Wednesday, 30 March 2011

I Must Apologise

It has just occurred to me that there might be many ferret lovers out there in the blogosphere. Could there be any ferret lovers who read my blog? Could there be anyone who reads my blog?

It has also occurred to me that I might have offended those possible blog reading ferret lovers by my story The Big Crunch. I may have been unkind. And that will never do. I have to be a good example to my children, especially during Lent when we are all supposed to be practicing this virtue. Therefore I would like to publish the following statement:

Finn you were a good ferret. It wasn't your fault that a too soft hearted woman bought you and took you home to a house full of screaming, terrified girls. It wasn't your fault your owner was the possessor of sensitive skin. You were designed to run free and chase prey. And what a fine rabbit catcher you turned out to be. We are all very proud of you. 

You came to a sad end, Finn. A tear forms in my eye as I contemplate the 'Big Crunch'. Not a nice way to go. I wouldn't like to be big crunched.

Rest in peace, good and faithful ferret. You will never be forgotten.

In the photo I see a ferret who is tired of being dragged around the garden. I see a ferret who longs to run free. I see a ferret who soon will be a master rabbit catcher.

(I hope I don't end up having to apologise to any rabbit lovers out there...)

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Big Crunch

A Moment-in-Time Tale: March 2006

Can you believe I let my son have a ferret for his 14th birthday? Well, perhaps you can. You might know about my silly too soft heart.
“Please, Mum! I’ve always wanted a ferret. They make good pets. They become real friends,” begged Callum.
I didn’t think our pet shop would have a ferret. They’re not exactly run-of-the-mill pets. Perhaps it was safe to say, “Well… we could go into town and have a look. No promises though.”
Just as I expected, the pet shop was all out of ferrets and I drew a sigh of relief. Callum looked very disappointed. He’d set his heart on having a furry ferret friend.
“Can I ask if they expect to get any ferrets soon?”
I didn’t think there was much chance the pet shop was expecting a shipment of ferrets so I let Callum ask. How was I to know it was ferret season, the only few weeks of the year when ferrets are available?  Two ferrets would be up for sale in two weeks’ time. And yes, Callum could reserve one for his very own.
Callum’s face lit up. His subdued mood disappeared instantly. “This will be the best present ever, Mum! Wow! You’re the best mum in the whole world. I can’t wait… I don’t suppose I could have both ferrets? No, of course not. One will be just fine!”
Two weeks later we went to collect our new family member: a long, wriggly, white creature with pink eyes and sharp teeth. Callum called him Finn.
We’d done a bit of reading about ferrets. Ferrets are very much like cats or perhaps a tiny dog. They can be given the run of the house. They will curl up on their owners' laps. They enjoy being taken for walks on the end of a lead… apparently…so we were told.  Callum could just imagine it. Finn would become his constant companion. He’d sleep on his bed, sit on his shoulder and nuzzle his ear while he was studying. He’d go everywhere with him. He’d be a real friend.
But before the dream could come true, Callum had to overcome one little problem. He was afraid of those sharp, sharp teeth. Whenever he approached too closely to Finn those teeth snapped shut, trapping a mouthful of skin. The ferret would then hang in the air, refusing to let go. It was almost impossible to dislodge him. And it hurt! We tried squeezing Finn’s jaws. We tried spraying him with water. We tried spraying our hands with a foul tasting liquid. Eventually we would escape his clutches. We’d regain our freedom…until the next time.
How can you become best friends with something that attacks you as soon as you come within striking distance? Did Finn sense Callum’s fear? “He’ll settle down soon. Handle him firmly. He’ll learn you’re the boss.” But Finn didn’t learn. He knew who was in charge and it wasn’t his owner.  It wasn’t long before Callum’s inclination to go near his new animal disappeared completely. Finn became a neglected pet.
“You can’t just leave Finn in his cage all day,” I pointed out. “He gets bored and he needs exercise. You need to walk him and let him out for a run.”
Reluctantly Callum agreed. He tried dragging Finn around the garden. Then he tried letting him run around the lounge. Unfortunately he didn’t warn the little girls. Soon Finn was hanging from the bottom of a skirt. Terrified girls screamed. The next time Callum let his animal loose he made sure the girls were safely on the other side of the door. The rest of us sat with our feet hidden under our bottoms in an attempt to preserve our toes from being pounced upon. We braced ourselves for possible attack as Finn charged from one end of the room to another and back again. Around and around he went, occasionally choosing a victim to leap upon. After a few minutes I could stand no more and ordered Callum to return the animal to its cage.
Callum was not happy. Finn had changed his life. He was no longer a carefree teenager who looked forward to each day. No, every day he had to face ‘the problem’. He had to face those teeth when he cleaned Finn’s cage (ferrets are so stinky!) and when he exercised him. Callum knew nobody liked his pet. We were all afraid of it. Finn hadn’t become part of the family. He hadn’t become Callum’s friend. He was ‘the enemy’. Callum no longer wanted to own a ferret. What was he to do?
Callum returned to the pet shop and asked if they’d take Finn back. But the pet shop didn’t want him. Callum wrote a notice: ‘Ferret free to a good (any) home’. But no one with a silly too soft heart read the notice. We started asking around: “Does anyone know of someone who wants a ferret?”
Surprisingly, a friend said, “My neighbour is looking for a ferret. He wants to get rid of all the rabbits on his farm.”
Someone wanted a ferret? I couldn’t believe it. Please take ours! We packed up all Finn’s food and cage. We enclosed him in a cardboard box, put him in the car and escorted him under guard to his new home, as quickly as possible before the farmer changed his mind.
Life returned to normal. Callum was no longer stressed out. His day no longer revolved around an ungrateful pet. Our home no longer had a strange unpleasant odour. The girls sighed with relief. We didn’t have to worry about our skirts being attacked. Peace returned to our home.
Occasionally we wondered how the farmer was getting on with Callum’s ex-pet. Was Finn earning his living? Or did his new owner regret accepting our vicious animal? We didn’t dare ask. We didn’t want to know. We didn’t even want to think about it. All we wanted to do was forget we ever had a ferret.
That was five years ago.
The other week we got together with our friend, the farmer’s neighbour. Somehow the conversation got around to rabbits.
“Hey, you remember that ferret of yours?” I tensed up wondering what our friend would say next. “He was a great rabbit catcher. Cleared my neighbour’s farm and all the farms around… “
“It’s a pity he isn’t alive anymore.”
“Oh?” I decided it was safe to share our sorry tale. I could admit we'd felt we were passing on our problem to someone else. I could say how frightened we were that the farmer might want to give Finn back to us. It was quite ok to be honest: the animal was dead. He could never be returned to our home to terrorise us all.
“How did he die?”
“It was a dog.”
“A big crunch?”
“Yes, a big crunch. I wasn’t going to tell you the details. I didn’t want to upset you. I thought you loved your ferret.”
Loved our ferret?
Crunch, crunch, crunch… then one day, no more crunch: Finn's reign of terror came to an end. He encountered a crunch bigger than his own. Crunch, munch, no more ferret.
Mice, ferrets? Surely I have no more horrific pet stories to tell?  But I do. I could tell you about the axolytls. Axoltyls? I have a story about upside down axoltyls, some new homeschoolers and a debate about euthanasia.
I bet you can't wait for that one...or maybe you can!
I look at this photo and I see Callum smiling a little nervously. He has a gardening glove protecting his hand. Finn is attached to a lead. Callum has been dragging him around the garden. In the background I can see our garage. My car is sitting on the driveway because the garage is stuffed full of odds and ends. Under the garage lives a poisonous copperhead snake called El Cid. And I see a ferret who enjoyed a wonderful short life...a ferret who liked to crunch, crunch, crunch.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Pigs, Blogs and Friends

