The runaway parents’ club

There are several stages of parenting, and you tend to share them with your girlfriends. The excitement of the first pregnancy scan, the birth, followed by the toddler stage, comparing first steps and first words, the funny things they say, the adorable things they do. Then comes the (mainly) harmless pre-pubescent stage and finally the bit we all dread that bridges childhood and adulthood. Yep, the teenage years.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but as the mother of a couple of girls who were nicknamed the ferals by a close friend back in 2008, I predicted it wouldn’t be easy.
It is not, but as with the other parenting stages, I am not alone. A lot of my friends are going through similar (and worse) things than I am. One friend had her car stolen, driven all over the county and dumped in a field, filthy and rather predictably out of petrol. Another left her daughter staying with friends while she went abroad for a few days. When she got back the daughter had hosted an enormous party, trashed the house (including a broken floor, I mean how the hell do you do that?!), drunk everything that even resembled alcohol and even managed to damage the next door neighbour’s place.
As I lay in bed last night fuming over the injustices linked to being the parent of a teenager and wondering if I could run away from home, I had an idea.
As my heroine Nora Ephron was fond of saying: “Everything is copy.” There was a film in 1996 starring Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler called The First Wives Club. imgres
It tells the story of three friends whose husbands have all left them for younger women. The first wives plot their revenge with hilarious consequences. How about a similar film about three friends whose teenagers have ritually abused them, trashed their homes, flunked out of school, stolen from them (I could go on) plotting how to finally get control of their offspring?
I imagine something like a kidnap where the three teenagers are whisked off to some awful boot-camp in Wales by the mothers all wearing cat-woman type disguises, armed with whips and Taser guns.
Here the adolescents are subjected to the kind of things they subject their parents to on a daily basis, as well as some rigorous exercise, hideous arithmetic and French verbs thrown in for good measure, possibly even the odd (fake of course) life-threatening situation. When they eventually “escape” (also part of the mothers’ plot) and get home they are so grateful to be there they are utter lambs.
And at any sign of dissent the mothers have only to drop the word ‘Wales’ into the conversation to trigger terrible flashbacks…

Happy Birthday dear Biologico

24598_101777316529563_3127801_nToday is my father’s birthday. Or at least it would have been, but he died in January 2014.
I didn’t really know him until I was a teenager. My mother and he split up when I was two. She and I moved to Sweden then England and we had no contact with him until we went back to Italy over ten years later. When he first met me after all that time, he was disappointed. I didn’t speak Italian, I had no idea who Dante was, and my hero was John Travolta. “I see you have inherited my looks and your mother’s brains, a most unfortunate way for things to have turned out,” was one of the first things he said to me. It seemed too late to call him ‘daddy’ so he became ‘biologico’ for obvious reasons.
He was not the most patient man, and this was before the days when children had any say in their upbringing whatsoever. Our first few years together were spent battling . Him battling to make me more intelligent, me battling to remain in the mediocrity I felt comfortable with. I am now struggling with a similar situation, trying to stop my own teenage daughter from being as stupid as I was.
At the time of course I was sure he was wrong, that how one spoke was irrelevant, that learning Dante was utterly ridiculous and that there was no real reason to read books or stop smoking. But now on his birthday I look back on all his efforts as a kind of gift. I never did learn the Divine Comedy off by heart (as he did) but I am glad that he at least opened my eyes to a world above John Travolta, smoking cigarettes and ghastly pop music.
I guess that is all you can do with children, show them what’s out there, and hope they pick up on it. Even if it takes several years for the message to get through. Sometimes it probably doesn’t even get through.1008974_655292077863679_1983957060_o
As Dorothy Parker put it so well while on a quiz show trying to use the word horticulture in a sentence: “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”
I wish he were here today of course, I would phone him up and wish him Happy Birthday, he would immediately be able to tell if something was bothering me and give me some advice on how to deal with it, then he would say “grazie per la chiamata”, hang up and get back to his writing.
The best way to remember him will be to spend the day writing. He was a firm believer in working every day, and not letting too much nonsense get in the way. Of course sometimes as far as he was concerned I was the nonsense, he did constantly remind me of how stupid I was, which at the time felt kind of harsh, but looking back on it now seems fair.
Happy Birthday dear Biologico, and thank you.

