Monday, 29 June 2009

The little things

R had quite dark, olive skin. I was always envious of the way he turned deep brown as soon as the sun came out, seemingly without even removing his shirt.
In contrast I have the fair skin of the Celt, and generally turn a fetching shade of lobster when first exposed to the sun's rays.

But despite his dark colouring, it was always R who worried about burning, and he was forever nagging me to put on a sunhat.

If he were still here, he would have doubtless suggested that a strappy top wouldn't be ideal for sitting in the sun watching an outdoor performance for two and a half hours.

He certainly wouldn't have let me wait as long as I did before slapping on the factor 30.

He would most likely have also had a spare shirt, after-sun and bottles of water in his bag just in case I ignored the first two pieces of advice.

And I wouldn't now have bright red and very sore shoulders.


The elephant in the room

I guess it was going to happen to me sooner or later.

For quite a few years now, we have had a tradition of going to see the open-air performance of a Shakespeare play in Ludlow Castle as part of the Ludlow Festival each year. The size of the party has varied over the years, and in the early days it was quite a raucous affair with a Pimms-fuelled picnic in the Outer Bailey before the performance. As time has passed, the membership has changed and the picnic has become altogether more sober as friends started to have children.

It has always been one of the highlights of the Summer for me, and I was really looking forward to this year's performance (Romeo and Juliet). As it is my little sis who organises the tickets, the group often includes her friends and work colleagues, and on this occasion they made up the other 5 adults. I wasn't worried about this as I had met them quite a few times before. Also in the party were four 8 year-old and two 6 year-old boys!*

Saturday was another glorious day. Despite dire predictions of thunderstorms, there wasn't a hint of rain. The pre-performance picnic was excellent as always, with a score of dainty dishes to pass around and sample.

So where am I going with this post?
The conversation throughout the day was good. We talked about our work, houses, their children, my animals, Moose's operation, holidays, the economic downturn, Michael Jackson and everything else that people talk about.
But not one of these people as much as mentioned R.
They all knew him and had broken bread and shared wine with him.
Yet nothing. No expression of sorrow that he had died, no words of sympathy for me, no concern as to how I was managing, not even just a hug.

I was feeling good on Saturday, so this didn't upset me at all.
I was more bemused. I just found it difficult to understand how five different people could all fail to even acknowledge the fact that I had lost the most important person in my life. It was almost a John Cleesian "Don't mention the war" sort of moment.

I think possibly I have been very lucky and, right from the start, have been surrounded by people who cared for me and R and have allowed me to talk about him whenever I want. It makes me very sad when I read of people who don't have this support at the time they most need it.

And, of course, being the stroppy widow that I am, I saw no reason why I shouldn't witter on about R as I normally do, despite their obvious discomfiture!
As I said, it didn't spoil my day in the least, but even with the benefit of hindsight I still find it strange.

* The six little boys weren't very impressed with Shakespeare. They enjoyed the fights, but found the rest - especially the kissing - incredibly boring. Running wild on the castle ramparts, on the other hand, was regarded as a Very Good Thing!

Friday, 26 June 2009

Why can't all days be like this?

On Wednesday I took a little day trip.
Not far. Only to the coast near Aberystwyth.
I met up with some online friends from a (non grief-related) forum that I frequent, with a view to visiting a garden that was open under the National Gardens Scheme.

As so often before, it would have been easy to make my excuses and not go. I could have pleaded pressure of work - indeed I have had to work extra to make up for my day off.

But perhaps it was the sunshine, perhaps I just decided that I needed a treat. Or maybe it was the fact that the day before I had made a long-overdue visit to the hairdresser and was looking GOOD! (Hey. There's no one else here to say these things now, so I have to give my own compliments!). Whatever the reason, I waited for my car share to turn up and off we drove towards the coast.

And what a day it was. Our host's farm was a stone's throw from the sea, and the views were stunning. As we sat under a tree eating lunch, the conversation flowed easily and I realised that I wasn't wearing my usual fixed grin, willing myself to look as though as I was enjoying myself.
I was enjoying myself.

