My step-daughter, Kerri, is engaged to be married.   We are all thrilled for her, and wish her and her fiancé, and her 7 year old daughter, every happiness in their new family.

Relations between stepmother and stepchildren are  supposedly difficult, yet I always found my stepchildren were more than willing to meet me half way.   They never lived with us full time, however, which probably made the situation less pressured.

My stepson, Darren, who is the elder, is a clever fellow, not obviously like his father in personality, self contained, tall, physically impressive, good looking.    He has that faint air of Don’t-mess-with-me, concealed beneath a thin veil of apparent good nature, common to all the Armstrong males.     He holds strong opinions and has high standards in things he cares about.   I have always found him to be of sound judgement.    He always treated me with every courtesy:  I cannot recall him ever saying (to me) a rude or unkind thing.   He is one of the people most graceful in departure that I have ever met, and this is such a wonderful attribute that it is a pity that more people do not possess it.   He married earlier, and he has a lovely wife and nice family that clearly give him great pleasure.     (Actually, when I re-read what I have written he is much more like his father than at first appears.)

Kerri is more out-going than her brother, and although she has a perfectly good mother of her own, I have had the pleasure of sharing some of the fun aspects between mother and daughter – helping her learn how to dress;  a distraught call from university saying she could only remember how to cook baked beans; my being required from a standing start to produce an assessment of D H Lawrence for an exam she hadn’t realised she’d have to sit that day (of course she passed!).   She became a teacher, and eventually Head of English and Drama at her school and I enjoy talking to her on these matters.   She’s an attractive woman, tall, honey blonde, a generous smile, an engaging personality.   She’s good-natured (a most rare quality in our family : I would say she was the easiest going member of it by far).   She’s always charming company.   She’s a devoted mother to her little girl.

One of the things I was most anxious about in relation to my step-children was how they would react to my own children, because when they were all small my stepchildren were so much the bigger and more powerful.  But I was touched and grateful to find that they were very kind and extremely patient to their half sisters and brother.

They shared our holidays, so we have memories in common of being together on my father’s fields in Banffshire; on Arran;  a holiday in Lewis;  holidays in France.    In France, elderly French gentlemen used to make me a little bow of acknowledgement as the Maman of such a fine, large family, and I always guiltily felt like saying (but didn’t), Ah no, all the credit is not due to me!

It wasn’t all plain sailing of course.  Your stepchildren as teenagers are just as much a pain as your own children will prove to be later.   We had a foretaste of the difficulties of each stage of growing up children in advance of actually experiencing it ourselves.  I remember wondering after the first few weekends the young children spent with us what was wrong with them that I was utterly exhausted after their visits!  Of course I later learned there was nothing whatever wrong with them:  bringing up children is just utterly exhausting!

As I write this, I realise how extremely fortunate I was in my step-children.   Being the children of divorced parents is not a joy ride for anybody.    Plus I am by no means a conventional or unchallenging person to deal with at close quarters.      John’s love for them and desire to be a good  father to them as much as circumstances permitted was the foundation stone we all leaned on, but the children themselves showed courage and resilience, and a capacity for forgiveness and tolerance, that enabled them to surmount all these difficulties with considerable style.   I’m very proud of my stepchildren, and honoured to be a guest at their weddings.



So we approach the Winter Solstice once again.

I believe the Chinese have a saying, May you live in uninteresting times.   Well, 2011 was an interesting year.    When you look back on it – Japanese earthquake  and tsunami and nuclear danger, the Arab Spring, the collapse of the banking system, the perilous position of the Euro, it does not seem one of the sunniest we have ever enjoyed.   We ourselves had ‘an interesting year’ but we seem to have survived it with no lasting damage.

Of course there were some good times – the lovely wedding of Rory and Sarah in Switzerland, the days high in the Swiss alps in the apartment which Sarah’s parents kindly lent us, and the visit to her family home in a beautiful part of France which was new to us.   Also a peaceful holiday John and I had on Orkney, that magic and wonderful island, and seeing family and friends in Scotland on our way there.    In our difficulties at the time of John’s illness, our family and friends were very kind and generous to us and we would not have managed without their support, for which we are forever grateful.

