Keeping Secrets

I’m terrible when it comes to keeping happy secrets. I tend to drop hints and go on about how excited I am or how much I’m looking forward to the big reveal. It must difficult for the person on the receiving end to hear enough to sort of work it out, but not quite.

My dad used to have a room at Christmas that he would announce was the staging area in the weeks leading up to the big day, saying it in such a serious way you’d have thought our guest room had been turned into a temporary war room and he was planning an invasion rather than wrapping gifts to put under the tree.

The last few days have been a bit like that here as I tend to lean towards the dramatic in much the same way as my dad. I posted a quickly made sign on the door before running off to work on Saturday as I was doing a bit of prep work for an important event.

Today is John’s birthday and we’re having a family party to celebrate on Saturday. As it’s a special birthday ending in O, I’ve been working on a few things in private down the hall in my studio space.

I mentioned the sign to John as I left saying there were things spread about in there that I didn’t want him to see so I’d posted a sign to remind him. I told that trusted him completely which is true, but I didn’t want him to forget and breeze in for something without thinking.

When I came in from work he said when asked that he had stayed out as requested, but asked me what was the significance of the upside down snail on my sign.

I thought, snail, sign, what … until I realized he was talking about the eye I’d added which was meant to imply, ‘I’m watching you!’

‘Upside down snail,’ … he makes me laugh!

I’ll have birthday photos on Monday after the gift giving and party on Saturday. I have a special present I brought back from the US that I can’t wait for you to see either.

I wish I could say more, but you never know who might be reading.

Happy Birthday, John!

Time Of Death – Reading The Obits & Waiting

I dreamed my mother showed up last night. She looked ten years younger than when I last saw her in 1994 and she came with a message.

She breezed into the room where I was sitting as casually as if she’d not been missing  from my life for the last 18 years and said in a loud voice, ‘I’m dying,’ much the way one might say, ‘I’m here’ after having arrived at their intended destination.

Before I could think how to respond she pulled a printer, already out of its box, but new and unused, from a handbag that looked like something Mary Poppins might travel with, an image totally incongruent with who my mother was when I was a child.

I took it from her when she offered it to me saying nothing as I did so, but inside my mind was a race track of whirling questions each thought like a numbered car going round and round with the lead car representing the overriding thought, a printer, 18 years of silence and you bring me a printer for my computer?

I considered for a moment that it might be a peace-offering of sorts although I’m not sure why as she had not said, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I wish things had been different’ or any one of many things that might have made room in my heart for healing.

Instead she walked about the room looking out of the window and checking the corners much like someone might go behind a cleaning crew, on a mission to find an overlooked speck of dust.

Her voice sounded unnaturally upbeat for someone sharing details of their funeral arrangements and the one-sided conversation seemed more as if she were planning a big wedding than an end of life ceremony.

I was still sitting in the same chair I’d been in when she arrived, holding on to the printer that I’d foolishly assumed was a gift. As she listed from memory all the things still left to do, I slowly realized that the printer was to be used to complete the tasks for her funeral and rather than an end of life reconciliation, what she really wanted was a personal assistant.

My mother’s birthday is only a few weeks away and I wonder sometimes if she remembers mine as I do hers or if she’s forgotten it as easily as she seems to have forgotten me and my sister, Margaret.

Our three birthdays all occur within 28 days of each other making it difficult for me to let hers slip by unnoticed.

I always notice and I wonder … is she still living and how will I know when she’s not?

Given her upcoming birthday, I’m not surprised to be dreaming of her now or even that she might be dying. Checking the obituaries is the only way I know she’s still alive, a sad end to a mother-daughter story that I feel sure began quite differently when I was born in 1960.

I wonder how many other adult children search the internet for signs of a parent’s passing and if there is any peace for them or closure when they find it.

If you’ve got a story similar to mine, perhaps you’d like share it in a comment below.

Burning Love

Today is John’s birthday.

It’s the fourth one I’ve been able to share with him and while he doesn’t like to make too much of his own birthdays, he goes out of his way to make mine special. Right about now you may be thinking, “If it’s John’s birthday, why are we looking at a picture of you blowing out candles?”