The rest of the day continued in the same vein. The garden we visited managed to be calm, informal, wacky, impressive and beautiful all at the same time. Even so, it didn't leave me with that feeling of inadequacy that many, more formal gardens seem to instill in me. The owners were gentle and welcoming, and I even negotiated the memorial to the daughter they lost in childhood without losing it.

We then returned to the farm for a joyful half hour bottle-feeding cade lambs, followed by tea and cake. Sitting there under the tree, it suddenly occurred to me that this unfamiliar, warm feeling I was experiencing wasn't solely due to the late afternoon sunshine - it was one of genuine happiness.

Yes, for the first time since R died, I can honestly say that I was feeling happy.

Even very recently I am pretty sure if I had found myself in a similar position, I would have automatically pulled back from the feeling. Whether this was because I would have felt guilty that he wasn't there to enjoy it with me or out of fear of allowing happiness in and thus running the risk of having it snatched away again, I don't know.

It's almost like starting a new relationship with myself (and I'm certainly nowhere near being able to start one with someone else). Risks have to be taken and you have to give yourself permission to be happy. I am starting to truly believe that enjoying myself doesn't mean that I have stopped loving R.

After so many months of willing myself to feel as little as possible in order to keep the pain at bay, this is another little breakthrough. I know that there are many, many more peaks and troughs still to negotiate, but I am starting to believe that I will get through this in one piece. However long it takes.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Garden philosophy

Sowing seeds is an unspoken acknowledgement that there can be a future.

The emergence of the tiny seedlings a few days later is confirmation.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

It's like a jungle sometimes

The sun came out, so the winnowing had to wait!

I went outside with every intention of putting in the few last bedding plants, but then I wandered down to this corner of the vegetable garden to check the lie of the land. Most of it was in reasonable order, but down at the bottom end I practically needed a machete to get around.

As a wildlife habitat, it's great. As a productive vegetable garden, it's a disgrace.

On the left is my embarrassingly overgrown soft fruit bed, while the bed on the right is supposed to contain root veggies. Part of it does, but not so as you'd notice.

How on earth could I let it get into this state?

Well it's understandable really. For obvious reasons, the Autumn tidy-up just didn't happen, then Spring came along and I was simply distracted with everything else that needed to be done. Then we had several weeks of alternating rain and sunshine and the results were inevitable. A burgeoning crop of creeping buttercup!

Two hours and six wheelbarrow loads later, it is looking a little more respectable.

It's a start at least. Now I can dig over the rest of the bed and sow the rest of this Winter's root vegetables.

I'm not going to be winning that best-kept garden award any time soon, but at least I will be able to eat!

Saturday, 20 June 2009


It's a great word, isn't it?

In the early days I had lots of conflicting advice about what to do about R's stuff. Some said get rid of it quickly, others said don't make any hasty decisions. I suspect this had more to do with the advice-giver's own attitude towards clutter than any sound evidence-based research.

R's Mum had a serious shopping habit, and it really showed in their home. After she died, his Dad went through the house like a whirlwind. Just over 2 years later, it seems almost spartan. He has a few photographs and ornaments that bring back good memories for him and has bought a couple of new pictures that he loves, otherwise the walls and flat surfaces are nearly bare. I don't feel this has anything to do with not wanting to keep too many memories about him. I just think that after over 50 years of clutter he is enjoying the house as he likes it - neat and tidy!

R appeared to have inherited an attenuated form of the shopping gene, although the symptoms may have worsened as he got older. He was also a collector of Potentially Useful Things. His collection of useful bits of wood takes up serious real estate. If anyone ever needs a tyre valve cap, please let me know as I have a packet of 99. There were 100 but I have actually used one. As this is the first new valve cap I have ever required in my life, I calculate that, at this rate of use, I have enough to last me until the year 5908!

