Tag Archives: babies

Sacred space

Image result for dial house twickenham londonRambling house down by the River Thames where my in-laws lived and I spent much time.

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I loved the ordinariness of the countryside. It wasn’t spectacular country, but it contained all the elements of the things which are now becoming rarer. There were thick hedgerows, and wild flowers and long grass in the orchard where the fox sometimes slipped through, on his way to the field where the donkey grazed: little copses, with their bare, spare branches etched against the pale winter sky, or billowing with green foliage against a blue sky in summer: woodpigeons cooed, cuckoos called, thrushes sang, and the smells of cut grass and manure, of wet leaves and sweet lilacs scented the clean air.

There was no hum of traffic from a distant motorway and few  sounds apart from the occasional drone from a tractor, the creaking braying of the donkey, and contented cows mooing on their way to  milking.

There were other things which showed me the dark side of modem farming. Henry the farmer, who gently patted his thirty prize cows on their rumps as they slowly filed past to the milking shed, where they stood and gave up their warm, creamy milk to the strains of Viennese waltzes, showed me with pride, his solitary calves. Each one was alone and imprisoned in iron cradles where they stood unable to move, turn or lie down, trapped in compartments in pitch-dark sheds, preparing to become white veal. I’ve never eaten veal since.

The house had no mod cons – everything was as it had been since the Victorian aunt’s childhoods. We had never been able to afford a washing machine for the babies’ nappies, so the lack of one was no drawback for me. So, while each baby luxuriated in smocked viyella nighties from the White House in Bond Street and was aired daily in the expensive pram bought by doting paternal grandparents, their nappies were washed the old-fashioned way. In a boiler.

This was filled with a hose from the kitchen tap. I then switched on the heater in the boiler and let the water boil, bubbling and swirling the soap-sudded nappies. They always had the same smell, those boiled soap suds. At the end of the boiling operation which filled the kitchen with steam, I wheeled the pulsating monster to the kitchen sink, and gingerly prised the lid off. Then, with a pair of wooden tongs in theory, but in practise with a wooden spoon, I poked around the scalding nappies until one became hooked on the spoon. With a quick swing it was transferred from boiler to sink, and then the endless rinsing process began.

Nappy by nappy was hooked and swung from boiler to sink, steam misting up the windows, and billowing out through the kitchen door to the rest of the house. My fingers became so swollen that I couldn’t wear my rings any more. Some days I was only one dry nappy ahead of the babies. Now Newney Hall didn’t even have a boiler, but at least Napisan, (hurray,) had arrived on the market, and banished my boiling days forever, however un-hygienic the nappies may have been.

The amenities of the house began and ended with the calor gas stove, while the bathroom and loo were directly above the kitchen, presumably to economise on plumbing. Since the staircase was the other end of the house, this meant walking or running the whole length of the house twice to get upstairs to the bathroom, but at twenty- seven years old the inconveniences didn’t seem to matter.

Living so far away from the shops didn’t matter either. The village grocer delivered our food for the week on Friday afternoons. The butcher called in his van three times a week, as did the baker. The greengrocer called twice a week, and the milkman called every day to supply not just milk to use up the baby coupons, but also yogurt and butter.

My husband left first thing in the morning for the London train, taking the old Morris Traveller with him to the station. I found expensive purchases hidden in the back of that car – a hat from Lock’s, the oldest hat makers in the world, who’d been in business since 1676 – Nelson was wearing one of their tricornes at Trafalgar). There was a shirt from Gieves  (Nelson was wearing a suit made by the original Mr Gieves at Trafalgar too). I worried my extravagant husband was getting into debt again while I couldn’t afford a new lipstick). When we’d waved him away, toddler peeping over the stable door of the kitchen, the baby perched on my hip, we returned to the kitchen table to finish our breakfast.

After hastily scrubbing the high chair before the spat- out cereal set like concrete, polishing the chrome on the pram so my mother- in- law would not silently notice spots or rust marks, I handwashed cobweb-like shawls and lacy matinee jackets in cold water so that my mother-in-law could not suggest I’d turned them yellow by washing them in hot water.

And then more vacuuming, (why did I think it all had to be done every day? – ready for inspection, ma’am – my mother-in-law lived miles away ) sweeping, dusting, regular stoking of the fire, the acres of red and white tiled kitchen floor to be washed free of mud, all kept me busy till the baby woke and lunch loomed, and then the sieving and straining and mashing began, before more face-washing and bib-tying and strapping baby into his high chair and hoisting the toddler onto a cushion on a kitchen chair.

The slow routine of spooning and cooing to the baby and answering the toddler’s continuous eighteen- month- old chatter ended, with more face-washing and changes of nappies, before putting both children down for an afternoon sleep. This was the one hour in the day to myself. I ate my lunch standing at the draining board – cheese and biscuits – reading the newspapers –  Guardian and Telegraph from front to back – I’ve never been better informed. I didn’t dare read a book as I would have forgotten the time and my duties.

I was so tired I didn’t dare sit down either, or I would never have got up again. I hadn’t had an unbroken night’s sleep since the first child was born, and now, with the baby’s night feeds and the other’s broken nights ever since her father had returned from Cyprus, I was so ground down that I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be normal. Staying for Christmas with the in -laws, my mother- in- law told her son, who told me – how plain I had become. She was right!

The newspapers only lasted till the first child woke, and then their faithful slave would bound up the stairs or rush outside to the pram, checking the nappies, and freshening up their faces before we got dressed for our walk.

Living in a northern climate one becomes accustomed to the hours spent preparing to go outside into the cold or the rain. It must have taken twenty minutes or more to swathe each child in coats, hoods and zip-up jackets, ease tiny, bunched feet into warm boots, and wriggle fat, plasticine-like fingers into gloves or mittens. Then the strapping into the pram, buckling the harness, propping baby up on the pillows, tucking in the rugs to keep out the draughts, and finally, flinging on my sheepskin and gloves, wandering out at snail’s pace or toddler-pace, to gasp fresh air in lanes where the pram would go.

