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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?”
- 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.
- He is funny. Very very funny. And when he’s on top form, no-one can touch him.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- It is a complete and utter waste of time trying to argue with him. About anything. Seriously, don’t bother.
- 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.
Dear Leo and Miller,
It was Mother’s Day on Sunday which led me to thinking about whether I am a good Mother. I’m trying not to let the fact I’m convinced you both got sun-burnt over the weekend influence my decision too much. Took you to the beach – good mum. Couldn’t find sunscreen – bad mum. Got you ice-cream – good mum. Put you to bad unwashed and without tea because you fell asleep in the car on the way home – bad mum. You both behaved so well all day apart from one unfortunate incident involving you Leo. You weren’t happy with the amount of raspberry sauce on your 99 and began screaming “I WANT MORE MONKEYS BLOOD” at a queue full of people.
It’s definitely getting easier though. The day tripping I mean. Miller, we didn’t take your buggy with us for the first time and it was a revelation. You can more or less get away with not having a day-time sleep now so we just left it behind and only took the essentials (not including sunscreen unfortunately.) No scooters or toys either. Something about the lack of baggage made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. We got up to Beadnell about lunchtime and went straight to the beach. Three hours straight. On the beach. I would like to say that you played in the sea happily together all day but in truth, you spent most of the time fascinated with a washed-up dead seal that was missing it’s face… And that’s OK because it taught you lots about life and death and allowed me and your Dad to sit and do nothing for a while. It’s getting harder every day now to hide from you that I am a very lazy person. Your Aunty Jess was very sporty as a child. Uncle Max and Uncle Freddie were too and still are now. I have never been. Which is why I’m so grateful that your Dad will happily run around with you in his arms, up and down sand dunes (your new favourite game) for hours on end.
How my Mum found the energy to deal with four small children all at once absolutely blows my mind… And it’s totally understandable why her one answer to all my parenting questions – Did you cry a lot Mum? Did I get chicken pox? Did Dad ever take us all out at the same time? When did we start playing nicely? – is “Sarah, I honestly can’t remember.” The whole experience must remain a total blur. I think that’s exactly what life is like with children – and this weekend with you was no exception – a beautiful blur. Of mess and crying, heart-stopping happiness, exhausted faces, flushed faces, mornings in the dark and night-times when it’s light, furious words, bed sheets and beaches, nothing where it should be, scruffy limbs and sticky hair, out-of-nowhere tenderness, dead seals and monkeys blood.
I always find these letters hard to start. Because I see you every day and because you're only two. I have to try and remember that these letters are for the future you…
Someone said write what you know and start with the truth. The truth is I never thought I would want a daughter. Being a girl myself I know how much trouble they are. Especially teenage ones. I remember thinking (when I was a teenager) if I ever had a daughter, what on earth could I teach her? I am a hopeless person so what advise could I give? But that’s just because I was failing miserably at being happy and couldn’t imagine what use I would be as some kind of role model for another girl. I know that a lot of people want to be their child’s best friend, well, Miller sweetheart, I don’t want to be your best friend, I want to be your Mum. For me a friend is a pal, a comrade, a partner in crime – I am here to set an example and keep you out of trouble as best I can. You’ll have a thousand friends Miller, I promise you that (and with a bit of luck five or six proper ones who mean more than the rest combined) but that’s not the role I’m here for. My position in your life is more difficult and important than that. You will hate me a lot because I will try and ruin your fun. You will wish I was like some other cooler Mum who lets their daughter run wild. Don’t forget I know how this goes. I only hope I can be like my Mum and deal with the terrible times to come (and they will come) with good humour and utter faith that it will all come out in the wash. I remember her trying to comfort some family friends who were having a nightmare with their wayward son. They were in absolute despair that he was lost to them forever and all she said was "they always come back.” And she was right.
Sometimes I still feel like a hopeless teenager who has no idea what to do with a daughter (or a son) but luckily I still have a bit of time to grow up myself before any major bumps in the road present themselves. Maybe I’ll even discover some of my Mum’s patience and perseverance in me to ride the storms ahead. But more than that, when you really need it, I hope I’m strong enough to be a Mum and don’t just try and be your friend.
PS. Happy Birthday darling.
Dear Leo and Miller,
It’s International Women’s Day today. I was looking through some photos to find a good one to include in this letter and I found one of my Granny, Freda, one of the best women I have known. It made me smile and think of something she told me when I was a teenager which I would like to share with you. She said “If you are going to smoke, don’t do it on the street. And for God’s sake don’t buy packets of ten because people will think you can’t afford twenty.” Obviously this isn’t good advice: good advice would be don’t smoke at all. But I love it all the same because it sounds just like her. Everything was about keeping up standards. You did things properly, you followed rules (written and unwritten ones), you gave a good impression at all times. I also remember her telling me you should always take your coat off when you go to someone’s house, even if you were cold (and I am always cold) because it’s rude to keep it on. Don’t interrupt. That was another one. I still haven’t quite got the hang of that one… But I cling on to them nonetheless: little standards of behaviour to remember her by.
