Category Archives: Raising a family

An Anzac food parcel of love

Can food speak as words of love from a mother? I certainly tried to make this happen.

PoppyAnzac Day always has special meaning to our family as we have had so many members serving here and overseas. I try not to let it pass without thinking of what it means to Australians and today as I was listening to a speaker talking about letters sent home by Australian soldiers in previous wars I started to think about the words and messages my son and I used in our emails during his two stints overseas and of how I tried to communicate my love to him.

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I remember sitting at an early morning Anzac Day service in Los Angeles, feet in thin soled shoes getting wet from the heavy dew on the grass, pulling a pashmina tight around my shoulders as a shield against the thick early morning fog that hid the gravestones surrounding us. Even the podium a few metres in front of us had swirls of grey mist clinging to its supports. I was still, tense, with hands in my lap, staring at the speaker without listening to his words, absorbed in my effort not to think of what my son might be doing on the other side of the world in Iraq. I looked with unfocussed eyes, beyond the speaker into the grey distance where urban shapes were emerging from shadows. Gradually one shape impinged on my consciousness and it was like being hit in the chest with a fist. A Bunya Pine, that tall untidy tree planted near Australian homesteads to act as a landmark to travellers and those who were lost and now would find their way home. I sat, tears sliding quietly down my cheeks, images of my son flooding my mind, reassuring myself he would be fine. ‘He is trained for this,’ was only temporary reassurance from my husband.

‘Hope the sandpit is treating you kindly. Take care, duck and weave when you have to. Love ya.’ xx Mum

As a mother there really isn’t much you can do when your adult child is serving overseas, other than write or send the odd parcel from home. And if I was lucky I occasionally had a few snatched moments on the phone and then I would pass the information on to our huge extended family voracious for news about G. These conversations were always hit and miss, because you could never return his phone call as his numbers didn’t exist.

 ‘Hi all, I just spoke with G, he’s good, his normal self, no news really. Work is keeping him busy enough but other than that he was more interested in finding out what is going on at home than talking about his side of things…’ Susie

 So write I did, frequently, about nothing in particular, just the news of what our lives were like, about my work, people we were dining with, meals and recipes I cooked, activities with friends and family and places I visited. I tried to make them the most interesting and funny letters I had written. Every time I whinged about no contact, I would think about my Italian Grandmother writing from Proserpine to the family in Piedmont and that it might take 12 weeks from sending to receiving a letter. Italy was so far from Australia that after leaving at 21 years of age, she never saw her parents again. The only time I felt that living in Los Angeles and London was a long way from anywhere was when G told me of his postings.

‘Dear G, I woke up last night and decided that I needed to see you and K for a night before you go away to the other sandpit!!!  … Therefore I think we will come home from London for about five days….’ Love ya, xx Mum

His two sisters felt his absence as keenly as I did and wrote as often. We kept each other in the loop which later expanded to include his fiancé. Food of course was an easy topic of conversation.

‘Mumsie, Just for future reference, you might already know (I didn’t), he says bring on nice cereals and antipasto-type goodies, …, and he has a small bar fridge so he can store jars of olives etc, just don’t send cheeses or anything similarly perishable.  No other tips for care parcels, just make it edible.  Typical, he’s not happy with boring digestives cookies, nah, he wants the fancy deli goods!!’ xx G

 However, just because he wasn’t at home, didn’t mean that I wouldn’t occasionally ask him to provide brotherly guidance to a turbulent sister who had issues at work or disappointments in love.

‘Mumsie, Yeah yeah, I spoke to S the other night, usual brotherly thing, all sorted, I should probably give J a call and see how her job is going. I might do that tomorrow.  I actually got a couple of little love packages from L and S the other day.  These were absolutely great as food was starting to run low out here.  It’s not that we ever run out it’s just that you get a very limited choice, not too bad but weird flavours, ie; Ham and onion sandwiches…’  xxG

I was curious about the people he worked with (on both sides), and would raise cultural issues that I had run across when living in the United States, such as the advertisements on television shows and in the Gourmet magazines that I read but got very little information other than…

‘The Americans do take a little getting used to, we’ve got a team working with us and there definitely is a bit of a culture clash, not too bad but it’s the little things.  The radio plays ads supporting abstinence and lot’s of happy clappy god fearing stuff.  Very bizarre.’ xx G

Desperate for any news at all, I would discuss politics at home and abroad but G was always the mastermind of reticence and self-censorship with a little cynicism creeping in…

‘Yeah life over here for the ordinary person might be better if we left, and I think there will always be conflict where respect is gained through firepower.  Only now are we learning, yet again, that modern western democratic ideals cannot be overlayed onto all countries.’