We never met another soul, looking across the frosty, bare, ploughed fields. We were five miles from the village and buried in primeval privacy. Back home, we watched the cows go past for milking, which was the signal for our tea-time. This meal, composed of much the same ingredients as lunch, but including any cakes I might have found time to make during my lunch break, began around four- thirty. This I know, because I switched on the radio when we started, to catch the five ‘o clock news, and so as not to disturb the children’s concentration by leaping up to switch on during their meal.

So I became a captive listener to ‘Mrs Dales’ Diary’, as I waited for the news to come on, and spooned food and baby talk into thrush-like, open mouths around the fireside. I listened with stilled breath to the Congo disasters, the Rhodesian Declaration of Independence, the bombing in Vietnam, the mistakes and injustices of authority all over the world, it seemed, yet these were almost incidental. The pressing reason for listening to the news was for the sheer pleasure of hearing another adult voice, to break the boredom and monotony of the endlessly repeated trivial tasks.

In summer, at twenty- past five every day, we watched the goose spoon water with her beak over her two goslings at the duck pond, before climbing the stairs for our baby bath-time and bed- time. It was always early – because they were ready for it, I said, and needed their sleep. So by six o’clock every night silence reigned. Perhaps they did need it – they certainly never argued and fell asleep straight away – but the real reason was that I needed it. People used to comment on how beautifully behaved they were – because they were always attended to – instantly!

Before the words ‘suburban neurosis’ had been coined, I’d have been ashamed to admit the boredom to anyone, but a wave of relief swept over me, unacknowledged every night, as I walked downstairs and poured a drink into a civilised, crystal sherry glass, for my one leisurely tot before beginning the cookhouse stint for my husband’s  dinner.

My marriage was breaking down already though my husband refused to go for counselling with marriage guidance. But before we left for Hong Kong, I had made a life for myself and found a circle of friends, Margery, the farmer’s wife who wrote poetry and read her poems aloud with a group called Poetry in Pubs. My nearest neighbour, was the Hon Jean, who had children the same age, which was the only thing we had in common, but she seemed to need me. Lady Selina, who divided her time equally between her painting, the stables and her children, and was both a Quaker, and a sort of enfant terrible was stimulating, while sweet Jennifer, whose children always fought with mine, shared a passion with me for interior decoration and gardening.

Eventually we left that enchanted house to go to Hong Kong, where the hectic life and chaos of those times almost obliterated the memories of that year in the country. But for years I have dreamt of that beloved house. In my dreams it’s bigger, and there are many more rooms. The furniture is more elegant and the rooms more beautiful.

There’s one room which is filled with such treasures that I only go into it sometimes… it feels sacred. I have no idea why I dream so often of this house I lived in for a short year so long ago. I don’t know what it symbolizes. I’ve lived in other houses and places just as magical…  no doubt a psychologist would mine some profound Jungian theory from these dreams, delving into the unconscious and maybe coming up with an archetype!

We spent the last few weeks in England with the in-laws at their rambling red brick Georgian house down by the river Thames. Built by Thomas Twining of the tea family in 1722, a big sun dial told the hours on the front of the house above the front door. Inside it was decorated with glorious colours and filled with treasures and exquisite antiques and china collected by my deaf, difficult, demanding mother- in- law, whose creativity and taste taught me so much.

The night we left, as we sat in a big car lent by friends of the in-laws to accommodate all our luggage, we four and the in-laws who were seeing us off on our plane, I looked up at the old house, illuminated by the street lights and wondered when I would see it again. No presentiment warned me it would be twelve years before I saw that sun dial again, after what had seemed like a life-time of heart-break, adventure, life in a far country, second marriage and extraordinary experiences.

To be continued

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

 A friend who has her mahjong foursome to stay here in the forest for a weekend once a year, usually brings them to my place for afternoon tea and we have a great girls natter. They always love my scones and want the recipe. This is it, so quick and easy: eight to ten ounces of SR flour, pinch salt and two to two and a half ounces of butter – I simply grate it cold from the fridge. Mix this altogether with an egg beaten in a cup of milk until it all comes together. Use more milk if you need, to make a soft dough.

I don’t bother to roll it or use a pastry cutter. Just gently knead it into a square, about an inch thick, cut it into small squares, and place with a space between them on a greased baking tin. Some say leave it in the fridge to cool… sometimes I do – if I don’t have time – que sera sera. Bake in hottish oven for fifteen minutes or until risen and done. Serve hot with butter, strawberry jam and whipped cream if you have it. If there are any left over (not often) I fry them with bacon and fried egg… nice…

Food for thought

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to satisfy me… CS Lewis – a man after my own heart.

 

 

 

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Filed under army, babies, beauty, cookery/recipes, environment, family, life/style, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, village life

Living in Splendour

 

Image result for layer marney towers
Layer Marney Towers – photo by Rachael Pereira photography

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Within two months I was pregnant again, and within four months we had moved house again. I was just as under the weather with this baby too, and also had a baby to care for. My husband was often away on army manoeuvres and what were called practise camps, so there wasn’t much support around.

The one difference this time was that I knew another young army wife with two young children who was as lonely and stressed as I was. Neither of us could drive, but we both had a telephone. We spent hours on it, never saying anything of much import, but just whiling away the time talking to another adult. We had very little in common, and when I moved house again some months later, I never heard from her again. But we’d each served a purpose in each other’s lives at that moment in time.

This time around too I also had the absorbing interest of watching my daughter growing. I’d discovered a fascination with child development after reading a sociological magazine called New Society for several years. Now I was watching child development in action.  I knew from my reading that from eighteen months to three years, when the brain is at its most active, children are like sponges, soaking up words, information and new skills and that between the ages of eighteen months and three, the toddler’s brain is twice as active as the adult brain.

As I watched my daughter, I could see that the range of skills babies acquire -physical, mental and emotional – was awe-inspiring. And I was watching a baby of ten months thinking and deducting. One Friday afternoon as I sat on the sofa feeling ill, hearing the helpful local grocer deliver our box of groceries for the week and leave it in the kitchen, my ten- month old daughter skated into the kitchen on her bottom, her normal mode of getting about. I let her. Some-time later she came through to the sitting room and tugged my hand, making it clear she wanted me to go into the kitchen.

