Sometimes you can’t be there for your kids.

‘Sint Maarten,’ explains our nanny, ‘is like the Dutch Halloween.’  It has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween of course, instead, it celebrates Saint Martin, a man who took his sword to his cloak, slicing in half, so that he might share it, along with his bread with a cold and hungry beggar he met on the road.  

During the day, children make lanterns and when the sun sets, they take their lanterns out onto the street and go from door to door, singing songs to their neighbors in exchange for treats.  I didn’t love the idea of all of the treats, but I did love the idea of the festival.  I wrote the date on the calendar and then of course, promptly forgot it.  

‘I thought we could go away for the weekend for your birthday,’ I say to my husband.  He doesn’t really care for birthdays, especially his own, and generally, prefers to be on a plane heading somewhere.  For the last four years, he has managed to be on a plane, away from his family.  I love birthdays, but his general disregard for them, along with his tendency to just buy whatever he wants, makes him incredibly difficult to buy for.  So this year, I figured I’d come up with a winner.  This year, I would take him away for his birthday.  That way he would be on a plane, we would get to do something fun, and I’d actually get to celebrate his birthday with him.  Which he would hate, but I would love.  ‘I was thinking we could go to Bucharest,’ I continue, knowing that it was one place he had not been and really wanted to go to.  

‘I was thinking we could go to Bucharest,’ I continue, knowing that it was one place he had not been and really wanted to go to.  

‘Too cold,’ he says, not looking up from his laptop where he is busily typing emails.

I close off all of the open tabs I have for hotels, restaurants and things to do.

‘Maybe we could go to that detox place Jeroen went to.  In Spain.’  Jeroen is someone he works with, and he had come back after four days away raving about this retreat.  My husband loves a retreat.  Somewhere that feels luxurious where he can practice yoga, get daily massages and ideally fast and get colonics.  Not exactly my idea of a good time.

‘Sure…’ I say, figuring I could opt out of the colonics and join him for the massages.

We settle on a place, book the accommodation, book the flights, and organize for our nanny to stay the weekend with the girls.  Everything is set.

My husband’s birthday, it turns out, is the same day as Sint Maarten.  By the time I realise everything is booked.  It is too late.  So I am in sunny Spain when my girls are making lanterns.  I am singing happy birthday with the waitress who has just presented my husband with a candle-lit chocolate cake for his birthday when my girls join the neighborhood kids and sing the Sint Maarten songs to everyone who answers their door.  I am not there to see my eldest’s face light up with delight at all the candy.  I am not there when my youngest, decides she is tired and cold and wants to go home three houses in.  

‘Look,’ I say, showing my husband the photos of the girls as they appear on WhatsApp.  

‘Nice,’ he says, without a second thought.

‘I’m sad.’

‘Why?’ he asks, genuinely confused.

‘Because we’re missing it.’  I wanted to be part of that memory, part of that experience.  It was the same way I’d felt when Mum had sent me the video of my eldest crawling for the first time.  I had barely left her side for more than an hour since she had been born, and she chose the one afternoon Mum had sent me away to buy some clothes that would actually fit, to crawl.   I felt sad and guilty and bad, as though I were committing a major parenting offense.  

‘I don’t,’ he says, completely unfazed and unemotional.  Sometimes I envy him that detachment.  The complete freedom he feels to just do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.  If he was there to share it with them great, if he wasn’t, great.  

Two days later, Sinterklaas arrives.  

‘The girls are making pictures for Sinterklaas to put in their shoe for when Sinterklaas comes tonight,’ messages our nanny while we are waiting at the airport.  

‘I thought Sinterklaas doesn’t come until the 5th December,’ I type back quickly, suddenly confused.  ‘Everything I read said that the shoes were set out on the night of the 5th,’  I say to my husband, as though there were something he could do about it. He shrugs, still nonplussed.  

‘Doesn’t this bother you at all?’ 

‘No.’

‘He arrives in the Netherlands today, but his birthday is the 5th December.’  Says the message from our nanny.  ‘They get the big presents on the 5th.’  

As we board our flight, my phone beeps.  A photo of the girls’ shoes lined up neatly in front of the fireplace, scrolls of drawings tied with ribbon poking out of each shoe.  Next to the shoes sit a block of chocolate for Sinterklaas and an apple and some water for his horse.   It’s darling and I want to cry.

At home, I ditch my bag and race up the stairs to my secret present cupboard, the one I’ve been filling since September.  Christmas thrills me and I select a necklace and bracelet, for each of the girls, some stickers, and new crayons.  Then I sneak back down the stairs.  I take a few bites out of the apple, eat several squares of chocolate, the same way my Mum did when I was young, and become part of an age-old tradition that keeps the magic of childhood alive.  

