A Letter from Madrid

By Saturday morning the sun had come out in Madrid, where we were staying at the Hotel Reina Victoria in the center of town. Around the plaza and on the sidewalks the cafe owners had already pulled out their tables. Tourists and workers were stopping for their first cup of coffee. As I began to write I was given courage and comfort that we are nestled in the Barrio de las Letras, home to Lope de Vega, Cervantes y Quevedo.

The Barrio de las Letras

My days began with an hour and a half scribbling in my notebooks at breakfast. As I came downstairs Walter would be all ready to leave for the film school. He had two and a half full days of lectures to give and, while he loves the speaking, thinking and people, he would be tired by Sunday.

WSM thinking about what to say next

The hotel restaurant is a destination unto itself and through the early morning quickly fills with hotel guests, tourists, city residents, and business folk meeting and breaking bread together as they plan out the day ahead. At 10.30 a.m the music, though still easy listening, gets turned up 4 decibels to remind us all this is a happy place. The three young people beside me all start out their breakfast with a full bowl of pineapple and a tall glass of orange juice. I think how disciplined they are until the second arrives, scrambled eggs and pancakes with syrup. They are young.

Choosing breakfast

On my first morning after breakfast, I left the hotel and turned left, down a one-car-width cobbled street, knowing that three lefts would bring me past the Teatro de la Comedia and the National Teatro Real, which is performing a play by Virginia Wolf, and back into the Plaza St. Martin. The streets were quiet and not all the shops were open. Deliveries were being made. A man stood in the middle of the street speaking on his cell phone while leaning on a roll away bag full of medical equipment. A young man scooted by, propelling himself with one foot on his dolly which was stacked high with boxes of supplies. Older, maybe than me, women walked slowly with crumpled shopping bags only half full. Some were pulling their reluctant toy dogs along with them. The poorer women come out early and are alone. It is the middle-class women who have time for companionship and coffee.

We have not been in Spain for 53 years and, as we drove in from the airport on Thursday afternoon, it was strange to look around and not recognize anything from that time. But the dry scrubby landscape reminded me of the drive into the city of Buenos Aires from that airport in their summer time. Entering the city I become aware of the influence of Spain, as strong as any Parisian or Italian, on Buenos Aires and am suddenly homesick for that city.

When the first evening’s session came to a close a group of ten of us, some from the school and some professionals and academics from Barcelona, returned to the hotel. Gathered around a long table we were quickly served with a series of small plate tapas and glasses of rioja. We began to unwind and explore each other’s lives. Riccardo is a sound designer, now living in Barcelona, and was the one who drove us back from the school into the city. He is from Argentina. He is a grandparent like us, his little Otto lives in Berlin, while our David is in Buenos Aires, where Ricardo comes from. Our grandsons are born on the same day and we are full of simpatico laughter as we talk about our comrades in film, our grandchildren, and struggles with each other’s languages. He assures me that the tiny little fish balls he is offering me are a type of Jaws and it takes us all a while to understand he means shark!
“You must come to Argentina again and see us there.” I say. His face turns serious and he quietly replies, “I will never go back.”
“When did you leave?”
“1974.” And he looks at me with deep sadness as I take in what he is saying. He left, fled, during the troubles.
“There are many Argentines here in Madrid and in Barcelona.” He repeats, “I will never go back. Here in Spain the dictatorship was forty years, in Argentina only seven but the results were very similar.”

Slowly it dawns on me, or do I suddenly come to understand and accept something I have known all along, that the displacement of peoples, one tribe for another, by one government for another, a nation overtaking another, is a constant occurrence. That the sweeping push of power that flows over and through continents, brushing peoples down and away, always crushing many even as a few can rise, survive and thrive, is ever with us. The big questions are found in the smallest of gestures and remain for us all. Who will help the other? Who shares the open hand and gives from the heart?

That first evening a taxi was waiting outside of the hotel to take me to the film school. The driver spoke little English but had a picture of his three year old son on his phone. We talked of sons and grandsons. After over twenty minutes driving through and out of the city he stopped at the address he had been given but we were both unsure. That building looked very closed up. I got out of the taxi and rang the buzzer on the locked door. Soon an elderly guard came out and looked at my instructions. Luckily the young driver had waited and talked with the guard before he held the door open again and gestured for me to get back into the taxi. We drove further on and around a corner to the ECAM. A woman leaned out of a window and told him where I needed to be. He opened the door again and I gave him my hand. I really am too tall for taxis. I was grateful for his kindness as he pointed the way forward, where I should, and he could not, go. I thanked him in shy Spanish and with a smile. He held onto my hand for a moment longer and looked at my face with a masculine appreciation. Whatever happens next, I am grateful.

Photographs of WSM from the ECAM staff and twitter feed

WSM and some ECAM Staff at the close of the seminar

This is the end – my friend

Nurse’s Day 2017

Today is May 6th, the beginning of Nurses Week in North America which ends on May 12th, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, and, since 1974, is celebrated as International Nurses Day.