When I did, I was awed. She had unpacked the box, putting the butter, cheese, bacon and yogurt by the fridge door which she couldn’t open. Neither could she open the cupboard door under the sink but the things like wash-up liquid, harpic, vim etc were neatly lined up by the cupboard door.

The jams, tins of baked beans etc, were neatly lined up on the lowest shelf in the larder where they were stored. Everything was in its place. Unbeknown to me she had watched me and learned where everything went, even stuff like baked beans and cleaning materials that she had no truck with. She’s continued to organise me ever since…

Her brother’s birth some months later and a fortnight early was so painful that I passed out, having no pain threshold at all, and my last thought being; “this is worse than anything I thought possible.” When I regained consciousness, I found a whole host of seemingly worried people gathered around my bed. I left hospital the next day so that my daughter wouldn’t notice that I’d gone and revelled in being thin again, and fitting into a tight pale blue dress bought by mail for three pounds from Kings Road, Chelsea, fashion capital of the world for my generation!

Shortly after the birth of his son, my restless husband decided to apply to learn Mandarin-Chinese and take off for Hongkong. This entailed spending a year at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before attending Hongkong University for several years. So we had to find somewhere to live within reach of the capital.

One night I was cursorily scanning the personal columns of the Daily Telegraph looking for somewhere to live. My husband was away with his regiment on manoeuvres, and I was filling in the trying gap between the baby’s ten o’clock and two o’clock feed.

I found a few lines offering a country house in the right area for nearly the right price – for a year. The next day I rang. The owner was delighted – he was off to Greenwich Naval College and wanted someone to keep his house warm. “Chudor, ya’ know,” he told me, listing the bedrooms… he said he’d pay the gardener.

We arranged a time that weekend to inspect the place, and when my husband returned the next day he went off on what he called a recce. He came back looking rather panic-stricken. “It’s bigger than Hampton Court,” he said, “and looks like it too, all red brick.”

Reference books describe the place – Layer Marney Towers as a Tudor palace, composed of buildings, gardens and parkland, dating from 1520. The handsome red brick gate house is the tallest in England.

Undaunted, I persevered, rather fancying the idea of living in a stately home. We’d never be able to heat it, my husband argued, and then I saw the light – with an eighteen- month- old and a four- month- old, that mattered.

So I returned to the personal columns, and struck gold a week later. “This one sounds OK”, I said,” right area, right rent, and only five bedrooms” (my ideas had expanded considerably since my brush with Layer Marney Towers the previous week). I rang the owner – same story – wanted someone to live in it for a year, this time while he wound up his boat building business in East Anglia. “You’ll love it,” he said, and reeled off the amenities: “there’s the garden bedroom, the oak bedroom, the red bedroom, the four- poster bedroom, and the end bedroom…” My husband panicked again.

But a few days later we set off on a light June evening driving through quiet Essex lanes, with honeysuckle and dog roses winding in among the high hazel, hawthorn and elderberry hedges. We found Newney Hall (also a listed historic building) dreaming between fields and hedgerows, a small lake – which in the twilight was almost black and edged with a tangle of lilacs and shrubs – lying between it and the road. The house, Tudor red brick, and Essex pantiles on the upper floor with casement windows, stretched beyond the lake, reaching into a circular lawn with a cedar in the middle. Beyond that, a walled orchard.

As we walked down the gravel drive I could hear the sounds of music coming from the house. A knock on the door revealed a rather vague looking woman with a viola tucked under one arm, and the bow held in her other hand, as though she could hardly bear to stop between bars to open the door. “George!” she called imperiously, and the seigneur hurried to welcome us. Within minutes the deal was done, and we moved in a week or so later.

The house had been built in the time of Edward the Sixth, Henry the Eighth’s son, and all the land around had been gifted to Wadham College, Oxford in the same reign, so nothing in the landscape had changed for over four hundred years. The fields and trees, lanes and barns were untouched by time, and since there was no sound of traffic, no jet planes practising, and only occasionally the sound of a distant tractor, the whole place lay wrapped in an almost primeval peace. There was no other house in sight.

Wood pigeons cooed incessantly somewhere in the trees, cocooning us in their summer sounds, the donkey in the next field brayed occasionally, the cows mooed as they shambled past to the milking shed at the farm beyond the house. The old black painted, red-roofed tiled barns, grain sheds on staddle stones, and stables were laid out around a square, where the cows sheltered in winter. I walked across to the cow- shed every day, my eighteen month old trotting along beside me, baby on my hip, and carrying a big cream- ware jug in which to to collect my fresh milk. We also went there to pick up new-laid eggs from the farmer.

The house was built from huge beams and filled in between them with a mixture of mud and straw. They were plastered over, and the walls were about three feet thick, with deep window ledges where I put books and vases of flowers. Two old aunts had been living in the house before expiring and gifting it to George. In the mid-sixties they were over ninety, and the house was unchanged since the days when they had been born back in the 1870’s. So was the dust. When I moved an antique chest of drawers to dust behind it, a thrush disintegrated into fine powder.

I scrubbed and polished, opened windows, put flowers in jugs in the deep window sills, polished brass, and made the tables shine, re-arranged the country Hepplewhite chairs, and the drop-leaf Sheraton table, cleared thick cobwebs from behind the family portraits and arranged our still -new wedding presents, clocks and silver, antique oriental rugs and a few good prints and pictures, all my books, and the baby’s equipment and paraphernalia.

I spring cleaned from top to bottom, washed curtains, scrubbed floors,  and polished and dusted the elegant Chippendale chairs. It was like living in a time warp. No heating, a gas stove so old I’d never seen one like it, and neither had the serviceman when he came. If it’s working, best leave it, he said, shaking his head. I had a big kitchen with a big square scrubbed table in the middle, red and white checked tiled floor which needed scrubbing on my hands and knees every week, and a real larder with marble slab. The only gadgets – my wedding present pop-up toaster and a wooden spoon!

