The Vacuum at the Christmas Table

By vacuum, I mean unfillable empty space, rather than someone who can suck up a large quantity of food in very little time, although we will have one of those too.

Best Man is not going to be with us. Our family is lopsided, having one child permanently (my daughter) and one half the time (his son). This means that sometimes it feels as if we are a small rocking ship, periodically struggling for balance as we adjust to a member of the crew leaving, then getting back in as soon as the ripples have subsided. The transition gets smoother as time goes on and we grow more used to the rhythm of his visits, but at times like Christmas, the lack of one family member becomes glaringly apparent.

My Intended feels this most of all. At first, when we spoke of this Christmas, he would say ‘but we are not having Christmas until after Boxing Day, when (Best Man) is here.’ When I pointed out that Chief Bridesmaid would still be expecting to have Christmas on Christmas Day, we made plans accordingly (we’ll spend it with my family). Best Man will be sorely missed, although of course he’ll be having fun with his Mum and other step-family. It’s hard to know what the situation is like for him, but maybe it’s easier to be the one leaving rather than the one who is left behind…

My Intended sat morosely playing his guitar last night, and I became irritated by his gloom. Many angry rants were running through my mind (all beginning with ‘you’ and ending in ‘ruining Christmas’ and ‘always in a mood’), until he said to me

‘My Dad died on this day.’

Even after 5 years together, there’s so much I don’t know and so many things I never thought to ask.

Today, I direct my thoughts and good wishes to those who will feel loss and sadness this Christmas. Peace and love, I wish them…

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The New House

We are now in the New House, receptacle of all the hopes and dreams of recent times. In the New House, we would turn into better versions of ourselves. The hallway would always be tidy and we spend our evenings playing musical instruments with the children rather than giving them TV dinners. (I am not sure the children were dreaming about this. I think they thought there might be satellite tv and an x-box; neither of which we had in the Old House).  After 10 days of unpacking boxes, the dream of a tidy hallway has still not come true. TV-free evenings are a reality though, as we can’t get freeview to work. We have all learnt to play chess. It’s nice to spend quality time with our children, I for one am experiencing  a virtuous glow. But, I now realise that the telly was the equivalent of an ‘off’ switch for the children. Now there is no such switch, they follow us around the house, catching us every time we try to sneak a private moment.
‘What can we do next?’ they say.
‘Ah, so nice to spend time with the kids’ we sigh, as we begin to dream of satellite TV and an x-box…and internet. Despite the fact that we have known we were moving for weeks, neither of us thought to set up internet for the New House. The result of this is that the unpacking got done much quicker, and I am typing out this post on a phone which thinks that every time I write ‘will’ I actually want to write ‘Wilkinson’, and when I type ‘the equivalent’ I mean ‘rhetoric equivalent’.
Predictive spelling is not my friend. It is in fact my worst enema…

Thirty something bride? A confession

I am never going to be a thirty something bride. Just as I never wrote that novel before the age of 40, never became an astronaut, never battled the seas in the Rainbow Warrior to save the seals…I have come to terms with all of those things, but would it sound childish and pathetic to admit just how desolate I feel about never having been married before reaching the age of 40? How much of a failure this makes me feel?

In one of her novels, Joanne Harris writes about a proposal.

‘There it was in her hand. The small dream,’ as the character holds the ring. This phrase always stuck in my mind. The ring, the marriage, the happily ever after, is the small dream that women are handed as little girls. It’s in the books, the films, the lives of all the women who have gone before. A woman who has never been married is incomplete, a sad figure: a spinster. Big, bachelor dreams are for the boys..

As my 40th birthday hurtles towards me, the wedding plans just aren’t coming together. There is still no date set, no clear idea of the venue, no wedding dress ordered – and I know that I am going to be the 40-year-old bride.

I spent my 30th birthday alone, with an 8 month old baby. That day, to get myself through, I thought about my 40th birthday. I thought, by then this baby will be 10 years old. Work will be easier. Feeding her will be easier. I will be able to go to the toilet by myself. I will definitely be happier. There is no salvaging this birthday, but I will make sure the next one is better.

Now, to keep the promise I made to myself ten years ago – to be happier – I realise that I must stop defining myself, and my happiness, in relation to my status as a woman. On my 30th birthday I was defined by being a single mother, with all the pride and shame that burned in me because of that. Now, I am defining myself by my marital status – spinster at 40 – and I am allowing myself to feel shame again, and disappointment, at the small wish that I was never granted.

