Saturday, November 28, 2009

Our favourites and our bests 1

I have been Christmas shopping on and off for a few months now. 'So organised!' I hear you gasp. Yes, well, if I hadn't LOST some of the presents I bought, lost without a trace, then I would perhaps agree with you.

Una is easy to buy for, which makes her hard to buy for because there are so many things out there that you know she would like, nay, love. Fred is impossible. She becomes fixated on things that we know are not really her taste - at the moment she really wants a Baby Alive. Putting aside the fact that Martin and I find them creepy, and think the company cynical in the way they try and hook you into ongoing dependency on dolly food and disposable 'diapers', and also putting aside that they cost an awful lot of money, I am sure that once Fred has pushed all her buttons, seen her wee and poo and blink and heard all she has to say, she will lose interest in it. She's just not especially invested in her toys. There are things that she goes back to over and over again, but they are not necessarily things with faces.

Anyway, for those of you who are buying for smallish persons this Christmas, here are some of our biggest successes in the present buying department:

What is with that ages 10 and up? Are they worried that younger kids won't glean the full educational purpose of it? Or do they think someone might have their eye out? Fred got one of these in her stocking last year (she was 5), it cost about $9 and she has never tired of it. Both girls love making a pet of the little tame rainbow it casts on the floors and walls. I guess if you have a kid who chucks stuff at other stuff it might not be the most sensible toy, but Fred and Una have always treated it with reverence. I mean geez. There's a rainbow in that thing. You gotta respect the rainbow.We got Fred her own MP3 player when we went overseas last year, and this year Martin picked up a pair of these Phillips kid-friendly headphones. Una inherited my ipod shuffle when I got my iPhone. In our small house the MP3 player offers escape and solace through music and stories and Fred or Una will retreat to their beds to listen during the day (which sometimes results in sleep). They also like to lie together in the lounge room, singing the occasional refrain out loud, sometimes swapping to hear what song or story is piping through the other's headphones. Also good for long drives. If we could afford it (we can't), I would get them each an ipod Nano, so they could watch the odd episode of Charlie and Lola or play little games while camping and take videos of each other. Yes, I really said that. I cannot believe it myself.

This German castle retails online in Australia for $18. We bought one at the toyshop in Lorne over Easter for Fred's 6th birthday - it was the speediest present shopping I'd ever done. We got some great Papo figures to go with it, though I must admit Fred doesn't seem all that interested in them (I love them). The castle comes white, you slot it together and decorate it yourself. Martin and the girls had a very happy afternoon doing just that. Ours doesn't look anything like the above, but it's sturdier than you'd think and they play with it often.
We bought the above Ikea trainset ($19.95AUD) for Fred when she was around 2. Over the years we have bought the Ikea add ons - tunnels, track splitters etc - and acquired the odd Brio piece from garage sales. I love the classic simplicity of this track and train, and have never found myself yearning for a more complex set - this is one of the few things I think Ikea does really well. A very very common activity in our house is building a large convoluted track and then creating a town, or zoo, or kingdom, with the blocks all around. Both girls love it, as does any visiting child. These days I notice that Fred often sets the train tracks up for Una, the way Martin used to set it up for Fred. It's grown with them and their imaginations, and it's one of those toys that continues to intrigue me in the way they use it.
This was the quiet achiever. I bought this for Fred's 6th birthday very much at the last minute from Readings. I wasn't sure what she'd think of it (I expected it to get cast aside and rediscovered later, which is often the response to books), but it was instantly her favourite thing. She took it to show and tell. She pores over it. We haven't actually made many of the projects, but I am full of good intentions. They actually look quite feasible, it's just getting organised to do it and Fred catching me in the right mood (she has the habit of asking at bedtime or as we're frantically looking for her socks before school).
This sweet little teapot cafe was Una's 4th birthday present. It's made by Le Toy Van and quite a few Australian online and brick and mortar shops sell them, in fact I'd been eyeing them off since Fred was little. We got an ex-display so it wasn't too pricey, but they generally retail around $100 without the dolls. I know, it was an extravagance. It was worth it though, it is taken out, played with, then carefully packed away afterwards most days. All the little things fit inside the big thing, which was why we chose it, as we have a bit of a storage problem (ie, we have none). It's very, very pink, isn't it? It is also very well made.

Well, I'll stop now. I should go to bed. But I am going to keep going with these posts, because there is something about them I find endlessly satisfying.

Little Bird Wordle

Wordle: Little Bird

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fred and the Flower Fairies

Fred with short hair is more elfin than ever. Sometimes when we are at the park or in the bush, I think she belongs more to the trees and the grasses than to me, and that, like a seed head she will be taken away by the wind to eternally drift. Fred is not so much a flower fairy as a wind sprite, as was pointed out by Kate Constable, who knows a fairy when she sees one.

When Fred was born she was given a copy of a flower fairies book of poems by my brother and his family and recently it's been rediscovered and is a favourite - she takes it to bed to read to herself.

This morning she wrote her own poem (her punctuation, I have resisted the urge to edit).

