March 21, 2011


Filed under: BBC radio addiction,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 9:52 pm

My third child, who invariably begins all our phone conversations with the words, Mother!  It’s your favourite son! called a couple of weeks ago to congratulate me on my new mooring (of which more later) and to prepare me for his appearance as the Chevalier Danceny in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

My son is finishing his final year in drama school, a time when all young aspiring actors hope to find an agent.  To that end the school puts on a series of public performances to give its actors exposure.

Just a Parental Advisory Warning about the performance, said my son, On account of nudity.

My nudity, he added, just so I was clear.

I hesitated a moment and then asked, Are you (pause) decent?

I have a cushion, he replied, his voice rising cheerfully to confirm the helpfulness of soft furnishings.

His father and I debated as we booked our seats.  The website wanted to put us in the front row. Eventually, however, we managed to get tickets for a discreet half dozen or so rows back.

My son did not have the leading role – most of the characters are women – but his was the second most important male part, with a critical plot element, since he kills the leading man in a sword fight.   I thought, well, any agents around will remember him – he’s the bare bottomed one, handy with his épée.

Before the sword fight, he makes love to the leading man’s lover.

In the end, for reasons of artistic integrity (and public decency, no doubt) the director abandoned the cushion idea in favour of breeches, and since his parents were going to be in the audience, my son had permission to hitch his breeches higher than usual as he rose from his lady love.

Nevertheless, even from row i we had a pretty good view of his bare bottom.

His father and younger sister disliked the play, but I found it interesting and disturbing, despite clumsy anachronisms.  Even a weak 20th century adaptation didn’t obscure the point of the original text:  sex was all about tactics and power.  Love mostly interfered with sex, and no one lived happily ever after.

On the drive home we watched the moon rise above the horizon, wonderfully large and glowing red.  I remarked to my daughter in the back seat that I had heard this was the closest to the earth the moon had visited in 19 years – exactly her whole life.  I guess I was too distracted with my new baby in March 1992 to notice the last perigee.

The Crow reminded me of that grown up word (and I instantly mentally replied with apogee).  Brits are astonishingly ignorant about the most basic science, and though BBC radio did tell me the moon would be nearest, the p word never crossed their lips.

July 26, 2010

Captain’s Log day 8: Lost and found

Filed under: Canal,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 12:28 pm

The crew and I meant to spend the day at Hampton Court Palace, but as we were waiting for the ticket office to open I took a phone call that changed my plans.

My younger daughter, ever the Baby of the family, though she is 18, has given me some of the worst moments of my life (lovely creature though she is), and she started very early.  When she was less than a year old she took up that toddler trick I had heard about but never before seen – holding her breath until she went rigid, turned blue and shook as if convulsing, and then holding her breath some more, until her eyes rolled back in her head, and she passed out.

By the time she was two or three I was in danger of being reported to the Social Services for gross neglect.  Onlookers who witnessed this performance (I am telling you, it is scary) shouted Do something!  Call an ambulance!  How can you just sit there?  And I would answer casually, Oh don’t worry, she’ll come round in a minute or two.

The first time she did it, however, I thought she was dead.   I thought something like that today.

I spent much of the day on the telephone.  Everyone agreed there was nothing I could do by returning immediately to Oxford, and in any case the boat would have to be got back to its home mooring somehow.  The crew were very sympathetic, and when they came back from their day at the palace, they urged me to do whatever I thought best, and they would help in any way they could.

By evening the situation was more stable, no one was dead, and it was quite clear that nothing could be gained, for the time being at least, by turning the boat around and heading back.  In fact, after I had discussed the alternatives with the Baby’s father, we agreed that the best plan would be for me to get the boat to London as soon as possible.  There I would be able to catch a fast train to Oxford.

Day 8 statistics: 0 locks and 0 miles, except for the many miles I paced.

April 20, 2010

Ferrets are the new Chihuahuas

Filed under: Back story,misc,This is not a mommy blog,Village life — Duchess @ 11:47 am

I heard on the news the other day that ferrets are the latest chic pets in the UK, for some reason favoured by flight attendants (who have a lot of time on their hands just now).

