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.

Hello Forties!…I’m Ready For You

I normally love my birthday. I’m one of those people who likes to spread it out over a few days, maybe with a barbeque on one day, a family outing to the pub or another, meeting with friends and so on. I mean, why not? It’s a crazy world and a short life and I’ve always thought you should celebrate what and when you can!

I approached my 40th birthday with a different mindset though. This one, I have to admit, was one I’d been dreading from afar for a long time. And then suddenly it was upon me. The worst thing about my 39th year was watching loads of other people turn 40 before me. Partly, I was shocked that they were hitting the big 4-0, and partly I was worn out by all the many exciting ways they planned to celebrate it!

These people were really up for it! I’m talking about trips abroad, weekends away, big family get-togethers and barbeques, surprise parties, meals with friends and so on. I was impressed and exhausted! The closer I got to my birthday month, the more I felt like rejecting the entire, inevitable thing. I wanted to hide from my 40th birthday. I wanted to run from it!

I mean, it all went too fast! Look, I was a little newborn baby once!? How is it possible I am about to become truly middle-aged??

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I don’t think I’m really that bothered about looking older, getting wrinkles or grey hair or things like that. I’m not overly vain and have never really been into looks, mine or anyone else’s. I think it was just the speed with which I reached this milestone that bothers me!

I can remember being a little dreamy kid, my head in the clouds the whole time. Shy and awkward, I just wanted to be left alone to make up stories in my head. At that age, even becoming a teenager seemed impossible. Something that would never happen! And now I look at these old photos and feel rather emotional about how fast it all went. How is that little girl me??

me as a kid

Hitting 40 certainly makes you feel a tad nostalgic, I’ve found. I’ve been looking back at old photos and wandering through the memories and feelings they evoke. They mostly remind me of a simpler time and they also make me feel fortunate. I was happy then, and I’m still happy now. Funnily enough, I couldn’t find any pictures of me as a teenager! I think I may have burnt them all!?

But even in my 20’s, I didn’t feel like an adult. I don’t think I had adult thought processes or reactions. I was still in a bit of a dream, I guess. I became a mum in my early 20’s and motherhood dominated my next two decades. I threw myself into motherhood with gusto and passion, because it was the best thing to have ever happened to me. I truly loved every minute of those first few years as a young mum with two small girls. They were magnificent times.

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I remember feeling a bit freaked out as my 30’s approached though. Turning 30 seemed huge at the time. Like I had to suddenly grow up and stop being silly. Get a real job and my arse into gear! I had three children in my 20’s and worked as a childminder, where every day was a fun filled blur of playdough, Lego, building dens, dressing up and making mess! I remember looking at women older than me when I was approaching 30 because I thought I probably better start dressing differently. I genuinely thought that! I’d been wearing the same scruffy student type clothes for years and thought, I’m too old for this no. I need to wear women’s clothes! Well, I never managed to figure out what that was and I’m still dressing the same now!

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In the end, I quite liked being in my 30’s. I was far more confident. I started writing again and publishing my books. I had my much longed-for fourth child. It’s been a truly memorable decade. Your 30’s are nice, really. You’re still young, you still look young, but you’re an adult, with a settled home-life and responsibilities. Middle age and old age still felt a long way away!

But then suddenly, you know what? 40 is here. Everyone else has had their turn, and now it’s yours. No running. No hiding. Just shoulders back, head up and look it in the eye. Because it’s arrived. It’s knocking on the door.

It’s a bit scary, I guess. Your mortality feels more real. Your aging is not something you can escape. It’s going to stare you in the face every time you look in the mirror. I admit I was starting to freak out about it a bit…But the other night I met up with friends, as we do from time to time, to sit in the pub, eat chips and talk about anything and everything. I adore these meet-ups with these particular women because I find them all very impressive. They all have a fairly similar mindset to me, but all come from different backgrounds. We’ll talk about politics, society, what’s happening to the NHS and education in our country, we’ll moan about our other half’s and express concerns about our children. We’ll talk and laugh and the entire evening always goes far quicker than I wish it to. So, we got to talking about our 40’s, and one of the ladies who has already had hers told me that she quite embraced turning 40. She said she saw her 30’s as mostly about raising kids and running a home and dashing around after everyone, but that she looked forward to her 40’s when it would begin to be a bit more about her, and what she wants. I thought how right she was. And with my youngest starting school this September, it reminded me that my 40’s, are also going to become more about me and what I want to achieve. I felt quite liberated hearing this, as I really hadn’t looked at it that way. I’d been approaching it from a very negative mindset. I don’t want to be 40! I don’t want to get old! But I feel better about it now…

So, come on then 40. I’m ready for you. I’m not running anywhere. We’re in this thing together and what would a life be if you could choose to stand still, or turn back? My next decade will be full of ups and downs, surprises and opportunities. I’m looking forward to it. I’m even starting to like the sound of the number…40. Forty. I’m Chantelle and I’m forty years old. Nice. It’s all right!

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