I take the drawings out and unravel them. Avarose looks as though she’s picked up whichever crayon was nearest to her and scribbled about on the page.  There is brown and blue and a little green.  It looks like she became bored quickly.  Grace meanwhile, has colored every inch of the page.  There is pink and purple and blue and yellow around the border and a picture in the middle, Sinterklaas maybe, and possibly his horse, Amerigo.  Maybe that’s what Avarose was drawing too.  I replace them with the beaded necklaces and bracelets, some stickers and new crayons.  Their favorite things at the moment.  Then I tiptoe back down the stairs to bed, impatient for the morning.

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On Coming to Terms with Your Inner Perfectionist

Thursday before the light festival, I look out the window at our courtyard.  It is filled with autumn leaves.  In my head, I see my girls and I out there, cleaning up the garden, raking up the leaves and then jumping in them again (cue schmaltzy music), before finally lighting a fire in the fire pit to toast marshmallows and celebrate the end of Samhain.  It’s so idyllic I can barely stand myself. 

I’ve a bee in my bonnet about festivals and establishing our family culture through celebrations that reconnect us with nature’s rhythms and cycles.  Probably it’s because I feel disconnected from them.  Days and weeks flow by, and I feel caught up like on a treadmill, with so much doing.  Summer flies by, turns into autumn and before I know it, winter is here, and I feel like I’ve forgotten to make time to connect with any of it.

Of course, this is not entirely true. The girls and I spent much of this summer climbing trees and riding our bikes.  We’ve spent time at the beach, and swum, and collected shells, and we’ve made sandcastles.  This autumn, we have collected autumn leaves, we have danced in them, and rolled in them, and thrown them about.  We have cooked pumpkins and baked muffins and explored painting in autumnal colours.  Yet my inner perfectionist is still not pleased, it’s not enough.       

When Sunday finally arrives though, we are sick, and tired, and ratty.  My husband is due home this morning, but his flight has been delayed.  He’s been gone a week, and I’ve slept maybe 12 hours over the course of the week.  Nothing has gone to plan, but still, I am holding fast to the idea that our family will have a magical time around the fire pit this afternoon.  Instead it drizzles all afternoon, and all my girls wind up doing is snuggling up under blankets reading books and drawing. 

It is lovely but it is not a fire. 

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Flowers, candles, cards and chestnuts. Celebrating death and celebrating Life.

It is the Day of the Dead, and it is pouring with rain.  My phone beeps with a message from our AuPair, who was leading us in this Peruvian celebration.  She is not coming.  I contemplate cancelling.  Maybe it is a ridiculously morbid idea to drag two young children to a cemetery for a picnic.   When I’d told my husband about it, he did the weird flappy thing about his ears that he does when he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying.  He is terrified of death, and absolutely avoids any talk about it.  I have been trying to have the conversation about who would take care of our girls should something happen to us both.  I’ve been trying to have it since our eldest was a few months old.  She turned five this year.  He still cannot have it.  

When I’d told my husband about it, he did the weird flappy thing about his ears that he does when he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying.  He is terrified of death, and absolutely avoids any talk about it.  I have been trying to have the conversation about who would take care of our girls should something happen to us both.  I’ve been trying to have it since our eldest was a few months old.  She turned five this year.  He still cannot have it.  

‘But we all die,’ I say, trying to understand him.

‘I’m not going to,’ 

I raise my eyes sceptically.

‘I’m going to be frozen, then when technology has advanced they can bring me back.’ 

His answer is so much worse than I thought it was going to be.  ‘Like Disney?’ I ask.

‘Exactly.’

‘But we’ll all be dead.’

‘That’s okay, I’ll just start again.’

‘Glad we can be so easily replaced,’ I laugh.

My tin man shrugs.  

‘Don’t you need to be frozen alive though?’

‘No, they’ll have figured that all out by then.’

‘Will they?’ I ask, curious about this new future world he thinks will be waiting for him.  

‘Yes, I’m going to come back when it’s like Star Trek, and I can travel the universe visiting other planets and galaxies.’

I’ve heard this speech more than once now, and I still do not know what to do with it.

As rain fills the streets, I ask our nanny ‘Should we still go to the cemetery?’ 

She looks up Buienradar, the weather app that governs our lives, she shrugs, ‘it’s going to rain on and off, but if we rug up and take our umbrellas…’

‘How bad can it be…?’ I finish for her.