Do you remember Sarah, the reluctant pig farmer’s wife, goat keeper and eater, prize rose grower and friend extraordinaire? I shared her story in Pigs, Tears and Friends and I am sure everyone was fascinated by my dear friend because her post is the 3rd most popular of all 62 posts I have ever written!
In Pigs, Tears and Friends I wrote:  
Already a story is forming in my mind. An interesting character! My friend Sarah! Will she mind if I share her with you? I hesitate for just a second. I think, “Sarah will never know.” She rarely turns on her computer. No, I am free to tell her story.
That was weeks ago and I am quite sure Sarah has never found out about my story. Every time we have got together I have remained silent, and Sarah has never given me any indication that she knows I have been blogging about her. Perhaps no one followed my suggestion:
Tell her how much she livened up a dull post. Tell her you wish you had a friend like her to write about. Tell her I love her.
And this gives me courage to write a second Sarah story.
I have never kept pigs like Sarah, or goats; I love hopping across the blogosphere having Internet adventures while Sarah is very down-to-earth and lives firmly in the real world; my roses always die and never look like Sarah’s prize flowers. But there is something that Sarah and I share (besides a precious friendship) and that is writing. It was Sarah who encouraged me to write my very first article.
But first I must tell you about a newsletter called Keeping in Touch.
Many years ago, Esther had the brilliant idea of starting a newsletter to keep the various homeschooling families in Australia connected and informed. Four times a year, Keeping in Touch landed in mailboxes causing mothers everywhere to drop whatever they were doing, grab mugs of coffee and sink into armchairs to devour the latest edition.
Years went by. Some families came to the end of their homeschooling adventures and others started out. And for all this time, Keeping in Touch continued to entertain, support and bind everyone together. The job of collecting articles and editing was passed on from family to family.
About 12 or 13 years ago, it was once again Sarah’s turn to edit the newsletter. Before the publication could be finished and sent off to the printer’s, an editor for the next edition had to be found. The easiest way to find a new editor was to ask a friend. So Sarah asked me. I protested, “I’ve never edited anything before Sarah. I wouldn’t know what to do. Anyway, we don’t have a computer.”
Before we knew it, we had a computer. Sarah’s husband updated his, and Sarah quickly passed on the old one to us. I must admit we enjoyed learning how to use the computer and how to set out a publication. We were now editors. But not writers.
Then one day Sarah said, “Why don’t you write an article for Keeping in Touch, Sue?"

 I protested, “I’ve never written an article before, Sarah. I wouldn’t know what to say. I will sound silly. No one will read it.” I had a million excuses why I couldn’t write something for Keeping in Touch. But Sarah wouldn’t give up.
“If you can write a letter, you can write an article.” And somehow I found myself writing my very first story. I wonder what I wrote about… I have forgotten…
But whatever I wrote about, it couldn’t have been that bad. No one complained or criticised or demanded I never write another thing. I must have written a second article…and then a third. Sarah had set my creative talent loose. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. For years I filled pages of Keeping in Touch, bombarding the kind and very accepting readers with my ideas and thoughts.
Somewhere along the line, Keeping in Touch stopped landing in mailboxes. Technology caught up with us and the newsletter took to the Internet, being published and placed online at the Cardinal Newman Faith Resources website. If you visit you will still find back copies in the Downloads section.
Then the sad day came when Keeping in Touch came to an end. Our lives had become very busy. No one seemed to have time to write and edit. Our quarterly dose of news, bright ideas, information, empathy and support disappeared.
I missed reading the very entertaining articles by my fellow Catholic friends. There were some very talented writers involved with the newsletter including my friend Sarah. A sad thought occurred to me: would I never read another article by her again?
And then I had an idea. What if I created a blog and posted all the best of the Keeping in Touch articles mixed in with new contributions? A whole new audience could share and enjoy the talent of my friend and other authors. And so the Australian Catholic Families blog came into existence.
The blog is for all Catholic families, not just homeschoolers, and for all parents not just mothers. And although the authors are Australian, the topics might appeal to anyone regardless of where they live.
So far I have posted articles by nine different authors on a variety of topics. Some articles are from the archives and some are new. Anthony started us off and then Erin quickly offered us a post, followed by Leonie, Vicky, Gae, Fr James Tierney, my husband Andy, me and…Sarah.
 I don’t think Sarah realises she is a blogger. As I told you in a past post:
Whatever (Sarah) is doing, she is far too busy living life to have time for Internet adventures like me.
I don’t think Sarah has visited the ACF blog. Does she know it exists? (I think I told her.) Does she know everyone is enjoying her articles all over again? (I think I mentioned I might share them with you.)
 If you see Sarah, tell her how inspiring and entertaining her articles are. Tell her to write more. Tell her to continue sharing her stories with us.
Oh yes, and don’t forget to tell her how much I love her.

