How are you …. today?

Watching the bakers make baguettes during The Great British Bake Off’s bread week took me back to the wonderful summer I spent eating fresh food in France. I worked and lived in a community for adults with disabilities. Twice a day we had a delivery of fresh baguettes from the local bakery. Having been brought up eating tasteless sliced loaves, I found myself in bread heaven. All our food including meat and produce was fresh. During a recent visit to Paris I observed the city centre to be a series of mini villages. Bakeries, butchers & grocery shops are buzzing with customers. Sadly where we live in Dublin there is no “village” for fresh food on our doorstep.  If I want to eat fresh bread, I have to make my own. For the first time I attempted baguettes. The bake only uses 4 ingredients (flour, yeast, salt & water.) The recipe I used (see below) allowed me to use the dough hook in my free standing mixer. This took out the effort and mess of kneading a wet dough. The result was absolutely delicious and a real treat. I had low expectations as my baguettes didn’t double in size while resting like the recipe described but I’ve discovered skinny (walking stick shaped) baguettes taste good too!

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While working in France I quickly had to learn a new way to greet people. It was the role of the person arriving to go around the room acknowledging each individual. Women kissed men and women (one on each cheek). Men kissed women and shoke hands with other men. We asked and responded to “ça va?” (How are you?). Mealtimes were sociable, everyone ate slowly together and no one left the lunch table until long after the food was finished. When pregnant with Conor the idealist in me visualised a lifetime of French style mealtimes with each family member being given the opportunity to talk and be listened to.

As a young adult I moved to Dublin and for the second time in my life I found myself having to think about social greetings. I noticed people asked me  “Howaya or how are you?” however, by the time I delivered my stock phrase “I’m fine thank you, how are you?” the person asking would be long gone. I learnt they were simply meaning “hello”.

I’ve had to re-think the question “how are you?” in my new life. Now people who know me and know about Conor ask the question and (usually) wait for a response.  I gave my mother a hard time in those first weeks after Conor died. She continually asked me the question and I responded through my sobs with “what a stupid question, can you not see how I am?” Looking back, I think she was probably asking “are you feeling any better – yet?” as it hurt her to see her daughter like this. It has been so difficult trying to think of how to answer “how are you?”. It is such an enormous question and does the person asking it really want to know the depths of the pain I feel? Some mothers I’ve met simply answer “I’m fine” when they know they are not fine. I made a vow to myself from very early on that I would be honest when asked. I knew it would be too exhausting for me to pretend otherwise. I have learnt a new way of interpreting the question “how are you?”; I now hear “how are you … today?” This question is much more manageable.  I answer honestly according to how I am on a given day. My new stock phrases are “I’m having a good day/I’m having a bad day”. I hope on bad days I get a chance to talk and be listened to. Why ask me how I am if you are not prepared to go with the answer? I know that my honesty leaves some people feeling uncomfortable. However, I know that for them this feeling will be temporary and they will quickly get back to their own lives. I would have a lifetime of  pretending if I simply said “fine”.  In learning to live my new life I know honesty is my best policy.

We all know people struggling right now with grief, depression, illness, stress etc.  My message to you is to think about how you greet and ask that all important question. Don’t just say hello but think  about asking;

“how are you … today?”

Please spread the word and share this message.

*top tip

Here’s the recipe. I wouldn’t attempt this without a free standing mixer. There are no preservatives in the recipe so you’ll need to eat the bread on the day you bake it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/paul_hollywoods_55351

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All around the world

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This is one of a batch of Portuguese Custard Tarts I made at the weekend. I grew up on custard being poured over sponges, tinned fruit and often just into empty bowls during school and university refectory dinners. Not one of those puddings from my childhood comes close to the delicious custard taste in this tart. The Portuguese have got it right. It was my first time making custard and I can’t believe I waited until now to give it a try. I used a very simple recipe from the BBC (see below for link). I’m still amazed that the eggs didn’t scramble while heating the custard ingredients over the pan. I cheated and used ready to roll puff pastry. A professional baker I once met told me that life is too short for making puff pastry! If a professional can cheat then so can an enthusiastic amateur. It’s not my prettiest bake but it was up there for taste sensation. Next time I plan to use all butter puff pastry and will shape the pastry into higher sided cups to contain the filling better.

Conor is now world famous. I have no idea who is reading our story but I know which countries any readers log in from. There have even been two viewings from Portugal; home of the delicious Portuguese Tart. After Conor died, his Daddy and I came off social media. We closed down our (not very active) Facebook accounts as we wanted to protect ourselves and control how and when we heard news.  Our little house in Dublin became our world.