And so I would go into great detail about my life of museums, art galleries, coffee with girlfriends and teaching at a Muslim girls’ school, keeping fit by swimming none of which I am sure he was particularly interested in but perhaps he was, as he did once say he had saved all our correspondence,  and he would send me details of his day ….

‘Mumsie, Well I’ve finally got here and am starting to settle in.  It’s one hell of a barren place, I don’t think the surface of the moon could look any worse than this, it’s dusty, rocky, mountainous, sandy, windy, and actually quite cold.  … There’s supposed to be a ‘coffee shop’ of some description run by the Dutch and a local store run by some international company as well as a weekly local market which everything going to plan I’ll get down there soon enough and check it out.’

We knew he didn’t want or need clothing or books but food was frequently a subject discussed in our emails as he is a terrific cook. So my sister, my daughters and I all sent food parcel after food parcel, including Anzac biscuits and the heaviest fruit-filled cakes I could carry.

‘Dear G, Here is my latest offering. If you don’t need it, use it as currency for something you do. The lady at the post office in LA couldn’t believe how heavy the fruit cake was, but her eyes widened and she smiled in delight, when she made me unwrap its many layers of brown paper and alfoil and smelt its aroma…’

‘Mumsie, One good thing though…  the food here is phenomenal, it is without a doubt the best food I have ever eaten during 11 years in the Army.  We get T-Bone steak, Eye Fillet steak, curries, fresh Naan, fresh fruit salad, good cereal etc.  That being said I’ll never turn down any home cooked goodies (or spicy stuff…).

Cooking the biscuits and cakes let me pour all my love into that food to nurture him and keep him safe. I felt I was contributing. Although after receiving that email, I did wonder if our gifts were redundant…

‘Dear G, Glad to hear the playpit is feeding you well. It sounds as if there is an opportunity for a good barista – what are your entrepreneurial skills like?  Perhaps we could dip in chocolate and send you the cockroaches that are said to be hatching in plague numbers in Queensland due to the unseasonal heat. Unseasonal, in November, unlikely.

Today, full of memories of other cakes, after the Anzac service I came home and cooked a fruit cake as a  message of love to my children. I found a recipe from my Grandmother, born in 1902, who lost a brother in France in World War 1.  Flexible as always, I fiddled with the recipe a little because fruit cakes are like that, using whatever was in my cupboard and fridge. Into a large packet of mixed fruit, I added raisins, chopped apricots, a few figs and some dates. I didn’t have sufficient hazelnuts so I made up the mixture with walnuts and almonds as well. I had plum jam so used that instead of apricot jam.

I poured my love into this cake as if it was my children, I chopped the nuts and crushed their obstacles, added spicy ginger to give warm love to their life and sweetness with home-made plum jam. And as I incorporated the flour with Granny’s old spoon, and gently blended the fruit, I was whisked back to the many times they sat around my bench, licking the bowls, stirring the alcohol into the fruit and always helping to make and eat the fruit cakes for past Christmases, christenings and birthdays.  As this cake rose it reminded me how integral baking and cooking is to binding our family together.

 

web-fruitcakeGranny Young’s fruitcake

Pre-heat oven to 180ºC. Butter and dust with flour a 25 cm (10 in) round cake tin.

250g butter

1 cup brown sugar

375g dried fruit

½ cup dried figs, chopped

1½ cups prunes, chopped

1½ cups hazelnuts, skinned and chopped

3 eggs

1¼ cups self-raising flour

1 tablespoon cocoa

1¼ cups plain flour

1½ teaspoons mixed spice

3 tablespoon apricot jam

1 tablespoon instant coffee mixed with 2 tablespoons water

web-cake-ingredients1In a mixer, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then mix in the eggs one by one. Sieve together the flours and cocoa and mixed spice. Mix together the fruit and nuts. Add the coffee to the jam, mix together and add to the fruit. Add the flours and fruit in alternate batches to the mixture. If it feels a little dry, just add a small amount of milk to moisten the mixture.

