A letter to my sister in law, who died last April

When I saw you I ran out of words. Not like me I know; I don’t usually find myself casting about for things to say. Most of the time it’s a case of asking me (politely) to stop talking, or at least let someone else get a word in. I’m sorry that it happened, it wasn’t what I intended.

I meant to remind you of when we first met. Do you remember? Lying in the spare bed in your room, chatting in the dark, an easy conversation and an even easier lie in. Giggling in terror in the back of the car as we hurtled from pub to grocer to butcher to somewhere where they sold spoons (but not the right ones). You had a job in a pub; you told us all about the steaks, sizzling on stones, and balanced the plates all up your arm.

And the day I took you trying on wedding dresses. I’d got married the year (or was it two?) before, so I knew the ropes (sort of). I bossed you into different dresses until you found a style you liked and then, in typical style, your mum made the dress and the ones for the bridesmaids too, while you sewed your invitations. I’ve still got it somewhere, I think, where I keep precious things, together with my memories of your interest in things and how they work and what they do.

I’m not sure if I’m in your wedding photos. The top of your head is only just in mine, visible if you know where to look, hiding in the background with your dad and your new boyfriend, the man who cares for you so tenderly now. You are wrapped up in a shawl your mum made you wear, because that’s what people wore to autumnal weddings – or something like that. I played the piano at yours, hiding under my big hat, do you remember that?

And after weddings (not so long after yours as mine) there were babies, first yours, then mine. Do you remember sitting on my sofa and telling me all about the maternity clothes you weren’t buying because you were getting yours from Dawn French and then you’d be wearing them after? And do you remember christenings and birthday parties and tea at your mum and dad’s and in-car DVDs that only needed a Light Tap to make them work the right way round but while they entertained your kids they caused mine to overflow. There were family weddings we did and family weddings we didn’t attend and Ruby Dos in the garden. A holiday. Competitive cakes. Do you remember?

You were my alliterative sister for more than half my life, my birthday twin. I don’t want to think of you with sadness, and I know you didn’t want that, but I am.  We are.

Nurture 20/21

It seems like a very long time ago since I started writing a looking-backwards-looking-forwards post and I almost wasn’t going to write one this year; however a lot can change in a day and here we are. After a very dry year of blogging, two in a two-week period (it must be the holidays).

Last year I didn’t write one. Instead, I wrote something about wellbeing. You can read it here if you like. I can’t remember why this was; it certainly didn’t have anything to do with some sort of foresight. In fact, last year saw me not write very much at all for a whole bunch of reasons including not having either the time or energy. To be fair, I haven’t got much energy today (the young people in the family are determined to stay up til at least midnight on NYE and I haven’t yet reached that stage of my life where I am prepared to go to bed before them unless I am ill) so I’m going to keep it short and sweet.

Good things and Gratitude

One teatime in the summer we made a list together. Everything was getting on top of A – the anxiety, the enforced stillness, the nothingness to do – so we sat, after the tea had been eaten and before we tackled the washing up and made a list of things for which we were grateful in the face to trying circumstances.

They included:

  • Clear air
  • The garden
  • Gaming with friends
  • Home made curry and naan bread (this is fast becoming an institution)
  • Online bingo
  • Daily walks
  • Lack of traffic
  • Family time
  • Bike rides
  • TV series watching (Merlin, Dirk Gently, I-Zombie, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Warehouse 13, Battlestar Gallactica) (we have yet to find another one we like as much as we are back to Merlin)
  • Different zoom backgrounds 
  • Fixing up the house (that was R)
  • Social distancing (that one was me)
  • Seeing more of friends – I suspect I am not alone in ‘seeing’ more of my far-flung friends this year than I have for years.

It was a good thing to do, when everything seemed a bit much, and helped us to focus on the things that we have, right here, right now, instead of the things we lost. The only thing I have to add is that I am thankful that, so far, we are well.


At work, I have developed a mindset called ‘Steady as She Goes’ which I am taking forward into 2021. When I say it or think it I imagine a steam ship shuddering into darkened waters, not knowing what is ahead, only that it won’t be easy. There might be rocks upon which the great vessel may founder, or a storm or a tidal wave. No-one knows the details except that there is peril that might or might not be avoided. There is a certain relentlessness suggested in it that, for me, captures well how it has been and how we know it will be before the spring comes and we can breathe freely again.

