THE LITTLE HOUSE sits on my bedroom shelves all year round, quietly gathering dust. Barely an inch square – its frosted cardboard walls shabby and peeling, the hint of pink glitter at its lower windows hardly convincing – this house is nearly 90 years old. Less a decoration, more a holy relic. But I love it dearly. Because this belonged to my mother Kathleen, one of the few objects of hers that still remains. And every time I look at it, it reminds me of her.
Once a year it is brought downstairs – displayed amidst the winter candles, placed on the tree, and lit, for a few weeks, in a hazy glow of memory and glory, before disappearing back upstairs, as another year turns.
Kathleen died in 2005, at 82 years old. She grew up in urban Lancashire, at a time of hardship and austerity, between the two world wars. Her mother died young, so she was brought up by her grocer dad and a rather fierce and forbidding Aunt Lil. There was no money for luxuries. It was a somewhat punishing, gloomy era. And as a result – even when her circumstances eased, and she had a family of her own – mum acquired a habit of self denial and thrift that persisted for the whole of her life.
My sister-in-law told me once that when they took my parents on a trip over to France, to stock up on food and wine from the bulging French hypermarkets – even as my father loaded the crates with chablis and fruity reds, the one thing Kathleen chose was a big bag of salt.
Unsentimental and practical to a fault, the only time my mother became openly emotional was when she remembered her childhood. Home, I got the impression, was not a particularly happy place. Despite having two close cousins living not far away, she was a rather wistful, lonely little girl. In light of which, the little cardboard house gathers a symbolic poignancy, as well as dust.
But Kathleen compensated her grief in spectacular fashion, by turning into a vivacious, fun-loving, adventurous – and rather wild – young woman. She met my dad in her early 20s, and they married soon after.
“She used to run all the way to work – run everywhere”, he said, as he recalled – not long before his own death in 2010 – his first glimpses of my mother. “I had never seen anyone so beautiful, so full of life.”
Determined to create a big family of her own, after the fracture of her early life, Kathleen went on to have three children – I am the youngest, with two older brothers – and to establish a household that was hectic, noisy, chaotic. Full of shouting. Full of laughter. Teeming with life.
And that house was never busier than at christmas and new year, when there were parties and gatherings of various haphazard and gleeful proportions. None of which seemed to phase my mother, who simply didn’t stand on ceremony of any kind.
If you came to our house, at any time of year, then you knew what you were in for. There was always delicious food, but sometimes erratically presented. When two schoolfriends came for tea once, she cut the first slice of home-made apple pie proudly at the table – only to reveal a large, scrunched up lump of silver foil, which had been carelessly abandoned at some point during pie preparation, then somehow sealed under the crust and cooked, alongside the fruit, to emerge, in a triumphant swirl of steam, when the pie was opened.
There were certainly gifts at christmas time – but scantily wrapped, in paper re-cycled from the previous year, or the year before that. There was a tree – but the decoration was lopsided, gaudy. And somewhere in the branches, was the frosted cardboard house – miraculously surviving, season after season, with the least possible care given to its status or preservation.
One of my brother’s friends would make the pilgrimage up to our house every year during the holiday season, standing, without invitation, at the front door, having escaped his own family, where everything was rather dull and ordinary. Occasionally we would apologise to him, when some argument kicked off at an inopportune moment. His eyes would shine. “I like it when you argue”, he said. And he meant it.
But things come full circle. The noise and the hectic subsides. My own immediate family – just myself and my grown up daughter – is small and very calm in comparison to mother’s mayhem. We don’t go in for big parties during the darkness of winter – preferring to go out into the world to do our wassailing, and then disappear back through the bright red door of our house, and into the blessed quiet.
It is 11 years since mum died, and the world still seems an unnecessarily serious place, without her sense of fun and her peals of giddy laughter. There will always be a mother-shaped absence in my life. Still, there is beauty and comfort in the ritual of the seasons turning – tealights and candles burning through the dark winter nights, waiting for the return of spring. A house full of light in the absence of the sun. And mum’s miniature house, dusted off, and lifted downstairs to be among the twinkle. Reminding me of my indomitable mother, and of the little girl she once was : holding, as we all do, to the fundamental need for the light, the welcome – and the warm winter refuge – of HOME.