Cook for about 1¼  to 1½ hours and remove when a skewer inserted into the mixture comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin. For additional flavour, trickle a couple of spoonfuls of brandy or rum over the warm surface. (Great for when you send it to an alcohol-free base!).

 

 

 

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Developing a child’s imagination and creativity

ww_monkey-on-deskIn January I decided I would be more organised but February (as you will learn later in the story) will be the creative month. I remind my husband that being organised needn’t equate with tidiness. However, I am hugely excited that I can see at least part of my desk’s surface. I celebrated by placing a new stack of books on my desk; my husband celebrated by decluttering his bookcase which is always a concern.

I watched his hand move in the space above the row of travel guides we have, hovering over some, stroking others as memories flooded in then pausing on the books deemed redundant or unwanted.

One of the books he decided to discard was a Lonely Planet guide to Libya. I picked it up, and flicked through its pages, reflecting upon how fortunate we had been to visit Libya before the Arab Spring movement and the removal of Gaddafi propelled this country into turmoil and unrest. This was one of those books that very few people if any would want but as he tossed it towards the bin I had an idea and grabbed it mid-air. An idea was already careering like a camel across the sand dunes of my mind.

Harry, my 5-year-old grandson was spending time with us and we had exhausted the usual activities I use to keep him occupied. I leafed through the book, examining the pictures of far-off places, people and exotic animals.

‘Your cousins are visiting the Canberra zoo soon, but why don’t we make our own zoo?’ I suggested. He looked a little puzzled but expressed interest. I tasked him to get the scissors and pencils, directed him to where the craft and brown paper was stored, while I made a paste of water and flour for glue and ‘a collecting we went.’

‘Just like Gerald Durrell,’ I told him and I had happy time telling him about this amazing man and how he had travelled the globe collecting animals for zoos.

We had a glorious time. An entire afternoon was spent discussing the places we would visit and the animals we might find. Harry cut out the images and pasted them onto the brown paper. As he did this, we talked about the animals, where they lived and what they ate.

ww_creating-the-zoo-with-harryAfter this Harry drew the zoo with an entry gate and pathways to visit the various animals. He wrote their names on signs then drew trees and plants to feed the animals and a café with tables and chairs for Nanna Sooz and Harry to have an iced coffee and a chocolate milkshake when we got thirsty.

This led to a ‘Zoo’ game where we visited the animals and talked about where they had come from. After that Harry wanted to continue the game, with him choosing to be a monkey and Nanna the elephant chasing each other around my small garden.

ww_creating-the-zoo-with-tomThis game made me realise how powerful our imagination is. Using my life experiences, I could gently nudge him towards imagining a world he had never seen and create a story and a game that filled hours of our time. I have been reading a lot about brain development in children and how creative play and using imagination encourages a child’s cognitive development particularly in the areas of language articulation and self-regulation of emotions.

Recently a travel brochure landed on my desk, filled with beautiful illustrations for holidays to faraway places which for many reasons this year I am unlikely to visit. I couldn’t stop Harry from getting a brain tumour but I can darn well do everything a Nanna can do to help his young brain recover.

Harry in November 2016I foresee some wonderful expeditions with Harry as we explore exotic lands, go collecting and meet strangers in other countries. Who knows what all this information will be used for later in life. He may study conservation and sustainability like his clever uncle, become a zoologist or scientist, be an explorer or spend his life travelling and writing. As Shakespeare said, ‘…the world’s mine oyster…’.

 

Wooden boats on our creek

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“There’s nothing-absolutely nothing-half so much worth doing

as messing about in boats.”

