Monthly Archives: November 2015

Of love, recipes and handwriting

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Here are two things I love (among many) about my late mum, gone from us now for more than a decade. Firstly, she was an excellent, intuitive cook.

And … she warmly welcomed my friends over the years, often plying them with meals which were prepared with much love and affection.

In fact, she was a cook ahead of her time, as she produced spaghetti bolognaise – with fresh garlic – in the 1960s, when such foreign food was viewed as strange and exotic.                                                                                         I remember too, on hot summer days, she made wonderfully tasty Spanish Gazpacho – a chilled soup with a tomato base into which was added garlicky bread soaked in a little olive oil, the whole being enhanced with finely chopped peppers and cucumber. Delicious! And watching mum make a Victoria sponge or bake an apple pie was an education in itself. She didn’t weigh or measure the ingredients, but said she could tell the balance was right ‘by feel’. Somehow her sponges always turned out light and airy; her pastry was invariably short and crisp.

Mum had some favourite recipes and she was happy to share them. So it was that her Ratatouille recipe (which owes little to a traditional ratatouille as she did not like the flavour of aubergines) found its way to the recipe file belonging to Stella, one of my friends from school days.

Recently Stella, who has lived in the US for many years with her American husband, mentioned that she often cooked mum’s ratatouille to serve as a side dish with roast chicken and I realised that I did not have the recipe. She kindly scanned and emailed it to me.

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Don’t you agree that there is something very special about seeing the handwriting of someone you love after they have passed?                               Mum’s writing is distinctive with its cursive script, large capitals and extravagant loops and swirls. It is not dull writing, but has a liveliness of form. Even the phrasing of mum’s ratatouille recipe brings her to mind in a lovely way. I can almost hear her as she describes the method. In particular I can picture her expression and her hand movements as she suggests ‘swizzling the oil’. I especially like the instruction to ‘cover with foil and plonk lid on top’ – very emphatic.

Another friend, Sylvie, formerly of New Haw and Taunton, now lives in the Languedoc region of France, where I visited her recently.

“I’ve still got your mum’s fruit cake recipe”, she told me.                                                                                                                                     It’s another one that I didn’t have. Soon afterwards the recipe arrived in the post and once again, I can conjure up something of mum’s character from the writing and composition. Her recipes owe little to a formulaic list of ingredients and processes; they are somehow far more personal. I love her comment about the sugar: 4 1/2ozs is enough unless you have a very sweet tooth which reflects mum’s personal preference too. Equally, the clarification of how to avoid the cherries sinking to the bottom of the mixture personalises the recipe in a way that would not be found in a book. Her exhortation to enjoy happy baking! is typical of mum’s desire to please others.

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The exchange of recipes today is far more likely to happen electronically and it is the work of an instant to share a recipe with many; mum’s distribution was undoubtedly more selective and perhaps has added value for that. I wonder how many more of her recipes there are hidden away in people’s files…

Handwriting is as unique as a voice or a fingerprint and there are certain characteristics specific to the way mum wrote things down which are personal to her. Interestingly, when she wrote a shopping list she used the whole sheet (usually the back of an envelope) Rather than writing a sequential list, she would dot words all around the space in seemingly random order. I have never thought about why I do it, but I find I do exactly the same.

Mum’s writing never varied much; her hand was always neat and decisive.  She wrote to me often, invariably heading up her letters with a humorous take on her address, such as ‘Sunny Vista’ on a dull winter’s day or ‘Shady Nook’ in midsummer, and she always closed with … Ever your loving mum; indeed she was that, and still is.

There is an intimacy and individuality to handwriting that does not exist in the typed word, however emotive or personal the topic. Handwriting reflects us in a way that is entirely unique. We develop a writing style and voice that expresses our own identity.

I still enjoy writing personal letters, notes and cards as an adjunct to electronic communication. Sadly, the pleasure of handwriting is under-emphasised in today’s world and it would be a pity if this individual skill were to be lost altogether.

