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Dad, Dates & Nana Mouskouri

Just finished watching “Greek Odyssey” with Joanna Lumley. Before I get too into this blog, may I just say that if there was a school that employed Billy Connolly and Joanna Lumley to teach, I would send our children there. They would be fascinated, motivated and enlightened. I don’t know if it is to do with their natural performing abilities or with being free from having to deliver a set curriculum but I could honestly listen to them all day, learn a lot and never get bored.

My Dad loved the young Joanna Lumley. He would sit in his chosen armchair watching her through half-closed eyelids; pretending to be less than interested yet ever watchful lest he arouse the wrath of my mother. After 40 odd years of marriage and 7 children, I can’t blame her for wanting to remain the centre of his attention.

Tonight’s Greek episode saw Joanna visiting the giant amphitheatre at Epidaurus (definitely one for the Piglet Bucket List) with an older but still very regal Nana Mouskouri. Joanna persuaded her to sing Ave Maria unrehearsed. The voice was older, a little shakier perhaps but still as true, clear and evocative as I remember. Suddenly I found myself tearing up.

Why? Well, I would stand with my Dad in the “good lounge” – the one with the white sofas we were not allowed to sit on – at our suburban London home and sing our own version of Ave Maria while my mum played piano. Dad would choke every time and need a cuddle and a back slap to clear his throat and keep going. Nana’s singing and Lassie films were guaranteed to have the two of us bawling and clinging to each other while my mum, ever practical, tsk-ed at us from behind the ironing board.

I lost my Dad to the dreaded dementia years ago now. It was a long and distressing decline in a once huge, strong presence in my life. I lived my teenage years watching him lose the ability to chat, to concentrate, eventually to swallow and walk. Being the last child still living at home, I’ve “baby-sat” my own Dad while my mum had a much-needed few hours off. We’d watch the Two Ronnies or Dad’s Army and we would always laugh at the same places. We adored the “Charlie Farley & Piggy Malone” sketches the most. No more Lassie’s at that time – he would get too upset. I’ve bathed my Dad and fed him, put him to bed and listened all evening – nervous and panicky – in case he fell or woke up screaming as he often did. I’ve never told anyone outside the family that before. I was only 18 at the time. The evenings I was responsible for my father all those years made childcare for my own two children seem like a walk in the park when it came.

Dad died eventually after five or more agonisingly slow downhill years. I was glad at the end, relieved for my exhausted mum and grateful for his peace at last. Yet I miss him every day.

Nana singing tonight brought him back to me for a brief time. He was practically in the room. I remembered the man who waltzed my mum around the kitchen wearing a hankie on his head (why!?) and was truly rubbish at darts. The man who served in the Navy during the war then worked two jobs for many years to feed his large family. The man who insisted we buy a box of flipping “Eat Me” dates every Christmas! No-one else liked them; he’d eat one or two at the most and the rest would get chucked out in January. The man who was as daft as a brush with me, but so clever. A good, principled man. My Dad loved to hear Nana sing and, tonight, she sent him back to me for a brief while. Thank you, Nana.

Thursday at the HogHouse

Today began early – 3.36AM to be precise. This was when the Man-Hog’s ritual cries of epiglottis-shaking joy (or horror, who can tell?) breached the decibel tolerance levels of even the dead. The dead being me. Refraining from stuffing left-over dried apricots and last month’s Land Rover Monthly up his nose sideways, I decided instead to just get up and de-camp to the sitting room.

Sleep eluded me: mainly, I’ll admit, owing to a film about rugby on Anytime; always worth a watch and a sigh of once-youthful yearning. Two hours later, the somewhat thinly veiled troubled-teenager-nice thighs-but essentially a sod-finds rugby-coach turns out to be a brick-wins National playoff-changes life-wins girl plot whimpered to its final lame-ass conclusion and I was still wide awake watching the credits roll.

At this point, toast and a comfort vat of Ovaltine with extra sugar were the only obvious choices. As I slapped the butter on so thick it melted and ran like lava into my cleavage, I lifted a silent middle finger to cholesterol monitoring, WeightWatchers and Hogboy upstairs. Diets always start tomorrow, don’t they?

Cookery School starts at 5.30AM for those who are interested. It consists of a rotundly arrogant Chef (there’s a surprise – someone really should study the chef size to over-inflated ego ratio – there’s definitely a genetic link) undercooking meat in a frilly fashion whilst his female-totty-for-the-masses sidekick smiles sweetly as she assassinates the hopes and dreams of the victims – sorry, contestants. She even CROSSES THEIR NAMES OUT on a blackboard in front of them before they leave with the Chef’s Hat of Shame tucked into their undies. Heartless harpy.

Having despatched some poor woman in tears in this manner to lay her head in her inadequately pre-heated gas oven, I was left feeling FINALLY a little drowsy. The excitement had been too much. I drifted off.

My mobile shrilling in my ear heralded the start of today’s traumas. My pre-teen son has been at Chelsea football camp since Sunday, has worked super-humanly hard and was today supposed to be heading off to his reward – a tour of Stamford Bridge complete with dressing room sweat, a potential rub-up against an actual player, finishing with a presentation which his proud parents would attend in order to worship him.

Not to be. Viral plague; dehydration from unexpected and unseasonal sunshine; and/or a surfeit of Haribos consumed in a single sitting had done for him sometime in the night. Vomit was his task and Bucket his reward.