1963 Prize giving @ Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford

Though I will not be buying any Hallmark cards for my nursing chums, I am thinking of my comrades and sisters who are my fellow nurses. Those friends we made, bonded in student years with the sharing of patients as we changed ward rotations; the remembrance of patients who were dear, beloved, or cantankerous, those we recall as much by attitude and character as by disease, those births celebrated and deaths honored. Then there were the working years before reentry to university bringing new adult companions, both student and teacher. Now, in this final quarter of life, I have found a sisterhood of nurse writers and poets. Some still work at the bedside of, or in the clinics with, patients – others teach, and all of us remain nurses within our communities and families. We write of the past, distant and immediate, bringing disease and care into the present.

Nurse Poets reading in Charleston 2016, Veneta Mason, Cortney Davis, Muriel Murch and Jeanne Bryner

 

We are lucky to have found each other and are grateful for the collectors among us: Cortney, Judy and now Jeanne who gather up our words, harvest them to reseed the bare virgin soil of tender young hearts. We write from different geographies of the Americans and the world. Jeannie Bryner from Ohio, Cortney Davis from Connecticut, Venenta Masson from Washington DC, Judy Schaefer from Pensilvania, Madeleine Mysko from Maryland, Patsy Harman from West Virginia.

Before I left California, I took from my bookcase the written work of my nursing friends. It is an impressive display of non-academic writing from professional women and men, and grows each year.

Within my bookcase

In 2018 Kent State University will publish another anthology of nurse writing, ‘This Blessed Field.’ Within this anthology are stories from young nurses, our stories, sharing our innocence with the new nurses of today helping to guide and comfort those following in our footsteps with the light we shine for them.

Each year on May 12th a church service is held in Westminster Abbey in London and at St. Margaret’s Church at East Willow in Hampshire. Wikipedia tells me that during the service, a symbolic lamp is taken from the Nurses’ Chapel in the Abbey and handed from one nurse to another, thence to the Dean, who places it on the High Altar to signifies the passing of knowledge from one nurse to another.
I will be in London that day and will go to the Abbey.

Grieve, Unite, Act.

We Still Have Each Other

We Still Have Each Other

As we leave our West Marin Hamlet we pass two signs sitting side by side on the fence. The first one went up immediately following the November election results and is written in English ‘We Still Have Each Other’. It was quickly followed by the Spanish version, ‘Aun Tenemos Uno a Otro’.

Returning from a village slightly further north is another sign stuck into the hillside,

‘Grieve, Unite, Act’.

We were not the only family to be struck by post election sickness. Apparently there was a wave of illness throughout the country. It could be attributed to the cold winter months, waves of colds, flu or pneumonia – or maybe to the sudden change in America’s fortunes, her perceived place in the world and all manner of personal and global changes that will effect every one of us. As we nursed our loved ones and held our families and friends closer we grieved, united and wondered how to act. The younger generations recovered faster that we did. They shook off the despair that we felt and began to act though one of the manifestations of this activity actually came from a Grandmother in Hawaii. The Woman’s March on Washington. Problems and obstacles have been put in their way and surmounted. The march is going ahead with thousands of women heading to Washington DC. Though the focus and purpose of the march has been knocked this way and that, primarily one could say they are marching to protest the agenda of the new government administration on Inauguration Day.

In our community, as in almost every community around the country, women come together in groups. Some are involved with fundraising for local needs – maybe a school project, or a book group. I belong to a knitting group. The Witty Knitters have been going strong for a good 18 years, I am a relatively new member of maybe of 4 or 5 years standing. We meet once a month at a member’s home. We knit, share news of communities and families, and, of course, gossip while our hostess prepares a meal of nourishing comfort. At last December’s gathering the conversation naturally turned to the recent political events and, as we went around the table, each one of us told of how we are ‘stepping up’ and adding one more thing to our already busy agendas. One spoke of engaging with Planned Parenthood (Love their tote bags), another of joining a local political group, Main Street Moms. I am working more with the United Religions Initiative. We are all beginning to see what we can do.

Baby Starling in knitted nest

Baby Starling in knitted nest

Usually in January we make a point of knitting for others. Carol Block shares her project of knitting little hats for Preemie babies which she then gathers up and takes to Oakland Hospital. Laurel Wroten has had us making baby birds nests.

We love to do this. But this year our January hostess, Susan Allan, has added another project. We are knitting hats for the women marching in the Woman’s March on Washington on January 21st. After she sent out the website, we all started rummaging through our wool stash searching out every ball of pink and red wool we have.

‘Grieve, Unite, Act’.

Beginnings

Beginnings

And finally, those of us who cannot get to a march, those of us who love to ‘do’ something, can. We’re knitting.

In the Christian tradition ,this weekend is the feast of the Epiphany, the day of the visitation of the Three Kings to the Christ child. The word Epiphany came to mean ‘a sudden, intuitive perception into the essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple experience’ – Such as knitting.

Over halfway done

Over halfway done

And in England during the fifteenth century the Monday after Epiphany became Plough Monday marking the start of the agricultural year. This tradition lingers on as the time when work is taken up once more and schools reopen after the Christmas and other festivities of late December. Plough Monday occurs this Monday, and when we meet on Wednesday we will be back at work again – knitting –

 

Derby and Joan

In the top drawer of the tiny kitchen in our London cottage lies the cutlery. A divided wire basket holds the bright, shiny new knives, forks and spoons bought for the life we are making together in England. Beside them lie a jumble of old utensils culled from my mother’s three homes in Hampshire, each house smaller than the last, and all within two miles of each other. The utensils were scooped up from the collection that she could not bear to let go, I remembered, and still can’t abandon. Prominent among them are the knives: old breakfast knives, a small kitchen knife, the knife sharpener, and her old bread knife.