I do not need the skills of a graphologist to know that mum’s handwriting echoes her merry personality and exuberance for life and the evidence, in the form of her recipes if nothing else, is indeed precious to keep.

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It’s that time of year again!

 

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Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.           Anne Roiphe

It’s that time of year again! At every turn the media exhort us to be festively jolly as though there is no grief, sickness, sadness, terrorism or poverty in the world. The images of tables laden with festive fare, the millions of pounds spent on long and complex advertising stories, the endless articles of how to drop a dress size and look great this festive season … all these conspire to make us feel woefully inadequate if we are not joining in. Should we have the temerity to admit that we are not actually greeting the season with gleeful anticipation we are seen as killjoys.

And where, in all the bombardment of consumerism and materialism surrounding the yuletide season, is the celebration of new life that is the true message of Christmas? That is far too thorny an issue to embark on pondering here, for this post is intended to be a useful survival guide for anyone living through loss at this time of year.

For the bereaved, we have to accept that Christmas does come. It continues to happen as do all the other days of the year. We have to learn to cope in the best ways that we can find. We have to formulate a new, acceptable festive season that we can enjoy to whatever degree we feel is right for us to celebrate without our loved ones to share it with us.

This will be our eleventh festive season without James. I hold close the memories of how much he loved Christmas. I honour his memory by creating and building upon a new version of Christmas that is celebratory in its own way and at a level which I, and those around me, feel comfortable.

I offer below my own survival tips for the holidays. These are a combination of my own observations and those I have gleaned over the past decade that I think are helpful.

Accept that this time of year is especially bad for grief triggers. The time for avoidance of grief is not the festive season, and if you can embrace the concept and meet it head on rather than trying to sideline it, this will make it easier

Have a plan. Whatever you decide to do for the festive break, make sure you plan so that you are not left at a loose end.

Hold your old traditions and create new ones. Blending the present and the past creates a new normality that works effectively as a grief break.

Don’t expect others to mention your loved ones. They will think it upsets you to speak of them by name. This quote by Elizabeth Edwards sums it up perfectly: If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died–you’re not reminding them. They didn’t forget they died. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and that is a great gift.

Be kind to yourself (1). Indulge in a treat you would not normally buy and don’t feel guilty for doing so.

Be kind to yourself (2). Listen to a favourite piece of music, watch a film, go for a walk/jog/run, meditate or pray … whatever will lift your spirits. Allow yourself to take time out from the frantic festive rushing around and just be with your own thoughts.

Do something to honour your loved one’s memory, such as buying an extra Christmas tree decoration each year.

Light a candle and reflect on what the season means to you, now as opposed to before your loss. Take heart from how far you have come year on year. Give yourself permission to grieve.

Have an exit strategy for social events so that if they become too much you can leave without causing offence. For example, you can tell your hosts on arrival that it is no reflection on them if you slip away before anyone else, and you will not then feel obliged to stay longer than you wish to.

Accept that socialising is stressful and plan what you will say if you are asked about your loved ones. Rehearse beforehand. Understand that the worst thing that can happen is that you may become tearful; no-one will hold it against you.

Spend time with family and friends and reminisce; but look forward too.

Instead of making meaningless New Year’s resolutions, start a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as writing down a daily positive thought, deed or step that you have taken.

Finally, know that you will survive. Just as others have done, so too can you. The firsts are always hard, but in time it does become easier to accept, and even enjoy, festive socialising.

We all have the ability to find peace even in the midst of grief. Look out for the signposts that point you along the way, and follow the path that is right for you.

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Three Gifts From Loss

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 For James

Maybe you were just travelling through

You were not destined to be with us for long

You didn’t need to stay a hundred years

To get everything done; you did it in nineteen.