So I set off at just before 8AM after inadequate mumblings from the man in charge of hurling minors to drive the equivalent of the Paris-Dakar Rally to collect said Puker. I’m exaggerating OBVIOUSLY. You know me by now. But at that time of the morning and with unattractively wet hair (no time to primp for fit Chelsea coaching staff) it felt far! The dulcet sound of his nodding head clunking into the stainless steel bowl I forced him to hold in front of him all the way back will live with me a long time. It was like a lackadaisical steel band who simply couldn’t be arsed to stay in tune.

Since then, my day has been filled with intermittent gagging, loud shouts from Man-Hog of “Not on the carpets, Son!!!”, a Vesuvian pile of ironing, braving the supermarket for more butter (don’t say a word) and “When are we eeeaaaatttiiinnngggg?” on a plaintive wheedle loop from the older and clearly insensitive-to-situation Teen with the Bottomless Pit for a Stomach.

*Sigh* Motherhood? Marriage? Honestly? Poke it.

Photo credit: www.tedhickman.com

Non means No….

I have just returned from a few days with friends in the south of France. We had a lovely time, despite truly British – dare I say Scottish – weather.

One of our jaunts out took us to the port of La Rochelle. I have fond memories of this place, having spent a riotous four days there in late 2009 on stopover prior to departing for an insane yacht race with ten other boats all the way to Rio de Janeiro. Good times – well, the bits I remember anyway.

Returning to La Rochelle the year after my return from Brazil with the family on holiday, I was mortified to be met with a hug and an effusive welcome by the proprietor of the port’s only Irish Pub – he apparently remembers me downing impressive quantities of some shocking cocktails called After Eights and thereafter dancing on the tables accompanied by other slightly inebriated sailor-type companions. It was not one of my finest parental moments – being displayed in front of my children – but they were so “Meh” about the whole thing that I believe I got away with it. Phew. Note to self: Must learn to lead children by example…..

But – staying on point – this visit included a mooch around the shops with our friends, where the children were amused to come across a series of Mr Men books written in French. The one that tickled our funny bone the most was “M. Non.” Just that – Monsieur Non. We fell about laughing on reading it, as we all immediately identified the elder male Stratton in the character – he who was browsing in a model-making shop at the time (because sensible people stay home and make models, not gad about the globe in glorified tin cans for the fun of it).

My husband – now M. Non forever more – is, let’s say, one who errs on the dark side. Not wholly negative, but not completely positive either. A planner and procrastinator. He’s most definitely a “No, but…” person when discussing ideas, people, concepts etc. whereas the rest of us are much more “But, yes…” He’s a “Can’t”, not “Let’s” person.

(Note: This “Non” does not, however, extend to bottles of French wine, for which he demonstrated much more “Mais oui!” this weekend than was good for him. Since his only failing here was to get louder in proportion to the quantity of wine consumed, this is a minor issue, although our poor friends may need to consult ear specialists this week as they recover from having us to stay.)

This inherent negativity has led to many clashes en famille as being with M. Non can somewhat limit spontaneity, creativity and simple learning through childhood (and adult) experiences. My son, for example, is protected from hurting himself with too much gung ho launching off walls and scaling of trees etc., by M. Non. He would say it is health and safety awareness, but I would argue that our son could also be less dexterous, less able to problem-solve and more cautious than he would otherwise be if allowed to experience more. My daughter is prevented from certain fashion choices and from experimenting too much with her hair. M. Non says non. But is that stifling her creativity, “cramping her style” or just his fatherly way of protecting her from peer ridicule?

It’s hard to know. I am a different animal altogether. I fight M. Non on many fronts myself. I believe in having a go, pushing boundaries and accepting the consequences as they happen. Not necessarily thinking about those consequences in advance. If I had, I would not have even been dancing on tables in La Rochelle, or scaring myself silly trying to manhandle a 68 foot bath-tub across the Atlantic for six weeks. “Non” is not a word I use much at all, unless we’re talking about tattoos or piercings on my daughter’s beautiful teenage person. That’s not so much “Non” as “Over my dead and rotted body.” Me and M. Non are, for once, in agreement on these issues.

But I do have to concede that without M. Non’s practicality, forward-thinking, hazard avoidance and foot-putting-down-ness then myself and the kids would teeter on the edge of potential disaster much more often than we do. While I find all that flying by the seat of my pants stuff terribly exciting, I do accept that it does not make for great parenting. Many meals and much of their formal education would be missed as we windsurfed our way across to the Canary Islands or trekked cheetahs in remote jungle bush, if their parenting was left purely to me.

So, here’s a tribute to the M. (and Madame) Nons of this world – those who we may moan about and rail against, but who keep us safe, love us enough to stop us doing too many silly things, and give us the secure base from which to leap into the unknown prepared and protected as much as they can manage and arrange.

Without my own M. Non, Madame Oui-Oui-Oui here and the little Oui-Ouis would not be the happy, healthy little unit we are. More time would potentially be spent in A&E than out enjoying ourselves. We must appreciate him and all he does (without the loud bits, obviously), even when “non” means no.

(She says, sneaking off to have a go at base-jumping before her ancient and creaky knees seize up altogether and/or M. Non finds out!! Just kidding, M. Non, honest?)

(Photo credit: http://broken-tv.blogspot.com)