A Christmas Letter – Part 1 “us”

I was an early adopter of the idea of writing Christmas letters. Some people call them Round Robins. Many ridicule them. But general feedback on mine is that they are welcomed and received with interest. So I shall continue to write one even at the end of this very strange year of 2020, even though I don’t necessarily feel like it.

Like so many of you, 2020 didn’t turn out to be the year that we’d expected or planned. After a long lifetime of very hard work I finished at the beginning of 2020, a timing that had been planned for a couple of years. I have always been a “work to live” person, rather than “live to work” so I knew I wouldn’t find retirement traumatic. My interests are wide and the thought that I’d have a lot more time to enjoy them was thrilling. During 2019 I booked several special treats, including a place on a week-long symposium at Great Dixter and a long weekend in Madrid with friends. Things began to go awry in January when I broke my ankle (written about previously). After many weeks of my own personal lockdown while the ankle healed the whole UK went into lockdown and one by one all my carefully made plans were set aside.

However, we were so blessed in Sussex by the wonderful spring weather. We couldn’t go far but we walked locally as my ankle rehabilitated, discovered bluebell woods that we’d not known about before, and simply enjoyed observing nature in all its fullness in our own locality. Neighbours banded together digitally and helped each other, introducing a previously unexperienced sense of community which was very welcome. And we learnt (if we hadn’t known before) how to live a little more in the moment and appreciate what we have, rather than what we think we might want.

We managed to get back to the French garden for three weeks in mid June, when France reopened its borders at the end of the first lockdown. In fact we were on one of the first trains through EuroTunnel on the first morning! This was so much appreciated as R had to take two weeks of his precious annual leave before the end of June and being able to spend this time at the French house was just wonderful. We may have spent much of the time on our knees, weeding, but at least we were in the sunshine and fresh air being productive and it really did feel as though the two weeks of holiday were put to good use.

A return to the UK was required for various medical appointments and other commitments, followed by a second summer trip to France in mid July. We decided to treat ourselves to four nights away in a hotel a couple of hours south of us in Eugenie les Bains. We’d first visited their Michelin starred restaurant in 2004 (chef Michel Guerard) and special memories linked to a friend who died a few months later meant that we’d always said we would return if we could. This was the year we did. The property was stunning, the service exemplary, and the food out of this world.

While away we visited a couple of gardens and then took a drive up into the Pyrenees one day, almost to the Spanish border. On our return we were privileged to see a large group of Griffon Vultures, extraordinary wonderful creatures.

Our visit should have been for five weeks in total. However when the UK government introduced quarantine for returning travellers we had to make a sudden decision to cut the trip short as I had to get back before the quarantine deadline in order to fulfil some childcare responsibilities that had been in the diary for many weeks. One of our beloved GrandBoys was moving to a new school better suited to his special needs and his younger brother was starting at the same school. The introduction to school for both of them was going to be very slow and gently phased, to ensure success and to work within the new Covid environment. These weeks at the end of August and throughout September were very precious indeed, giving me real quality time with two beautiful small people. Yes, of course I was exhausted at times, but we enjoyed each others’ company, chilling at home, visiting a couple of National Trust properties, and going for local walks. On a couple of these walks we picked sloes and crab apples which were later made into sloe gin and crab apple jelly. Indeed every single one of the crab apples was picked single-handed by our darling 6-year old boy with special needs. I was so proud of him. And the jelly was quite delicious.

After the boys were settled into school my feet became very itchy very quickly. The French garden was calling with a loud siren call. Although I don’t miss work at all (and welcome and celebrate the removal of stress and pressure), I am someone who needs a purpose in life. As anyone who knows me (in real life or virtually) or has read my blog knows, my primary purpose these days is the development of the French garden. Being in a situation now where I can spend much more time in the garden is just wonderful. So I booked a two-week return trip on the only viable route available, Stansted to Bergerac. Stansted is some distance from us in Sussex so very far down our preferred list, but I was grateful on this occasion.

Of course two weeks wasn’t enough. And the end of year Brexit deadline was fast approaching with an increasingly desperate sense of “use it or lose it”. I wrote about the cataclysmic decision we felt we had to make in my last blog post.

And so, as the year draws towards a close, here I am installed in France, looking forward so much to being reunited with the love of my life by whom I was fortunate to be asked out on a first date 20 years and one month ago. All being well he is booked on a ferry overnight on the 17th and will arrive at the house on the 18th in time for Christmas together. We don’t know how we will plan our time together/apart in future but we do know that we will want to spend as much time as possible together. We will work it out. And in the meantime we enjoy an ongoing conversation via text, Messenger, WhatsApp, and FaceTime.

Christmas 2020 will be a quiet understated affair for us. But then it often is and I learnt many years ago not to get too hung up on always having to go through the same rituals. Our collection of Christmas decorations built up over several decades is here, so one of the first things we will do when R arrives is go and get a Christmas tree (not much chance of being able to do that in the tiny Toyota!). I may have a go at making a wreath for the outside doors. We have some willow which could make a base … not sure what else … I’ll have a go; whether anything I make will be suitable for display is another matter!

Our year has included many other events and issues for us and our nearest and dearest which I don’t propose to write about here, including bereavement, cancer, confirmed Covid, hospitalisation, heart operation … and more. But we’ve survived and always remember to count the many blessings we have.

So, here’s to 2021 and all that it holds for us all. May we stay healthy, happy, (or if not happy at least content), and able to positively look forward to a post-Covid, vaccinated, future.

And now I’m going to write Part 2 – “the garden”

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