Trend setter that I am, I had pet ferrets more than a dozen years ago.

My children began agitating for a ferret or two after they saw pictures in an educational book helpfully provided by their American grandmother.  The begging campaign went on for months.

In a moment of insanity, I called the local wildlife park and negotiated two young males.  The gamekeeper enthusiastically agreed that ferrets were just what my family needed.

We named our new pets Bangers and Mash, one streaked steel gray and the other a pale ermine. The gamekeeper advised handling both as much as possible in order to tame them.  As I stroked and cuddled Mash, he nestled into my shoulder, turned his head and sank his teeth into my neck.  Every time anyone held him he bit suddenly and he bit hard.

I found Mash a new home fast (as did his next family), but, as far as I was concerned, Bangers settled in much better.  The kitchen became his domain, and he had free rein whenever the doors were shut. 

Bangers spent his evenings like any model pet, curled up on my lap, letting himself be stroked.  He similarly favoured my younger son. 

No one else was safe.  Bangers terrorised the two sheep dogs, and the cats hissed and bolted whenever they met him. 

The kitchen became a no-go area unless I went in first and captured him.  Otherwise there was usually blood: Bangers was no amateur ferret.  

Bangers doesn’t like strangers, I would explain apologetically to friends, relatives and visitors, scooping him up in my arms.  He’ll be all right when you get to know him. 

My husband absolutely declined to get to know him, and the children began to suspect that there was a good reason most people just had dogs or cats.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of any windows or doors left carelessly open, Bangers became a regular escapee, though he always came home.  He knew when he was on to a good thing: squeaky toys, raw hamburger for tea, and an evening in a comfortable lap.

One day, during my mother’s annual visit from the US, she and I went out, leaving my stepfather alone in the house.

In the middle of the afternoon the shopkeeper’s husband banged on the window.  Hugh opened it, just a crack.

Your ferret is in my wife’s shop! the man shouted.  You had better come and get him!

It isn’t my ferret, returned Hugh, a lawyer by trade.

A lengthy negotiation ensued.  It was finally agreed that, without prejudice, Hugh would open the kitchen window, and the shopkeeper’s husband could, if he so chose, and entirely at his own risk, pass the animal through that opening.  Once the animal was inside, Hugh would close the window.

The next day the ferret’s visit to the shop was the talk of the village.

I thought he would go up Mrs P’s trousers! said the Principal Soprano in the church choir.

Yes, replied the Shopkeeper, adding darkly, And we all know Mrs P doesn’t wear knickers.

After that, and what with the children complaining they couldn’t get breakfast because Bangers would attack them, I bought a rabbit hutch and moved our pet outdoors.

For a while that seemed a good solution, but rabbit hutches are designed for much stupider animals, and Bangers soon worked out how to open the cage’s sliding door. 

He often escaped, but as he was always back, happily curled up in his bed by tea time, I convinced myself that this arrangement was working.  Bangers obviously liked his home, or he wouldn’t return, and no harm seemed to come of his outings.  In the evenings, I still brought him in the house to sleep on my lap.

This was the uneasy status quo for another few months.  My neighbours reported sightings of Bangers all around the village (they hadn’t forgotten poor knickerless Mrs P’s happy escape), but by the time they phoned, Bangers was invariably back home, and peacefully asleep. 

It couldn’t have been my ferret, I would say.  I’ve just checked, and my ferret is locked in the rabbit hutch.  Maybe you saw a weasel.

One early summer day the old lady two doors down knocked on my door in obvious distress.  Your… creature! she gasped, Is…in…my…house!  A bloody handkerchief was wrapped around her hand.

She breathlessly explained that she had fought to rescue her ducks from his jaws, and after biting her he had run from the garden through her open door and up her staircase. 

I knew Bangers too well to think he would still be there, but to reassure her I wandered through every room of her house calling him and squeaking his favourite toy.   Bangers come! I shouted. Bangers come!  (Squeak, squeak.) 

Meanwhile my elderly neighbour had phoned the vet.  He arrived while I was still reassuring her that my ferret could not possibly be in her house. 

I don’t charge for treating ducks, the vet said, glaring at me. 

