Home is a Four-Letter Word

Me, motherhood and a sorely neglected house

Dear Gran…

Posted on | January 14, 2014 | 5 Comments


Dear Gran,

Wow, look at you! You were a beauty. I used to stare at this picture painting of you as a kid. It hung on my Great Gran’s (your mum’s) wall, in an oval glass frame, etched along the edges, and suspended by a heavy chain at the top. Then it hung in your home.

As a kid I used to stare at it, finding it hard to believe that I – broad-shouldered, overweight, cumbersome – was related to such a dainty, doll-like person. (You never mentioned my weight when I was a kid – or ever – and for that I thank you. Enough people in the family did.)

I had a word with mum some years back – not morbidly, I hope, and certainly not greedily – just a quiet word in her ear. When the time came, I said, and you passed on, if nobody else in the family claimed it, I would like that photograph. So it will be mine soon, just as soon as we can work out a safe way to transport it across the Pond.

Big bummer that I am not going to be at your funeral tomorrow. This is when living thousands of miles away feels like hell. So that’s why I’m writing you a letter, to celebrate you, my memories of you, and the things I love about you. They are in no particular order.

1. Sweet, kind, gentle. These are the words that best describe you, for me. You called me “doll” and were always ready with a smile. You were soft, as a Gran should be. There was a fuzziness to your face. No, not facial hair! God, if it was, you would have got rid of it. You were always so proud of your appearance. There was a soft, sheer film of fuzz above your mouth that sometimes I would catch when the light hit it. It made me smile.

2. The caravan rallies. Sooo many memories of those. You and Grandad would take us, me and big bro, away for weekends. It rained a lot (it does that in Scotland) so there was mud. There was also a lot of to-hell-with-rain-and-mud playing, and I don’t remember you ever complaining about muddy feet and clothes. (I would have done!) There was a social every Saturday night, and dancing. You were a fine dancer – especially good at a dance called The Slosh, which can best be described as a kind of Scottish line dance, but slower, tamer. I always got mixed up with the moves. You: never. Where did bro and I sleep, for goodness’ sake? Because the whole caravan was half the size of the room I’m sitting in now. Cozy and compact was an understatement. Ornaments were glued onto surfaces so that they wouldn’t move. On the back of one door there were flags of all the Scottish Caravan Club rallies you had been to. That surface was almost completely covered. I had my first crush at a rally. I sang my first song in public at a rally social. There were a lot of naughty snacks and too much fizzy pop. I have mixed memories of those rallies: painful because of my shyness; happy because we always had a laugh with you and your pals. But it put me off camping for decades, and still has, if I’m honest. Sorry Gran, but also thank you at the same time :-)

3. The berries. Every summer for a fair few years, you and Grandad would bring the caravan up to a farm near our town, for the school holidays. We’d pick raspberries there and so would you. Mum would even join us after work in the afternoons. I loved that, thanks to your caravan, we had somewhere to go to the loo that was more civilized than the dark shed everyone else had to go in. And I loved that we could come and eat lunch with you, usually sitting on the steps of the caravan. We all worked hard at the berries. We never questioned skiving off. If we did slow down or skip some fruit, you and Grandad were straight onto us, telling us off. I like to think the hard work ethic passed down to bro and me came from you, and from the generations before you. Because honestly, despite the fact that your side of the family was huge (six kids!), I can’t think of one slacker among them.

4. The Boxing Day shopping trips: you, me and mum. You and Grandad would come and spend Christmas, and the day after, the girls would go shopping in Dundee. If anything else is being passed down through the generations, it’s a love for a good sale.

5. You had talents I did not fully appreciate when I was younger. You could make a perfect paper flower. You sewed beautifully. And am I dreaming this or did you practice yoga back in the ’70s? Wow. Way ahead of yourself there, if my memory does serve me correctly.

6. Remember when Hubby and I came and paid you and Grandad a visit before we left for the USA? So many visits to you, both in my childhood and adult life, had been pre-planned or dominated up until then, taken over by other people. Perhaps a family meal had been arranged, or mum and dad had something to discuss with you, or there was a shopping trip planned. Bro and I, as kids, were usually plonked in front of Glen Michael’s Cartoon Cavalcade, a cartoon show on TV. And as an adult… I don’t know, for years there just wasn’t a strong connection between us, I guess. But that day, you and Grandad opened the door to us, and led us in and sat us down to a whole series of photos you had dug out. It must have taken you hours. We had the best laugh I can remember having with you. Then we all cried when we left, Grandad too. It prompted me to devote some time, over here, to collecting old family photos and making up two big family albums, past to present. Thank you for inspiring me to do that. And thank you for that precious visit.