An 80s’ icon…

Never mind what everyone wore to the Oscars. This is clearly THE jacket to be seen in this week. There I was innocently knocking up a soup last night when my daughter sent me a text with a picture of a jacket from some trendy website with a picture of me on the back. It’s tough to discover one is an 80s’ icon while chopping carrots.IMG_2945
The other thing that is tough is telling my children not to do stupid things to their hair, wear ridiculous clothes or anything else really when the evidence of my own teenage misdemeanours is on the back of a piece of white denim.
I have looked at the website where they sell the jacket but can’t find it. I can only assume it’s already sold out. I saw some other jackets, all for around £250 quid. Am half thinking of demanding royalties.
And before you ask if I was trying to look like Boy George, the answer is no, he was clearly trying to look like me. Have you seen him on the back of a jacket recently? I think not….

Good parenting

The other night I had a drink with a friend of mine who had just had lunch with her parents. She took a sip of her wine and sighed. “For everything they’ve ever taught me, I may as well be an orphan,” she said.

My friend had what I would describe as a pretty traditional upbringing; two siblings, no divorce, living in more or less the same house throughout her childhood. The complete opposite of mine I suppose.

But her comment really got me thinking about what does make good parenting?

523931_466908883349736_884495519_nWhen my father was on his deathbed, barely aware of his surroundings, I told him he’d been a great father. He practically sat up in shock, sending the tubes flying. It made me laugh at the time. I wish we could have laughed about it together and talked, but he could no longer really speak.

Of course when I said he’s been a great father I didn’t mean he’d changed my nappies, driven me to and from school, cooked me beans on toast for tea and so on. What I meant was that without him I would have been, as my husband puts it, “an infinitely less interesting person”.

While he may not have taught me anything about the practical things in life, such as the importance of saving money on the rare occasions you have it, he taught me so many other things such as the importance of words (he used to read dictionaries like novels), humour (he would never lose his sense of humour, apart from when I was unable to recite Dante) and learning. When I finally stopped being a drop-out and decided to go to university I was in a quandary about what to study. “The important thing is not what you study,” he told me. “The important thing is that you study.”

He said so much that I will never forget. One of the best pieces of advice he gave was to “chiedi Bach” that is “ask Bach” if you have a problem. The idea is that you listen to Bach and the answer will come to you. It is not fool-proof, but a lot of the time it works.

IMG_2051I guess my point is that the fact that he said things I will never forget means they were significant. And surely one of the points of being a good parent is to be just that? And to teach your children to live well, and not be an idiot. Of course my father was an idiot in lots of ways, as we all are, but he got away with it, because he taught me so much that made me become less of one.

If we can make our children less idiotic we have done a good job. And if we can do that without being mundane or boring so much the better. I really don’t want to be remembered solely as the kind of parent who came up with tips on how to clean an oven, or which building society account to opt for. And if that makes me a bad parent then so be it.

Sticks and stones…

This is not usually a forum for serious topics, but I want to highlight Vicki’s story. She is a friend of a friend, who is in the process of escaping from her husband and emotional abuser. They have three small children, twins aged four and a toddler boy, all born in Dubai. The children are wards of court while their future is decided. Vicki will have to return from the UK to Dubai for a hearing. She may well lose custody of them.

What follows are Vicki’s words. She describes what effect emotional abuse had on her. As a child I lived through physical abuse, and always thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to you or someone you love. It seems that emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and even worse in some ways. Although of course the two are very often used in tandem to devastating effect.

“Emotional Abuse is as bad if not worse than physical abuse. Wanna know why? Because no one sees your bruises or scars and no one else really knows what is going on ‘behind closed doors’.imgres

Emotional Abusers are clever. No doubt about it. They prey on someone’s weakness until a small crack becomes a large crevasse. Imagine someone using the one or two or more things you have an insecurity about and building on it daily. Building is the wrong term, chipping away at you is what they do, they build nothing.