At weekends, we filled the house with friends and others. School friends from Malaya, friends from my laughing, irresponsible army days, all of us weighted down with two and sometimes a half, children. Anne coming to stay while her husband laboured through Staff College, forgot the address, so simply peered at windows of large houses till she saw toys in them, she said.

Others came in distress, a girl friend known since childhood days at Catterick, diagnosed with MS, a fellow officer of my husband’s who’d been court- martialled, and who had nowhere to go; then there was the Polish-French, Quaker student at London University who’d never been invited to an English home in his previous three years, and who told my husband I worked too hard – which puzzled me exceedingly – didn’t everyone who had children?

There was the person behind an SOS in the personal columns of the Telegraph – pregnant and needing a home. She stayed for six long weeks, lolling around the house in pink, fluffy, bed-room slippers, never leaving me in privacy with my new-found neighbourly friends, and not enjoying my food. She’d left a previous haven because she didn’t like the vegetarian food. She left us after six weeks for another address, presumably hoping the food there would be better. She’d arranged to give the baby to a woman who wanted one!

And there was my teenage cousin who introduced me to the Beatles – not in person! She had a genius IQ and had been sent to an expensive boarding school to make the most of it. But she hated her school, and at this juncture, her mother too, so she came to us for regular holidays with tangled hair and skimpy skirts. There were parents and in -laws, brothers and their girl- friends, Helen, my former colonel, now a god-mother… and then back to primeval peace during the week

All this entertaining meant lots of food and cooking. Now we were at last the grateful recipients of marriage allowance, I was able to move on from mince and baked beans and tins of stewed steak and indulge in good food and pander to my sweet tooth with chocolate souffles, choux pastries, croquembouche, mousses and more.

My husband meanwhile had made plenty of new friends in his new working environment, including a pretty blonde girl called Angela. Although I liked her when he brought her home, we had several fierce rows because he went to parties with her, leaving me at home with the babies. I tried everything to make home seem attractive, cooking delicious dinners for him, having a drink waiting for him when he got home…

One night during one an angry argument about Angela, I dumped his steak and kidney pudding and vegetables on my husband’s head in despair. Mistake. He was a tall powerful man who never understood that when he hit my head with the full force of his hand, I wasn’t doing a Hollywood as he called it, when I sank to the ground too nauseous and dizzy to stay upright. On this night, apart from painful physical reprisals, I’d given myself lots of cleaning up to do.

And later, I lay in the long sweet -smelling grass in the orchard, where I’d seen the red fox glide through, and cried my eyes out under the late evening summer sky. At twenty- seven I thought no-one would ever love me.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’ve always made the same recipe for chocolate mousse, using an egg per six squares of dark chocolate, but this three ingredient recipe from NZ cookery writer, Annabel Langbein, is a delicious quick alternative. She uses 200g dark chocolate and recommends chocolate with as high a chocolate content as possible – I use 72% .

Break the chocolate into squares and melt very slowly and gently with a cup of cream and a cup of white marshmallows. (250 ml of cream, and 100gm of marshmallows.)

When smooth and melted remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Beat remaining cream to soft peaks and fold through chocolate mixture. Pour into glasses or bowls and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight before serving.

Most recipes recommend putting the ingredients in a bowl and placing over boiling water to melt. I’ve never bothered. I just put everything into a saucepan and gently melt. The trick is to do it slowly so the mixture doesn’t go grainy but becomes smooth. And if it does become grainy, this doesn’t affect the taste, so you can soldier on regardless! And I always add a few drops of vanilla to the mix.

Food for thought

 We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.

Ernest Hemingway, American writer and hell-raiser

Having huge issues with internet, so apologies for no response to the beautiful comments before this page clicks out on me. Back soon !!

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We’re all born brainy !

100_0108When Catherine Windsor aka Kate Middleton drove away from hospital the other week with her day old baby she did an interesting thing. She waved to the ecstatic crowds with her left hand, but her right hand was resting gently on the baby’s stomach as he lay in his car seat for the first time in his short life. She was so tuned in to her baby that she knew instinctively not to let go physical contact with him, but to re-assure him with her touch. It was rather beautiful, and I wished that all babies could have had that gentle bonding with their parents, meaning I wished that all babies could be secure and happy!

I find it incredible that we all, from day one, possess nearly all the neurons in the brain that we will ever have – nerve cells to you and me – even though most are not yet connected in networks. And this connecting process is so rapid in the first year, that by twelve months, the baby’s brain is close to the adult brain. Sound, sight, touch, taste and smell are the senses through which from birth to one year we learn about the world, usually through playing.

From eighteen months to three years, when the brain is at its most active, children are like sponges, soaking up words, information and new skills. It’s amazing to me that between the ages of eighteen months and three, the toddler’s brain is twice as active as the adult brain.

And this is also when the structures of the brain that are sensitive to language and social-emotional responses develop, while motor development, or physical skills are developing at a rapid pace too.

When we actually look at what babies learn to do in those first few years of life, the range of skills, physical, mental and emotional is awe-inspiring. By the time children reach three to six years, they enter the fastest growth period for the frontal lobe networks, including emotional development, speed of processing, memory and problem solving. By six years, the brain is at ninety per cent of its adult weight.

And at the same time babies are learning how to be people! Modern research has shown that when babies are happy, talked to, sung to, cuddled, included, and have lots of eye contact, what are known in neuropsychology as the “ the hormones of loving connection” nourish the brain and stimulate the growth of connections in the regions of the brain to do with emotions. The simple things that loving parents do with their babies, help them to grow into considerate, loving and confident people from the very beginning.

This nourishment for the emotional centres of the growing brains makes babies feel secure and happy, and means they tend to be more independent, confident, more resilient, empathetic and caring. Babies who are comforted when they’re upset, grow up knowing that nothing is really a disaster, so they are the ones who don’t panic or go into despair when things go wrong.

Because they learned when they were little that everything passes, they can cope. Adults who didn’t get this sort of  supportive parenting tend to re-act to stress with behaviour like flying off the handle, losing their temper, blaming other people, or going into despair and depression -because they grew up with a lot of fear and no faith that life would support them.