7. Gold. I am a silver wearer. They say you’re one or the other. So when you gave me, as a leaving gift, a gold necklace and bracelet, I politely thanked you and packed it away. I wore them only once or twice. And then a funny thing happened. Last Christmas Day my best friend over here, W, gave me a gold necklace. She apologized – “I know you wear silver, take it back if you want” – but I didn’t. I immediately loved it. The morning after that late night phone call to say you had passed away – quietly in your sleep, thank goodness, because the last few weeks must have been unbearable for you, you went through so much – I dug out the gold bracelet. It goes perfectly with the necklace. I am now not exclusively a silver wearer.

Aww Gran, take care up there, and don’t let Grandad nag you. Enjoy a wee vodka on me, and here’s to you doing The Slosh every single night, not just at the caravan rally socials. A little something to make you laugh:


love you to bits

Gillian xxx

Teenage kicks

Posted on | January 12, 2014 | No Comments

O me miserum*. It was a phrase bandied about so often in the passages of Latin we studied at school (made me feel the Romans were a right dour lot). And it’s one I sometimes feel compelled to stamp onto Sweetpea’s forehead.

She is heading towards her 13th year, and man are we all feeling it. Although alongside that stamp I could add another that’s something along the lines of ‘But other days I feel great. Life’s just one big rollercoaster!’ But what would be the Latin for rollercoasters? Did the Romans even have equivalents of rollercoasters? Or did they get their thrills watching people being fed to lions, or maybe having the odd slide down an aqueduct?

Whatever (as Sweetpea is wont to say). You get the drift. Her moods swing, and when she’s up she’s high up, and when she’s down it’s brutal. She is mastering the acts of stomping, slamming her bedroom doors, throwing things at me (usually an electronic device I am confiscating), and saying ‘Okaaaay! God!’ when I remind her for the fifth time to please pick up the socks from the living room floor.

abbie's hairWe tend to duck when Sweetpea is in a foul mood, and skulk, and avoid. What with the loud voice, the terror in her eyes, and the new Doc Marten boots she got for Christmas, she resembles a skinhead… or would, were her hair not so damn long, curly and beautiful.

And then she redeems herself… majorly. My favorite Christmas present (perhaps my favorite present ever) was a deck of cards she just gave me. Each one was wrapped with a piece of paper and one of 52 things she loves about me, from “I feel warm when you hug me” to “You never forget about anyone, not even scruffy little dogs”, and “Our $20 shopping trips.”

abbie cardsThe last one may have been a strategic move on her part, as we hadn’t had one for a while. They’re when I give each of us $20 to spend, usually in Ross or some other clothes discount place. Kinda fun to see what we can get for our twenty bucks.

So we did it yesterday. Her $20 bought a new bag. She announced she needed jeans and “you said you’d buy them for me” then that she needed socks and “I shouldn’t have to buy socks with my allowance”. Then she sneaked in a pair of dance socks at the checkout with “Oh, can I have these too?” I drew the line at the dance socks and muttered, “Now I think we shouldn’t do this. You’re trying to squeeze as much out of me as you can here.”

Cue huffing and stomping, and the clatter of DM boots…

Translation: “O woe is me.”

I am Gwyneth

Posted on | January 8, 2014 | No Comments




Oh yah. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time: make kale ‘chips’. But too often I buy the kale in a fit of healthy, verging-on-macrobiotic excitement, then by the time I get home I can’t be bothered, or have succumbed to PB on bread as a snack instead.

Sweetpea’s reaction to my baking plans (yeh, these are lightly tossed in olive oil then baked… oh so healthy) was this: “Eeewwww! Can’t we have Doritos?”

Munchkin was more receptive to the idea. Being seven does that to a kid. He actually listens to his PE teacher and repeats what the guy says. “I am going to exercise my body and eat healthy to make it strong!” he says, pumping upper arms no bigger in circumference than my wrists.

So we lightly tossed them in olive oil, stuck them in the oven for 10 mins, and then we salted them. It didn’t say that in the recipe I looked up online, but if we hadn’t, I fear I would have been “eeww”-ing with Sweetpea.

I liked them. Kinda bitter, but melt-in-the-mouth. I mostly liked that I could practically feel the fat on my body burning and cheekbones emerging as I ate.

