If you fly with the crows

Dear Leo and Miller,

I’ve said before how lucky you both are to see so much of your grandparents. Not everyone is lucky enough to have both sets within such easy reach.

I want to tell you about your Popa, my Dad. My wonderful and impossible Dad who surprises me every day and after 37 years I am still trying to figure him out. Kind and contradictory, sensitive and confrontational, he is a maddening typhoon of charm and temper. He still tells me what to do and sometimes I still listen. The best advice I have from him that I want to share with you wasn’t even directed at me – he said it to Uncle Max or Uncle Freddie when they were teenagers. But it could just as easily have been applied to me at that age: “If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows.” You don’t have to be the one causing the trouble; just being there in the mix is bad enough, so don’t run with a bad crowd, is basically what it means. And he is right. The other memorable piece of advice he gave his children is less profound but still a useful lesson: “Don’t stand in piles of leaves because there’s probably dog poo underneath.” Those were his parting words to me when I went off to university and I think of him and what he said every time I see piles of Autumn leaves on the street.

You both shriek with glee when he comes to our door, so you’re clearly enamoured with him already and I can see the feeling is mutual. He’s delighting in a new batch of fans to appreciate his fart jokes and juvenile sense of humour. To help you on your way to a harmonious and lasting relationship with this force of nature, here are 11 things I think you should know about him. Remember children: knowledge is power

  1. He loves bikes, brass handles and locks, dogs, fried bread, tools, Vintage TV, golf, books… And he can never get enough of any of them.
  2. He likes animals a lot. Over recent years he has trained a black bird in the garden, which sits watching him and flies to meet him at the back gate for breakfast. He is convinced it also understands what he is saying. It’s actually quite amazing and I want you both to know that this is not normal: most people can’t befriend wild creatures. He definitely has some kind of gift with birds in particular.
  3. All he wants for Christmas and birthdays is £20 and a giant Toblerone. Don’t try and be thoughtful or clever and get him anything else. You will be thanked with a stony silence at best.
  4. He spends a lot of time in charity shops and auction houses. Some are hits, some are misses but the sheer scale of the amount of stuff he buys means there’s a winner for both of you at least twice a week. He has an excellent eye but also no editing function, so manage your expectations when he says things like “What size shoe are you again?”
  5. He hates Americanisms and will not talk to someone if they use the word “guys.” Life-long friendships have been severed over this. If he even overhears someone say “guys” he launches into a rant. (Same with “train station”: it should be “railway station.”) And if he asks how you are, never, under any circumstances say “good.” Say anything else. It would be better to say “none of your bloody business” than “good.” This, above all, sends him over the edge.  Rudeness doesn’t bother him: poor command of English really does.
  6. He is funny. Very very funny. And when he’s on top form, no-one can touch him.
  7. He wants Bat Out of Hell to be played at his funeral. And there is a really long Meatloaf documentary (saved in Sky Planner) that we as a family call ‘The Happy Place’ which never fails to shunt him out of a bad mood.
  8. Watching television with him is a painful and stressful experience that should be avoided at all costs because he only likes golf, MASH and Vintage TV (and ‘The Happy Place’, see above) and will give you a live, running commentary on why everything else is shit.
  9. He will try and help anyone and is absolutely brilliant at giving lifts. His generosity with lifts knows no bounds and he always says yes. But he’s not big on road safety so be prepared for a stressful ride in a chaotically messy car with cardboard boxes full of books on every seat. And please remember to put your seat belts on because he doesn’t bother with them and drives around all day with that beep beep warning sound going off the whole time.
  10. It is a complete and utter waste of time trying to argue with him. About anything. Seriously, don’t bother.
  11. If you do Ebay searches for him (usually for obscure bike parts or discontinued telescope lenses), he will love you forever.

I have a thousand more things to tell you about Popa. Hilarious and exasperating and brilliant stories. But the above information is a handy overview and even if you skip the first 10 and just do 11 – you’ll be fine.

Love Mum.