Today is “Day of Hope”. All over the world bereaved parents are flying prayer flags they have made to honour their babies who didn’t get to stay. All over the world the breeze is sending out our prayers. Here are the flags made by Conor’s wee cousin, his Auntie and me, his Mummy:

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We made Conor’s flags on a day that now holds very special memories. We all met at my parent’s house to celebrate Conor’s cousin’s 6th birthday. It became clear to us that this would be our last day all together as my father’s health was deteriorating. Stars of course feature but the middle flag also contains buttons from one of my Dad’s shirts and a metal button from an old pair of his jeans saying “Hold Fast”.  Within four days of us making these Conor’s Grandad John passed away.  Conor’s flags have been flown in my parent’s garden in London and are currently flying in our garden. We also brought them with us and hung them out during our walk around Howth Head in Dublin. This is a walk Conor’s Daddy and I do regularly to “recharge”.

I no longer know who or what I need to pray to for my intentions but I get great energy  and comfort from being part of this Day of Hope and from being part of this international community of mothers and fathers.  I am back on Facebook and twitter following bereaved parent groups and I am also part of an internet discussion forum. This time I am more active than ever. I follow, like, post, comment, tweet and reply. I know I am not alone. All over the world there are mothers just like me missing their sons and daughters and without social media we would not have found each other.  Thanks to social media Conor is now “well travelled”:

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I’d like to say a big thank you to all those parents who support each other online and to Carly Marie in Australia who set up today’s Day of Hope as part of her “project heal” following the loss of her son Christian http://www.carlymarieprojectheal.com.  Conor has even travelled as far as Christian’s beach in Australia:

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*Top tip:

Here’s the link to today’s recipe. Remember, it’s ok to use pre-made pastry. Jus-Rol makes all butter puff pastry.

http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1812636/portugese-custard-tarts

Conor’s 1st Birthday Cake

Letter to Conor on his 1st Birthday …

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Dear Conor,

Happy 1st Birthday to you,

We hope you like the star cake and star balloon. We made the cake in your Grandma’s kitchen using her hand held mixer. The mixer is older than your Mummy. Grandma used to make your Mummy cakes with that mixer when she was a little girl. Your Mummy loved icing them best and didn’t like it when your Grandma added currants. Your little cousins helped blow out your candle.

There is so much we’d like to tell you Conor. Firstly we want to tell you how much you are loved. We cherished every kick and moment spent with you growing with us. We grew with you too over those 41 weeks. We love you still and it breaks our heart that we are spending your first birthday away from you. We miss you terribly. We hope Grandad John is keeping you and your friends (all the babies we’ve come to know through ALLF, Feileacain & Pilltown) entertained.

At your service we promised to “Strive to live in love for in that love I live”. We want to tell you that our love for each other is so much stronger since the day we met you. We have also been surrounded by so much love from our families and friends. Through you we have made some very special new friends too.

We want to say Thank You Conor for making us parents. Since we made the commitment to spend our lives together this is the role we wanted. We wish more than anything the outcome had been different but we do not regret those 41 weeks we spent together. Either one of us would have given our lives if it could have saved you. My only regret is that I didn’t insist the Doctor keep me in to deliver you on the day we heard the words “everything is perfect, you’ve nothing to worry about”. We all know you’d be here with us sticking your finger in the cake if we did. We try Conor but I don’t know if we’ll ever make peace with this. We hope that one day a clever engineer will invent a time machine so we can change the events of last summer. Maybe its something you and Grandad John could work on for us.

Be assured Conor that we will never forget you. We tell everyone all about you. There are people all over the world who now know your name from reading your story. There are people who think of you when they see stars or bake cakes. We celebrate every text, email and conversation where your name is used, especially those messages that arrive on just an ordinary day. You are and always will be our first born son, a grandson, nephew and cousin.

Happy birthday with lots of love from your Mummy and Daddy xxx
*Top tip.

If you find yourself needing to bake a quick cake away from home and away from all your usual kitchen gadgets I recommend Mary Berry’s Victoria Sandwich. It’s a very easy “all in one” bake;

http://www.maryberry.co.uk/recipes/great-british-bake-off-recipes/victoria-sandwich

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I decorated the cake using butter icing and Smarties. The butter icing was made by mixing 200g butter (always real butter in our kitchen) with 400g sifted icing sugar and a splash of vanilla extract. I covered the cake with an initial thin layer, chilled the cake in the fridge for 30 mins and then put on the top layer of icing. This means the top layer is clear of cake crumbs.