July 26, 2014 § 3 Comments
I knew Plastic Free July would be a challenge. Even for somebody who is very waste conscious, focusing on avoiding single-use plastic makes you realise just how all-pervasive it is.
It is relatively easy to eradicate a whole host of plastic, e.g. by refusing disposable cups, refilling detergent bottles, buying vegetables loose at the grocer’s, cooking from scratch, keeping toiletries truly natural and to a minimum… but it is proving harder to make headway with other routine household products (e.g. cured meat, yoghurt, yeast, tea and coffee, seeds and grains…), not to mention the ad hoc goods. And the process is not made easier by the dilemmas you stumble across along the way.
Dilemmas: almost as ubiquitous as plastic
In early July I was drawn into a discussion about milk. We’re lucky to have a milkman who delivers organic milk in returnable bottles. Perfect, I thought. Until I learnt that the dairy had slashed the price it pays dairy farmers, forcing many out of business. I could buy milk from one of the supermarkets or an organic vegetable box scheme, both of which pay farmers a fairer price. However both use non-returnable plastic bottles… So do I opt for a product that ticks one environmental and one social box or one that ticks two environmental boxes but has human consequences?
There is no perfect solution yet so I contacted the dairy about paying farmers a fair price and the vegetable box company to suggest it looks into phasing in an alternative to plastic. Unfortunately the former did not reply and the latter’s response, which cited health, safety and supplier convenience, was less than heartening. People seem to have forgotten that for generations milk has been moved in non-plastic containers. Personally, I prefer bringing back enamel milk cans that milkmen fill up on their van!
Soap is another a minefield. Some branded soaps come in a cardboard box or I can buy loose bars from my local organic shop but both contain palm oil, which is associated with deforestation. After much research I found that Marcel Fabré makes palm oil free Savon de Marseille but it does come with a thin plastic wrapper. So, which is the lesser evil? In the case of soap, I reluctantly accept the plastic wrapper to avoid palm oil and because this soap is a good all-rounder that dispenses with a host of other cleaning products.
A delivery of wool illustrates another dilemma. I ordered some Fenella, a lovely soft yarn grown, spun and dyed in Britain. Inevitably, it arrived packed in a plastic envelope. What would have been the alternative? I could have gone to the nearest wool shop but that only stocks the big brand yarns. Whilst these might have done the job, I want my purchases to matter. Green credentials, after all, do not exist in a vacuum. As much as I want to avoid unnecessary plastics, I also want to support small businesses that shorten supply chains and translate into livelihoods for real people rather than profits for anonymous shareholders. Sometimes this means mail order. And as my postman tends to leave parcels out in the rain, there is a lot to be said for textile and fibre being sent in water proof packages… *
I blame the barcode…
Despite many retailers’ claims, packaging goods in plastic is rarely driven by health and hygiene considerations and almost always driven by convenience! Centralisation and automation mean products arrive in shops clad in plastic, ready for a barcode sticker. For example, this month I bought a couple of photo frames, a protractor, a new notebook and a set of double pointed sock needles. All came with the obligatory plastic wrapper and barcode, with the exception of the needles, which came in a cardboard box as well as a plastic sleeve!
It is astonishing how quickly plastic packaging and barcodes have taken over. Twenty odd years ago, at the start of each school year, we would head to the newsagent’s or supermarket and select notebooks, pencils, rulers… off the shelf. There was no wrapping; at most a price sticker that had been label gunned on. The same applied to knitting needles, which came on a piece of card or tied together with an elastic band. It may seem archaic now, much like doing a manual inventory, but it meant less packaging and shop keepers who knew their stock!
Some successes too
A plethora of dilemmas and barcodes is of course no reason not to persist and cut out unnecessary plastics. And as much as I regret the lack of Belgian/French-style charcuterie shops or stores that sell staples from bulk bins, there have been some successes this month.
