Friday, 30 December 2011

making space

I have just dispatched the Engineer and Snooks on a mission designed to keep them out for an hour or two so that I can do this … whatever this is.

It started off as a record for Snooks of his early years so that when he grows older he can see how it all began. Me, I had to guess.

But it has also come to provide a lacuna for me in which to observe and reflect on the tidal wave of my daily life, which is how being Snooks’ mother feels.

I understand that ‘spirited’ toddlers often turn into charming teenagers, the theory being that god only sends you one tsunami per child. The Engineer recently showed me a string on Mumsnet of fraught mothers of untenable three-year-olds delighted to have found each other.

Yesterday as we left a restaurant where we had lunched with a bachelor friend of ours, I commended Snooks on his good behaviour.

I caught the look of astonishment on the friend’s face. Snooks had shouted demands for beans on toast, banged his cutlery on his plate, wolfed his lunch and then vanished up the stairs to the Residents Only lounge just as the main course arrived. He finally settled with a toy tractor prostrate in the doorway where both customers and staff had to step over him to enter and leave the dining room. But for us this was pretty much exemplary behaviour. I know, to some – mainly Jo Frosters and people with daughters – it sounds cowardly. Another person recently told me that I had to ‘break his will’ before revealing that his own will-breaking, paragon-making parenting had been done with the help of a wooden spoon. But the truth is, I don’t expect Snooks to sit quietly at a table while adults eat and talk. I think it would be unnatural for a three- year-old to do so. Consequently, on the whole, we don’t eat in restaurants.

Anyway the mission, which I dreamed up in the early hours as my brain rummaged around trying to create a snow-hole for myself (from tsunami to avalanche – it’s that time of year isn’t it?) comprises two parts; Part One – to take Snooks’ buggy to the dump and hurl it onto a pile of junk. Trust me, it is for the best. It has no brake, it was an emergency charity shop buy when the last one’s brake fell off, and most of all, he hates it. Plus it frees up room in the shed for – you know what – the beloved skateboard which Santa was crazy enough to bring despite warnings about the many broken bones likely to occur as a result. Out with the old (babyish, restrictive, dull) in with the new (grown up, unrestrictive and very, very cool), and all that.

Part Two continued the theme. Clutched in his hand, as I waved them off, was a little brown purse shaped like a dog containing a large chocolate gold coin and a real, slightly battered genuine five pound note. I had to stop Snooks tossing away the real cash as he struggled to get to the chocolate but managed to explain that the readies had been sent to him by a clever kind auntie to spend on something he chose. (The Engineer and I had discussed the likely obstacles to this mission such as wanting to buy a drum kit – his latest obsession - and we had agreed that the purchase should roughly fall within his budget as our responsibility in the current economic climate was to teach him all that stuff about coats and cloth. Plus it is actually more fun that way). So off they went leaving me here in the house alone to reflect on how it all went.

I think he loved it. I am not sure he believes in Santa but went along with the whole thing for our sakes; he shouted out ‘This is a waste of time’ during Christmas Day Mass to which most of the children in the congregation gave a silent Amen; he was as excited about giving his Daddy a present as he was about opening his own; he has walked by the sea twice - once on the south coast and once on the east coast - since Christmas Day and wanted to go in both times; he has gnawed the head of a chocolate Santa but otherwise survived largely on a diet of yoghurt and toast since Christmas Eve and he charmed the Regent Street shoppers with his Santa-hat clad rendition of ‘All I Want for Christmas Is Toys’ during our trip to see the lights.

Not surprisingly the excitement of the build up to Christmas may have somewhat overtaken the reality of day, which after all amounts to some new stuff, some treats to eat and very little sleep, leaving a void where the all the twinkly magic is supposed to be.

But enough about me. Snooks took it all in his stride and is gliding into 2012 with no elbow pads, no buggy and his first taste of financial independence.

Bring it on.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

a christmas story

And so this is Christmas.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to quote the whole song. But we are finally there and it does rather chime with the theme of this post, which has been ringing in my head for a few days now.

It began with a knock at the door (as stories so often do) just as Snooks and I were leaving for our regular afternoon ‘play and tea’ date with his best friend. For ‘play’ read ‘Snooks tormenting the friend for whom his love is so great he cannot find words and so uses pummelling and bear hugs’ and for ‘tea’ read ‘other children eating while Snooks uses free reign of house to explore areas officially off limits, like the shower’. Eating is for sissies.

So we opened the door, arms full, coats on, to find a young woman standing there, well dressed, all in black wringing her gloved hands and clearly very cold.

“Hi, this is so embarrassing and not a way to meet your neighbours but I live at number 171 and ….”