The bread knife has a stained and cracked bone handle and tightly grooved serrated blades. Even knowing that it struggles with the modern artesian breads of the day, I still cannot bring myself to let it loose in a charity shop where it might linger, like a homely girl at a village dance, waiting unclaimed on the shelf. So I kept it and wonder from time to time how old it really is. It does struggle so with today’s artisan breads, tearing the oblong French baguettes and rounded Italian soughdoughs. German breads with their dense rye flour fair better. The multi-grain wheat breads even better yet. But the bread knife and I struggle on, cutting and slicing on the beach-wood cutting board, grateful for each other. It knows it is safe with me and I have no thoughts to abandon it. In fact, I feel safer and enjoy a duller bladed knife.

One year at Christmas, in despair, one of our daughters gave us a new serrated bread knife for the farm kitchen. It is sharp, German and created to march through any loaf that is placed before it. And it does that with the utmost efficiency, taking no prisoners. Before the New Year had arrived it had also taken a piece of my forefinger along with a crusty slice of local artisan bread. When back on the farm I still use that knife – but – with great caution.

This Saturday afternoon as my husband was going out he asked it I needed anything.
“Yes please. A loaf. We are out of bread.” I was expecting him to pick up his favorite Italian bread from Anthony’s Deli on the high street in the village. But he lingered around the weekend stalls set out on the high-street and was gone a long time. When he did successfully return from the hunt, he opened up the bag and brought out a large English Tin Loaf, unsliced.

Derby and Joan

Tin Loaf comes home

It was a big white loaf, just like we used to get from the baker, Mr. Wright, whose wife and family made fresh bread in their shop every day in Fleet. Daily the queues outside of ‘Wright’s the Baker,’ went out the door from nine a.m. through to noon by which time every loaf of bread was sold and all that was left were the tea time cream-cakes. Every variety they made and placed out on their shelves could make and hold chunky sandwiches with a smear of butter before a good chunk of cheddar cheese, and some Branson Pickle without falling apart. They held together and were ready to eat in the van, on the lunch break or in the fields. The sort of loaf – freshly baked – and on the shelf – that immediately made one hungry for a slice.

And that is how we felt when my husband came home on this Saturday afternoon with his trophy which he unwrapped and laid out on the beach-wood cutting board. The tin loaf sat happily on the bread-board while I opened up the drawer and took out Granny’s old bread knife now long married to the cutting board. I swear the knife quivered in recognition and pulled my right hand towards the loaf, as if reaching for an old remembered friend.

Sliced and ready

Sliced and ready

The loaf of bread held steady under my left hand and seemed to sigh in relief as the blade stroked the crust and then bit deep into the first slice, letting the heel of the bread fall gently onto the breadboard. I cut another slice, and another, clean, even slices of bread. I put the knife down and it rested on the counter as if in a swoon of remembered happiness.

The English Tin loaf was rewrapped and put away for tomorrow’s breakfast. Next we put the kettle on.

Tea time memories

Tea time memories

The fallen slices of bread were firm and smooth and lay flat ready to receive a smothering of butter and honey. It was time for afternoon tea which we enjoyed sitting out on the terrace. Once more grateful for those things found, remembered, and not forgotten.

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
couldn’t put Humpty together again.

And it went on. Now, after almost three weeks of tumbling down I’m still so sad and angry, watching as the English politicians made such a cock-up of their dear referendum. Yes I’m going to say that. Though in a global view this is small blip. America is churning and bleeding to death and Africans are dying in the Sahara desert, the Libyan jails and finally the Mediterranean ocean as they struggle to escape a certain death for a less certain life. But still, I’m so sad and mad. I don’t know when I have struggled so to write. If this was a yellow pad, which it was earlier, I would be back at the stationary shop buying another one. But the emotions that have been going around and around in my (and a lot of other people’s ) head, as the television and newspapers reports changed, history being eloquently rewritten every day and Great Britain as it was is no more.

That morning, the one when we all woke up to the Brexit decision was sobering and most of the country, even those who voted out, to show ‘them’ a lesson were stunned and grieving as the realization of what could come to pass began to sink in.

The eye watches London

The eye watches London

So I’ve read, and read and read, mostly coming back to The Guardian editorials which are the ones that make the most sense – to me. I’m suspicious even of my beloved Telegraph, seeing hidden agendas in each opinion column and page. But there are good articles. Lighthearted and accurate from Buzz-feed and somber and intellectual in The Guardian. Maybe there will be a breather today as the politicians wait for Her Majesty to return to London. The Queen is not going to break off other engagements just because these boys have all behaved so shockingly badly.

The weekend after the vote we took a train to Shropshire to visit with a beloved old friend who lives deep in sheep country. That evening he took us and another couple who were staying in Wales, (with more sheep), for dinner. The long evening light was still with us as we climbed out of the taxi (no drinking and driving with this crowd, who can still drink as if they were twenty). Our driver, a young lad, was built like a Sumo wrestler. Overflowing from the van’s upright driving seat he yet held a gentle hand on the wheel and had a sure knowledge of the small country lanes and the farmers heading towards us.