Researchers now know that when a baby is left to cry, cortisol levels rise in the brain. If the baby is lovingly comforted after a stressful incident, the body absorbs the excess cortisol. But if the stress happens regularly the cortisol levels remain high and become toxic to the brain cells. Cortisol can cause damage to the emotional centres of the brain, and if this happens regularly children grow up prone to anxiety, anger and depression. The old advice to leave a baby to cry has meant many insecure and sad children, and sometimes, angry violent adults.

Enlightened child experts now feel that this deprivation of loving attention, comfort and understanding of a baby is responsible for many problems in older children – problems ranging from ADHD, depression, panic attacks, phobias, eating disorders, anxiety and substance abuse. So children and young adults with these problems are not innately troublesome or born with a pre-disposition to these problems. They simply didn’t get enough emotional food for the brain – those hormones of loving connection.

I researched this stuff for an article in a parenting magazine I write for. It blew me away to realise what intelligence and potential are already contained within those tiny wizened little day-old babies. It’s so easy to think that just because they can’t talk or communicate with us yet, that they don’t have the thoughts and feelings that research shows us they do. Maybe it’s we who need to work on our communication skills, rather than the babies, who seem to be doing huge amounts of unseen work and learning while we change their nappies and feed them and put them to sleep.

They are so hard-wired to learn and absorb and connect with our world, that as long as we cuddle and talk and sing to them, they seem to do most of the work themselves. Babies are such miracles of complexity and potential, and each single one, wherever it is born in the world, has all this potential and complexity. And yet at this moment we all know too, that only some babies will have the chance to become who they were born to be.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When I want to spoil my grandchildren – and that is all the time – I make them their favourite pudding. For one it’s chocolate mousse, for another a family favourite we call pink pudding, and for everyone – a lemon meringue tart.

I usually make the pastry case ahead, so all there is to do later is to squeeze two lemons and make up their juice to half a pint with water. Use some of the liquid to mix with an ounce of cornflour, and boil the rest before stirring it on the cornflour mixture. In a pan, boil it for three minutes, then stir in an ounce of butter, an ounce of sugar and the grated rind from the two lemons. Cool slightly, add three egg yolks and pour this mixture into the tart case. Bake in a moderate oven for about 25 minutes or until set.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff, gently fold in three ounces of castor sugar, and pile onto the lemon tart. Dredge with castor sugar and return to a cool oven until the meringue is set and slightly browned.

 Food for thought

If you have not often felt the joy of doing a kind act, you have neglected much, and most of all yourself.   Anonymous

 

 

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Filed under babies, consciousness, cookery/recipes, family, great days, happiness, human potential, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

A refined conversation

0000534There were six of us sitting at the dining table. The only husband was ‘a former naval person’, in the words of Winston Churchill signing off his telegrams to President Roosevelt. My husband wasn’t well enough to join us, so the rest of us were what some people would call old ladies, but I don’t think it had occurred to any of us.

There was the magnificent matriarch, well into her eighties, now a great grandmother, still jetting around the globe to various children and grand-children, still walking her dogs every day, still wiping the floor with everyone at bowls and golf, still giving lectures on arcane subjects to U3A, the university of the old, still beautiful, slim and elegantly dressed. She was entertaining two of the other ladies in her sea-side house, so I’d suggested they come for lunch.

One of her friends was a gardening devotee, fresh from a tour of the gardens in Melbourne …  sitting beside her, she and I discussed great Australian gardeners like Andrew Pfeiffer and Edna Walling. Magnificent matriarch’s other friend was the titled widow of a distinguished sailor, and a painter, while my other friend, who also painted and had spent her life in France, also sported a title. So you might think that we would generate a decorous and refined level of conversation. I’m not sure what triggered the subject of washing nappies, but this generated more energy, heat, and hysterical laughter than many other subjects before or since around that dining table.

We explored the horrors of scraping and rinsing, the wringing out and pegging on the line outside in freezing cold with frozen fingers. I described my primitive electric boiler on wheels, into which I placed a hose for the water. In it I put the horrid wet smelly nappies and soap powder, and boiled it up, steam filling the kitchen while a particular smell of boiling clothes would penetrate the place. When they’d boiled sufficiently, the heavy boiler had to be rolled to the kitchen sink, the nappies fished out one at a time and swung from the boiler into the sink for rinsing. We all agreed that we used a wooden spoon for this rather than the tongs. By now the kitchen was filled with steam and all the windows misted up.

The sailor’s widow claimed that her lot was worse than the rest of us. She didn’t even have a boiler, but had to fill a bucket and lug it across to boil it on the top of her stove, which then entailed heaving the boiling bucket with stewing nappies back across the kitchen to the sink. The magnificent matriarch reminded us of how the fingers used to swell with all this rubbing and wringing, and I remembered how I’d stopped wearing my wedding and engagement rings as my fingers had swelled so much.

French lady complained about the horror of having a baby sitting on your lap, and the sudden realisation that the bottom of the baby was sodden. Sailor’s widow and I swapped notes on the anguish of getting them dry in a cold climate. Her husband was stationed in Canada then, and mine in England. We carried stiff , square, frozen nappies in from outside, and draped them over a clothes horse or chair in front of the fire to thaw them and dry them. With two babies under two, I was often only one nappy ahead of each baby. No such thing as a dryer back then – a clothes horse in those days was made of wood, with hinges of heavy-duty linen.

We discussed the fine cotton inner nappy and the bulky outer terry towelling nappy, and the great day when plastic outer pants were invented, thus saving us from the trauma of the wet nappy sitting in the lap. Former naval person sitting at the end of the table sat riveted with horror at this refined lunch-time conversation, and rolling his eyes and groaning at intervals, just to remind us he was there.

We happily ploughed on eating our chicken vol- au- vent, and alcoholic dried fruit compote for pudding, his revulsion just giving an added edge to our enjoyment – maybe even revenge for the trials we had all endured. We envied flower expert’s possession of a high-ceilinged old fashioned kitchen which had meant she had room for an airing rack on a pulley to dry everything in the warm air up on the ceiling. French lady boasted that by the time she had her last child, she could order a nappy service in Paris to collect and deliver. We practically jeered at this decadence, sailor’s wife claiming with determination that she had had the worst experience with nappies, and who could argue… buckets, frozen nappies, an’all ?

