I am a writer, a gardener, an animal-lover, the mother of two grown up sons, and the wife of an artist. We live on the west coast of Ireland, where we love the scenery and the people and hate the rain. I have another blog, Writing from the Edge, but am starting to use this blog to record a new and more difficult part of my life - helping to care for my elderly parents
I had hoped after Friday’s absolute catastrophe of a day that the country might somehow magically rally over the weekend. I mean, when you plunge your country into possible ruin on the promise of a golden future that will allow it to rise like a phoenix from the flames, you have a plan, right?
As it turns out, you don’t. The only person that seems to have any plan at all, and be acting on it rather than just spouting meaningless Churchillian rhetoric is Nicola Sturgeon, and I can’t even vote for her.
I was distraught and angry on Friday. I had hoped to feel better by today. Instead I am running on barely controlled rage and getting more enraged by the moment.
Here are a few things I am furious about:
Firstly, leave voters telling me to calm down. I’m sorry…
Today is Candlemas, inextricably tied up with snowdrops in my head – one of my favourite flowers. There were often called Candlemas Lilies or Candlemas Bells in days gone by.
‘The Snowdrop, in purest white array, First rears her head on Candlemas day’
Folklore, an Old Rhyme
Today is Candlemas, inextricably tied up with snowdrops in my head – one of my favourite flowers. They were often called Candlemas Lilies or Candlemas Bells in days gone by.
Many is the year that we’ve had snowdrops before Christmas even – often in colder times than this mild, wet winter has been. I can’t say that my snowdrops ‘reared their heads’ today, but they are only just really starting to come out. I’ve always loved the way they flower even when snow is on the ground, they look too delicate for such cold. I suppose that’s why the French call them Perce-Neige.
But there is more to Candlemas than snowdrops, pretty as they are. It is a great marker in the year, significant because it says that Christmas is long gone and we have moved on, the year is already past its infancy. This day has been celebrated for thousands of years, and was also known as the Festival of Lights, the name coming from Roman times when Ceres (or Demeter in Greek) is supposed to have searched for her daughter Proserpine (Persephone) by the light of hundreds of candles. Proserpine had been abducted by Pluto, the god of the underworld, and needless to say, Ceres could not find her anywhere on earth. In rage, she brought life to a standstill: fruit, flowers and crops stopped growing, and a desert appeared wherever Ceres set her foot in the vain search for her daughter. Eventually, divine intervention was called for, and to cut a long story short, Proserpine – after eating 6 pomegranate seeds – was allowed to return to earth for six months of every year, her return symbolising the cycle of death, rebirth and regeneration.
The Celts knew this same festival as Imbolc, a name that derives from the word for milk, as this was the time that lambs were born and milk returned to the menu. As with the Romans and Greeks, this was also the festival of the Maiden Goddess, who in Ireland was Brighid, the Goddess of fire, poetry and healing. This was a time to bless agricultural implements and livestock and turn towards hopes of fertility in the year to come. For this same reason, in the north of England, Candlemas used to be called The Wives Feast Day because it was regarded as a fertility festival.
The Emperor Justinian wrapped all these traditions up neatly (as was the wont in the Christian church) and from the ancient festival created the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that candles were thereafter lighted to her – hence the name Candlemas(s); and at some stage the Celtic Goddess Brighid became St Bridget, and the old tradition of making corn dollies turned into Bridget’s Crosses, which are still made today – Irish school children being shown how to bend and weave the rushes every year.
And the little white flowers that are so tied up with Candlemas? It is thought that monks brought the first snowdrop bulbs to western Europe from Turkey, and grew them in monastery gardens, placing the delicate flowers on the altar at Candlemas.
But there are other, more ancient myths about these Fair Maids of February, as snowdrops were also called. It is said that after being expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve wept desperately as endless snow fell, covering the earth, removing all trace of colour and life. But an angel took pity on her, caught a snowflake in his hand and breathed on it. As it fell to earth, it became the first snowdrop. In Germany, there is a different tale. They say that when God made the earth, he told the snow to ask the flowers for some colour, but every flower refused – except for the snowdrop, which is why snow is white.