Deah heading the roses

Deah heading the roses

Summer roses

Summer roses

The following day it became clear that ‘a spot of lunch’ was actually a full blown ‘Luncheon for 30 plus’ and I was going to be vastly under-dressed and under-blinged. While the most amazing meal was being prepared in the garage, I was set to deadheading the roses, which with all the rain and very little sun, were glorious.

At noon the guests began to arrive. It was time to change from jeans to a not quite dressy enough skirt and join the friends who had come to share this day. As we sat down to lunch I took the opportunity to really find out a little more what people were thinking, and how they voted. I became impolite, asking those questions one never discussed in public (politics and taxes). Here were the land owners of Shropshire. The charming gentleman on my left was happy to tell me why he had voted Brexit, “We don’t like being told what to do,” And by “we” he did mean all of us, the Sumo wrestler driver, the milk-man, the chicken farmer as well as the Lords of the Manor (most of Shropshire’s around the table) were of one mind.

“We don’t like to be told by Angela Merkel. We don’t like to be told by George Osborne. And we don’t like to be told by Your Barack Obama.” And so out of sheer bloody mindedness they, to a man and woman, voted out.

“To show those politicians what we think.” The rifts that have erupted within families are startling and have taken this grey haired and somewhat still with it generation by surprise.

By the time the cigars and snuff were coming around I was being sleepily interrogated by Algie, (Algernon Heber-Percy Esq.) Shropshire’s very own lord-lieutenant. As the Queen’s representative in the county he could not venture his opinion. But by the languid body language he displayed as he placed his pinch of snuff surely on the back of his hand, he showed that he too was with the aforementioned gentleman on my left, his shepherds and arable farmers.

Today the Queen will return from her morning of duties and have time for a light lunch before meeting with David Cameron (let’s hope he doesn’t whistle a happy tune on his way out of the palace). Then maybe she will have time for a soothing cup of tea before she summons Theresa May to formally ask her,

“Can you command a majority in the House of Commons?” May will say ‘Yes Ma’am I can.”  May might add a curtsey and there you have it. While those two politicians are trotting in and out of the palace moving vans will have been in and out of three houses and on Thursday morning Great Britain will wake up to a new Prime-minister.

Grey skies over Westminster

Grey skies over Westminster

Meanwhile Humpty Dumpty will join his nursery rhyme pals, other eggs who have fallen, and lie broken on the ground, below the wall and under the benches in the House of Commons. They will pretend to care. Some will be swept up and discarded. Others might return to their seats, now knowing how precarious their hold and seat is on the wall. Who knows, one or two may even reach out for a drink with Tony Blair, also bruised if not bowed. The Chilcot Report has been released and the film ‘We are Many‘ is being shown in theaters again and again.

From Wards to Words and Back Again

It was 1995 when Between the Heartbeats Poetry and Prose for Nurses was first published by the University of Iowa State Press. Conceived and edited by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer, this was the first Anthology of Creative Writing by Nurses, gathered from around the world.

Heartbeats at Chapters Bookstore DC

Between the Heartbeats writers at Chapters Book Store, Washington DC, 1995

 For many nurses it was the first time our medical writing had been accepted for publication. That summer as many of us who could, maybe twenty out of fifty contributors, came to Chapters Book Store in Washington DC for our first ever reading. This coincided – not unintentionally – with the annual general convention of the American Nurses Association. The evening was exciting, scary and thrilling. Scary because we were reading our own work and thrilling because we were hearing the words and work of other nurses. All of us facing the same direction, our voices so different and yet so deeply in tune with each another. There was an audience, listening, applauding and asking questions. One man spoke up, “Wow, this is amazing. Can’t wait for when you present this to the ANA”. We were all silent before Cortney, in her calmest most diplomatic way, (her speciality) replied, “Actually we won’t be at the convention. They don’t want us and won’t let us present the book there.” Among the audience were nurses who would be at the convention. We were all stunned, silenced and sobered that those nurses for whom we wrote did not deem our words necessary or supportive of their work.

As nurse writers we came together for that weekend forming a tight union of sorts, loosely knit, tendrils of thought, vision, each of us seeing and transforming through words, our patients in the wards, clinics and communities we serve. Since those early years we have continued to write, sending each other our books, reviewing and commenting for each other, hosting nurses writers on the radio and spoke of our work to audiences wherever we could.

Coming together was always a chancy affair but we get our moments. Two years ago The Medical University of North Carolina held its first “Narrative Bridge Conference”. Five of us, Jeanne Bryner, Cortney Davis, Veneta Masson, Judy Schaefer and myself, made it there for the long weekend;. We were billed as “The Nurse Poets” and that is what we have become. Through the years more books of poetry, prose, creative non-fiction and novels have been written and published and within the ‘about the author’ description the word “Nurse” always leads. This is who we are, this is where we speak from, whenever and wherever we can.

