Smile and Have a Party – I’ve had a Wonderful Life

I have written many blogs about weddings.

But not today.

Today I am going to write about funerals.

Not because I am feeling macabre or sad but because  I have recently realised the hope that can grow from saying goodbye.

In the last few weeks I have attended 2 funerals: Sheila’s, someone who has lived on our road for as long as most of us can remember, and my uncle’s.

At 92 and suffering from Alzheimer’s, the death of my uncle was truly merciful.  For a long time he had been suffering and confused.

Tended devotedly by my aunt, we watched as day by day the person who had survived travelling to England on the Kindertransport, created a life in an alien country and become a pillar of his local Synagogue, gradually disappeared.

His days became a tangled, darkening mass of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety, his view limited to the window from his bed in the living room. The only way he could be moved was to be hoisted, like a lump of meat, into a chair by one of his many daily carers.  .  In life he was a strong-willed, dignified, private man – his slow death stole all that he valued from him.

His funeral was as he would have wished it to be, the age-old Hebrew words building a scaffold of tradition that brings comfort and predictability to a world that must change when it is left by someone we love.

It is the unfillable spaces left behind that makes death so hard to bear.

The stillness where there was once motion.

The quiet where there was once noise.

The lacking where there was once completeness.

And that is how it feels in the house at the end of our road, Sheila’s house.

Sheila was the life and soul of our street.

Famous for grabbing the microphone at our first street party to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee and then getting the words to God Save the Queen wrong, she seemed to dance her way through life.

Always there with a smile, never happier than when she was driving her famous green camper van down our road, her grandchildren constantly by her side, laughter never far from her eyes..everyone knew Sheila.

So when we heard that she had died suddenly, the sense of loss sent waves of grief and sadness through our homes and hearts.

She was taken too soon, with so much left to give, unlike my uncle, her death wasn’t slow but sudden and unexpected.

Yet even in her death she wouldn’t let us stop living.

The morning of her funeral was hot and sunny, the world awash with the colours that come with the first warm days of Spring.

The crematorium was overflowing,

It turns out Sheila was not only loved by her family and all the people in her street, she was loved by everyone who had ever met her.

No one wore black.

We were determined that her goodbye would be a colourful one. And from the moment the familiar green camper van turned the corner into the crematorium, led by a brass band, and with the coffin made out of her late husband’s canoe in the back,  we knew it would be.

If Sheila had been there, she would have been marching with the band.

 

If Sheila had been there, she would have danced through the service.

If Sheila had been there, she would have told us to stop crying.

The eukalele group she belonged to played “You are my Sunshine.”  The local community choir she belonged to sang out to “When the Saints,” and the sun just kept on shining.

Through laughter and tears her daughter spoke of the days and years and holidays and love they had shared. ” Every year for the 40 years of their marriage, for her birthday and Christmas, my dad, John would make her a wooden toy with moving parts, and always he would carve onto it ” J loves S.”

That seems like one of the sweetest love stories.

That seems like true love.

That seems like a marriage to envy.

Left behind with her will, Sheila had written by hand:

“Smile and have a party. I’ve had a wonderful life.”

So that’s what everyone did.  People queued to write a goodbye message on her coffin and left to party the rest of the day away.

People always do what Sheila says.

It is hard to believe that a funeral could give us hope.  But somehow it did.

We, each of us, left, with the warmth of a smile drying our tears.

Sheila seemed to squeeze joy from every drop of  life.

Whatever the obstacles, she overcame them, whatever  mountain she had to climb, she sang her way to the top and relished the view from the summit.

In life, Sheila never looked backwards. ” No regrets,” that’s what she told her son and daughter.

No regrets…in these strange, uncertain times it is hard to turn towards tomorrow without fear.

But the traditions that are important to us, whatever they are, the values that help us to do what we believe is right… they cannot be so easily torn asunder.

As I stood in the Jewish cemetery watching the men of the family throwing the first sods of earth onto my uncle’s coffin, as I watched Sheila’s campervan driving past me at the crematorium, I could feel the threads of a complicated, multi-coloured web that joins together random lives being spun.

It is a web of hope because however great our differences, whatever our beliefs or traditions, what binds us together, what makes us human, is always greater than what divides us.

The lives of Sheila and my uncle have touched each other in death.

In saying goodbye, what I have gained from knowing them both has become intertwined.

I take much from them:  The strength to continue against the odds, to start your life anew,  the understanding that traditions can stop our world from crumbling, the capacity to love unconditionally,  to seize the day, to live every moment to its full, to know that tomorrow always has the potential to be better than today.