I’ll admit mine, mine was definitely confidence. Whilst I come across as a funny and bubbly person, I am actually incredibly shy and have had to learn confidence over the years. When my EA (Emotional Abuser) met me I was a sitting duck. Instead of being happy with my chirpy personality, he saw it as a threat. His insecurities rose up and in an effort to feel like the ‘big man’, he decided to make me smaller instead of grow himself. Its not done over night, its done chip by chip, day by day. A thought, a comment, a mood, a reaction, even just a facial expression, usually of disgust. The moods are bad, where you just so want them to snap out of it you almost apologise for something you haven’t done, especially when there are kids involved. You so want the norm to resume, whatever a norm is, that you are willing to turn into that door mat just to appease a situation. You start to become someone you don’t even like, but you can’t take the reactions anymore. So bit by bit you start to conform to what is expected of you and try ANYTHING not to ‘rock the boat’. It doesn’t matter if you know you are in the right and they are in the wrong, in my case with children, I was so trying to create a happy home environment like I had had that I was willing to do anything to keep the peace. They make you feel like you are going crazy with this up and down personality. One minute loving, next psychotic, next flowers as if nothing had happened that you do actual begin to think did you made it up, made something out of nothing? That’s when I decided to keep a diary. To log these episodes and see the pattern, and make sure I wasn’t going mad?!
images-1
It’s so easy when you are living in it to feel like the issue must be with you, that you must be doing something wrong. When, if you are lucky enough to escape, you look back you are embarrassed at the treatment you put up with for so long, but at the time you know you had to do it.

My EA was/is very clever. He would write the most amazing messages during the day, so that anyone who read them would think wow, what a husband, but the man who wrote those messages in the day, was not the man who walked through the door at night. I wish it had been! The man who walked in at night would have the ability to make me walk on eggshells until I went to sleep. Scared to get onto the wrong conversation or say something that he would misconstrue. I felt emotionally exhausted every night at having to think before I spoke about anything. I can’t begin to explain what that feels like.

I’ve had a few moments in my life that could be termed the straw that broke the camels back, but somehow he always managed to talk his way out of it and make me believe that there was hope and we could be a happy family unit. Alas, it’s never the truth. The last night that I was laying in my daughters bed after he had accused me of something utterly ridiculous, I had texted a dear friend asking her to keep her phone on because I was scared. I didn’t really know what she could do at the time, but it was just nice to know that someone was there. I was lying in my daughter’s bed, willing him to come upstairs and hit me. Just hit me so I would have a physical bruise instead of all these internal ones. Just hit me so I can prove to others what you do to me mentally every day of our lives. Just hit me so I don’t have to hide it anymore. But that’s when it really hit me, that our marriage really was over if I was laying there hoping that a 6ft 5” rugby player would hit me. I thought then that I didn’t have to wait for someone to hit me to be believed. I had to leave.

When I spoke to my supportive Doctor, she also took it to another level. When it was just about me I could cope but when she said, Do you really want Izzy growing up believing it is acceptable to be treated like this? And I thought, do I really want my adorable boys growing up thinking its ‘cool to treat a woman like this. The minute its about loved ones and not you, that’s when the moment comes.

So this is a very brief synopsis of Emotional Abuse. Unfortunately very difficult to prove but I wont give up and I’m glad to be free of the marriage, even if at the moment I can’t be free of the EA himself.”

Coma, what coma?

