My Letter to Father Christmas.

... Mitzi Gaynor flaunts her tree!

MM waiting for Father Christmas (Photo credit: x-ray delta one)

Dear Father Christmas,

I know I’m technically too old to write to you, but if you add the two numbers in my age together it makes nine, so please hear me out.

You noticed me last weekend. I was peeping anxiously through the frosted panes of your wooden cabin, and talking in hushed tones with my daughter, Little My. You were trying to reassure a little boy who was screaming uncontrollably on your knees and beating hell out of your shins with his heels. His eyes were wide with terror, whilst yours were watering from the pain. But you managed to force a smile, and his grandmother laughed and took photos with her telephone. I bet she has a coat made of Dalmatian puppies at home.

As I watched children wander in and out of your cabin, I wondered if Mother Christmas has to serve you a large whisky and several mince pies to get over your emotions when you kick off your boots at the end of each long day spent in that artificial winter wonderland of tinsel, spray snow and canned music. Although you must get lovely children coming to visit, I reckon you have a fair deal of spoilt brats too, and there must be times when you have an overriding desire to let a rabid Rudolf loose in the shopping centre on a seek-and-destroy mission.

I told Little My that it’s a good job you’re not on the same contract as Tinkerbell, or you’d be a gonner by now, with all the kids who have said they don’t believe in you. I met a six-year-old recently who had already cracked the Christmas Code. My cheerful enquiry about what she had ordered from you was met with incredulity, and disdain dripped off her like fat off a spit-roasted duck as she coolly enquired, “Didn’t you know that it’s the grown-ups who buy the presents?”

Like many other primary school children, she is gunning for a gift from the mean team that hangs out in the fruit bowl  – Blackberry, Orange and Apple. She did not appear the slightest bit sad that your warm, reassuring light had gone out in her young existence, and I was flummoxed; when Little My realised that you didn’t exist, hot tears of frustration had poured down her face as she whispered, “Can we rewind to yesterday, please?” I felt so badly for her, torn between wanting to grow up and retaining the comfort of childhood.

You interrupted my thoughts and smiled at us through your beard, beckoning graciously to my daughter with a white, glove-clad hand. Except it wasn’t Little My who was hesitating about coming to sit on your lap. It was me. And although Little My was encouraging me to go and talk to you, I decided I wouldn’t show her up (or break your legs).

The last time I sat on your lap and asked you for something, it was in 2009. (My age at that time was 41: adjusted age 4+1= 5.) You listened patiently, nodding your head, then gave me a piece of gingerbread. Your kind eyes sparkled as you said that I hadn’t reversed PF’s car into a street bench on purpose, and that the evil detector on the car had no doubt deliberately omitted to tell me that the bench was there, just to get me into trouble before Christmas. Then you let me down gently, telling me that your elves didn’t know how to make bumpers for cars, and that even if they did, it would be too big to fit down the chimney. But I felt better, and I had a sneaking feeling that you enjoyed having a big girl sitting on your lap for a change.

Gladys looked through the instructions for the part about ramming the Hoover down Robert's throat. (image  Jaes Vaughan, Flikr)

Gladys looked through the instructions for the part about ramming the Hoover down Robert’s throat. (photo credit: x-ray delta one)

You may have noticed that for the moment I have not asked you for anything: as a (fake) grown-up, I now have the liberty to buy my own playmobils. Apart from that, with age I have come to realise that the important things in life cannot be bought or made by elves and put into a Christmas stocking. They must be earned and maintained: love, laughter, trust and respect being just a few.

I do however have a few Christmas wishes. I don’t want any Domestic Goddess accessories, so feel free to give them to someone who will actually use them. However, If your old magic still works please could you sort out the following:

  • Health, happiness and serenity for everyone. Please bring good news and a peaceful, joyful break for those who have uninvited guests called Illness, Uncertainty or Sorrow for Christmas.
  • An intravenous drip of lucidity, humility and common sense for the leaders of nations who are slowly but surely stifling freedom of expression and reducing human rights for their citizens, and a well-aimed kick in the nether regions of any religious representatives, whatever their persuasion, who use their position to extol the virtues of hatred and preach intolerance under the guise of Godly goodness.
  • The long-term loan of a few elves during your low season (ten months) to do the housework, clean the car and go to the bottle bank. They would have full board and lodgings, and be able to play in the garden in the summer. That way you’ll have time to get your head around next year’s delivery schedule. It’s a win-win situation.

Thank you for reading, Father Christmas. A very Merry Christmas to you.

Love,

MM.

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Of exploding cats, French neighbours and doctor diatribes.

This is going to be a long read, so grab a coffee and a biscuit. Go on, a break will do you the world of good! All settled comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

This morning, my cat blew up. I found what was left of him on my son’s bed. The staircase and wall were splattered with something nasty (P.F would say it can’t be brains, because the cat doesn’t have one). I’ve just been to the vet’s, and I am waiting for her to stitch the rest back together. Poor pussy cat.