I’m not sure what it is I believe in… hope – maybe, love- perhaps, that the world could be a brighter, kinder place – definitely.

But whatever it is, I know that I am not going to let fear stop me from believing.it.

No blade of terrorism will be sharp enough to cut through the multi-coloured web of hope that binds us together.

We are all of us a product of our confusing past, but it is the future that will sustain us and like Sheila, I will turn towards tomorrow with a smile ( and a quick drive down the road in our camper van ).

And when I sit in our garden at night, staring at the star sprinkled sky, there is something strangely comforting in knowing that somewhere out there,  Sheila is  persuading my Jewish uncle to smile and have a party before the Friday night prayers.

 

starry_night_sky_313039-1

 

 

 

I

 

Successfully Surprising

This weekend, my brother-in-law achieved an incredible feat.

He  managed to plan a surprise birthday party for my sister which includes a hog roast, a small folk  band and 120 guests all arriving at their house by 2pm on Sunday and my sister had ABSOLUTELY NO idea.

” Don’t let my wife hear,” says one of my friends when I tell him.

“Too late,” says her voice from the background.

And that has been the reaction from every husband or partner I tell.  An apprehensive fear that somehow a bar of impossibly high expectation has now been set.

” How do you top that?” I hear them whisper, glancing nervously over their shoulder to make sure their wife or girl friend is out of earshot  ” Whatever you do, don’t tell her…”

While the women I tell stare at me, checking that I am not joking.

” He planned a surprise party for her,” they say, ” I have to buy my own birthday present and give it to my husband and remind him to wrap it…sometimes, if I he reserves a table for dinner if I drop enough hints.  Are you sure it wasn’t actually your sister’s idea?

But I am absolutely sure.

Because when I had asked her what she was doing for her birthday the week before, she told me she was very relieved there was going to be no fuss.

For Nevil’s sake, I was hoping she didn’t really mean it so that she wouldn’t be disappointed when there really was no fuss.

“I’m not sure about turning 50,” she said,  ” it feels very old.”

“It’s not as bad as you think,” I said reassuringly with all the one-year-your-senior certainty of the older sister.

As the guests streamed into the house on Sunday afternoon, my sister was sitting at a friend’s house discussing gardening.

In the 3 hour window between her departure and return, the hog was roasting in a neighbour’s garden, 2 gazebos had been set up on the lawn, large containers of ice and alcohol had been lined up next to the kitchen, overflowing bowls of crisps and homemade ( by my brother-in-law of course ) hummous had appeared on every table, a barbecue to roast halloumi had been lit and food brought by guests efficiently divided into savoury and sweet areas.

Gradually the lawn was hidden under the feet of guests from as far away as Scotland and as close as next door.  Anticipation grew palpably as alcohol was expectantly consumed.

“SSHh,” ordered my nieces and nephew, ” She’s 1 minute away.”

Glasses frozen half way to our lips, we all stared expectantly at the door through which my unsuspecting sister would arrive. Conversations turned to whispers, children screaming on the trampoline were hushed, even Pip, my youngest niece, Molly’s, care dog, was forced into stillness with a firm hug.

cec5a870-26b6-4b59-9cd4-449687896bcd

We waited, anticipation oozing from every pore….

“Oh, no, sorry,” says Matty, “they’re 10 minutes away, not 1.  Soz.”

With groans of disappointment we resumed our drinking and growingly drunken conversations and with at least one more false alarm, by the time my sister really did arrive, we had the silence of 120 people down to a fine art.

She stepped through door and froze…and if anyone had doubted for a single moment that she had no idea, her expression said it all.

IMG_2758

“You said a barbecue for a few people later tonight.” she half laughed, half-cried when she could talk again.

But it turns out she was fine with a fuss.

Nevil placed a glass in her hand and she began to circulate, greeting each unexpected guest with her warm smile and a hug, everything accompanied by the gentle notes of mandolins and violins from the 3 man band.

There were guests from each part of her life, school, university,  time spent in Australia and New Zealand, friends from work, neighbours and, of course, family.

We left as a damp, dusk began to cloak the garden and guests in an hog roast tinted mist.   And as the many Whatsapp messages the next day told us, it was an evening of warmth and laughter, fireworks and fun.

The unending hosting generosity of my sister and brother-in-law made sure of that.

Food and alcohol flowed, the band played, and memories were made.

“So?” I ask my sister when I phone her on her actual birthday tomorrow, ” Is it so bad being 50?”