She wanted money. I had never seen her before. The address she gave existed but was too far down the street to be known to me. Her meter had run out. She had two sons at home. She needed the cash until her partner returned that night and she would return it. She had a gadget in her hand, which apparently played some part in the story. I had stopped listening by then as it was academic. I had no way of knowing if she was telling the truth and the chances were, she wasn’t. But she looked cold. I noticed that for a well-spoken, well-dressed woman, she was very thin under her coat and one of the teeth at the front of her mouth was missing. She was doing well to talk without letting it show.

I sighed and looked at Snookie who was in my arms. We were clearly on our way out, which meant she also knew the house was about to be vacated. I sat him down on the stairs and reached for my purse, making sure that I stood between him and the doorway. My greatest fear at that moment was that someone might charge into the house and terrify him.

“What are you doing mummy?” he asked.

“I am giving this lady some money,” I replied.


“Because she says her little boys are cold and she needs it to keep them warm,” I said.

As I turned back to her she smiled and held out her hand to shake mine.

“My name is Rebecca. I will bring it back around 9pm tonight, unless that is too late?”

I shook her hand. She seemed so nice. I really wanted to believe her. I asked who was looking after her sons while she was going door to door. She said one was 15 and very responsible.

On our way to the friend’s house I explained to Snooks what had happened.

“I did not know whether the lady was telling the truth so I decided to trust her,” I told him. “Let us hope I was right.”

By the next morning I felt far more upset than I had expected. I had so wanted Snooks to see that even in London, we can live as a community, instead of in isolated, frightened units.

The woman from the Met to whom I spoke on the phone that morning made no attempt to disguise her scorn.

“You gave her money. She has not committed a crime,” she told me and suggested I knock on number 171 and ask for it back.

I took Snooks with me, hoping that Rebecca might open the door and her 15- year-old responsible son might wish us a Happy Christmas.

Instead a different woman peered around the front door and shook her head. She thought I should try round the corner where some other people of the same racial origin as Rebecca lived.

Last year, on Christmas Eve, Snooks and I were in Starbucks enjoying a hot chocolate and babychino when a rather grimy looking old fella carrying two huge carrier bags of canned food asked if I could help him find a seat. He was blind and wearing a military medal on his coat. I bought him a cup of tea and Snooks and I listened to his stories about the war for a while before wishing him a Happy Christmas and going on our merry way. The thought crossed my mind as we left that he may whip off the dark glasses and drive himself home to a sherry by the fire, but I doubted it.

The Christmas before that, our first with Snooks, our tree was decorated with lights borrowed from a friend whose kindness hauled me out of a disappointment so deep I could not see daylight, after the Engineer’s employment ended without notice, through no fault of his, on the 19th of December just as my dream of a family Christmas was about to come true.

I know it’s all very It’s A Wonderful Life but I can’t help seeing a common thread in these Christmas stories and its one which helped me feel better about Rebecca.

After we left number 171 I explained to Snooks that unfortunately it seemed Rebecca had told us a lie and she did not live there and was not going to give us our money back

“Will the police tell her off for being naughty?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “we are not going to tell them about her. She has been really naughty because she has stolen some money from us. But I think she must have needed it very badly so let’s just hope that one day, when she is feeling better, she will come and find us and give it back. You never know.”

Happy Christmas one and all.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

wondrous star

I knew this day would come – the day when Snooks starts to ask questions to which he really needs an answer and to which I don’t really have one.

I know these questions generally centre around two topics – sex and religion. And that the really important thing is not to laugh or say “Go ask your father.” (Or, as Woody Allen’s father does in Hannah and Her Sisters when he asks him about the coexistence of God and evil, shout, “How do I know why there were Nazis; I can’t even work the can opener!”)

We have not had many in the sex department yet. His gender referencing so far seems to extend only to ‘girls wear pink’ (which is largely true these days) and the possession or not of willies. Other than that he is gender blind. His love, his kisses and his passion for rubbing bare tummies apply to all regardless of age, race, creed, gender or sexual orientation.

But God and especially Jesus have been making their presence felt this week provoking some of those unanswerable questions parents get from their younger children at this time of year.

The best for us came last Sunday as we were invited to accompany some friends to their church carol service - an offer we accepted readily as their open, modern church has a far more child-friendly event than the ones I am used to with the left footers. Also we are very fond of the friends whose two daughters do a great pair of angels in the nativity scene and kindly posed for a photo with Snooks; they gloriously decked out in silvery white dresses, wings and tinsel halos and Snooks in his Parka and a borrowed crown.

All was going well, even when Snooks became so inspired that he stormed the stage, still wearing the crown and parka to throw all his best shapes to Away in a Manger.

