Mother’s Day Thoughts

It’s Mother’s Day here in Switzerland, and once again it falls on my mother’s birthday. She made it almost to 101, and would have been 105 today.

She was a lover of flowers and we made it a regular habit to visit a bluebell wood on her birthday (or as close as we could get) which always brought her great joy. England has plenty of bluebell woods, even in urban areas, and we usually didn’t have to go very far to find one. It became a tradition, and the 9 May will always be associated in my mind with woodland and bluebells. In fact, I wrote about her very last birthday trip to a bluebell wood here.

My mother in the local bluebell wood (her 96th birthday)

Yesterday, as I walked into the village I passed a garden with bluebells growing in its undergrowth – Spanish bluebells rather than English ones and not exactly a bluebell wood like you’d find in England, but a tiny vignette of one: a small gift gratefully received. Bluebells aren’t a traditional Mother’s Day flower, but for me they will always be associated with my mother. 

Actually, her favourite flower was lily-of-the-valley, which also could be found blooming in Mom’s garden around this time.  If it wasn’t, I would buy her a potted plant with the tiny white bells.

This flower is a traditional gift in France on 1 May – a nice legend here, by the way, that goes back to the Renaissance. It was a custom to give flowering branches to friends as a way of driving out the hardships of winter. In 1560 King Charles IX was visiting the Drôme where he was offered a spray of lily of the valley. On 1 May of the following year, he presented every lady in his court with a spray of this fragrant little flower as a token of good luck. 

On my table today is a vase of bright yellow, fragrantly scented roses, a gift from my daughter who visited me a couple of days ago. The number of mothers in our immediate family has grown to four, with my daughter sandwiched between the generations, so today she is fulfilling her role as mother and grandmother rather than as daughter. I hope – and am pretty sure – that her children and grandchildren will have shown their love and appreciation for all she does for them (far more than anyone could expect).

It has been a bright, sunny day, filled with the song of the blackbirds who seem to have nests all around here, also celebrating their motherhood, no doubt. I have also been able to chat with my granddaughter and newest great-granddaughter. I am feeling very blessed.

Simon Armitage’s poem on the funeral of Prince Phillip and his generation.

No introduction needed.

Cathy's real country garden

The Patriarchs – An Elegy

The weather in the window this morning
is snow, unseasonal singular flakes,
a slow winter’s final shiver. On such an occasion
to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up
for a whole generation – that crew whose survival
was always the stuff of minor miracle,
who came ashore in orange-crate coracles,
fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea
with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.

Husbands to duty, they unrolled their plans
across billiard tables and vehicle bonnets,
regrouped at breakfast. What their secrets were
was everyone’s guess and nobody’s business.
Great-grandfathers from birth, in time they became
both inner core and outer case
in a family heirloom of nesting dolls.
Like evidence of early man their boot-prints stand
in the hardened earth of rose-beds and borders.

They were sons of a zodiac out of sync
with the solar year, but turned their…

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Making Sense of Easter

Recently, I have been reading a book by NT Wright called “Surprised by Hope”. I can definitely recommend this book, but it has to be read slowly and carefully, in bite-sized pieces or all of this food for thought might give you a kind of spiritual/mental indigestion. NT Wright is a well-known theologian, and among other things a former Anglican bishop of Durham in the north-east of England. He has a lot to say about the Resurrection, and in the very last chapter he writes:

“The  forty days of the Easter season until the Ascension might be a time to balance out Lent by taking something up, some new task or venture, something wholesome and fruitful and outgoing and self-giving. You may be only able to do it for six weeks, just as you may be able to go without beer or tobacco only for the six weeks of Lent. But if you really make a start on it, it might give you a sniff of new possibilities, new hope, new ventures you have never dreamed of. It might bring something of Easter into your innermost life. It might help you to wake up to a whole new way. And that’s what Easter is about.”

This idea struck me as worth trying out. What can I do to make every one of the coming 6 weeks productive, to give of myself in some beneficial way? 