And I remember a conversation we had a few weeks ago.

Abbey and Nevil and Molly had been on holiday with a friend of Molly’s and her mum.

The mum spent much of her time reading self-help books on how to become successful.

“So,” she asked my sister and brother-in-law, ‘ how would you define success.  What do you think would make you successful.”

Abbey and Nevil looked at each other.

They have been happily married  for many years, they have 3 children, a beautiful house with an amazing garden and an art studio. They both have succesful jobs as doctors which they mostly enjoy. They have enough money not to have to worry too much and to mostly buy themselves more than they need.  They go on amazing holidays and mostly manage to achieve a pretty good work-life balance.

” We didn’t know what to say,” said Abbey.  ” So in the end we just had to admit that we were probably about as successful as we have ever hoped to be.”

The mum stared at them.

“No, but I mean, what would it mean to you to be truly successful?”

” In the end we just gave up,” laughed my sister.  ” I don’t think she wanted to believe that we were happy with what we have.”

And it is true that being successful means something different to everyone.

But there is something about the Britain’s Got Talent/X Factor search for fame and the Made in Chelsea lifestyle aspirations of people today that leads to a constant sense of lack of achievement , the belief that success can only be measured against the most famous and the richest.

Striving to be successful has become synonymous with desiring what everyone else has, aspiring to be the richest, the best, the most fashionable, the most beautiful.

But I prefer to look at success the way my sister and Nevil do.

Not everything about their life is perfect but they always make the best of what life has given them.

They share a sense of adventure, a sense of humour, mutual respect, a love of good food and gardening  …and most importantly their love for each other … a fact that was proved this weekend by the throwing of  a surprise party that will make history amongst their friends ( and cause extreme anxiety for his male counterparts. )

And if that’s not success, I’m not sure what is.

 

 

15672965_10154161153508848_6708163406988052681_n
My little Sis and her successful surpriser

Happy birthday Abbey…never stop smiling!
734331_10151206014804436_2114802022_n

Mixed Race Disconnections

The strange thing about being the white mother of mixed-race children, is that most of the time people don’t think they’re my children at all.
When they were little it had it’s advantages, it made it much easier to ignore them when they were having a tantrum in the middle of the street.  Older people would search the faces of nearby parents wondering who this nightmare child belonged to and their eyes would never rest on me!
But as I pushed them in their pram through town or held their hands when they were toddlers, people would stop me:
” What lovely children.  How many hours a day do you look after them?”
” 24,” I would say.
” It’s a hard job being a nanny,” they would say, touching my arm supportively.
Or others would say:
” Aren’t they beautiful, how long have you had them?  My friend’s daughter has adopted 2 lovely little African children.”
Perhaps people just jumped to the conclusion that it was unlikely someone who looked like me would have “lovely,” or “beautiful,” ( subjective, I know ) children.
But I don’t think that’s what they meant.
I think they would look at Joss and Mia’s cafe-au-lait coloured skin and assume that their parents had skin the same colour.
And I don’t blame them.
Mia and Joss look nothing like me.
I think they must have inherited all their father’s genes.
But it’s a strange feeling living in a world that immediately assumes a  disconnection between you and the people you love the most.
And it’s not just a ” white, thing.
I was walking down our road with Joss and Mia one Friday afternoon a few years ago when we passed two men on their way to the  Guide Hall round the corner which doubles up as a mosque on Friday afternoons.
We smiled at each other.
” How come you’ve got two little Asian kids then?” one of them asked.
” Fancied a change, so I did a swap! ” I said, hugging Mia and Joss close.
We all walked away laughing but a tiny bit of me wished they hadn”t had to ask.And when we visited Sri Lanka with Ninesh’s family it was even worse.
No one connected Mia and Joss with me, one of the tuk-tuk drivers thought14 year old Mia was Ninesh’s wife and when people asked me if I was alright and I said I was looking for my husband, they would always take me to the nearest white man. ( Perhaps I should have been less careless!)
It’s not racist.
It’s about perception and accepted norms.
But it seems  strange that in this modern, melting pot of a world, people still find inter-racial relationships strange and mixed-race children ” unusual.”
” You’re lucky,” I tell Mia and Joss, ” you’ll always be different. Unique.”
Joss shrugs and changes theTV channel.
” I just wish people would see me before they see the colour of my skin,” sighs Mia.
She’s right and sometimes it upsets her a lot.
And as her white English mum I am helpless because it’s a feeling I will never truly understand.But even Mia can see the funny side.
She and I had gone to visit some friends in London. Walking back to the station, we had looped our arms around each other’s waists and were chatting as we wandered from rich houses and perfect squares towards busy main roads with rubbish strewn pavements.
It was a warm night and we passed a busker strumming a guitar.
He glanced up and seeing us sang out:
” what a lovely couple.”
“You should take it as a compliment mum,” laughed Mia,less horrified than I thought she would be ” you must look young.”
” Or we just look so different from each other that he thought we couldn’t possibly be related,” I said,  laughing too.
We cannot step out of our skins.
All we can do is wait patiently for the world to catch up.
And while we are waiting, the best thing we can do is laugh.

