty and living in another country. I miss her but I want her to do exactly what she is doing. My second eldest will be leaving soon too. My household will shrink again. My eldest son will be going into his final year of school next month and will be making decisions about what he wants to do with his life next. He doesn’t need me for much these days, but I am very lucky that he does still want me. My littlest baby is no longer a baby, no longer so little. He grows taller every time he walks in the room. He has started to strive for independence lately; taking showers by himself instead of me running him a bath, riding his bike down the lane alone, rushing ahead of me to prove he can do things. It’s even harder letting go of the littlest one, but let go I must.

And what I must also do is prepare myself for the time when they have all gone. When I wake up to a quiet, still house just as my mother does. When I go to bed alone and hear no voices or footsteps in the night. For a time when I barely have to run the washing machine. For a time when I only buy the food that I like. For a time when I no longer walk around the house picking up stray shoes, bags, books and toys. For a time when I don’t find random piles of stones and sticks in strange places. For a time when at the end of the day, there is just one toothbrush and me.

I hope the way I feel is pride tinged with sadness, a dose of nostalgia mixed with relief that my time is my own. Imagine how much more writing I will get done! I hope this is how my mother feels at the end of the day when she reaches for that solitary toothbrush. I hope she feels a surge of pride for bringing us into the world and then sending us on our way, fully equipped. I hope she knows it was a job well done, despite the hard times and tough times. I think that I should tell her how hard that one toothbrush hit me, how much it made me think of the speedy retreat of days gone by.

Come Back To What You Know

I’m feeling nostalgic.

I don’t look back on the past with rose-tinted spectacles. I think every decade in human history has been seeped in tragedy, usually man-made, of some kind. But there is something in me at the moment constantly yearning for simpler times.

I wouldn’t do away with the internet or mobile phones, but only for one reason. I’d never sell a single book without either of them!

But I find myself tiring of it all. I suppose everything becomes tiring after a while. Everything loses its shine. Sometimes though, we go back around again, we go full circle and return to things we once turned our backs on.

For me lately, this has been bringing some unexpected comfort in an increasingly fraught, depressing and uncertain world. I’ll just talk about a couple today; things I have returned to and how they are helping me navigate these seemingly endless difficult times.

Walking

I’ve always liked walking. I feel I have some sort of affinity with it, like it is something I am supposed to do. I like how it is so solitary and gives me time to think. So many stories and ideas came from walking when I was a teenager. I thought nothing of walking an hour or more to get to a friend’s house and I hated buses. I would always rather keep walking. I used to run too, mostly in my late teens and my twenties when I got rather caught up in trying to control my figure. But these days, 44 year old me is a bit kinder to myself (most of the time anyway,) and I worry about falling over or hurting my back or my knees. So I think my running days might be over but my walking days have begun again in earnest. I now walk to save money on petrol and I feel good about this. It’s good for my wallet, my body and the planet. I also sort out all my plot holes and writing struggles when I am walking.

Letter writing

During the lockdowns of the pandemic my eldest sister who lives in a very rural location a few hours away from us, started writing letters and cards to my youngest son. He loved this and wrote back every time and they have kept this up ever since. A few months back I decided to join in, so now me and my sister converse through letters. Of course, we text, phone and Whatsapp each other too! But there is something so calm and patient about writing a letter, posting it and waiting for one to fly back to you. Whenever I receive one, I wait for a special moment to read it. I need peace, quiet, a comfy spot and a cup of tea. I have also started writing letters to two friends. It’s not something you do instantly. It’s something you wait until you have time for. And then you go back over everything that has happened since you last wrote and make sure you also address and respond to all their news. This all takes time and that’s what is so nice about it. Knowing that someone took time over doing something for you, knowing the extra effort that went into it – it really is lovely and I feel like people talk differently in letters too. It’s interesting.