Sweetpea: “Eeewww!” Then, once she realized she was about to miss out on food to her brother and me: “Well, they’re not bad once you’ve tasted them.”

Munchkin: the opposite. “I like them!” Then a grimace. “I sort of like them.”

The kitchen and adjacent living room now smell of farts. Somehow I can’t imagine Gwyneth’s house smelling of farts, but since she has publicly stated she makes these things for her kids and they love them, it must do. Cos not even celebrities are immune from the smell of cooked vegetables.

Anyway, we did it. And since my cinema visit today* (one of those joyful solo daytime outings when I buried myself in the film) included $4.35 worth of pick ‘n mix sweeties, I feel happy and redemptive. So take that, goop.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Liked it a lot.

POST SCRIPT: Hubby likes it too! He came gliding in after a sold-out stadium gig, practiced some yoga with me, then sampled the chips. His reaction: “Holy Moses and Apple! We should name our third child Kale!”

Burn your bras (or get them wet, at least)

Posted on | June 21, 2013 | No Comments

It’s difficult to describe triple-digit desert heat to someone who has not experienced it. So for those who are not joining me in the craziness that is summer in Tucson, Arizona, here are some pointers:

Think hot hairdryer in your face, not only assaulting you with furnace-like heat, but sucking moisture out of you with the dryness.

Think going through at least a couple of outfits a day if you plan to actually do anything physical. And if you do plan to do anything physical, think having to get up VERY early to do it, or else waiting until the sun goes down. Therefore think 6am and 8pm-in-the-dark dog walks.

Think coming up with innovative ways to stay cool. Spritzing your face with water is a good one. Lots of people carry them in their cars for the days (cos it happens) when not even full-on air conditioning can reach your poor kids in the back seat. Many parents in Southern Arizona are also to be seen pouring water from a bottle onto the top of their and their children’s heads. This is a great, effective cool-er off-er, although it kind of sucks if you’re wanting to look the least bit attractive or you just got your hair done for a night out.

But that last point brings me to something that ‘s important to acknowledge if you’re a summer desert dweller: you can’t care about what you look like. In a climate where just walking 20 paces from your car parking spot into a building involves such extreme temperature changes – 70-something degrees in the air conditioned car, 105-110 degrees and blazing sun outside, 70-something inside the building – that you sweat profusely, even if you’ve only been outside for seconds, you must set aside any pride or vanity. You must carry a tissue and mop your brow before the business meeting you’re attending, or find another way to get the sweat both off your hairline and your upper lip (pretending you need to blow your nose might help, although you’ll need a bloody great big tissue if your hairline needs dabbed as well), or get there 10 minutes early so you can dab at your sweaty parts and fan yourself in the ladies’ in advance.

It’s brutal, you see. And we Tucsonans will do anything to make it less brutal. We will fight each other physically for parking spaces that are shaded. We will cut our hair short or forego necessary eyeglasses in the summer –  yes, we will be blind – just to avoid the extra sweat. We will avoid wearing bras under clothing if at all possible (tricky when your boobs are no longer 20-something-pert). We will live our life at home in our underwear or swimwear. Sometimes, many times, we will go without the  underwear and be found hosing ourselves down on the patio in just one layer – the thinnest possible, a cotton dress.

OK, I speak for myself with those last couple of sentences. Last Friday, whilst preparing food for a gathering at my house, I was to be found in only underwear for the first couple of hours of the day. Then when I got sweaty I donned my bikini (and my body is waaaaay past public bikini wearing but that’s how much of your mind you lose when it’s hot) and jumped in our pool. Our pool in the summer is really just for plunging in and cooling off. Swimming happens not during the day but at night, when the sun goes down. (I never ever thought I’d find myself telling people that “it’s too hot for a swim” but really, it happens  - in Tucson, anyway. The water may be cool but the sun is so fierce you can almost feel the melanomas forming on your skin. Horrible.) Then I came back in, dripped dry in the kitchen, got back to my food prep, and repeated the pattern: cook, sweat, cool off in pool, enjoy blissful cold as the water evaporated off of me inside the house again, then work up to a sweat again.