So we go.  The girls climb into the bike, I secure the cover and our nanny and I follow google maps through parts of Amsterdam I’ve never seen.  We pass a skatepark and I drop a star, we’ve been looking for one ever since the girls got their scooters.  We ride through a really picturesque neighbourhood, and I drop another star.  Just in case my husband and I decide to live out our current fantasy about staying in Amsterdam inevitably.  

At the cemetery, my phone switches itself off.  It still has 23% battery and I’m determined not to make anything of it.   How bad can it be…?

We collect our picnic, paper, pencils, flowers and candles and walk into the cemetery.  The rain has stopped and there is nothing but blue skies and sunshine.  The russet oak leaves glow in the sunlight, and we make our picnic under a tree with leaves that look like fingers.  

‘It’s a, a, …castagne tree, oh I can’t think of the name in English,’  she says, bringing her hand to her face.
‘A chestnut tree?’ 

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘is it the same in English?’

‘No, but it’s the same in Italian.’  

There’s something really lovely about trying to communicate in different languages.  It’s like playing a game of charades, only I really can’t draw.  

The girls eat their snacks, draw their pictures for Gigi and then pick a tree to bury our letters under.   

A leaf mulching tractor screams its way down the path, and my eldest jumps up onto the park bench and refuses to get down.  I love that being in a cemetery doesn’t phase her, but the leaf mulcher does.  It takes me five minutes to convince her the tractor is not coming back before she finally climbs down from the chair. 

The girls race around delivering flowers to the different graves around us.  They pick up the plastic vases that are on offer and proudly fill them up at the tap on their own.  It’s possible they are having more fun filling the vases than decorating the graves.  My youngest pushes her vases in next to her

My youngest pushes her vases in next to her sisters so that we have about three graves that are very well decorated.  I stifle the urge to move the vases.

My eldest discovers the fallen chestnuts and dumps the rest of the flowers unceremoniously into the vase before racing to fill every container and bag we have with chestnuts to roast on the fire later.

There is something lovely about collecting the fallen treats, a symbolic representation of life’s cycle perhaps, and a reminder of the indefatigability of life.   It was the same feeling I’d had when the girls and I visited the monument to the 6000 murdered Jews in Berlin last year.  A place that you would expect to be incredibly somber, and yet, the site remains my children’s favorite ‘playground’ in Berlin.  Flashes of pink appearing between the grey pillars that from the outside all appear the same height, but from the inside tower at differing heights as the uneven ground rises and falls in undulating waves.  Parents chased giggles as kids disappeared, then reappeared and then disappeared again. 

Having celebrated both life and death, we piled ourselves, and our basket now overflowing with chestnuts, back into the bike and attempted to find our way home.  Inexplicably, my phone turned itself back on.  As the rain poured down on top of us, we peddalled as fast as we could, our hats jammed down over our heads, feeling a little more alive, than we had that morning.

How do you celebrate the Day of the Dead?

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As the veil between this world and the next closes, who are you thinking of?

For the last few months, my eldest has been interested in death.  Every time she opens up the photo book my Mum made her for her first birthday to the page with my Grandmother, she asks the same question.

‘That’s Gigi isn’t it.’

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘Gigi isn’t alive anymore is she?’

‘No,’ I say, smiling at the last photograph I have of my grandmother.  It was taken at my brother’s 30th birthday party, just six weeks before my grandmother died.  She was holding my daughter, she looked awkward and sad as if she knew what was coming even if we didn’t.  But she was smiling too, a brave smile. ‘She died when you were only four months old.’

‘Can we do something for her?’ she asks. I can see her mind trying to grapple with the ineffableness of death.  What is it?  What does it mean?  Where do people go?  She’s not asking these questions yet, but I know they are coming.  I recognise the anxiety she has.  It flares up at night when the world is quiet and the shadows come out to play.  That’s when mine flares up too.  I’ve always been terrified of death, for as far back as I can remember.  When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember waking up inconsolable from a dream.  In it, I’d watched my entire life, myself as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, getting married, having children, having grandchildren, a long and glorious life, over in a flash.  ‘It’s so quick,’ I remember saying over and over to my Mum.  ‘Then it’s all over.’

‘Of course, we can do something for her,’ I say, hugging her tight.  ‘I think that’s an excellent idea.’  I often think about my Grandmother.  I think about the terrible sadness that shadowed so much of her life, and the soul-destroying anxiety that plagued her, till her last day. My grandmother was cremated, and I have some of her ashes in a small urn.  They used to sit in my kitchen in Melbourne, we’d bring her out at family dinners so she could be part of the fun.  Morbid, but it would have made her laugh.  Her urn is in storage now.  If I’d known we wouldn’t be back to Melbourne for this long, I would have brought her with me.  She loved to travel, she loved adventure and I know she would have loved the house we are living in at the moment.  I would have liked to spread her ashes in all the different places we visited.

