Saturday 18 December 2021

Dreaming of Christmas alone

It's always like this. That's me by the fire there with my current heartthrob.

Who would have thought it.  I am an extrovert, one of a large family of three brothers, twenty four first cousins, fourteen uncles and aunts and fifty thousand second, third and many times removed other relatives.  I am also known to enjoy a knees up.  I had a mum and dad too, both of whom had friends, and so growing up was never really done in silence, or alone.   It was a free for all most of the time.  Add to all of this my two grandfathers, and three grandmothers - one of whom was my grandfather's second wife, who brought with her her own family, some of whom are still dear friends to this day. 

Who would have thought, knowing all this, that a silent Christmas this year on my own would be my idea of bliss.  

The idea at Christmas is that there is lots of fuss.  We can choose to join in and go up and have a lovely time, or go down and become an alcoholic and fight everyone.  Or, we can opt out while secretly tagging along with our neighbour who loves the fuss, and say, "Oh go on then," pretending we didn't really want to.  Or, we really can opt out, and make a little bolt hole for ourselves under the table with plenty of snacks and watch back to back Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, feeling smug. 

I have done all the glitter, the presents, the huge Christmas lunches and the trees over the years.  I have agreed to have everyone in the world over for Christmas Day, fed them rich boiled fruit cake from my wonderful Irish Great Aunt Nina's recipe and done my best to make everything perfect just as it is supposed to be over the festive time.   

When I was a little girl, when Christmas was so big, so magnificent and so full of magic and excitement, I never wanted it to end.  All that wrapping paper, all the hiding of presents for each other under our beds and all the wonderful foods being prepared and stored for the big day made my brothers and me giddy with excitement.  Our Christmas day started on Christmas Eve with midnight mass, followed by bed in the early hours of the morning with our stockings ready at the end of the bed and so much excitement about getting to morning to see what we had got.

Oh and then there was the food. There was always so much food over Christmas.  Such wonderful, once a year treats!  We had a big cold larder room in our house, ideal for preparing food in advance and leaving it while Mum got on with all the fresh foods.  Mum fed so many people over Christmas, I do not know how she did it, it was a banquet of delights for family, friends and assorted guests. But how magnificent it was to sneak into the larder in the week running up to Christmas day to peep at what was in there.  Trifles and fruit salads made from scratch and upside down cakes waiting only for whipped cream; brandy snaps also waiting to be filled with cream, plates upon plates piled high with newly made mince pies, bowls of fresh brandy butter, dark pink savoury jellies made with beetroot and red cabbage, sprouts, carrots, potatoes all ready to be roasted, and Mum's famous roasted red cabbage and vinegar with raisins. There were crisp buttery shortbreads in their tins, and mixtures of both chestnut and sage and onion stuffings in big bowls with towels over the top, ready to go onto the table.  And of course Great Aunt Nina's boiled fruit cake that took over four hours to make, three of them in the oven.  It was, and still is, utterly fabulous. Outside in one of the sheds, the turkey, the ham and if we had any, the pheasants, were prepared ready for cooking and presentation at the big Christmas lunch.

This is how I FELT my mother's Christmas larder looked like

 I love those memories.  My mother worked hard to make Christmas wonderful and as a young mother myself I tried to recreate the magic and food that my mother had provided for us, for my own children.  I was very poor, and chaotic, but did what I could - there was magic in my Christmases even if they were unconventional, and I always managed to find the money for presents, stocking presents and treats. I ended up buying enormous Christmas trees from some tough red headed travellers for many years, in a field off the main road near where I lived. All red haired, all trained fighters and all proud of it.  Even the women.  

Of course, this was nothing to how we got our Christmas trees while growing up.  We lived in a remote farmhouse in the middle of the West Sussex countryside then, and if you were the farmer or landowner then and reading this now, we are all very sorry.  Once a year in late December, at about midnight, my father and brothers dressed in their darkest outdoor clothes, got the axe, some rope and a torch and set off across the fields to where there were plenty of trees in the woods.  Only once did I go too, when we were all a bit older, and saw just how exciting the whole venture was.  So, in the freezing cold at nearly midnight, I joined my father and three brothers to trudge quietly in single file in pitch black across the fields to the woods, select a tree, and chop it down as quickly and quietly as possible and drag it back across the fields with obvious tree drag marks in the mud across all the fields, right up to our front door.  We didn't even think of that then, and no one ever knocked on our door to drag the tree back again.

We were nearly caught on that one time I joined them all.  Just as we fastened the rope around the fallen tree in the pitch black of the woods to take it back to the house, we saw landrover headlights bumping along the track nearby and had to dive into the undergrowth as the landowner's steward did the rounds of his woods and fields, checking there were no poachers or other problems lurking about.  Little did he know that hiding under the fusty piles of winter leaves and bracken, within a few feet of his car, was his very nice tenant who was a television producer for the BBC, his four teenaged children and an axe.

