Milestones, Memory and Loss
Updated: Aug 10
Our lives are measured in milestones: finishing school, getting your first job, the first kisses, and moving away from home. We move from one to the next and the next, and measure our "progress" through life by how many milestones we have hit compared to our peers and the expectation of our age. But these milestones are a bit of a lie, they are superficial, the real events that shift our lives and outlooks irrevocably are those moments that shake the equilibrium of our experiences, rather than just achievements.
Let me explain. My childhood wasn't a very grounded one. My parents split before I was 3 and by the time I was 7 I had moved house six times, gained two step-parents and gained seven siblings. It wasn't bad, but it was always in flux. But a few things were always constant, one being two cats- Oscar and Charlie. They are parts of my earliest memories, constants that stayed the same throughout all these changes until they weren't. Oscar died first, and a few years later, so did Charlie, and after they were both gone I felt a connection to my childhood end - the constant had been removed, the link severed and my world changed.
Another constant has always been my grandparents. Over the years I have lived in their homes, gone on holiday with them and spent a lot of quality time with them that others my age don't seemed to have shared with their own grandparents. They were fixed points in my life, seemingly ageless and full of love. I lost my nan at the end of last year, and to say it was a shattering event would be an understatement. It felt like a pillar of my life had been taken away from right under me, and so many of my memories of her now have a bitter edge to them. Three keep coming back to me, and on reflection, each one ties into a part of my life that is foundational to who I am today:
The first involves music: Both of my grandad's are musical, one plays the organ and the other the harmonica. The harmonica has always fascinated me, and I was amazed at how my grandad could get the notes he wanted out of it - it seemed like magic. One very cold and snowy night, I was sleeping over at my grandparents house, and I was running around grandparent's blowing furiously into the harmonica making such a racket that the cats had decided to brave the snow rather than my noise. My nan took the harmonica from me, gave it to my grandad and asked him to play something. He spent the next hour teaching me the hymn The Holly and The Ivy and once I got the lyrics down she gave me a small silver bell in the shape of a milkmaid that had belonged to her mother. She then found herself a small plastic McDonalds panflute, and as my grandad played I started to sing and ring the bell, she made random noises from the flute. We sounded awful, but we were all laughing, her hardest of all, and since then she kept the flute and the silver bell in the same place in her display case.
The second is one of my earliest memories of reading and creative writing: Yet again, a sleepover. I'm tucked in bed and can't sleep because I'm scared of the dolls in the corner of the room. We had a collection of small books, each one retelling the story of a Disney film. She read Aladdin to me, then the little mermaid, and by the time we got to hunchback I was reading to her. I decided I didn't like the story. I started telling her my own version, and she just nodded along and agreed with me. She finally got tired and took the doll out of the room with her (something she could have done a good hour before). Did I go to sleep after that? Course not - I found a pen and started scribbling my version of the story into the book. I found it a few years ago - the story was awful, but it set me on the way to where I am now.
The third, of course, involves food: Imagine, if you will, a grumpy eight-year-old who has just been picked up from school after a particularly traumatic PE lesson. I was being awful, stroppy and grumpy. My grandparents tried their best to cheer me up, but nothing was working, as far as I was concerned my life was over. I just sat there watching Emmerdale. She was out cooking in the kitchen, and the next memory, although insignificant in the grand scheme of things has stuck with me since. The news had just turned on, and Fred from How2 was presenting. It was about floods somewhere, but I was interrupted by my nan gave me a tray of food, not the burgers I was expecting, but something new and comforting - a hotpot. It was so good, that I asked for the recipe, and as far as I can tell, it's the first recipe that I had ever asked for. Obviously I've kept it till this day.
Three small memories, but three foundational ones. We're not too far from the end of this year and the first anniversary of her death, and to say it doesn't still hurt would be a lie. I get upset every time I speak to or see one of my remaining grandparents - every interaction has this doomed feeling to it, and deep down the fear of more loss is terrifying. I have met another milestone, I'm moving into that stage of adulthood where the last feelings of invincibility from childhood are being stripped away. Death is more real than ever, but my feelings of despair and fear about it are gone. I believe that everyone dies twice - the first time when their heart stops beating, and the second when their name is uttered or read for the last time. Once our lives end, we exist only in the memories of others, and by committing these memories to the internet they may indeed outlive me, and the name of Barbara Clarke could still be floating around way after I am gone. 2020 has been a horrific year, so many have lost so much, and I hope this is a milestone in our culture - one that makes us more compassionate and pulls us out of the cloud of individualism and into a place where society works for everyone and not just a few.
A wise greek once said that :
“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
Was I gonna share the recipe? Course I was.
4 large potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
4 carrots, sliced
2 onions, thickly sliced
1 leek, sliced
300g garden peas
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1 Tbsp dried rosemary
2 pints chicken stock
1 Tbsp cornflour
Knob of butter
Preheat oven to 200° c.
Put the chicken carrot, leek, peas and onion into a casserole dish.add the herbs and garlic and mix well.
Mix the cornflour with a little cold water and pour into the chicken stock.
Pour over the chicken and veg to just cover
Layer the potatoes on top, and brush with a bit of butter
Put in the oven for 25 - 40 minutes or until the potatoes have become crisp.