My grandmother was cremated, and I have some of her ashes in a small urn.  They used to sit in my kitchen in Melbourne, we’d bring her out at family dinners so she could be part of the fun.  Morbid, but it would have made her laugh.  Her urn is holidaying at my Mum’s.  If I’d known we wouldn’t be back to Melbourne for this long, I would have brought her with me.  She loved to travel, she loved adventure and I know she would have loved the house we are living in at the moment.  I would have liked to spread her ashes in all the different places we visited.

Our AuPair is from Peru.  ‘November 2nd is the day of the dead,’  I tell her.  ‘But I don’t know anything about it.’

‘It’s a big celebration in Peru,’ she says, pushing her wild, dark curls back from her face.  Her dark brown eyes light up, as she talks about how her family would get together in the morning to prepare for the day.  Together they would bake bread, with fruit inside for luck, they would make candles, and tie dozens of posies, and then they would all sit quietly writing their letters to their dead.  ‘Then we take a picnic and wine, lots of wine, the wine is very important, and we all go down to the cemetery and have a party.’

‘And you decorate the graves with the flowers and the candles?’

‘Yes,’ she laughs, ‘we leave flowers on the graves of people who don’t have anyone to celebrate them, and we light candles, and we drink.’

‘We could do that, maybe without the alcohol, we could have kombucha and mineral water instead!  But we could definitely make candles, and posies and have a picnic at the cemetery.’  I google the nearest cemetery and find that it is only a 20-minute bike ride away.  I really like cemeteries, I’ve always had a weird fascination for them.  For the stories they tell. The lives that have been lived that I know nothing about.  I used to spend hours walking around Melbourne cemetery when I lived in Carlton North.

‘What if we draw a picture for Gigi?’ I say to my eldest, who is busy playing shops with her sister, ‘and then we make a picnic to take to the cemetery and we bury it there, as a way to let her know we are thinking about her.’

My daughter’s smile grows wide, ‘Yes, let’s do that,’ she says so enthusiastically her sister begins to cheer also, despite not really knowing what we are talking about.

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Our First Halloween

‘Mama, I need green,’ says my eldest as she cuts the paper plate into a circle. 
We tape the black hat and orange paper hands she had already cut out, onto the plate to make the witches hair, and then she draws a face, with a big pointy nose.  For some reason, witches have pointy noses.
‘There!’ She says with pride, sticking it to the wall. 

It is the first Halloween we have celebrated.  My daughter’s teacher is American, and so we are learning to embrace American culture as well as Dutch, and Peruvian.  Ignoring my daughter’s tendency to pronounce ‘tomato’ with a short a, rather than the longer ah sound that I am used to, this multicultural approach to living is proving to be richly rewarding and a whole lot of fun.   

Our house is now completely overrun with pumpkins, toilet-roll bats and paper-doll ‘ghosties’. 

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Our First Spring Easter

Easter has become a bit of a non-event in our little family. For the last few years, we’ve been away, usually in Bali. It hasn’t always been that way, at least not in the family I grew up in. Our easter, or the ones I remember, usually involved a ridiculously large number of eggs hidden around the house and in the garden, a pairing off into teams, where one member holds the spectacularly festive white plastic bag and points out eggs that they spot, while the other, kindly goes and fetches said eggs. In the original version of the game, it’s all very pleasant, and everyone has a lovely time collecting eggs, trying to best the other teams and come out the victor with the large chocolate bunny prize. Over the years, the besting got a little more savage, the game a little more rough and tumble, there may or may not have been tears, and if I recall correctly, one year the large chocolate bunny prize was claimed early and may or may not have lost its ears. That may have also been the same year two of my brothers decided that anything in the kitchen was fair game and emptied the biscuit tin and an assortment of other household goods into their plastic bag.

But all of that was beside the point because the main point of easter, beyond the celebration of spring – even though it was autumn, and the thing about Jesus coming back from the dead, is that after all of the easter eggs are sorted and divided equally between all the players the real game begins. We open the trading floor, and the eggs are traded at prices determined by want and need. A simple supply and demand issue. The Wolf of Wall Street wouldn’t survive a minute in our house.

So it was always a little sad for me, that my husband never wanted to participate in the games and instead booked our annual holiday at this time. Some years the family rescheduled easter, that way people could make the most of the public holiday and still celebrate the festivities. Slowly though, life got in the way, and the whole thing kind of faded a little. Since having kids though, I’ve wanted to celebrate easter and all of the crazy shenanigans it has become to include. I want it to be something they grow up with too

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