Sometime that evening, as usual, Bangers came home.  Since he hadn’t managed to dine on duck he happily accepted his usual minced beef.

In the morning the District Nurse was on my doorstep.  My neighbour had a severe attack of angina in the night (brought on by worrying about her ducks, said the nurse).  An ambulance was called, and she had spent the night in hospital.  If I didn’t find another home for my ferret, the District Nurse would inform the Environmental Health Officer that I was harbouring a Dangerous Animal.

A friend of a friend knew a ferret fancier in the nearby village of Ducklington.  He had already taken in the incorrigible Mash, and Bangers joined his former litter mate that afternoon. 

For several years afterwards, on the way home from swimming lessons we used to pass the roundabout leading to Ducklington.  Sometimes I would remind the kids as we drove by that Bangers and Mash were there.

My children always declared themselves glad that Bangers and Mash were having a jolly Ducklington life, but my littlest one invariably shook her head solemnly and spoke for the others:

Ferrets do not make good pets.

March 14, 2010

Mothering Sunday

Filed under: misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 2:51 pm

A long time ago, when I was young and foolish, I made the mistake of declaring that I believed Mothers’ Day was sentimental nonsense invented by Hallmark in order to make money.  It turns out that’s not even true, but even if it were, what kind of stupid woman would scorn the opportunity to be given flowers, gifts, cards and breakfast in bed?

That stupid woman would be me. 

As usual, all week there were signs in every shop shouting, Don’t forget Mum!  For days I have stood in supermarket queues behind people buying DVDs, booze and potted plants for their mothers.  Late yesterday afternoon there was a frenzy of flower shopping.  You couldn’t walk down the damn street without seeing dozens of people clutching bouquets.

For years I have been trying to recover from my grave Mothers’ Day Denial Error, and my children are, one by one, catching on.

My elder son lives in the US and I know from experience that he will call me on American Mothers’ Day; he will have no idea that today is the British version, though if he were more religious he would:  British Mothers’ Day (or, as it is more properly called, Mothering Sunday) always falls on the mid Sunday in Lent.  Its origins are about the Mother Church and nothing to do with mortal mothers at all.  Never mind!  This Sunday Mum collects the flowers and puts her feet up.

Last year my younger son was stung by being scolded for neglecting me: Oh, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, said I. 

But you don’t believe in Mothers’ Day, he pleaded.

My elder daughter said the same thing this afternoon when I asked where my flowers were.  But you don’t believe in Mothers’ Day.

By the time my youngest was born I was a lot older and a little wiser and I never once mentioned Hallmark with disrespect.  Every year The Baby prompted her father to make sure I had cards, gifts and flowers and her wide smile anticipated my pleasure.  If I had not already seen the error of my ways, I would have needed nothing more.

So this Friday I took the precaution of reminding The Baby that Sunday was Mothers’ Day.  You always remembered when you were a little girl, I said. 

She shrugged.  I guess I grew up.  (She’s 18 years and 10 days old.)

My Mothers’ Day went like this. 

The Sunday radio was filled with cloying reminders and when I had had all I could take I locked up the boat and drove into Oxford.  It was a beautiful day and my ex husband has hired me to be the gardener in his new house.  (very George Eliot, remarked a friend, but I know better: much more Thomas Hardy).

Anyway, the Ex is away (meeting the new grandson), and I also promised to check on the girls, who both live at his house, and to make sure the fish were fed, the door locked, and the rubbish taken out.

While I was chopping brambles in the garden the younger son telephoned to wish me a happy day.  He learned his lesson last year.

Later I attached a new basket to the second hand bike I bought my elder daughter yesterday.  While I was fumbling with bolts and allen keys she sat at the kitchen table sending text messages. 

I said, I don’t know why I am the one doing this. You could do it just as well.

She said, Don’t be silly.

Then she reminded me of the time when she was a little girl and I was making a Halloween costume for her and I invited her to help me do it so that she could learn to sew, and she looked at me as if I were crazy.

Don’t you want to learn to sew? I had asked.

She shook her head.

But what will you do when you grow up and you have a little girl and she needs a Halloween costume?

Oh, I’ll just get you to make it, she answered cheerfully.