But now we must look forward to the coming year and whatever adventure it brings.     For us the chief anticipated event is the wedding of Elisabeth and Rob in Sussex in mid summer, and the gathering of all our five children and their families in one place, which is a rare event – together with family and friends.   There is the pleasure of watching and helping (we hope) our newly married children establish their own homes, and the continued growing up of our grandchildren.    We hope to visit and receive friends and family  besides that and look forward to this.    Certainly none of us could have predicted the events of this year, but I think I may be forgiven for hoping that next year is perhaps not quite so exciting as this one was.    As President George Bush (Snr) once said, what’s wrong with boring?

I’m going to take my leave of you until then.   I hope this year has brought you more pleasure than pain, and that the coming year is favourable for you and yours.

Thank you for accompanying me during 2011, and I hope you will be with me in 2012.



The wedding of her brother having taken place, Elisabeth and I are discussing plans for her wedding next
year.   I am happy to report that the problems recounted below no longer apply and we can recommend a very helpful establishment to anyone in our area.

One day last February – house in chaos, noisy, cold – new boiler being fitted.    Wearing plaid new jacket (bought in Spain, 15 Eu) escape out with Carolyn.   It is a bright sunny day.

We go to  cake decorating shop in nearby town run by fát wheezing old lady who reminds me of a Pekinese in her unhealthy petulance.   Shop full of hideous, bad taste brides and grooms, highly coloured sugar flowers and illustrations of truly horrible looking cakes that you wouldn’t fancy eating let alone buying.   Carolyn buys a few neutral items for a forthcoming party – Carolyn has excellent taste –  while I look around.    I tell the woman I am to make a wedding cake but not until next year.     She snuffles around and then observes sourly, Of course a lot can happen in a year…   I think, and a pox on your head also, and I exit the shop.      I won’t be going there even if I do have a collapse of taste and want a Fat Controller man and a farmer’s wife bride plus flowers of no colour that nature ever intended to grace some attention seeking cake.

We  examine various coffee shops : I decline them all.

Carolyn drives on to Hassocks where we stop outside a Bridal shop.   Elisabeth is coming home in May and wishes to visit such a place with me but she has limited time.      Carolyn and I approach the shop where the window boldly displays, brilliant as a Belisha beacon, a crinoline dress of deepest red such as might have gladdened the heart of Scarlet O’Hara plus a pretty wedding dress.        The doors are locked but we can see a  casually dressed woman within.    Carolyn raps on the glass and summons her.    She unlocks the door  and her opening words to us are, I can’t see you now, a bride is due to arrive.    I’m for turning on my heel, but Carolyn says pleasantly we’d just like a look around.   Reluctantly she admits us but darkly informs us that we’ll have to take our shoes off.     The floor is wooden.    Our shoes neither have heels nor are they wet.   I’m tired by this time and rather shaky.   It’s not that simple taking my shoes off.   ‘Why do we have to take our shoes off?’ I demand of Carolyn.   Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex has her shoes on.    By this time,  Carolyn (may she be rewarded for her patience) has resorted to humouring me as you would  a fractious child.      Meanwhile, Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex is standing in the open door gossiping to friends who were passing.   I never move off the mat so she must be aware that I am a miasmic column of dark cloud at her elbow giving off occasional lightening flashes.    Carolyn kindly suggests that she fetch me a chair and brings me the dresses but the only chair is too heavy to move.   Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex gossips on.   She never so much as glances in our direction.   “Let’s go,” I say to Carolyn who nods in agreement.     “Excuse me,” I say to Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex.   As we step past her, through her two gossiping friends, she tutts in vocal disapproval.

As we drive off having asked several people on the street if this village has somewhere nice for
coffee and been directed to a Chinese restaurant which wasn’t really what we had in mind, we recall  that we visited an equally unimpressive wedding dress establishment in Lewes, not quite so unprofessional but just as unwelcoming, in the run up to Carolyn’s daughter’s wedding.   What is wrong with these places?   I would have thought two older matrons such as ourselves would be potentially valuable customers.    We’re unlikely to be fantasists trying on wedding dresses not yet having secured the groom.   We could be what we were, mother of the bride and friend sussing out the place to make an appointment to return with the bride to be; or we could be mothers of the bride shopping for bridesmaids’ dresses, or grandmothers looking for  flower girl or communion dresses.   Profitable business, all of it.   Well, Elisabeth and I won’t be going there.   These women, for some reason that I don’t understand, have an attitude problem.   It’s as if you ought to be grateful to be allowed to patronise their glorious establishment.     They should remind themselves hourly that you are the Customer and the Lady, and they are the salesgirl who is there to help you (and relieve you of your cash.)

