February 23, 2013

A Study in Parenting

The other evening I stopped in at Starbucks for a cup of tea while I was killing some time before I had to pick up my son. I saw a woman I know a little and like, who was doing the same thing. I said hi and then sat down opposite her and we started to chat. Like me, she has four children - two young teenagers and two small children, all boys. She told me she was supposed to be doing homework, but she was reading a novel on her i-phone instead. I asked her what she was studying and then she told me she was finishing up a bachelor's degree she has been working away at for ten years. She told me she had been accepted to a Master's program for next year. She and her husband are also building a house on their lakefront property and running a small business. She told me of her ambitious long-term plans for her career, which sounded perfectly reasonable to me given her passion, enthusiasm, intelligence, and energy.

Soon, it was time for both of us to go and pick up our sons from their respective activities. As I walked to my car which was parked in the nearby lot in front of Pricesmart Foods I processed and pondered all my acquaintance had told me about herself, amazed at her energy. I remembered a time a few years ago when I was sitting in a coffee shop at a table next to hers - I didn't know her then. I was with all of my kids and we were out for a treat, happily talking and laughing in our usual unobtrusive way. When it was time to leave and my kids were taking turns using the bathroom, the woman said to me, "I really like the way you and your kids talk to each other. It's really great to see." I chatted with her for a bit, I can't remember what about, and then the kids and I were on our way out the door.

I suppose I could compare myself to my coffee shop friend and dwell on the things I have not done in my life, like acquire degrees and extensive collateral, but, as a friend recently told me, "There lies the way to madness." It is much better to focus on what I have done. I am not going to draw up a list here and now, but I think it's appropriate to say that if I did make such a list, my children would be my greatest achievement. I know it sounds trite. Movie stars and highly successful people in the public eye are always saying in interviews that their children are the 'best thing I've ever done,' and one wonders if they really mean it. I have not been a perfect mother, but I have learned from my mistakes over the years, and if the powers that be ever handed out certificates for parenting, I would at least qualify for a Bachelor's degree after nearly twenty years and four great children, would I not?

In parenting, the proof is usually in the pudding, as they say. I am happy to observe that my kids are all motivated, hardworking users of their talents. They are all kind and thoughtful (most of the time), but are also critical thinkers and satirists, especially of the materialistic, callous world around them. They all know what it is to climb a mountain and sleep in a tent, survive without their gadgets and just sit quietly with nature. They have learned to think a problem through and go to their parents or teachers for help when they need it. My eldest has moved away and is finding his life. He checks in with all of us from time to time, just to say hello, to tell us about a decision he has made or something new he is doing, like starting a band. He is independent now and happy to be so. I find I do not worry about him, which surprises me. I suppose I thought that being so available and 'there' for my children might make them more dependent on me once they grew up, but perhaps I have really been helping them gradually gain the tools they need to function in the world.

The greatest of these tools is probably emotional security. My own parents gave me the tools, the language, and the emotional support to know and accept myself, and therefore, to figure out where I belonged in the world. When I was upset and emotional as a teenager - which, according to my diary, was at regular intervals - my mom always knew how to help me get to the bottom of what was bothering me, because sometimes I didn't even know myself. I built a personality and a life on that self-knowledge and have tried to pass that on to my children by giving them the support and love they need to find their own way in the world. One important thing I learned as a young person was that I only had a certain amount of energy to use, and if I pushed myself too hard, then my body would sort of shut down. I also learned that I was sensitive to my environment, to the people around me, and that I needed regular time alone and regular exercise to keep my mood on an even keel. Having the words to identify my strengths and my limits was helpful. I did not always listen to those words, but I always knew deep down why things went awry when I didn't listen to those inner voices. I have had struggles over the years trying to keep a good balance in my life, and to challenge myself in various ways, and I hope my children have learned from me that maintaining a good balance in life is extremely important for both their mental and physical health.

I don't have any framed certificates hanging on my office wall, but I do have four living, breathing, well-adjusted creative kids who can carry on a respectful, intelligent conversation with an adult, become a valuable employee and a trusted friend. And someday when their dad and I are old and grey, they may have good memories of their upbringing and still want to spend time with us. That isn't to say my dreams lie only in my children. There are plenty of things I want to achieve in life, and like my friend, I'm working on it, but life is long. My children's childhood is short and precious.

