Thursday, 25 March 2010

Real Spring Lamb

Now, lambs are a prerequisite of Spring I would say, but I must admit I haven't spied one yet. I know they are out there - the girls said they saw their first one out of the school bus window back in late February. But nothing round here so far.

The other day, while I was in the mountain shop in Buxton (in the old Woolworths premises) deliberating over what shade of beanie to get the girls for their forthcoming school ski trip, I heard a couple of oh-so-busy assistants leaning over the pink snow boots on the discount stand and chatting about the virtues (or otherwise) of reality TV's latest brainchild, 'Lambing Live'. Broadly, they seemed hooked. Well, one of them was at least. I have to admit to not being as smitten myself. There is something hugely irritating about having Kate Humble gush over it all as if lamb birth was some new phenomenon. But I mustn't be too unfair as I am aware that there are many who do not have the chance to see such things for themselves. Around here we have a wonderful farm called 'Blaze Farm' - aka The Ice Cream Farm. They took the business decision to diversify and, beyond the dairy farm where you can see live milking and the cafe where you can buy freshly made icecream produced from the cows' milk, there is also a really informative nature trail (it is here I learned how to build a dry stone wall), a selection of goats, donkeys and poultry to view as well as kittens (their numerous cats are highly productive, it seems) and, of course, at this time of year, lambing.

A couple of years ago, when I had children at schools in two different counties and the Easter holiday dates did not overlap, I had six weeks to fill with engaging activities. I spent a lot of time at Blaze Farm. So much, in fact, that I am not sure I have been back since. I kind of had my fill. Yet it was here that I saw my first ever lamb actuallly being born. I had arrived with L and a friend of hers from school - both of them just six years old and full of the joys of spring ('scuse the pun). They shot out of the car like escaping gas and whizzed into the lambing shed. Straw bales are set up where the children are allowed to hold new born lambs; there are the lambing pens themselves and then the pens where mother and child bond (just like Lambing Live, you see). I had a small camera in my pocket, just in case, and, as luck would have it, I wandered in after the children just as a ewe was giving birth. It was jolly exciting - bit like the robin in my feeder (previous post, for the confused). The girls made yuck noises while l took photos...

Anyway, I was at the Cheshire Schools Music Festival in Macclesfield on Monday night, for my sins, and I happened to find myself sitting next to the farmer's wife (who is hugely creative and also runs a Pottery Cafe at the farm). I asked her how they felt about 'Lambing Live' and she rolled her eyes saying how her husband had groaned and said 'Now I'll just have a load of people coming in telling me how to do my job!' Poor man, I feel for him.

In the meantime I'm looking forward to seeing my first Spring Lamb and will just have to close my eyes and think of England when one of them ends up on my plate in a year's time covered in mint sauce...

PS: have just found this rather amusing article on 'Lambing Live' and the relative merits of Reality TV.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The First Day of Spring

Tuesday, 16th March 2010

I'm officially calling this the first day of Spring up here, although technically it's not till Saturday. The sun is out and the temperature guage in the car went (briefly) into double figures (11.5 degrees) for the first time in months as I drove out of Buxton. I glanced at the vistas around me and there are still, unbelievably, pockets of snow to be seen in shady high spots and in front of dry stone walls where it had been blown into drifts. Yet the general flat dead browness of the landscape, the colours of vegetation which has been covered by snow, is lifting slightly. There is a hint of green to come, of new growth. The daffodils by the roadsides and in the gardens are just pushing through now and the drifts of white snowdrops are finally looking robust and abundant rather than stunted and cold.

In fact I have just been out in the garden to pick some snowdrops for our guest room and my parents' imminent arrival. I noticed that the tulips are poking their way up through the soil in the borders and tubs together with the daffodils and the crocuses. There are even some primulas finding a new lease of life and showing off diminutive heads of palest yellow. The hellebores have taken a pasting from the frost - just one has white flowers right now - as have other plants around the garden. I have lost many pots, burst apart by the consistently freezing temperatures - all of which have endured previous winters without trouble. Another sad demise is the tall yuccas we brought back from Milan in 1999. Against all odds they have battled their way through life in the frozen north, but I fear the ice that coated them while we were away at Christmas was their downfall. I was a little upset when I went out one day recently to find the green crowns scattered about the terrace - they had completely rotted off the stem. I was very proud of how these plants had resisted, to date, all that the Peak District could throw at them - and I am sad because they are a happy memory of our time in Milan and the birth of our first daughter (who loved them dearly because they made her feel 'exotic' and dream of white sand beaches, turquoise waters and palm trees - her idea of Paradise).