It all started with an email entitled ‘worried’ from my mother.
No one had heard anything from my father for two days. “He’s not answering the door, or the phone,” she wrote. “The lady who lives below him hasn’t heard anything at all. And he’s locked the door with the key from the inside, so the cleaning lady can’t get in either.”
My parents split up when I was two years old, and although when my mother moved back to Italy a few years ago some old romantics (including me) thought they might rekindle their relationship, they live three and a half hours apart by car. But whenever there is a crisis, my mother hot-foots it up there from her home close to Rome, ever loyal and always heroic.
I had spoken to my father a few days before the email, and he had asked me to get Quentin Tarantino’s email address. “I have an idea for a film for him, about Fellini,” he told me. Being a dutiful daughter I had found his agent’s email address and sent it to him, I had not heard back. This is not unusual, my father corresponds as and when he feels like it. In fact he does most things as and when he feels like it, including answering his doorbell.
The day after the email my mother called to tell me that my aunt and uncle were on their way to my father’s flat and that she would be joining them as soon as she could get there. “I fear the worst,” she said.
I spent some extremely sombre hours imagining that my father had fallen over and hit his head and was lying somewhere in the apartment suffering, dying or even dead. I kept thinking about all the things I still want to talk to him about, and how I had been planning to see him in April.
Eventually the news came through that the fire brigade had broken into the flat through a window. It is a first-floor apartment in the main square of Novafeltria, a small town in northern Italy, and the gathered crowd enjoyed the drama enormously. They had found my father in bed apparently in a coma. He was carted off to hospital where my mother arrived soon after and sent me a text. “Benedetto in fine form,” it read. “Call us.”
I was utterly amazed. How could he go from coma to fine form in a matter of hours?
“What happened?” I asked him when I called. “Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right,” he told me. “I’m not in a coma, it’s everyone else that’s in a coma.”
He then spoke to his granddaughter, Olivia. “I couldn’t understand a word he said,” she told me, handing the phone back. “But he’s talking, and that’s the main thing.”
I’ll second that. He is being discharged in a couple of days, to give them time to fix the window.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

Downton Abbey

I have the perfect answer to getting through an eight-hour flight in economy. Watch seven hours of Downton Abbey. I have been desperate to see it ever since all my friends in England first mentioned it and raved about it endlessly and lost the will to live when the first season was over. And where better to do so than while stuck in an uncomfortable seat with the great unwashed coughing and spluttering and snoring all around me.

With my headphones on I was able to immerse myself totally in the world of Downton. And actually feel like I was doing something useful at the same time, because there is nothing worse than that all your friends endlessly telling you what an amazing series you are missing and  being utterly horrified to hear you are not already hooked.

To make matters even better, once we arrived in England, Bea and I went to a place that is not unlike Downton Abbey. We were staying with friends at Bramham Park in Yorkshire for my lovely godson Freddie’s confirmation. In fact the creator of Downton Julian Fellowes had visited Bramham with a view to making it the location for the servant’s quarters. Bloody cheek.

Bea and I had a magical time. I have not been to Bramham for many years, but used to go there a lot. During Durham University days and after we had many wonderful weekends there. Julia, my stepdaughter, learned to ride a bike on the lawn in front of the house. It is not just the beauty and elegance of the house that is so special, but the relaxed and happy atmosphere that always makes you feel instantly welcome and ready for fun.

We were very sad to leave after four sunny, fun, happy days. At the check-in queue I remembered that Etihad only has Season One of Downton. Then a miracle. “Half-price upgrades available,” a stewardess walked up and down the check-in line shouting. I quickly texted Rupert. “Go for it,” he replied. “You both deserve it.” “Do you think someone has stolen his phone?” I asked Bea. “Who cares?” she said.

We did go for it, and it was marvellous. So there’s my other top tip for getting through an economy flight: upgrade to business.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Letter to my father

I have just got back from Italy where I was visiting my father, who is ill in hospital. He will be 87 in December, but it was still a shock to see him so weak and, well OLD, for the first time ever.
I wrote him a letter on the way back to the airport because there was so much I wanted to say. I call him biologico, because by the time I really got to know him, it was too late for daddy.

Here it is in parts…

Caro Biologico

I’m not sure I will ever send you this letter, but I want to write it anyway, because there are so many things I want to say to you and to remember about this visit, which I don’t know how else to express.