We stop in Ditchling and fall into the arms of The General where we are graciously received and restored
with a cup of Lapsang Souchong and a delicious, moist, enormous Bakewell Tart shared between us (well, Carolyn has an elegant sufficiency and I have the rest) and come laughing out into the street where we discover that Carolyn has been given a ticket for illegal parking in spite of the fact that we are clearly displaying my Disabled Person’s card.     (This is entirely my mistake and stupidity:  I have forgotten to display the clock.)

In these places today, we got neither the service, nor the smile.   Oh, for the Japanese sales lady!

Revolving Many Memories


Returned from Geneva, after the marriage of my son, I sit
here like Sir Bedevere, ‘revolving many memories.’

I haven’t written any diary since the beginning of April –
possibly the longest gap of my life, but as one by one the fragments of recall
slot in to their place in the endless vaults of memory, I walk the long
corridors of my inner house and find my writing room as inviting as ever, so I
step in and close the door, and here I sit once more.

This has been a difficult and event filled year and although
cautious about declaring that we have survived the ordeals (who knows what
tomorrow will bring) I do feel achievement, gratitude and a sense of relaxation
to be returning to ‘normal’ now at home.

In attending Rory’s wedding, I returned to Switzerland after
an absence of over 40 years, and found it largely unchanged, and my opinion of
it the same as well.    In its topography
of course it is a lovely country, and it was delightful to relax in Sarah’s
parents comfortable  apartment in
Chamix-Lac and watch the lake, forest and mountains fade in and out of view in
the mist.   Those of you who are Scots
will realise when I say I am a woman who panics on the old road to Aplecross,
that I felt by the time we had ascended to the alpine village that we had
probably reached the lower echelons of heaven!
Here too we were able to have some private time with Elisabeth and Rob.

There was the pleasure later of meeting up with guests, some
well known to us and others just newly met, who had come to share in our
rejoicing and grace our happy event with their presence.    Our hotel in Route d’Aerodrome had pesky
little flies, and pesky little aeroplanes too who would fling themselves in a
foolhardy manner down the short runway and then with much flapping of wings and
pedalling by passengers just succeed in clearing the roof of our building before
stuttering off into the darkness to come bumbling back a few hours later.   But it was also where we had a wonderful
meal with Elisabeth and Rob, with superb food.
(Tomatoes in chocolate:

The little church at Gingins was lovely; an unusual shape
but pleasingly plain though with lovely stained glass windows, some modern and
some older.    It was known for some
reason as The Temple of Gingins, and it amused me to think of my son being
married at some pagan temple (I swear by Apollo…) – he is a lawless Armstrong
after all!    When I first saw him
walking up the road towards the church, his kilt swinging with his step, and
accompanied by Matt, his Best Man,  Rory
looked so archetypally Scottish and handsome (forgive me: I am his mother, god
help him, so must be excused) with all his essential qualities fleetingly
visible in his concealed nervousness, that I felt like weeping at the sight of
him. But I could not because he would have failed to understand why I was
weeping on what was undoubtedly a day of joy and happiness.

John, still a comfort in a weary land for me, and I went
in to the church early, and felt it filling up behind us.   Then we saw Alexandra leading her little
sisters down the steps, all of whom looked as if they understood that this was an
important occasion and they were privileged to take part.    Sarah, the bride, princess of the day in
the settings she had chosen, looked happy and glowing as a bride should in her
beautiful dress.    My own lovely
daughters, gracious and courageous women both, who had so generously supported
John and me, beamed across the church their encouragement.   Elisabeth had delivered a fine version of a
sonnet at the civil ceremony, and Joanna read out an Irish blessing – a superb
piece of writing – and was so moved by the occasion that her  delivery faltered a little, but it made the
words all the more moving.    I noted how
well Sarah’s parents looked, and how thoughtful and pleased Richard seemed as
he watched his daughter become a wife.
Martha, Sarah’s sister, was very pretty, and her brother Tom had a
handsome and vigorous face.   The female
cleric who presided over the religious part of the celebration had good looks
and presence, and the nottaire, also a lady, brought warmth and an air of
celebration to the legal (civil) section.
The friends of the family received us with real kindness, and it was
good to see our own family and friends gathered in this unfamiliar place to
share a memorable event.     And don’t
men look handsome when they dress in their suits?    All the ladies looked lovely in their
finery and it was especially nice to share the event with my sister in law,
Susan, and my friends, Anne and Carolyn.