Our family- spot the difference

 

Patchwork Lives

This is a few years old now  and my Uncle is moving further and further away from us, lost in anxiety and fear.  But in these precarious times, it feels more and more important to remember how much people have had to survive and overcome just to be here.

 

Last  Sunday was my uncle’s 90th birthday celebration.

It has been a long time in the planning, this gathering of the generations.

Guests travelled from the far North of England, from Wales, from Germany. fellow survivors of the Holocaust travelling miles, to celebrate with him..

His daughter, my cousin,  had very impressively managed to arrange most of the party from her home in Germany.

” How’s the planning going?” I asked, the last time I spoke to her before the party.

” Well,” she said, ” it’s all sorted. We’ve booked the local synagogue hall, we’ve sorted the caterers and we’ve asked 70 people, family and friends, who have all accepted the invitation. Only one person has said they’re definitely not coming.”

” That’s a shame,” I said, ” who is it.”

“My dad,” said my cousin.

I laughed, she didn’t.

” Do you think we can celebrate his 90th birthday without him?” she asked. 

I hesitated.

” Well you can’t cancel it now.  Perhaps he’ll feel better about it on the day.”

” Maybe,” she said,  sounding  unconvinced.  And I understood why.

My uncle has always been stubborn, even when he was well and young.  Now that he is unwell and old, he clings to his stubborness like a lifebuoy. 

 It is the one thing that is not disappearing with his memory.

“Perhaps we could persuade him to sit in his wheelchair and then just run towards the party,” I suggested.

My cousin gave a half-hearted laugh.

“He doesn’t really use a wheelchair. I guess we’ll just see what happens.”

But the day arrived and even as people began to trickle into their house, my uncle remained determined not to enjoy his day.

Family and long-time friends gathered in the front room while my uncle sat, resolutely grumpy and alone in the kitchen.

” Walk with me to the hall,” said my cousin, half an hour before the party was due to start. She turned to her mandolin-playing minstrel brother, ” perhaps you can just tell dad it’s time to go,” she said, ” maybe he’ll forget where it is he’s meant to be going to and just come with you..”

Her brother nodded, ” I’ll do my best,” he said quietly.

We set off for the synagogue, the hall decorated with balloons, round tables laid out with name plates and cutlery.

” It’s looks amazing,” I said, “I don’t know how you managed to arrange all this from Berlin.”

My cousin shrugged. ” Let’s hope everyone comes,” she said, ‘ then at least, if dad really doesn’t come we’ll be able to show him the photos. It’s amazing how many people care about him.”

And everybody did come.

The hall was full, his family and friends seated and the first course just about to be served, when my uncle arrived.  

Leaning on his stick, he walked slowly to his seat and sat down next to my aunt.

My cousin grinned,  heaved a huge sigh of relief and her brother took out his mandolin and played the first notes of happy birthday.

A mixture of tuneful and disharmonious voices filled the hall.

Everyone  joined in, and even though my uncle’s eyes were closed, he was smiling.

The courses were peppered with speeches ( and even a poem ) by family and friends and the room was filled with the gentle hum of conversation and the odd screech of laughter from the table of teenagers.

All the grandchildren and great nieces and nephews from the ages of 7 to 17, were sitting together.

And, as is always the way with groups of teenagers, they were wrapped in a cloak of unrealised potential, an edgy energy, that seemed to say, ‘ we are just slightly more important than the rest of you.. 

While the speeches remembered my uncle’s past, the teenage table represented his future, my uncle’s fingerprint resting on the heads of his two grandchildren.

They are half Indian, half Jewish and, in a strange twist of fate,  living in Berlin the city where their granddad’s life began and from which he had to flee. It’s like his world has turned full circle, but somehow in the turning it has moved to a different universe

I wondered, if in all his wildest, long-ago Berlin dreams, my uncle, a young Jewish boy, could ever have imagined he would be part of such a patchwork family.

