Charlotte's Web

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Catching a Feeling

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Eve has asked her readers to write about their childhood. I thought I would give it a try, because I can’t resist a challenge that is as well-written as this:

If you read here regularly, I wonder if you’d indulge me by thinking about your own childhoods, going back to the flow of days during which nothing much happened, but when the passing of time nurtured and fed you. You’ll know which days I mean by finding strings of days, days on end, whose memory causes a wave of nostalgia to overcome you. Days that now fill you with longing, or a pang of loss, deep joy, or deep gratitude. Sometimes you may think of them and feel great sorrow over something you’ve lost. Maybe it was days you spent with your grandparents, or days you spent at home doing nothing; a day with your brother or sister, a family vacation. Think back to the hours or days when life felt like an afternoon in a hammock, or time on a quilt under a tree with your very best friend.

Think about it, or feel your way back to it, and write it out for yourself. I don’t mean you have to write about it here, as a comment, or even on your own blog; but I do want you to write about it. Get it down somehow when your level of feeling or emotion (affect) rises up and squeezes you in the middle of your chest, right around your heart, and you begin to feel a little weepy or giddy. Right . . . there. That’s the part we want. Catch it like a firefly in a jar, and get very close to that feeling, and then write about it. Write it all out, the memories surrounding it: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what it smelled, tasted, and sounded like there; how long did it last?

The Angel in the Garden

When my father left in a storm of self-justification and golf clubs, my grandmother moved into the cottage at the bottom of our garden. It was like having an angel of our own living there. My brother and I would wake in the morning and race our beaten path to her front door, where she would open up, catch us in her arms and breathe, “Hello my darlings!” as if she hadn’t seen us for a month. While my mother was dealing with her own pain and sorrow, and gradually finding her way back to herself, my grandmother gathered us into a gentle place of wonder that offered us refuge from our pain. She had a naivete that spoke to my child’s heart, and taught us how to be silent and listen to the self within, how to shape clouds, how to appreciate an egg sandwich, to believe in fairies. Under her guidance, I developed an interest in other realms and soon our garden became, for me, a magical fairyland that was bustling with activity and solace from the pain of my parent’s separation.

This fairyland was closely tied with the plant life in the garden, starting with the enormous camphor tree that towered over us like a gentle giant. I climbed into his arms, and found comfort there, staring at the leaf patterns and imagining myself on a ship sailing across oceans, or in a palace, or in village of busy elves. I lost time there as I watched ants trace paths across the tree’s rippled bark, or listened to the doves high above, or felt the wind sough mournfully in the branches. The tree reflected my mood: he was sad if I was sad, content if I was so, but his depth of feeling was so great that after a while I could bear his compassion no longer and had to seek more light-hearted magic elsewhere.

Ivy covered the camphor tree’s earthbound roots – the perfect place for fairies to cavort. I imagined them climbing the roots and chasing each other under the green pointed umbrellas of ivy leaves. The Japanese anenomes planted nearby were special since they flowered around my mother’s birthday, and their ivory petals and fluffy yellow centres brought to mind elegant fairy princesses, wafting through my fairyland in white gowns with golden crowns. They were beautiful, and slightly removed, rather like my mother, and I couldn’t spend too much time with them without the sadness edging in.

Following the path of the anenomes, I would arrive at a bed of flowers planted by my mother that curved out into the garden like a headland or peninsula. This buttress was seldom shadowed by the tree, so it was a sunny place for both children and fairies. Roses encouraged the arrival of pink and white fairies, bold and laughing. They were enticed by the dripping tap that stood in the flower-bed, and would recline underneath the tiny waterfall and catch drips directly into their mouths. The tap also attracted an old fat frog, who croaked grumpily as dusk fell. Here in this sunny bed, I created fairy gardens, small flat patches of earth, surrounded by stone walls and decorated with flower furniture. I knew that when the moon rose and I was in bed, the fairies would be sleeping on an azalea or camellia petal and thanking me for their comfort.

Following the bed, I came up against a wooden fence, behind which lived our mad and muttering neighbour and her barking dog. If I came too close to the fence, the dog would unleash its volley of angry remarks and I would have to retreat to underneath the lemon tree for safety. It was fragrant and citrussy there, but the ground beneath was littered with rotting lemons which were revolting if I stood on them with bare feet.

Behind the lemon tree was a green wire fence covered with jasmine, and behind that a lowered area where our maid washed and hung the washing to dry. I would climb the fence, sit on the hot and crumbling stairs and watch in a dream as the washing swirled on the windy drier. The maid lived there too, in a room that smelled of soap, sweat and putu – the porridge that she liked to eat and sometimes shared with me, if I was lucky. There weren’t fairies here – it was somehow too jagged a place – but her bed was on bricks in case of the tokoloshe. There was mystery in the bamboo fence below her khaya that separated our house from those neighbours. I could walk between the tall bamboo and the fence, and be transported to a world where plants were huge and people tiny.