We were lucky in many things, but especially in the
weather.    There was no day without some
rain, but the sun came out obligingly whenever we needed it.    It was also
‘lucky’ that guests, having arrived early for the religious service on
Saturday were just wandering past on an exploratory walk by the lakeside as we
gathered there for the civic.   In celtic
society where great emphasis was placed on the stringent laws of hospitality, a
place was kept for the unexpected guest, so this charming young couple were
briskly swept up by the rest of us and gathered in, their protests about lack
of suitable clothes completely ignored.  They
were the kind of people who would look good in an old sack anyway!  The ‘grand old lady’ of the occasion was
Katherine’s Aunt, and she seemed to enjoy the event in her unassuming way.

Sophie, Sarah’s colleague and the translator for the
‘civic’ turned out to be one of those people you’d pick to stand beside you in
the heat of the battle because of her watchful competence, her cheerful
reliability and her unselfishness.   And
Matt, Rory’s friend of long standing and Best Man, proved indeed to be a good
man and true.    Throughout the day he
had been largely a withdrawn, silent figure.
Yet he stood up at the end and delivered what I thought was a
magnificent speech, one in which I recognised someone who knew our complex and
elusive son exceedingly well, and who, I saw, was a match for Rory in intelligence,
insight and thinking power.    He had
experienced difficulties in getting to the wedding and had been obliged to come
without his wife which we regretted.   He
delivered his amusing speech with grace and generosity, tact and
thoughtfulness.   He knew our man, and he
spoke well of him, and for his truth and courtesy he can count us among his
friends forever.

After that we could all relax.   There was a lovely reception on the terrace
of a vineyard with a stunning view of the lake.   We could see the Jet d’Eau at Geneva and there
was that kind of evening light that illuminates every crevice of the
mountains.   We moved into a marquee for
the meal, which was delicious.
Katherine and I took our hats off together and flung them in a corner.

There were some irritating and amusing incidents.   Various people had run foul of Swiss
bureaucracy (though none to serious effect.)
There were annoying flies who seemed to lurk outside your room (however
many you killed) and rush in whenever the door opened.     Things were so expensive you would see men
bracing themselves as they glanced at the bill.    All the branches of our family (except
possibly – I don’t know – the bride and groom) had rip-roaring rows of the
I’ll-just-go-home-by-myself type, which statement fortunately the wretched man
who has caused the lady this distress has the wit and kindness to ignore, and
therefore shortly after to be restored to his accustomed role as hero.   Taxis seemed to be the cause of some grief
(quite apart from the extraordinary cost.)
One man had to be decidedly firm in explaining that this was NOT his
hotel, and no, his wife in her wedding finery could not be expected to leg it
across the vineyards;  another couple
discovered that though they had been delivered – at vast expense – to their
correct hotel, neither of them had a key;
the main building could not be opened, and they had to walk in darkness
to the bride’s parents’ home and sneak in un-noticed to the sofa;  and another unfortunate fellow had to offer
an eyewateringly expensive tip on top of the excruciating bill because his companion
had been unwell.   (I won’t name names –
you know who you are!)

We sent down a party to assist Joanna and Lawrence to put
up their tent on arrival, so John supervising because he had erected it
previously; Rob and Rory assisting;
Lawrence nominally in charge because it was his tent and he needed to
learn how to do it, but too exhausted to function unaided;   three crying children;  a frazzled Joanna, plus Elisabeth and
me.    We girls took the children on a
little tour of the campsite and the four men had the tent up in no time. But
the looks of dismay of the orderly elderly Swiss caravanners  around us at our sudden invasion of the
field, with car doors slamming, orders being shouted, children crying, general
chaos and disorder, was quite amusing.
It was great fun being all together with our children and their
partners, in each of whom, we do rejoice.

Finally, a most delightful party at Grande-Fontaine where
Richard and Katherine have their main home.
Her garden is one of those where great skill and effort has been
expended to create a garden that just looks like it was always growing there
naturally.    Food and hospitality here
and the tact and kindness of their friends were equally wonderful.   In addition we discovered a new and
unexplored part of France, unspoilt and utterly charming which we hope to
explore (should the pound ever recover) at our leisure.   Lons-le-Saunier was one of those French
towns for the French, with an elegant square and delightful streets leading off
it, and a colonnaded avenue of nice shops (all closed: our men are not
stupid.)   We stayed in a farmhouse with
huge, simple rooms, where the children could wander among hens and farm
animals, and where you sat down to dinner each night with no menu but just
received what had been picked from the garden.