Do the little amigurumi animals that I made for my great-grandchildren count? They were certainly well received, and are giving pleasure to their owners, so I’ll take that as my first contribution. I also now have several documents to translate for a good Christian cause, so that is my next “venture”. I’m sure that as the weeks progress, I shall be provided with opportunities to do something “wholesome and fruitful and outgoing and self-giving”, and I’m looking forward to recognising those opportunities. 

Yes, a much better way to celebrate Easter and all it represents than simply gorging on chocolate eggs!   

And finally – yes: the snow has returned, blotting out all the lovely spring blossom, and contrary to my prediction it is sticking. It’s still falling now. The snow plough has just been to clear our road and forecourt of our house. It is very beautiful, but such a pity for the birds, animals, flowers and fruit trees that were enjoying the warm sunny temperatures last week.

 

Freedom For and From Religion — Laughter: Carbonated Grace

This post was in my WordPress feed this afternoon, and I really feel that I should share it with you all. Eileen writes so movingly about something that she knows about from her own life experience, and she puts her case with dignity and empathy.

Another post that was in the same feed – on a different topic – has a reference to Galatians 3;28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

For Christians, surely that should sum up our attitude towards any kind of racism, sexism, ageism, or other kind of discrimination on the basis of inherent characteristics, and warn us against prejudice.

Freedom for and from religion are the same thing. It is important for all of us to protect that freedom. As a “born-again” Christian and mother of two gay sons and with a grandchild who is transgender, I appeal to you to not foster the misunderstanding, prejudice, and persecution of future generations by ignoring that […]

Freedom For and From Religion — Laughter: Carbonated Grace

Fish, Butterfly and Shenanigans

Forgive me for being AWOL so long. I haven’t been idle by any means, but the necessary peace and quiet to sit down and gather my thoughts into a blog post simply didn’t materialize.

Proof that my fingers have been busy is here, below: I can’t show my crochet projects yet, as they are going to be a surprise for my granddaughter when her baby arrives in January, and I think she reads my blog. So those will have to wait. But as I wove in the last thread of the main item, I noticed how many little balls of yarn and wool in a myriad of colours and thicknesses were piling up in my Stash drawer.

I grew up in England in the 1940’s and 50’s, when things were rationed and the mottoes were “Waste not, want not” and “Make do and mend”. No question of throwing these odds and ends away but I couldn’t see any sensible or useful way of making them into a desirable object. Then suddenly I remembered that about 25 years ago I had been given a roll of tapestry canvas during the clearance of a needlework shop. It’s been a long time since I did any sewing, tapestry or embroidery, mainly because I have difficulty in seeing to thread the needle. However, a tapestry needle is like a darning needle, and has a very big eye. Perhaps after all I might be able to thread such a needle with wool? Yes I can!

I cut a length of canvas, sketched a fat fish including a few wavy lines, picked out the brightest colours among my little balls of yarn, and away I went!  My Dear Darling Daughter came to the rescue a couple of times with some of her superfluous bits and pieces, and suggested that as my grandson-in-law is a keen angler, this might be a good present for his upcoming fortieth birthday.

That gave me the idea of making a second picture for my youngest granddaughter about to celebrate her 25th birthday – so the fish was dropped back into the keepnet for a couple of weeks while I worked on a peacock butterfly. I should have had more sense than to try to embroider something symmetrical in grospoint: the technicalities are too complicated to go into here, and in addition unpicking rows of stitches isn’t good for the canvas. Still, in the end it worked out and I finished both pictures almost in time. They are now being framed. A bit late for the birthdays, but I’m sure I’ll be forgiven for that.

II was pleased to have used up all my odds and ends of yarn, although each picture involved over 100 hours of work (I wasn’t counting but I realised afterwards how long it had taken me) – and most of all, very happy to find that I can still design and execute tapestries, and enjoy myself doing so. I think in future, though, if I do any more tapestry pictures, I’ll leave the framing up to the person I give the work to. Or make them into cushion covers.