Kenneth Grahame’s words from my childhood sprang into my mind as clearly as if I was sitting reading Wind in the Willows rather than watching children messing around with small wooden boats. It was an unseasonally hot spring day and I was enjoying my last lunchtime in Paris munching a baguette while sitting next to the Grand Bassin in the Jardin de Luxembourg. The murmur of lunching office workers drifted past on the breeze interrupted by the occasional shout of glee from a group of young men kicking a ball around on the terrace behind me. More interesting were the manoeuvres taking place around the pond in front of me where our future naval commanders ran while they shouted encouragement to their yachts which were skittering across the water.

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Armed with just a small pole some of these children nearly fell in with their enthusiasm to push their boat off from the side and out towards the Armada assembling at the centre of the pond. This flotilla of boats, about 24 in all, sailed under different flags including the pirate flag. There were shouts of delight as they watched them sailing in a gentle breeze, lean over with the gusts and then go about. Arguments would develop when one boat rammed another, and competitions were hosted to get to the other side.

Watching these children at play reminded me of summer afternoons spent playing in the lagoon on Cylinder beach on Stradbroke Island with my son and daughter. Their source of entertainment were two wooden yachts. These gorgeous boats were handmade, with fabric sails hoisted by string and tied with small hooks. They sailed beautifully and were in constant use over the summer holidays.

Playing in the lagoon at Straddie

On the flight home I racked my brain trying to remember where these may have been stored because they are not the sort of toy to give away even after a child has progressed to other toys. Sadly, I think they were left at the beach house when my parents sold it and I hope another child had the opportunity to sail them on the lagoon over their childhood summers.

Thirty years later my son has two little boys just entering the right age to use small boats like these so I decided I would find wooden boats for them. This is not as easy as it sounds because plastic boats are cheaper and computer toys more popular. ‘A heritage toy that is out of date,’ one store assistant told me. A phrase came to my mind, ‘Slow Toy’ which after much research, I discovered was a movement started by Thierry Bourret in 2011 to offer children toys that encouraged them to use their imagination and that stood the test of time.

Angus playing in lagoon on Straddie,

After much searching online I found the maker of these wooden boats in France with a retail outlet in Lille. I almost leaped on a plane straight away but was held back by my husband who fortunately was soon spending a few days in Lille so he was tasked not to come home without two small wooden boats in his suitcase. As soon as he had finished his meetings, rather than play tourist, this wonderful man dragged his travelling companion around the streets of Lille until he found the shop and had then had the joyous task of choosing the hull and sail colours. We are now the proud owners of two little timber boats and they will never be given away. The Tirot business was started in 1946 in Brittany and is continuing to produce wooden boats that really do float and catch the wind in their sails.

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I was so excited when I picked up the two beautifully wrapped packages, I kept poking the paper like a child. No way was I going to wait until Christmas to give the boys their boats. They came over the following weekend and I loved watching their faces when they unwrapped their presents. I found very old photos of their dad and his sister playing with their boats in the lagoon and together we planned a boating expedition to our local creek. Now I will have the next generation messing around with boats.

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We are so lucky to have a creek at the bottom of our street which curves its way through acres of parkland and bush reserve. Although a lot of the banks are covered in weeds which local groups are trying to eradicate, there are now areas which are accessible for parents and children to paddle and play in the water. Armed with our boats, the three of us walked down to the creek looking for a sandy beach area where we could launch our vessels. It had rained recently and there was lots of water swirling across the pebbles and around the reeds growing down to the edges.

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The warm afternoon air was tinged with the smell of ‘curry grass’ which grows in large clumps by the creek while above us in the trees, Lorikeets squabbled and fed on the eucalypt flowers.  It was too early for most walkers and we had the creek to ourselves. Only the ducks watched as we wobbled our way over the rocks and onto a small pebbly beach beside one of the bicycle crossings. There was just sufficient breeze to send the little boats off into the centre of the creek where of course Nanna had to wade and return them. We made ports, dams and moated castles for the pirates to raid. Large juicy tadpoles were collected and let loose in the dam to be bombed very inaccurately using bright blue Quandong berries as catapults. I had two junior admirals telling their midshipman what to do. Their laughter at Nanna getting wetter by the moment was like water music.