Let me tell you a story …

Remember when I wrote here about being in Scotland for my birthday? Well, we were there because John had big a reunion nearby with former colleagues from the television station where he’d worked before retiring. A few months before the event, he noticed the date was on my birthday and he kindly asked if I would mind going that evening.

Once he was sure I was fine with sharing the day, he began planning how he might make it memorable for me too. He knows I love a trip to Scotland so it was big part the fun we had on my birthday and our evening finished with a small carrot cake in our hotel that night after the reunion. The cake part presented a little problem though.

I’m a big believer in candle blowing and wish making on birthdays. There’s something hopeful, thankful, and celebratory about the act that feels necessary to me and I can’t imagine a birthday without it.

John is not that bothered by it on his own birthday but he knows how important it is to me. We took the cake with us on our outing thinking we might have it during our day out in Scotland, but stayed in motion so much that we decided to save it for after the reunion. When we rushed in to shower and change for the evening, we realized that we didn’t have a way to light the candles for the cake.

He went out to buy some matches or a lighter and was gone so long I was beginning to worry. I didn’t know that since we were in a hotel in the center of Carlisle and it was evening that the shops would be closed.

Poor John searched everywhere for an open shop to get what we needed and finally ended up a good distance away in a pub that he was familiar with from his days of living there. They didn’t sell matches, but the guy behind the bar gave him a box they had for the pub’s use.

After hearing about his search, I asked him how far he’d had to go before finding them and was really touched when he said, ” About a mile. “

Life with him is like that. A million little sweet gifts of service that say love. I am a fortunate woman to have found this gentle man and I am so happy to be able to celebrate another birthday with him today.

Of course I had to save the matches … I’ll use one later to light a candle or two for John and hope to post a picture here later today of him making a wish.

Here’s a photo to save the spot for now. I think of this look as his determined face. I’ve seen it before although it does look a bit different with the beard and all.

I imagine this was the expression he was wearing all around Carlisle a few weeks ago and it makes me smile just thinking about it.

Not Half, But Whole – Remarriage & Children

Bryan Cooper, Cullene Harper, Jennie Harper, & Elizabeth Harper - April 14, 1975

Young children can’t always grasp the concept of how they are related when parents divorce, find new love, and have more children with new partners and spouses. When they each bring children from previous relationships to the new family, the soup becomes an even more complicated mix of half and step siblings making it sometimes necessary for a flow chart of sorts when explaining family ties.

I’m the eldest of four girls with only two of us having the same set of parents. Born in 1962, Margaret and I are two years apart. Ten years later, our sister Pam was born into our mother’s second marriage. I remember hearing words like half-sister then and even though I was a reasonably intelligent 9-year-old, I was a bit confused by the concept especially having only just met four step-siblings that I don’t remember ever seeing again.

By 1974 my youngest sister, Jennie, was born on Easter Sunday and being halfway through my thirteenth year, I had a better understanding of the half not whole concept at least in theory. Nicknamed Bunny, by her granddad, she was the child of my dad and my stepmom, Cullene.

Margaret and I were living in Tennessee when the news came of her birth, having been moved away from Georgia by our mother after a judge decreed my dad should be able to see his children more than one Saturday a month.

By the time Jennie was celebrating her first birthday in the photo above, I was living in Georgia with my dad and Cullene watching them navigate through territory that looking back, was more recent and familiar to me than it was to them.

Jennie was born to Cullene when she was forty having passed the age when she thought she’d ever have a child and with twelve years between my dad and his last diaper change, I’m sure he felt as if he were learning everything again for the first time.

In my life with my mother and sisters in Tennessee, I had been largely responsible for overseeing Pam’s care and knew the kind of childcare things that an older sibling knows when there’s a big difference in ages. ” Watch your sister, ” was an all-encompassing directive that could include bathing, feeding, or playing, and I was good at it.

While planning my escape to Georgia only six months before this picture was taken, I hadn’t realized that saving myself might mean losing my sisters. After I left, my mother cut off all communication and moved my sisters to another state changing my sister Margaret’s last name in the process. I lost my relationship with Margaret for the ten years that followed and four-year old Pam grew up with no memory of me, a situation that she and I have never recovered from. Despite my previous efforts, Pam and I are strangers.