I will jump up and down with excitement if anyone offers an article for the Australian Catholic Families blog. We are looking for articles on family, spiritual and homeschooling topics. If you have an idea please start writing or perhaps you could share something you’ve already posted on your own blog.

PS Why is "Pigs, Tears and Friends" so popular? I think it is popular because of Sarah, and though Anthony doesn't disagree, he also suggested its appeal is due to the photo of the very attractive pig. So I am using a pig photo again!!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Bracelet

We were anxious for Thomas to be baptised as soon as possible after his birth but the sacrament had to be delayed until he had been placed on a ventilator in the neonatal intensive care unit, and his condition had been assessed as stable. By this time, I had been moved to the maternity unit and it was Andy who arranged for the priest to come and baptise our son.
Father C placed a small white garment over our newborn baby, carefully avoiding all the wires and the tubes. And then with a sprinkle of holy water, together with the words, “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, Thomas’ soul was filled with God’s life. He was given two Godmothers: my sister Vicky and my friend Cheri, and we all prayed that they’d be given the opportunity to guide and care for him here on earth. We all hoped his body would become as strong with life as his soul. But it was not to be. After a fleeting moment of life, just 28 hours after being born, Thomas left us and his Godparents, and joined God in Heaven.
Cheri was already the Godmother of our daughter Charlotte, who was two when Thomas died. We all realised Charlotte would grow up without any memories of her little brother. Thinking about this, Cheri decided to create a special bond between her two Godchildren, to hold them together despite the lack of memories. She wanted to give Charlotte something very special that would remind her that Thomas is alive in Heaven praying for his big sister.
When we went to the ‘viewing’ at the funeral home to see Thomas one last time before his funeral, Cheri brought along her gift for Charlotte. It was a delicate gold bracelet with a name engraved upon it. It was going to be Charlotte’s bracelet but the name on it was ‘Thomas’.
Cheri cradled Thomas in her arms, placed the bracelet on our son and we photographed Godmother and Godson for the first and last time.  Then she gave the bracelet to me for safekeeping: “Now Charlotte has a relic of her little brother which she can keep forever.”
The bracelet is not an everyday piece of jewellery. I keep it in my jewellery box and Charlotte wears it on very special occasions… like on her First Holy Communion Day when Thomas’ prayers joined ours as she received Our Lord for the first time.
Last September at the annual homeschooling camp, one of the fathers gave the girls a talk about relics. Mr D is well known for his interesting and stimulating talks on the faith, and I knew my girls would enjoy his class.
Charlotte came running up to me as soon as the class finished, eager to share what she’d learnt:  “We learnt all about relics today! We learnt how a relic can be a part of a saint like his hair or a bone or it can be something that belonged to and touched a saint like a habit… or it can be something that has been touched to a relic of a saint. And I told Mr D I have a relic of Thomas: Thomas’ bracelet that touched him and is now mine. Can I take it tomorrow and show everyone?” And so the precious bracelet was once again removed from my jewellery box and shared with the girls of Mr D’s class.
Charlotte is now 13. I guess I could give her the bracelet but she is quite content to leave it in my care. She knows she would be very upset if it ever got lost and she isn’t quite ready to take that risk upon herself. But one day the bracelet will be all hers.
The bracelet is treasured because it is associated with our child. It reminds us that Thomas is in the presence of God where he can intercede for us. Our son, our saint in Heaven, is praying for the special people in his life: his parents, his Godmothers, his sister Charlotte and all his family. And that is a real blessing.
Thank you Cheri, my dear friend. You used that short moment of time we had with Thomas to turn a bracelet into a relic, a precious bond between brother and sister.
The photo: Charlotte on her First Holy Communion Day wearing her Thomas bracelet

Saturday, 19 March 2011

St Joseph's Sofa

It is Sunday and my favourite day of the week. Here I am, relaxing and enjoying some quiet time after the busyness of the past week. I’m sitting on my favourite sofa.

Let me tell you about my favourite sofa. It came to us via St Joseph. Whenever our family needs anything, someone says, “Ask St Joseph!” and he never fails to intercede for us.

Some years ago, we had a very embarrassing sofa. On the surface it looked fine. But lurking under the plump, welcoming cushions was a hungry trap just waiting to swallow an unsuspecting guest. Entertaining was stressful. We couldn’t relax. We’d be waiting for that inevitable moment when our guest would start disappearing, the sofa slowly sucking him inwards. One day I’d had enough. “That sofa has to be replaced!” I shouted. So we all started praying, “Please St Joseph, we need somewhere safe and solid where our friends can sit!”

St Joseph never takes very long. Within a day or two, the phone rang: A friend: “Can you use a lounge suite? It’s an antique.” An antique? Wow! That sounded posh. Yes, please, we’ll have it.

I rang my husband Andy. “St Joseph has answered our prayers. We’re getting a new lounge suite…an antique. It sounds wonderful. It’ll be here when you get home.”

I immediately got to work heaving the old sofa and chairs out to the shed. Their day was over. They had swallowed their last guest.