Following this fence, I would come upon a green patch of lawn where our jungle gym had once stood, before it grew rickety and dangerous and had to be taken away. There was my grandmother’s cottage, with the door always open. She would be reading, or painting, or gently napping, but was always welcoming to her small visitors and would find us a piece of hazelnut chocolate from her secret stash. In front of the cottage stood a bank of strelitzias, flowers which my mother dismissed as ugly and African, but which were fascinatingly bird-like. I could crawl under the bushes and hide there, enjoying the feeling of separate nearness to my family. Usually the corgi, Muffin, would snuffle me out or my little brother would crash in, demanding that I play a game with him.

Sometimes my grandmother would get a blanket and we would lie on the sunny grass, looking up at the clouds. She would show us how to shape clouds, and we would get lost in the mystery of the sky. I think both my brother and I learnt early, and from her, to take responsibility for the shape of our lives. We were taught not to feel buffetted by fate, but that our thoughts could shape our lives and that every event, no matter how sad or sick inside it made us feel, happened for a reason. Then our mother would bring out a tray of a tea and biscuits, I would put the tea cosy on my head to make everyone laugh and my brother would run off to hit a tennis ball against the wall, all life’s lessons forgotten.

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Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

23 thoughts on “Catching a Feeling

  1. I just stumbled upon this post and was really touched by your writing about your childhood memory.

  2. Hi, Alexandra, thanks for coming by and commenting.

  3. What a lovely childhood you had Charlotte. Not much wonder you are such a free spirit. I notice too how the number and type of categories has expanded in the past weeks and you enter new territory.

  4. When I dream,
    I dream of childhood.
    And when I dream of you,
    We are children again.
    You in the fig tree above my head,
    And me, messing in the yard below.
    Can we not go back there,
    And stay there for ever and ever?

  5. Charlotte,

    You write so beautifully. Trees to climb, gardens to roam in and laundry hanging in the breeze, these really are the magical things of childhood. They are so simple, yet so sublime. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  6. Dearest Charl… simply beautiful… my chest shudders when I read your work…
    xxxx Tanya

  7. What a beautifully written response to a lovely challenge. It’s so weird because I have been thinking along these lines lately, especially since I am reading annie dillard’s An American Childhood – her memoir really takes me back to the days of being a child, as do some of the more childish things I’ve been doing recently…riding my bike, eating watermelon, etc. Your childhood seems exotic, like something I would read about in a book.
    I think I will have to try my hand at this one!

  8. That was lovely. What a wonderful thing it was to have grandmother right there!

    (I never liked strelizias either, though this last spring the kids discovered one on our trip to L.A. (where they grow quite nicely) and were entranced by its shape and the intense colors.)

  9. How very fortunate to have a wonderful grandmother like that to take up the slack while your mother was recovering. Beautifully written, as ever, Charlotte, and very evocative.

  10. Beautiful, Charlotte! I remember our garden as being our kingdom – huge coral trees with lucky beans to collect, but useless for climbing with their thorns. A special “cave” on the rockery, made by the protective leaves of what my father used to call the castor oil tree – who knows what it really was – where my brother and I used to go and play house. Frangipani flowers to collect, and golden shower creeper flows to make into bracelets.

    How wonderful that you had such a close relationship with your grandmother – I never met my maternal grandmother and have only vague memories of my dad’s mother.

  11. Absolutely gorgeous. I had my own fairy ring at my grandmother’s farm as well. We are going there tomorrow (no one lives there now) and I will have to see if it’s still there.

  12. This piece really captures a moment suspended in time. I felt transported there with words that awakened all my 5 senses, the beauty of your childhood garden, the imagination of a little girl, the tastes of hazelnut chocolate and egg sandwiches and the sounds of the fat frog croaking at dusk. I was touched by the strength of your Grandmother who, while providing refuge for her grandchildren and support to her daughter, must have been feeling a sense of heartbreak too. These are the qualities of Angels! Fantastically written.

  13. Beautiful! I just love your fairyland.

  14. This is so lovely. I am crying because I miss my Grandma. I used to leave presents for the fairies in her garden. I wish I remembered Africa as clearly as you do.

  15. Charlotte, I loved the way you described your fairyland and your memories of that time in such a beautiful way.

  16. Charlotte, this was lovely to read. The start is wonderful, too… your father leaving in a storm of golf clubs. How brilliant is that? Well written, and I can see you clowning with the tea cosy on your head.

    Thank you so much for indulging me and sharing with all of us. *hugs*

  17. Loved this Charl.

  18. Very nice. I enjoyed reading this, and having the vicarious joy of a lovely, halcyon childhood. Reading the challenge was challenging for me, though. I do not have the experiences that make it possible to look back on my childhood and find days that were like being in a hammock. A description of my childhood would be harrowing indeed, and so perhaps I will pass on this one. It may be more than people want to know. But so lucky for you to be so loved. Thank you for sharing such beauty and love with us, to give us a vision of what it should have been like. How strange that words have again provided me with such healing; while I was going through my childhood the books I read taught me that what I was enduring was not the way it was “supposed” to be.

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  20. Dreamily written. I feel as though I was a shadow there – just behind but able to see and feel all.

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  23. I’m even more in love with your grandmother now – not sure why but I missed this post first time round – so glad you linked back to it – a wonderful evocative picture of how imagination sensitively guided can heal and sustain.

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