It’s hard for me to look too far forward, which is something I have become, strangely, used to. When the future looks scary I have learned not to examine it too closely and I try not to spend too much time fretting over the difference between what ought to be and what isn’t, even though I fail sometimes and start thinking about the difference between my experience at 17, at 19 and theirs.

So that’s it. We are where we are and all that. Control what you can and try not to worry (or get too angry) about the things that you can’t etc. Better days will come (we hope) and when they do then we’ll see.

Ordinary Tears

Tonight I find myself with a dilemma. Yes, I have eaten too many chocolates and the fridge is stuffed with tempting goodies but, even considering the state of my lockdown middle, it is not the when-do-i-start-the-diet dilemma that concerns me. To be honest there are a number of concerning dilemmas that I could choose from now that I am living in Tier 4, but it isn’t any of those either. No, the focus of my wondering sits in my eyeline watching telly.

He’s wearing a rather nice pair of new trainers his grandfather (my dad) paid for but hasn’t seen (and who hasn’t seen him in the flesh for over a year), gently flicking his overly long hair out of his eyes. He looks tired but I am reluctant to send him to bed. It’s nice to have his company.

Lockdown isn’t easy for him. He’s been bored today because there isn’t much for him to do and there is nowhere for him to go, regardless of the weather. His world shrank significantly during the spring and summer and it’s going to shrink again, thanks to a letter from the doctor.

I could tell you all manner of things about him, but here’s the thing: tonight (today), it all feels a little bit too much like justification.

People are tweeting and journalists are writing, chatterers chatting and they are discussing the latest numbers in relation to deaths from Covid and somehow the ‘worth’ of ‘people with underlying conditions’ has found its way into the mix. Only the ‘sick’ or the ‘old’ should be shielding, or, ‘they would have died anyway’, or some other nonsense that implies that only the strong survive and the ‘underlying conditioners’ are there to be looked after and ‘shielded’ and that somehow proves that We Who Suggest Such Things are Good People and so that’s OK then or something, and people who haven’t got a condition, underlying or otherwise, or not one they know about anyway, are breathing sighs of relief and advocating for an end to lockdowns because reasons.

I mean, what do you say to that? What do you say that you haven’t said before?

His life doesn’t need justifying, and neither does his safety or anyone else’s. And while I’m at it this pandemic isn’t a political matter – or it shouldn’t be – and if everyone is off sick (or even about half) we haven’t got an economy or an education anyway and yes, we should be scrutinising legislation that diminishes our rights (here’s looking at Brexit, kid) and we should be worried that if too many people have covid they will turn up in the hospitals and said hospitals won’t have any time or space for anything else except to deal with the most urgent right here and right now so we ought to be taking care and following public health advice because not following it will do exactly that.

And finally we aren’t the only generation to find our lives turned upside down by circumstances beyond our control; we aren’t the first and we won’t be the last. We’re not the first to shed tears over the state of it and wonder what will our young folk do when we come out the other side, and to hope that maybe we’ll rebuild things better because now we can see inequalities we don’t like and perhaps we’ll have some energy for change when it’s all over. There’s nothing special about us at all.


There is a beach at Lyme Regis where you can walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs, if you know where to look and the time is right. I’ve never managed to find them, although I do have a lovely photo of my daughter, aged 6, standing on an enormous ammonite, wrapped up in boots and a yellow coat with a furry hood, protected from the cold, Easter wind, too young to understand the significance of the event, but impressed nevertheless at the strange rock formation standing proud from the hard, wet sand.  When the tide is in, and the cold, grey sea laps against a closer shore, you’d never know they were there. They are covered up, hidden by the ordinary circumstances of the everyday.  

If you hadn’t read the information on the website or on the noticeboards, you probably wouldn’t realise that you were standing on a rock-frozen giant seashell, even without your overenthusiastic parent explaining. You’d assume that the shapes that swirl gently across its surface were created by the smoothing action of sea. You’d think that there was nothing special about this set of rock pools, that the crabs and starfish and sea anenomes were living nowhere more spectacular or interesting than anywhere else along the shore and that little girls exploring there would need nothing more than a bucket and one of those nets that hang on the end of a slim bamboo pole and a mother to exclaim on a sunny rather than a cold and windy day. You wouldn’t know that if you looked with different, more informed eyes, you would find endless echoes of lives gone by, etched forever into the earth, reminders that things were not always as they are now.