After lunch, a truck arrived. We could hear it reversing up the drive and we all dashed out eager to see what St Joseph had provided for us.

The driver jumped out of his cab and said, “I could keep on driving, you know. If you want me to take it to the tip, that’s no problem.”

Take my new, antique lounge suite to the tip. I didn’t understand. “What do you mean….?”

“Take a look,” the man advised, coming around to the back of his vehicle.

There in the back of the truck was the shabbiest sofa and chairs I had ever seen. Their gold (or was that green?) upholstery was torn in many places, revealing another layer of threadbare red fabric. The ruffled trim around the bottom of the sofa was more off than on.

For a moment I was stunned, speechless.

“To the tip?” the man asked, trying to be helpful.

I was inclined to agree but what would I tell my friend? She would notice the absence of the lounge suite next time she visited. And what would I tell Andy? He was expecting to see a new antique sofa. And the lounge room? I suddenly remembered the empty space we had created that morning. I absolutely refused to get the other sofa back out of the shed. So I said, “No. Unload it. It’ll be fine.”

Later than evening, Andy and I were sitting in the lounge talking over the events of the day.

“I was so excited.”

“It sounded so perfect.”

“I thought St Joseph had come to the rescue again.”

“Yes, sending us not just an ordinary sofa but an antique sofa.”

“Antique!” I laughed and Andy joined in. Everything seemed so funny.

Then suddenly the giggles disappeared. I had noticed something. “You know what?” I remarked. “This is a really comfortable sofa! It mightn’t look very good but it feels wonderful.” I relaxed back into the firm upholstery, secure in the knowledge that none of me was going to do a vanishing act. “This must be the most comfortable sofa we have ever had.”

That was 10 years ago and we still have that lounge suite. It is getting shabbier and shabbier and sometimes I think we really ought to replace it. But I just can’t quite come to the decision to part with it. Maybe one day we can get it reupholstered. Then it would be absolutely perfect.

We learnt a lot from this shabby sofa story. Firstly, things can sometimes seem disappointing on the surface, but if you look closer…there are treasures waiting to be discovered. How many gifts have we not seen because we haven’t looked properly? Secondly, St Joseph always sees to our needs and never lets us down. What did we ask for? A solid sofa, safe for guests. And that is exactly what we got. Next time we shall have to be more specific: 

Please St Joseph, we need a new sofa. It needs to be solid and safe and comfortable...and could you possibly arrange one that looks good too?"

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Father James Tierney and His Wonderful Bush Boys Books

Great news! The Bush Boys books by Father James Tierney are now available from Catholic Heritage Curricula. I'd like to share an article from Bush Boys Online to tell you more about these wonderful books.

Let me tell you about a very special person and his delightful books...

The Bush Boys books are a series of living fictional books written by Father James Tierney for children. The Bush Boys are a group of young people who like to explore the Wild Bush Mountains where they have all kinds of exciting adventures as they try to avoid the 7 Deadly Dangers of the bush. They outwit nasty villains, learn camping and survival techniques, enjoy the beauty of the great outdoors and much more... But first, let me tell you more about the author...

Many of you know Father James Tierney. But for his new fans, let me tell you something about Father Jim. Our family has known Father for about 15 years now. And he has been an indispensable part of our lives ever since. He is a retired priest who lives in his studio on the rural property of a homeschooling family, near Goulburn, Australia. We remember helping other families build this studio. And also the chapel where he celebrates Mass every day. He used to say Mass in the old draughty post office. Five o'clock in the morning with the icy wind blowing down his neck. But that was years ago...

When we visit Father Jim we go along the windy path to his studio. Father shouts out instructions on how to get through his temperamental door and we enter as he is getting up from his computer chair. "Listen to this," he chuckles and he reads out the latest bit of his new Bush Boys book. We feel privileged to be the first to hear the new story. 

Actually, we have been allowed special access to most of his books during the writing stage. We have read and proof-read and made suggestions on his books. Father Jim is one of those wonderful writers who really wants to hear what we think. He is always asking for advice. I remember when Father was describing how some Bush Boys were learning to swim. 

"They put their hands together as if praying," Father tells us. 

"No, Father," says our resident swimming expert. "Their hands have to be like this," and Felicity demonstrates the correct position. 

"Oh," chuckles Father. "I will have to change that. I will have lots of complaints otherwise!"

But Father Jim finds less time to write his children's books than he'd like. He is in great demand for his catechetical knowledge. Did you know Father has written a number of excellent catechisms? We use them in our family. One day I will have to tell you more about them.

Also Father spends time writing his famous Handouts. These two sided documents are "clear, brief and easily assimilated by all". If you'd like to know more visit www.cardinal and visit the Downloads section.

Father is a Bush Boy himself. When he was younger and more active, he would organise camping adventures in the bush. I am sure the children learnt a lot about leadership, the virtues, their Faith and survival skills while they were enjoying the beauty of the bush.

Father is tall and has twinkling eyes. He bends down and shakes even the smallest of hands in the most welcoming manner. "My dear Sue," he greets me, taking my hand. I feel so special. I know Father Jim is delighted to see me.

Father is a wonderful story teller. I phone him regularly and we spend a very entertaining hour chatting away. He sprinkles our conversation with his latest yarns. A wonderful warm chuckle comes over the line and we laugh together.

If I have a question about the Faith I contact Father. Soon the fax machine whirs into action and the answer to my query comes sliding out. Father is a fount of knowledge.

Father is compassionate and kind and supportive. It was Father who encouraged me to write my book Grief, Love and Hope. You can read his foreword to my book on this blog, Sue Elvis Writes

Now you know a little about Father Jim, I shall talk about his Bush Boys books. I feel they are largely undiscovered treasures. They are worth sharing with the world and so I have decided it is my mission to tell you about them. The Bush Boys books are good wholesome, truly Catholic stories. But the religion is not overdone. Father does not preach to his readers. He just adds Catholic details to his very enjoyable adventures. 