It was Lisa Kerr from the MUSC school of nursing who again called us together this year. Lisa wrote asking if we could come, not only to speak to the faculty and students of the nursing school but that there could be an opportunity to perform as The Nurse Poets in the annual Piccolo Spoleto Arts Festival at the Dock Street Theatre. New books had been published, among them, Jeanne Bryner’s poetry Smoke, Cortney Davis’ When the Nurse Becomes a Patient, which won an American Journal of Nursing Book Award for 2015 and my 2016 The Bell Lap Stories for Compassionate Nursing Care were all hot off the press and we were eager to share our work. I was ending a roll-out with The Bell Lap, coming down from New York and a launch at the National Arts Club with the great cartoonist, and tonight – host – Roz Chast whose book about the final years of her parent’s lives Can’t we Talk about Something More Pleasant, remains a best seller.

A little help with the night before prep.

A little help with the night before prep.

It was – is – fun to be on the other side of the microphone. This was a first for Roz who is more used to being questioned about her work, and almost a first for me, being more used to asking those questions. With her questions and comments, memories surprised me and in the quickness of the moment words did not always take the long route – through my brain – as they rushed from my heart to my mouth. Maybe it was not the smartest thing to recall ‘my first leg,’ after Roz’s question about my failed operating room experiences. And so we learn. Beloved friends were there and I was more than grateful to see nurses in the audience, plus a doctor or two. Paul Gross and Dianne Guernsey who co-edit Pulse Magazine “Voices from the Heart of Medicine” came in on the train, Cousin Tom rode the bus from Cap Cod and nurse colleague Gerry Colburn traveled in from New Hampshire.

Tony and Peter and MAM

A Hug from Tony and Peter After it is all over.

It was a great evening and gave me the needed boost and courage to fly down to Charleston and join the band – not yet a rock band – The Nurse Poets.

Four of us had made it and it was grand to be together. Jeanne had driven for two days from Ohio. Cortney flew from Connecticut, Veneta from Washington DC and I from London, via New York. At breakfast we celebrated with coffee and grits. We quickly shared our stories, families, the agonies of book promotions and knowing as all women of a certain age do, that we will continue to balance these lives until illness, infirmity or death claim us.

At noon, under Lisa’s guidance, we spoke at MUSC nursing school for more faculty than students but how eager they all were, how they knew the importance of story, the lives led before and beyond the illness of the patient. Then an afternoon break before being driven past the Emanuel Church where flowers are still laid out daily in remembrance of last years tragedy to an early supper of fine southern food. (Where oh where do I get the real recipe for Green Fried Tomatoes?)

Then we walked to the Dock Street Theater where the audience was already gathering for our evening performance. The theatre is nestled in a small courtyard, intimate and perfect for poetry readings. The seats filled quickly and chairs were added along-side the cloisters until there was standing room only. We sat, warm but not hot, under the evening sky. Our time was tight, and so were we. Introductions by Barbara, the organizer of the festival. then Lisa, organizer of us and then, following each other in alphabetical order, we were on. Each of us brought our full-to-overflowing hearts to the mics and poured out our words. Jeanne watching family, Cortney and Veneta their clinics, and I from the wards and communities before returning to nursing school with an excerpt from The Bell Lap.

Veneta Masson, Cortney Davis, Muriel Murch, Jeanne Bryner

Veneta Masson, Cortney Davis, Muriel Murch, Jeanne Bryner

The audience rose to applaud these words that came from our hearts and our memories. Why did they love us so? We were good 🙂 yes but was it just the words, or was it the knowledge that with these words they know we have seen them, as people before patients. We have marked and held them in our hearts and returned them to themselves, thus received and healed, if not cured. Giving this audience an understanding that as these words have come from the wards to them they may also return to the new young nurses of today.

Jeanne, Miriam from L.A., Venetta and Muriel

Jeanne, Miriam (The next generation), Veneta and Muriel enjoy the reception for The Nurse Poets.

A Parcel at the Post Office

Farmer Pete

Peter Martinelli’s helping hands

Arrived in NW1

The Bell Lap arrives in NW1

Shelved in NW1

And is shelved, over photographs of Bobby

The yellow slip, almost used up with names and numbers, is stuffed into our roadside mailbox. I put it in my jacket pocket, now ready to walk into town before the next rain storm moves in and lingers over the village.
Shannon passes the parcel across the post office counter. It is very light.
“Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Stay dry.” As I turn to leave, Peter Martinelli, who is leafing through his mail box gleanings, smiles a hello. We stop and great each other. Peter is a farmer, a DJ on KWMR, and a good chum. It was time to confess to him that I have written a piece about him for a new book; ‘Peter brings the best presents.’ We chat and I show him the parcel and ask, “Who is it from?” He digs into a pocket fumbling for his glasses, “ This is new” he smiles as he finds and then puts them on.
“ Francis and Taylor” he replies. And I realize this contains the culmination of the last few years of work.
“ Oh you have to help me. I can’t do this alone.” Peter smiles and in his farming way understands that I need a witness and help with something that is too big for me.
“You have a knife?” Of course he does and it is much easier to reach and use than the glasses. Smoothly he pulls out and opens his knife, sliding it effortlessly along the packing seams and slitting them open. Together we pull back the cardboard flaps and there they lie, five copies of The Bell Lap. Alex Hillkurtz’s art work is smiling at me and I smile back. But I don’t dare to take a copy out. Peter has to encourage me to do so.
There it is, as thin and delicate as a journal. We laugh together as I bundle the box back up and walk to his pick-up truck outside the post-office.
We linger while Peter shares his good news. He has a new restaurant buyer for all of his organic farm produce. I run my hands through the light compost he has in the back of his truck. He is preparing his soil for planting while I have just harvested my ripe fruit. The sun began to shine as I walked home holding the box of books close to me.