This afternoon, as I was finishing up mounting the basket, The Baby appeared with a drawing she had done of me and my little grandson, a present for Mothers’ Day.  It isn’t finished, she said, but because you were whining so much I thought I had better give it to you now.

Admiring the drawing and glaring at my elder daughter, I noted that I had only one Bad Child after all.

You don’t believe in Mothers’ Day, she repeated emphatically.  But thanks for the bike, Mum. It’s the best bike ever.

February 10, 2010

Many happy returns of the day

Filed under: misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 2:38 pm

It’s half past ten and I’m violating a fairly strict boaty rule: no engine running after eight. You can hear the big diesel rumble several boat lengths away, but as there is no one on board either in front or behind me, I am hoping I can get away with it, just this once.

When I don’t run the engine for a couple of hours a day the batteries reproach me in the morning. The charge needle dips below 12 volts and little red lights let me know I have done wrong. If I need any further nudging there’s the alarm that screams when the batteries are feeling malnourished and I happen to plug in my computer.

The batteries don’t care when they get their kicks, but experienced boaters shake their heads and cluck and mumble about efficiency and alternators if I switch on before nightfall, which leaves a narrow opportunity for doing right. I have begun to think that having five leisure batteries is not all that unlike having a husband and four children: I am expected to be home by six to do my duty.

I wasn’t home by six today, either to charge the batteries or to feed the fire, and I spent most of the hours I was away, not enjoying myself as I ought to have been (because it was my birthday), but in the John Radcliffe Hospital Accident and Emergency Department.

To while away the time I counted up how often I had already visited emergency rooms with my children. It’s a number so big I don’t like to confess to it, especially as one of my four has never contributed (touch wood), except as an innocent bystander.

Five broken bones and five foreign objects in the eye seem like the kinds of problems even a well-regulated, if a little unlucky, largish family might have. But there were at least half a dozen other ER visits, most of the complaints more exotic, like chlorine gas poisoning. I bet you didn’t think I was going to say that.

My youngest is responsible for more visits than all the others combined (including the chlorine incident). She’s especially not good with head injuries, having responded to her first toddler bump by holding her breath until she turned blue, went rigid, and passed out.

She went on as she had begun, though I only took her to the ER for that particular problem once. It was quite impressive when she did the blue rigid unconscious sequence in public and I had to restrain onlookers from calling ambulances first and child protection services next (apparently parental ennui at a comatose child is anti social and objectionable).

My Baby fell and banged her head on Sunday, and a few days later in the ER it was déjà vu all over again, except that this time she was almost all grown up and very funny while we waited for the radiographers and the neurologist. She didn’t pass out, but she did bump into things and she got several doctors upset.

Her mother was upset too.

The doctors were puzzled enough to keep her there for many hours, but not quite puzzled enough to bring out their expensive kit (MRI). They relaxed when they finally came up with a theory: Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, brought on by a blow to the head. (They especially liked it because it was benign, and I liked it too, only I would have liked it better if they had done the MRI first.) Then they let her go home, because they had no solutions. BPPV is very hard to treat, they noted sadly.

When she was a toddler, and it became clear that she passed out not just because she was hurt but also because she was cross, I asked the doctors what I should do. They shrugged and suggested I try not to upset her.

I don’t think we know a lot about the human brain.

But batteries are quite another matter. I’m thinking of trading mine in for another model.

March 24, 2009

This post is not about shoes

Filed under: family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 3:18 pm

Silverbridge (Trollope fans will recognise that as code for The Duchess’s Elder Son) phoned from Seattle just over a week ago.  I was on the boat, where I have recently sorted out internet access, but cell phone reception is a still a little dodgy.

Pangolin is 62 feet long and 6.5 feet wide, and I only get phone reception at either end, with a long dead zone in the middle. Late Sunday evening I was just emerging from the engine room at the back (where I was fussing over my batteries) when the phone sprang into life and registered a missed call. 

I opened the hatch, and standing on the little stern deck, picked up my voice mail.  A quarter moon shone on the canal and on the large, round hay bales in the fields on the opposite side.  The farmhouse’s windows gleamed in the distance, and, from along the tow path, a quarter of a mile away, the lights of the pub beckoned steadily.

