Today It’s Mothering Sunday in the UK and Ireland, and Summer Time begins. I want to thank Hilary Robinson for letting me share her poem, a gentle homeward journey with rich detail. It also shows how a strong title pulls the reader in. Hilary is the guest poet next month with more poems from her poetry debut Revelation.
Things I Say to my Mum in the Nursing Home
Let’s go to Verdon’s for a quarter of sweets— American Cream Soda, Rainbow Crystals. Let me taste the Sarsaparilla Drops, Fruit Salads, Flying saucers, Cherry Lips.
Walk me up to Marsden’s — I’ll sink my fingers into dried peas, watch as butter’s cut and patted into shape; sugar’s wrapped in rough blue bags.
Take me to the monkey-nut shop after an hour in Northmoor Library, breathing in the leather, old-book smell, where the men scour papers for good news.
Hold my hand, take me to the park so I can swing high, standing up, or roly-poly down the slopes, risk roundabouts, the Wedding Cake.
Take me back to our backyard, to the tin bath hung on an outside wall, to my stiff, hard dolls, my teddy bear. Pass me my square of pink flannelette.
Tomorrow will be his birthday. Traditionally, children were allowed to put a shoe (with a carrot for the horse) by the fire on the night of the 5th. Over time, it has become tradition to celebrate the evening of the 5th. And over time, children put out their shoe earlier and earlier …
Somewhere in a photo album there is a small black-and-white picture, somewhere in a box in storage. Here is the poem, anyway, from my debut collection Another life, Oversteps Books Ltd, 2016.
St Nikolaas, 5 December 1957
We’re crowded in our dining room. Grandmother has closed her face. There’s me in pyjamas, smiling. I’m next to my father’s father. His heart will give out soon. I’ve just been given a book: animal stories with illustrations.
My brother too smiles, because our mother isn’t there. She may be in the kitchen or upstairs, ill, thinking about walking out on us. My father has taken this photo. He too will have closed his face.
St Nicholaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat, each year at a different port. He then rides through the town on his white horse. It’s on the mid-November Saturday. In the three weeks’ run-up to St Nicholaas Eve (5 December) he will appear in other towns, always with at least one Zwarte Piet who carries a large bag with goodies and, traditionally, a birch bundle to clean a chimney. But, as children we were told that, if you were naughty, you’d get spanked – even worse, you might be put inside that bag and taken away to Spain …
Since 2010, there has been growing concern about Zwarte Piet and racism. There have been demonstrations for and against the tradition. Motorways have been blocked. Arrests made.
The arrival of St Nicholaas attracts large crowds: not good in a pandemic. This year the Dutch, pragmatic as ever, have killed two birds with one stone. The holy man arrived in a non-existent village, called Zwalk. The verb Zwalken means to drift, wander about. His arrival was shown live on Dutch television on 14 November. There were no crowds, no protesters.
Here is the white horse, a display in the famous Bijenkorf store in Amsterdam.
The traditional sweets connected with St Nicholaas were already in the shops late September when I was due to travel back to Manchester. Alphabet letters, capitals in dark or milk chocolate, along with marzipan figures, gingerbread cookies (pepernoten), speculaas filled with almond paste…
Once children know the truth about St Nicholaas – that he is based on a Greek bishop who lived 270 – 343 in Myra, in what is now Turkey – and they have pocket money, they can buy presents for other members of their family. Traditionally, these are hidden in a surprise – a humourous, unusual or personalised packaging, made of papier maché and painted. These may come with a “poem” that is supposed to come from the good old man himself. Poor St Nicholaas can only compose doggerel!
St Nicolaas writes to my dear brother. He wants to know: Why is it so much bother
for you to take a turn at doing the dishes? The knives and forks are not dangerous fishes!
Coffee cups, soup bowls, the dirty plate: Why do you always leave it so late?
The plastic bowl with soapy water isn’t deep. Honestly, you won’t drown, you could do it in your sleep!
Promise St Nicholaas that you’ll improve and he’ll send you some presents and his love.