Blossoming.

Let’s, President Bartlet style, walk and talk.

I began this blog around the same time I really got stuck in to the garden. Small Girl had finished breastfeeding and I suppose I was feeling at something of a loose end. You go from being a little human’s lifeline to, well, not a lifeline, and I found that hard.

Look at this. Aren’t forget-me-nots the most darling little flowers in the world. I pulled a handful from the edge of a footpath while walking the dog and stuck it in the garden. Lo and behold, to my absolute delight, it has not only grown but has self-seeded quite happily. I suspect that I weeded out lots before I realised what they were. I adore the simple five-petal shape, clustered into perfect bouquets and that oh-so-finely balanced delicate blue and yellow combination. IMG_5129

Anyway, I guess I was planting a random selection of ideas here on the blog in much the same way I scattered seeds around the garden. I didn’t know for certain which would germinate and which would  produce nothing more than food for slugs. I didn’t know which bits were pretty fillers and which would bring genuine satisfaction. It was all trial and much, much error.

This is a perennial wallflower, (Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’), incredibly good value, evergreen and long-flowering and the petals have a nice way of varying shades depending on how they catch the light. I have yellow and orange versions also which aren’t quite as pretty but earn their place with their sweet, warm scent.IMG_5126

So, the nice thing is, it’s all starting to come together. Blog and plot both are still a little rough around the edges. You can tell that it’s all a DIY effort; no professional landscapers or web designers have been employed. But I am stubbornly independent. I prefer having a slightly wonky home that I made myself than something pristine and perfect to someone else’s design.

Our front garden, which you rarely see, is planted with cherry blossoms, fruiting cherries and cherry plums. Some are little more than twigs but a couple have really matured into proper trees and they are enough to make my heart pound with joy and, I guess, pride. The big pink one is just beginning to unfurl. There is a promise there of something magnificent but also the threat, of course, that bad weather will spoil the show. I am on tenterhooks.IMG_5192

Our biggest cherry blossom has gone for glory this year. Beyond glorious! It makes me feel tiny, cowed. It’s like stars shining or small children singing. It’s bigger than me. This is me, looking up.IMG_5185

The crab apple. Bittersweet. The crab apple was planted, right outside the kitchen window, in memory of a lost baby and blooms every year just in time for her would-have-been birthday. Not just yet, but soon, which is the tough time. It feels good to have a something, though, to watch something grow and flower, rather than an empty space.IMG_5121

And just next to that, the pear is exploding skyward and about halfway to full snowy white blossoming. Look, look at this! Can you see the wing movement? I swear I squealed with glee when I saw this photo this morning.IMG_5138 (3)

Below the pear, I have a few cowslips, again foraged from a roadside somewhere. I fret occasionally about kidnapping these wild plants but I prefer to think of them as stray orphans in need of good home. They seem happy enough although I suppose they may just be putting on a brave front. I prefer wild flowers to all others and I suppose what I most want to capture in the garden is the joy of discovery that you experience when you clamber over a ditch or bend close to a hedgerow and find unexpected beauty. It would be easy enough to fill the garden with bedding plants but I like it most when the garden surprises me. I like it to have a life of its own.IMG_5117

What I didn’t really understand until recently was that writing, like gardening, seems also to have a life of its own. It’s a trickier business, letting loose the writing, not least because the risk of humiliation is greater. It’s easy enough to keep a close camera angle on the bees and deflect your attention from the rotting deckchairs and the ailing mulberry tree. The writing involves a good deal more exposure. Still, somehow, ideas are popping up and growing that I’m fairly certain I never deliberately planted. It’s taking shape and I am beside myself with excitement, fidgeting like a racehorse confined to the starting stalls and desperately, desperately trying to find the time I need to dig and hoe and tend and stake.

The new ribes (flowering currant) is a stunner already and I’m heartily wishing I had planted one (or three) of these sooner. I had read that the leaves smell of blackcurrant but it was still a shock to discover how much they do…much more than the fruiting blackcurrant leaves. I had a serious ‘duh!’ moment last week when, after 44¾ years, it dawned on me why Ribena is called Ribena. How Husband laughed. IMG_5164

We’ve had stunning weather for a few days but we’re back to the regular gloom today. Honest to God, we’re like Pavlov’s dogs in this country, only the stimulus is a ray of sunshine, or any break at all in the clouds. We have seen fine weather. We know it happens. And it will, surely, happen again. But, there are no guarantees so we gaze skyward in ever diminishing, but never quite extinguished hope.

This, to me, is the cutest thing in the garden at the moment. It’s an alpine strawberry in the making, planted next to Small Girl’s fairy garden because these are fairy strawberries, no bigger than your thumbnail but exquisitely sweet. IMG_5132

Potential. That’s what the garden and the blog share and what they are all about. It hardly seems to matter what the endpoint is. Just feeling alive and connected to potential.