I think you will enjoy Father's books for his story telling ability. But along the way you are going to absorb so many fascinating facts. If you study the Bush Catechism you may even become an expert on how to survive in the bush. Soon you will want to have your own outdoor camping adventure. And when you do pull on your Bush Boys clothes, your thick socks and boots (and not forgetting the wide brimmed hat) you will be ready to have a wonderful time because you'll be ready to do everything the Bush Boys way.

Before I finish this post, I must tell you about a conversation I had with Father Jim. I phoned Father to tell him I'd created the Bush Boys Online blog and I'd set up a connecting Facebook page. "You've got three fans, Father" I shout into the phone as I look at the computer screen and see the numbers appearing.

 "When did you set up the page, Sue?" Father asks.

"Oh about 15 minutes ago."

"Wow!" says Father and I can imagine him shaking his head in wonder.

I've had a few enquiries about where to buy the Bush Boys books. They are available from the Cardinal Newman Faith Resources Inc website or their bookshop in Western Sydney. Also, I've just heard that the Bush Boys books are now available from Catholic Heritage Curricula in USA.

Please visit Bush Boys Online and the Facebook page and then order your own copies of Fr Jim's books. I am sure you and your children will enjoy them enormously!

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Thomas Dress

I'd like to share one of my favourite stories from Grief, Love and Hope

Imogen never had a new dress until her brother died.

She was five years old and although she had plenty of pretty clothes, she’d never had a dress chosen especially for her, a dress that hadn’t previously been worn by her older sister or cousins. It was a very special day, the day we went to town to buy Imogen her first brand new dress.

As soon as we entered the children’s boutique, we saw the perfect dress. Imogen held it up under her chin, her eyes large, her smile wide. It was pale pink with puffed sleeves and the skirt was perfect for swirling. A Briar Rose dress. A real little girl dress.

The shop assistant hurried up to us. “Oh, you will look so pretty in that dress. Is it for a special occasion?”

“Yes,” Imogen replied. “It’s for my brother’s funeral.”

Thomas’ death was not a sad time for Imogen. She was the only member of our family who didn’t cry during those traumatic days. The photographs show her smile beaming out amidst the tears of her siblings and her parents.

Shortly after Thomas died, we gathered together our other children and explained that Thomas was now in heaven with God. Imogen replied, “Then why are you crying? It’s good. Thomas is alive with God. Don’t you want to go to heaven and be with God?” I remember wondering how Thomas’ death could be good. It didn’t feel good. Perhaps all that about heaven and going to God was just a pretence: something said to comfort bereaved parents.

There wasn’t a lot we could do for our son. Unlike other newborn babies, he didn’t need us. But we could give him a beautiful funeral. This would be the last event of his short life on earth and I was determined to make the most of it. Of course, it was very distressing farewelling a baby we’d only had with us for a day. We’d had such hopes for his future and now there was no future. But even though I couldn’t prevent the constant flow of tears, I didn’t want his funeral to pass in a blur of sorrow. I wanted to remember every moment. I wanted it to go on forever. However, like all events it came to an end and before we knew it, we were processing towards his open grave.

Father Francis carried Thomas’ tiny coffin. He held it so reverently as if he were carrying something very precious. Afterwards, he confided to us what an honour it was carrying our son; he could feel a special presence; he was carrying a saint.

There were many families at Thomas’ funeral. Children of all ages gathered around the grave. There were little girls everywhere, skipping among the tombstones like pretty butterflies, their pastel dresses swirling, their hair ribbons fluttering, their hair streaming out behind them in the breeze. Despite severe frowns from solemn parents, single flowers were gathered from graves until each little girl had a beautiful posy. And surrounded by all her fellow butterflies Imogen was having a perfect day. There she was in her new pink dress with all her friends, enjoying the spring sunshine as if she were on a picnic.

Thomas’ funeral was beautiful. So many friends and members of family shared this painful but special day with us. The charming old church was full; the music was hauntingly stirring; the homily was moving. But one of the most beautiful of all my memories is that of Imogen dancing between the graves as if she were celebrating the short life and death of her tiny brother.

Death is a normal part of life. It is extremely sorrowful, excruciatingly painful. However, it is not something dark, something to be hidden away. While we were mourning the loss of our son, it was so consoling to be reminded that there was still beauty in life: a glimmer of hope for the future.

A few years after Thomas’ death, Imogen’s goldfish died. She cried as if her heart were breaking. I was a bit bemused. “You didn’t cry when your brother died, “I remarked. “Why are you so sad now?”

“I didn’t understand then, Mum. Even though Thomas was going to God it was still sad. I would have cried if I’d been older”. She wouldn’t have thought only of her new dress.

We have still got that dress. We call it The Thomas Dress. Imogen loved that pale pink creation. Charlotte in her turn wore it. Although she had only been two when Thomas died, she knew it was a very special dress. The dress is a little faded now. Sophie and Gemma-Rose will not get to wear it. But we will keep the dress. It connects a sister to a brother. I will always remember Imogen skipping along in it, a ray of sunshine falling on that day of grief