No, I will never be the thirty something bride, just as I was never the woman with a husband sitting by her side in the ante natal clinic. But these things don’t define me. There are so many other things I have been, and can be.

This year, my 40th, is apparently the beginning of the rest of my life. It cannot be another year of mourning for my abject failure to conform to anything like the ideal of a ‘proper’ woman. I hear my 30-year-old self calling through the years, and I can’t let her down. I would like to tell her, yes the baby is a 10-year-old, and she lets you go to the toilet on your own, she brings you breakfast in bed on your birthday and she has repaid you in gold for every sacrifice you ever made for her – the pride you felt when she said her first word is nothing to the pride you will feel when she comes out with her first bitingly sarcastic comment. You did well, 30-year-old self.

And to my future 40-year-old self, I would like to say – your 50th is going to be AMAZING!

The Trophy Cabinet of Memories

I am in a tree-top, shaking like one of the leaves which I think would take minutes to float down to the ground, way below me. To get my feet back to that solid place, I must first walk along a tight-rope, wobble my way across several rope swings, and swing down a zip wire. Only a harness attached to wires stands between me and certain death. I watch my daughter swing through the trees ahead of me, and the world swings dizzily in front of my eyes. I shut them, and reflect on the events which have led me to this terrible predicament.

We were discussing speeches, and whether we were going to have any. My 11-year-old future stepson is going to be Best Man

‘You don’t have to give a speech if you don’t want to,’ we tell him ‘It’s up to you.’

‘I don’t mind,’ he says.

‘What about me?’ says my 10-year-old daughter, who is Chief Bridesmaid, ‘do I have to give a speech?’

I start to bore on about how traditionally it is men who give speeches at weddings, while women remain passive and silent, and do we think this is right? But Chief Bridesmaid is not listening. She is already talking about the speech she is going to give. We tell the kids that the speeches are usually about memories people have of the bride and groom; sometimes people can try to embarrass the couple.

‘Can I tell everyone about the time you called Mum a mad bitch?’ says Chief Bridesmaid to my Intended.

‘No,’ he says. I say that the wedding speech is supposed to be about happy memories, maybe funny memories, not bringing up bad things that we have done in the past. ‘But can’t I talk about when you threw yoghurts? That was really funny.’
‘No,’ I say, wedding speeches are for those happy, rose-tinted memories that you get on holiday or at Christmas, or when you do something exciting together. They’re the trophy memories, all bright and shiny and ready for public display.
Chief Bridesmaid gets it. These are the instants that often get captured on camera – the ‘Kodak moments’.

‘I know. We’ll do a Powerpoint presentation of all our happiest memories.’ The kids quickly get carried away with this idea.

‘Can we have a photo of me surfing in Cornwall?’ asks Chief Bridesmaid.

‘Have we got a picture of the time Dad put the Christmas tree on the fire and it went whoosh, up to the ceiling and nearly set fire to the house? That was ace,’ says Best Man.

‘When we went ice skating!’

‘When we got a ride on the back of that jeep and I got to drive it!’

As the kids reach back into our trophy cabinet of memories, we realise that a) they enjoy it when we do things together and b) we haven’t done anything together for a long time. This is how I come to be fighting terror as I watch my Intended, Best Man and Chief Bridesmaid swinging one by one down the longest zip wire I have ever seen, their voices getting fainter as they zoom off, screaming, into the distance. I close my eyes, sit down and let myself go. My feet graze a treetop as I gather speed. I can hear the kids yelling something, maybe ‘the zip wire is broken and you’re going to die’? Their voices get closer and closer until I am suddenly ricocheting along soft bark, my clothes scooping it up and depositing it down my back as I slide.

‘Don’t worry, Mum, we got you on video for the Powerpoint.’

The next climbing zone turns out to be too much for Chief Bridesmaid. We are mounting higher into the treetops with every set of ladders, until we reach a wooden tunnel which is suspended on a wire. It sways alarmingly as she puts her hands across the gap to climb in.

Ooh it’s going to fall. You go in first Mum, I need to see if it can take your weight.’

I climb into the tunnel, clenching my teeth into a rictus grin.

‘It’s absolutely fine, it only wobbles a bit.’

Chief Bridesmaid takes one look at my face and yells ‘I want to go down!’

‘Oh. Well, If you really insist…’

We climb back down and walk shakily back to the starting point. As we go, we polish our story, making the memory shine until it’s the bravest and funniest thing we have ever done. On the way home, the car breaks down and Best Man admires the sunset as we wait for the AA.

This can go in the Trophy Cabinet of Memories, too.