The Small Girl sat in bed this week and, for the first time, read her own bedtime story, aloud and to herself. She still needs help with what she likes to call ‘tricky words’ but still, we have truly crossed a line. I am no longer her lifeline, neither for food nor stories. What remains are morning cuddles, and plaiting her hair, buttoning her shirt and reminding her what number comes after 12.

She brought me tulips for Mother’s Day. I can’t seem to grow them. The slugs eat them or the wind strips them so I rely on the kindness of those who know me best to buy them for me.IMG_5148

What I am bursting to tell you is that I interviewed Darina Allen yesterday! Can you believe it? How often does anybody get to meet, let alone have a proper conversation with, their heroes? She is brilliant, honestly. Sparkling with intelligence and genuinely inspirational.

Give me a day or two and I’ll let you know all about it. For now, I have peas to plant.

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There are some things I can’t fix but I can try.

‘Your knickers are on back to front,’ I said to the Small Girl who had made a valiant attempt to start putting on her school uniform while I was in the shower.

‘How can you tell which way they go?’ She asked in earnest puzzlement.

I laid her diminutive undergarments on the bed and explained that they were bigger at the back to accommodate her, albeit tiny, posterior.

‘Aha,’ she said, understanding dawning, and then I saw the telltale pinch between her eyes as the busy cogs of her brain turned.

‘You know how your bum is really big, Mum?’ Completely serious, not even a hint that she might be only joking. If only.

‘Yeeeees?’ There was hardly any point in denying the generous proportions of my rear end, at least relative to her own. I could only hope that she wasn’t going to ask me any awkward questions. 

‘Did you ever, like, break your knickers?’

I hope you will understand if I decline to record my answer here for posterity. My aim in telling you this anecdote is to demonstrate that my girl is still small, in stature and attitude. She is innocent and honest and open in the way we all must have been once upon a time in that far away land of childhood.


I attended a meeting at her school last night. It was a short lecture promoting awareness of mental health issues. As it so happened, the meeting took place in Small Girl’s classroom and I couldn’t help scanning the walls for evidence of my own child’s brilliance. I noticed, with some bemusement, a huge poster with a massive smiley face emoji and an equally large frowning face. A small photo of each child was tacked on to the smiley face while the frowning face was devoid of company. I took this, perhaps influenced by theme of the evening’s meeting, to be some sort of mental health promoting device whereby the children were asked about their moods and, thankfully, identified themselves as happy. How sweet, I thought, how wonderfully progressive.

When I got home, Small Girl was in bed but still awake so I snuggled in beside her for a cuddle. I told her that I saw her name on the list of star writers and she wiggled with pride. I told her that I noticed she was listed as this week’s milk monitor and that it was her turn at the sand table. I told her that I saw her photo on the smiley face and said I was glad she felt happy.

‘Oh no,’ she scoffed at my ignorance,’it doesn’t mean that I am happy; it means that Teacher is happy.’

I was genuinely taken aback and even more so when my child explained to me that Teacher moves their photos to the frowning face, she called it the sad face, when they are naughty, thus indicating her dissatisfaction with their behaviour.

‘Was your photo ever on the sad face?’ I had to ask, didn’t I? I thought I had to ask.

My Small Girl turned around, put her face to the wall and refused, despite my heartbroken entreaties, to utter another word.

As I left the room I heard her sob so I went back and lay beside her until she fell asleep. I couldn’t imagine what she could possibly have done to be so upset, ashamed even.

I enquired of Teacher, a friendly and pleasant young woman, what had happened. The answer? She didn’t have a clue. She assured me that my child is well behaved and attentive and that she might only have been moved to the sad face for a short time for ‘not trying  her hardest’ although even at that she couldn’t recall an incident. I tried, without questioning her methodology, to explain that my child was incredibly upset. She tried, without acknowledging the upset, to defend her methodology.

I didn’t really feel I had achieved anything. This isn’t my first time around this particular block. I’ve come to believe that the entire school system is designed to ‘break them in’, like ponies, to prepare them for the treadmill of life, as if there were no alternative. Put your nose to the grindstone at age five, is the ethos, and keep it there. It’s all designed to make children fit into a pattern, laid down decades, if not centuries, ago. I don’t have an alternative and I don’t blame the teachers, they just train the children in exactly the way they were trained to do. They must, in fact, if their charges are not to be labelled as failures. It is all a bit depressing though. 

I got in the car and assured my daughter that her teacher thinks the world of her. 

‘We learned a new sound today,’ she told me, ‘it’s OO. Sometimes it sounds like UH, like in book, but we have to think of words where it sounds like OO in MOO. We have to bring things in for the sounds table next week.’

‘Well,’ I said,’you can’t bring in the LOO because Dad would be very upset.’ She laughed.