In those days, anyone who married outside their faith would be shunned by the rest of their family.

Yet in his 90th year he sits at the head of a family that is like a small version of the United Nations. A mixture of-Indian, English, Thai, Sri Lankan and Irish blood coursing through the veins of his grand children and great nieces and nephews. None of this third generation are practising Jews, most of the second generation Jewish in name only, The trauma of his niece coming out as gay many, many years ago, a distant memory ( even the never-ending Passover night when she added “or she,” every time God was called “he*) and her partner long-since accepted as a member of the family.

Some of the patchwork family


But despite this diluting of his religion through the generations, nothing has meant more to  my uncle or had more impact on his life, than his Jewish faith. 

 Family and friends stood up  and, with warmth and obvious respect, told the story of his life, 

As a German refugee  at the beginning of the Second World War, his life in England  began  in a children’s home  for children who arrived on the Kindertransport. He was lucky., his mum and dad were with him, they were running the home. But he had to share them with all the other lonely, frightened, suddenly-parentless children.

 It was a strange, sad beginning to a new life in a world that had been turned upside down by the crazy,, incomprehensible rise of a devastating anti-semitic hatred.

The speeches were warm and witty. 

There was no anger at the tearing apart of the lives of so many in that room, just a sense of belonging to something  that can never be completely destroyed.

” All these people are nice people” my dad said when the speeches had finished, “they’re all kind and gentle. Why would anyone want to murder us?”

I looked at the crowd gathering around my almost-asleep uncle.

It was a hall full of survivors.

 Even the patchwork teenagers were only here because the people before them had survived.

It always seems strange to me that people who have given up everything, had to make a new start from nothing, should end up living every day lives in unexciting suburbs like my uncle, moving from the North of England to Slough and then to Ealing.

But perhaps that’s what survival means, recreating the normal, trying to give your family the very thing you lacked, a life of certainty and uneventfulness.

Of course it never quite works that way.

His children are wanderers, restless somehow, not quite wanting to belong.

But he and my aunt made them a home full of love and laughter and life.

And in his 90th year, my uncle still hasn’t lost is sense of humour.

Although he seemed to be asleep for most of the speeches, when they were finished he pointed at the microphone.

My cousin was really pleased.

” After all that fuss about not coming, he’s going to make a speech,” she smiled.

Everyone turned towards him, waiting.

With slow determination he switched the microphone on.

” What I want to know,” he said after a pause, ” is why no one has mentioned Slough.”


Slowly people began to leave, each of them representing a different part of my uncle’s life.  Old and young, religious and irreligious, his past and his future.

And I realised suddenly that it is not just our families but our whole lives that are a human sized patchwork of being. A collection of memories and experiences, of now and then, of who we are and what we were, held together by a golden thread of beliefs and values and hope.

As the hall emptied, my uncle made his slow way to the synagogue. 

It’s a tiny room now, partitioned off at the end of the hall, a shadow of what it used to be,it’s members dwindling and ageing. 

 But it’s where my uncle feels most at home, where the sometimes fading patches of his life come together, vibrant and alive for the shortest of moments, a quilt of comfort in an often uncomforting world.

And perhaps, for just a little while, he is transported to Slough.

Happy Birthday Uncle Kurt



Cluttered memories

I have been thinking a lot about “clutter” over the last months.

Partly because of the number of times Ninesh has had to pull important documents out of the recycling bin: cheques, passport applications, insurance documents, all enthusiastically binned by me in my constant desire to keep our house free from unnecessary “stuff”.

But mostly because we have spent many weekends over the past year, trying to help my parents-in-law empty their 4 bedroomed home of the clutter accumulated over almost 50 years of marriage.

We started gently with the shed and the garage, getting rid of old flower pots and mouldy books. 

But all of us knew, right from the beginning, that the biggest problem, was the attic.

It’s a big attic, running the width of the house and it is piled from boarded floor to pitched roof with “stuff”.

Huge suitcases, paper-filled tea chests, children’s toys, christmas decorations, curtains, duvets, newspapers.  

Like unpeeling the layers of an onion, the attic reveals year after year of my parents-in-laws married life in reverse chronological order:  the most recent unwanted Christmas presents balanced precariously on top. the love letters of their courtship buried right at the bottom.

When, at last, we pulled down the attic ladder and ascended into the chaos my decluttering fingers were itching to recycle, throw away or donate the seemingly insurmountable mountain of debris.

I could feel the words of Dr Seuss  burning on my tongue.