Happy New Year 2016

New Year’s Eve Walk

Happy New Year.

We all say it. We begin around Solstice when we are adding ‘Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays,’ for all the winter celebrations that happen in most religions through to dear old Robbie Burns Night, this year on January 25th,

“Happy New Year to you.” “And to you too.” And we mean it. We smile as we pass each other on the street, wishing each other well, peace and health in our lives and even possibly a little prosperity thrown in. For in these days all angst between us is forgotten.

Paolo and his sign

This year there is a longer than usual lull between Christmas Eve with the ‘back to work’ week starting on January 4th. The weekend of January 2 and 3 has given us extra Twixmas days, as those days between Christmas and the New Year have been named in England. These are days are free days, as if in an Egyptian calendar of old. The Egyptians would take five days off prior to the summer Solstice (June 21) in their calendar year otherwise their agricultural rhythms would quickly become muddled. And somehow this falls, loosely in winter, into a pattern for modern Europe. Stores and galleries that could be open have closed shut.  Even Philip the Greengrocer at Yeoman’s has drawn his blinds and stuck a sign on the door, “We will reopen on January 4th.” Good for them. Paolo in his coffee shop on Delancy Street moves slower though his days. Maybe he is taking the extra cup of coffee for himself before facing us trending or grumbling old customers on Christmas Eve.

For some people these are days of total winter peace and contemplation or escapes to warmer climates. For young parents with families they are days of adventures or hanging out with the children while grandparents build memories that will become traditions. For others, the young and not so faint at heart, the days are filled with shopping in the crazy winter sales that beckon buyers in to lay down that credit card just one more time. But wherever and whatever we do we add, “Happy New Year.” to our daily greetings.

The Muslim grandmother who runs our local deli is dressed in her black hijab with a touch of cream here and there peaking through her headscarf. Her hair has turned from deeply black to hold wisps of grey since we have come to know her and she now rings up a senior discount for us both. She knows us all, our types, our styles our needs. “A Happy New Year to you my dear.” “And to you too.”

Crossing the bridge into Regent’s Park a young African woman is taking a selfie and seeing me smile laughs aloud at herself. She is athletic and out for a winter workout. Dressing in bright blue running gear, her hair up in braids she is sunny and beautiful. “Happy New Year,” She laughs at me. And I laugh back to her, “And to you too.”

It is quiet at the Newsagents and finally the Hindu gentleman left in charge on New Year’s Eve has time to ask me, “Are you married? Do you live here?” and more. We take the time he needs as I answer the questions that he may have held for the past ten years of our fifteen year time in the village. Finally another customer comes to the counter and we exchange a newspaper for coin and part. “Happy New Year.” “And to you too.”

Maddy is bustling with her dogs. Never without one to four dogs she walks out three times a day with them while her husband with his new middle-aged dyed beard occasionally goes to the store. Maddy doesn’t have time for the supermarket, she is too busy with the dogs so a grocery delivery van comes down the street for her once a week. Slowly, over the years, we have become friendly over dogs. Her beloved Lucky was in love with our Hana and the feelings were reciprocated with frenzied barking affection whenever they met on the street. She is smiling, “Happy New Year,” we laugh it together. Both happy to see each other and knowing there will be another time for a catch up chat.

After a film at Leicester Square, we walk around the corner into Chinatown on the edge of Soho. The streets are all a bustle and hustle, restaurants full and yet beckoning. A little Chinese supper would be nice. We eventually chose a restaurant where a smiling young woman, wrapped up in her winter jacket, hat and gloves welcomes us inside. The restaurant is full, happy Chinese, Arab, and European customers devouring an early supper. The young wait staff are dressed in black and serious. They have to keep everyone moving, and us particularly as we are a cheap-vegetarian-disappointment. The young men are all hooked up to black ear buds and phones. The food comes quickly up the dumb-waiter and the dishes passed along to us. The fortune cookie and the bill arrive together. We pay the bill and though my cookie tells me “You will make a good investment.” I’m not sure what that will be. Back down on the street the same young woman is smiling and beckoning passers-by inside. But as we leave and smile at her once more she bobs her bow, “Happy New Year, Happy New Year to you.” “And to you too.”

Girl at a bus stop

Returning home, we meet Stan who is heading out to The Queens Pub on the corner walking slowly with his beloved old dog. Though rarely with his teeth, Stan steadfastly walks his dog twice a day. He too has come to know something of us and when I greet him, “Happy New Year Stan.” it is to the boss, my husband, that he relies, “Appy ‘ew Year to you too Sir.”

Abuela Grannys and Apps

The grandmothers I remember came in three main flavors which would slide into each other like Neapolitan ice cream going soft on a summer afternoon: stern, formidable, ancient and kind; eccentric to down-right dotty yet ancient and kind; and those who were just ancient and kind.