Snowdrops by Jennifer Mackenzie
Rather more mundanely, in some parts of the world, today is also known as Groundhog Day. Somehow it loses some of its magic at this point, but I have read that this was another Imbolc tradition. It refers to a kind of marmot in the USA, but here perhaps it was a hedgehog. Seemingly, the creature emerged from hibernation on this day, and if it saw its shadow, that meant six more weeks of bad weather. But there was one way to try and get around this eventuality – you could place a candle in your window on Imbolc Eve, representing the Eternal Flame of the Maiden Goddess. Back to candles again.
A friend has recently bought an old farmhouse in Wales. Recently an elderly couple came to the door – he had known the place since childhood, as it belonged to his grandmother. When his own daughter was young, he told my friend, she came running to her parents, whispering that she had found ‘little secrets’. They followed her outside and discovered that she was talking about snowdrops, blooming in the nearby copse that is carpeted with them to this day. For such a tiny flower, this jewel of the winter has some lovely names, and ‘Little Secrets’ is another one.
I bought a big bunch of daffodils for my mother, while I was in Suffolk. Both she and I love them, and nothing is as cheery as their yellow trumpets at this time of year. To be honest, I feel rather cheated, finding daffodils on sale and yet half the snowdrops in my own garden haven’t opened yet! What an odd year it is. Anyway, I spotted them on my trip to Ipswich, and the bunch was so big we split them into several vases for the sitting room, the dining room table and the kitchen windowsill.
Even better was hearing what the flowers sparked in my mother’s head, to see her eyes light up, and to feel her come alive with memories. She remembered her grandmother packing them into boxes to send to Plymouth and beyond. Her grandparents had a market garden, as it used to be called in those days, on the Tamar in Cornwall. There aren’t many photographs of that era, but I have one of them when they were older, Alfred and Minnie Annie Frances with an armful of daffodils, their beloved dog Rufus in the background. I don’t remember my great grandparents – they died when I was a small child, living abroad, but I hoard the snippets of information that my mother drops from time to time. They are part of what and who I am, despite never having known them.
Some years ago, visiting my soul-mate in Wiltshire, I stumbled upon a local art exhibition and was irresistibly drawn to one painting. It was of dawn rising over a field of daffodils. It took me back to a place I had never actually known. The artist was present during my visit and when she saw me looking at her picture, she came over. ‘It was in Cornwall,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t help but paint it.’
I couldn’t help but buy it.
As we sat down for lunch at my parent’s house last week, the vase of yellow daffs making our weekday meal seem special, my mother, lightly fingering the petals, started to quote a poem. Not Wordsworth’s well known, if rather hackneyed lines. It was Robert Herrick:
Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Until the hasting day
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.
A few days later, back in Ireland, tired from my UK visit and from a long day of travel, I found a pot of miniature yellow Tête á Tête on my own kitchen window sill. They are a vital part of January and February for me – I buy a pot most weeks, along with my groceries and dog food, and when they have finished blooming, I plant them in the garden: a joy for the early spring next year. But this season, being away, I haven’t yet bought any. This was a pot the In-Charge had found, struggling to life in a corner of the garden, forgotten last year no doubt when I was so busy with Bloom.
‘I suppose it was the Bank Holiday on Monday that has thrown the rubbish men out of kilter’, my father said – suddenly – in the middle of breakfast.
He isn’t exactly chatty, Papa. He never has been. In fact he rarely talks much at all, bar the odd sentence or two – often pithy and to the point- and being very deaf has not encouraged loquaciousness. His pronouncement fell into the middle of something my mother and I were discussing between ourselves. He’d obviously been thinking about it, but it caught Ma and me on the hop, and we stopped chatting and frowned at each other, perplexed. For one thing Monday wasn’t a Bank Holiday, and as far as I was aware, the bin men – far from being out of kilter – were happily collecting wherever they collect on Tuesdays. ‘I think they’ll be coming tomorrow, Papa,’ I said. ‘Wednesday,’ I added hesitantly. ‘Perhaps they got out of kilter during the Christmas holidays?’ He didn’t answer that, but just said dourly: ‘Well, we’ve done nothing to prepare for them.’