X

Nothing good gets away

Dear Leo and Miller,

It’s Valentine’s Day and I want to show you my favourite photo of our wedding day. I can’t remember who took it. Someone with a broken phone because there’s a strange line down the image and there is definitely something not quite right with the light. But it is my favourite photo from that day. I love it because we don’t know it’s being taken or at least we aren’t looking at the camera which is good enough. Your Dad looks at a camera like he hates the world or at least his life: it’s very rare that a photo captures him looking even neutral never mind happy. So to have a photo where he looks like he’s enjoying himself is a wonderful thing. I love that you can see my dress riding up at the side because I have a 5 month old baby bump beneath that beautiful dress that was getting bigger by the day.

There were only 17 people at our wedding (including us) and we all went for lunch at our favourite restaurant. We ate oysters and drank champagne – it was perfect.

You should probably know that I fainted twice during our marriage service. It was a very sunny day for October and the sun was beaming down through the stain glass windows in the church directly onto my face. I also hadn’t slept that night because, Leo, you were poorly and I lay on the floor by your cot all night convinced you were going to be sick again and choke to death. I was also wearing very restrictive underwear to try and make my dress fit a bit better. It was a perfect storm of terrible conditions that physically and literally floored me. Twice. After the second time, I remember someone saying “Give her some sugar.” And your Uncle Mark gave me a soft mint. Then we tried again and eventually got through the promises and the vows etc. And then we were married. (Incidentally, the vicar who married us was a brilliant man called Nick Chamberlain who became the first Church of England Bishop to openly be in a gay relationship.)

I want you both to know that your Dad is the love of my life and I am lucky that I met him (again) when I was old enough to appreciate a good thing. We have barely spent a handful of nights apart since the first night we spent together. I understand now that love means wanting the other person to be happy. And you can’t be happy if they aren’t happy. Also, being married means taking it in turns to be strong. Without him my life would be a mess – in all ways. We were parents before we were husband and wife, we have always been more than just the two of us. Our lives are full, sometimes too full. But there is no amount of chaos we can’t get through together.

Love Mum.

PS. I am trying to stick to the ethos that these letters don’t have to be perfect, they just have to exist. So I started it today and I’m finishing it today like all the rest and it will just have to be good enough.

55.5588° N, 1.6342° W

Dear Leo and Miller,

So I missed a week… It was bound to happen eventually. I think I’ve done well to get this far without slipping up but I’m sorry this letter is late. Last week was all over the place because you finally got chicken pox too Miller. After 3 weeks of all the symptoms minus the spots, the spots made an appearance. Just a light smattering compared to Leo’s (which looked like cigarette burns) but they came nonetheless. And with them a continuation of the crying and sleeplessness and the upset. It was also my birthday mid-week and even though everyone was tired, irritable and not in the mood to do anything, your Dad and I made the effort and had a night out. To the Tyneside Cinema of course. We promised each other after you were born that we would make the effort and go out together once a month, which at the time seemed reasonable, almost easy, but now is laughable. Quarterly is about what we manage these days. I’m sorry if all I seem to do in these letters is list the ways you are an inconvenience to our lives. But I can’t deny that you’ve destroyed our social life. It wasn’t back-to-back parties before, but we did love going to the cinema and I can’t even remember the name of the last film we saw…  The closest we get to watching films these days is the first 20 minutes of Toy Story, Cars or The Little Mermaid about 10 times a day.

My only spare time recently (to sit and write a letter) has been taken up driving to and from Beadnell because we’re having work done on our cottage. To prevent it falling down or being condemned, which would certainly not help increase bookings next season. Neither of you really appreciate it yet but Beadnell is going to be very important to you. That is my hope anyway.  It was to me and I want you to have the same connection with the place. I want it to be our refuge from town and school and work and all the other pressures in life that seem to evaporate as soon as you step onto the beach. It is the only place where your Dad properly relaxes and for that alone it is worth all of the trouble and strife it takes to keep it going. We bought the cottage before we had you two, before we were married, before we even had our own home. In hindsight, it’s difficult to argue that it wasn’t a huge mistake. A big expensive mistake. But neither of us would have the heart to sell it now and so instead of ruing the day we bought it, we have to start looking after it.

Love Mum.