Granny Slater

Granny Slater

Lady Pechell was formidable and kind. Each weekday morning she cycled into the village with one or two of her Pekinese dogs riding shotgun in her bicycle basket. She must have been twenty years, a war at least, older than the ladies she joined for coffee at Mrs. Max’s cafe. I never heard their conversation. I was too busy hovering, like one of her dogs, waiting for the treats she would magically produce. In a never secret whisper she would lean towards me, “Here, these are for you.” And three sugar lumps would be slipped into my hand. One for me to suck and other two for the milk cart-horse I rode at the end of the morning from our drive-way to the home-farm. Lady Pechell’s dogs eventually succumbed to sugar induced heart attacks.

Granny T was of the dottie variety. She lived in a small cottage across the road from her family and no longer strayed into the village but was content puttering in her small garden. When she came indoors she would cool her hot, tired feet by moving a kitchen chair up to the refrigerator, pulling off her stockings, opening the refrigerator door and sticking her feet onto the bottom shelf. Instead of tea she sipped a cool Pink Gin while she recovered. She was happy, and safe.

Then there was the ultimate Grandmother. Mudder became a constant in my childhood and was just ancient and kind. Bicycling to my friend’s house I would find her sitting in their kitchen. An old-fashioned apron was wrapped around her soft frame. Her grey hair rolled and unrolled about her softly aged face. Her bright eyes were soft and gentle in their seeing. She twinkled out a welcome as she sat shelling peas, snapping beans or scrubbing potatoes. My friend had never finished her chores before I arrived and so I would always have to wait – in the kitchen with Mudder. This was her chance. When we were alone she would pull out a florin, a ‘two bob bit’ and send me off to The Tuck Shop on the corner of Avondale Road. Here I was to purchase a packet of Craven A cigarettes. I think they cost about 1/6. “Go on, you can have it.” The sixpence was mine and the tuck shop my treasure trove. Mudder taught me that an apron was a part of the Granny Uniform, kindness and shared sweet secrets were the currency slipped in and out of its pockets.

One of the last gifts my mother gave me was the patience to pick up her knitting needles and relearn the ancient art that had keep her sober and filled her lonely hours with purpose. As she lay in bed in the evenings we took apart the last erratic sweater she had made for her grandson. Under her tutelage it took shape again. The result was a marginal improvement that was eventually returned to its rightful owner. Soon it became time for me to venture out shopping for wool and a pattern. I chose a light weight cardigan which was simple in design and happily knit away to have it finished in time for my mother’s spring birthday. It wasn’t until I was proudly sewing the seams closed and adding pearly buttons that I realized, with horror, that she would hate it. The sleeves were three-quarter length, the style only worn by fast woman. On the day of Granny’s birthday, as she unwrapped the cardigan and held it up before trying it on, I could see her lips compress in disapproval. And sure enough, once it was on she began to tug at the sleeves in an effort to pull them down along her arms. But she didn’t say anything. Over those last few months of her life she wore the cardigan almost daily, begrudgingly at first and then with a reluctant pride that seemed to have to been earned by the cardigan itself.

The Granny cardigan

The Granny cardigan

In that mind-numbing time of sorting through her belongings I reclaimed the cardigan. I couldn’t bring myself to let it go. As much for Granny as for myself. It lay folded away for months. At my mother’s memorial gathering one daughter said sadly, “Now we are Granny-less.” But in less than a year she was pregnant with the first of our grandchildren. “Now we will have a Granny again.”
As each of our daughters have entered their confinement and birthed, I have been blessed to be a part of that process. Older mummies all, with new ways and expectations, each daughter has wanted and needed different things from Farm Granny. When the new family leave the safety of the hospital, when the obstetrician, the midwife, the nurses and the lactation specialist are no longer at first hand and they return home, panic and fear can slip through the door with them, looking to stay awhile.

David and his Abuela at breakfast

David and his Abuela at breakfast

The mobile phone with its outside connections to the world is never far from the modern older first time mummy’s reach. There is no app for Abuelas but there is one for new mothers breast feeding. It shines from the phone with bright orange hearts and labels, right and left breast. Once the baby has latched on, you press go, and a timer begins. The seconds fly into minutes timing how long the baby nurses on the right and then the left, followed by the left and then the right breast. There are instructions and guides to follow which, although necessary and helpful, can also be intimidating to the new parents. The phone app can produce panic instead of measuring success while mother and babe struggle to adjust to the nursing process. The baby sucks for four minutes and then needs a breather. Does that count as time nursing or should one press pause? The app makes no allowances for tender nipples and full breasts. There are tears. The app is put aside, (the phone lucky not to be thrown across the room). And now an Abuela Granny can help. Somehow she knows how to soothe baby before putting him to the breast. She remembers positions that give the most comfort to a nursing mother and baby. She knows how to calm and encourage them all, and she does. Soon the parents are feeding, changing and bathing their baby as if they too have been doing it all their lives. As each confinement has come to pass I have added to my Granny uniform an apron with pockets and the old worn cardigan that brings with it the smells and texture of the Granny who came before me. Now they will be put away, until it is time to visit again.