Handily, this gave me the chance to point out that no preparation was necessary, as my sister has organised that the Council come in and collect the bins. My father merely grunted, but Ma agreed that she only needs to open the gate so they can get in. Last week I caught her hauling a large boulder down the garden path, along with a hefty chunk of paving slab, to prop the gate open. A pebble would have been adequate. Not surprisingly this unnecessary exercise resulted in a pulled a muscle in her back, and she has been limping ever since. Over the tea cups, I revived the image in her mind of the two lithe young bin-men who work this route. We had watched the pair of them last week, each with three wheelie bins in tow, running backwards and forwards to the refuse truck as it wended its way slowly up the hill. Such sporty types do not need assistance.
I hope she will remember all this in the morning, although I place no reliance on it whatsoever. I will find a way of introducing the topic again as often as possible, to help lodge this new ‘file’ in Ma’s leaky brain. It is the haphazardness of memory that is so difficult to cope with, and Papa’s lapse at breakfast rather alarmed me, as his memory is, in general, far better than Ma’s. At least it was. But several times during this visit I have noticed him suddenly disappear down an invisible chute into yesteryear with no warning and no ‘connection’. It is very discombobulating. He came down for breakfast a few days ago, still in his dressing gown, and said: ‘First of all, I must get your mother’s pill. It’s the only thing that really works.’ He was, I discovered, talking about a hair and nails supplement that he faithfully gave her several times a day, but that was years ago. I tried to tell him that the pill was now one of several supplements in the daily pill boxes that live on the dining room table, but he was furious with me, and told me to ‘Get out of the way’, and to ‘Stop interfering’, and wouldn’t believe that they weren’t in the old cupboard. They haven’t been for a long time, nor has he dispensed them for a long time. It’s all quite difficult to deal with. For him and for me.
He is a grumpy chap, Papa. I can easily picture him in a Dickens novel. He also has a dry sense of humour and is very acute and intelligent, but these days the grumpiness has rather won the upper hand. So it should have been no surprise to find that he is quite put out that I have bought him new socks, lovely soft woollen ones, to replace the old, darned, thin, rather rough, stiff and bobbly ones that he is attached to purely because they are familiar. The old ones could be twenty years old for all I know, and can’t be helping his split heels. Don’t even ask about his split heels. ‘Shall I put the heel cream on for you, Papa, or would you prefer to do it yourself?’ I ask him. ‘No, I don’t like it on at bedtime as it makes the sheets sticky.’ My own experience of heel cream is that it doesn’t affect the sheets at all, but there is no point arguing. ‘Have you remembered to put some heel cream on this morning, Papa?’ I ask. ‘No, I don’t like using it in the morning, it makes my socks sticky. I prefer to use it in the evening.’
What can you do?
The physio came this morning. Papa is, of course, very polite to her, and when she asked if he had done his exercises, he gave her what could pass for a smile. It informs me (as if I didn’t know) how much the politeness is costing him and that he is only enduring her visit because the Doctor has ordered it. As I wasn’t here the first time she came, I had no idea what the exercises were, but I do know that over this last the week he hasn’t done any, it’s been hard enough getting him out for the odd walk. ‘Well,’ he said and paused. ‘Not as often as I should, I’m sure.’
I wrote them all down and we went through them again after tea. He dutifully stood, and sat, and twirled his ankle (albeit rather stiffly), but I know that if my mother were to try and get him to do them, he would give her short shrift. I fear that as time goes by, I become increasingly adept at being Matron. It’s not what he wants, but it’s what he needs. Today, despite the warning look on Ma’s face and the Horse-at-a-Gate look in Papa’s eye, I got out two extra chairs while lovely Jennie, the new Home Help was here and said brightly, ‘Why don’t we all do the the exercises, to get into the swing of them?’ Jennie immediately rowed in behind me with some gentle remark about doing exercises with lots of her clients and it all went fine, despite Papa’s sarcastic comment to the effect of: ‘I wonder how I’ve managed to get out of a chair all these years?’ I resisted the temptation to say: ‘Well, you weren’t managing last time I was here!’ It doesn’t matter, because he has forgotten how he was a month ago – a week ago. What matters is that he is so much better, that the ball is, hopefully, rolling, and that Jennie has promised to go through the exercises every time she comes.
