Networking. Not something I was born to, but I am told by people in the know that I have to, on occasion, make an effort. One such recent occasion had managed to worm its way into my diary so I found myself entering the lobby of a fabulously traditional venue in London, the kind I hadn’t known still existed: doormen in tails and hats, marble floors, curved stairs with brass railings, “powder rooms”.
As I worked my way across the room in the direction of someone I wanted to speak to I was accosted by an important looking older man. He checked my name tag and said “Oh, you don’t have any children then?” That was a bad start. I instantly disliked the guy. Every fiber in my being stirred against the presumptuousness of this man, and worse, that he was only asking a personal question to find out the first thing about me at a professional networking event. Somehow I managed to exercise restraint and simply respond “sure I do”, perhaps a little too curtly but not so much he noticed. “Oooh, how many?” I always want to say “10!” when the question is put to me like that, but again I desisted. He went on to ask me how old my children were, and when I said my oldest was 15 he exclaimed “Surely not! You don’t look old enough!” And instantly I mellowed, and forgave him all his stupidity. What a lovely man!
Britain closed shop to party this week, so I found myself with a week’s holiday on my hands. Ok, really this happened because I have been working so hard I haven’t been taking my holidays, and if I don’t take them soon they will be lost. I hate losing so I booked time off and mentally prepared myself to go sit in the sun with a book for the week. I bought suntan lotion and an extra book. Weeded the garden a few weeks ago, so I’m all set. And then it rains. A lot.
As the forecast was for rain all week, “occasionally hard and persistent”, as one radio professional puzzlingly put it, I had a choice to make: mope around the house all week and end up arguing with husband, who is setting up a new online business from the study; cancel my leave and go back to work; or finally paint the house. You’d have to be hare brained not to understand option 1 was not a smart choice, so I won’t elaborate further. Option 2 was frankly no-go as well: I am p*d off with my employers right now; I would do myself a disservice not to distract myself for a while. I have to dip into my inner energy pool to manage going back smiling. So, painting it is!
We have lived in this house for 5 years and never touched the walls, which were covered by some dusty coat that is supposedly meant to let the walls “breathe” – apparently a new house breathes. I’d have to modify that statement: the children did touch the walls, leaving their grimy paw prints. I’d rub off the dusty paint trying to wipe them off, so we’d ended up with patches of near-bare plaster board, still grimy. I told myself for a long time we should just wait for the children to grow up. They are 15 and 13 now. But really I was daunted by the idea of painting the house myself: surely I am no good, we want the house to look nice so let’s get the professionals in. Cue the British holidays. I tried to get professional painters interested in the job, but didn’t get any takers. By Monday morning there was no more escape: I had to spend the week painting. I knew I shouldn’t push husband to help much: DIY is not his thing, he gets very frustrated. We’d only find ourselves in option 1. But crucially I also knew I must leave the story intact that he has every intention of sharing the paint work with me.
And so it happens that I spend the best part of every day up and down the steps, contorting myself to reach awkward corners with a precision brush without knocking over the TV. Husband has a breakthrough with his business preparations so he can’t join me as much as he would have liked. By the end of the week and of a particularly long day, my back broken and my hand in a permanent precision grip (I swear I was made for a desk job – hat off to painters), husband bursts in: “Oooh, my ear really hurts: I must have been on the phone for hours on end!” The only thing that saved him from a very bad fate indeed was the look of realisation that dawned on him once he’d seen my face. And the stumbling attempt at apology that followed. Which I gave him all the time in the world to get through.
I had been debating with myself whether to revisit my childhood town and the home where I grew up over the last couple of weeks. I left for Belgium still very much undecided. A few days into the trip the perfect day presented itself when every other family member had something planned, leaving husband and me to make our own plans. My hand was forced, I had to indulge husband and plug his gap in the history of me. I kept telling him I had not been hiding anything, that there just was not very much to it. I had wanted to add “my life only started with you darling” but he would have heard the grin. Truth be told, I was dreading the visit (I almost wrote “confrontation”) all the way there. Didn’t know where to park when we got there. Twenty years is an awfully long time for a city. It had changed so much I was surprised to find several shops I remembered from my childhood still exist. Mostly though I was left trying to work out what was there before. I would look at a building and instantly think “ha, there’s a design shop here now”, for example, but not be able to recall what was there before. I just know it wasn’t that.
Husband was duly impressed with the city hall – really I should stop calling it a town 🙂 -, which is the little sibling of those in Brussels and Leuven, and the two beautiful churches. I showed him the school I went to, which has now entered the modern era and merged with the boys’ school next door and removed the fences that were designed to keep us girls safe from them, at least while the nuns were responsible for us. Whilst I do agree with all that I can’t help thinking that kids now miss out on the thrill of looking forward to meeting up with their boy / girlfriend in the little alleyway across from the school gate. Preferably while nun on duty was looking.
With all the change I felt detached from my memories. It didn’t quite feel like the place I grew up anymore, even if I rationally know it is.