Wearing a watch

I got my first mobile phone when I was 19. I think that must have been the last time I wore a watch. I can remember that last watch too because I had it all through my teens and I really loved it. It was a chunky silver Timex and rather than a strap and a buckle to fasten, it was attached to a stretchy silver bracelet. Weird, I know, but it made taking it on and off easier! Gradually it started falling apart and I really missed it. I think I kept the clock head for a while somewhere. After that, phones took over and recently I realised that whenever I need to check the time, I check my phone. I think we all do. But carrying a phone everywhere is getting annoying. They’re not just phones anymore, are they? They’re mini computers we lug around with us, which means we have the entire world in our pocket weighing us down. It’s annoying, especially in the summer when you are less likely to have good pockets! I also thought about all the post-apocalyptic TV I watch and books I read. In that eventuality, phones become useless but watches return. My husband bought me a lovely watch for my birthday and I’m in love with it. I absolutely adore it. I don’t have to take my phone everywhere anymore and I am prepared for the end of the world. Win, win!

Childlike curiosity

There are so many things I don’t know about. I am 44 years old and I still can’t identify that many birds, trees, or plants for example and I know barely anything about the Universe or space… As adults I think we stop being curious. We stop asking questions. I am sure you have all experienced the incessant questioning from a young child who wants to know why, why, why…. I am trying to get back to that. If I don’t know what something is, I am trying to find out. Mostly nature based things! For example, I have a plant identifying app that has helped me learn the names of a lot more plants and trees lately. And I just got this cool app that records and identifies birdsong for you! It’s really addictive.

Collecting stones

Walk around my house and I can guarantee you will find a pile of stones in every room thanks to my youngest son. Like most young children he still has the habit of picking up natural objects that look or feel nice. Sticks and stones mostly. There are sticks everywhere too, though of course really they are guns of various sorts. But stones… I looked the other day and found a pile on the kitchen window sill mixed in with fossils. Another pile on the table. A few more on the side. Some on the stairs. A few in the lounge on the coffee table. A whole gang of them in his room which seem to have been decorated with various spots which apparently mean different things. This stone obsession reminded me that when I was his age I had a whole shoe box of them under my bed. I wasn’t as good as he is at finding cool ones though! He really does have an eye for it. The other day I emptied his school bag and found a whole pile of smooth brown pebbles at the bottom. They were all almost identical in size and colour. Today he brought home a big stone which had been sheared in half at some point, so we could see inside it. My son is right about stones. They are fascinating – apparently pebbles on a beach can be as old as 4 billion years! It’s not like we often get the chance to hold something so ancient in our hands… They can be beautiful, colourful, smooth, jagged, tiny, large. I recently found one with a sad face but then I lost it again, which was sad. Anyway, thanks to my son, my love of collecting random stones just to hold them for a bit has been well and truly rekindled.

Longhand writing

If you follow my social media writing updates, you will know that I often write in longhand. This is also something I have returned to. As a kid I wrote in notebooks of all sizes and shapes. I wrote on anything I could. I was very excited when I got my first electric typewriter! Years later, and it’s all laptops and Word and Google Docs and so on. I still use these things, but I love starting a story off in a notebook. It means I can carry it about with me, write in it at weird times, like when cooking dinner or waiting in the car. Sometimes I end up writing the whole thing in a notebook, just like Black Hare Valley I blogged about last week. Sometimes I’ll get so far then start typing it up. Short stories and poems nearly always start their lives in notebooks these days. There is something about holding a pen in my hand, scratching words out on paper that returns me to me, that makes me feel more connected to it.

What about you? Are there any ‘old-school’ things you have returned to? Or any you never gave up in the first place? I’d love to know so feel free to leave a comment!

A Very Merry 80’s Christmas

When I wander through the memories of Christmas past, I inevitably recall the Christmases of my childhood. I was a child in the 1980s and I think, looking back, that there was something very innocent, magical, garish and unique about Christmas back then. I suppose everyone must have a kind of classic Christmas they look back on and feel nostalgic for and sometimes I find myself hunting for things that made Christmas special as a child, such as retro 1980s things! Here are some of my memories from Christmas in the 80s.