The photo: One of our happy family memories - our last camping trip on Vancouver Island. The four kids down on the beach after a hike in search of the sun.

Emma and I have a new post up at Stella's Virtual Cafe, too. Check it out if you're hungry for a little story and a bite of something tasty.

February 14, 2013

A Little Valentine's Post

I saw on the TV news last night, that the average person spends $168.00 on Valentine's Day for their loved one, but that only 17% buy the jewelry so aggressively advertised this time of year. I bet that many of those $168.00 are spent on roses and a night out at a favourite restaurant.

My husband and I have celebrated twenty-two Valentine's Days together. Our Valentine's Day gifts usually consist of a thoughtful card and a box of chocolates, because we both appreciate thoughtfulness as well as chocolate very much. Sometimes I have had flowers, too, but not often. I usually cook a special Valentine's supper for my family and we all gather around the table to celebrate our love for each other in the best way we know how - with food.

This Valentine's Day my husband had to get up at five a.m. to go to work (there is lots of sickness and other stuff happening at his workplace this time of year), so while he was in the shower I sneaked upstairs and left his card and chocolates for him to find on the kitchen table where he would be assembling his breakfast. He left for work without saying goodbye, which is not unusual because as he dresses his focus is already on the day, and the challenges, ahead. Instead of being hurt as I would have been fifteen years ago, I went back to sleep and dreamed of the African jungle in the book I'm reading. When I awoke I went upstairs to make my coffee and see my girls off to school. There, right where I grind the coffee beans, was an envelope and a box of chocolates from the same shop where I had purchased his. The message in the card was simple and loving, very similar to the one I'd left him. I suppose after twenty-two years, the need for a lot of words ebbs and flows just like everything else in marriage.

Our youngest daughter, who has had a cold for a week, developed a bad cough last night. It wasn't much better this morning, so I kept her home from school and took her container full of homemade, individually wrapped and labeled iced heart cookie Valentines - I made the dough and she and her sister did the rest - to her teacher to distribute. Now I am settling down for a morning of writing a blog post and then an article for the newspaper on an upcoming annual event I organize with the local librarian. The dishwasher is scrubbing last night's dishes, my sick daughter is eating toast and watching a DVD, and my son is practicing his violin pieces for his upcoming auditions. Family life carries on and does not stop for this holiday. It is, however, made a little bit sweeter because of it.

Happy Valentine's Day, however you spend it, or whatever you spend on it.

The photo is one I took at the end of a gloriously sunny, frosty day in January, when my Valentine, our girls and I went for a walk on a local trail. 

February 7, 2013

A Great Estate in the Modern World

I recently watched a three part documentary program called Chatsworth on our local PBS station. The series showed the inner and outer workings of one of Britain's greatest estates. Viewers were treated to everything from lambing on one of Chatsworth estates' thirty-seven farms, to the Olympic qualifying International Horse Trials held on the grounds, to the potentially contentious decision by the farm shop manager and the Duchess whether or not to bring French cheeses into the all-English shop. We also got to meet some of the five hundred or so employees who work for the estate as well as visit many of the rooms in the Upstairs and the Downstairs, so to speak, of the whole operation. My husband found the series interesting for its many similarities to the hotel business in which he works, and because there was much in the way of beauty to look at for the armchair visitor. I found it fascinating because I know that the author Jane Austen based her character Mr. Darcy's 'great estate in Derbyshire,' Pemberly, on Chatsworth. I also appreciated the inside look at how this particular branch of aristocrats, the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, maintain their vision of a self-sustaining operation; for Chatsworth is entirely maintained through the Chatsworth House Trust. When doing the research for this post I consulted the highly informative Chatsworth website, and found the following statement:

All visitor admission income goes directly to the Chatsworth House Trust, a registered charity dedicated to the long-term protection, enhancement and sharing of Chatsworth house, its collections and landscape, with and for visitors. 

The Duke of Devonshire and his family live at Chatsworth, paying rent to the Charity for their rooms. One of the major projects the Trust has helped to fund is The Masterplan, the colossal 14 million pound [I don't know how to make a British pound sign on Blogger] restoration project being undertaken to allow visitors to experience both the inside and outside of Chatsworth as you've never seen it before. 

