YOU’RE SMILING

Alex wiped Jenny’s mouth with a clean dishcloth, exaggeratedly sniffed the minty smell of toothpaste, and rubbed at the brown spot of Bovril on the cream collar of Jenny’s school uniform. It spread. “Hold on, Angel.” Alex moistened the sink sponge and vigorously rubbed the spot, breathing a sigh of relief as it faded satisfactorily.

“Now my collar’s wet, Mom!” Jenny twisted herself out of her mother’s firm grasp. Blinking back tears she held out her water bottle to be filled. Alex wiped the bottle and grinned down at her daughter. That was the first sentence Jenny had strung together since being woken an hour earlier.

“Have you got everything, love?” She cast her eyes about the untidy kitchen, mentally ticking off the need to wash the dishes, clean the surfaces and to load the washing machine as soon as she got back.

“Ask me a checklist.” A tentative smile played across Jenny’s hitherto serious face.

“Hair done?” An enthusiastic nod.

“Snack box packed?” Another nod.

“Juice not leaking?” Another nod, this time accompanied by the faintest glimmer of a smile. As she went through the unnecessarily detailed list, Alex wondered why, and how, this double-checking had become a ritual. “Did you remember to plug your brain in?”

“Silly Mommy. You know my brain is fixed inside me!” Jenny’s laughter eased a band of tension within Alex. Conscious that her own teeth were still unbrushed, she bent down to kiss her six-year old daughter.

“I am a silly goose, aren’t I? Come along now. I’ll carry your sports bag. Off to school we go!” She tried to sound jolly as they walked to the car she had taken out of the garage earlier.

“My back is sore,” Jenny complained quietly as she buckled her seat belt. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to last the morning sitting at my desk.”

Alex caught her eye in the rear-view mirror as she reversed into the road. “No more monkeys jumping on the bed! You shouldn’t have been doing tumble-turns on the bed last night.” The previous week Jenny had complained of a sore stomach. The week before she had held her ears as if they were going to fall off in pain. One more week … Alex was not going to cave in. “I’ll walk you to your classroom, Jen. Would you like that?”

Jenny gripped her mother’s hand firmly as they made their way painfully slowly down the path leading to the classroom block. “When’s Daddy coming home?”

“One week from today. On this day next week I will collect you early from school so that we can meet Daddy at the airport.” Alex knew there was a catch in her voice and could feel the tears prick behind her eyelids. If she was missing Charles this much then how much more was Jenny: Charles was her hero; her world. She reached for a tissue in her jeans pocket and blew her nose vigorously. “Oh dear,” she smiled. “I hope I’m not in for a cold!”

As she strode towards her car, Alex went through her own mental checklist: purchase groceries, clean the kitchen, do the laundry, clean the pool, finish writing that article about lemons, prune the creepers threatening to engulf the aloes, find time to have her hair cut, get the ironing done, bake cupcakes for Jenny’s cookie day …

Her cell phone chimed as Alex pulled up outside the supermarket. The message was from Charles: New Zealand cold and wet. Missing my favourite girls hugely. Alex smiled at the phone. No news about either his conference paper or the series of lectures he had travelled so far to give. Only that he missed them!

Grocery list in hand, Alex pushed a trolley through the supermarket feeling absurdly grateful that Jenny would be busy at school until four o’ clock. She needed time. Alex stopped in the baking aisle to peruse the cake decorations on offer. An elderly man eased past her, looked at her intently and moved closer.

“What now?” Alex racked her tired brain for an image that fitted. No, her brain told her within a second, she didn’t know this man from Adam.

“You’re smiling,” the stranger said matter-of-factly. “So few people smile these days – and never while shopping for groceries!”

Alex looked at the smile lighting up his face and felt her own broadening in response. She had been thinking about Charles. “Thank you.”

“You’ve made my day,” the man said softly as he turned to leave. “I hope yours will be a good one too.”

Alex watched him disappear at the end of the aisle. She felt suffused with happiness. Yes, one more week; one smile at a time.

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FOOD IN THE FAMILY

WhatsApp has proved to be a marvellous platform for connecting me with my family. Looking through some of the images I have amassed over time, I have become aware of how often my family send me pictures of food they have made or are enjoying somewhere – and that I have sent a fair number of pictures to them!

 Food and family go together like cup and saucer or brush and comb. As our family has dispersed I realise how much closer these food images bring us together – as if we are in each other’s kitchens, smelling the aroma of cooking, or tasting the results of the baking, or even as though we are chatting to each other during the preparation of food. None of the images would make it into a culinary publication – they are not meant to – for they are entirely focused on conveying a triumph / a look what I did / I wish you were here to enjoy it with me.

Here are a few of them:

applecake

Who wouldn’t want to hop on an aeroplane to enjoy some of this scrumptious cake?

birthday cake

Or arrive at this Princess Birthday party?

biscotti

These biscotti tasted delicious despite their artisinal look.

dinner

This was a special dinner I missed and yet the image had me mentally sitting at the table with the family.

flatbreads

Showing off flatbreads after having watched Gordon Ramsay demonstrating how to work with dough on a television programme.

tea and scones

Showing my children a perfect stop over for tea at the end of a wonderful holiday with my brothers.

FAMILY IS LIKE A GORDIAN KNOT

In Greek mythology King Gordius of Phrygia tied a knot that thwarted all who tried to undo it. The term Gordian Knot is thus often used to describe a problem that is difficult to solve. I think, however, that this complex and highly intricate knot is a good description of what is commonly referred to as a family tree.

A family tree is more than who married whom and who begat who; it is about family relationships that develop as each of us in turn ‘enters’ new families through marriage, create our own families of children, who then merge with other families as their relationships develop. In the manner of the Gordian Knot, the kinship ties and family relationships become ever more intricately entwined. Have you ever tried to draw a family tree going back a generation or two, or even plotted your own?

Consider what, apart from love, goes into these filial ties: absorbing patterns of living different from what we might be used to; introducing new foods, customs or languages; learning new stories; and getting on with people who have become family even in the peripheral sense. All of these relationships require nurturing as the threads of kinship and association are tightened here, loosened there, and allowed more freedom elsewhere. It is in the nature of a Gordian Knot that it will be tugged and pushed – as families are – without easily coming apart.

I do not see family in terms of the Gordian Knot being a problem – the spaces between the threads allow us to be individuals, and to follow our own interests – that can simply be torn asunder as Alexander the Great did by cutting the knot with a single stroke of his sword (hence the saying “to cut the Gordian Knot”) – who would want to?

Having spent time this year with my brothers and recently enjoying the presence of our children and theirs together in celebration, I feel blessed that while this particular Gordian Knot is changing shape and expanding, it holds true with no fear of unravelling!

family