At the moment I am staying with my friend who isn’t very well, and I am feeling like a fraud. Why? Her children are very grateful to me for this “service” (as they see it) and obviously imagine me as some kind of ministering angel. No, I have told them, I’m NOT cut out to be a nurse, but they think I’m just being modest! Truly, this is my friend, and we are enjoying each other’s company. If anything, I’m benefiting. She’s doing OK, so I feel that I am in no way sacrificing myself. In this time of semi-lockdown we are quite happy to share our bubble, and can live alongside each other without getting in one another’s hair. The house is big enough, and we don’t need to go out for entertainment. We can stroll along the Lake if we feel like it and have a heated swimming pool in the garden. We are both very grateful for the beautiful weather we have been having, allowing us to sit outside in the sunshine even in November!

In fact, had 2020 been a normal year, we would have been spending a few weeks together in Sanibel, Florida, at this time, so it’s really just a change of venue for my vacation! And we have been able to share the excitement and tension, irritation and frustration engendered by the shenanigans in the White House without having to endure the annoyance of actually being among Trump supporters in a red state. Once again, I say fervently, God bless America – they really need it!

Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 2

(Continued from https://catterel.wordpress.com/2020/09/18/donkeys-in-bathrooms-part-1/)

The IBO was a small undertaking in 1976, with about 30 schools participating worldwide, and there was a family-firm feeling about it all. It was in transition from the experimental period to a fully functioning, self-supporting organisation. Internationally, total staff numbered scarcely a dozen! Alec Peterson was Director-General, operating on a part-time basis from a small office in London run by his newly appointed PA factotum. Alec spent much of his time travelling the world publicising the IB, visiting schools and universities, and fund-raising.

The main office was in Geneva, headed by its Director Gérard Renaud, supported by Ruth Bonner (Executive Secretary) and me, with a young French woman (L) combining reception and accounts. We were assisted by 3 or 4 part-time typists, plus an assortment of temporary student helpers during peak times. Geneva produced the examinations and documentation for all subjects other than Languages A and B. These were the responsibility of the lovable, brilliant but quixotic Tom Carter and his staff. Tom was in charge of the Language Centre at Southampton University, where his extremely efficient so-called “research fellow” (who became my good friend D) had brought order into his chaos, dealing with everything to do with languages A and B from a tiny corner of the staff coffee room. The former head of the British School in Montevideo had a miniature office in Buenos Aires from where, among other things, he publicised the IB in Latin America and a North American office was just being set up in New York, with a director plus PA.

It truly was a skeleton staff on a shoestring budget, and every tiny item of expenditure had to be accounted for.

The IB was a ground-breaking project and attracted idealists and visionaries, who tended to be original and somewhat eccentric: educators rather than administrators. Alec Peterson was a tall, lanky Scot with that superior English accent that only Edinburgh and Oxford can produce. With grey hair curling around his collar, an unkempt grey beard and hawk-like nose, he was an imposing figure though usually a bit crumpled from his latest flight, and in true professorial tradition forgetful of minor matters. His secretary frequently received calls or letters from places he had visited on the other side of the world reporting that he had left his glasses or shoes behind, and on one memorable occasion all his dirty laundry, which would be sent on in parcels. He was in his late sixties when I first knew him, having retired from his position as Head of the Education Dept. at Oxford University. He was a wonderful talker and fascinating to listen to.

Both Gérard Renaud and Ruth Bonner had been teachers at the International School of Geneva and, like Alec, were instrumental in the founding of the IB. Gérard was a classical scholar and philosopher, not really cut out for administration, but he was a kind, gentle soul, averse to confrontation and sometimes vacillating when it came to making decisions as he carefully considered every aspect of the issue facing him. I remember on one occasion there was an inquiry from the Vatican, and Gérard was overjoyed to be able to correspond in Latin. He was happiest when he was expounding the ideas and visions animating the IB.

Ruth was a petite firecracker, white-haired and wiry. She was fifty-eight when I first met her, but she had spent much of her life outdoors, particularly on the ski slopes, and her face was tanned and lined so she looked much older. She reminded me of a sandpiper, with a sharp nose and bright inquiring blue eyes, scurrying around with inexhaustible energy.

L, a pleasant French woman about my age, was the only one of us with a secretarial background and originally employed as Gérard’s PA and receptionist, but then she learnt to do the accounts and that became her main field. This allowed her to keep a certain distance from the sometimes chaotic daily events and maintain her sanity. She was a very pleasant, businesslike colleague and a pleasure to deal with.