                                  ” This mess is so big and so deep and so tall,

                                    That we can’t clear it up,

                                    There is no way at all.”


But with the house sold and a moving date pending, surrender was not an option. there had to be a way.

And so, grabbing a dusty, overflowing box  from the furthest corner, we began.

We worked and worked.

By the end of the day we had driven to the tip and local charity shops so many times  that our car could probably have driven there by itself.

But, like the porridge from the magic porridge pot, the stream of objects flowing through the attic hatch seemed never-ending and the ocean of chaos in the living room seemed to be constantly growing.

And in the middle of it all, stood my mother-in-law.

“My father always used to drink from this” she says, stroking a small, dusty cup.

” Look, this is Ninesh’s certificate for coming second in athletics when he was 6″ she hands it to me, “You should keep it.” 

“And here’s the horse his sister used to play with. I’ll give it to her when we visit next weekend.”


And for a moment I pause.

My decluttering frenzy halted by the anguish in her voice.

To her, these are not just dusty cups or bits of paper or broken toys.  

Instead, they are something precious and irreplaceable.

 They let her touch her past and bring it back to life.

We are not just throwing away rubbish, we are dismantling her memories.

When my parents-in-law were first married, they left Sri Lanka to live in Canada.  My father-in-law worked for the High Commission, so they knew they would probably spend their lives moving from country to country. 

But while they were away from Sri Lanka, civil war broke out. 

As Tamils, their relatives were forced to flee and my mother-in-law’s family home was burnt to the ground.

Her niece narrowly escaped with her life, everything else inside the house was set ablaze.

A whole family history destroyed.

Nothing left to hold in your hand and remember.

Perhaps that is why, over the years, everything has been kept and moved to the attic:

A baby tooth, an old pram, a worn-out blanket, an electric heater, a single earring, a newspaper announcing the death of Lady Diana.

Any of them could be important one day.

It is hard to know which of your possessions will form the invisible scaffolding that holds your life together and gives it meaning.

Anything could be an important something.

So best to keep everything, just in case.  

Perhaps it is too easy to imbue objects with meaning.

But it is also too easy to think they mean nothing.

I walk over to my mother-in-law and touch the cup that belonged to her father.

“You have to keep it,” I say.


By the end of the day, we are dust-covered and exhausted but the attic was almost empty.

I survey the piles of torn magazines, bagfuls of airmail letters and boxes of bric-a-brac that are strewn across the living room, dining room and kitchen floor.

” Well,” I say proudly, ” The worst part is over, the attic is empty. What a constructive day.”

 My father-in-law smiles and pours us each a big glass of wine.

” True,” he said, “that’s great.  Now there’s just the other attic. The one above the extension, it’s quite full…….?”

And I am left wondering if it is possible to have just too many memories! 




The Unbearable Heaviness of Washing-up Bowls

We were camping with my family last weekend when my sister suddenly held up  an old, red washing-up bowl.

” Remember this?” she said.

My brother grinned.

” The famous  washing-up bowl  How could I forget it.You remember, right?” he asked, turning to me,. 

I stared at the hard, round plastic bowl,  willing this obviously important shared childhood memory to emerge from the ever spreading mist of my forgotten moments..

” Of course you remember,” said my sister, helping me ” this bowl and the motorbike.”

” Oh yes,” I said,  trying to sound convincing, “the washing-up bowl and the motorbike…”

And suddenly I did remember it: a sunny day spent lounging on a camp site in the South of France many years ago. 


As was often the case, my mum was watching some fellow campers packing up.

 It was a complicated process with tent and sleeping bags and worldly possessions scattered all over the ground, waiting to be tightly rolled into tiny balls.

The luggage had to take up as little space as possible because these were not just your average, every day,  chuck-it-all in-the-boot-of-a-car campers.

These were cool, leather-jacketed, sun-glass-wearing, biker campers.


While we went to the swimming pool or played table-tennis, mum sat outside our tent. waiting.

She watched transfixed as the bikers reduced their week-long home to a few small bags


” What I want to know,” she said, when I returned, ” what I want to know, is how are they going to fit that washing-up bowl onto their bike.”

She was pointing at a plain, red bowl, standing on the ground next to the tightly packed sleeping bags and the neatly rolled tent. 

It looked old-fashioned standing there- too solid, too unfoldable to be part of the bikers’ modern, compact world.

I grabbed the table-tennis bats I had come to collect..

“They’ve probably got a special bag or something,” I said, running off to join the others.

” See you at lunch?”