No one seemed to mind – silent thanks to these parents whose children had rehearsed the songs only to have their view blocked by our little Mod King – and Snooks was so exhilarated by it all that I thought he might want to sign up there and then.

However, standing back safely between the Engineer and I for a ‘non-dancing’ O Little Town of Bethlehem he turned to me and shouted loudly enough to be heard above the “How Silently How silently …” singing, “Is This True?” in his clearest most incredulous voice.

As I simply guffawed he looked to the Engineer who looked back at me in panic as he asked the same question “Is it true Daddy?”

You may remember my dilemma two years ago when I suffered a complete collapse of faith just before Christmas only to have it restored by Whitney Houston on January 5th as we were taking all the decorations down.

I got away with it that time as Snooks was too young to notice but this year I knew I had to make that leap if all this tinsel and baubles and presents and trees are to have any meaning beyond a winter party and shopkeeper’s heaven. Not to mention that we might be applying for a place at a Catholic primary school next year so we need all the gospel references we can get.

“Oh yes it’s all true,” I shrieked, trying not to sound like a pantomime dame, and beaming confidently at him.

Snooks still looked a bit sceptical but did not let this stop him returning to the stage for the finale where his hip-swinging samba moves came in handy for a Caribbean style carol, which rounded off the service.

Even as we left and I stopped to talk to a mum who had a newish baby in a carrycot beside her, when Snooks asked “Is that Jesus?” and I replied “No he’s called Rudy”, he seemed to take it all in his stride.

By the time his own school ‘show’ came along yesterday he seemed more comfortable with the facts of the nativity (though his version will now always include a knitting scene, as the clickety clack of the needles Mary used to make a blanket for the babe was clearly the bit that captured his interest most) but he did want to know why I did not call him ‘Lord’ just as Jesus was called ‘Lord’ for being so special.

I watched with astonished pride as all the little three-year-old tots sat for half an hour on the stage in front of the flashing cameras of their tearful parents, without a murmur.

Snooks remained mute, despite knowing the songs, taking in the sight of the hushed audience and mouthing the word ‘mummy’ when he caught sight of me, until the very end when he joined in with Away in a Manger, the only number the nursery children had not rehearsed, his teacher later pointed out.

Diminutive and blonde, wearing his red school jumper underneath the white tunic with red tinsel collar, he looked like a Kings chorister in the making – or like my brother, holding the Communion plate, sometime in the later 1960s.

At the end the headmaster walked over and spoke directly to Snooks, clearly asking him a question, to which he firstly employed his right to remain silent in case it incriminate him, and then finally uttered a few words.

From where I was sitting, craning my neck to see around the telephoto lens of the mother in front of me, I could not make out what he was saying.

All I can do is pray that it went along the lines of this: “My name is Snooks O Hara and I can sing like an angel, add up, speak in similes and kick a football pretty well. I will help keep up your SATS and promise not to run in the corridor if you let me in next September.”

Of course we all know it’s down to the catchment area but hey, miracles do happen.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

all that glisters

Today I opened the advent calendar window. I am glad I did as this date marks a number of anniversaries for me – one about food (a year at goal weight), one about drink (10 without alcohol) and one about John Lennon (31 - can you believe it?).

Snooks has already lost interest in the calendar, figuring that anything over One Day To Go is too much to think about. His love affair with numbers goes on all right. Last night I got him to eat a whole bowl of spaghetti by letting him run to the microwave between mouthfuls to read off the time on the clock. The passing of each minute meant another morsel of Hidden Vegetable Bolognese passed his lips affording me the satisfaction only a mother knows at seeing her offspring ingest good homemade nutrition

But his Christmas exuberance has moved on now from counting off days. He’s had the tree buying; he’s had the ice-skating. Now, he’s all about the baubles.

We started off with a few admittedly lacklustre ones dredged up from the Engineer’s past, packed away in musty plastic bags in the shed.

Then the two giant ones purchased by Snooks and I last week added a bit of post-noughties glamour to the place.

But Snooks was still not satisfied. After he deemed the tree ‘horrible’ as the baubles were ‘not shiny enough’, I spent a frantic hour last Sunday morning running around the local shopping centre castigating apathetic shop assistants for their overly tasteful selection of xmas fare.

“What, only hand-painted-with-Victorian-skating-scenes baubles? Only muted grey with a dusting of silver? I want shiny, I want plastic, I want a giant snow-globe containing an angel with the word ‘peace’ written in gold glitter on the base.” (Incidentally, if you also want these things, Homebase is your place).

