Baby steps by Celia Dillow
Scrambling off the rocky Southern snout of Pen y Ghent, in the Yorkshire Dales, my boots slipped and I scrabbled for a foothold. The solid grip of my eldest son caught me as I slid past, "careful Mum – this bit's tricky!"
A shred of memory, upside-down, snagged in my mind.
The week was rainy and the ground was heavy, but there were opportunities enough for walking. Wild weather made great, bright windows in the cloud and we headed out. We hiked for hours in the clean air and lovely light. High on the moor, red grouse hid deep in the tussocks and shot from beneath our feet. Raven cronked overhead and starlings swirled together in groups and dropped suddenly to earth. The fluting call of a sandpiper was tossed high on the wind and wagtails fed busily in the sedge and moor grass. Water, in great sludgy puddles, sucked at our boots and soaked our feet. A peregrine raced along the high rock edges. Dark towers of cloud built up in a lemon sky and a slice of sunlight picked out a lone tree, beech I think, with autumn yellow leaves and black stems.
It was a bracing backdrop for a family walking holiday. Being a family is a challenge; I don't believe anyone who tells me it is easy. Going on holiday together can be particularly trying. Travelling together throws up new challenges and puts old battles into perspective; it chains you together and gives you nowhere to hide.
We have travelled a long way over many years. Our road has been terrifying and rewarding and mundane. These deep connections and experiences have often come, unlooked for, out of the everyday. A staggering wildlife encounter is marred by an on-going disagreement; a death defying scrape on a dirt road is transformed by warmth and humour. But this week we made the surprising discovery that we had grown up together. The shape of family life had shifted and settled into something new. It had been dashed against unexpected experiences and attitudes, and forged by the exhilaration of the new and the tough. The sum of our experiences provided a shared history which we were ready to explore together.
Reunited with our student sons for an autumn break, we covered wide miles and deep conversations. These young men, who had wrangled with us for years, alienated themselves and told us we knew nothing, have now returned. We hoped they would. They were keen to try out their new ideas, to dig deep into family memories and to talk the miles away. Threads of conversations, multi layered and randomly spliced, continued up the hills and down the valleys. Walking opens up spaces for conversations and sometimes silence is all that is needed. With old jokes and new stories we were meeting a new challenge and learning to be adults together. They didn't laugh at our opinions any more, although they laughed that we couldn't keep up. They raced ahead, wrestling each other to the ground, falling easily into the patterns of childhood. They made the dog bark and the birds fly, and we sighed just like we always did. Their long legs made light work of the rough ground and steep climb, and then they stopped and waited for us. Just like we always did.
The shred of memory snapped and snaggled again, it wouldn't go away.
We tramped through dripping woods; the beech mast was springy underfoot. The air was wood smoke and that sweet, mushroomy smell of damp, autumn woodland. It tugged at the edges of my memory. In these familiar spaces, so often visited, I felt we might suddenly spy our younger selves. Memory can play wild tricks and, as we retraced the route of many family walks, the past sprang vividly into view. There were three small boys in chunky boots and waterproof suits stumbling over the scratchy ground. Progress was slow and feet were wet. Slices of sunlight highlighted treasures that had to be collected and examined. We stooped over every twig and conker and prickly chestnut case. We walked ahead over the rough ground and then stopped to wait. Language was explored and new ideas tried out.
Their feet slipped on the wet rock and we caught them and steadied them and put them back on their feet, "careful boys – this bit's tricky!"