Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Then and Now

Back in the mists of time, there was no internet. No world wide web. No Skype, no Facetime, no Google chat, no text messages, no e-mail. In those days people communicated with each other via the medium of letters. They picked up an actual pen, applied it to real paper, tucked it in an envelope, affixed a stamp and entrusted it to the care of the ladies and gentlemen of the Royal Mail in the fond hope it would be delivered to the recipient intact within a relatively brief period of time. The Royal Mail in turn made reciprocal arrangements with the postal services of other nations, allowing these letters to transcend national boundaries and travel on aeroplanes from one country to another before reaching their final destination. Rather surprisingly, this system mostly worked.

And thus it was that my parents, in England, communicated with my grandparents, in South Africa. When I say "my parents", what I actually mean is my mother, who diligently wrote to her in-laws at least once a week for something close to a quarter of a century - the time between my parents moving from South Africa to England and my grandparents' deaths. My grandparents didn't simply treasure these letters, they returned them to my mother at intervals as a lasting record of our lives. (I assume that, given my mother's ability to horde cherish everything, she also possesses the other half of the correspondence somewhere). And now my mother is gradually lending me batches of letters to read, written during my childhood, which is giving me an interesting insight into what it was like to raise me as a pedantic, willful, obstreperous but affectionate small object, just as I face the same characteristics in my own small object.

This week I have been reading letters written in the second half of 1977. At this time I was not-quite-3, and BrotherBear was not-quite-6. Alongside the usual family events of school fetes, babysitting circles, coughs, colds, chicken pox, visits to friends, gardening, decorating, entertaining, broken-down cars and trips to the dentist, one event stuck out like a sore thumb...

One Sunday afternoon, my mother lay outside in the sun, in the garden, reading her book.

Just in case you read that a bit too quickly, and weren't paying attention... one Sunday afternoon, with a 2-year-old and a five-year-old, my mother lay in the sun and read her book.

She read her book. 

Lying in the sun.

There were two small children alive, awake and present at the time.

I still dream of the day I can read more than one and a half sentences before LittleBear asks me to be a penguin, or build a dinosaur den, or find his missing snake (the one that's on the floor, about two feet from where he's standing), or play ludo, or fetch a snack, or race sharks, or mend his lego monster, or find videos of beet harvesters on Youtube, or the thousand and one other ways we pass our day.

Clearly my mother not only supped from the elixir of awesome parenting, but she has subsequently willfully refused to let me in on the secret. I still haven't quite got over the idea that she lay in the sun reading her book. I was two. Two, and somehow well-trained enough that I didn't need supervising and entertaining every waking minute. I'll admit that she does also say that her LittlePhysicsBear trotted over every couple of minutes for a kiss, so she wasn't entirely left in peace, but I'd take intermittent kisses in return for reading my book.

In the interests of unbiased reporting, I should perhaps point out that, in the three years worth of letters that I have so far read, this is the first occasion on which my mother appears to have had a chance to sit and read her book, but that's still one more occasion than I've managed and I've had one year longer and possess half the number of children. I have clearly made some severe and serious mistakes in my rearing of LittleBear.

I should also note that, when October swung round, and my parents held a 3rd birthday party for me, there were nine three-year-olds and no other parents. One family friend attended to help out, but otherwise the accepted protocol appeared to be to dump your child and scarper. So while the rather less interventionist approach to parenting had its advantages, the disadvantages were loud, terrifying and filled with potential catastrophe. I'm not even sure I can bear to think about 9 three-year-olds in my house at one time, with only two other adults to help...

Now I come to think about it, I'm not sure I'd trade the odd opportunity to read my book for holding unaccompanied parties for three year olds. Or for the countless occasions on which my mother appeared to have up to five or six children in the house at any one time for whom she was solely responsible. Not on any paid basis, this was simply the little boys from down the road appearing in the house almost unannounced and being cared for and catered to. Maybe that's why I was content not to have my mother's constant, unwavering, single-minded attention; maybe by giving so much of her time to herding so many children she earned the brief golden period of reading her book in the sun; maybe being the world to my LittleBear is the penalty and reward for having an only child and not having a free-ranging extended neighbourhood of children wandering in and out of the house; maybe there's no magic elixir of motherhood that my mother has hidden from me after all. Curses. I was hoping for an easy answer that would give me some quality time with my book...


  1. My theory is this: only children think they're the center of their parents'world, but N>1 *know* they're not. It's far easier for me to ignore two children at once!

    That said I could go for a lie down in the sun myself. Any year now. I had the poor judgment to have three, after all.

    1. I definitely brought the "centre of the world" thing on my own head by stopping at one. But, on the other hand, a second one would have broken me totally in other ways, so I'll take the downsides of an only child in exchange for dodging the depression bullet. Three actually makes me feel slightly queasy...

  2. (While I typed that little miss dumped a pot of water on the bathroom floor and splashed in it. Ignoring has its issues clearly.)