I don’t usually make international calls from my cell (because they cost a small fortune) but I had a feeling that I wanted to return this call.  I hadn’t heard from Silverbridge for several weeks.

My son, child who first made me a mother, told me that sometime in the early autumn or late summer he was going to make me a grandmother.  When we finished talking I trundled up the towpath to the pub and shared the news with a batch of people whose last names I don’t know.

Then I played a couple of games of pool.

A long time ago I thought I would feel ambivalent (at best) about becoming a grandmother. When I was a very little girl my friends and I used to play a competitive game about how old our grandmothers were, each of us making more and more extravagant claims until the biggest liar of all shouted, MY GRANDMOTHER IS A HUNDRED.  To be a grandmother was to be old.

A couple of decades later I remember my mother, quite a lot younger than I am now, demanding to know when I was going to make her a grandmother (and complaining that my dog was interfering with the prospect).  I was still surprised that she would want such a thing, except as a deeply abstract idea, far into the future.  My mother wasn’t old; how could it be possible?  How could she want it?

I understand now.  I don’t feel old at all, even though my own grandmother really was a hundred when she died three years ago.

I do feel like someone who, one afternoon at work, might get up from her desk and ask, Anyone fancy a cup of tea? 

And then when several faces (some middle aged) look up and answer (in their British way), Go on, why not?  I might also just be the sort of person who would add, Oh, I forgot to say!  I have some exciting news!

And then, apparently, it would be perfectly natural for the others barely to blink before smiling and suggesting (empty tea cups still expectantly out raised), Could it be that you’re going to be a grandmother?

I’m not sure how I got to be that oh-so-obvious progenitor, but it seems I am. 

Do you think it’s the sensible shoes?

March 5, 2009

Put your foot down – and send the Duchess a virtual shoe

Filed under: misc,Politics and history,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 3:41 pm

The Elder Daughter is now the digital media intern for a major British charity, Action Aid.  She spent 15 months in Uganda working with some of the most vulnerable children on the continent: deaf and blind children and HIV/Aids orphans.  Now she is back in England trying to make a difference in another way.

She asked me to help gather support on my blog for a campaign that only has a few days to run.  She isn’t asking for money.  She’s asking you to put your foot down.

Around the world, 2876 women contract HIV every day.  A girl born in South Africa has a higher chance of being raped than of learning to read.  Widespread violence against girls and women increases the chances that they will join the 15 million women around the world already infected with the virus.

Action Aid wants 2876 people, one for every woman and girl who will contract HIV tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and every day until we put our foot down to stop it, to sign a petition in support of the campaign.  The campaign ends on International Women’s Day on March 8.

The petition asks the UK government to take 10 steps to help prevent violence against women and to help control HIV/Aids.  These are simple, achievable steps.  One of these 10 steps is to persuade other countries and international agencies to take action.  You don’t have to be British to sign the petition and put your foot down.

When you have signed the petition, please forward it to 5 friends.  2876 people to put their foot down is a modest goal.  Let’s help them achieve it.

Over the last few weeks, hundreds of people, besides signing the petition, have sent Action Aid a real shoe.  The charity has commissioned artist Riitta Ikonen to turn these shoes into art.  You can watch her progress on her blog.  I especially like the puzzled shoe, though I don’t think I would like to take a hike in it.

It’s too late to send Riitta a shoe, but you can still email the Duchess a photo of the shoe you are wearing (or imagine you might wear) when you put your foot down.  Send your photo to me (edited to remove my email address in hope of getting rid of so much spam).  I’ll publish all the photos… And then maybe we can have a vote for the best (if I can work it out) or something… and it can be the Duchess’s first contest!  Okay, I accept you may not be quite as excited about this concept as I am.  Especially as, so far, there’s no prize.

Never mind.  Sign the petition.  Send it to your friends.  Send me your virtual shoes.

Put your foot down.