He also didn't notice one of his trees lying at a suspiciously jaunty angle with a rope round it ready to be dragged off and decorated with tinsel and fairy lights.  Just as well, as Dad was underneath it trying to look like undergrowth.  Later that day, on Christmas day itself, the landowner and his wife would be joining us all at the dinner table and he would never guess that our fabulous twinkling tree was actually one of his. 

The land owner had no idea that the lovely tree at his host's Christmas dinner was actually one of his

When my children were little, it was so easy to make their Christmases special.  They had magic in their little hearts and eyes anyway, and loved the presents, the lights, the tree and the big Christmas lunch.  My children soon learned that the more people came to visit, the more presents they got, and so they encouraged their own friends and anyone who would listen, to drop by on Christmas day.  Sometimes, there were lots of people and presents, sometimes there were just lots of people.  It did not always work out present wise for the kids, and no one minded. But I was a single mum, and it was exhausting to make everything come together and look easy.  I never had much money, often none at all, but somehow we always did Christmas.  Somehow, we pulled through.  

So now, let us come back to this coming Christmas and why I am dreaming of spending it alone.  

I have loved my Christmases past.  My parents worked hard to make them special, and I worked hard when it was my time, to make mine the best they could be for my own children.  It took so much energy and effort, so much planning and preparation, so much scrimping and saving and so much cooking, preparing and cleaning up that I was often utterly exhausted at the end of it, and felt that though I was delighted to have provided Christmas for everyone else, I did not really have one myself. I, and my mother and almost all mothers and fathers before us, did not get time off, did not have a restful and lazy time, and we were at all times responsible for everything.  The buck stopped with us.  We did everything.  Despite it being so exhausting and stressful for those in charge, it was all completely worth it when I was young and energetic, but now I lack the will to put so much effort into what will end up being only one day.  A fabulous day, a holy day, a fun day, but such a significant one that I find I am weary before I even start.  I am too old, and too tired, I don't want to do all that work.  Instead of wanting to cook, and celebrate, and spend time with all my friends and family, I actually want to close all my doors, turn my phone off, and spend a magical day on my own in my studio.  I have a vision of Christmas Day being somehow mine, and special, and my studio warm and inviting and undisturbed.  That is where I would love to spend my Christmas Day.  Alone, not speaking, not seeing anyone, just painting and pottering and listening to talking books.  Of course, there will be a little bit of preparation, and I will have fairy lights and some candles in there, and at the appropriate time, a time of my choosing, I will probably have a whole packet of mince pies. I anticipate at least six.  No one will need anything of me, no one will disturb me, and no one will ask me any questions. It will be the one day in the year where I can actively disengage from all expectations, and, a big deal for parents and all those who produce big Christmases, I will not have to try.  

But, as with all good things, I have compromised.  I will, because the grandchildren have asked, be spending Christmas Day with them.  I will enter this Christmas, then, through the eyes of my tiny grandbabies, and revisit my youth through their excitement.  I will be fed there, made to sit down, and asked to look at lego superheroes by my six year old grandson number one, give my two year old granddaughter all my jewellery because she wants to wear it, asked whether I will get a disability scooter by my four year old grandson number two (and then, he asks, if I do get the scooter, will I die soon after because I will be so old) and dribbled on by my eight month old grandson number three.  I am delighted to be going there.

On Boxing Day, the day after, I will have my day in the studio with six mince pies instead.

How I imagine my studio looks over Christmas.


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Saturday 4 December 2021

Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return


Ash Wednesday ashes

  When I was a little Catholic in my long ago youth there were some truly beautiful and memorable words during the Mass that have stayed with me. "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return" were stern and serious words.  They remind us of our mortality at the beginning of the Christian Easter cycle of prayer, fasting and celebration. They are spoken on Ash Wednesday which in the Christian calendar, precedes six weeks of fasting and prayer called Lent.  This leads to the bleakest day of the Christian calendar, Good Friday, when Jesus, who Christians believe is the son of God, was crucified and died.  Three days later is Easter Sunday where Christians believe in and celebrate the fact that Jesus came back to life after his crucifixion, and other people eat chocolate bunny rabbits till they burst.

My Catholic upbringing brought lovely things to me.  The beauty and mystery of the Latin mass, the security of the services, feast days, holy days of obligation - we all knew where we were and what was happening and how to do it, and I learned (and keep) a respect for reverence and belief.  I did not stay in the Catholic faith, nor did I leave it as such, I just thanked it and moved on.  But there were many times during the masses as a child that I felt awed and affected by the mystery of what the priest was saying.  During the Ash Wednesday mass, we would all line up for the priest to mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross in ash as a reminder of our mortality and mutter to each of us in turn, "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."  I felt this message was meant especially for me.  It did not frighten me, I did not really know what death was, but somehow I understood what was being said and I felt a knowing and a reassurance that I could not explain.  I come from dust, I shall return to dust.  Remember this. I am mortal, I am here and gone in a heartbeat, I come from ash I shall return to ash.  The great comfort for a little Catholic girl was that when that happened, it wasn't just lights-out and that's your lot.   Job done, life over, nothing to see here, eternal nothing.  There was God, and angels, and Heaven, and Jesus and a whole army of saints and good people (now dead) to look after me.  There was a whole new adventure coming.