Meanwhile, I have turned, alarmingly quickly, from laughing at my mother with her (relatively) new found obsession with feeding the birds in her garden, to becoming exactly the same. It all started at Christmas when they were staying. She braved sub-zero temperatures to leave the warmth of the hearth and trip out into the snow in unsuitable shoes clutching plates of old crusts. She'd throw them on the snow and we'd watch the robin come to feed. It was all rather lovely.

I've always fed the birds but not with the dedication with which I have now taken on this duty. I used to collect crusts and stale bread and put them out on the old stone bird table; and a few years ago I bought a seed feeder which I hung on a tree near the terrace. Sadly, neither of these birdly banqueting venues are easily visible from the kitchen window so it was rather a thankless task. Then, a few weeks ago, I was round at a friend's who had a bird feeder stuck to her glass patio doors with suction cups. At first I inwardly winced and could barely suppress slightly unkind thoughts concerning style and ageing, but soon I was entranced by the numbers and varieties of birds which were literally flocking to feed. To see them up close and personal was actually rather wonderful. So wonderful that I went straight out to the pet shop and bought one for myself. I filled it with seed, stuck it on the kitchen window and waited. And waited. And waited.

In fact it seemed an eternity before the first bird felt brave enough to try it. Then one day my phone went while I had popped to the post office. It was Elena. I imagined she was going to tell me the friends we'd been expecting had arrived. But no, instead she said excitedly: 'Mummy, Mummy! A bird's just come to your feeder!' 'What was it?' I asked all a-twitter with excitement myself. 'A robin. But Louisa pointed at it and shouted 'LOOK!!' and it flew off again!'

We saw no more for another week or two. Then I put out some bacon and croissant and I noticed a few days later that these tasty morsels had gone. So, slowly slowly, they are becoming aware of this new source of food - but they seemingly keep sneaking up when I'm not looking. I hope that, bit by bit, they will gain confidence that all is safe and I will actually be able to see who comes to feed.

I have also moved some seed feeders which you stick in the ground. They were in the border by the stone bird bath but, again, out of sight. I have now moved them to the border in front of the kitchen window and it brings me much joy to see the little bluetits perching and pecking on the small cups of food.

So, you see? I have turned into a little mad old woman overnight. It is really quite frightening.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

A Growing Girl

E was 11 on 6th January, while we were away skiing. She had a lovely day on the mountains and a fuss was made of her at supper with Happy Birthday banners and a cake and everyone sang. We opened a few presents in the morning before breakfast and the rest of them before supper. She put all her cards up in her room. This is the second year running we have been skiing on her birthday - and it sure beats a first-day-back-at-school birthday which is what it would have been this year. After all, it's not really a great time of year to have a birthday, is it?

I look at her closely as we celebrate the passing of each 12 months. The photos are usually taken in the dark, after school. There are pictures of her, chubby faced, in her green infant school uniform. There are pictures of her looking a little sharper of feature in pale blue ballet uniform. She is always smiling, a little shyly. There is always a cake with candles in front of her. I have always tried to make the birthday memorable, but it is often hard on a working day in the middle of winter - which is why the skiing thing is great for her for now. She is having fun, out in the open air, in beautiful surroundings, with her sisters, friends and both parents. I think it makes up a little for that Bad Time of Year curse.

You can never forget the birth of your children, the day they came into the world. I was lucky enough to have E, my first born, while we were living in Milan. Many of my friends asked if I would be coming home to have the baby. Why would I do that, I used to ask, quizically. I was in the land of baby worshipping, where motherhood was something to be celebrated, not scorned; where as a mother you felt a first class, not a second class, citizen. It was one of the happiest times of my life. I was being looked after by a Professor of Gynaecology (thanks to an earlier set of miscarriages) and his English wife and once I got over all the scary unknown bits, it was a breeze. I was going to give birth in a state maternity hospital, all geared up for any eventualities, and then be moved into a room on my own in its private wing. A perfect compromise.