In the image of above, you can see me hanging on to my sister Jennie’s birthday hat. After my move, I remember feeling as if I were free-floating and barely secured, much like the hat with only the tiniest bit of pressure keeping me grounded and in place.

That I am only half in the picture feels like an apt metaphor for how I felt about my life then. Everything familiar was gone and even though I was finally safe from the life I had been forced to keep secret, I was struggling to adjust to one without my sisters, Margaret and Pam, and my mother too, despite her treatment.

I began this post with a whole different focus. I was looking for a cute photo to add to a Facebook greeting for my sister’s birthday when I found this one. Having recently had a conversation with John about children and how little they may understand the half versus whole concept when new siblings arrive, I was struck by the memory of this time in my life and today’s writing shifted direction.

My youngest sister Jennie is 37 today, an age I remember so clearly it feels like five minutes ago. I’m sure she would say I’ve been trying to boss her around her whole life while dispensing advice as if I were a third parent or an older aunt, but I have always seen her as my sister, the baby for sure, but always whole and never half.

Although not the big birthday post I’d envisioned, I want to say, ” Happy Birthday Jennie,” from your sister Elizabeth, who once felt half, but now understands whole.

Sisters - Elizabeth, Margaret, and Jennie Harper - 1974

A Seaside Visit Today For This Birthday Boy

Today is John’s birthday and while he would rather not have too much notice made, I have a sweet pile of presents or “pressies” as some might say here and his requested blackberry crumble with candles and ice cream for later. (Okay, he didn’t ask for candles, but he needs them to make a wish … right?)

As soon we pull ourselves together this morning, we will head south to explore several places where we can walk on the beach and touch the sea. We won’t be taking any little pails and shovels like John had in the photo above, but I expect we will have plenty of fun just the same. I was thrilled when he mentioned going to one place in particular when I asked how he wished to spend his birthday.

Cadgwith is a sweet little seaside village which looks much the same as it did in 1930 when his dad at sixteen took this photograph while the family was in the area on holiday. I plan to take John’s picture as close to the thatched cottage on the right as I can get and will edit this post to include it when we return. (If you click to enlarge this, you can see John’s grandmother on the left.)

Photo by Victor Winchurch, Age 16 - Cadgwith, Cornwall 1930

I am so pleased to be able to share a third birthday celebration with this lovely man who changed my life so dramatically only a few years ago. Happy Birthday John!

* If you are reading this through email or other subscription, please refresh to get the edited version. I had an old family photo from the wrong village and had to correct it.

Updates & Additions … I am back as I promised with some pictures from our day. These were taken 80 years after the one above and another one taken the same day 80 years ago.

Cadgwith 2010

Color Cadgwith 2010

( I added the color version of Cadgwith by special request for Dorothy I mean, Kim who wanted to see OZ * see her comment below)

I took this photograph this afternoon of John standing where his grandmother stood 80 years ago when she was two years younger than I am now. I was a little closer to my subject than John’s dad was in 1930. I also thought you might enjoy a few more from today that go with the original taken 1930.

Photo By Victor Winchurch – Cadgwith, Cornwall 1930

My image from today is below.

Cadgwith, Cornwall 2010

Here is a last image before I say goodnight, It is one I took of John while he was photographing from what is likely the same spot his father did when he was still only a sixteen year old boy. I bet his dad would have loved digital photography. Remember you can click any image to enlarge. Click twice to make it ginormous.

John Winchurch – September 27, 2010

The Big Countdown Begins – Ten

It may seem a bit self-indulgent to announce to the world that I have a big birthday fast approaching but turning fifty seems as if it should have some special attention paid to it. I have no clear idea of what I will be saying over the next nine days leading up to my birthday, but I plan to post a bit of something that will be quite shamelessly, all about me. That’s right, I will be posting daily right up to my birthday on September 10. I have not planned a thing in terms of topic and will write whatever comes to mind which can be my favorite kind writing and might lead to some interesting insights.