This work and many other essential projects can only happen thanks to the continuing support of visitors and annual members as well as the efforts of the Trust.

14 million pounds...that constitutes a lot of visitors.

Great houses have long been admitting visitors for a small fee. The proceeds help in the upkeep of the house and estate, which would otherwise be impossible to maintain by the inheriting families; Chatsworth has taken this approach and applied it exponentially. In addition to the running of restaurants and a tea room, the estate hosts over forty weddings a year, rents out cottages, sells its high quality farm produce, holds many, many special events such an annual flower show, art exhibitions in the New Gallery and 'Christmas at Chatsworth'. All of the proceeds from these operations go back into keeping Chatsworth viable and beautiful, and a national treasure for England, while employing hundreds of people. If the documentary truly reflects reality at the estate, then from what I saw, the majority of the employees are happy and proud to work for Chatsworth. I am impressed.

I have always had a sort of fairy tale love for grand old houses drenched in history, and when I read Charles the Earl of Spencer's article in Vanity Fair a few years back, I understood the way many of the owning families feel about their great houses. Many of them believe they are merely one of a long line of caretakers of the house and contents, including centuries of collected furnishings and art as well as established gardens and acres upon acres of precious woodland. The Earl's article went on to say that when several British aristocrats began marrying wealthy American debutantes (often for the money badly needed to keep up their estates and families, especially once global trade made things difficult for British agriculture - the produce of which funded the lavish aristocratic lifestyle of old), many of these Americans did not understand the role of caretaker of the property they had also, for all intents and purposes, married. They bought and sold the belongings of the estate as if they were their own, which in a way they were, but an ownership 'not to be taken lightly,or wontonly.'*  With Americanism penetrating the English aristrocracy, divorce also became more and more common, and as the 20th Century progressed, countless estates with all their accompanying treasures were left to second, third or fourth wives to do with what they willed, instead of being passed on for safe-keeping to the eldest son. The Earl finished up by saying that great houses are what England is known for in many ways, but that the lifestyle and societal situation; i.e., class system needed to keep them up for the sake of the family attached to them, some for many centuries, are no longer understood or generally accepted by modern Britain, not to mention Ireland or Scotland.

I do not know the facts and figures so I am not sure how many great houses in the U.K. and Ireland are presently solely operated by and for the sake of the families who own them. I have also read that after the First World War, as well as the introduction of financially crippling Death Duties, so many great houses were broken up into flats, destroyed or turned over to the National Trust for historical protection and conservation, when the family money was gone. Families who have weathered the storms of war, taxation, depression, recession, and great societal changes, and have managed to hang on to their property, have funded their estates in similar ways to Chatsworth, with varying success. The Duke of Devonshire's father began the process of self-sustenance at Chatsworth and the present Duke and Duchess have carried on with his work, opening up the family home to the world to be shared, loved and appreciated, rather than resented, for all its freshly gilded grandeur and 1000 acres of woods and gardens.

I know I would love to visit Chatsworth and other houses like it. I am naturally drawn to beauty in architecture and landscape and love to see them done well. As a Canadian and part of the Commonwealth I  maintain an interest in my Queen and her relatives, and no matter what people will say to the contrary, the aristocracy will always garner interest and fascination from the international community. We only need to remember the recent Royal Wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, or the present squabbles over which place, York or the Midlands, has the better right to claim ownership of the newly discovered bones of Richard III. I would also suggest that the ancient bones of the aristocracy's houses don't do Britain's tourism industry any harm either.

*from the Solemnization of Matrimony in The Book of Common Prayer

Addendum: Starting on February 15th, I plan to watch The Manor Reborn, a documentary four part series that, according to the Knowledge Network program guide, "follows the transformation of the 16th Century estate in Wiltshire: Avebury Manor. In a unique collaboration with Britain's National Trust, a team of historians, experts and volunteers is bringing this majestic home back to life." Apparently, the team's goal is to recreate different eras of history in its rooms, which will "tell a story - of the people who lived in the house, and of Britain's decorative arts throughout the ages." Cool!

The above photo is from www.bestukireland.com 

We've got a great new story and recipe over at Stella's. Just click on the link on the upper right hand corner of this blog.