We said goodbye three hours ago. I left you, in your wheelchair, with my mother standing beside you, you were pulling a face and she was waving, smiling, trying not to cry. You looked like any other old couple in the hospital; grey and wrinkly and together. No one would have guessed you haven’t been together since I was two. As a child all I ever wanted was to have normal parents who were together, to have you both in the same room, to be able to say “my parents” and not follow it with “split up when I was two”. Of course there is nothing “normal” about either of you, thank god, but as a child for some reason normality was all I craved. As an adult I’m grateful to you both that I never had it.

I don’t know what I expected, in what state I thought I would find you, but I certainly didn’t think you would be so THIN. You’ve never been thin. I remember those zany diets you used to do, the ‘eat only grapes for a week’ diet and then how you would give something up, like chocolate, and say “for me chocolate does not exist.”

There were times when you got quite fat, but you always carried it off, with that elegant stance and the ubiquitous Fedora hat. Now that hat sits on your bookshelf at home.

And talking of elegance, you still look like an aristocrat, even in a wheelchair. You hold your head high as you always did, and your eyes are still sparkling, intelligent. You don’t belong there. I know it’s not their fault, the staff probably try their best, but the smell of shit and death and OLD PEOPLE is stultifying. I fear if you stay, you will just sink further into that world, to a point of no return.

I hate seeing you like this. It makes me want to give up my job and move to Novafeltria to take care of you, I just believe that somehow if I could get you back to your work, you would be cured, because I’m sure not being able to write is literally killing you. You always told me never to go a day without writing; nulla dies sine linea, you once wrote on a scrap of paper, I have it framed on my wall at home.

You did talk about finishing your novel. I so hope you do. But maybe that’s unrealistic, because if we’re honest, only really about ten per cent of you is present. It’s so depressing seeing flashes of your old self; your humour, your brilliance, your intellect, and realizing that it is buried deep down now and may never surface again. I know your mind still works, but you can’t articulate as you used to. When I told you that I had done some writing at your desk, you said the longest sentence you had said to me during the entire three days; “Mi fa piacere.” You probably wouldn’t say that if you’d known what I was writing, another “shitting” novel as you would call it.

And when I told you that one of my books is going to be published in Germany, your face lit up. You know the importance of the German publishing market, something the cabbages around you (bless them) wouldn’t have known when they were compos mentis.

You reaction to Olivia was lovely. The way you stroked her face last night when we were leaving made me cry, and I cry every time I think about it. I suppose because you were saying goodbye.  Her reaction has been surprising, she doesn’t really know you that well, and yet has wept and keeps saying she doesn’t want to leave you.

I have used many words to describe you, in books, in articles, to other people. Words like brilliant, bullying, egotistic, charming, larger-than-life, amusing. One word I would never have used is the word that best sums you up now; sweet. I have never seen you so affectionate and kind. Your smile is really sweet now, I don’t know what’s happened, I like it, but I would rather have the old Biologico who tells Olivia she speaks French “comme une vache Espagnol” and harasses me for not writing “proper” books.

But your new sweetness seems to have won you many admirers there, I have never seen a man made such a fuss of, you really are among friends. Carmela is a joy, as is Agostina, and I can’t believe the old woman with a hole in her leg up the hall was the chicken keeper at Carpegna, your old summer house.

Do you remember when we first went there? The chicken farmer said she remembers me being very brave on a vast horse. I wasn’t brave, I was terrified. Not only of the horse, but of you and this whole new family I knew nothing about. Now when I come back, especially on this trip, names and places like Perticara and Malatesta feel like they’re part of me, I get a sense of belonging from this part of Italy, which I suppose it what you were always trying to instill in me with all your talk of “radice.”

This summer when we were all with my mother, you told the children, when they asked why you didn’t have any eyebrows, that you cut them off and sent them to your enemies, who eat them and then die. Yesterday I cut your eyebrows, I can’t bear all that sprouting hair. There is plenty to kill all your enemies, though I think you have probably outlived them all, and now you’re so sweet, you probably won’t make any more.