But when we returned, hot and hungry half an hour later, the bowl was still in the same place on the ground..

 “Perhaps they’re keeping a special space underneath the rest of the luggage  just for the bowl,” she said.

” Perhaps one of them is going to wear it instead of a helmet,” suggested my brother, reaching for the bread and ham.

” Can we go to the beach this afternoon?” asked my sister, making a long, salami sandwich.

” Sure,” said dad and turned to mum.

” Shall we take the lilo?”

” I don’t think there’s going to be room,” said mum.

” What do you mean,” said dad, confused, “It’s tiny. It’s not even blown-up yet.”

Mum turned her eyes back to us.

” Why would you blow up a washing-up bowl?” she asked.

We all stared at her.

” Why would we take a washing-up bowl to the beach? asked dad.

But mum wasn’t listening.

Her gaze had returned to our biker neighbours.

” Look,” she said, ” they’re almost ready.  Everything is on the motorbike except for the washing-up bowl. Maybe one of them is going to carry it on their lap.

I watched doubtfully as the ” biker-chick,” now wearing leather trousers as well as her leather jacket, clicked her helmet into place and swung her leg over the bike behind her boyfriend.

” I think she’s too cool for washing-up bowl holding mum,” I said.

” Well what are they going to do then?” said mum disappointment and slight panic rising in her voice.” Perhaps they’ve forgotten about it.  Maybe I should go and tell them.” They’ll miss it when they get to their next camp-site. How will they wash-up.”

” Perhaps they don’t need it anymore,” I said.

” Of course they need it,” said mum, ” how will they wash-up without it?”

“Perhaps they’re going out for dinner for the rest of their lives,” I said.

Before mum could answer, the bike engine roared into life.

Glancing behind her, the biker-chic checked the empty space where their tent had been 

For a moment her eyes lingered on the lone, red bowl.

” She’s seen it,” sighed mum,” thank goodness.”

But instead of rescuing the bowl, she tapped her boyfriend on the shoulder and pulled down her visor.

He kicked away the stand and leaving a trail of dust and churned up grass, they roared, leather-clad into the  blue-skied, Southern French distance.


For a moment the silence echoed around us.

We sat in front of our heavy-framed, three-bedroomed tent eating our lunch. 

While next to us the dust settled on the lonely, unwanted red washing-up bowl, too solid and unbearably heavy to be part of a life full of adventure and freedom and motorbikes.

Putting down her baguette, mum stood up. 

” Well,” she said, ” if they don’t want it, we might as well have it.  You can’t have too many washing-up bowls.”

And walking over, she picked it up and started filling it with our used cups.

And my sister has never stopped using it on their camping holidays since.

And between that French holiday and now, we have all of us, travelled and had adventures. 

We have made new lives in new countries.

We have left behind unnecessary possessions and wandered the world.

But in the end, there has always been something comforting about coming home.

Something reassuring about knowing that somewhere, on some forgotten campsite, there will always be a round, solid , unchanging, slightly too heavy washing-up bowl waiting to welcome us back.

.

Finding the One

This weekend we were, once again, at a wedding.

It wasn’t in an art gallery or a church, but in a barn, nestling in a West Sussex Valley, surrounded by wild flowers.


 And it wasn’t full of young dreamers christening their future with layers of white lace.

It was a second-time-around marriage for both bride and groom. 

Full of a sense of calm completeness.

Full of the warmth and happiness of all weddings without the anxious edginess of your wedding having to be better than everyone else’s.

This was a very important day for both of them but it wasn’t their only important day .

The bride and groom both have families and successful careers, their lives have already been strewn with important days.

Their wedding was simply a celebration of the fact that, through all the chaos that life brings, they had found each other.


Strangely, or maybe not so strangely in these modern times, the groom’s ex-wife was there, laughing and chatting and dancing the night away next to her ex-husband and his new wife..

I tried not to stare but a little part of me was desperate to walk over and ask them: 

” Does this not feel a bit weird? Are all of you really fine with this?”

But even by my fourth gin and tonic, I was still feeling too politely English to ask.

And anyway, as I stood watching the newly-weds, catching each other’s eye, sharing a smile,  I realised that it didn’t matter who else was there.

There was something so serenely complete in the intimacy of that shared smile, that for a moment, even I believed the rest of the world didn’t exist.

And so I think maybe they have done it.  

Maybe this time they have found their other half, their perfect partner, the soul mate they have been searching for all their lives.

Maybe this time they have, each of them, found The One.