My sister, who is probably far more patient than I am, often says ‘We must do things as their pace,’ but their pace – these days – is continental drift, and far slower than the rate of their decline. If we are to successfully manage their increasing frailty, then we need to nudge them into changes they don’t quite think they want or are ready for. Like having Jennie come in to help. Like doing exercises. Like accepting that they no longer need to hump wheelie bins in and out. Ma accepts these changes readily on the face of it, but below the surface lies the tough, admirable residue of someone who has always been stubbornly independent, so although she agrees to things, her inner nature takes over and forgetfulness does the rest. With Papa, his innate, reactive grumpiness has ever more opportunity to dominate. I suppose the sad truth is that, as we age, whilst our capabilities dim, the characteristic traits of our characters conversely become more concentrated.
We have good days and not such good days, but mostly things are going well. I am only too aware that it is up to me to make it go well, my stay here in Suffolk. On the face of it, that should be easy enough, but somehow it never is.
Yesterday was cold and wet and horrible. Rain turned to sleet – briefly to snow – then back to sleet again, and the sharp wind of the morning became a chilly gale by mid afternoon. It was Thursday, and Thursday is the one day of the week my mother ‘escapes’. My father doesn’t like going out himself, but no longer likes her going out, and sadly she has gradually given in to this over the years, so now he panics if she’s not close by. It’s probably too late to change that, but it makes me both sad and cross that my once busy mother is essentially incarcerated within her property.
However, on Thursdays their cleaner comes in the morning so while she is in the house, Ma nips down to meet her friends at a church coffee morning that she herself instituted some years ago. She only goes for half an hour or so, but then, later in the morning, she goes up the road to get her hair done – another all-too-brief half hour. Two tiny windows in her week.
‘Why don’t you go down for coffee?’ I suggested chirpily at breakfast. ‘And don’t rush back – stay and eat all the biscuits.’ My father grunted in the manner he reserves for plans he doesn’t like, but I ignored him and bundled her off. I have far more steel about me than my mother. While she was gone I unloaded the freezer to defrost it and surveyed the shed roof with their marvellous handyman who popped in specially. He will fix it asap, but while he was there I got him to fit an extra light in the kitchen. Later I cut my father’s fingernails, as he can no longer do them for himself and in the afternoon, while Papa ‘zizzed’ by the fire, Ma and I played Scrabble. I think my brother rooted the game out in the hope of exercising her brain – a clever idea. Once, she used to beat us all at Scrabble, but yesterday I had to remind her how it was played. Still, no matter, we got there.
Today we had planned to go into Ipswich on the bus. They panic at the idea of driving in to such a large town, as larger towns are complicated and involve finding somewhere to park. I drive them, of course, as they both ceased driving a few years ago, but I don’t think my father really believes women can do anything much (outside the kitchen), especially drive. The day dawned cloudless and beautiful, crisp and cold, the gales and sleet a distant memory. Over breakfast Papa announced that he wasn’t up to going into Ipswich. No surprise there, but I had a secret plan. Feigning resignation, I reluctantly agreed to let the Ipswich trip go, but suggested we compensate Ma by taking her somewhere nice for lunch instead. He was in a bit of a corner and couldn’t wriggle out, so somewhat later we set off for Framlingham. I have never been to Framlingham. Some rather hoity neighbours only every shopped in ‘Framlingham, of course’ which rather set my parents against the place. But today I chose the destination, and off we went.
Needless to say, no sooner had we set off than Papa asked me to slow down. As usual. I was doing under 30mph/50kph, and pointed out that I’d stall if we went any slower. (I often pull in to let frustrated motorists overtake.) I just have to keep reminding myself that he has forgotten I’ve been driving for well over 40 years (in Central London for 20 of those). At least, that’s what I try to think. Sometimes it helps.
Framlingham was lovely – of course! We didn’t walk around the town or the castle, we just went straight into The Crown, a coaching inn dating from around 1750, settled ourselves beside a roaring fire, admired the dog lying under the sofa next to us and ordered a slap up lunch. It was perfect, but then, what else would you expect, in Framlingham?
I’m back in Suffolk at my parents’ house again. It hardly seems any time since I was here last, just a month ago in fact. Lots of things have changed, but some are very much the same.