I would say that I lean more to the 'throw it out' side than the hoarding tendency, but even so I have found it harder than I imagined to rehome his belongings. It was actually easier in the early days. I looked at an object, and if it didn't make me think of R, then out it went. Simple!

Subsequent passes through the house have been harder, so I have to use different techniques. Take his clothes, for example. I simply took to wearing his jeans and T-shirts. I have also put most of his shirts to one side in order to make quilts and cushions from them this winter. That left quite a lot of things that I just couldn't decide upon, so I had to tackle these obliquely. Last week I had a great purge of my own wardrobe which, in the warped logic of the bereaved, gave me permission to look at his clothes with a harder eye.

Another example is the lean-to. This is an indoor-outdoor area at the back of our house. I have wanted to pull it down since the first day we arrived here, but it proved just too useful for storage and as a makeshift workshop to do that. As a result, it became the repository for everything that couldn't find a home elsewhere. It houses a large portion of his wood collection, not to mention a whole lot of tools and general 'stuff' that I know I will never use myself. It also contains the chest freezer, my potting bench and our bicycles, which I can only get to by climbing over a whole lot of other objects. So I have set myself the challenge of getting it cleared and sorted by the end of July.

I shall start with that Useful Wood.
Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The box

In a corner of my spare bedroom there is a plain pine box. It is very unassuming and measures perhaps 20 x 12 x 10 inches.

The box contains the book of condolence from R's funeral, the obituary that his Dad put in the paper in his home town and all the cards and letters I received after his death.
For a month or more these kept on arriving. It was difficult to take in that we even knew so many people, let alone people whose lives he had really touched.

It was my morning ritual. When the post landed on the doormat I would go downstairs and sort. Cards and handwritten letters in one pile; junk mail, bills and R's correspondence in the other.

Then I would take the handwritten ones and go to sit on the stairs and read them. I read every one, and dutifully placed the cards on any flat surface I could find. People wrote some beautiful and moving messages, telling me their funny memories of R and how much they loved him, ending with a few words of support for me too. They were all so kind, thoughtful and loving.

But I hated them.
Every single one of those words of comfort gave the knife another little twist. I had to sit down because I couldn't stand up as I read them.

My sister-in-law watched me go through this ritual one morning, sitting there with an arm across my stomach in a vain attempt to ward off the physical pain it caused. She was shocked.

Like anyone she always wrote a letter or card when she learned of a death, hoping that her words would give some comfort. Indeed I always did the same myself. But I couldn't explain, probably because I didn't understand, why I found them so agonising. Certainly I didn't think it would have been better if they hadn't been sent at all, and I felt bad for finding it so hard to accept all those individual acts of kindness.

In the end we concluded that my reaction was possibly not typical and that it was always better to send a letter than not. The recipient could decide what to do with it, and wouldn't simply feel abandoned by the world.

I left the cards up around the house for a couple of weeks after they stopped arriving. Then I gathered them all up without looking inside, put them in the box with a few other items and stashed the box in the spare room where I couldn't see it any more.

I know I could never throw away the contents, but I do wonder whether I will ever be able to read those cards again.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Something had to give

In the early days, weeks and months, I don't think I stopped moving. Or at least when I did stop, it was only to cry. Otherwise I ran around doing stuff. Endless stuff. I cleaned the house like a madwoman, chopped down hedges, dug the garden, polished things (polished? Yes really!).

I wasn't working, as that would have required me to hold onto a thought for more than 30 seconds. But I played sports, sat on committees, forced myself to go out with friends, helped out other people. Anything that would keep me busy and stop me feeling. I was on the go from getting up through to the wee small hours of the morning, which meant that when I did go to bed I slept the sleep of the just. No sleepless nights for me, thank you very much.

And it worked. While I could keep it up, it really did work. But there comes a point when you are just too tired to keep going at the same frenetic rate. I think the thing that really shocked me about grieving was just how exhausting it could be.