February 26, 2009

Society for the preservation of squeeze

Filed under: Grammar and language,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 3:44 pm

It’s nearly half past ten, and my Baby, who honoured me with a visit after I called her up and got really grumpy because she hasn’t been here for weeks, has just gone to bed.  We have negotiated a 7.40 departure in the morning, so I can brave Oxford traffic and she can get to school on time (8:45).  She tells me that she doesn’t come to my house more often for this very reason: I insist on living in the middle of nowhere (a little village fifteen miles outside the city).

In the morning, besides providing transport it seems I am to supply disposable contact lenses, and before bed we had a little negotiation about what diopters I could deliver.  I’m just saying.

And now I have a moment (but only just) to consider today’s important news: researchers at Reading University in the UK have created a computer program to identify the our oldest (most persistent) words and to predict those most likely to disappear.

Some of what they have discovered doesn’t surprise me; the oldest words are rather dull: I, we, two, three.  Well, it was always all about us and how much we have got.  It seems these words are pretty much the same in every Indo European language as long as you know a few simple sound change rules in order to spot them.

A long time ago, though it wasn’t quite prehistory, I knew stuff about the history of the language.  For instance, I knew about words, admittedly younger than those above, but still remarkably stable: mother, father, water.  I read once, though I now apologise for forgetting the source, that honey and bee are also words whose forms we can postulate, long before they might have been written.

In the days when I knew about this sort of stuff, I could read, more or less, Old English (Anglo Saxon).  My first homework on the subject, after just one day of class, was to translate The Battle of Maldon, a poem about a glorious English defeat (the first of many — Brits are good at losing) in 991.

This is how the poem begins, and if you can read it, and you don’t have a PhD or hang around the language project at Reading, I will give you a six pence:

brocen wurde
Het þa hyssa hwæne   hors forlætan
feor afysan   and forð gangan
hicgan to handum   and to hige godum
Þa þæt Offan mæg   ærest onfunde
þæt se eorl nolde   yrhðo geþolian
he let him þa of handon   leofne fleogan
hafoc wið þæs holtes   and to þære hilde stop
be þam man mihte oncnawan   þæt se cniht nolde
wacian æt þam wige  þa he to wæpnum feng

I couldn’t read it either, of course.  But as I was struggling through the poem I eventually came to the line “ofer cald wæter”.  That had lasted, and was perfectly coherent, a thousand years later.

For at least a millenium speakers of English have been telling their friends that battle or no battle, if you are going to cross the North Sea the wæter is cald!

Other words, apparently, we are not using enough and they are changing fast.  First to go, according to the computer projection, will be squeeze, dirty, stick and guts.

I quite like all those words!  Use them or lose them, folks.

February 12, 2009

Birth days

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 4:46 pm

It was my birthday this week and, as usual, I claimed the day as my own and demanded that everyone pay attention to me and be nice to me and give me presents and cards — which mostly they did.  Everyone who knows me knows I take birthdays, especially mine, very seriously. 

Nevertheless, when I became a mother I began to think perhaps the wrong person was getting all the birthday attention: exactly who did all the work and had all the bother?  So tell me again who deserves the presents and congratulations?

On my birthday I really ought to have telephoned my mother to apologise.  But, according to convention, instead she is meant to send me birthday greetings.  Her email said,  “The sun was shining the day you were born.  I remember it streaming in the window of the delivery room.  Your hair was red.”

i’ve heard the sun in the delivery room story before.  I know my mother tells it when she especially wants me to know that I am loved, because that is the moment she first feels me conjured into being, when all the waiting and the pain focussed, like the sun’s rays, on that wet, red haired, shining creature.  That’s me, to my mother, even fifty five years on.

I am not so kind (or brief) in the stories I tell my own children.  For example, I usually spare my eldest child, the son who made me a mother, the little details, like the midwife’s firm, raiser poised threat, “Now we are just going to give you a little shave down there.” (Though luckily he emerged so fast after that she didn’t have a chance.)  Or the nurse’s next morning careful explanation of neonatal jaundice, “You may have noticed your baby is a little yellow…”

But  I do like to tell the story of how hard I had to sue to get out of hospital, and what happened while I was otherwise occupied with learning to be a new mother.  In those days in England a “full stay” on the maternity ward was 10 days, a “short stay” was 7, and “early discharge” for a first baby was a mere 5.  I had to fight to be out in 4. 