I have realised, that just like pasta**, gnocchi is incredibly easy to make and is better than the starchy mini pillows available from supermarket refrigerators. We have also eliminated soda water bottles, not by substituting them with cans but by investing in a soda siphon. The simple system involves disposable cartridges but these are small, made of steel, recyclable and worth recycling. In the process, we have also phased out tetrapaks of orange juice. As I never really liked sweet juices, we have switched to bitter cordials, like Sarsaparilla or Dandelion and Burdock. These old school drinks are available in glass bottles and are so intense that the merest drizzle goes a long way! I also discovered to my delight that Marks & Spencer now offers more of its tights in little cardboard boxes, without plastic windows and wrappers – much like shops did years ago.
And although not a success in the purist’s sense, I have found a home for the rare yoghurt or cream pot that enters our house. The art tutors in my local community college can’t get enough little pots for mixing paints, slips and glazes. In their eyes, yoghurt pots are not disposable single-use items but a useful resource. And that is ultimately the key to addressing the mountains of waste, whether plastic or otherwise. We should not beat ourselves up about the occasional plastic wrapper that seeps into our life but rather develop a resource conscious mindset. After all, waste is a new concept in the history of mankind, not a given!
* The plastic packaging may have been a ‘necessary evil’ but it proved useful: I recycled it to send a parcel of wool and tea to a friend.
** As I’ve had some queries about making your own pasta, a dedicated post will follow soon.
July 22, 2014 § 12 Comments
On Saturday I turned 40. I had been in two minds about celebrating the occasion. I have never been overly concerned about the number or even getting older. After all, most of the women I admire are older and I admire them for the characteristics that age brings: wisdom, experience, serenity… I am, however, less enamoured with the aching joints, deteriorating eyesight and shrinking range of hearing that seem to come with age!
As it happened, I hardly got a say in whether to celebrate or not. Mr M had kindly organised a weekend away. An attractive hotel on the south coast, a restaurant with a strong seafood focus, just the two of us and… then I was struck down by some virus. Rather than strolling round the old town, making our way down to the harbour or hiking over to Dungeoness (Britain’s only desert) for a squint at the nuclear power station*, I took to bed as Mr M went in search of a hot water bottle for me on the hottest day of the year.
Now the day has been and gone (and the shivers and spasms have subsided), I can celebrate being 40, despite the physical niggles. There were no major revelations of course. Turning 40 just provided an excuse to take stock, have a look at the Great Book of Reciprocity, flip through the Giant Encyclopaedia of Life and scribble some mental notes in the margin.
Here are just some of my scribblings:
- I have a grand family: Mr M (of course!), my siblings, my little niece, a couple of old friends of my parents (a last link to mum and dad) and close friends who travel miles to share the joyous moments and drop everything to support me in the darkest ones. They are all utterly precious, and I need make use of every occasion to catch up with them as life rattles on with all its commitments and distractions.
- Friendship is a blessing but one I never take for granted! I may not see or speak to my friends as often as I should like but I really do believe that we reap what we sow. How else do I explain friendships that have endured across continents and decades…?
- The world needs more random acts of kindness and generosity, and especially towards strangers. Best of all, they offer a win-win. Paying somebody a compliment, sending a thank you note, sharing a meal, seeds, your harvest…, giving a small home-made present… Such ‘gifts’ brighten the day for the giver as well as the receiver.**
- Producing is much more fun than consuming. In many ways, it takes me back to the imaginative, inquisitive child I was. Figuring out that I am perfectly capable of making practical daily objects (whether growing my own food, stitching my own blinds, carving a spoon, throwing a bowl…) is satisfying. It is not just a creative process but also an act of defiance, and yes, I take delight in that too!*
- A lifetime is not enough to learn all the languages, musical instruments, skills… I’m interested in! Rather than lament the lack of time, each August I scour the prospectus of local community colleges and sign up for courses, workshops… This year I’m eyeing up more violin lessons, another pottery course and maybe some Gaelic, although I would also love to try my hand at instrument making…
- As much as I love prose, poetry and music, silence is golden! Yes, I am the person who points out the Quiet Carriage notice to noisy passengers on a train and I prefer restaurants where people speak in hushed tones. (And really, how many telephone conversations are so urgent they need to be had in public?)