‘And Teacher said at the start of the year that you should avoid bringing in FOOD for the sounds table so that’s out of the question.’ I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw the expectant smirk on her face. She’s very good at rhyming games.

‘MUM!’ She exclaimed in mock horror. ‘You can’t be thinking what I think you are thinking!’

‘Oh yes I am.’ I raised my eyebrows towards her delighted face in the mirror and we simultaneously yelled:

‘POO!’

I’ll raise a rebel yet.

March is a nervous month.

Japanese quince blossom.

‘March is a nervous month, neither winter nor spring and the winds make people nervous.’ John Steinbeck, East of Eden Diary.

I woke up with a heavy sense of foreboding but I’m hoping that it can all be put down to the weather. Radio One forecasts ‘a very windy day’ with rising gales, strong gusts and spot floods. Looking out the window here, the day is dull but perfectly calm. Too quiet, perhaps, as though that sky is storing something up for later.

Japanese quince blossom.

My teenagers are in the middle of exams. Here in Ireland we have two state examinations, the Junior Cert., taken in the third year of secondary school, and the Leaving Cert., as the name would suggest, taken at the end of the final year of secondary school. I’m lucky enough to have one of each this year.

The Leaving Cert is a brutal experience where your grades are converted into points and the points determine which, if any, university course, you are offered. The Junior Cert is mostly seen as a dry run for the Leaving Cert but the younger teenagers (certainly my one) are liable to be far more emotional. Most schools operate in-house ‘mock’ or ‘pre-leaving/junior cert’ exams with the aim of shaking out all the nerves and anxiety.

Where do we think all that nervous energy gets dumped? Yup, right on top of the beleaguered parents who mistakenly believed they would never again have to face exam stress.

Teenage Son is playing it like an old hack who has been around the exam block a few times, refusing to be harried and making his parents feel as though they are pushing a Massey Ferguson up Everest. Teenage Daughter, the one who is doing the dry run for the dry run, is steaming around in a flurry of colourful study plans and ticked time sheets, her parents merely jogging behind (near catatonic from the Everest experience) waving packets of biscuits and hoping to appear helpful.

Dear Lord, what will I be like when the real thing comes around in June?

This is a truly rubbish blog post. I’ll go edit those pantry photos.

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When kids take advantage of Instagram.

Happy Pancake Tuesday.

‘Great news, Mum,’ announced Middle Daughter late last week.
‘Hmmmn?’ I might have had my head stuck in Instagram.
‘It’s Pancake Tuesday next week.’
‘Oh, great.’
‘And we’re off school so we can have pancakes All DAY LONG!’
‘OK.’ Like I said, Instagram.

The seed was sown. I got up on Tuesday morning and I made pancakes. I made pancakes ALL DAY LONG!

img_4463-2

A workman was painting the wall at the front of our house and, feeling proud of my copious crêpe creation, I brought him a pancake with his three O’Clock cuppa.

‘It’s not Shrove Tuesday, is it?’ he enquired with a concerned frown, as if he should have been at mass or something.
‘It is!’ I replied wondering if he would judge me for not being at mass or something.

I got straight back to the cooker to stack up more pancakes for dinner.

Three crêpes later (time having become meaningless, my day portioned into piles of pancakes) my workman returned his tea tray with a smirk.

‘Your kids are having you on, Missus.’
‘Excuse me?’ Mother Lion, ready to leap.
‘I’ve asked five different people walking by and they all said Pancake Tuesday is next week.’

So, not only had my children fooled me, maintaining straight faces all day while they debated the virtues of chocolate/cream over jam/yogurt or lemon/sugar, I was pilloried across the neighbourhood as the woman who doesn’t even know what day of the year it is.

Happy Pancake Tuesday.

I clearly need to leave the house more often.

I repaid my children by layering up the dinner pancakes with salmon, steamed broccoli, béchamel sauce and a sprinkle of cheddar (half an hour at 180ºC). They were less than pleased but Husband and I agreed that the dish was a triumph. I’ll take my wins where I find them.

pancake lasagne with salmon and broccoli

While the kids have been a-lazing (and a-scheming) in front of the TV, I have been hard at work (ahem) reading books.

The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser is a superb book, the sort that stays with you and changes the way you see the world. I wish I could make it required reading for schools, for parents, for politicians…for everyone who eats. Read my full review here.

The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser, book review

I’ve read most of Robert Harris‘s books and always look forward to a new release but Conclave was a big disappointment. I had heard Harris interviewed and loved the idea of a novel based on the election of a new pope. He writes with great style but the plot went completely awry. The full review is here.

review: Robert Harris, Conclave.

Storm Doris  is still swirling around the garden in a most menacing fashion so I’m about make a massive cup of coffee and retire to bed with Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life. It’s shockingly good.