I returned triumphant, if a little puzzled at why the WHSmith assistant standing amid the tinsel and reindeerorama had answered “I doubt it” when I asked if they sold Christmas decorations, bearing two boxes of gold shiny baubles.

But we were not out of the enchanted faery woods yet. During our festive steam train ride in the dark with stars later that day Snooks launched one of the new baubles at the carriage door (he always carries one or two about his person at this time of year) shattering it into tiny lethal shards, which explained why they were £2 a box and not widely available.

Luckily it missed (and hopefully was not aimed at) Santa Claus who had made a surprise visit to our carriage earlier in the trip, kindly handing Snooks a puppy in a bag (not a real one) and a packet of Smarties. I say kindly as unlike the other lucky recipients further down the train we had not booked in for the Santa Special Experience and so were not exactly entitled to accept his gift. However no amount of guilty conscience could bring the Engineer or I to point out to Santa that we had not paid for his services, as this would, after all, have rather ruined the moment.

I have to hand it to St Nick, my attempts to play down his role in our family Christmas mythology have been severely hampered by this event as Snooks witnessed his parents’ utter astonishment as Santa and his two elves tapped on the carriage window asking to come in.

However as we also later witnessed the trio tiptoeing across the track to make their magical appearance in the grotto inconveniently located on the opposite platform, the balance in favour of reality may once again have been righted. We all concluded that this could not be the real Father Christmas as he, clearly, would have been able to fly across on his sleigh.

By Monday night a further 50 shiny, different coloured, non-breakable baubles had been purchased, threaded, thrown around the house and subsequently hung on the tree making ours the shiniest, baubliest most beautiful Christmas tree ever, according to its creative director.

So all we need now is snow, a party and a skateboard for his world to be complete.

Two out of three are already in motion and the third … well come on Santa.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

count up to Christmas

Snooks started the day with this inevitable question.

“Is it Christmas yet?” he whispered as he clambered into the Engineer’s vacated spot in our bed. It was 7am (a lie in!). I congratulate myself on having dragged together sufficient brain cells to come up with a satisfactory reply, allowing me another 10 seconds sleep, without giving him false hope.

“It is the first day of the countdown to Christmas,” I answered, cunningly employing his current numerophilia to make the long unbearable wait – what we used to call Advent – sound like fun.

Snooks’ yuletide excitement (which, after all, is the real reason we all bother to have children) started with our weekly trip yesterday to the supermarket where the giant foil snowflakes and bells dangling from the ceiling filled him with such glee it almost broke my heart.

In fact such was his desperation to get started on the whole downhill sleigh ride to the 25th that by the time we got home I had not only promised to come up with a Christmas tree, decorations, a party, a snowy train ride in the dark with stars and an ice rink by next Monday but we had also purchased two of largest baubles I have ever seen in my life.

To his great credit, Snooks has said very little about toys, presents or Father Christmas. His fascination so far seems to be with the glitteriness of it all – something I too love about the season.

So as he was tucked into bed last night, clutching the larger of the giant baubles to his chest, I promised him that in the morning he could open the first window of the Advent Calendar to mark that Christmas in our house had officially begun.

I realise it is a little early for some tastes and as I snuggled next to him wondering how the Engineer and I were going to manage to fit the train ride/ice rink/tree buying bonanza into one weekend, I thought back to the Christmases of my childhood where the tree only turned up on Christmas Eve, no letters were written to Santa and woolly stockings were something you wore under your jeans for the freezing walk up the hill on Christmas Day.

Our mother had always explained the late start was so that my brother’s birthday on the 18th would not be lost in the pre-Christmas frenzy but I now wonder if perhaps, as two teachers, my parents just had about as much Christmas cheer as they could take during the day at school and wanted to come home to a tinsel-free zone.

As the Engineer returned from the shower to be informed that he was required to go out the shed and find the advent calendar before breakfast, I explained to Snooks what it meant.

“So each day you get to open a window with a number on it which marks the days leading up to Christmas Day which is the 25th. So today is the 1st – which is number one – which means there are 24 days left ….”

This may sound like an intensely dull way to discuss Christmas with an excited three year old but trust me, this was rocking his world. After weeks and weeks of searching for a carrot/stick system to help Snooks grasp the nettle of socialisation, a list of numbers stuck to the fridge specifying what is and is not allowed seemed to do the trick. So long as he gets to put the colourful magnets on the numbers he’ll do all kinds of sharing stuff.

“So,” he interjected, “it’s not a countdown. It’s a count up to Christmas.”

This is the kid who last week insisted on singing “Happy Birth Night to You” to the Engineer as he correctly observed, it was dark by the time the cake and candles were lit for the big occasion.

Stay with us. We’ve got three weeks of this to go yet.