Dead Seals and Monkeys Blood

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.

Love Mum.

x

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Baby Holmes & Baby Melling

Dear Miller,
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.
Love.
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.

Every sort of mischief 

Dear Leo,
When you were about three months old I took you out for a walk with Popa. We bumped into one of his old friends, another ex-car salesman in his 60s or 70s and cut from the same cloth as my Dad. Popa introduced you to each other, and, as if I wasn’t even there, his friend took a step back so he could size you up better. Then he looked you over like I imagine they used to eye up cars and said “Aye. He’s a little belter Frank.” And Popa beamed with pride like I have never seen before. It’s true: you were a little belter. You never really looked like a baby, you looked like a proper little boy from the minute you were born. But a boy who gets mistaken for a girl a lot of the time on account of your long eye-lashes and all your long hair that I refuse to get cut. You get told all the time how beautiful you are and I hope it won’t turn you into a monster. I am constantly taking photographs of you which will no doubt be stoking any latent narcissism. I will be just as much to blame as admiring strangers if your ego grows out of control. But I want you to know, there are plenty of kids out there who are just as easy to look at, so don’t think you’re anything too special. Because it’s the road to ruin. Vanity can swallow a person up whole. Jane Austen (one of my favourite writers and a master of the human condition) said this “Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.” You are without doubt a little belter Leo – just don’t let it go to your head.    

Love

Family, Work & Charity

Dear Leo and Miller,

So Something for Syria is actually happening. It’s real and we know it’s real because it’s in a newspaper. The event has been picked up by The Journal newspaper who have run a feature on it. It’s brilliant publicity and will hopefully kick-start some more ticket sales. And we could do with a run on sales because at this point there are more organisers than paid-for ticket holders – which I suspect is not the ideal ratio, a month before the night.

The downside to all of this activity is that I have been totally neglecting the other important things in my life. Every spare second I have, I am on my phone or the lap-top. Your Dad is not happy. He made a list of what my priorities should be and they went like this: Family, Work, Charity. Which is absolutely correct but this period of time reminds me of something your Granny Ellen told me when I found out I was pregnant with you Miller and I was worried (as I’m sure everyone about to have baby number 2 feels) that I couldn’t possibly love another child as much as I loved Leo.

She said to me “The child you love most is the child that needs you most and that always changes” which completely makes sense.

And right now, if Family, Work and Charity were babies, it’s Charity that needs me the most and so it takes precedent. I don’t mean I have left my family to starve but my mind is certainly elsewhere a lot of the time and I am constantly breaking my own rule of not having my phone out when I’m with you both. But it won’t be forever and I think it’s important that you both know how crucial it is to spend time and energy on a good cause that in no way directly benefits yourself or your loved ones. Because anyone can say they help other people but usually they’re just talking about their nearest and dearest and I just don’t think that’s good enough. If we don’t widen the net of who we lend our help and support to – how does anything really change?

So hopefully you will understand and look back at what my friends and I spectacularly pull off on February 27th (fingers-crossed) and be proud that you took a back seat to let something wonderful happen.

Love.

 

 

 

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.

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.

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

God Bless America

Dear Leo and Miller,

Donald Trump is president of the United States of America. You will discover in your own time how this is an incredible turn of events that only 12 months ago seemed an impossible joke. Like Brexit, there is very strong feeling surrounding the subject and people are angry. One of the things being said a lot is “What kind of a legacy are we leaving our children?” and I am going to be honest: I don’t know. It’s difficult to not have some kind of political point of view and I have fallen out with good friends over both Brexit and Donald Trump. You can only speak as you find and we are lucky enough to also speak as we wish: that is the beauty of living in a democracy. I don’t consider myself a political person – I don’t know enough and I don’t make it a priority to know more, which is a failing. I live in a bubble: a tiny bubble that won’t be directly effected in any huge heart-breaking ways by either of these historic events. So I look on in wonder (mixed with a bit of horror and a battling hope) at the millions of people whose lives will very probably be turned upside down. Will the world be a very different place by the time you both come of voting age? Almost definitely. Will your generation be the one that brings about the changes this generation so desperately wanted to? Again, I don’t know. All I can hope for is that through more information and more understanding, you become better equipped than me to speak freely and boldly about what you find.

Love Fa

PS. As always, when I want to make sense of something confusing or over-whelming, I look to well-written words for a smoother path. No-one has the answers but some are better than others at making us think clearer about the questions. The following are some things I have read – in articles, on forums, on blogs. It doesn’t even matter who wrote them or whose side they are on: they just have something to say and they say it well.

Unknown: “For well over a year, many people including myself who have been wary with Trump’s rhetoric have relied heavily on media to make sense of it all. But media did a great deal of disservice to public by shoving itself up so high into Hillary camp that they started mixing their bias with actual events, mostly by highlighting trump’s palaver and ignoring people’s sentiments. Media has voluntarily taken the role of going after trump, and promoting Hillary. But the majority of the country has spoken, and the outcome of Trump’s presidency is a smack on Media’s chosen position. Media is the sore loser now for betting on the losing side. People need to distance themselves from the self-serving and click mongering media, and support the president that the majority have chosen and act as one America, just like what we all did with past presidents.”