I’m not a particular fan of dinosaurs, it must be said. I never coloured them in or had posters on my wall (although I do seem to remember, from my own dim and distant past, being taught a song about triceratops), but I am fascinated by the fact that they left their mark. Millions of years sit between them and me and yet their footprints still march across the shore. And it’s not just the natural wonders; a good cathedral will have me awed, a castle ruin, a mosaic floor. Monuments to the past from which we have come.

But the dinosaurs didn’t last forever. One meteor and they were gone, snuffed out like a candle. For millennia no-one even dreamed of a lizard as big as a bus. The tide came in and it went out; the secret footsteps lay undisturbed and children played on ordinary rocks. Castles and cathedrals rose and fell, testament to changing times, victims of war and greed, thunderbolts and gravity. They, too, sank into the ground, falling asleep after years proclaiming conquest, human and divine.

And there they waited, a snapshot memory of loss in stone, biding their time until the soil fell away or the tide went out and we wondered and understood what had been exposed.  

The Mask


I have a selection of books from my childhood that sit upon the bottom shelves and that the husband periodically tries to throw away (without getting rid of a multitude of build your own model aeroplane plans, I hasten to add) and which I occasionally come across when looking for something else and take an impromptu trip down memory lane. It happens a lot because I am invariably looking for something I have put in a Safe Place. This last week though, I haven’t so much found a long-lost book, more thought of it and smiled inside. It stands amongst the corner cobwebs with the pink Abba annual and the book of famous forgeries, next to the fairy tales and the world atlas, part a set of hardbacks you’re supposed to keep because otherwise why would someone have given them to you, many Christmases ago?
On the front cover sits a young woman on a horse, attractively backlit and wearing the kind of knitted jumper someone’s mum would have made who understood the need for everything to be oversized rather than fitting nicely, it’s title “Teenage Beauty” enticing the young-and-interested-in-growing-up to the exciting secrets contained within. Inside its still-glossy pages there is advice about spots (everyone gets them), sleep (you need a lot when you are a teenager) and eating healthily (you are what you eat, drink lots of water, your cheekbones will magically appear when you are in your twenties), exercise (find something you enjoy) and washing (do that lots). And, of course, hair and makeup for all manner of different occasions.
Not for the teenaged me the guidance of the youtube star and beauty blog, instead I had my trusty manual (honestly, I took a lot of it word for word and looked very odd indeed for long periods – how my mother kept her mouth shut is beyond me…actually, it isn’t entirely, at around the same time – 1986 – she was reading ‘how to bring up teenagers’ books) and devoured magazines, making my way through Jackie and Mizz and 19 and Smash Hits and graduating to Cosmo and Elle (and never Good Housekeeping, I mean, why?) and soaking up the problem pages, the relationship analyses and how to make the best of (and decide which are) your best features. My sister used to practice on me (she made me look like I’d been punched in the face once, possibly intentional) and I on younger relatives in turn (she never let me return the favour, funnily enough).
I learned from experience that following the instructions on how to apply those blushers that had four shades including highlighter wasn’t necessary, and neither did anyone (apart from people in books and magazines) call it rouge. I spent hours perusing the makeup shelves in Bodyshop (and the soaps and the shampoo and the hair dye) and slowly built up a small collection of powder and paint that moved beyond the clownish (my dad delighted in buying makeup sets for his daughters, the more garish the better for some reason) and the electric blue towards Heather Shimmer and lots of (black) eyeliner (why did no-one call it kohl?), a little for the day and more when going out. Which was a lot, at one time.
And then I started work. And then I had a family. And makeup became something that was squashed out, something I had little time for. I’ve always been one of those people who would rather spend those extra ten minutes in bed, rather than getting ready, you see. I’ve never been one of those women who wouldn’t leave the house unless they were properly done, hair and nails and everything; I’m more the sort who’d forget to wash it off, or forget I had it on and rub my eyes in an effort to make myself wake up. Forgetting to take care of myself is a long-running theme.
And slowly, over the years, makeup became something different. It aged and solidified into a mask; a cover up to hide the fatigue or the sadness; a show. Lipstick to create a smile. Concealer to hide a bad night. The more makeup I wore, the more there was to hide. Yet another uniform to put on for the working day; a professional face.
And now? The mask is gone. The real, tired me is on display and makeup has changed its role again. No longer concealing, hiding, but performing an act of self-care.

Thank you to everyone who joined in my twitter thread on makeup.