E was due on 7th January. My brother and all the parents had been over for a memorable Christmas (our last one all together as it turned out as my father-in-law very sadly passed away shorty after E's christening in May). My mother-in-law still talks of how I came to meet them on my bicycle, 9 months pregnant, looming out of the Milan mist on a dark December night. I had been out and about again on the 5th, doing my jobs, going about my business, not quite sure of the exact moment when my life was going to change for ever. That's the worst thing about childbirth - will you be in the middle of the High Street when it suddenly all starts to happen? You can't exactly stop your life. Stay indoors. No, you have to carry on and hope and pray that when the moment comes it will be an acceptable one - but it remains an extraordinary thing to have to live with in those last days of carrying your unborn.

I have never been one for taking down the Christmas decorations early. I leave them till the last minute on the 6th. I hate having to admit that the fun is over, it's back to reality and the rest of the year - all those resolutions you know you'll never keep. So that night of the 5th, the tree was still up, the apartment still festive. It was quite late at night and suddenly the snow began to fall. I opened the door from the living room which led straight out onto a fabulous terrrace with 360 degree views of the city, the mountains and the street life below. I loved that place. But here, just now, for a moment, all was still as the soft white flakes fell from the blackened sky. It was a moment of peace, of solitude, of quiet contemplation.

At 7 o'clock the following morning I was in a hot bath, bent double and rendered speechless with increasing frequency from excruciating contractions. It had all happened so suddenly. I had not woken N, just quiety went to run a bath. But now I was calling out for him as best I could, saying I thought it was imminent. For reasons best known to himself that morning, he decided to shave. As he smoothed himself down, showered and pommaded, I struggled to make him understand that It Was Coming. He (not hastily enough) finished packing my bag for me and we went down from our sixth floor eerie to the ground floor in the tiny wrought iron lift. We hailed a taxi which, when told I was having a baby, proceeded at an unprecedented snail's pace (for an Italian driver) to the hospital. There was not a car on the road because it was a public holiday, yet still we stopped diligently at every traffic light. By now I was in the sort of agonies that cannot be described. Already I was losing my sense of dignity. It just didn't matter any more. And by the time we reached the hospital I had plumbed new depths of animal imitation. While N was engaged in the lengthy Italian red tape, I rolled helplessly around the empty reception, clutching my stomach and howling. With a hint of disdain on his face, I was finally called in to a small room by the registrar and asked to sit down and spread my legs. He peered in. His head shot out again fairly quickly, with a different expression now. I heard him say 'she's fully dilated' and suddenly I was being rushed along a corridor in a wheelchair to somewhere unknown where all I could hear was primaeval screaming (they don't do pain control in Italy - against their religion - a mother should suffer in childbirth). While I was joining in the cacophany in my delivery room, N was trapped filling in page after page of stupid questions like 'when was your wife's last period?' - you can imagine he knew the answer to that one! I really thought, that after all this, he was going to miss the birth of his first child trying to remember the date I last menstruated. The whole thing becomes a surreal memory at this point. There was a pretty auburn-haired young midwife called Francesca who suddenly appeared in the doorway like an angel and tried to help me push (I had no idea as I had barely had an anti-natal class). It was a disaster and, despite her being like a tiny little doll at just 2.5kg (5.5 pounds), it was a mess getting her out. My throat was scorching and I thought I'd never speak again (relief to some). I needed stitches, I needed a catheter to empty my bladder (probably almost worse than childbirth). I needed a drip but hey missed the vein so it swelled with liquid like a farmer's forearm. I stayed on a trolley in a corridor for hours, waiting to be transferred to my room. But you know what? None of this mattered. From the moment this tiny creature from an unknown world was placed, bloodily, on my belly, I felt complete. Nothing else mattered. We rang parents joyously. We were proud, We were parents.

And so here I am, eleven years on, watching that tiny baby grow into a beautiful young girl. She has poise, she has charm, she has a wisdom and sensitivity which was there from her earliest moments. My brother calls her Falling Leaf. She is that kind of a spirit. Kind, gentle, head in the clouds, blowing with the winds. She's my little hippy girl, the one with the pale blue eyes, the softest blond hair and the voice of an angel. She's Elena Carah Francesca, my first born, my beautiful growing girl.

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