I write this not to attract peeping Toms or get my male readers excited (please don’t be  -  I just turned 46 and it ain’t a pretty sight) but to assure my fellow desert ladies that it’s OK. It’s OK to hang out in your undies – or nothing at all if you’re so inclined (I was raised Scottish and Presbyterian so I needn’t say more about being comfortable naked). It’s OK to show off your bits to the neighbors sometimes. We back onto a house with teenage boys and a treehouse. I have heard the rustling and giggling sometimes when I’ve jumped in the pool either in saggy cotton undies or nothing at all. And I couldn’t give a shit. Let ‘em be shocked, or disgusted, or excited if middle-age flabbiness is what floats their boat.

And another note, to my Hubby: usually I detest you sitting around in underwear. Sorry, but I do. It smacks to me of slobbiness and poverty and just plain indolence. But I make an exception when I’m doing it too. Of course I do. It’s only fair, isn’t it?

The ‘f’ word

Posted on | June 7, 2013 | 1 Comment



Jes Baker – blogger, body positive activist, all-round inspiring lady.


For once, I’m referring not to the f*** word, but to ‘fat’. For today, home is a three-letter word.

This is kind of difficult to write, which is why I have delayed almost two weeks in posting it. I met a woman, a blogger and ‘body positive’ activist. Her name is Jes.

She’s fat, and doesn’t mind describing herself as such. Size 22, to be precise. We spent almost two hours discussing body image, size, fatness, weight. (I was interviewing her for 3 Story Magazine.) And then, the next day,  with her most celebrated blog post yet, she gained worldwide media attention for her clever poke at Abercrombie & Fitch and its apparently size-ist CEO, Mike Jeffries.


One of the photos that gained Jes worldwide headlines. Photo by Liora K Photography.

But that’s another story, and one you can read about here.

My story is this: I over-ate for about a week afterwards. I’ve had a weight problem almost since I can remember. Sadly, I was not blessed with the skinny genes of my parents and brother. And because I was slightly plump, I gave up with trying to be average-sized (skinny was never on the menu for me) and did a lot of emotional overeating and academic over-achieving instead. Hence weight gains, and from there, diets. Ridiculous ones. Liquid diets, no fat diets. Decades of them. And you already know the result: weight losses and gains in equal measure.

Weight Watchers has been a savior to me. With the exception of these last couple of years, and a depression problem, WW has kept my weight pretty average and on track for about the last decade.

Still, the emotional overeating is there, and it doesn’t take much (a stressful day, not enough loving from Hubby) to trigger it again. That chat with Jes took the biscuit, though. I think I was using it as an excuse to stuff my face. Feminist thoughts and a f***-it-all attitude, similar to what she has, took over… but only for a little while. Much as part of me would love to stick a finger up to the western world’s obsession with female size and diets, I prefer myself when I’m not fat.

And there is another, more pressing, factor here: my daughter, Sweetpea. She is twelve and almost the same weight as me. She has an eating disorder, has done since she started eating solid food. She is clinically obese. She seeks comfort from food. She adores eating, is happy both thinking about and consuming food, and is unhappy and stressed if she thinks it’s being held back from her.

Half of me wants to ‘fix’ it, and I have tried. There have been professionals – a nutritionist, an endocrinologist, a therapist. There is a small library of books. There have been eating programs ranging in theme, from eat-all-you-want-and-let’s-try-to-curb-this-obsession to count-calories-and-get-your-weight-down-cos-this-is-dangerous.

I am in the land of therapy, medical help and self-help. I have investigated and practiced many, many things. And yet her obsession for food and eating continues, albeit to a lesser, more manageable, extent (although that’s maybe just me being in a bit of denial). And I, more and more, say to hell with it. I celebrate the fact that she is beautiful and confident and, most importantly, healthy. And I celebrate the fact that there are now people like Jes as role models.

But still. Still…

Would I prefer that Sweetpea was skinny or average or just a little plump? Yes. Just as I would prefer that I didn’t have to count Points and choose chips and wine over a full meal, because Weight Watchers doesn’t ‘allow’ you to have it all. Just as I would prefer to not have to weigh in somewhere and pay strangers money to see a scale fall so sloooowly each week that it hardly seems worth doing.

There is not an end, a conclusion, to this blog entry. And that’s because there is not an obvious solution to my, and Sweetpea’s, problems. The pendulum swings for me, from a “f***-it-all” attitude a la Jes, to the other extreme, where I am blissful in my Size 8 jeans and soaking up the “You look great!” comments from other women (because, let’s face it, men barely notice). And it settles, for the most part, somewhere in the middle, a place that says (and I repeat this to Sweetpea so many times): We come in all shapes and sizes. Let’s just try and be healthy and happy.


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