So far so easy. The tourist treatment. Now I had to drive to the village and the home where I grew up. Still hating the thought of it as I was edging closer, fearing that regret for what was loved and lost would take over. And then there it was: the castle and the pond where we went skating; then the garden appeared in view, and finally, a glimpse of the house itself. I stopped the car in front of the drive and peered in. You couldn’t see much, just as I remembered it. The house is nestled behind tall hedges, trees and bushes, which all still looked familiar. Waves of emotions crashed over me, all different hues. I drove around the back, where I could only glimpse into the garden but not make out the house. I sat there for a while until the seas inside me calmed down. Then I told my husband I was glad we had visited. The dread I had felt before, linked to the bad memories of the final year or so of us living there, was being pushed down below overlays of the many more memories of all the wonderful years there. Growing up there was a privilege: we enjoyed a space and freedom my children couldn’t dream of. We waged wars with the other children throughout the village, built camps and rope bridges in the garden, built dams in the brook down the road. I wished I had brought my walking boots so I could trace back some of my favourite walks. It is beautiful out there. Too muddy without boots right now, but it gives me a reason to go back. I might even take the children to see where their roots lie. Because now I feel freed to do so and enjoy it.
Somewhat paradoxically, my restored connection with my childhood home has made me even more comfortable being at home where I am now. I feel as if I have been given a bright new room to keep my childhood memories in, one I can visit and feel good about, but only a room in my existence alongside so many others.
I didn’t have the presence of mind to take pictures but I found one of the castle pond, where we used to skate:
Husband is all out of luck. The BBC news site carried a story about polyglots the other day. It claimed that Dutch is the easiest to learn language for native English speakers. Husband is English, yours truly was raised in Dutch. Husband fits the cliche that English people are linguistically challenged, but now that excuse is too thin to hide behind.
He agreed to learn two new Dutch phrases every day. I never minded that he didn’t speak it, but am finding that I really want to teach him now. While I try not to roll over laughing.
Dear reader, teach your children languages! Lest they embarrass themselves later!
Three birds pooped on my mini while I was in Ikea today. Gross. That has to be washed off pronto, I don’t want the paint damaged. But I get home and resolve to ask my husband how to clean it when he gets home several hours later. He actually enjoys washing cars, and he is very particular about the tools he uses. He has special shampoos and spot removers and cloths and sponges of different softness. I wouldn’t know which to pick! He might even be angry with me for using the wrong one! And so it goes that he offers to do it for me. Thank you darling! I revel in my sly little victory. Then I ask myself: How did I get like this? I have always prided myself on my independence: I can connect a washing machine, trim the hedge when necessary and lots more that would probably not feature in womens magazines. It was my dad’s most valuable lesson: being a girl does not absolve you from being able to fix stuff.
I know deep down that I have chalked washing cars up on the man side of the divide. Just like fixing the kitchen cupboard door, which I reminded husband yesterday again is really irritating me. I could just get on with it, but for some reason I have not fully explored I don’t. I told him it was a man’s job. “Oooh, I can’t wait to point out the next chore that is a woman’s job!!” he roared. “Don’t you dare!!”
I respond with unconditional rage to the phrase “That is a woman’s job”. How can I allow myself to utter its twin?
Why would anyone want to live forever? Or even live twice as long as everybody else. I simply don’t understand. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a confession of a depressed person about to slash their wrists in the bath while everyone is out to the movies. Life is a gift and all that, I wouldn’t miss it for anything. But
a.) we have a problem with overpopulation on this planet that we have not cracked yet. Unless we spend equal resources on a solution for the question of how we are going to feed and water all those people and provide them with the health, energy and space they crave, any resources diverted to research into eternal life are misguided.
b.) does your life really become more valuable as it lasts longer? Imagine the scenario: Because you are super smart or were selected for an experiment by visiting aliens you have acquired the know-how to keep yourself alive and in good health for twice as long as the average life span of the people around you. Well done you! Better start planning all the great things you will now be able to do that you never thought you would have time for. You can visit those far flung islands and the hidden valley at the foot of that volcano filled with rare species; you can learn five more languages and try a few new sports. You could even buy a bigger house, because you will be working twice as long. Snag 1! Unless you really love your job this was perhaps not the picture you had in mind when you decided to take that drug. Oh well, you’ll manage. You take another look at your life, and realize that your partner will be getting older and speeding towards death twice as fast as you. So will your friends. Your children will catch up with you. It dawns on you that you will be spending the second half of your life without all the people you know and love, unless you take some drastic measures. You brew some more of your miracle potion or beep up the aliens, and convince all your loved ones to take the drug too. They will only agree if they can offer it to their loved ones too, but you don’t have enough miracle potion or the aliens are just mean. Snag 2! Do you really want to start all over with friends and family once the first lot have all gone?
Life is a sociable undertaking. A feeling of accomplishment is relative to how others do, not to outliving everybody else. I am with the Southbank Centre in London, whose “Festival of the Living” is making a case for more personal rituals around dying: enjoy life, and exit with personality and grace. This is what I intend to do. Must remember to write that will.