To keep my mind off poor old Murphy, I’m going to tell you about a typical bad day in our household. Take the one I had a few weeks back. A Friday. It had started off at 6.30 with an ominous “there isn’t any left” when I stumbled past Bigfoot muttering “I need a coffee”. I had a feeling that things were going to go pear-shaped form that moment on, and I was right….

Waking Little My for school was dangerous business. The night before, she had gone out with P.F and Bigfoot to a friend’s “quick” birthday drink whilst I provided aspirin, comfort and Kleenex for a miserable and feverish Rugby-boy.

I had wrongly presumed that P.F would be exhausted by his day, and would return home after a beer and a chat…. After all, the invitation was for an apéritif. Error. I should have faced the facts: the French are happily incapable of stopping the fun after a Pastis or two, whatever the day of the week.  Invariably, enough food to feed the five thousand suddenly appears from nowhere along with a crate of wine. Before you’ve had time to say “Bob’s your uncle” (or your father, in my case), you are filled to your back teeth with victuals and staggering your way home at one in the morning.

After machine-gunning P.F with increasingly threatening text messages, he had finally rolled in with Bigfoot and Little My at 11 pm, all three doing Tigger-style bounces and telling stories of the biggest tielles they had ever clapped eyes on.

Tielle sétoise vue de profil.

Tielle sétoise vue de profil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(A tielle is a local speciality, a pie filled with a spicy, seafood filling). Bigfoot had raved on about what appeared to be the Desperado beer equivalent of J.R’s crude oil stock.

Little My doesn’t do so well on eight hours sleep, and was inches from biting my head off when I ventured under her quilt for a morning kiss the next morning. Once my grouchy daughter was dropped off at school, I had to negotiate my way home. Somehow, every car in the universe had converged on one narrow entrance at the same time. Our cul-de-sac was blocked off, littered with badly-parked cars as insurance experts, lawyers, builders, decorators, electricians, plumbers and neighbours waved paperwork in the air and made Gallic sounds of desperation. Our neighbours had accidentally set light to their kitchen nine months before, and getting money out of the insurance company was turning out to be about as easy as convincing Marine Le Pen to go team building in the Amazon with Martine Aubry and Segolène Royale. The temperature and the tone of voice started rising.  To add a little spice to the equation, the postman careened into the fray with his battered yellow excuse for a van, swearing and flailing his arms in the air. He shrugged his shoulders dramatically, did a clumsy three-point turn and disappeared at speed with all our mail.

Rugby-boy and I toddled off to the doctor’s, where we made our contribution to the ever-expanding hole that the French are digging underneath the bank in terms of public health spending. In Britain your visit to the doctors for sinusitis generally involves meeting a nurse and then getting the appropriate treatment, i.e. the antibiotic needed to zap the resident bacteria into oblivion, the recommendation to drink lots of water and get lots of rest, and a sympathetic clap on the shoulder.

In France, things are different. The patient is invited into the doctor’s office, and is carefully inspected from all angles before a huge list of medication is carefully typed and printed out. The ensuing visit to the local pharmacy results in a plastic bag full to the brim with various magic pills and potions, half of which your child will refuse to take without putting up a good fight first. Just in case you don’t know how to read the prescription, the chemist kindly writes the instructions on the packet, however small it may be, tutting angrily at a pen that won’t work on varnished cardboard boxes. Then she shouts the instructions out loud for the benefit of anyone in the queue who is curious to know what you’ve caught.

Fluoxetine (Prozac), an SSRI

This lines up perfectly with the French health profile:  I have a suspicion that the term “hypochondriac” was invented with the French in mind. Health is almost a religion over here.  I remember a colleague telling me that her little boy was sick, so she was taking her afternoon to get him to the doctor’s.  Not just any old doctor, the pediatrician. Or rather her pediatrician. The French love specialists, and the possessive adjective “my” generally precedes the name of the specialist (important to know if you should ever make the beginner’s mistake of asking a French hypochondriac how he or she is).  Hence, cardiologists, dentists, urologists, obstetricians, physiotherapists and so on all actually belong to their patients. When she returned from his surgery, I asked her how it had gone. After waiting a good two hours, he had checked her son from every angle and gravely given his verdict: “une rhinopharyngite”. I shivered anxiously; this latin name no doubt hid some terrible illness. It conjured up pictures of rhinoceros horns; added to “-itis”, it must be bad news. I hurried back to my desk and pulled out a dictionary, where I found out that it is just what we English commonly call a cold.