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Breeding Like Mice

It began with a cage, a cage Felicity dragged all the way home from town. It was large and heavy and, by the time she reached our house, one of her arms was longer than the other.
I’d already said, “No mice!”
“But the cage was such a bargain, Mum. And the boys would love a mouse… We have a cage now. We might as well get a mouse… or two. What do think, Mum?”
I should have said no. I should have sent the cage straight back to the St Vincent de Paul store. Some other family could have bought it and had a mouse adventure instead of us. But I looked at all the begging eyes staring at me and promised to take everyone to town to look at mice.
Of course, we couldn’t buy just one mouse. No, that mouse would have been far too lonely and that would have been very cruel… or so I was told. So we came back with two mice.
Soon two little mice were running around the mouse wheel delighting everyone. “But Mum, the cage is so big. It’s big enough for a few more mice.” We returned to the pet shop.
The cage and six male mice took up residence in the boys’ bedroom. This was a problem. The boys’ bedroom is a no go zone for girls. “We never get to see the mice, Mum,” one little girl complained. “We need some mice of our own.” So it was back to the pet shop where we bought a new adventure playground type cage with tunnels and wheels and all sorts of interesting attachments. This time we bought two female mice and soon they were settled in their new home in one of the girls’ bedrooms.
Life ran smoothly for awhile except for the occasional break out from the male mice cage, the mice being slightly smaller than the gap between the bars.
“Which side of the cage are these mice supposed to be on?" Andy would roar at regular intervals, and a boy would come running to return the escapees to the safety of their cage, away from the threat of mice traps and bait. Eventually the mice grow big and fat and the boys were able to relax.
Then Felicity had her bright idea. “Mum, it would be very educational if we bred mice. We could keep records, you know, of all the different traits. It would be just like a genetics experiment.”
“But what would we do with all the babies?”
“Sell them to the pet shop. I saw a sign the other day: ‘Mice Wanted!’”
I should have said no, but I didn’t. Soon we had numerous tiny hairless bundles of newborn mice life occupying the female cage with two happy mothers. The children were fascinated. All the facts and figures were dutifully recorded in scientific notebooks and it looked like the breeding program was going to turn into a very successful  learning experience.
Soon it came time to sell the baby mice and make a small pocket money fortune. “How much do you think we’ll make? ... What shall we buy?” Felicity was sent down to the pet shop to negotiate the business deal. But “Mice Wanted” had turned into “No Mice Needed at the Moment.” She came home and hardly dared tell me the unwelcome news. What would we do with all our little rodents?
The first thing we had to do was separate the males from the females. Felicity did the sorting. “Are you sure you can tell a female from a male?” I asked but Felicity seemed confident. Some time later we realised she wasn’t very good at sexing: she’d overlooked a male. Soon we were back down at the pet shop buying another cage. And then another…
It was turning into a nightmare. Our mouse population was increasing at an enormous rate. However carefully we tried to separate males from females, a male always seemed to end up in the wrong cage. What were we going to do?
One afternoon, I sat down with the children and we talked about the problem. None of the pet shops wanted mice. None of our friends wanted mice. And we couldn’t keep them all. We’d end up with dozens of cages of mice all around the house. And they were beginning to smell really bad.
“How about we let the mice be country mice?” I suggested. We lived on the edge of a farm. Over the fence was a paddock of cows and plenty of country mice. “We could take all the mice down to the paddock and let them go free. They’d much prefer to live in the paddock than in a small cage, I’m sure.”
The kids weren’t so sure. “What if they come back into the house and Dad catches them in his mouse traps?”
"We’ll walk right into the paddock, far from the house before we set them free.”
Nobody could think of a better plan so we put this one into action. The older children carried the cages. The younger ones took food and water: “Just so they have something to eat while they learn to be country mice. They’ve never had to find food on their own before.”
The mice were set free and everyone trooped back to the house. We sat staring out the window looking at the paddock and then tears started falling from the girls’ eyes.  Soon the slowly rolling tears turned into rivers running down little cheeks, and howls and sobs erupted. And I cried too, a big lump in my throat. I hugged little bodies close and I felt them heave with grief.
The girls cried for their lost pets, the little mice who’d scampered up and down their arms and scurried down tunnels and who’d set  wheels revolving. They cried for the loss of their dream: they never imagined it would end so sadly.
And I cried for the girls. I wouldn’t miss the constant cry of “More babies! We need another cage, Mum!” And I wouldn’t miss the smell. In fact I was secretly rather glad we were once again a mouseless family. But my mother’s heart was breaking because of my girls’ tears.
A mother’s heart? How resilient a mother’s heart needs to be. How many times will mine break as each child grows up?: at the death of a pet, when a child gets teased or left out, when she is sick, when she fails and I have to stand quietly by, when she leaves home and my job is done…
All that is left of those mice is this rather blurry photo. Gemma-Rose was a baby at the time and so she cannot remember those mice. She will tell me she has never had a mouse as a pet like the others. What will I do if she looks at me with those huge blue eyes and makes an appeal? Will I say yes when I’ve vowed to say no? I hope not … But nothing is certain…
Am I the only mother with a too soft heart?

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Grief of Lent

Lent is approaching and my heart feels heavy.
I remember my complaints of one particular year:  “Lent seems to follow much too closely on the heels of Christmas. Sigh! Sigh!” But a friend told me how she was really excited by the coming season: “Lent is such a time of grace. It is such a wonderful opportunity to move closer to God.” And since then, I have always tried to remember her wise words.
It is not the thought of what I will be giving up for 40 days which worries me. I will probably miss my occasional glass of red wine and my chocolate but I know the Feast of Easter will arrive after our season of fasting. And a feast is always enhanced by a fast.
And it is not the thought of making other sacrifices which causes me to become anxious. We are all looking forward to getting out the Lenten sacrifice bean jar on Ash Wednesday. I will enjoy joining my family as they try to surprise others with acts of kindness. I am looking forward to spending more time with our Lord.  Perhaps we will choose a spiritual book to read around the table. I hope to pray more, both alone and with my husband and children. We will all be looking for ways to earn ourselves a bean to pop in the jar. And hopefully, the jar will be overflowing by the end of Lent. And that will be satisfying work.
No, what is making my heart heavy is the knowledge that we are approaching a time of grief and sorrow. We will be following Jesus along His journey to Calvary and to His death on the cross. We will start on Ash Wednesday with the words we associate with burial, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and we will finish in silence at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, crying tears of sorrow as Jesus gives up His life for us.
It will be like accompanying a loved one through grief, feeling the sorrow of someone else’s suffering.
Lent brings back all those feelings of grief suffered by myself and my friends. I think about accompanying a friend during her time of suffering.  I suffer too especially because I feel I cannot do much to relieve her pain. But I offer my prayers, my listening ear and my presence and I hope my friend doesn’t feel totally alone. But at times I can feel so useless. But useless or not, I choose to stay close. It is an honour to be allowed to share a friend’s grief. But sometimes I’d rather suffer myself than watch her suffer.
So during Lent, I am willing to travel the path towards Calvary. Once again I will accompany Jesus. I don’t want to avoid this time but I am very aware of how sorrowful the season is. And my heart is heavy.
I think of my friends who are in the Garden of Gethsemane, and those who are shouldering their cross on the road to Calvary, and those who feel crucified by their pain. As we enter Lent, will they feel comforted by the fact that Our Lord is also suffering? Will they add their sufferings to His? And will they rise again from that pit of sorrow, gaining grace and blessings and new life, just as Jesus will rise on Easter Sunday after the Resurrection?
I am sure Lent will seem very long, and at times it will be difficult. But after the grief and sacrifice of Lent comes the great gift of Easter. And so I look ahead with anticipation to Easter Sunday, a day of joy and hope.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Joys and Frustrations of Being a Creative Mother