  • Fairy lights – I loved fairy lights as a child! I still love them now but they’ve all become a bit sophisticated and high tech. They are LED now or battery operated, which is great, because I can still remember my parents breath held when they switched on the lights, because if one bulb had gone, none of them would work. They’d then have to try and hunt down the faulty bulb and replace it! But I would love to find those kinds of lights again, with their little lantern style heads. They were so perfect.
  • Foil garlands – oh my, I loved these so much. We had loads of these as a kid. I remember my mum and oldest sister standing on stools in our lounge and using pins to attach the ends of the garlands to the ceiling. As they attached one end, the garland hung down to the floor and when I was very young I thought they would stay like that. My sister soon put me right and the garlands were draped in loops from one corner of the room to the other. Gorgeous! I’d love to find some again.
  • Quality Street – in later years we would enjoy Cadbury Roses, Celebrations and Heroes but in the 80s it was Quality Street that dominated Christmas. We would have one tin to last the holiday and even the tin was exciting! The smell when you pulled the lid off and the sight of all those chocolates wrapped up like shining jewels. I loved all of them so choosing one when it was my turn to pick was really difficult! Everyone loved the green triangle so they went first. My second favourite was the big purple one!
  • BabySham and Bucks Fizz – neither of my parents were big drinkers but at Christmas they did like to get some bottles in. My dad enjoyed a whiskey or two and I remember the women enjoying glasses of Babysham or bucks fizz. To me they looked very inviting!
  • Christmas Hampers – hampers are really popular these days. Hampers for dogs, hampers for vegans, wine hampers, sweetie hampers, you name it! But when I was a kid in the 80s they had a different meaning. All year my mum would pay into a hamper scheme. Then a few days before Christmas two large cardboard boxes would arrive. One was the meat hamper which was boring. The other, much bigger box was the fun hamper! It was so exciting to unpack and it always felt like Christmas had truly started. There were tins and jars; I remember things like Spam, Campbells Soup and silverskin pickled onions. There were boxes of sweets, such as Black Magic, Roses or Dairy Box. There was packs of custard and jelly and angel delight as well as chocolate fingers, nuts, and crisps. All of it so enticing!
  • Studio Catalogue – anyone remember these? Are they still around? One would turn up in our house every year and each of us would spend ages poring over the Christmas gifts, toys, decorations and food you could buy to make the holiday just perfect. There would be pages and pages of wrapping paper alone!
  • Family get togethers – When I was a kid, every New Years Day my grandparents would have a house party. I absolutely adored these parties. We would get dressed up in our new Christmas clothes, grab a few of our favourite presents to show off and pile into the car to get to their house. On arrival, we would be greeted by various relatives dogs first! This was a big deal for me because I was obsessed by dogs and wasn’t allowed my first one until I was 10. I adored my Uncle Colin’s collie Laddie the most and would spend a lot of the party fussing over him and taking him outside to play! My Nan had six kids and when they all turned up with their kids, it really was a houseful. I never remember any grumpiness or arguing. Us cousins would run around excitedly and my Nan would leave a present for each of us under the Christmas tree. It felt like Christmas was not over yet. Superman or James Bond would be on the TV and the men would congregate there with my grandad. The women would fill the dining room and kitchen with good food and laughter. The table would be piled high with party food and treats and I used to love sitting on the window sill which overlooked the garden, with my brother and sisters alongside me. The best thing though was our Uncle John and the games he set up for us. He would gather us around and convince us to dunk our faces in flour in search for elusive pennies! He was absolutely brilliant. I also remember us cousins sitting on the stairs, filling every step and gossiping. Great times! I never wanted it to end.
  • Toys – of course its the toys I remember the most. Waking up on Christmas morning with my stocking lying across the bottom of my bed, heavy on my feet. There would always be a soft toy poking out of the top! Once my sisters and brother were awake we would pile downstairs, dragging our heavy stockings behind us! And then on to the big presents under the tree left by Father Christmas in the night. A truly memorable Christmas for me was when I was eight years old and we spent a month in Florida, staying with my mum’s Aunt Julie. Not only were we extremely lucky children to be visiting another country at Christmas but they made it even more special when they woke us up on Christmas Eve to say there was a visitor to see us! We shyly entered the lounge and there was Father Christmas, or Santa as they called him in America, with these sacks of toys for us! Me and my sister had wanted Cabbage Patch Dolls forever; they were the toy we desperately wanted and guess what? That’s exactly what he had for us! I can still remember that moment of perfect joy as I unwrapped the box and my very own little boy (Dean Emery!) smiled back at me. My mum managed to catch a photo of me and I think it sums up how magical it was. Over the years, I also remember many toy dogs, a Charmkins house, and My Little Pony beauty parlour among others.
Image by Andy M. from Pixabay