Our children had it easy, we all agreed, and we had all noticed that our grandchildren never had any problems with nappy rash from their easy disposables. Threat though they are to the environment, this, we agreed was a huge plus, freeing  mothers from the guilt which we experienced if any of our babies  displayed that bright red rash, for which we blamed ourselves for not rinsing the nappies well enough, or not changing them often enough.

This burning subject and un-savoury occupation which kept five intelligent, well-educated  women from prosperous backgrounds fully occupied for years of their lives, would seem utterly trivial to today’s mothers, who not only enjoy disposable nappies, but washing machines and dryers which do the job at the touch of a button.

But today’s women also juggle jobs with housework, children and commuting. I don’t envy them. Though fifties women are considered a joke by most people now-a-days, we actually had time to spend with our children and ourselves. And our trials were very character-forming!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Dried fruit compote is one of the easiest luxurious puddings I know. Roughly chop about three cups of dried peaches, prunes, figs and apricots into three cups of cold tea and add rum to taste, plus a cup of brown sugar. Add a stick of cinnamon, six cloves, and two or three star anise and at least a teasp of vanilla essence. Gently heat and simmer until soft, and serve hot or cold with crème fraiche or whipped cream, and maybe a little shortbread biscuit. Peeled sliced apple and tamarilloes are also good in the mix. Add more liquid is needed.

Food for Thought

In Islam, especially among the Sufi orders, siyahat or ‘errance’ – the action or rhythm of walking – was used as a technique for dissolving the attachments of the world and allowing men to lose themselves in God.

Bruce Chatwin,  1940 – 1989  Traveller and writer

 

 

 

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Abortion is Hundreds of Shades of Grey

Abortion is not a cut and dried, black and white issue, which is how it seems to be being debated in the US. It’s hundreds of shades of grey. It’s about more than religion and women’s rights. It’s about a baby’s right to happiness.

When does an unwanted child become a happy child? Does a woman already worn out with childbearing, want another baby when she already has a houseful, courtesy of a husband? Does a thirteen year old, raped and pregnant, really want that child? Does she know how to be a mother? Does she or her family want a child who is bearing half the genes of the rapist?

Does a solo mother who made a mistake, and trying to make ends meet, really want to carry another child and bring it up, when she can’t afford the ones she already has? Does the college student, pregnant after an encounter in which the boy has disappeared in panic, really want a child who is going to blight her chances in college, and who she can’t afford?

Unwanted babies rarely become happy children. In Sweden where they’ve had a liberal policy for years, they carried out a study on the children whose mothers were refused abortion. They started the study with the children who had actually survived to their fifth birthday! The findings were heart-breaking. Most of these children did badly at school, had a range of emotional and physical problems, found it hard to make friends, and when it came to military service, most of them were rejected because they weren’t physically fit enough.

Which tells us about the lot of unwanted children. Worse still, the latest research has shown that if a mother is depressed in pregnancy – and carrying an unwanted child would surely make you depressed – it damages the development of the baby’s emotional centres of the brain, which in follow-up  studies showed that these babies were depressed for most of their lives, and prone to depressive illnesses.

Brain research has also shown us that when a baby is loved, and his or her mother spends time cuddling, talking, singing, playing, making eye contact – feel-good hormones feed into the connections of the brain in which emotional development takes place. When a baby is deprived of these’ hormones of loving connection’, as they’re called, and left to cry, feeling unloved and alone, then cortisone builds up in the brain, damaging the emotional centres. Child psychologists are now sheeting back most childhood problems like AHD, depression, anti –social behaviour, anxiety, panic attacks, to the first months of the child’s life when she was deprived of the emotional food for the brain that makes a happy child.

Obviously not all unwanted children end up as delinquent, but there are many more child suicides than we hear of – of children as young as eight or ten – there are many unhappy depressed children who grow into unhappy miserable adults, who make unhappy miserable parents, and there are also children who overcome the handicaps of their parenting and past, and grow into decent kind, even enlightened adults who have much to give the world.

It’s easy to recognise an unwanted child. They often have bad posture, they often look anxiously sideways, as though ready for the harsh word or even blow. They are always gauging the atmosphere – are the adults ok, or is it a bad day? They find it hard to look you in the eye, because they have no trust.  They have lots of accidents, sometimes caused by the adults, sometimes because accident-prone children have emotional problems… and this is just a short list of how to recognise unhappy children..

So before trying to make hard and fast rules which control women’s sexuality, perhaps we should be looking with real insight and compassion into the needs of children.

If the people – usually men- who advocate that all women should bear all babies, are they also offering support, both emotional, material, and financial to help women to bring up these unwanted babies? But how do you make a woman want a baby, if she doesn’t want the child of her rapist? I can’t imagine what it must be like to carry a child you don’t want, it was tough enough being pregnant with children I did want.

And of course a mother carrying an unwanted child is going to feel hostile and resentful, unless the miracle of bonding occurs at birth. But as any farmer will tell you, that vital connection, which ensures the life of his lambs or calves, can easily be broken.

The magic hormones that flow through the body of a woman during pregnancy and afterwards, that ensure the safe and happy birth of a baby, don’t operate automatically in all circumstances – women’s emotions are also part of the equation – they are not  child bearing machines any more than an animal is.

So to impose on all women, regardless of their age or circumstances or beliefs, a one size fits all rule is not only an infringement of women’s rights and their ability to conduct their own life, but also complete insensitivity to the needs of a baby, and complete ignorance about the miracle of birth, life and the growth of the human spirit .

If the no- abortion rule is applied to women, I feel that a compulsory sterilisation or vasectomy programme should also apply to any man who begets an unwanted child. This would probably solve the problem satisfactorily. Women would know that they were not being unfairly discriminated against if men were also subject to the same draconian principles being  promised to women, and men would know that they had to be responsible for their actions too.