When I had finished, I handed you a mirror. You looked in it and said “grazie” very firmly. It’s good to see there’s still a certain amount of vanity going on, it makes me hope that you’re not about to give up.

I am already beginning to regret that we didn’t spend more time together. I had a plan to come and see you at Christmas, to interview you and to have Bea film our discussions. There are so many things I want to talk to you about.  I think you would make a great interviewee.

See you at Christmas I hope, biologico.

Con molto affetto

La tua figlia

Daddy and Dante

The most wonderful memory of my trip to Italy this summer is from a party that my mother had. She billed it “an evening of poetry and magic” and it was held at a friend’s house next to a river in Umbria. The magic was the atmosphere, as well as a charming man making animals out of balloons, and the poetry was provided by my father.

He sat on a rock (and this is a man who is 86 years old) and recited Dante from memory. Not just the odd line from Dante, but great chunks on the Inferno. Including of course my favourite Paolo and Francesca. He was accompanied by musicians, whom he conducted, rather like he used to ‘air-conduct’ the orchestra when we went to La Scala. They strummed their guitars and played their pipes to increase the drama, or the romance, or the suspense of what he was reciting.Here he is entertaining the children before his recital.

Then last week my mother rang to tell me my father was in hospital. He has a kidney infection. At the age of 86 that is not a good thing. I called and spoke to a lady who I think was in the next bed. All was not well with the “dottore” she told me. We had two days of utter panic and I wondered whether I should just get on a plane to Italy. I didn’t go. I know he would have told me not to, and if the end was near, he would have preferred me to remember him reciting Dante than lying in a hospital bed. Eventually I managed to speak to him.

“What is important is not my health, but the book you are going to write about living in the desert, in an utterly fake world,” were his first words. I told him that right now, his health was more important to me than anything. He laughed and said “OK, just for now.”

Thankfully he is pulling through. My superhero mother drove four hours yesterday to be with him and the reports are all good. He is going to have an operation, and he will need to have more help at home. But he should be fine.

And I am hoping to get on a plane before the end of the year, so that I can film him reciting Dante and keep it forever.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Freedom

We are on holiday. I don’t know why we don’t spend more time on holiday, it is quite wonderful.

As soon as we got to our friends Norrie and Mary’s the children did what they long to do in Abu Dhabi bu can’t, ran through a lush green field. It was one of the happiest sights I have seen. I called the photo ‘Heaven’ but I sent it to my mother who came back with ‘Freedom’ which I think is better.

We had all talked about the first thing we were going to do when we got there was. Apart from running in the field, the children were going to see the rabbits. I was going to lie on the lawn, something I didn’t achieve until the end of the second day. It’s amazing how little you can get done on holiday, I have been trying to post a letter since I got here (sorry Jacques). But I have managed to swim (naked) in two rivers, play some good tennis, drink too much wine, watch Wimbledon and have a dreamy dinner in a candle-lit cave with old friends.

We are in the Languedoc where we are having a series of “one-nigh-stands” staying with my in-laws and friends. The children are also spending a night with Chantal and Gilbert. Chantal was our childminder right from when we first moved here in 2000 to the day we left in 2008. Apart from immediate family and close friends I can’t think of anyone who loves them more. It will be interesting to see how they communicate though as the children have resolutely refused to keep up their French and Chantal speaks not a word of English. I figure it will be a kind of language and love immersion and they will be fine. All that French must be there somewhere?

It is so nice to be back, and the good thing about only staying one night with people is they don’t get fed up with you. And traveling with three children there is always that danger. Although I would love to have had more time. It has been so nice watching the little ones recognise things, chatting to their grandparents (Leo and my father-in-law Peter had a lot of cricket talk to catch up on) and feeling so at home. It made me realise how important it is that we come back every year.

Next we head off to Italy to see my mother. It will be great to get there but I am not looking forward to the drive and the six million ‘are we there yets’ along the way.

But at least there will be green fields to run through when we eventually get there.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011