Talk to strangers

Dear Leo and Miller,

A few days ago we were in town, sitting outside the café where we always go, and across from us was a man with a big beard in his forties or thereabouts drinking coffee. He looked up and started smiling; and the more noise the two of you were making, the more he smiled, which is very unusual. He came over to us, patted Leo on the head and said how beautiful you were. Then he gave you a Kinder Bueno (which was lucky as it’s the only chocolate you like) and pinched your cheeks. To be honest, it was more of a grab than a pinch, a proper fistful of flesh. The kind grannies back in the day used to do. He spoke English but with a foreign accent. This and the cheek-grabbing silenced you both into wide-eyed staring mode. This made him laugh more and he said, “I’m sorry but in my country it’s not unusual for men to fuss over babies. I love children.” I said “Where is home?” And he said “Iraq.”

 

His name was Hessan. He said he had a niece and a nephew back home who were about the same age as you. He talked about missing his Mum and that he went home recently to look after her because she was ill. He was still beaming at you both as he was saying all this and continued giving Leo more Kinder Buenos. (Miller, you were less impressed with Hessan because for some reason he gave you very adult coffee chocolates which you silently spat out when he wasn’t looking.) He said that these days in Iraq the boys and young men think only of guns and money. In a weird way, it was reassuring to know that other cultures wildly generalise and stereotype their young people too. We’re not the only ones. He told us he had lived in Scotland for eight years but moved because it was too cold. I pointed out that it’s bloody freezing in Newcastle too and he just shrugged and said, “But the people are friendly.”

 

I’m not encouraging you to talk to strangers. Actually, I am encouraging you to talk to strangers. Not just every stranger you come across but if someone bothers to make conversation, bother back. I hope you’re always interested in other people. Stay curious. Everyone has a story that will have some similarities to your own – even if it’s just that you both like Kinder Bueonos. Your Dad thinks I’m just nosy and that I talk too much (in general, not just to strangers) and is horrified that I speak to people I don’t know in the street. But it’s in my bones and I hope you both get a little bit of that too. Promise me that you will always ask questions. Because, if nothing else, you owe it to a kind stranger who misses their country, to ask – “Where is home?”

Love Mum.

P.S. For clarification, when considering talking to a stranger, context is important: there is a big difference between being down a dark alley in the middle of the night and outside a really busy cafe in the middle of the afternoon,

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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

Happy Birthday Miller

Dear Miller,

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.

Love Mum

PS. Happy Birthday darling.

Don’t Smoke in the Street

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.

Love

x

So always be kind

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.
Love.

Sail Happily On

Dear Leo and Miller,

You have both been very poorly and I have spent the best part of this week grappling with both of you, trying to keep you calm and settled. This has meant both of you being in my bed most nights – sometimes all night, sometimes just for a stint, always a struggle. Not much sleep has been had by any of us. Or reading or writing.

But now you are both back in nursery and normal life can resume. Or at least what has become our normal. I have not been wearing mascara for the last few days and I do that when I am tired or over-whelmed, and when I know I am most likely  going to cry at some point in the day so I just don’t bother putting on any make-up. At the best of times I feel as though I have been taken hostage by parenthood but when one of you is ill, all bets are totally off and I don’t know what I’m going to be faced with or how I’m going to react. The lack of control over what used to be a selfishly led life is still something I struggle to resolve with myself.

I read a very good piece of advice in The Telegraph at the weekend. Graham Norton writes a problem page for the Saturday paper. If you are familiar with his television persona (of which I have never been a fan) you might consider him an unlikely source of sound and sympathetic advice. But he is surprisingly compassionate and sensible. One letter was from a woman who thought she might be suffering with depression and he replied: “I understand your concerns for the future, but try thinking about this afternoon instead. Is there a pile of magazines you’ve been meaning to go through? A lampshade that needs to be washed? Stress and anxiety consume us when we feel the world is going to crush us, but the truth is that our lives are made up of moments. Manage them, enjoy them, endure them – you will get through them.”

These words rang true and I want you to remember them. Because there will be times when you won’t have it in you to bound through life enjoying every minute. There will be many times you’ll be lucky just to pick your way through without hurting yourself. And that’s alright. Do not compare yourself to other people who seem to sail happily on through whatever comes there way: some people simply find life easier than others. Do not be disheartened: it’s all a series of moments that don’t last. You must find joy in the ones you can and try to stand the rest.

Love Fa.

x