In addition, a friendly Englishwoman came in part time to deal with jobs like photocopying, packing and despatching whatever needed to be sent out. After I had been with the IBO for a few months, it became clear that more hands were needed. Ruth Bonner’s eldest daughter was brought in as a secretarial assistant for her mother, and I was allocated a part-time secretary, a beautiful young African woman who was a former Miss Rhodesia. She looked like a prettier, softer version of Naomi Campbell, and had a very sweet disposition. That made a total staff of four fulltime and three part-time employees.

Later on, after we had moved downstairs and had more rooms and money available, we were joined by two more British ladies as part-time typists and a middle-aged Swiss woman who was chiefly attached to the photocopier – we had our own Xerox by then. Indeed, by 1980 we had acquired a PC and a computer operator, the Geneva staff had grown to eleven, and there were regional offices in New York, Buenos Aires, Singapore and Paris as well as the London and Southampton bases. By this time, about 150 schools were participating in the IB programme.

Alec retired in 1977 and Gérard Renaud then became Director General. The London office was ultimately taken over by Robert Blackburn, a former teacher at Atlantic College who had been Secretary General for United World Colleges (UWC), and IBO London acquired an extra secretary. Robert had a stately bearing, a very posh English accent, and was proud of his association with Lord Mountbatten, then President of UWC. In fact, some people were convinced he was Lord Blackburn, or at least Sir Robert, he had that aristocratic air about him. When he came to Geneva and introduced himself to my secretary from Limerick, he informed her that he, too, was Irish (he was born in Kilkenny) After he left the room, she turned to me and in her lilting brogue remarked: “He doesn’t sound very Irish!”

He arrived in Geneva late from London one day, and rather breathlessly explained that he had been held up at the airport. Gérard Renaud was most concerned, and made him sit down to recover, even offering him a cognac. Robert was pleasantly surprised and rather bemused until someone realised the misunderstanding and explained to Gérard that it wasn’t a hold-up at gunpoint.

Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 1

Around Easter 1976, disillusioned with my job at a flourishing language school in Geneva, I discovered that the HQ of the International Baccalaureate Office was located in the Palais Wilson, just a few blocks away. One day in early May I walked down the rue Rothschild and into this imposing building with its majestic marble staircase. I climbed up to the top floor, and announced that I was looking for a job. I had no idea what kind of job – I just thought that being trilingual and with a background in international education, I might be useful in some capacity or other.

The Executive Secretary Ruth Bonner, a small white-haired bundle of energy, talked to me.

“Are you a student?” she asked. I was just coming up to my 35th birthday, so I was rather amused at the question.

“No, I’m a language teacher,” I replied. “And I’m looking for a change.”

She went off and came back with Gérard Renaud, the Director. We had a chat and I explained who I was, what my educational interests were and what experience I’d had. He seemed interested.

“Can you type?”

I said I could use a typewriter, picking and pecking, but wasn’t an accomplished typist, mentally cursing the fact that I had never persevered and taught myself to type properly. I pointed out that I definitely wasn’t looking for a secretarial position and they explained that typing skills would be useful, as everyone there – including Gérard – did all their own typing.

“You might be the answer to a prayer,” Ruth told me. “Can you let us have a CV in writing?”

I learnt that 2 people were leaving, and I had picked just the right moment to swan in. I sent in my CV and after they had talked to the Director General, Alec Peterson, I received a letter offering me a job at a reasonable monthly salary, starting on 1 September 1976. I gave in my notice and completed my last assignment there which was devising and running a stage for training teachers of English

When I reported for work at the Palais Wilson in September 1976, I discovered that my job title was Registrar. My office was a light and airy suite on the top floor of the East wing of the building, overlooking the rue Rothschild and the rue des Paquis, consisting of a vast room with a smaller one adjoining and a storage room. Outside my window were the crowns of beautiful plane trees. The dilapidated old building had not yet been restored to the magnificent palace it is today, but it nevertheless retained some traces of its former glory as a grand hotel from the turn of the twentieth century. To reach our offices we ignored the stately central staircase and took a rickety service lift up to our dingy corridor in the attic. 