Emily Henderson, American stylist, author and TV host: “I consider myself a liberal because I strive to care about all people, equally, and I believe that left to our own devices, we are innately all selfish and will put our needs, our wants, our dollars in front of the greater good. It’s not that I don’t think that conservatives care about people, I know they do, my parents care more about people than anyone I know, but like another commenter said liberals value equality over freedom and conservatives value freedom over equality. Both are good, its just a matter of what you want to place in front of the other…” You can read the full blog post here: https://stylebyemilyhenderson.com/blog/voted-trump-comments-helped-grow

Toni Morrison, American novelist and professor: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Tennis and Dressing – for beginners

Dear Leo and Miller,

I am writing this on my new Mac Book and for some reason the letters are tiny and I can’t make them any bigger which is quite appropriate as JS used to write in very small hand-writing. A throw back from when he was too poor to afford paper so every square millimetre was utilised.

Miller, you went off to nursery in a dreadful mood today. You were crying and wailing in the house and terribly clingy with me when I tried to leave you. Leo, you were never like that – you couldn’t get away from me fast enough.

But then every day is different and the only thing consistent in your behaviour is its inconsistency. Tennis is usually one of your favourite activities Leo, but yesterday, about two minutes into your class, you looked up at the balcony where I was watching you from, and your face just crumbled. I had to drag Miller downstairs with me and come onto the court and try and reason with you to carry on. I think you were cold and that was the problem but you were adamant that we go. Which was a shame because I enjoy watching you play tennis. By play tennis, I mean swing a racket around at a ball that is thrown at you: the two elements are yet to make contact. I can’t decide whether you have any natural ability for the sport but you certainly look the best in your class. I put you in all whites because I want you to look like Roger Federer. White polo-shirt or t-shirt, white shorts, white socks with a blue stripe and proper white trainers. I said to your teacher – “Leo may not turn out to be any good at tennis but he definitely looks the part.” I think he appreciates the effort: I always think it’s a mark of respect to your host to dress up for every occasion. Miller – I cannot wait for you to start ballet.

Love Fa.x

immediately, instinctively, spontaneously

Dear Leo and Miller,

Something you need to know about me is that I am obsessed with clothes and the fashion industry. It is what I wanted to do when I left school and what I went off to do in London when I finished university. There are many stories (good and bad) from that time. I never wanted to be a designer: I just wanted to play with clothes and write about clothes. I quickly realised that styling wasn’t going to be my calling. The stylists were the beautiful peacock girls who always looked incredible and were streets ahead of everyone else. They wore the clothes you wanted – about two weeks before you realised you wanted them. And then they were on to the next thing. It must be exhausting being that current. I was never going to be that directional or bothered to be first- I am inherently a lazy, lazy person (and deeply uncompetitive) and just want to copy how well-dressed people dress. But I could write about clothes and fashion as a subject all day long. I first knew that I was good at it when I was on a placement in London at a national newspaper and the ‘notes’ I was asked to write for the fashion writer were used word for word in her published articles. I would go above and beyond every task I was asked to do. So the ‘notes’ were polished and finished articles which I thought she might chop up or pull to bits and use some scraps – but more often than not, they went straight into the article untouched. I couldn’t have been happier. And I actually didn’t care that it wasn’t my name on the page – I knew I had written it and that’s all I was bothered about.

What made my mind wander to this time in my life was thinking about how I wanted to attack these letters. What I wanted them to be. I think the very point of Steinbeck’s letter (and most of his letters, and him probably) is that it isn’t perfect or polished. He replied on the same day as he received Thom’s letter, the over-riding importance was getting back to him quickly as opposed to pondering over a response and making sure it was eloquent and impressive. And that made me think about something Miuccia Prada  said in an interview when she was asked about how she designs.

“Designing for me is a very complex process. There are many ideas that I want to express in one object, very often contradictory. The creative process in Miu Miu is completely different from that of Prada. Miu Miu is not as complicated or thought out as Prada. Rather than being young, Miu Miu is immediate. Prada is very sophisticated and considered; Miu Miu is much more naive. The solution, when I am working on Miu Miu, has to come immediately, instinctively, spontaneously with what is available at the moment. If I think three times, I stop.”

So staying true to that idea, I don’t want to think too much about what I am writing. Certainly not the grammar or spelling which will most definitely be appalling.* If I had hours and hours or days and days to prepare each letter, would they be any better? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s not the point. It’s the immediacy of them that makes them what they are, a sense of urgency to communicate my thoughts. And so, in that spirit, this blog is my Miu Miu and eventually, one day in the future, if I am asked to write a book (for large sums of money), that will be my Prada.

Love Fa.

x

* Steinbeck himself was particularly disdainful of grammar and spelling. Saying: “(sic) every nasty little comma in its place and preening of itself. I have the instincts of a minstrel rather than those of a scrivener. When my sounds are all in place, I can send them to a stenographer who knows his trade and he can slip the commas about until they sit comfortably and he can spell the words so that school teachers will not raise their eye-brows when they read them. Why should I bother?”

PS. I look very pleased with myself in the picture because the jacket I am wearing is an original YSL smoking jacket. It was given to me by a family friend and is my most treasured item of clothing: I have nothing cooler or of more value.