How about you? What decade brings back the most Christmas memories for you? If you were a child of the sixties or seventies, what kinds of food, drink, decorations and toys stood out for you? I’d love to know. Feel free to comment and share and I do hope you all have a wonderful Christmas!

To Be A Boy Of 7…Part 2

A million years ago, but also, only yesterday, I wrote this piece for your big brother, Dylan. https://chantelleatkins.com/2015/04/08/to-be-a-boy-of-7/ A million years ago, but also, only yesterday, he was seven like you are now. When he was seven, you were just a tiny baby, so you didn’t know him then. He was all stick arms and legs and tons of white-blonde hair. In a tiny blink of an eye, he grew older, he grew up and now he is a gangly fourteen year old with a sweet, wry smile.

But you, what are you like at seven? What is being a boy of seven like, for you?

I think to be a boy of seven must still be a glorious thing. I think your heart is as full and free as his was.

Yet being seven, is not as easy for you as it was for him…You’re more intense, more sensitive, more questioning and less able to sleep. Your brain never lets you switch off…Night after night, no matter what effort I’ve put in to wear you out, you delay sleep, you fight sleep and your mind fills with worries. You tell them to the worry dolls, Sam, Shepherd and Raven and you write them down in letters for me. You tell me that bedtime is too long, that you have to lie there for hours, that you feel like crying, that your stomach hurts or your eyes are sore. I try to be patient. I talk you through it. You listen, and you try what I suggest, but it’s like your mind just keeps on spinning. I sometimes wish I knew what was going on inside there.

I wonder if I am too soft on you…but do I really want to make you hard? I say it sometimes when you are being too sensitive, when you have exclaimed ‘ow’ for the thousandth time that day, when you tell me you are getting your ‘cry feeling’. I say you need to get over it, it doesn’t hurt that much, you will be okay, stop worrying, stop making a big deal, please, please, just go to sleep. Toughen up. I tell you this sometimes because I worry that your worries will drag you down.

Know this. I wouldn’t change you though. I wouldn’t change a wiry strawberry blonde hair on your head. Your hair that always smells like the rain. I wouldn’t change a thing about you, because you are one in a million. Sometimes people describe you this way, a real character they say. If you were not real, I would want to invent you!

The little boy who stops to say hello to woodlice and bumblebees, the little boy who always takes one sock off at some point during the day, the little boy who always says please and thank you to everything and everyone, the little boy whose stomach hurts when he gets his ‘cry feeling’, the little boy who just cannot stand to be told off, the little boy who does not like to play alone, the little boy who always brings home ‘good sticks’ and ‘cool stones’.

I love watching you walking along with a good stone or stick in your hand. Sometimes they end up in my pockets, but mostly you hold on to them. The kitchen window sill is full of your finds. The garden is littered with important sticks and several of them have residence in your bedroom. And every time when you walk the dogs with me, you ask if we can pretend to be in a zombie apocalypse. You’ll give me a stick and tell me its a machine gun. You’ll have a sword or a shotgun or a bat. We’ll take down the zombies together whilst searching for supplies. We’ll look for a shelter, or a community to join. We’ll rescue each other, again and again and again.