While my new baby and I were in hospital my husband helpfully registered our son’s birth,  and when we both arrived home he presented me with the certificate.  Under mother’s name it had my first name and my husband’s last name.  I was furious.

You know I never intended to change my name! I shouted.  THAT IS NOT MY NAME!

My husband said calmly that he assumed I meant I wouldn’t change my name in the every day world.  Of course I could hang on to my name if if it was important to me.  Only he never thought I meant I wouldn’t change it when it came to things that mattered like our son’s birth certificate.  How would the boy know his parents were married?

(Reader this was the very beginning of the 80s.  The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there — especially in England.)

The next morning I bundled up my barely born son and marched smartly into the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages office in Oxford.  I presented the perfect child and faulty birth certificate and demanded immediate redress.

The grey haired man at the counter was kindness itself.  He understood my unhappiness, but he shook his head sadly.  What I asked was in no way possible.  The details of the child’s birth had been recorded in the Registers and he was powerless to change them. 

At home I telephoned the number that I had eventually wrung out of the grey haired man and I explained my story.

I’m sorry, said the voice at the other end, but no alterations are possible once a child’s birth has been officially recorded.

I asked her if just anyone could record these details.  Was she aware that paternity was merely a matter of opinion (these were the days before DNA testing was even thought of), but I could prove that I was the mother of the child?  How dare they take a mere putative father’s word?  Did they have my autorisation for him to register the birth?  They did not!

Her patient explanation made it clear that official policy was that any man generously willing to put his name on a child’s birth certificate was assumed to have the authority and competence to provide all details. 

I said, Do you mean to tell me that if my husband had said my name was Humpty Dumpty that is what my son’s birth certificate would say?

There was a very long pause.  And then she answered, Well, yes, I guess it would.

Several supervisors later I finally received a concession: if I would swear an oath that the name recorded as mother’s name on my son’s birth certificate was not my name, had never been my name, and never would be my name, they would make the correction.  I thought the future covenant was was a little extreme, but at least we would have an accurate record of my son’s parents.

This being Oxford it was all done in a gentlemanly way.  One guest night at College, when the women wore long gowns and the men black tie, my husband and I withdrew to the Senior Common Room, along with the College Solicitor, between the main course and the passing of port, claret and sauterne, where I swore the necessary oath, which the solicitor duly notarised.

I posted the notarised oath to Somerset House (which, with good reason, features in British murder mysteries) and in due course I received notice that the error in my son’s official birth certificate had been recognized and that an amended certificate, under these extraordinary circumstances, would be issued.

I returned triumphant to the registry office with my authorisation for correction.  In those days birth certificates were written out in long hand with a fountain pen and I watched, astonished, as the grey haired clerk wrote everything as before, including mother’s name with my husband’s surname and not my own. 

When he had filled in every box, exactly as before, he returned to the mother’s name box and added an asterix.  In the bottom margin he wrote, next to an inky asterix, the words, This is an error.

Then he handed me the amended certificate.

I’ve had more decisive victories.

January 4, 2009

12th Night

Filed under: family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 4:30 pm

It isn’t quite 12th Night, but as this is getting close to the last time one can decently use the c word until next November, I bring you, “Catching up: Christmas chez Duchess.”

One week before Christmas, The Piper’s Son fetched me from the airport.  I was coming back from a further month’s visit to the US, making 2008 the only year I have spent more than weeks in my native country since 1983.  I was glad to be home (England home) and not thinking of travelling again for awhile.  

A couple of days later I was again at Heathrow Terminal 5 to pick up Elder Daughter and her boyfriend.  Terminal 5 is the brand new state of the art way to fly long haul into London.  Here are the brand new state of the art fountains outside the door:

Terminal 5 fountains

Inside there are brand new state of the art baggage handling systems that didn’t work at all when T 5 first opened last spring, so they solved the problem by putting all bags, wherever to or from, on a bus to Milan.

They’ve sorted that now, it seems.  Elder Daughter was arriving with boyfriend.  In the distance, through the NO ENTRY doors I spotted a young, bearded man pushing pink suitcases.  I pointed him out to my ex husband, and, a moment later, we watched our daughter, swinging her violin, emerge through the doors.

