Thursday, 14 December 2017

"The days are long but the years are short" Gretchen Rubin

Ever since my son was born, I have been writing to him. Birthday and Christmas cards, letters about his milestones, lists of music I like, random scribbles in my notebooks on the commute home about places he mights like to visit, drunken musings on life while waiting for friends to arrive at the pub, bad jokes, all sorts of things. The box is bulging, but he has never read any of them. Not just because he has only recently been able to read but mainly as they are all sealed in envelopes, tied up with a spotty ribbon and placed in a wooden box for him when he is 18. When I started writing them 5 and a half years ago, his 18th birthday seemed like a long way away but now it seems frighteningly close, like it will be just around the corner...

When he was a baby and I was at home with him alone mostly, in a new town, with no friends, the days would drag on and on. The never ending guesswork of what this tiny human needed was exhausting. I felt like I had been taken off one planet and put on another, completely alien one. The only thing I could be sure of in those early days was another day tomorrow with more guesswork and isolation. When you become a parent, it's easy to forget who you were before your baby is born, so my letters to him not only marked his new skills (first words, favourite foods etc etc) they also became a way for me to remember who I was in my previous life. What bands did I like? Where had I travelled to? What books and films did I enjoy? Even the most mundane memories became something to write down for him, for another day, while we could only communicate to each other in cuddles and whinges (both of us).  Ultimately, as he gets older, I want him to really know me as a human, not just as his Mother, as it may help him understand where he has come from and maybe even why he is like he is. On the other hand, he might think it's a shit 18th present and want cash, but at least I tried.

Another reason I wanted to write to him, and not to sound morbid, is the fact that we just don't know how much time we have. In an ideal world I could have another 40 years of being in sound mind to tell him all my debauched tales myself, but frankly, I don't want to hedge my bets. I properly became aware of time when my father passed away 6 years prior to my sons birth and always think about my Dad at this time of year. We spent every Christmas day together my whole life. 36 Christmases. At home growing up, later on at boyfriends houses, at my best friends' house when he got lost and turned up almost on Boxing Day.  Mostly they were incredibly stressful days. We had a very difficult relationship, my Dad and me, and he died suddenly during a period where we had not spoken for 5 months. A fairly routine operation went wrong. I had heard he was poorly 7 days before but had 'no time' to even call him. I was busy on a shoot and thought I could see him the following weekend. The next thing I heard was when my little brother called me from St Bart's Hospital to say our Dad was on life support. After the quickest 14 hours of my life spent next to my dying Father I had to give permission to turn the machines off. And that was that. With a few switches he was gone. Time, what a bastard. But the thing about my Dad, was that he also wrote letters. Letter's to his 2 eldest children. My older brother and I (my little brother was thankfully spared all of it). Spiteful, vindictive letters outing our faults and laying down the rules. We had used too much toilet paper so had to buy our own, suddenly I was forbidden to watch the small crackly black and white telly with my brother in his room, we were not allowed to sit on the sofa in the summer in our shorts, as soon as we both turned 16 we had to pay rent. Mean stuff like that. I never kept my letters but believe my older brother has and if anyone ever read them now they would most likely call Social Services. I'm sure he loved us but if all we had to look at after his death were those letters you would absolutely question it. BUT, for all his faults and idiosyncrasies he did have good qualities and he did have a life before us which I learnt a lot more about after he died.

For example, I knew he had been evacuated during WWII, but when he died and I accumulated the majority of his belongings, I read the letters from the man who had taken him in and the correspondence they had over the following decades I read all the funny letters he had sent my Grandparents when he was doing his National Service in the 1950's. I have his postcard collection from his travels as a young man and love letters from a Scandinavian Girlfriend. My Dad was a different person before he got lumbered with 3 young children and looking back I wish I had really known this other person. We would probably have been better friends and maybe it would have explained some of his behaviour. Reading all of these letters helped me get to know by Dad better. I'm glad I have these letters as over time, it helps to erase the rotten memories of the letters he wrote to me. Even after all his harsh treatment, I wish he was still here now, so he could meet his Grandchildren and maybe he would enjoy them more than he did his own kids. I would do anything to have one more annoying Christmas with him despite it all.

But we rarely think of our parents as ever being young, or being remotely 'cool', and it's unlikely we know what they thought about when they were experiencing parenthood for the first time. If you are lucky, you might get to ask those questions but if you do ask, will they even remember! Probably not in great detail. And maybe if you knew more about your parents before you, you might understand them a bit more. You also might understand yourself a bit better which can only be a good thing.

Our children are growing up in an alien landscape, it's a completely different world to ours, or mine anyway, having been born in 1975 (don't tell my son, I've said I'm 21...), and how we communicate is totally different. We rarely send cards or letters these days, we are all 'too busy', and physical correspondence seems to be a thing of the past. There is nothing to keep in a box, to look through when you are feeling sentimental. How sad! This time of year reminds me of this even more. In the past, I would have sent my Christmas cards out on 1st December, and obviously sent one to my Dad, but this year, so far I have only written one. To my son, yesterday.

So, if you write any cards this Christmas, make sure you at least do it to your loved ones, and if you have children, write a special one for them. You never know how precious this rare document might be in years to come when they are all rushing around their hover boards eating space food. Happy Christmas xx

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