Some people enjoy having big parties to celebrate special birthdays, but I actually tend to feel a bit shy and out of place when I’m the absolute center of attention so I am pleased to be making memories with a smaller gathering of people who care about me. Can two (John and my sister Margaret) be considered a gathering?

After a detailed examination of my accomplishments over the last year, I find that some of my goals for forty-nine have not been met. I must confess that not one thing I’ve written in my forty-ninth year has gone out the door electronically or otherwise in search of a publisher. I am not sure why I have dragged my feet so badly when this has been at the top of my list for so long.

I have watched as other bloggers and writers have found their footing while juggling huge responsibilities and managed to publish while I write and research and think too much about the best way to find an audience for my work. I don’t feel jealous about their success just a bit disappointed in myself for not getting more done by now.

Watching others seems to be a life long habit with me and I tend to take a bit longer to find my footing once I’ve figured out the steps. In the photograph above, my fourteen year-old self is on the far right looking uncertain about what the group is doing or how I might join in.

I still feel like that fourteen year-old sometimes … uncertain about doing things just right even though I know now after almost fifty years of living that movement in any direction is sometimes all you need.

Calling All Master Bakers

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I have a funny story to tell you about the photograph above, but first I have a request. My husband John has a birthday coming up in a few weeks and I need the very best carrot cake recipe you have. If  you’ve got one that others rave about then I want a chance to bake for him. So please send me your favorite and let me give it a try.

Now about that story…. A few months ago, John and I had been out for a little walk and decided to stop by the pub before walking home. As is my way, I had my camera with me and although I don’t usually take pictures that aim quite so directly  into someone’s home, I’m afraid I did that day. Walking by a charming 200 year old cottage that I frequently pass on my runs and walks, I saw the carrots in the picture above hanging in the kitchen window. No one was around and it wasn’t like I was peeping in or anything plus the road is very close to the cottage. Because it’s so close, I was walking only a couple of feet from the window making it easy to snap two discreet pictures very quickly. I didn’t see anyone and I thought no one saw me. Remember now, we live in a village with about 500 people and sometimes I bump into people at the pub who might recognize me. Usually it’s because they know me now since I’ve been here off and on for the last 19 months and I’m pretty friendly and not at all shy. Well, a few weeks go by and John and I are in the pub on a Saturday afternoon and I go up to the bar to get a refill for John and to say hello to my favorite bartender Roger who you see below.

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While I’m at the bar, a man who is buying drinks for his daughter and wife turns to me and says something along the line of, ” You’re not  from here are you?”  Okay, I can’t remember exactly what he said, but in the course of our conversation I find out where he’s from because I can tell he’s not a local. It turns out he and his wife are staying temporarily with his daughter and her partner in that sweet little cottage I think of as Carrot Cottage even though it’s really named after a flower not a vegetable. His daughter was new to the village so I had not had a chance to meet her yet. Going over to the table I introduced myself and asked her about the carrots I saw hanging in the window a few weeks earlier. Since I’m living in a country with different customs as well as expressions that can get you into trouble such as, ” Stop being such a pain in my fanny ” because words may have a totally different meaning, I assume this hanging your carrots thing must be unique to the UK.

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As I’m describing what I saw that day she said, ” Did you have a camera with you?”  ” Well…yes,” I say thinking, ” uh oh.” She said I thought I saw someone out there taking pictures and told my partner Colin, (not his real name)  “I think there’s a woman out there taking pictures of your carrots!” As she said this, I felt kind of silly, but only for a moment. I mean, I think I managed to get a really nice picture of a bunch of carrots. Thank goodness their windows were so clean. It turns out the carrots on a string had no meaning other than he’d just washed them and was giving them a chance to air dry.  I haven’t seen them since, but I always do a quick glance at the window whenever I go by now. I thought I might print out the photograph so that it is in a greeting card form and leave it behind for them with a personal note and maybe a little carrot cake for two.

Remember….John’s birthday is fast approaching so please send me those carrot cake recipes. If you leave your recipe in the comment section we can all have a chance to sample some versions different from the ones we normally use. Everyone except me…I don’t have a carrot cake recipe of my own yet.