I don’t have any pictures of that lovely, grubby, travel weary, grown up child whom I had not seen for one long year.  I simply cried and held her and then shook hands with boyfriend, a new acquaintance.  The suitcases, so clean, pink, and Legally Blond when she left for Uganda 15 months earlier were filthy.  Rats’ piss, she said casually.  The violin was the only item of value we sent her away with that hadn’t been stolen, because no one knew what it was or what it was worth.  Oh, guitar?  people would ask.  Yes, she answered.  A very small guitar.

My daughter worked for the VSO, the British version of the Peace Corps, posted to a small NGO, the Peace Education Trust, in the corner where Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo meet.  While she was there she looked after some of the most vulnerable people on the continent — deaf and blind children and HIV/Aids orphans.  Incidentally, she also set up youth volunteering options for much shorter periods — two weeks to several months — so get in touch if you have a young person looking for something worthwhile to do between high school and college, or college and grad school.  My daughter promises me it is safe, though readers of this blog will know I have fretted.

Meanwhile, back to Christmas with newly home Elder Daughter placing the dove that always sits on top of our Christmas tree

I admit it is a haphazard Christmas tree.  There are clothes pin and silver foil angels made by the children, felt snowmen and paper and glue stocking decorations.  Little wooden ornaments sent from Germany and glass ones from America carefully stashed in Granny’s suitcase.  There are unlovely, but loved, plastic ones meant to be hung on low branches, safe from babies, kittens, puppies.

My younger daughter is rather proud of our tree.  Her friends, she says, have Trees with Themes.  Unlike ours.

The Piper’s Son was eager to show me that five years at Fire Lighting School had not been spent in vain.

All the children grumbled when I said we might do without the knitted nativity (a Duchess hand knit original) so I put it on the windowsill as usual.

They never fail to remark on how fat Mary is, compared to poor little Joseph (in green next to her), but I deny this has anything to do either with my inability to knit to gauge or to Joseph’s weakness of character. All women who have just had babies are larger than life, I say, and husbands are naturally subdued.

Over the years the shepherd, poor thing, has lost his lamb and one of the kings has lost his gift. When I am a grandmother, my grandchildren’s parents will know more about fat Marys and I’ll knit up celebratory frankincense, myrhh and a whole stable full of lambs.

The presents were finally wrapped and Santa did come at last.  The cunning disguises in everyone’s stocking were a great hit.

So were the ping pong ball shooting guns (oops not politically correct, but I’m pleading years of a dove topped tree in mitigation)

The Piper’s Son gave us all bean seeds and a potted plant, according to our characters and gardening abilities.  His father got broad beans and a cactus.  I got runner beans and an orchid.  He gave his older sister and her boyfriend climbing beans and an olive tree, his baby sister dwarf beans and a jade plant (the jade plant is nicknamed “money tree” — the Baby has expensive tastes; her friends with themed Christmas trees may provide a hint).

After presents everyone pitched in to Christmas dinner cooking, especially when the cooker (=British stove, not the cook) broke down and dishes had to be shuffled oven to oven.  Everyone, that is except the Ex, who was busy enjoying his Christmas reading

Elder Son normally makes the Christmas pudding (from scratch!) but he was 8000 miles away, so this year’s was a store bought, out of date, emergency item I had picked up a few years earlier in case Elder Son’s plane didn’t arrive in time for heavy duty chef detail.  I shoved it in the cupboard and was too embarrassed to give it to the local old people’s home once it went out of date, but not at all embarrassed to resurrect it this year and serve it up to my family. 

Holly stolen from the neighbours over the road spruced it up nicely.  We did pour flaming brandy over it, but the ensuing excitement, what with the table also catching fire, means the before picture is all I’ve got.

And very nice the pudding was too, even after.

Crumbs!  I haven’t got to Boxing Day or New Year’s Eve at the Rock of Gibraltar pub on the Oxford Canal.  But I think that is all I have energy for, for now.

Next Page »

Freely hosted by Powered by WordPress. Theme by H P Nadig
Close Bitnami banner