I saw a fery, and I sede
to the fery...why
is your bed a poppy
it is soft

Saturday, November 14, 2009

And life

So life is chugging along. We are mostly in the moment, as people with small folks are, tending to daily necessities, laughing at the things they say (Una especially is a clown at the moment), worrying about lost socks and library books, going to school and creche, marking papers (me) and applying for jobs (mostly Martin). We have times of sadness, sudden spaces appear and we fall into them, but not forever. We have found distractions to skirt around these spaces - cutting our carbohydrate intake except at breakfast time, I seem to be rewriting a poem I've been tinkering with for over two years into a sonnet and I had a half-hearted attempt at putting together a new PhD proposal (didn't get it done by the scholarship deadline, but I have a proposal coming together that I am happy with), making grapefruit sorbet (Martin). Grapefruit sorbet is a neighbourly affair. He and Una picked the grapefruits of our next door neighbour's tree last week. Today, after churning it in the icecream maker, he took some up to Tim and Sally across the road who were clearing their block. Martin went over unannounced and to them must have seemed to spring up from nowhere, sorbet in hand. Tim looked up and said 'It's like some beautiful dream.'

'It's time to play secret gosh,' says Una.
'What's secret gosh?' Martin asks.
'Where I tell you a secret and you say gosh,' says Una. As they trip up the stairs I hear her high voice trill:'I love secret gosh.'

This is not to say we are putting off the business of grief. Rather, grief and distraction are becoming part of the landscape of the everyday. It is not entirely unpleasant. We are enjoying loving the people we have lost, holding them more preciously in our heads. We are seeing the world through their eyes and grieving them and for them, for there is so much here to marvel at, tiny yellow flowers on the tomato bush (and the two tomato bushes that have somehow self-seeded in the flower beds, along with a wayward sunflower), the lushness of the pear trees, the joyful sound of a child breathing into a harmonica, the smell of coffee.

There is another grief, Martin and I are aware that this summer signifies an End of Days for us. Martin finished his degree a couple of weeks ago, and he is now looking for A Job (psst, anyone want to hire a remarkable English/ICT graduate teacher, preferably within 20 minutes drive of St Andrews?) Four long years of full time study are over. Una was an infant when he started
now she is:
A Maid.
I am looking forward to what life has to bring (and if that should be polished floorboards, a coat of paint, a new couch and a gas oven I wouldn't object). But I am sad that time will no longer be our luxury.

We have had a week of heat and the flowers in the front garden are starting to frizzle. Lucky I took a picture before it happened, several actually, but this view from the kitchen window is a favourite.

Bushfire season is no longer coming, it is here. We don't plan to stay and fight a fire (our old plan was that I would take the kids while Martin protected the house), our policy is to leave early, leave often, all of us together. Martin, after training all year with CFA, decided as his father was dying that his heart wasn't in it, at least for the time being. I am selfishly relieved. Una looked at him once, when he was all dressed up in his orange suit and hard hat and said, in a very small voice, 'Bye Dad. I hope you don't die.'

Una demonstrates the concept of Heaven for my mum. 'Lalala,' (this is the bit when you're alive), then cac cac (she makes a noise in her throat, which signifies dying) then 'YAY!' because you're in heaven with all your friends and family. Here is a re-enactment.

Una is also a rockstar.

She does want a haircut really. But probably not a stupid one.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Cartography of Loss

The dedication in Breathe reads:

For Mum, Dad & Kylie

Thanks for giving me stories

And for Carolyn and Christopher

A story come true

My Dad was almost 50 when I was born. My mother was his second wife. His first wife was his childhood sweetheart from his home town, Redcar on the Yorkshire coast. They married when he returned from the war, in that giddy time when everyone was happy to be alive, and ready to meet the brave new world. Reading between the lines I'm pretty sure the marriage came about because of extenuating circumstances.

From earliest childhood I knew that somewhere in the world I had a half sister and a half brother. To me they were something out of a fairy story - a story I wanted to be told over and over again - from the magical time before time, when I was not born. They were ghosts of my father's past, made partly from what was real and mostly from my imagination. We had photos to fill out these details, sepia coloured, post war, a little boy in a suit with short pants, a teddy under his arm, Carolyn looking spookily like my sister Kylie at the same age, though they were born 23 years apart (Carolyn was born in 1949, Christopher in 1952 I think. Kylie was born in 1972, I was born in 1974. Just for interest's sake, my mother was born in 1943. These dates might be out of whack a bit, I am not after all the memory keeper, but the memory keeper's daughter.)

I must admit my fascination initially lay more with my half-brother Christopher. We were both the youngest (I lived in a family of first-borns, and as such felt misunderstood). There was something neat about this parallel, two youngests in the same family. I wanted a brother, a partner in mischief, a playmate. My sister was always a mini adult, and though we did play, particularly on family holidays, we weren’t especially compatible. Kylie liked make up and hair and pretty things and was a mother to her toys, I invested myself powerfully in my toys, and ‘pretended’ like it was an addictive drug and rolled my jeans up one roll too many. I knew my halfies would have already grown up, coming us they did from the dark, distant past, tied up in such anachronisms as ‘the war’ and ‘the mother country’, but to me Christopher and Carolyn were permanently children, like Peter Pan, like Alice in Wonderland (‘the everchild’, the child who never grows up, who lives outside of time, like Tin in Sonya Hartnett’s Thursday Child or the children in the cupboard in Coraline.) They were also a set, I could never imagine one without the other.