” Where are you going on honeymoon?” we ask as we catch up with them, standing in the doorway to the dance floor..

” Cycling in the Outer Hebrides,” they say in unison.

” Really,” I say, trying to work out if they are joking. ” For your honeymoon?”

They grin, a ” nelwy-married, we-don’t-care-what-the-world-thinks,” conspiratorial grin.

” It’s so beautiful there,” says the groom, ” cycling will be amazing.  I’ve been training for ages.”

” And how about you?” I ask, turning to the bride, ” have you been training too.”

” Oh,” she says, ” I cycled up the road by our house last week, it’s quite steep. Anyway,I’ll be fine, bought some padded knickers.”

And arm- in -arm, the happy couple wander off to chat to other guests.

And perhaps that’s why it was such a lovely wedding.

There was no trying to impress.

No trying to pretend this was some kind of whirlwind romance that had swept them both off their feet and knocked them sideways.  

Nothing to prove except that they love each other and want to quietly spend the rest of their lives together, padded knickers and all!


But it set me to thinking, pondering the question that Mia, our 16 year old daughter, often asks me.

” How do you know? How do you know if you’ve met the right person? How do you know when you’ve found The One? “

And I never know what to say.

Not really.

Because the truth is, the decision to share your life with someone, to marry them or stay with them for ever,  is always a bit of a gamble.

It’s easy to get swept along with the excitement of a moment.

Easy to confuse passion with love and infatuation with the real thing.

Easy to believe that you can never feel this way again.

Easy to dream that you have fallen in love when you have really just fallen out of being alone.

Easy to hope that this is it.

Easy to get it wrong.

We’ve all been there : 

waiting heart-broken and hopeless for the phone to ring or a familiar footstep on the stair.

Wondering why or how or when it all went wrong.

Clinging onto to the shadow of a feeling that is no longer there because even the shadow of a feeling is better than no shadow at all.

Emotions are fickle and dreams all consuming.

But I don’t want to tell my full-of-the-future-16 -year -old daughter, any of that.

I want to wrap her in a blanket of hopes and dreams and keep her warm with love and laughter.

” So?” she demands again, “How do you know when you’ve found The One?”

I try the simple answer: 

” you just do.”

She gives me one of her disparaging looks.

 ” That’s not really an answer is it mum?” 

I laugh.

” I suppose not,” I say, ” but I think it’s the truth. It’s just that sometimes the truth is hidden under so many layers of emotion that it’s hard to be sure.”

” Great,” says Mia, ” so I will just have to guess.

Is that what you did, you and dad-guess?

 Did you give up your job and flat and your London life to go and be with him in California because you “guessed,” it might be a good idea? “

I sense a note of slightly panicked cynicism creeping into her voice.

I hug her tight and stroke a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. 

” There was no guessing involved,” I say comfortingly.

And suddenly I am transported back to LA airport, Ninesh and I sitting side by side on warm, plastic seats, cups of watery coffee in our hands, waiting for the last call for my flight home. 

We had spent just 2 weeks as a couple altogether, one week in England at Christmas and this last week at Easter in California.

And as we sat there, the cloud of separation hovering over us, Ninesh said:

” So I suppose this is it, we might as well get married.”

And just then my flight was called and I stood up and spilt coffee all over my jeans and the floor.

And looking up at Ninesh I realised that I wasn’t flying home, I was flying away from home.

And I nodded and said:

 ” I suppose we might as well.”


” I think Mia, ”  I say, ” that you truly do ” just know.” 

 It’s about listening to your heart. 

Not the butterfly fluttering, breath-stopping, million-mile-an-hour beating part of your heart

But the so-far-down-you-hardly-notice-it – part.

The part of your heart that always feels a little bit empty.

Only when you meet the right person, it doesn’t feel empty anymore.

It’s like you’ve found the piece of the puzzle that you didn’t even know was missing.

And that’s how you know you’ve found The One.”

I feel triumphant in my poeticness.

But Mia raises an eyebrow and glances at her phone.

” Puzzles are really boring,” she says, ” and they take ages to finish. Anyway, can I go to a party on Tuesday?  It’ll probably be full of pieces from the wrong puzzle but it might have good music.”


And I think of our friends cycling through the first weeks of their marriage.

I think of Mia dancing through the beginning of her search for The One.

I think of Ninesh and me, still connecting the  pieces of our never-ending puzzle of togetherness.

And I know that whoever The One is and however long it takes you to find them, it will always be worth the journey.

Even if you do have to buy a pair of padded knickers to get there.