Our house is Mary’s house. Pictures of Our Lady adorn every wall, and my favourite of all is the one drawn for me by my sister Vicky.

It is a pencil drawing based on Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola. Vicky gave it to me, and for many years, it remained rolled up in a protective cylinder awaiting a frame and a picture hook. When we moved to a house of our own, several years ago, and I was allowed to knock as many nails into the walls as I desired, I unrolled my treasure. I framed the drawing and hung it in the lounge as part of my ‘gallery’, a row of pictures that are especially dear to me.
I cannot draw. My penciled people don’t even look as good as stick figures, and so I am in awe of Vicky’s talent. It seems rather miraculous to me that she is able to create such beautiful images. I watch transfixed as her pencil flies confidently over the paper.
But even though I am not an artist I feel a bond with Vicky. I understand her need to create. I also have an urge to make something unique, something beautiful, something that expresses the inner me.  I guess that drive, to bring something individual and beautiful into being,  is a faint reflection of God’s creative ability. We, who are born in His image, want to imitate our Maker. But for me, creation does not result in exquisite works of art. On the days when I am bursting with the need to make something, I will sew an embellished skirt for one of my daughters, or a fluffy rabbit with clothes for all occasions for my Goddaughter, or an intricate, redwork embroidery for a friend. Or create a story. What satisfaction there is in finding just the right words to convey an idea or conjure up a picture in the mind.
For a mother, there are often times when creativity must be put aside. The demands of children take first place. That longing to create when it is impossible can be frustrating. There have been times in the past, when I’ve wanted to sew but my arms have been full with a needy baby. Or I have wanted to sit at my computer and let the words flow onto the screen but I have had to nurse a sick child. There have been times when I have just entered that higher plane of creation and then had to bump suddenly back down to earth at the cry of, “Mum, I need…” How difficult that can be. But recently, with my children growing up, I have regained my own quiet time. And how I appreciate being able to use it to create.
I think of Vicky and her talents. I know there are many times she’d like to move into that other world of creation together with her paints or her pencils, but she can’t. Her little creations here in the real world are still demanding her attention.
 I came across a poem by Jan Owens which expresses this dilemma perfectly. In Young Woman Gathering Lemons, a young pregnant mother notices the light gleaming off the lemons she is gathering from a tree. She has an urge to capture the colours on canvas but she knows she hasn’t the time to create, and so tears fall from her eyes. Then her child tugs on her dress and she gives her attention to what is really most important in her life.
 ‘Who’s got a silly old mother, then?’
 She kneels to hug him close and breathe him in:
It dizzies her, the fragrance of his skin.
He nuzzles under the hair come loose.
The fallen lemons, nippled gold,
wait round them in the grass.
Vicky has drawn many pictures of Mary. It is one of her favourite subjects which makes me smile. I remember when Vicky, my sister-in faith, told me she believed in the truth of the Real Presence. She knew she wanted to join the Catholic Church. But there was still so much she felt uncomfortable with: “Sue, I am not at all sure about Mary. I don’t think I could have a devotion to her. It doesn’t feel right.”
I told Vicky not to worry. “Give it time, Vicky. Keep reading and keep praying. I am sure you will come to love Mary. You will soon think of her as a mother.” And as the Holy Spirit worked within Vicky, she came to accept and be thankful for the gift of Our Blessed Mother, whom she’d previously been wary of.
And looking at Vicky’s artwork and her favourite subject, there is no doubt in my mind that my sister loves Our Lady so very much.
Vicky once said to me, “Sue, what will I do with all my time when I no longer have a baby who needs me?” Again, I told her not to worry.  I am sure my sister is going to be very busy sharing her talents. She will create beautiful religious images that will capture our hearts and turn our thoughts to God. Or she will delight us with her unique portraits.
Vicky is hoping to create her own blog and share her stories and her pictures.  Maybe you, like me, will one day treasure one of her creations.

PS My blurry photos do not do justice to Vicky's drawings.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


I shouldn’t really have been there. I had accepted an invitation I should have refused. How could I promise to guide him in the Faith? The only Faith I knew about was the Catholic Faith and my nephew was about to be baptised in a Protestant church. It took four Protestant Godchildren before I realised that really I shouldn’t have accepted the honour of becoming Godmother to my nephews and nieces. I am a very slow learner.