Shopping Baskets are Back

Morning Coffee at the Parlour

At the Fortnum and Mason’s Parlour Cafe service continues at the place of a sedate, unhurried butler coming up from downstairs.
I have ordered an Americano Coffee with hot milk on the side to sip while I wait for parcels from gift-wrap. Already I know that the parcels will be done in the same stately pace as it takes for my cup of coffee to be served. When the coffee does arrive, with the little chocolate ice-cream cone, it is about as perfect a treat as can be.

The Summer Sales are in progress in London. Much as they might like to, Fortnum and Mason’s cannot ignore them. But F&M resent all that mid-season sales imply and it is impressive how they manage to keep the allure around their brand. So the sales tables that are sprinkled through all of the floors are small, and layered with just a little of this and that. On one table lie a few scarves, half a dozen summer hats and clutch bags as if at a summer charity fête. At the kitchen table I weakened to a delicate light green and white stripped mug. It is perfect for those mornings when I do not go out, but boil the kettle at home for a mid-morning Nescafe.nescafe - Version 2

On The Parlour Cafe floor, after the sale table, my eye is quickly drawn to the display of baskets. The wicker picnic hamper is back in fashion. We still have our one from Harrods bought over seventy years ago. Though the real knives and forks have disappeared the then new plastic containers and plates are still alive. These new wicker hampers also have ‘real’ knives, forks, plates and, of course, crystal glasses.

Picnic time

The hamper display is surrounded by shopping baskets in all guises.

All of them are bigger than my mother’s shopping basket which she carried into Fleet every weekday morning.

It would be close to ten-thirty in the morning before she was able to leave the house and drive to town with only a lip-stick and a small change purse in her basket. Once in town she would join friends for a coffee At Mrs. Max’s Café, before walking the high street to shop though she didn’t actually buy very much.

What did my mother do taking those precious morning hours in town? The ladies met at Mrs. Max’s Café, taking an hour or so to pretend they had nothing to discuss, but between sipping their coffee, smoking a cigarette or two, maybe even sampling one of Mrs. Max’s homemade croissants, they chose what secret heartaches to share among the gossip and laughter of friends. Mrs. Max’s pastries were reputedly not only the best in town but in Hampshire. She was French and in some way a refugee from the war. What caused her to be here was a question far too advanced for a child to ask. Did Lady Pechall, with her understanding of many things foreign know Mrs. Max’s story? Had she perhaps been instrumental in helping Mrs. Max get ‘settled‘ in the town? There is no recollection of a Mr. Max. After finishing their coffees and loosening their hearts the ladies got up to leave, saying that they had to ‘get on with it or I will be late.’ Each would stop in this shop and that as they walked the length and back along the High Street, placing orders and possibly putting one or two things in their baskets.

What did my mother buy in our small Hampshire town? Maybe some cooking staples, flour, sugar and raisins. Spices remembered from her years in Africa and still scarce in this immediate post-war period? These she could find in Canes Corner ‘Up to Date Stores’ at the far end of town or maybe at Ernest Oakley’s General Store, situated closer to the center of town. If she has a large list it would be boxed up in an orange crate to be delivered to the house. Mr. James Oakley himself might drive up to the back kitchen door, put the box on the kitchen table and, if Mrs. P was in a good mood and he not too busy, share a cup of tea while chatting, as one does, binding community together. Daily deliveries were still common in the countryside. Milk from Rose Farm Dairy was brought by the milk man on his way home to the dairy farm next door. Late morning would often find me waiting for the milk cart to return and be hoisted onto the back of the old piebald cart-horse to ride the few yards to the farm driveway. Gordon then lifted me back off and I would scamper home again, believing, as children do, that no-one saw me. Bread was delivered three times a week from Jessett’s Store. If he saw me the delivery man would slip me fresh still-warm roll from his basket. Even the butcher, Mr Percy Harden, would drive up with meat and game, considered to big or messy for my mother to carry. It was a time of transition. A time to change, to be more in tune with the new post-war society. For a large Edwardian household such as ours, outdated even then, this was a challenge. My mother had only the beloved Mrs. P. to help her each day. There was no housekeeper to rule the kitchen though my father kept three gardeners for as long as he could afford it.
Today deliver service is offered to the online shoppers of Tesco and Waitrose. Every evening one of their trucks comes down our little street and unload crates of groceries which fit into American sized refrigerators.

Basket for Today

But for some baskets are now the smart midmorning accessory while we become super conscious of our plastic consumption and the need to buy fresh and organic produce.

 

The trolly is permissible on Camden High street though rarely seen on Regent’s Park Road. I bought my basket in Paris, where nearly everyone still shops with a basket.

Basket from France

 

 

But sometimes, when it is full, for I buy most things in our small village, it gets heavy.

 

 

This last week I pulled out from behind the washing machine my mother’s old basket.

photo

She had long ago relegated it to carrying cleaning products up and down her stairs. Somehow she needed to honour its devoted service and hold onto the memories it carried for her.

I too had not let it go and for fifteen years it has held ‘extras’ in the back of a cupboard. But out it came, shaking off the under-stairs dust and, after a spray of furniture oil, it felt perky enough to fit on my arm and come into town. It holds more than I thought. It is well designed and alongside the bigger french basket it has it’s place once more.

Granny's basket can carry

Baskets are for the markets and for those of us who are older, who need the exercise and the daily connection with others. Walking into the village and coming home with our basket full is a good mornings work.