All the rooms we used as offices had formerly been bedrooms or suites, each with its own bathroom. The sanitary fittings had been removed, except in the bathroom adjoining the room used as Reception, which still had a lavatory and washbasin. The rest were handy storage rooms, each about 10 square metres in size. As befits a luxury hotel of that period, each former bedroom had an inner and an outer door made of solid oak, with a small space between as sound insulation and for privacy. The floors were high quality parquet, scuffed and no longer shiny, but still hardwearing. Many of the rooms had communicating doors between them, lockable from either side.

After WWI, the Palais Wilson had become the home of the League of Nations. Since then it had gone steeply downhill. We shared a corridor in the attic with some people from Unicef, and down below on the ground floor, in a section designed by Le Corbusier as a temporary annex and made mainly of fortified cardboard in a metal frame, was the IBE (International Bureau of Education), belonging to UNESCO. The beautiful Palais Wilson itself was not a protected building, but this ugly, draughty and uncomfortable annex was, simply because it was by Le Corbusier! It was later destroyed by fire, so when it came to restoring the main building in the 1990’s, the annex had fortunately gone.

A couple of years later IBO was able to move down to the first floor where each of the generously proportioned offices – also former bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms – was adorned with an ornate marble fireplace surmounted by a huge gilt-framed mirror labelled “Ligue des Nations”. Here my French windows opened onto a terrace on the portico overlooking the gardens and the lake, with a view towards Mont Blanc.

To be continued …

The Day I Touched Heaven

“Hi, Jack!” said Bill the mechanic as he crawled out from under the car. Then, with a wave in my direction, “Is this your latest little grease monkey?”

I wasn’t sure about being called a monkey and hid behind my Grandad Jack’s trousers, watching Bill warily. When my mother called me a monkey, it didn’t bode well.

“He’ll do,” replied Grandad, patting my shoulder. “My best little helper. Thought I’d give him a taste of real garage life and show him where I used to spend my time. How’re you getting on without me?”

“Better than ever,” came the ironic reply. “Get things done quicker without you messing ‘em up!”

I was indignant on Grandad’s behalf, but he just laughed and punched Bill lightly in the chest.

“I have to see a man about a dog,” Bill said. “Can you keep an eye on things for a few minutes?”

When Bill had left, Grandad and I looked around the workshop, which had been his livelihood until his retirement. Suddenly, we heard the roar of a car engine outside and then it stopped. We stepped outside and I saw the most wonderful sight in the whole of my five years of existence: I discovered later it was called an “E-type” but in that moment it was like standing next to a dark green space rocket.

A young man climbed out, handed the keys to Grandad and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow. There’s a knocking I don’t like, hope you can fix it.” Then he turned and walked off.

Grandad looked at me, and I at Grandad.

“Well now,” said Grandad. “He gave me the job, didn’t he? Get in, lad! Let’s see what’s wrong with this little monster.”

I was a little doubtful. After all, Grandad had retired. But he was right, wasn’t he? The young man had asked him to fix it. So I did as I was told and scrambled into the passenger seat. I couldn’t see through the windscreen, but that didn’t matter. The car felt and smelt like heaven. Grandad got in next to me, turned the key in the ignition, and off we went. I thought the engine sounded like the greatest orchestra in the universe as we drove down the road and then – onto the motorway! Oh joy, oh bliss! Grandad put his foot down and invisible hands pushed me hard back in my seat as we whooshed along at the speed of light barely touching the tarmac. Then he braked hard, we left the northbound carriageway and turned back, southbound. The motor roared, the world zoomed past and I was in paradise.

Finally, Grandad drove us back to the garage and stopped the car outside the workshop. Bill was waiting for us.

“You should have a look at the carburettor,” Grandad said. Bill nodded.

“I might have known!” he grinned.

I looked around, a little less shy than before.

“Is the dog OK?” I asked. For a moment Bill looked puzzled, then he grinned again.

“Oh yes, sonny. The dog’s fine.”

