(Simone de Beauvoir)
So there I was in 1973 aged twenty-one, ready to steer my way through my womanly journey of life, tiller in hand.
I was practical, Chris was kind and funny. I could make jam or a dress and with Chris helping, I even made children. He worked onshore in Cornwall as a Naval helicopter instructor for the three years I worked though my motherhood apprenticeship and had two babies. He was a good sport in taking his share of family life and most importantly didn’t ever comment that the house was untidy. In those days we were grateful for ‘help’ from husbands. I was free to be able to combine minding children with homemaking, wood-work and talking to other women in the same position as me especially at monthly meetings of the National Housewives Register. It wasn’t all plain sailing but together we managed.
Life continued through the decades and was puzzling at times, but then so had been my childhood. I remember thinking there might be better pathways, but the simplest thing was to follow the one that unrolled in front of me. I was just pleased to be moving along. I have always been impatient, perhaps too keen to look over my shoulder, or around the corner when all I had to do was to be patient. From time to time I reflected on the experience of being a woman as I moved through the family roles of daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, and eventually grandmother. I wrote home regularly with paper, pen envelopes and stamps. We visited Cornwall for holidays so the children saw the little Cornish farm on the edge of Bodmin Moor. My mother was a good correspondent and even sent me a birthday card in the year she died, when otherwise she had faded to a wisp of herself. Whilst we didn’t exchange great truths or reveal secrets, the letters contained a comfortable exchange of family news, and they continuing grounding experience. Around my sixtieth birthday when our children and grandchildren lived faraway, my outer life slowed down. Maybe it left more room for an inner life, because around then an imaginative writing muscle decided to make itself felt. I joined a writing group and short stories and poetic lines came to me when i had the weekly deadline. One week, the group homework was to supply a recipe for the group cook-book. I dreamed up an alternative way to celebrate the beginning of my seventh decade, tea in a bluebell wood. I imagined it into a perfection, unlikely in real life.
A Perfect Family Tea
It is universally acknowledged that a woman nearing her 60th birthday is in need of a jolly good family tea party.
Around thirty-five years before your 60th birthday begin growing your family.
About two months before the birthday, take five long (three meters should do) planks into your studio or workshop, smooth them down gently and then paint in your favourite colours. Assemble them over two trestles you will have made earlier. Have carved into the planks your favourite quotations of family life such as:
Rejoice with your family in the beautiful land of life. …. Albert Einstein
Decide on your venue. Now is the time to be as self-indulgent as you wish.
Even though my birthday is in February my choice is a bluebell wood in May. Blackbirds will be singing overhead, and the woodland will be unusually warm and fragrant for Scotland, with just a breath of wind. Just enough to make the new green beech leaves above sound as if they are offering flutter of applause. On the table you may lay for as many of your family as you would like to be there. I am inviting twenty-five of my close kindred, dead and alive.
The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind into happy repose. George Gissing.
For the Tea
Collect pretty china cups saucers and little milk jugs from charity shops. Tea tastes all the better from thin china with flower patterns.
Make good strong tea in well used family teapots. Using loose leaf Assam with tea strainers will make the children stare.
Our son Nick and his new wife Emily have travelled from New Zealand and brought their special home-made Elderflower champagne which they pour out for everyone. Large hand thrown earthenware jugs with rounded waists and curling lips will hold the drinks to be poured into glasses. The pale liquid will sparkle and shimmer.
To make it yourself collect a basket of Elder flower mop-heads and follow an online recipe. The Elder flowers contain a natural yeast. Use plastic screw top bottles to avoid explosions.
Wooden chairs made from coppiced hazel surround the table.
Your beloved family will arrive from wherever they live around the world without trouble or fuss, (I know, remember this is a dream scenario) and will seat themselves without trampling the bluebells. I am so delighted to see my little grandsons who live in America. They are introduced to their cousin for the first time. My own children haven’t seen one another for several years and they all hug and kiss. They are so pleased to see one another, I am overcome with joy and have to sit down to watch.
Call it a clan call it a network call it a tribe call it a family whatever you call it whoever you are …. You need one. Jane Howard.
The best reasons for having dreams is that in dreams no reasons are necessary. Ashleigh Brilliant.
Use fresh crusty bread. Unsalted butter with sea salt black pepper and fresh wild garlic leaves from the woodland.
Egg and tomato rolls:
Mix the chopped boiled egg with some dressing to allow it to hold together. Chopped skinned tomatoes mixed in make a squishy but delicious filling. Be generous because you don’t mind the children’s eggy faces.
‘Hot Soldiers asleep’… lightly boiled Asparagus spears wrapped in bread that has been spread with Horseradish sauce.
There is an empty seat and as the meal ends my long dead London grandfather appears through the trees wearing a 1930s suit. He comes and sits near the little boys, brings travelling chess set out of his pocket and settles down to teach them the moves. They, knowing no better, are happy to see him. I look in the other direction lest I break the spell. There, just within sight I see my grandmother talking to my country grandfather while she sits plucking a goose. I remember seeing her doing that in my childhood, when she wasn’t knitting or stirring a saucepan. She saves the down and feathers in a pillow-case for who knows what. My brother’s girls are moving over to see what she is doing. A young version of my father comes to the table and he picks a piece of Hogweed as he comes. I know he is going to show the younger members of the family how to make a water pistol from the stem and a wisp of sheep’s wool as he was shown by his father more than eighty years ago. My mother’s great aunt comes with one of her famous hats carrying her jaunty bag for keeping money for ‘jaunts’ is over her arm. She will be entertained by the fashions worn by the modern girls.
We all grow up with the weight of history upon us. Our ancestors’ dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiralling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell.
You don’t choose your family they are God’s gift to you. Desmond Tutu.
Fluffy plain Scones with jam and clotted cream:
Bake in a hot oven and serve a half an hour later. Jam spread first then the cream balanced on top.
Victoria Sponge: made with your own free range hen’s eggs, and a filling made from crème fraiche and black current jam.
Strawberry Tarts: Shortcrust, melt in the mouth pastry. A whole strawberry covered in strawberry sauce and surrounded by a halo of heavenly whipped cream.
A happy family is but an earlier heaven… George Bernard Shaw.
Birthday cake: A Rich Fruitcake, marzipan, Pure white Royal icing smoothed over the whole surface. A satin bow tied around it, the exact shade of bluebell blue. 60 candles are arranged on the top and everyone helps me to blow them out.
The interactions between the generations of this blood family thrill me. The contrast between my father’s experience of learning to write in a tray of sand is such a contrast to life today. I feel as if I can see far into the past and into the future, that’s sixty for you.
The food finished, my family of nowadays begin a game of hide and seek, in the woods, leaving me to raise a hand to my shadow relations. ‘Thank you’, I say ‘for having me’.
If you don’t believe in ghosts don’t go to a family reunion. Ashleigh Brilliant