When I finally came to understand the situation clearly, I consulted God: perhaps my four Protestant Godchildren could become Catholics? Then I’d have no problem whatsoever promising to guide them in the Faith. But before my Godchildren could become Catholics, my sister Vicky would have to convert. And that did not seem very likely. But the unexpected does happen and I’d like to share a miraculous story.
It all started at Vicky’s fourth child’s baptism. Her church had changed a lot since I’d first visited it for her eldest child’s baptism about 7 years earlier. The chairs were no longer in rows but had been rearranged in circles; the priest had turned into a priestess; the traditional prayers had disappeared in favour of spontaneous offerings from the congregation; “Holy Communion” had given way to a prayer service so as not to exclude those who were not eligible to receive “Our Lord”; the old traditional hymns had been replaced with more upbeat happy tunes that beckoned hands to clap and feet to stamp in time. As I was told, the service had become friendlier, more inclusive, more involving for the parishioners. But it felt very alien to a traditional Catholic like me. And it was beginning to occur to me that I didn’t really belong, that I shouldn’t have agreed to become Godmother to yet another Protestant child.
On returning home, I phoned my sister to thank her for her hospitality while I was visiting her the weekend of the baptism. Vicky must have been tired. She needed an ear to pour all her troubles into. “I don’t know why I go to church,” she lamented. “As soon as we get inside the church, the baby starts to fuss and I have to take him outside. I never feel part of the service.”
I could relate to this situation completely. How many hours had I spend outside, listening to the sounds of Mass come wafting through the doorway? What could I say to help Vicky? And then I must have been divinely inspired for I found myself saying, “Even when I go to Mass and spend most of the time outside the church with the baby, I still treasure those few moments of prayer in front of the tabernacle. To come to the church and to be in the presence of Our Lord even for a few minutes makes it all worthwhile.” There was silence at the other end of the phone line. I am sure Vicky didn’t understand what I was talking about.
I continued, “Is there a tabernacle in your church? I noticed a sanctuary lamp on the wall but I didn’t see a tabernacle. Was I just looking in the wrong place?”
Vicky wasn’t sure what a tabernacle was and so she wasn’t aware if her church had one. But I’d made her curious and she promised to find out more.
The next time we spoke, Vicky told me the church didn’t have a tabernacle which didn’t surprise me. She wanted to know more about the tabernacle in our own Catholic church. So I explained that Jesus is present physically, Body and Blood, soul and divinity within the tabernacle. He waits there for us to come and visit. I explained about transubstantiation, how Jesus comes down from Heaven at the word of the priest and how we receive Him during Holy Communion. This was too much for Vicky. The concept of the Real Presence was too fantastical for her to accept. But her thoughts kept returning to this: Were we Catholics deceived? Did we believe in a fairy tale? Or was there a chance Jesus really could be present physically within our tabernacles?
Soon Vicky wanted to know more. How did I know the Real Presence is true? What evidence is there for it? Could I convince her? I did a lot of praying about the situation. Then I asked my friend Helen for help. We searched her bookshelves for anything that might help Vicky. For weeks, books and letters flew between Vicky’s mailbox and mine. Every few days I’d receive another letter from Vicky containing her musings and her questions. And every few days I’d sit at the kitchen table and laboriously handwrite what I hoped would be convincing answers. I asked the Holy Spirit to guide my pen.
At one point I can remember writing something along the lines of: “Be careful. Searching for the truth about the Real Presence might lead you to investigate other truths. What if you decide to accept them? Once accepted, you will have to live by them. That will mean great changes in your life. Are you prepared for that? Do you want to continue the search for answers?” Vicky didn’t have a choice. She’d gone too far. She had to know. And anyway, I suppose she thought she’d never be convinced that Jesus is really present on our altars and in our tabernacles. Maybe she thought it was quite safe to continue her investigation because the whole thing seemed too foreign for her to ever accept.
And it did indeed look like I’d never convince Vicky. I had presented her with every argument and evidence I could about the Real Presence. We discussed Chapter 6 of St John’s gospel, I’d sent her every book on Helen’s shelf that referred to the Real Presence. I’d answered all her questions to the best of my ability. I had got to the end of my argument. I knew I had no more to offer. I knew they’d be no more letters. “I can’t explain it any more clearly, Vicky.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Jesus is here with us. I believe with all my heart and all my soul. Maybe it’s a mystery but I just believe.”
I didn’t hear from Vicky for a while. I wished I could do more but I knew I couldn’t. I wanted my sister to believe so she could pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament, so she could receive the gift of the Holy Eucharist, so we could share the same Faith. But only the Holy Spirit can convert. My part was over. Then one evening, just as I was getting ready for bed, the phone rang. An unsteady voice whispered down the line: “I believe!”
Vicky believed but I could hardly believe she believed! It seemed like a miracle, a huge unexpected gift. I found it hard to take in Vicky’s words. And then all of a sudden a thought struck me: How was I going to explain that although the Real Presence is a reality, Jesus is only found in the tabernacles of the Catholic Church? But Vicky was one step ahead of me. She’d already realised this. She knew that she’d have to accept the whole truth of the Catholic Church. She believed in the Real Presence, the Real Presence is found only in the Catholic Church so she had to accept everything. She wouldn’t be able to pick and choose.
It is not an easy decision to convert. Vicky lost many of her friends who just didn’t understand. Maybe they felt betrayed. She lost her place in society and had to start all over again building new connections and new support networks. But although she’d lost so much, she’d found an unexpected Treasure. She’d found Jesus.
At the Easter Vigil 12 years ago, I laid my hand on Vicky’s shoulder as she was confirmed in the Catholic Church. And some weeks later, my four Protestant Godchildren became my four Catholic Godchildren. Maybe God understood and accepted my error. Once again I am so grateful to God for fixing up yet another of my many mistakes.
I think about all the truths of the Catholic Church. How could I possibly explain them all clearly and convincingly to anyone outside the Church? But I didn’t need to convince Vicky of everything. All we had to talk about was the Real Presence. She came to realise that Jesus was waiting there in the Church for her; she knew He was waiting to give Himself to her; He wanted to give her the grace to overcome sin and remove the barriers between them ; He wanted to give her His love; He wanted them to be one.  Vicky couldn’t resist Our Lord. Nothing else mattered. She had to come home to the Catholic Church.