It’s the last Sunday of Advent. Here at Christmas Central, we’re expecting another tranche of relatives, plus my niecepup (‘No, mummy, she’s our cousinpup!’), a small energetic Jack Russell with a face that always looks like she’s smiling. The small peoplecousins aren’t familiar with dogs and things aren’t straightforward between all the humans who’ll be here. There’s a history that’s beginning to surface; it’s very raw and nothing is certain except the pain, but I know – I know – that the magic salve of board games and Ottolengi’s butternut squash pasta cake and pantomime tickets and children* will last for the twenty four hours we need. I’m hoping the baked ham, chocolate cake and newly-instituted longstanding tradition of the Yule Book Flood will be equally effective when the Brexiteer arrives tomorrow. To say nothing of the Christmas Eve edition of the Booktime Brunch show on Chiltern Voice between 10-12 – listen online!
Today is the day of chaos. I managed to book an Ocado delivery – that’s arriving this morning – but haven’t wrapped a single present. I’m very behind on the advance preparations for Tuesday’s dinner. The builders finished yesterday (for which many grateful thanks – they really did work hard to make that happen) and James and set to, to clear the room where all the toys, furniture and unnameable miscellanea of thirteen and ten years of bedroom occupation had been dumped because there was no chance to sort it at the time. Perhaps it was for the best that this had to happen under pressure with a non-negotiable deadline, or the emotion of letting once precious toys and significant moments go would have been unbearable. As it is, I feel nothing but a flood of love for the next child who plays with the storage bucket full of Duplo, or the baby doll with all her accessories, or the fire station or the space rocket or the….but I have to stop or I’ll find myself running to claim it all back.
But even if I were to have kept it all (and the hardest things to let go weren’t the lovely toys, but the faded, battered and broken papier maché models and various projects that represent so much love and learning and mess and joy), the children have moved on. Given the choice of ‘Keep or throw,’ nothing would have gone. Given the choice of, ‘Keep, throw or pass to another child,’ a well of generosity opened up, and toys were gathered together, mended, dusted and made whole, ready to be loved again. I hope they will be.
And somewhere in this house, filled not only with children but with piles for the dump, for paper recycling (‘Mum, can I keep this box? NOOOO!’), for textile recycling, for the charity shop, with the hoover in the hall because there’s no point in putting it away just yet, with clean bedding in piles and shopping bags bursting all over the kitchen floor and my bed practically touching the ceiling because of all the unwrapped presents hidden underneath it and I’m still in my pyjamas even though I’ve been up for three hours and this is the first time I’ve sat down, there is a thought.
And the thought goes something like this: I have a friend whose husband is dying.
And I’ll put away the shopping and I’ll make the red cabbage and apple, and I’ll bake the bread I’ve made to go with the soup for lunch – soup that was mostly made with vegetables from the garden – and I’ll try and escape for long enough to sort out the stocking presents, and I’ll think of my friend. I’ll organise the exodus to the pantomime, then get dinner sorted, and we’ll notice that we’re thirteen at the table and laugh and the 12yo will starting improvising Agatha Christie-esque fates for us all, and I’ll think of my friend, and we’ll talk about Kaspar, the cat who makes a fourteenth guest for superstitious diners at the Savoy. And no matter what else is happening, I’ll take the 8yo, who still loves being read to, to bed. I’ve got a copy of Michael Morpurgo’s Kaspar for us to start. The 8yo will think this is a magic coincidence. And I’ll think of my friend.
There is nothing I can do, there is nothing anyone can do, to stop this premature turn of the circle of life. The devastating sorrow, the crippling relentless grief. The longing that I could take some of the abundance of life that is covering my house in glitter and noise and filling it with appetising smells, and waking me at three in the morning demanding ground almonds and beating me with my to-do list, and redirect it towards my friend.
There ‘s a little-sung verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem which goes like this:
‘Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed child, Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild. Where Charity stands waiting, and faith holds wide the door, The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.’
My friend and her family are at my table, in my preparations, in the fun and the laughter – and the stress and the frazzle, too. We’re keeping it all safe, so that next year, or the year after, or whenever they are ready, Christmas will come once more.
*no children are harmed in the making of this salve