- Moods, frustration, melancholy… are generally eased by pottering in the garden. Leaving aside the restorative nature of fresh air and natural light, there is so much life in the garden, even on a winter’s day, that it is impossible not to forget oneself for a while.
- Lotions and potions are no substitute for healthy food, plenty of water, sleep and a sun hat! (And there is certainly no need for plastic micro-beads that pollute watercourses and poison fish. Pinhead oatmeal and honey or sea salt and olive oil work just fine.)
- Bodies are designed to move. Although I am not a natural athlete, my body feels a whole lot better for regular exercise.
- As much as I enjoy the occasional meal out, Mr M’s goulash is still one of my top three meals ever!
- I drink far too much tea and always shall but somehow, most of life’s problems, ills and challenges seem more manageable after a cuppa. Throw in a decent night’s sleep and I’m all but invincible…
- At 30 I thought I would end up a batty old cat lady and was okay with that prospect. At forty I know that I am an eccentric cat lady cum urban cottage gardener with a penchant for yarn, home-made preserves, gin and obscure (if not dead) languages as well as a 10K personal best that it is getting slower… and I am revelling in all of it!
* As an ex-energy lawyer and general energy geek, electricity (as well as water and sewage) plants are interesting sites! Mr M is the same with trains and boats…
July 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
In a society that praises bigger as better, it is easy to forget the virtue of tiny. Don’t get me wrong, given half the chance I would love a bigger garden! You can keep a larger house – higher energy bills and more cleaning, who needs that! – but half as much garden again would be lovely. But then I spend time in my funny little yard and fall in love with its nooks and crannies, or I see what other small space growers (like @VerticalVeg) are doing with theirs and I’m inspired by the possibilities, joy and beauty that even the smallest of spaces can offer. And no more so than after a visit to a tiny rooftop vegetable plot in Central London.
A couple of weeks ago I spent a delightful afternoon sipping tea high above the streets of London in the haven created by the lovely Wendy (@rooftopvegplot). Unfazed by limited space this lady has created a beautiful garden that has it all: beautiful borders, flowers and edibles, a greenhouse, a breakfast/dining area, even a writing shed. And all in a footprint of about five by six metres!*
Advocates of “Ever bigger” forget that constraints of any kind stretch our imagination and Wendy certainly has that in droves.
Like any balcony/patio grower, she relies on raised beds but with an eye for beauty she has turned her four tiny 6 inch deep beds into edible borders that would look at home in a cottage garden. Like the bed of salad leaves edged with a mini Hyssop hedge acting as a windbreak and purple pansies, or one with feathery kale intersown with carrots and faster growing catch crops like rocket and radish.
Small space growers love the productive potential of vertical growing and Wendy is no different. She has installed small trellises and a pergola that not only help define the space architecturally but are home to cottage garden regulars like climbing beans, peas (in particular Mr Prue’s extremely tall variety) and fragrant sweat peas. She has also made space for a trombocino courgette, which is doing a good job of clambering up one of the trellises.
By including old-school perennials and biennials, like Valerian and Wild Celery, Wendy adds height, a shot of colour and a floral wispiness, adding to the sense that you are surrounded by borders rather than raised beds.
Every where I looked in this tiny space there was a new discovery, inspiration for how to make the most of your space and always beauty. The small greenhouse is home to the usual suspects: tomato, pepper and cucumber plants but also basil and flowers like Calendula, Nasturtium and Antirrhinum for pest control purposes. A shadier corner houses an old chest that Wendy has turned into a hybrid compost bin/wormery. In some beds, she has strategically laid chicken wire on the soil to deter slugs from nibbling her kale and other leafy vegetables. Elsewhere climbers are working their way up a vertical compost bin (a cylinder made of chicken wire, half a foot wide and two foot tall).