Dad’s first marriage had broken up under extremely unhappy circumstances. Dad tried to keep in touch with the children, but he was thwarted and eventually he took up the offer of a new life in Australia, as a ten pound tourist. Obviously this is the shorthand version, and says nothing of the emotional geography, or the cartography of loss, on all sides. I have grown up with Dad’s version, and it is compelling – I won’t share all the details here, and I acknowledge that there are are always at least two sides to every story. Some years after the marriage broke up he moved to Tasmania. Some years after that he met and married my mother. During this whole time Dad had no contact with Christopher or Carolyn, he had lost all trace of them. He was profoundly sad about it, but as time went on, he was sure that the rift was irreversible, and that Christopher and Carolyn would never forgive what he was sure they would see as his abandonment.

As a teenager my desire to find my half siblings never really wavered. I remember once half-heartedly looking up Russons in an English phone book in the State Library, which is probably when I realised how many people lived in England and how many phone books there were for the many different regions. I wrote to my Aunt Janet and asked if she had any leads. She wrote back to say no.

Then in 1993, when I was 18 and working full time in a child care centre, Janet was on the other side of the world, watching a trivia-style game show as the English are wont to do (no doubt she was also drinking a cup of tea and nibbling a nice bit of teacake.) And there he was: Christopher, still with his characteristically red hair. It was a miracle, nothing less, of the modern world (though these days we’d just jump on Facebook I suppose). My Aunt wrote him a letter through the station and he responded. All this was done through mail, way back in ’93 international calls were very expensive. Dad picked me up from work, I can’t remember whether I had an afternoon off or if I’d chucked a sickie. In the car was a letter from Janet, and for some reason we both knew it contained news about Chris. When Dad stopped the car and went in to the bottle shop to buy sherry (how English of him) I, dying of curiosity, opened the letter (which was probably addressed to Dad, my bad). She quoted from Chris’s letter to her: ‘And what about my dad?’ he had written: ‘Is he still alive?’ And he went on to say how much he had thought about him over the years, how much he would like to get back in touch. I read all this on that paper thin airmail paper, tears welling up in my eyes. Dad got back in the car. I read him the letter and together, in the carpark of the Globe Hotel Drive Through Bottle-O, we wept. A few days later, we all talked on the phone for the first time (my first conversation with Chris cost $60, before we hung up and he rang me back and talked for another half an hour). Carolyn was hesitant at first, as was Kylie. But we all reached out, eagerly in mine and Chris’s case, more tentatively for Carolyn and Kylie.

Over the past 16 years we have become a family, Christopher & Carolyn and their kids and spouses. We do not make a perfect family. It is a messy one: we have laughed together and holidayed together, drunk together. In the last 16 years there has been marriage and divorce and kids and sometimes we have disappointed each other. In this way, at least, we are normal.

But the thing is, with family, the default is love. However vulnerable we felt about it, we all started off with our hearts open, ready to meet each other, recognise ourselves in each other’s face (there was a lot of poring over photos in the early days, gasps of recognition, puzzling out who had whose eyes). From the outset we came together to share our lives, to complicate ourselves, to invest ourselves in each other, to love.

Last week, suddenly and unexpectedly, my half-sister died. She had just celebrated her 60th birthday.

When people ask if we were close I don’t know what to say. She lived on the other side of the world. I didn’t meet her until I was in my mid-twenties. I spent time with her twice, once in 2001, and then again last year Fred and I saw her for a few days for my sister’s wedding in England. She knitted two jumpers for Fred when she was born and, despite my best intentions, I never sent a thank you card and have always felt guilty about this, though I adored them both, and Una wore them too and I still have them folded and put away for Fred’s children. Were we close? Perhaps not as sisters who have shared a childhood go. But we shared the experience of navigating this strange adult love for each other, and, on an elemental level, though 26 years apart, one of the first pairs of eyes each of us looked into were the gentle brown eyes of the same father, his hands held me and they held her. At least I had a childhood phantom to structure my love around, I on the other hand appeared from nowhere. Under the circumstances, yes, we were close. We were intimate, perhaps involuntarily. We belonged, in part, to each other. We were each other’s people.

And I am thinking of the rest of her people. Her wonderful daughter who reads my blog. Her quiet, gentle husband who shouldn’t have to learn to live without her – they were to celebrate their ruby wedding anniversary next year. Her son who has a baby turning one at the end of the month. My brother, part of a set, now incomplete. And I am thinking of my Dad, who has lost her twice.

We found her. And the finding was a wonderful thing. We built a relationship from different sides of the planet, and as technology progressed and calls got cheaper, and our flight paths criss-crossed the world, and the world seemed to grow ever-smaller. But now we have to say goodbye, and the distances once again seem insurmountably vast.