You want to be a builder or a vet. I see both in you. You play with bricks and blocks every day, creating towns and communities and car parks. You are kindly to animals, to even the smallest spider or tiniest caterpillar. They all deserve a friendly hello and protection.

At the moment, I see you are changing fast. It feels like seven is the bridge between little boy and big boy, and there you are, perched and teetering. You are outgrowing all your clothes and shoes. Every time I look at you I am shocked. Your face is thinner but your hair even wilder. Your legs go on forever and your appetite is huge. I try to fill you up but you are never satisfied. You are a small, warm hand in mind but you are getting too pick to pick up. You like to snuggle. You ask if I have time to snuggle with you now or later. You ask for me to snuggle you up. You tell me you love me about a million times a day. You also tell me I am pretty and you tell me off if I get cross with myself. You are my biggest fan.

Today we walked the dogs together and as we approached the road I felt your hand reach out for mine. I felt its smallness and softness and I felt the belief from you that I will always take care of you. We had to pretend we were leaving our base to get supplies and when we came back you begged me to play real army with you, which meant I got some of your best sticks as swords and you got your toy guns. You laid out all your weapons on the sofa in your room and told me to upgrade mine when I had enough points. You showed me your upgrade pose – blowing the top of each gun and then pointing them while you tipped your audience a wink. You made me laugh. You always make me laugh. Every day, there is something you say or do that sets me off. You’re just happy that I’m playing with you and as you say, I’m ‘getting into it’. I keep reminding myself how little time we have left of you wanting to play like this. How I must grab it with both hands, even when I’m tired, or not in the mood.

Because it means so much to you. You hate to play alone. Unattended, you wander around and make noises and get told off for annoying people. It’s like you don’t know how to be alone, not at bedtime, nor play time. I tell you all the time to play with your toys but you hate to do it alone, even though you have the most amazing imagination. But it pleases me that you read alone at bedtime, because reading is how we learn to be okay with being alone. I tell you you are never really alone, because you are full of memories, and dreams, and hopes, and you are full of all the people who love and adore you. I hope one day you will believe me.

My noisy little boy who can’t sit still. Watching a movie with you is like being on a trampoline. You ask endless questions we can’t possibly know the answers to. You live for the details. You want to know everything about everything. A little frown creeps onto your forehead when I answer you as best I can. You are my last little one and not so little anymore. I guess in some ways you will always be my baby boy, no matter how tall you grow, and I am sure you are going to be taller than all of us. Lately I’ve seen the changes that seven brings. The self-consciousness when you realise you’re the oldest one in the park. Telling me a park is too busy for you to play in. You have always been obsessed by parks, but now you are put off easily. You tell me you don’t want to embarrass yourself. You seem too aware of what big kids and little kids can and can’t do.

But at home, you are you. Our little wild thing, with one sock missing and always with a smear of food on your shoulder from wiping your face. You get in the bath and turn the water brown and I laugh and say, that’s how you know you had a good day. You write me little notes asking me to play with you. Little wish lists of things I’ll try to fit into the day. Army men. Playmobil set-ups. Zombies. Lego. Bricks and cars.

I’ve tried to hold onto you from the start, knowing you were the last and sometimes the knowing is like being unable to catch a breath. My God, it goes so fast. A chubby baby fills your arms, gets down and toddles away, climbs a tree, runs down a hill and then finally, one day, pulls their hand from yours and leaves. Parenthood is always letting go. One small step at a time. Parenthood is always being left behind, waving, smiling, crying, watching them go. And it’s a privilege and a joy, my sweet, funny, complicated, non-sleeping little boy…You are a joy, my boy of seven, you are glorious.