“Come on,” said Grandad. “Let’s get some fish and chips on the way home.”

That was the best day of my life.

A Bibliophilic Dilemma

While crocheting and knitting, we are listening to audiobooks and podcasts, of which my daughter has an inexhaustible supply to match her yarn stash, but otherwise – I’m on the horns of a dilemma:

To buy or not to buy? That is the question facing me right now, as I peruse tantalising book reviews, knowing that I really do have time and leisure to read those books, as well as online accounts that would download them onto my iPad in seconds or deliver them to my door in days. On the other hand, there are also a number of bookcases scattered around this little house holding an eclectic accumulation of books that I haven’t read before, or else so long ago that I’ve forgotten what’s in them.

Dictionaries, reference books, historical tomes, travel guides, encyclopaedias, novels, humorous fiction, thrillers, sailing manuals and books relating to various hobbies and handicrafts, recipe books, all in a variety of languages … we could still open a library, in spite of a good clear-out a few years ago when we dropped off a whole load in the cage outside the village shop, which offers free reading matter to anyone interested: a case of one’s man trash being another man’s treasure.

Some of our collection came from my parents, books I have known since my early childhood, frequently missing a flyleaf because I would draw on any blank piece of paper I came across, undeterred by the smacked bottom this sometimes elicited, and occasionally still containing those early drawings. Old friends, including some strange bedtime reading: when I was about 8, snuggled up on my father’s lap in the big armchair, he would read to me – in instalments – Sir Walter Scott’s epic poems The Lady of the Lake and The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Much of it went over my head, but I retained the gist of the story and revelled in the atmosphere of Scottish romance, enjoying the poetic language with its rhymes and rhythms. I can’t imagine any modern child being so enthralled, so maybe I was a weird kid after all.

Of course, what really mattered was that this was my father’s way of showing me affection and my response in kind. He wasn’t a demonstrative man, and I don’t think he ever spoke the words “I love you” but I knew that he did love and cherish me without need of those words. That ancient, revered edition of the complete poetical works of Scott (such tiny print on flimsy pages) is here on the bookcase Dad made. I’ll need a magnifying glass to read those poems again.

Others are paperbacks, dispensable holiday reading, left behind by visitors or family members – we are now four generations, all sharing this holiday home, and most of us are keen readers.

I brought with me the new English version of Temptation by Janos Szekely, admirably translated by Mark Baczoni (see my blog post A Night That Began 700 Years Ago) and on finishing that remarkable page-turner, read one of my daughter’s latest acquisitions, This Golden Fleece by Esther Rutter, a fascinating tale of a woman’s travels around Britain discovering sources of wool for her knitting. Sounds peculiar but is actually very informative and interesting.

That was followed by a preposterous and hilarious tale by PG Wodehouse set in 1930’s Brittany called Hot Water that I was reading in bed, and that kept me up an hour later than intended each night till it was finished. In 1930’s terms, this was a hoot!

My daughter is currently deep in the first of a trilogy about early mediaeval Britain by Max Adams which will also be passed on to me in due course, but not yet – so I now have to make my selection for my next book at bedtime, hence my opening question: Do I pick out one at random from those available here, choose one already on my iPad that I haven’t yet read, or order something new online that has been recommended and appeals to me?

..

I turn to the bookcase next to me as I sit here on the sofa, and spot an ancient leather-bound volume with gilt edged pages that lost its spine a few decades ago. Inside, in my childish writing, I see that I claimed it as no 107 of my personal library. I vaguely remember starting to read this when I was about twelve, but know I never finished it.

Yes, this is my next easy read: John Halifax, Gentleman by Mrs Craik. I have more patience nowadays with 19th century sentimentality than I did in my youth, and now find quaint what irked me then, being better able to appreciate the quality of Dinah Mulock Craik’s writing. And having visited the town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire a number of times in my youth (and had Abel Fletcher’s Mill pointed out to me) I can visualise the setting of this story. I know in advance that through all the vicissitudes of John Halifax’s career, moral virtue will triumph and there will be a happy ending: it is a Victorian classic, after all!   Just right for bedtime.