One sadness I have is that neither of my grandparents met your Dad. They were great people and he would have loved them.
What I remember about them most was how composed they were. I never saw either of them get riled up about anything. Maybe I just didn’t see it or maybe they hid it well but the impression they left on me was one of grace and impeccable manners and of not complaining. They were both pillars of calm and good behaviour. Maybe it’s a generation thing. My parents seem like big kids to me (in the best way) but my grandparents were always grown-ups. As a child, I distinctly recall there being a brand new box of man-size tissues on the back seat of their immaculate car (green jag) at all times and being very impressed at the adultness of it: I dream that one day my car will be like this.
Freda loved perfume: she was big on fragrance. Maybe that’s where I get it from. When I worked in London, kindly editors would sometimes take pity on me and give me freebies from the beauty cupboard and when it was perfume I always took it home for her. The last one I gave her, the one she was wearing before she died, was Sicily by Dolce & Gabbana which smells like lemons and sunshine and nights abroad. I still have the bottle.
I want you to know that she was a wonderful woman who influenced my life more than you could know. (How wonderful her husband was is for another letter.) So I urge both of you to pay attention to what all your grandparents tell you (and you’re lucky to have all four) because they know a lot about life. Much more than I do. When you turn into awful teenagers, they will be the only ones who still see the good in you. Grow close to them and you will never have a bond like it. Imagining their reaction might make you stop and think before doing something reckless. It certainly prevented me going down a few stupid paths… I have to admit that I did sometimes smoke in the street. But I always bought twenty. She would have been so proud.
I honestly didn’t think having a daughter would be that different from having a son. And it hasn’t been until now. Now that you are trying to talk and are starting to form words though, it is very, very different. You were both so similar as tiny babies, when I look back at photos from the day you were both born, I can only tell if it’s you or Leo by whether I have my wedding ring on a necklace round my neck. (We got married between having you both so, Leo is Baby Holmes on all his hospital records and Miller, you are Baby Melling.) Now, not only are you looking less alike, your different characters are beginning to shine through. Miller, you will sit on my knee with one arm hanging round my neck, speaking into my face, kissing and kissing… Leo never sat still on my knee (or on anything for that matter) for more than 30 seconds. And still doesn’t. He just wants to be off. Off and away to who knows where. He was climbing out of his cot and hurling himself over stair-gates before he was 18 months old. He could drag himself up stairs and slides before he had even put one foot in front of the other to walk. Miller, you are not proving to be as nimble. But what you lack in physical prowess, you more than make up for in loving nature. And your little gravelly voice kills me every time. The crying in the morning though, really needs to stop. The other morning when you were staggering around our bedroom dramatically, with three bunnies grasped in one hand and your chocolate bottle leaking all over the floor from the other hand, and you were wailing and wailing for absolutely no reason, your Dad said “Miller, if you stop crying in the mornings, I will top up your ISA by £150.” That incident sums up our differences as people and parents – your Dad thinks a financial incentive will appeal to a two-year-old and I had no idea you even had an ISA.
PS I’m also not entirely sure what an ISA actually is. But there’s definitely money involved, so you’re a very lucky girl to have one.
Dear Leo and Miller,
Since I started writing these letters, I am now constantly thinking about advice or words of guidance that I want to tell you. There are lots, of course, or this blog wouldn’t last very long. Every day I hear or read things that I want to pass on to you both. But if there was one lesson above others I would ask you to hold on to it would be this “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about: so always be kind.” It more or less sums up everything that is important, everything you need to know about life is in there – it is the To Kill a Mocking Bird of advice. I can’t remember who said it to me or where I read it but if you only follow one instruction from me, let it be that.
A close second, and one I have been conjuring up a lot recently, came from the most unlikely of sources. It was stuck up on a wall in a conference room at a business seminar I attended last week. (The very last place I thought would provide inspiration for these letters.) However, it said “If everyone likes what you’re doing they’re probably lying.” I think it was aimed at employers trying to manage their staff effectively in the work place but it has become my current favourite mantra. It suggests the time to worry is when you aren’t getting any criticism and is much better than something similar “You can’t please all the people all the time” which just sounds vague and defeatist.
You will encounter criticism in your life, it’s unavoidable. And people will show a lack of encouragement towards what you’re doing that puts doubt in your mind. But you don’t need everyone to think you’re brilliant: you don’t even need many people to think your brilliant. What other people think isn’t that important: only your attitude towards it. So ignore the negative and don’t buy into the positive too much either. You just need to battle on regardless with whatever it is you think is worthwhile.