I worked out in an idle moment that I have 6 strands to my life: work (the stuff that pays for everything else), the smallholding (which nourishes both body and soul), the house (and all the general day-to-day things), family and friends, all the other stuff and finally grieving. I found I could keep the whole shaky structure upright while I wasn't working. As soon as I had to factor in a whole day at my desk, it all went haywire. There just aren't enough hours left in the day to do it all.

For the last few months I have been trying desperately to keep all the balls in the air. I think it was that widow's curse - the grass - that finally convinced me that I couldn't do it all. Here there is 'my' grass and 'his' grass. My grass is largely eaten by sheep, pigs and poultry and turned into eggs and meat. It has to be cut once or perhaps twice a year to take a hay crop off it, and that's it. His grass, on the other hand, requires constant mowing with two different mowers to keep it looking good. R used to come home after a week of working away and would spend several hours mowing. All very dedicated, but while he was doing that, I would be cooking supper for him.

Mowing isn't a particularly onerous task, but when it is suddenly added to the ToDo list, it rapidly becomes a chore. And there is no one here to cook supper while I do it.

There was also a conversation I had with an old bachelor friend. He confirmed what I had been thinking, namely that two people are much more than the sum of their parts. It's not just the extra arm scenario, it is just that two people will egg each other to get things done or will put extra effort into something that one person on their own wouldn't do.

It was hard accepting that I couldn't continue to do everything, and it was certainly a lesson I was reluctant to learn, but now I have decided to jettison the non-essentials, I feel a lot better. My Welsh class is one example. The classes started in late September, about a month and a half after R died. Looking back I can see that it really was too soon. I don't think I actually retained anything from the class for months. Now it is just a source of stress. I never manage to do any homework, and I have been really struggling to keep up. When I finally admitted this to myself and gave myself permission to stop going and simply repeat the year next time around, it felt as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I am very stubborn by nature. I hate giving up on things, so it was with much reluctance that I made the necessary phone calls. I can't say that I actually feel happy about my decision to give up on these commitments, but I certainly feel relieved.

Sunday, 7 June 2009


This last year has made me all too aware of the fragility of life.

When you see a strong, healthy and very fit person snatched away, seemingly for no reason, it makes the world a very scary place all of a sudden. One of the 'certainties' on which we had based our long-term plans was that R would probably outlive me by a decade or more. When he calculated what sort of pension provision he would need, his assumptions included the need to fund a long and active retirement. I, on the other hand, assumed that my pension needs would be much more modest.
Now? Who knows?
When your plans lie about your feet like so much broken glass, it seems foolish and hubristic to have made them in the first place.

I was also shocked to discover the fragility of the edifice that is the "new me" I had built up over the months. I was starting to feel positive more often than not and, even if I still did not particularly want the new future I could see ahead of me, at least I could see it and its many possibilities.

Nearly losing the dog seemed to erase that hard-won progress at one fell swoop.

Getting Moose was the catalyst for a series of events that radically changed our lives, and ultimately led to our move to Wales. Apart from the day-to-day joy he brings as a companion, he is such a strong link to R and a particularly happy period of our lives.
When I thought I was going to lose him as well, the strength of my reaction really shocked me. I felt the ground give way beneath my feet, and found myself sliding back down the big snake, if not to square 1 then at least to square 4 or 5. The lump of lead was back in my stomach and all the forward movement of the last couple of months was simply wiped out.

Is this always going to happen, I wonder? Or will there ever come a time when I will be able to apply the necessary perspective to an event like this without falling apart? I so crave those feelings of stability and certainty that used to characterise my life. Reassembling the shards of this delicate glass object every time it falls to the ground and shatters is physically and mentally exhausting. Surely this has to get better.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Perhaps sometimes

... stories can have happy endings.

Moose is now 5 1/2 kilos lighter.
No, not pounds. Kilos!