If this meant a shortage of children with so many men unable to have children, then the unwanted children could be adopted into homes where a child was really, truly, wanted. Imagine a world where all children were happy – now that’s a vision to aim for – both in the US and all over the world.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I was desperate for some chocolate the other day, and only had dark chocolate in the house which doesn’t do it for me. So I decided to make a chocolate cake. By the time it was cooked and iced several hours later, the craving had left me, but we were also left with a lovely chocolate almond cake!

I melted four ounces of butter with four ounces of black chocolate and left it to cool. In a large bowl whisk four eggs with six ounces of castor sugar until thick and white – it does take a bit of time. When they’re ready, fold in the chocolate mixture in several batches, alternating with six ounces of ground almonds. Add a teasp of vanilla, and pour into a greased tin lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake for about three-quarters of an hour at 200 degrees or just under. The cake should be slightly undercooked, and should be left to cool and shrink a little in the pan.

When it’s ready to turn out, let it cool completely before icing it. I use three ounces of butter to about eight ounce of icing sugar, and a few teasp of water or freshly squeezed orange juice, and whisk them altogether, adding a bit more liquid if I need it. It’s an incredibly rich cake, and though it’s delicious the first day, I think it improves with keeping -if you can!

Food for Thought

It is harder for us today to feel near to God among the streets and houses of the city than it is for country folk. For them the harvested fields bathed in the autumn mists speak of God and his goodness far more vividly than any human lips.

Albert Schwietzer  1875 – 1965   Humanitarian, medical missionary,  Doctor of Theology, Doctor of Music, Nobel prize-winner and philosopher.

 

 

 

 

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Happiness is Our Birthright

I was sitting in my favourite coffee place perversely enjoying a cup of hot chocolate when a young man walked in, carrying his year old baby girl.

As he waited in the queue I saw him drop a kiss on the baby’s head, and I thought to myself, she’s going to be alright. I’d just finished writing a story for a parenting magazine, about bringing up emotionally stable children. I’d turned it round to write a headline, happy children become stable and intelligent people.

Because it’s easy for parents to think they have to be perfect, I made the point that it’s loving parents who take the time to listen and to remember the golden rule about doing to others as you wish to be done to you, who make the difference…

We all want to be comforted when we’re miserable, to be heard when we say something, to enjoy the company of those we love, to have enough to eat and drink and get enough sleep – which is exactly what babies need – they are people too!

But the really important thing for people to know is that cuddling is the answer to all the ills of mankind! Modern research has shown that when babies are happy, talked, too, sung too, cuddled, included, have lots of eye contact, what are known in neuropsychology as the “ the hormones of loving connection” nourish the brain and stimulate the growth of connections in the regions of the brain concerned with regulating emotions. The simple things that loving parents do with their babies, help them to become a considerate, loving and confident people from the very beginning.

This nourishment for the emotional centres of the growing brains makes children feel secure and happy, and means they tend to be more independent, confident, more resilient, empathetic and caring. Children who are comforted when they’re upset, grow up knowing that nothing is really a disaster, so they are the ones who don’t panic or go into despair when things go wrong. Because they learned when they were little that everything passes, they can cope. Adults who didn’t get this sort of  supportive parenting tend to re-act to stress with in-appropriate behaviours like flying off the handle, losing their temper, blaming other people, or going into despair and depression -because they grew up with a lot of fear and no faith that life would support them.

This is other side of the coin – the research which has shown what most mothers instinctively know, that it’s bad for babies to be left to cry. Imagine being tiny and helpless, unable to move or speak, with crying our only way to get attention when we’re hungry, frightened, lonely or whatever, and we can begin to imagine the panic and powerlessness of a baby left to cry. And if we knew that the person we relied on was there, but ignoring us, we’d feel even more abandoned and hopeless. We’d learn that we can’t trust the people we love and need.

Researchers now know that when a baby is left to cry, cortisol levels rise in the brain. If the baby is lovingly comforted after a stressful incident, the body absorbs the excess cortisol. But if the stress happens regularly the cortisol levels remain high and become toxic to the brain cells. Cortisol can cause damage to the emotional centres of the brain, and if this happens regularly children grow up prone to anxiety, anger and depression. The old advice to leave a baby to cry has meant many insecure and sad children.

Psychologists now feel that this deprivation of loving attention, comfort and understanding of a baby is responsible for many problems in older children – problems ranging from ADHD, depression, panic attacks, phobias, eating disorders, anxiety and substance abuse. So children and young adults with these problems are not innately troublesome or born with a pre-disposition to these problems. They simply didn’t get enough emotional food for the brain- those hormones of loving connection.

All of which means: cuddling is good for babes, crying is bad for them – and the same applies to us all. If you’ve ever cried yourself to sleep from misery, and felt that awful depression when you wake up un-refreshed, you’ll know how it is for far too many babies – simply because their mothers don’t know.

If we saw a ten year old sitting and crying while we were chatting and having coffee, we’d ask her what the matter was. But if it’s a baby crying, too often we simply ignore him. So I make it my life’s work to admire people’s babies in the supermarket or elsewhere, and then say, you know the more you cuddle him, the happier and the cleverer he’ll be, and if they’re interested, explain. Often young mothers react with huge relief, as though they’ve been given permission to cuddle as much as they want. (They may also say what a boring old bat, when I’ve gone!)

Maybe we could change the world if we all cuddled our babies, and rushed to comfort a crying one. No more sad and miserable children getting punished for behaviour they don’t understand and then growing into depressed or angry adults, taking it out on the world which felt so harsh to them when they were babies. And we could probably all do with lots more hormones of loving connection ourselves, too.

And then maybe when we all have enough of them, Love will at last prevail.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Out for lunch today, so we just needed a light supper. Leeks are still cheap and plentiful, so leeks it was tonight. Take enough leeks for two – they vary in size so much, that it’s easier to estimate your own. Butter an ovenproof dish, split the leeks lengthways and lay them in the dish. Stir 300 grammes of freshly grated Parmesan cheese into 400 mls of thick cream. Pour this over the leeks and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for twenty minutes until the leeks are cooked and the cream is bubbling.