And then there is the tiny blue shed. This minute space is not relegated to housing a ramshackle collection of pots and tools but functions as a writing shed – every bookish girl’s dream. The pots, equipment and seeds are instead housed in the porch to the stairs down into building…, which Wendy aptly refers to as the potting shed!
If you need proof that lack of space is no bar to a beautiful and abundant garden, take a look at Wendy’s blog and follow her Rooftop Veg Plot adventures. Actually, just follow her blog for the sheer joy that a beautiful garden offers! I certainly came away from my visit buzzing with ideas, unable to sleep with excitement at the number of opportunities I have not even started to explore in my sizable* garden.
* With one and half times Wendy’s growing space, my garden is positively palatial!
July 2, 2014 § 3 Comments
A fortnight ago I signed up to the Plastic Free July challenge. Although I generally avoid unnecessary consumption and packaging, single-use plastics are ubiquitous and do still creep into my home. In some areas in particular, plastics stubbornly cling on so I thought a focussed month of looking at habits and tastes with fresh eyes would be useful.
Plastics… why a big deal?
There are many reasons to question the all-pervasive presence of plastics in our world. For one, the material does not appear out of nowhere? It is typically made from crude oil that undergoes energy intensive petochemical processes to turn it into plastic granules. These resources are well-spent in the context of medical equipment, water and electrical piping, fridges… but for a ready-meal container, disposable cup or magazine wrapper…?
Which brings us to the issue of waste. As plastic use has grown exponentially*, so has plastic waste and it takes a long time for this waste to biodegrade. Recycling is not necessarily the answer as plastic waste is often dumped in developing countries where it is burnt in unsafe conditions. A lot of plastic also ends up in the oceans, killing marine life and birds. There are many reports on the effects of plastics on other species but just watch Midway, a haunting four-minute film featuring elegant albatrosses. It is not comfortable viewing but it sums up the far-reaching effects of our plastic addiction!
And then there is self-interest: our own health. Many plastics contain chemicals (BPA and phtalates) that mimic human hormones. There is increasing evidence that these are linked to health problems, from reproduction to cancers and brain diseases.
Eradicating, shrinking, avoiding…
Having committed to the Plastic Free Challenge, I did not sit around waiting for 1 July. I have already been examining the plastic-creep in my home. As single-use plastics are all pervasive, eradicating them entirely will be a challenge. However, with a little planning and creativity it is possible to avoid many plastics and shrink my footprint dramatically.
Best of all once you embark on a plastic free/light life, you soon discover benefits that trigger self-enforcing cycles: better tasting food; an enhanced sense of smell; financial savings; conversations in smaller stores with real shopkeepers…
The key is to identify the plastic black holes and find solutions that are as easy as possible to counter plastics’ knock-out argument: “convenience”. In the coming weeks I shall be sharing more of of my recipes, concoctions, tricks, dilemmas… but here are some tasty morsels to kick things off.
A duo of recipes
I have been cooking and baking from scratch for years but recently I expanded my repertoire to eradicate some of the last vestiges of plastic wrapping: breakfast cereals and savoury nibbles.
If I were truly virtuous, I would eat home-made nut-free muesli or porridge, instead of malty Shreddies. However, as a 4-year old girl I told my mum that muesli and porridge “are mush and only babies eat mush”, and I cannot say my view has changed. I now mostly eat toast for breakfast instead of cereal but to ring the changes, I have started making potato farls. They are ridiculously easy to rustle up, can be made in advance and are great for bridging the gap between the bread running low and my next baking day.
When I steam potatoes for dinner, I always cook enough for several days so I usually have some to hand. Take for four medium sized potatoes. Allow them to dry thoroughly and mash them finely. Add a tablespoon of melted butter and one of plain flour. I also add half a teaspoon of baking powder but this is not essential.
Stir all ingredients together and it will soon form a ball. Break it into three or four pieces and on a floured surface flatten them with both hands into a round (about a quarter of an inch thick and about the size of a small plate). There is no need for a rolling pin, hands work just fine. Cut the rounds into four pieces.
