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Saturday, May 28, 2011

picture perfect

Getting nice photos of my kids has been a goal for years. It’s not quite an obsession but nearly. For a long time it has seemed like every family home I visit has tasteful, professionally taken pictures of the resident children. And like clockwork, by the time any new arrival reaches the age of six months they too are added to the gallery. Walking around our house there is plenty of evidence of kids on the floor, but on the walls, nothing.

My first big effort was two years ago. I picked a day, my husband asked his dad to come to take the shot and remembered to buy film for the camera and we all wore carefully chosen casual clothes. Out of the blue, one son decided not to cooperate. He wanted us to do the picture without him and only sat when threatened. Forty long minutes later Granddad went home and I started peeling the spuds for dinner. Four family photos with the same child crying in each one was the finished result. The fact that the rest of us are smiling makes us look heartless and cruel.

Next I decided to take a picture of the kids myself. I lined up some popcorn and a DVD as a reward and moved the couch so they could stand in front of a white wall. Even though this time they were doing their best it was a hopeless task. Asking the three of them to simultaneously smile naturally, look at the camera and not make a peace sign was a step too far. I learnt two things that day. Firstly, my children think that the word smile means to bare your teeth, squint and give an overall impression of oddness. And secondly, the house badly needs to be painted. So I have quite a few pictures of weird looking kids standing in front of a dirty wall. They look like hostages.

I have the school photographs of course. The best is of my two oldest boys, when they were five and seven. It might have been lovely but for the awful brown background and the fact that the photographer had taken the liberty of vigorously brushing their hair to a high shine. (I know. A shared brush in a school. Shudder.) It was pressed flat across their foreheads in a sort of high school yearbook 1970’s style. My beautiful children! What had they done! Not one for the fridge door. Then there are the group school photos, which I have finally stopped opting for when I get the annual letter in the school bag. For my first son I paid my sixteen Euros in advance and then he was sick on the day. So it’s absolutely fine, but he’s not in it. For my second son, I paid, he wasn’t sick on the day and he is the only boy out of thirty two not looking at the camera. For my third boy I put the letter in the recycle bin.

Finally I gave up on anything posed and decided to go for real life. My best effort is blown up into A4 in an IKEA frame on the kitchen wall.  The kids are all looking at the camera and laughing. It was just a moment I caught where nothing was prepared. Visible on the floor around them is; a bottle of neurofen and a sticky spoon, a tube of arnica, all the cushions from the couch in a pile (the remnants of a fort), a light sabre, a television remote control stuck together with masking tape, a red sock, a pack of baby wipes and two apple cores. In a Shirley Hughes way, it’s perfect. I love it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

tea bagging

Who took the tea bags out of the pots?
It was me. I took the tea bags out of the pots. I couldn’t help it, it was just the thought of all that tea that wouldn’t be properly hot and I’ll admit it, the conviction that I was a better tea maker than the cake sale committee chairwoman. She was very nice too, which made me feel even worse. Welcoming, chatty and not too bossy.  

I got to the hall at ten, as arranged. There were a few of us, all helping the school cake sale committee get the hall ready for crowds. I had been primarily assigned to the tea stand. It was a bit of fun, there was plenty to do and a few familiar faces to have a chat with. I hadn’t worn the wrong clothes; I didn’t feel like the oldest person in the room. All was good.
In a kitchen off the school hall the chairwoman had left six big tea pots on the draining board. A few kettles were coming to the boil and while she was waiting for them she put six tea bags into each of the pots. Anything wrong with this picture? Exactly. She never heated the tea pots. But that was none of my business, I was just there to help and anyway, did it really matter? Aine, my buddy who was with me on the tea stall came into the kitchen to get some paper cups. "Oh my God, did she put the tea bags in already?" she whispered. I nodded. "Will we take them out and heat the pots?" I wholeheartedly agreed and quickly took the bags out of the pots and stuffed them back into the Lyons box on the table. Suddenly the chairwoman was beside me again. "Its non stop isn’t it! Lets get these pots filled; the crowds will be here soon!" She picked up a kettle and started to pour. Peering into the first she stopped. "Hang on a second. I put tea bags into these, I cannot believe this! Did someone take them out?" My stomach doing flips, I muttered "Tea bags? I'll get some." in a vague way and wandered out into the hall, looking purposeful yet innocent. I could hear her exclaiming behind me and asking the other volunteer helpers whether they had done it. Briefly, I considered confessing. But by the sounds of things the situation had already escalated and  I just didn’t have the courage to come clean. There was a commotion coming from the kitchen and the words "tea bags!" "Someone!" and "TEA BAGS!" again. Fair enough I suppose, I had deliberately undone her work. But how could I explain now? Fighting for the tea pots right to be heated seemed pathetic. It was pathetic.  Housewifery gone mad.