(PS. The pantry is done but it’s been so dark, I can’t get any photos that do it justice. Next week, I promise!)

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18th Birthday Fireworks.

first daffodils

Adulthood did not kick off to a great start for Grown-up Son. He tumbled in the back door after school, hot and bothered, with the news that he had crashed his bike. Again.

first daffodils

‘Is your bike alright?’ As the words came out of my mouth and travelled through the air to his appalled ears, I knew I should have inquired after my first born’s welfare before that of his bicycle. The thing is…I could SEE that he was in one piece and this flipping bike of his has cost a fortune because we’ve had to replace the gears twice already after previous calamities. But yes, it was his birthday and I should have been nicer.

‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ I suggested, by way of amends.

He changed his clothes and came back to the kitchen, leaning comfortably against the cooker and giving me a run-down on his day.

daffodils

Now, I love nothing better than when he spills his day out over a cup of, but…did you notice what I said in the previous sentence? The bit that went ‘against the cooker’?

‘Ow,’ he murmered, quite calmly. And then less calmly.
‘Ow, Ow, Owwwwww!’

Yes. He was on fire. Flames shot up from the bottom of his t-shirt to the back of his head.

I didn’t think. Not a single thought. I balled up the back of his t-shirt in my hands, he wriggled out of it and I tossed it in the sink. Ten seconds and it was all over. His back and my hands were a little bit sore but nothing serious. Mind you, I was shaking like a leaf for half an hour and I don’t think we ever got the coffee.daffodils

Life. You can’t rely on it, can you? He got a neat hair cut a few days ago because he was asked to form a guard of honour at a funeral. If he’d still had his curly mop, it probably would have caught fire.

Daffodils, mind you, daffodils you can rely on.

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Made it to 18.

Sultanabun and son, 1999.

I am the mother of a grown-up child. I am relieved to have made it this far, apprehensive about letting go, nostalgic for the saturated joy of his babyhood and, above all else, bowled over with pride. My son, in my totally biased opinion, is smart, opinionated,witty, kind, interested and interesting. In short, leaving aside a most irritating habit of taking off his shirts without first opening the buttons, a fine young man.

His future belongs to him, his for the taking and his for the making.

But this memory, of a shuttered bedroom on a snowy morning in Padova, is mine.

Sultanabun and son, 1999.
SultanaBun and Son, 1999.

Happy Birthday, Grown-Up Son.

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Introducing Agnes.

notebook. diary. keeping a diary. Agnes.

I was a miserable thirteen-year-old. Is there any other kind? Thirteen is a bewildering age. Too old for minding, too young for freedom and all that news of impending womanhood is hardly a barrel of laughs.

To my rescue came an English teacher whose name, to my shame, has escaped me. She was still a trainee teacher. She had dark, wavy hair and wore clogs and fringed skirts. There were beads and feathers about her person. She was a bona fide hippie. Fabulous.

She scratched new words on the blackboard which we recited like magic spells: metaphor, alliteration and, oh, my absolute favourite, onomatopoeia. She had us write rhyming couplets in the style of Ezra Pound and praised our efforts regardless of their dedication to George Michael or Spandau Ballet.

She instructed us to keep a diary. Write what you feel, she said, and I did. I bought a blue, fake-leather-bound (I thought it was real leather) diary and I wrote. For a girl who spoke little, who found it near impossible to say what she felt, that writing was like putting a tap on my soul. All the angst, sadness, despair, and yes, God damn it, unrequited lust just poured out of me.notebook. diary. keeping a diary. Agnes.

I wrote for years and years and years, long past my teens. Then, I wrote long letters to friends and discovered the thrill of a response. Then, I wrote this blog. Without Miss Hippie-Clogs, I wouldn’t be here writing to you. I wouldn’t have known how to do this. In fact, I believe that without that outlet I wouldn’t be here, full stop. I would have drowned in that rising tide of feelings.

I was delighted, honoured in fact, when the magnificent Sam of Agnesforgirls encouraged me to pass Miss Hippie-Clogs’ message on to a new generation of girls. I expounded the benefits of keeping a diary HERE. I also contributed to THIS list of suggested reading for girls.

Agnesforgirls.com, just Agnes to her friends, is a brilliant new website, launching today, for girls aged from 11 to 18 (or thereabouts). Agnes aims to provide girls with all the information and encouragement they might need to become competent, brave and happy young women. I wish Agnes had been around in my day.

As a mother, I would put my trust in Agnes. I’ve read just about every page of the site and I am convinced that my teenage daughters are safe and well-cared for in Agnes’ hands.

I hope you will take a look at the site and spread the word to any parents or daughters who might appreciate it.

Agnes is on Facebook here and on Instagram here and, lest you have missed the links above, the website is here.

The future is a blank page, my friends.

notebook. diary. keeping a diary. Agnes.

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