Pop four quarters into a dry frying pan over a medium to high heat and cook for three minutes on each side. Either eat the farls immediately or make them the night before and reheat them in the dry pan for a couple of minutes. Serve them with bacon, fried mushrooms or just a dollop of jam. Potato farls also make a super alternative to blinis!
As these are breadsticks, you will need strong flour, yeast and time for the dough to rise but once they are made made, they will easily last for five days in a tin.
Mix 115 g of strong white flour with ½ teaspoon of salt and dried fast-acting yeast*** and a pinch of caster sugar. Pour in ½ tablespoon of olive oil and 85ml of hand warm water. Then add a heaped tablespoon of the desired flavouring: I like fennel seeds or finely chopped rosemary fresh from the garden, but you could also use grated parmesan, finely chopped anchovies, crushed black pepper…
Knead thoroughly and leave to prove (i.e. rise) on an oiled baking sheet covered with a damp cloth. After an hour, preheat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7 and break the dough into 16-20 walnut sized pieces. With well-floured hands roll each ball into a pencil thin stick. Place on a well oiled baking sheet, brush with some milk and olive oil and sprinkle sea salt on the top. Bake for 17-20 minutes. (As grissini bake at a standard bread baking temperature, I make a batch when I am baking bread. I put them in the oven whilst the loaves are undergoing their second proving.)
I nibble these breadsticks on their own or dip them in homemade tapenade for an extra savoury kick.
* According to Scientific America in the first decade of this century, plastic production was almost the same as that of the whole of the 20th century!
** Poster by Plastic Pollution Coalition taken from Shore Collections.
*** If you are new to baking with yeast, check out Practicalities for novice bakers at the end of this post.
June 20, 2014 § 2 Comments
I am growing up, horticulturally speaking at least. This year I am venturing into sowing biennials from seed for the first time. Growing flowers that start their growth in one year and bloom in the next involves foresight, planning and patience and consequently feels very mature.
So what prompted this foray into biennials?
I suspect it is partly natural progression. After my first season of growing vegetables, I realised I needed to include flowers for pest control purposes, like flame coloured calendula, eschscholzia and nasturtiums. Then I moved on to growing other annual flowers to attract pollinators and for bouquets. My success has been mixed. Cosmos, zinnia and cornflower seem quite content in my garden. Some of this year’s new sowings, like ammi visnaga and the perennial feverfew, are also holding their own but unfortunately, the love-in-a-mist and larkspur have not been happy in my back bed. With plenty of seeds left in the packet there is always next year though…
Having grasped the basics of growing annuals (and flowering herbs), I have now set my sights on biennials for two reasons.
Successful vegetable growing in tiny spaces involves starting seedlings off in pots and planting them out just as one crop is harvested or goes to seed in order to maximise yields from a tiny space. Biennials fit nicely into this approach. Just as I am eagerly encouraging the cosmos, cornflower and ammi to produce something that resembles a cottage garden display in the back garden, I have sown trays of biennials on the windowsill to plant out in early autumn (or even next spring) after this year’s flowers have had their day. Many of these will appear in bloom before next year’s annuals burst into colour.
As many of the flowers I love are biennials, I am also simply expanding my horticultural repertoire for aesthetic reasons.
I am sowing golden wallflowers and Iceland poppies for the front garden to complement the calendula, feverfew and fennel. Sweet William and foxglove Alba for the back garden should work with next year’s sowings of cosmos, love-in-a-mist and scabiosa. And a few modules of modesty should produce delicate moon disc seed heads that I can combine with dried love-in-a-mist, poppy and/or fennel seed heads for sculptural winter bunches.
As with annuals, my choice of biennials is hardly groundbreaking. Many of these are typical of a cottage garden but they are so for a reason: they look good and provide an abundant or lasting yield.