Meanwhile hard- boil an egg per person and chop them up. Scatter the eggs over the leeks, and cover with more grated parmesan. Put the dish back in the oven for about five  minutes until the cheese has melted, and then give it a quick grill to brown the top.

Serve with crusty bread and some salad.

 

Food for Thought

I am as young as the most beautiful wish in my heart, and as old as the unfulfilled longings in my life.                   Saying of the pygmy Kalahari Desert Bushmen

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Real Things Matter

It has to be real coffee. I can’t bear the taste of instant coffee with that smell of dry cleaning fluid lurking beneath the coffee fragrance.

No tea bags either. I reverted long ago to a tea-pot and a tea caddy. I love the meditative ritual of boiling the kettle, spooning the tea leaves from the caddy, and enjoy using a beautiful circular shaped silver spoon with a little intricately worked handle. I wonder who used it for this purpose in the past. When the tea is made, the pot goes on a tray with a cup and saucer with Redoute roses on it, a matching milk jug and tea plate. There’s also a little cream French provincial jug which holds hot water to make the tea weaker if I want. It’s Twinings’ lapsang souchong, the delicate smoky taste such a habit now that I never drink anything else.

I sometimes think that this will be my greatest deprivation when I’m shunted into an old people’s home – which is why I’ll be drinking a nice pot of hemlock before that happens.It’s the same with the ritual of the breakfast coffee and tray. It gives me such a sense of well being to enjoy these pretty things, instead of keeping them for best, and to eat and drink good, honest, unpolluted foodstuffs. There’s also a feeling of mindfulness as I savour these little things.

There’s no way I’d have mucked- around butter on my table either. We have the real thing, not some mixture with chemicals and oils to pretend to ourselves that it’s better for us than butter. I simply can’t believe that a pure substance like butter could be bad for you when the other is filled with all sorts of food substitutes.

The fact is, I don’t want any substitutes in my life. I want the real thing. I don’t want plastic plant pots in my garden, I want lovely terra cotta pots, the sort you find in Beatrix Potter’s pictures of Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s garden. I don’t want hybrid dwarf ageratum and stunted shasta daisies and miniature dahlias in the garden. I want the old fashioned blue ageratum with long stems to loll for most of the year at the back of the border. I want tall straight Shasta daisies, not mean little blooms cowering among the lavender, and in autumn I want those big shaggy dahlias shaking their blowsy heads at the sun, not struggling to find a space among the marigolds. Same with bouncy blue agapanthus. Who wants miniature agapanthus when the real thing is so gorgeous?

I’ve always hated synthetic fabrics. Give me real wool and cotton, linen and silk any day, whether we’re talking clothes or furnishings. And now they’ve discovered that many of the synthetics we use in curtains and carpets emit fumes which are dangerous to health – so why use them? Same with many building materials in modern homes. Houses of yesteryear, built using natural products were not unhealthy like so many modern homes. And we now also know that many of the synthetic fabrics in homes are easily inflammable and burn fast, unlike wool which takes a long time to catch fire.

Apart from the safety and health aspect, natural fibres and natural building products are beautiful.  Worse, our devotion to synthetics and plastic means that we’re using up oil to create much of the litter that’s strangling our planet. The monstrous islands of rubbish as big as continents in the oceans, are made up of plastic. The plastic breaks down into tiny shards and gets into the fish food chain, and finally into us. Serve us right.

Then there’s plastic bags! When I lived in Hong Kong over forty years ago, plastic hadn’t caught on, so we’d take home our food from the markets wrapped in real leaves and tied with real dried reeds. These small parcels were exquisite little works of art, and every Chinese shopkeeper and hawker could create them and tie them with the same instinctive skill. Even in English villages back when, we used string bags to carry our groceries home, not disposable plastic bags. Disposable of course, is a misnomer. Throwaways, yes, but then it takes aeons for the plastic to decompose.

And yes, in my day, of course we had the real thing – cloth nappies. And though the debate rages about the good and bad effects on the planet of disposables versus cloth nappies, at least you can go on using cloth nappies for years afterwards as dusters, car cleaning cloths, and so on, if you don’t pass them on to someone else.

 Actually, the debate over babies having the real thing is not funny, but is sometimes a matter of life and death in developing countries.The big global conglomerates, many of them American, have run such successful campaigns convincing Third World and Asian mothers that their babies are better off with powdered milk, that in Thailand for example, only five per cent of mothers now breast feed their babies. Babies all over the undeveloped world are being fed milk products which too often are mixed with polluted water, for lack of good hygeine. In China, unscrupulous middle-men added industrial additives to New Zealand milk powder to make it go further, and make bigger profits, with the result that thousands of babies ended up in hospital with serious permanent internal damage, and many died. So having the real thing is actually not a frivolous matter. It can be the difference between life and death. And what can be more real than a mother’s milk?

So having got this off my chest, I’m now going to make Welsh rarebit for our light evening meal. It’ll be brown bread, cooked by the local artisan baker, unprocessed cheddar cheese, real butter, and to my chagrin, the milk will be the processed stuff we all have to consume by law. No-one nowadays knows what fresh untampered -with milk tastes like. In my childhood, the cream used to sit at the top of the bottle of real milk delivered to the doorstep, and in cold weather, the sparrows would peck through the lids to get at the cream. They knew the real thing when they saw it.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Cheese goes further when used as Welsh rarebit, rather than straightforward cheese on toast, and the difference in flavour and texture is rather attractive for a change. So using an ounce of butter and a level tablespoon of flour – somewhere between half to an ounce, melt the butter and stir in the flour until smooth. Add enough milk, or milk and half beer, to make a stiff mixture. Then add a teaspoon of mixed mustard, a few drops of Worcester sauce, salt and pepper, and about six ounces of grated cheese. Stir it altogether and make sure the cheese is amalgamated. Don’t overcook or the cheese will become oily. Spread this mixture on four slices of buttered toast, and grill until golden brown. Serve at once. This amount will satisfy two greedy people, or four well-behaved people.

Food for Thought

Pilgrim,remember                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              For all your pain                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        The Master you seek abroad                                                                                                                                                                                                                You will find at home                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Or seek in vain.                 Anonymous 7th century poet

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