He wobbled onto his feet when I went to see him, but is still very dopey, which is not surprising. But despite the drugs and the huge wound, he looks better and more like himself than he did yesterday when they had to give him a blood transfusion.

Assuming he recovers from the anaesthetic OK, we still have to wait for the biopsy result. The vet is cautiously optimistic, though; she said that if a tumour of that size were malignant, she would have expected it to have spread to other organs - which it hadn't appeared to have done.

I'm trying not to get my hopes up too far as there is still much that can go wrong. But if all goes well, I might even have him home tomorrow night.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Why now?

There are times that I feel there must be a big black arrow pointing at my head with a large sign saying "Feel free to crap on this person".

Today I found out the reason that Moose has been feeling under the weather lately is because he has a large tumour on his spleen. We won't know until tomorrow whether it can be operated on or whether it has spread to other organs. I desperately want to believe otherwise, but from what the vet has said already, the prognosis is not good at all.

I know he's only a dog, but the thought of losing my 2nd best friend as well is eating away at my heart right now. He came to me as a sad, scared rescue dog nine years ago, and has barely left my side since. His boundless enthusiasm, unlimited love and velvety ears helped to keep me going in the darkest moments after R died. The house feels very quiet and empty right now.

Please think positive thoughts that I'll be able to bring him home tomorrow and make him comfortable at least for a while longer.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The Widow's Cookbook #3

This will be the first year since we moved to Wales that we haven't had a couple of weaners to fatten.
With the exception of their final road trip, every aspect of keeping pigs is an absolute joy. Their infectious enthusiasm, playfulness and appetite for eating the most unlikely-looking food combinations are so endearing. I love how they throw their empty food bowls in the air for the sheer fun of doing it, the way they fall over in a heap of quivering ecstasy when you scratch behind their ears or rootle in their bowls looking for the best bits to eat first. I am sure the world would be a better place if everyone who fancied keeping pigs were able to do so.

I can't have any more yet because it takes one person with not much appetite a long, long time to eat half a pig. I have also lost my pork pusher - R used to sell it to his colleagues at work. I'm hoping they will still be interested if I go it alone next year.

In the past, when the pigs came back from the butcher as pork we always invited a few friends and made a weekend of it, making bacon, brawn (not for the faint-hearted!), pâté and sausages. Kilos and kilos of sausages.

The first day largely involved deboning, chopping and mincing. Then came the fun part, when each participant would run riot in my spice drawers. The mixes would be made up, a couple of small patties fried, solemnly tasted and critiqued. A little more chilli needed here, too much allspice there. Perhaps polenta would be a better filler, rather than breadcrumbs.

Only after the recipe had been tweaked to perfection would the sausages be made and the ingredients written down in our Book of All Things for the smallholding. We each had our favourites, but I have to say with all due modesty that my lemon, fennel and black pepper sausage is a culinary masterpiece!

Inevitably at the end of the day there would be a small amount of minced pork left over that was not enough to put into casings. By that time, the last thing that anyone wanted to eat was another sausage. Mr M, one of our regulars at the sausage weekend, devised a Chinese-inspired mix that we put into some bread dough and baked, and so was born the Welsh pork bun.

Today it was far too hot for bread, and I needed something a little healthier than the crisps and black coffee that had been sustaining me for most of the weekend. I found a small amount of minced pork in the freezer, and decided to make Mr M's recipe and serve it with lettuce wraps, which seemed a lot more summery:

Finely chop a clove of garlic, a few slices of ginger and a couple of spring onions. Fry quickly for about 30 seconds, then add the pork mince and brown over a high heat. Add 2 or 3 finely chopped mushrooms, followed by 1/2 tsp chilli bean sauce, about 3 Tbs Chinese rice wine and a good splosh of soy sauce. Turn the heat down and cook gently for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a little stock or water if it sticks. When cooked, stir in a small amount of sesame oil, then spoon onto large lettuce leaves and sprinkle with a little chopped spring onion and a few sesame seeds. Wrap up tightly and enjoy.