I know gardening is not immune to trends and in future seasons I may want to add a new discovery or unusual colour to my established pallet. However, I am discovering that my small garden has a lot in common with a modest wardrobe. In both cases, I like to start with classics that I know will meet my needs and wants. Including foxglove and sweet William in my garden is like keeping a black pencil skirt in my wardrobe and a classic red lipstick in my make-up bag. Although simple, all reliably produce an attractive look, whether as the main focus or in combination with annual flourishes!
I bought all my seeds online from Higgledy Garden, which provides more detailed (i.e. beginner-friendly) growing advice than is normally included on packets.
June 13, 2014 § 2 Comments
In recent years I have developed a bit of a weakness for independent magazines. It started when I stumbled across a copy of Lost in London in one of favourite haberdasheries. Flicking through the pages, I instantly fell in love with it. It featured quaint corners and characters of London, attractive illustrations and best of all, no adverts!
This single copy and the intertwined nature of the digital world led me to other titles and I soon discovered a plethora of indie publishers, producing quirky and classy magazines with original content and few or no adverts. Despite the limited resources of these ‘micro publishers’, independent magazines are no student rags! They are professionally produced by creative, curious minds and feature engaging articles rather than the recycled material and stock photos of many syndicated titles. What is more, they fill a gap by focussing on slow, inquisitive living that is based on experience rather than stuff.
Lost in London
This publication makes me want to jump on my bicycle and explore the dusty and hidden corners of my adopted city!
- In many ways Lost in London‘s contributors are following in the footsteps of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, documenting unexpected wildlife and ecosystems in the capital, from the Tate peregrines to urban meadows. The magazine also devotes many pages to urban growing, guerilla gardening, foraging…
- It is not all about wildlife and the outdoors though. The publication also highlights some of the more quirky crafts and trades that are still being practised in this sprawling metropolis, including blacksmithing, spinning and coppicing.
On the face of it this square bi-monthly looks like a celebration of all things floral and vintage but look deeper and you will find inspiration for “creative and sustainable living inspired by the past”.
- Pretty Nostalgic’s motto is “Spend Wisely, Waste Less and Appreciate More”. By celebrating spirited individuals (like the lady who runs a shop through her living room window), it highlights how joyous and interesting a more considered approach to life can be.
- The magazine is also a curator of useful domestic knowhow, with each issue containing snippets I might have found in my great-grandmother’s battered copy of Enquire Within About Everything, like how to make a cleansing face mask or whip up ice cream without a freezer.
This magazine truly offers an escape: just opening a copy makes me breathe more slowly as it is a sensory volume, printed in slightly muted colours on matte paper with a calming balance of words, photos and space.
- Another Escape also embraces sustainability by focussing on extraordinary people who quietly ply almost forgotten trades or reinvent them for the 21st century, like urban beekeepers, paper makers and charcoal burners.
- With a strong outdoors feel, this beauty makes me want to head off the beaten track to see what inspiring artisans I might stumble across in the more secluded parts of Britain.
Pure Green Magazine
This gorgeous quarterly hails from Canada and is the only foreign title in my list due to the cost of overseas postage.
- Focussing on a different theme per issue, Pure Green Magazine features people who are carving out a slower, greener, gentler way of life, both in the city and the countryside, from a woodworker in Brooklyn to a cheese maker in rural Ontario.
- The range of determined individuals interviewed, from a leather worker to a bitters herbalist, not only highlights that business and slow skills can go hand in hand but also piques my curiosity about materials and knowledge that were common currency only a few generations ago.
Ernest is the newest magazine in my selection but this pocket-sized volume can more than holds its own.
- Whilst Pure Green Magazine and Another Escape have a modern, sleek feel, Ernest can best be described as a printed curiosity cabinet, with its mixture of articles on remote places (like the last fishermen on Scalpay and the wonders of Iceland) and quaint snippets (like the timeless design of storm kettles).
- Aside from curiosity (in both its meanings), there is a strong emphasis on quality, as evidenced by features on the enduring nature of classic rucksacks or traditional tweed garments!