Anything that is even vaguely related to breathing systematically results in a nasal spray, whilst coughs, colds or temperature are treated to that great old French tradition, the suppository. Hands up all the expat English parents who have stared in terror at their GP as he announced this form of medication? The worst ones are those containing eucalyptus. I remember the embarrassment when I queued in the local supermarket with baby Bigfoot in the ventral baby carrier. The old lady waiting beside us with her tin of cassoulet and her washing-up liquid found him very cute, saying that he was a little like a baby koala, all snuggled up against his mummy like that. Bigfoot obligingly let loose with the only koala-like thing he had in his possession: a pungent eucalyptus fart, which no doubt worked wonders for the respiratory system of everyone else in the store.

Back home, the legal battle was drawing to a close in front of the house. I got on with my next mission: getting my head around the correction of a long legal document in English. Rugby-boy was boosted by cortisone, but bored and in need of salvation, whilst not being sick enough to opt for the “crawl under the quilt and sleep” option. I set him up in bed with the “tellysitteuse” (yup, I am a bad mother from time to time… et alors?). The afternoon sped past, ending with two hours in the pool with a delighted Little My as Bigfoot freestyled his way through his four daily kilometres of chlorine.  I congratulated myself on my efficiency, then remembered that I hadn’t ordered the pizzas. I called, dripping and frozen, from the changing rooms.

On the way home in the car, I sneezed. “Bless you!” said Bigfoot. “Thanks, I need all the blessings I can get”, I observed darkly. “After all, just imagine what will happen if I have a rhinopharyngite….”

Great Grandma Barmcake.

The most incongruous things spark off memories of people. In films, a piece of sappy music, a sunset or the smell of a flower stop the picture-perfect heroes in their tracks. None of the things that set me off down memory lane are particularly poetic, and they would be a total flop in a film scenario. Imagine Julia Roberts on screen, dramatically wiping back a tear and saying “I’m sorry, darling…… my emotions got the better of me. The sight of that slug reminded me of when I negotiated with my grandmother to bring my plastic ice cream tub of pet slugs into the house for the night”.

A limited number of simple things can catapult me headfirst into my childhood each and every time I see them. I think about Grandpop when I see an unusual postage stamp or a globe. My Grandad when I see a chocolate easter egg. My Aunty Laura (-my maternal grandmother, who refused to be called grand-anything at all-) when I see ladybirds, slugs, Ryvita or melted chocolate ice cream.

I think about Grandma when I see swallows and house martins, whisky and the colour purple. I particularly think about her when I’m ironing. Halfway through one of P.F’s shirts this week, I realised with a lurching tum that Grandma would have celebrated her birthday this weekend. She would no doubt have pulled out a bottle of Vimto and a pile of baps, and whopped together her legendary sausage barm cakes. Great Grandma Barmcake – or GGB for short – positively rocked in my son’s esteem after he tasted this bread bap stuffed full of sausages, covered with whatever sauce floats your boat. Mini-Bigfoot admired her to such a point that he felt bad about asking me to unpick the Noddy sewn on the woolly hat that she had sent him for Christmas years before, so that he could continue wearing it to school at the age of six without his schoolfriends taking the mickey out of him.

I saw her every summer as a child when she got on the train and crossed Britain to see us, and I have a huge pile of memories. Memories like asking her again and again to tell me how it felt to work on a sweet factory production line and not be allowed to eat any. Like watching her iron a shirt in less time than it took Flash Gordon to get to planet Mongo. Grandma reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to me at bedtime, with her throaty smoker’s voice and comforting mancunian accent. Chatting on the back step in summer as she smoked her cigarette and sipped her small daily glass of whisky and water, whilst swallows and house martins looped and screeched through the evening sky above our heads. Seeing her carefully picking coins out of her purse for our «spends» to buy sweets at the weekend.  My pride when she enthusiastically ate the breakfasts I took her in bed, only for her to admit with a chuckle – once I had grown up – that she couldn’t stand the milk and honey that I systematically put in her coffee and on her toast.

Back in 1980, St Winifred’s school choir spent a staggering 11 weeks in the charts with the ultimately cheesy « Grandma we love you ». By the time it had been N° 1 for two weeks, it was driving my mother up the wall (incidentally, I must remember to fix a date with my sister to line the kids up with their cousin and sing it to their grandmother, just to see how she reacts now that she is a grandmother). The song was force-fed to us on local radio, enchanting grandmothers nationwide – except mine, who grinned and told me I was a “daft bugger” when I sang it to her in my own off-key, off-the-wall way a good ten years later.

But one little piece of this song has now taken on a certain significance: “And one day, when you’re older, you’ll look back and say: there’s no-one quite like Grandma, she has helped us on our way”. There was certainly no-one quite like Grandma, and she’s still helping me on my way. Every time I hesitate about the right thing to do, I apply her sound philosophy on life:  « Always look after number one, ‘cos no other bugger will ».

Sometimes I take a sneaky peek at the sky to see if she’s sitting on the edge of a cloud, with a whisky glass in one hand and a Silk Cut in the other. I hope so. Happy birthday, Grandma.