Then one woman rushed excitedly out of the kitchen, in my direction. She said, to my absolute horror “Did you take the tea bags out of the pots?”
Time stood still. I opened and closed my mouth like a fish, trying to look puzzled and preoccupied by the paper cups in front of me. “I think I took them out of one pot” I admitted “just to heat it.”
“Oh it was you” she answered.
“Just one pot I lied, “just to heat it!” but she was gone, back to the kitchen. To tell on me. And Aine? Well she was in the toilets touching up her makeup. She missed the whole thing.

The crowds began to arrive.  Aine wandered out and joined me behind the tea table, smiling, relaxed and nicely coiffed. It seemed like everyone was thirsty and we got down to the business of serving. Later when I got home, I told my husband the whole story. He looked painfully bored, raised his eyes to heaven and comfortingly said "Could you not have just left the tea bags? Now they’ll all think you’re a complete wierdo."

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Witches and fairy cakes

On Saturday I am helping at the school cake sale.  This is a big deal. For the past five years I have ignored the call for volunteers, as it is only in recent weeks that I felt completely recovered from the first and only time I stood behind a stall.  It was with a different school, in a different town and seemed like a great idea. My son had just begun Junior Infants and it made sense to offer to help on the cake stall – I could get to know some other mothers and maybe hear a bit of gossip about school politics. Anyway it was only two hours, how bad could it be?
I arrived at nine on a Saturday morning with the three cakes I made myself, each neatly labelled “Bourneville layer cake”.(I thought this a nice touch and it made up somewhat for their flatness.) As instructed I found the stall and made myself known to the three or four ladies there.  No one seemed to be “in charge” and yet everyone was “busy”. Each was trying to out-busy the next. It was a battle of the industrious. After saying hello and being told that Helen would be here soon and would know “what to do with me” I stood in front of the tables and began slowly sidling around to the selling side. Then, with a very open, helpful look on my face I contemplated the piles of biscuit tins on the floor wondering whether to put the contents on plates ready for selling or to just stand there in a hesitant way. I chose the latter, fear of opening the wrong tin paralysing me. Then Helen arrived. She smiled, gave me a money belt and said cheerfully that we would be “swamped!”. I asked all my cake sale related questions which were waiting in a queue in my head and she said yes, the fairy cakes are popular; yes people usually want their tins back. Then she disappeared to do more organising elsewhere. The busy ladies started taking cling film off selected plates and lids off certain Tupperware containers. There seemed to be a pattern as to what baked goods were sold at what time so I left them to it and stood looking kind, doing my utmost to appear at ease.  After offering a few opening conversational gambits to my fellow saleswomen I discovered
  1. Not only were all their children older than mine, but they were in secondary school! There went my theory of making a few pals to talk to at the school gates.
  2. I had absolutely nothing in common with these women except that I too did not want to stand behind the table looking useless.
One lady, Maureen, was in charge of pricing. She picked up a Bourneville layer cake, squinted at it and said “Bourneville layer cake?” in a tone that was definitely not full of awe.  She wrote €1.50 on three labels and applied them to my cakes.  Then she wrote €5 on another label and put it another (not much bigger) cake. I immediately had an out of body experience and saw myself saying, “I made those” and gesturing to my cakes. My voice broke like teenagers and came out half mumble half squeak. I saw Maureen look at me over her glasses and continue as if I hadn’t spoken, which I dearly wished was the case.

When my husband arrived with the children the feeling of relief was so massive I had to restrain myself from running into his arms, crying. He bought one of my cakes, I made my excuses, the kids had a look at the toys stall and we walked home. Never again, I said, never, never again.

Until now. Its only two hours. How bad can it be?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Lego ladies

I squeezed my eyes closed, I couldn’t look. He opened it quickly and I knew by the dip of his head that the news wasn’t good. It was Friday after school and I was bestowing a reward on my five year old. For a full week of washing his teeth without being asked he had earned a Lego minifigure.  If you don’t already know, Lego minifigures are little Lego people that can be bought singly, BUT and it is a really big but, the bags are not transparent so you don’t know what you are getting until you open it. I have been known to say a prayer when buying them, just a small Hail Mary to hopefully guide my hand towards a zombie, a mad scientist or an alien and away from the pink snowboarder or the smiley cheerleader. On retrospect, I should have felt the bags; any pack containing a weapony shape would have been fine. However, even I didn’t know Lego makes a bosomy tennis player. This is what was standing on our kitchen table. An auburn, lipsticked woman in a tennis skirt, vest and  judging by the boobs, a bad bra. I could see his lip quivering. “I washed my teeth two times every day, he said in an accusing (almost menacing) whisper. I was speechless but unfortunately he wasn’t.
“It’s useless. I hate it.”
He was right, it was useless. When it was taken apart we had;
1.Long hair in a ponytail.
2.Head with quizzical eyebrows and pink lipstick.
3.White tennis racquet.
4.Legs with a skirt on them.
5.Body with ill-supported breasts.