And, lastly, our lovely young couple, happy to be setting
out together on their journey through life.
They had a good send off from their family and friends.   May they make good all their promises, and
may the god by whom they swore their oaths guard and walk with them, always.

And the Bride Wore


Weddings are big business in Japan.   Often a bride will have a traditional ceremony with kimono;  a ‘white’ wedding – we saw one taking place in a shopping mall complete with tolling bell – and in addition the bride will at some point don a coloured ‘wedding’ dress.

We observed two weddings passing through shrines.   The groom wears a short black kimono, and black and silver wide legged trousers, and carries a fan.   The bride has a white and red kimono and a white and unflattering headdress which looks like a collapsed wimple.   In one case the bride’s dress was pinned to the floor for the photographs.   They did not seem to object to the tourist throngs jostling for photographs, though the bride did seem gratified when passersby smiled and said ‘Lovely’ as she passed.   The female wedding guests could be extremely elegant in their kimonos.

Elisabeth decided to take the opportunity to commence her wedding dress search while I was with her so she booked an appointment with one of the leading wedding dress stores, and we duly arrived by taxi and were met by our vendeuse.  The building was designed in the shape of a wedding cake and there was a pillar outside topped by Cinderella in her pumpkin coach.     We were taken to one of the upper floors and presented with books of their designs, which were mostly of the Dior New Look style – boned bodice and bouffant skirt (which is not really what Elisabeth is looking for.)   If we were slightly disappointed that their designs were (to us) a trifle clichéd, they seemed slightly dismayed by her height.   “She very tall girl” the vendeuse said to me, as though it were my fault.

We chose a few of their plainer dresses and the vendeuse and I were seated while Elisabeth with two dressers disappeared behind curtains.   She reported that firstly she was laced into a corset affair so tightly she could hardly breathe, and this was not apparently because she was a giant geijin (foreigner) but is standard practice.

The curtains were swept apart .   It is slightly startling to see your daughter transformed into  ‘The Bride’.   The staff all clap and exclaim in Japanese how marvellous she looks.   Fond mother that I am, of course I think Elisabeth would look good in an old sack, and she does look very nice, but it is not exactly what she had in mind.   Two other creations are tried on.     We suggest some minor alternations and eventually ‘the designer’ descends from on high.     The other staff are extremely deferential to her.  I got the feeling that we weren’t sufficiently acknowledging of the honour done to us.     We describe what Elisabeth wants and under my direction fabric is draped for the desired effect.    The designer agrees that it can be done.

They then experiment with various accessories, jewellery, flowers, veil…    Elisabeth declines the veil.    They produce a headdress of flowers.   By this time, with her high heels and her head-dress, she is about as tall as a guardsman in his bearskin hat, and  amid the exclamations of delight, the vendeuse says to me with sudden doubt, ‘How tall future husband?’   She looks relieved when I say, Very tall.

Eventually comes the calculation.   Hundreds of thousands of yen.    Elisabeth says she will let them know.  In the taxi home, she says to me, how much do you think?    I take the price I think it would be worth, and double it.     The actual price is three times my doubled estimate.    It was of beautiful silk and lace and lovely in every way, but not really ideal for Elisabeth and her circumstances.   We thought not.

While we were there they offered me a catalogue of extremely elaborate Mother of the Bride outfits.    I was surprised that many of them were in black, and the vendeuse did not appear to know that you would not normally wear black as the mother of the bride.    She enquired about the men, and I said (speaking of the Scots men), they will be wearing kilts.      Scottish kilts, I added, for clarification and her face brightened.    With  hats? She asked.     Hats, I thought – why does she think hats?    Is her vision of a man in a kilt a soldier of a Scots regiment with his uniformed headgear?     Is she visualising the bonnet with the feather?    Some period movie?  No hats, I say firmly.    She looks disappointed.

While we are there on the same floor is another bride-to-be having the final fitting of her wedding dress – one of the boned bodice, bouffant skirted affairs.    She looks very pretty in it.    But we are astonished to see that she is accompanied by  her fiancé, who is consulted on various points.

It was a most interesting  experience, but I look forward to helping Elisabeth (if she wishes) to choose her dress in England!