Looks good, can't wait.


Are you afraid of your mortality?  Do you feel that you are fully on this earth, or do you feel that you could be whisked away any moment?  Perhaps you feel a bit of both.  Our feeling of aliveness is so personal, so changeable, so up and down and so challenged by circumstance and so rewarded by experience.  Most of the time we are simply getting on with our lives.  Getting through the day with all our stuff is more than enough for us to be thinking of but sometimes, just now and again, we are brought up short and remember we are mortal. We catch a glimpse of what it means to end, to stop, to cease and it blows our mind.  Most of us don't like it, we cannot conceive of simply not being here.  Most of us are terrified of it.  How can we disappear and how can life for us end?  Not many people are comfortable with knowing they will die and perhaps, when it is not happening at that moment, those who say they are OK with it have no real conception of how it will feel when it does happen for them.  Then again, I have been with terminally ill people who say they truly are accepting of their death and simply hope it is not too painful and uncomfortable along the way.  And even then, these terminally ill people have moments when they are not wanting to go, and have to find a way to get through those difficult times.  It can be done, it is done, and we all die sometime whatever we think or feel about it.

There is something very special about remembering that we are mortal, that we come from dust and shall return to dust.  It gives us perspective, there is a time line, and we are on it.  It won't go on forever. 

"Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."

How are you living now?  Look around you, what have you got?  Who have you got?  Where are you? Is this what you want?  The miracle is that we are born at all, and have this span of life, and we cannot take it for granted because it will end.  We have just this tiny part of personal time in which to make the best of ourselves, before we move on and return to dust. What do you want? Is it what you have?


Life is tough.  It knocks us around and makes us work for our time here.  But we humans are gifted with extraordinary things like choice and perspective, we can always choose where we are going, what we will do and who we will be next. We can say, Well that didn't work for me, didn't like how that turned out, better try something different.  We choose what we have around us, and theoretically at least, we can choose to change it.  Takes time and courage, but can be done.  And this is where the magic of life can step in - people turn up and help us, circumstances change to support us, something happens and we have a sudden insight into what we are or are not doing, somehow life gives us a break.

Life is also beautiful.  We learn about the hard stuff, yes, and we also experience the lovely stuff.  We have to remember that we are allowed this lovely stuff, and not let the tough lessons take all our focus because unless we stop that, we will allow all the difficult things to dominate.  We learn about love, and compassion, and appreciation.  We experience satisfaction, praise, joy, wonder.  We have insights, understandings, inspirations.  We do things, we learn things, and while we are still here, still alive, we can choose to go up as well as down.  Small triumphs, small successes, especially small triumphs and successes, give us another beautiful human gift, hope.  Life is such a journey, it is your journey, and it is up to you, me, all of us to make of it what we can.  If I don't like today, what can I learn about it, and how can I move on?  How can I change it and what does it say about who I think I am?

Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return

Finally, I am thinking that with so many different perspectives on life and death, living and dying, that my upbringing in a religious faith has given me just one set of beliefs in a world full of sets of beliefs.  I am so grateful to have spent a childhood with the idea of a loving God and a whole universe of mystery.  That part has never left me, and though I have shaken my Catholicism warmly by the hand, thanked it and moved on into a bigger brighter world beyond, I love the memory of some of the words, and much of the magic, the mystery and the beauty of it.  Each of us has our own experiences, we make of it what we can.  Now, onwards and upwards, the day ahead beckons and life is yet to be lived and experienced.

life is a journey, never too late to live it.

  • Don't forget, you can buy my book As Mother Lay Dying, a tapestry woven of memories and insights from the bedside here

"I loved this book, it really hooked me in and kept me turning the pages.

This is so helpful for being with those we love at end of life, so many good ideas for making people more comfortable, feel loved and cherished. However, the emotions that run through it are what I find most interesting and helpful. There is such honesty about how, in fact, we might really feel at these times and I much admired Antonia’s courage in sometimes saying what we all might think but not be brave enough to voice. I also found the end section on grieving so helpful.

We all have to experience death at some point in our lives, it’s not a bad idea to be a bit prepared for it…..this book will so help." Pauline.

"For my work and my own life, this book held many important and meaningful messages. It is beautiful, funny, honest and poignant. Written with such grace, thank you for sharing Antonia"  Claire

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