Cost, value and a hint of subversion
If money were no object, I would add Boneshaker (with its random tales of bicycle wanderings) and Boat Magazine (a quirky travel journal focusing on a city per issue). Cost however is a consideration when indulging my weakness for independent magazines. With limited or no advertising revenue and without the economies of scale that syndicated articles and mass print-runs offer, micro publishers have to charge more for their magazines, typically £8 to £12 compared to approximately £5 (although with fewer issues per year the overall cost of subscriptions would work out pretty similar).
So why do I allow myself this expense? Mainly because the curiosity of the editors and original content deliver much better value for money: a good read with timeless articles rather than pages of adverts and bland repetitive snippets. But there is another, slightly subversive reason. As with buying food and other products from small or local producers, supporting these magazines is a way of investing in an alternative economy. Although many independent publications still struggle to cover costs or turn a profit, I like that even a seemingly unimportant purchase is increasingly providing new opportunities, not only for creatives but also for small businesses like printers.
I have not been paid to review or endorse any of these publications.
June 5, 2014 § 2 Comments
Back in August of last year I became an aunt for the first time. As I have never particularly wanted children of my own, I was surprised about the intensity of feelings this new persona would unleash. Maybe it is due to age or the fact that the newest member of our family will have no paternal grandparents. Either way, I am enjoying being an aunt and am revelling in the unexpected joys and insights that this new ‘role’ have afforded me.
My little niece may have arrived in January but I most definitely became an aunt the day my brother and his wife announced they were expecting. From that moment on, my sisterly concern about their general welfare, health, long working hours, stress levels… kicked into a different gear. I telephoned my brother more often, reached out to my sister-in-law more and included the “bump” in my prayers. Of course, I also went into ‘knitting auntie’ mode (as did my sister)!
My brother lives in Ireland so I did not get to meet the baby immediately. As for many dispersed families in this day and age, the first details about the bairn came via text messages and emailed photos. These missives would have to keep me and my siblings going until the christening.
Unexpectedly, through a cruel twist of fate, I met the little lady at six weeks when I travelled to Ireland for the funeral of my sister-in-law’s father. I still remember my first glimpse of my niece. My brother and his wife were picking me up at the hotel to travel on to the funeral. As I came down a sweeping staircase into the foyer, I spotted a strong chap with a tiny baby in the crook of his arm. My heart swelled with joy! I had hoped to be charmed by my niece but had not expected to be overwhelmed by love for my brother. Seeing somebody I had known all my life, from cheeky boy through strapping rugby-playing student to confident professional, in the new role of father choked me up.
At that moment I realised, becoming an aunt is not just about the child – no matter how much this baby charmed her way into my heart! Thanks to this little girl I would get to know a whole new side of my siblings as they, like me, grow into their persona of father, uncle and aunt.
It occurred to me that in the past six months there had been another angle to the telephone conversations with my siblings. The expectation and then arrival of the little bairn had triggered new questions, shared trips down memory lane and an expression of hopes and wishes for the newcomer. Even discussions with my sister about the general state of the world took on an extra dimension. Suddenly we were considering social and economic issues through another prism. What type of world would our brother’s child grow up in?
Despite the geographic distance I really want to be part of my niece’s life. Many would consider this entirely natural but having never felt the need to perpetuate my genetic material, I was surprised by the intensity of this desire. Pondering over ways that I could share time, experiences and memories with her, I realised yet again what family means to me.
For me, the ties that bind me and my siblings are not blood lineage, DNA, inherited physical features… but the values that our parents instilled in us, which equipped us to navigate the highs and lows of life, and a level of understanding that comes from shared experiences that are unique to us.
I long to be part of my niece’s life as I would like to help pass on the quirky, colourful, precious non-genetic material that made us a real family. Through memories and stories of my parents, our childhood and my oddball life, I want to help fill this little girl’s life with wonder, foster her curiosity, encourage her eccentricities, reassure her that it is okay to march to the beat of her own drum, deepen her sense of humour, compassion and kindness… In short, I want to share my parents’ precious and abundant legacy with her!