It would be the perfect reward if he wanted to play “mum learns how to play tennis in Bushy Park”. But he didn’t. He wanted to play something like “mutant zombies attack New York” or “the world ends in a huge explosion leaving just two boys alive.”
My gentle, kind friend Mary dropped by. Michelle who loves Jane Austen and poetry, but she has a little boy too, so she understood our predicament.
“Maybe you could use her as someone to attack?” She suggested.
“To take as a prisoner?”
“To kill?”

He ignored her, turned to me and dropped the little tennis player on the table with deliberate carelessness.
You can have it.”  
She lay on her back, the little racquet beside her.

I thought I was being so clever, choosing the minifigures as a reward. They aren’t too expensive; they are much sought after by the under-nines and for me, they have the cachet of being “educational”.
I suppose I should be cross with Lego but I can’t be cross with them for long.  Because I am a huge Lego fan. No other toy comes close. Nothing clicks so satisfying, fits so cleverly, is so absorbing and creative and fun.

Well it’s just as well I am a fan. As I stand and wash the dishes, in front of me on the window sill is my own little Lego collection. My ambitious little tennis player, an ice skater complete with silky skirt slashed to her chunky thigh and a simpering geisha girl with flowers in her hair.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I am feeling the pull of Dundrum today. Fundrum, I’ve heard it called. For me the whole “Town Centre” is a giant magnet, pulling mothers to it on school mornings (I can see them now, flying through the air like Mary Poppins, with buggies instead of brollies) where we feed on caffeine and sugar and wander around feasting our eyes in shop after shop after shop.

First there is that lovely feeling of an imminent latte as I drive towards the Dundrum Bridge. It is early and the morning stretches ahead, I won’t see a dishwasher until at least one o clock. Then there is the thought of the shops, containing the many new things that could be mine, mine all mine!  I’m Dundrum-ready too, wearing the uniform of black/brown boots, skinny jeans, cardigan/tunic/jersey top in muted tones, recently done meche highlights and understated but very nice make up. Throughout the morning I will see hundreds of other women wearing similar basics and we will all look like variations of the same doll. Moxie Women maybe? Best Friends Club Twenty Year Reunion? Big (old) Bratz?
There is:
The young mum with newborn doll,  
The forty year old looking very well doll, (this one is hard to find, even in Argos)
The foxy thirty something with beautiful child and her slightly less attractive friend with slightly less attractive child doll,
The frumpish mum doll (available everywhere)

What is Dundrum? A modern day Pump Room, minus the men? The Forum, with women instead of men? A medieval marketplace, but with makeup?  I think it is all of the above but with lots and lots of shopping.  The browsing, the trying-on, the decision making. The carrying of paper bags filled with clothes with many labels attached. Labels tied with string, ribbons and annoying plastic tags.  Labels with washing instructions, pieces of thread, buttons and metal snappers in tiny plastic bags. Labels to say these clothes are soft to touch, machine washable, reversible, wind proof, breathable or half price. The important thing is that everything is brand new: bag, contents and labels.

While driving over to Dundrum, I talk myself into a sort of worthiness.  I don’t do this often. I need some things. I’m really not wasting time. Conscience salved for the moment, I indicate left, drive down the ramp into the car park and find a space on level minus one. Thus placed, the last thing I do before leaving is a quick shop in Marks Food. It would be criminal to leave Dundrum without either a meal deal, a three for seven Euros or at the very least two packs of hot cross buns. Another advantage is that once parked I walk straight into Marks Homeware. Greeting me is a cocooning display of soft towels in all colours, shelves of matching plates and mugs and tea towels and an expanse of Egyptian cotton duvet covers. Everything is fresh and clean and sooo inviting. And on top of that are the Marks ladies. The kind, helpful, sympathetic, knowledgeable Marks ladies.  Never condescending, never bored, or certainly not that it shows. I’ve often wondered what kinds of questions are asked in the Marks interviews to find a staff so uniformly nice?
Do you wear footgloves?
Do you ever put on eye shadow without taking off your glasses?
Do you shake your purse to find the exact change when you are paying for things in shops?
Is Mamma Mia your favourite movie?
Do you pop in to see your aged mother every day without fail and not consider it a chore?
Do you always use low fat milk in your tea and then eat three biscuits?

Going to Dundrum is like a teenage night out; it’s the promise of it, the preparation that is the best part. Once there for an hour or more I long for daylight and fresh air. I
Find my way back to the car, put the bags in the boot and as the shepherd said to his sheep, get the flock out of there. I try to get home for a few minutes before the school pickup. Just to clean up and bit and make me feel like I haven’t wasted the morning looking at clothes I didn’t need and buying food I could have made myself.

Still though, it is very nice to know there is a fresh pile of profiteroles in the fridge.