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There was so much to do, with digging and sailing, exploring and swimming. Two-year old Tommy had no fear of the water and would head out to the middle of the creek very happily falling into large holes and almost disappearing below the surface with me hot on his heels. It was then as I bent to retrieve this sodden child I noticed a long snake swimming across the creek towards us. I grabbed the struggling toddler and using as calm a voice as I could muster I asked 5-year old Harry to climb onto the bank. ‘What’s a bank, Nanna?’ he asked.

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This was when I realised the snake had changed direction and was being swept towards Harry. With Tom on my hip and moving as fast as my water filled Wellingtons would allow I scooped Harry up telling him to lift his legs above the water. Both the children sensed something and were still and quiet as we watched the snake swirl past on the current and swim onto the creek bank where it slithered into the grass. The mood of the afternoon had changed dramatically and we decided we would feed the ducks instead of playing pirates. I hadn’t quite anticipated that type of excitement when I had suggested an adventure but it provided much discussion at home with Harry’s mother telling me that he kept asking about what snakes ate, where they lived and where they slept.

It was a lovely afternoon with a ‘Slow Toy’. We exercised our imagination, made up stories, created scenarios and used the sand and pebbles on the creek bank to build our castles. I cannot wait to do it again but this time Grandpa can come as Game Warden.

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A father comes in many guises

Father’s Day in Australia really isn’t a big deal in our house. Of course I’ll have my father to lunch if he isn’t playing bridge or golf with his mates or lunching with his wife of 61 years. Our children might phone in to say hi, but if they don’t, their father isn’t going to be cast into the doldrums feeling neglected. He knows he is loved.

I, like other women I know, have played father to my children. Whether it was because of long hours at work, divorce, or death there have been many times when I have had to play the traditional role of father as well as mother.

Sailing Days

A competitive father and disgruntled daughter

I have kicked the football, thrown the cricket ball, discussed dating and sex education and offered the ‘don’t drink and drive’ advice often to a withering scowl. I have learnt to communicate in grunts and lived with nocturnal teenagers.

Web-The-Craigs-1My husband was in the reverse situation of playing mother to three boys and a girl. He adores them all and is immensely proud of his brood of 7 children and 10.5 grandchildren.

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What do you mean I cannot raise my daughter like the boys? It worked for these three fellows.

He is the first to admit that bring up a girl in a family of boys was a challenge.  He isn’t the most demonstrative of men, (read that as hugging), but he can cook a mean brownie to take to the school rugby and is prepared to defend his daughter’s honour, even when she doesn’t want him to.

Whether you are a father or mother, being a parent is equal parts fun, hard work, lonely, terrifying and exhilarating. It isn’t a role for that can be discarded when you are tired, busy at work or disinterested. It is a job that demands everything of you, it is draining emotionally and physically and you should not expect devotion; that is for the dog. Affection must be earned.

You will never stop being a parent no matter how old you grow as my Grandmother told me when she was 100 and still worrying about her girls. My father at 90, is not above giving me advice, nor is he above competing with his grandchildren when he can.

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Showing off

Fatherhood is fun but the competitive nature of the man keeps coming out. He has to climb higher trees, do what his kids do and do it better. For some obscure reason lost in the Neanderthal mists, he continues to compete despite the handicaps that age eventually imposes on his body. I doubt if we women are any less good at accepting age gracefully.Web-Canberr-trip-1998-3-(1)

I trained as a midwife and thought I was prepared for motherhood, but nothing prepares you for that gut wrenchingly complicated feeling when you hold your baby for the first time. As their stepfather says, ‘If you thought too deeply about fatherhood, you mightn’t do it.’Bill with newborn Angus

As a father (and mother) I accept that we are to blame as we started it all. Yes, I realise that you blame me for your separation anxiety dating from when you were forced to leave the home that you and your mother shared but you had to make room for the others. My fatherly advice is ‘Get over it.’