Happily my father is hugely better than on my last visit, when he had, almost overnight, become immobile. I’d wondered at the time if he’d had a mini stroke, but it turned out to be just a pulled muscle, and rest and painkillers have done the trick. While he isn’t gambolling like a spring lamb, he is at least more like his old self. I even managed to get him out for a walk this morning, a small but significant triumph as he no longer wants to go anywhere and on my last visit could barely cross a room.
My mother doesn’t seem quite so tired as she was, but now she is limping. It’s hard to know how bad things really are with her, as she will limp but say nothing. Then when I ask what’s wrong, she says it’s her back, or her hip. Her back is an ongoing problem. But if I urge her to rest she won’t, she rarely agrees to take painkillers, and when I ask if she has been doing the exercises the osteopath gave her, she says she hasn’t. Worse, I am here to do everything for her for ten days, but she is unable to sit back and let me get on with it it. I discuss this at length, often, with my siblings. We are all at our wits’ end because she is so difficult to help. At mealtimes, she is up and down like a yo-yo, ‘I’ll get it… I’ll do it… I’ll wash up… I’ll clear the table…’ I am fed up with saying: ‘That’s why I’m here.’ I’m fed up with trying to coax her. ‘You’ll be back on parade again next week,’ I say. I might as well talk to the wall.
‘She is frightened of losing control,’ my brother said.
My son laughed. ‘Just let her do it.’ he said. ‘She’s probably just glad to have you chat to her while she does stuff.’ Twenty years ago – ten years ago even, I’d have agreed. Now I know that, at 84 and looking after my father, she is bone tired, and her tiredness is causing endless extra worry and work for my sister who lives down the road. It seems to me that I can best help by doing as many chores as possible while I am here.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my son is right. I should let her carry on and just be here. Chatting. Brightly.
I wish I could find a half-way house between the two, and heaven knows, I try, but I’m not succeeding.
Perhaps the most tiring thing of all is her forgetfulness and the endless, meaningless repetition that forgetfulness generates and requires. She doesn’t, according to her doctor, have Alzheimers, ‘she is just old’. And tired. But she uses so much energy on mindless un-necessaries that it’s hard not to get exasperated. She doesn’t treat any of us – her children – as adults who can walk, talk and chew gum. She has just come downstairs for the fourth time since going to bed, this time to check that the fire has been turned off, even though she knows I haven’t yet retired for the night. Since 2013 I have spent nearly three months of every year in this house, but she tells me where each light switch is every night before she goes to bed. And that’s just the light switches. I don’t really know how to cope with it. If I were a decent, reasonable human being I would just say, ‘Right, thanks.’ Every night.
Why do I find that so difficult?
It’s worse than Groundhog Day. It’s like being locked into a perpetual Monopoly game where I move from ‘Return to Go’ on to ‘Return to Go’.
I’m not totally sure how I came across this challenge, but I loved the picture of Hamamelis ‘Orange Peel’ that Heyjude features on her page. I’ve always loved witch hazel – partly because it flowers just when you need it most, and partly for its ragged mops of cheery yellow blossom. I love too, that with golden flowers smelling of fankincense, it is called the Epiphany Tree – something I didn’t know, so thank you for sharing that, Jude.
Alas, I have no Hamamelis in my garden. Whenever I have thought of buying one, they have been too expensive, so the joy of having one has passed me by. Maybe next year!
But there are other things happening in my garden just now. A couple of days ago, during a brief lull in the rain, the In-Charge called me out to have look at something. (My husband is the In-Charge, I – naturally – am the Boss.) Following him out, I wondered if the lovely Viburnam Tinus had finally got its January socks on, or if my beautiful hellebores were opening. Sidestepping the hens, I pondered on one of my favourites – another Viburnam, bodnantense this time, with its delicate, oleander-scented flowers that light up all along the bare branches. As we reached the gates of the flower garden, I even thought it might be the Dublin Bay, producing one or two pallid winter blooms.
Well, all of those were there, but they weren’t the reason he had called me out. It was to view the new Venice of the North.
I know we’ve had a lot of rain (the poor hens are sodden most days), but we have the sea a nod and a spit away, and a river across the road, so you’d think the rain would just go away. Evidently not.
In all our years here, I have never known the garden turn into a canal system.
So there you have it, January: A Winter Water Garden
You can see lots of other people’s winter garden photos here