You came to deliver the warmth of your smile

Your lessons in love, friendship and trust

You were already a teacher to us all

To our family and others, so loved…

Maybe you lived your life faster than the rest

You certainly knew how to make the best

Of all your opportunities and time

You wasted nothing; each moment precious.

You delivered your gifts and now you are free

To travel on; an extraordinary being

Who leaves knowledge for we who remain

Your presence to treasure, again and again.

The concept that grief and loss can give us anything other than pain and heartache, indeed that they may provide something of a positive nature, is an entirely untenable idea in the early stages of bereavement. But as we tread along our individual grief pathways in the ‘two steps forward, one step back’ manner associated with such journeys, we may find ourselves surprised.

Very soon after James passed, I began to write out my feelings as a way of alleviating my pain. Writing is solace for me and I have always expressed myself in written form, usually keeping journals and diaries for my eyes only. I recognise myself as a recorder of events; if I am not photographing it, I am writing it down! I began to share my writing on grief support forums and the first time someone kindly commented, saying,

“Your words have really helped me, you have expressed exactly what I am feeling”,

I felt tremendously uplifted.

I don’t write for plaudits and praise, but there is great satisfaction in knowing that what comes relatively easily to me is able to help others in similar situations.

This was an unexpected outcome from loss and the first of its identifiable gifts. The catharsis of writing and keeping James’ memory alive through writing about him benefits me, too.

Alongside writing, I have on occasion been asked to speak about grief and I’ve given various presentations, both formal and informal. Public speaking was never within my remit before. But it brings a very important lesson, which is that grief has given me a new voice, a positive voice that shares the state of mind around the rollercoaster ride of sorrow in a way that uplifts and helps those who are travelling a similar route. This second gift takes its form as a growing confidence which arises directly from my experiences and is therefore very personal.

The third gift from loss that I identify here is perhaps a little nebulous and difficult to describe. It might be summed up by a quote by Julian of Norwich (reprised into modern English):    He did not say you will not be storm tossed, you will not be sore distressed, you will not be work weary. He said: you will not be overcome. I guess resilience is the best name for this gift.
When we were on holiday earlier this year, I made a less than sensible decision. We arrived at a most beautiful location, the port of Kotor in Montenegro. Above the city, itself bounded by ancient walls, is a zig-zag, vertiginous cliff path up the side of the mountain which rises from the fjord on which Kotor is located. Despite my mobility being significantly compromised by my arthritic hip, I was determined that I would ascend the path, reaching at the very least halfway up, in my quest for photographs.

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We set off. It was hot, steep and dusty. The path was heavy going, made treacherous with loose shale. But I was constantly seeking the best photo opportunities as we ascended, and I concentrated on reaching the goal. We finally made it; hot and sweaty but with the sense of achievement that comes only from working through something difficult; and in this case painful.

This example illustrates that there is no recompense in just sitting brooding and reflecting on grief, loss and sadness. We need to hold onto the faith in our ability to metaphorically climb mountains as they loom up ahead of us. The result is the gift of knowing that we are managing, we are coping, and we are working our way forward, however long and difficult the climb.

kotor5viewcloseI didn’t do myself any favours in Kotor as this unwise expedition turned out to be the defining factor in my decision to seek a hip replacement on our return home. I am now recovering very well. The gift inherent in that trek up the mountain was to give me a clearer vision about what I needed to do for the sake of my future.

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If we open our minds and hearts with faith in our own strength we can draw upon many forms of support, both seen and unseen, which then nurture and bolster our determination to carry on progressing along the personal grief path.  It is only by moving forward that we are able to look back down the weeks, months and years and chart our advancement.

The signposts and helpers along the way point us towards what eventually become tangible positives; such are our gifts from loss.

“Maybe some people just aren’t meant to be in our lives forever. Maybe some people are just passing through. It’s like some people just come through our lives to bring us something: a gift, a blessing, a lesson we need to learn. And that’s why they’re here. You’ll have that gift forever.” Danielle Steele

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