This is our father’s day message to you, our children. You are the most awesome, overwhelmingly frustrating and challenging thing we do in our lives and you changed us and our lives from the moment you arrived. We have adored being a mother and a father however, there are some points that we hadn’t anticipated including:

  • Never having a moment of privacy again and no, you cannot always cross swords with me when I am having a pee!
  • If you want to share my bath you had better stop complaining that Chanel No 5 is too girlie. There is a perfectly good shower over there that you can have on your own,Version 2
  • Our dog appreciates the delicious well-balanced meals I cook every evening even if you don’t so if you don’t like what I’ve cooked, help yourself to cereal and milk,
  • No, I don’t eat cold toast because the butter doesn’t melt; my toast, like all my food is always cold by the time I have cut yours up,
  • Experiencing that feeling of rejection when even at 4 years old you let me know that you prefer the company of your friends to me,

    Bill playing with Angus on Main Beach

    A new take on dermabrasion

  • being prepared to look like a fool in public and being chased around the house wearing a hat made from newspaper shouting Ninja at the top of my voice, but why do I always have to be the baddie,
  • Never catching a fish off the beach again because I am untangling little people’s lines

    Beach fishing for Gus and Jemma

    What do you mean that I never catch a fish?

  • Feeling utterly desperate when you are lying in a hospital bed running a fever,
  • Being appalled at my wish for you to grow up so that we can talk as adults,
  • Knowing where to find a hairdresser when the home dye job turns green,
  • Wishing you hadn’t grown up because you are drinking too much of my whiskey,
  • Being impressed when you turn up with a replacement bottle,

    Andy teaching Sophie to tie a bow tie

    Its easier when I do it on myself

  • Being furious that you don’t share my opinion but delighted that you have an opinion,
  • Being enormously proud of your every achievement,
  • Being asked for advice on your love life, knowing that you probably won’t take it and realising that we are the same – human and fallible.Old memories 6

 

For our family, father’s day is just another day to talk with each other, toast our strengths and peculiarities and take pleasure in each other’s company.

Mother’s Day 2016


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Mothering Sunday
: it was an opportunity to gather around the nine women in our two families that go back three generations and now followed by another two.
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We remembered and talked about our Great Grandmothers
who sat in rocking chairs and cradled newborns to sleep;

Our Grandmothers who listen while younger generations sound off against the world;

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Our Mothers old and young, attentive and there

even when you don’t want them to be; and

Our Indulgent aunts with whom we play.
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Web-Sophe-Harry-Christening

We reminisced, and toasted the many strong women in our lives.It was a lunch made with love by all, food with memories and meaning. Web-Marg-Tait-&-Angus-at-christening

We laughed at our foibles, and grimaced at our fiery moments.Sunshine flooded across the veranda, highlighting small boys climbing over chairs and balancing on tables.

Mothering is like that: a balance, not always even, easily tipped in another direction but naturally veering towards the centre.

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We don’t always get it right, occasionally mis-manage the situation but we never stop caring.  As my 100 year old Granny, once said, ‘ I still worry over my daughters.

 

 

 

Remembering the owl and the pussycat

Colin being benign_6867‘So my fave event about which I am most passionate is having dinner with my family.’ I floated my statement above the aroma from our dinner waiting for someone to nibble at the bait and expand on it. In the silence, I wondered whether they understood my teasing. Then came the laughter and their suggestions. Listening to the discussion bouncing between us reminded me that words are a pleasure and there is nothing better than to have a nonsensical conversation over good food and wine. Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense with his clever prose and limericks was a favourite bed-time read.

I grew up with a mother who would write her rhymes in birthday cards and scrabble was frequently played after dinner. Before iPads, the Dictionary sat within reach of the table so that a point could be clarified. I encouraged my children to develop their skills in repartee, the better to extend their curfew times, and debate was often vigorous between us.

Captain A and I enjoy the power of eloquent language and frequently comment on the poor quality of reporting in our media.  The list published by the Lake Superior State University, Michigan of words people have found annoying and overused has been a source of discussion in the news and I have my contributions to that list.

‘So’ on that note I am suggesting two of my ‘faves’: event and passionate. Over summer in Australia we now have ‘rain events’ and ‘flood events’. Doesn’t it just rain with a flood being one of the consequences?

Recently at a women’s networking function every speaker said they were just so passionate about improving the lot of women in the workforce. You might feel strongly, even very strongly about equality but passionate. Sorry, passion is what I feel for my husband.

Colin in hot weather_2I would love to hear what my friends think are over-used or inappropriately used words. Send them through please.