The Magic of Christmas

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I don’t bake, I really don’t. But Christmas is coming and this year I have decided to do some baking. And as I haven’t done it for years, it requires some pre-Christmas testing. So this week I’ve whipped up a few treats in preparation for the oncoming food festivities.

Christmas CakeHubby, who would almost walk over hot coals for fruit cake is my tester, and he is loving every minute of it! He was brought up on homemade cakes, biscuits, and all manner of delectable preserves and desserts made by his mother. Sadly, he has had no such luck living with me! I have however, created my own special food traditions over the years, and Christmas is part of those special memories.

Being European, my family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve, which during my childhood was always a magical night. Our Christmas tree with its pine needles touching the ceiling sparkled with tinsel, shiny baubles, and dangling bags of chocolate money. And our little house, readied for the evening’s celebration, was filled with the glorious sounds and smells of Christmas. For my brother and me, it was the most exciting night of the year for without fail, every Christmas Eve Santa knocked on our door. We were always beside ourselves with anticipation, bouncing from room to room and peeking through the windows. And just as darkness fell, there he was on our porch with an enormous bag of presents over his shoulder.

And such is the magic of Christmas, that as he jollied his way through the front door everyone’s eyes lit up. The adults welcomed him as if he was a long lost friend, and we children looked on with wide-eyed excitement. Then he would take a seat, declare what a wonderful night it was, and turn to us children. For the tradition was that before we received our presents, we performed for Santa. My brother recited the same poem each year, and I tinkled a tune on the piano. That done he reached into his bag and gave everyone a present, and then with a great flourish was on his way. It never occurred to us children to put two and two together when shortly after Santa left, a favourite uncle arrived!

Then it was time for food ~ our table was laden, and I mean truly laden, with gastronomic delights. No English Christmas dinner with pudding for us! We began with freshly baked Latvian pirags followed by homemade rollmops, devilled eggs, marinated cucumbers, sour cream, and smoked ham. Then came my mother’s European potato salad, her German ‘kommen morgen wieder’ ~ a delicious savoury pancake, and the yummiest sauerkraut with succulent crumbed pork chops you ever tasted. And for dessert, Mum’s special dried fruit compote served with homemade custard. All of it wonderful!

Pirags

Latvian Pirags – delicious little buns filled with bacon and onion

Rollmops

Rollmops ~ pickled herring with dill cucumber

My parents’ house was ‘the’ Christmas house for many years. My mother was a wonderful cook and my father loved a party, so naturally everybody came. After I was married the mantel to create the merriment on Christmas Eve was passed to me, and for a number of years everyone came to our house. My mother brought her sauerkraut and potato salad, a trifle arrived with my brother’s family, and everyone else brought their good cheer. And not only did our Christmas Eves sparkle with tinsel, baubles, wonderful food and the same magical goodwill and love of childhood days, Santa always arrived as well!

      Santa Claus    Family Christmas

Our family is now spread far and wide, but as many of us as can still gather on Christmas Eve, which these days is once again held at my mother’s. And as I bake and taste, and bake some more, my reminiscing fills me with joyous memories. And as only childhood memories can, awakens within me once again the magic of Christmas and the happy anticipation of sharing it with my family.

Inara Hawley © 2013

Celebration of Love

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Every year our small family of siblings and cousins gather to celebrate a special day ~ my mother’s birthday. She is the last of her generation, the matriarch of the family, but this year it was extra special for it marked her 90th year, and we came together to celebrate all that my mother represents … living and loving well.

My Mother

My beautiful young mother. Taken in 1941 when she was just eighteen.

Even though our beginnings in Australia were fraught with difficulty, we are a fortunate family. You see we are imports ~ post WW2 refugees. My parents, and my mother’s brother and his wife arrived from war-torn Europe.

They came to freedom, each with a baby in their arms, and while their hearts ached for the home and family they left behind, they made a new life.

It was not easy, but it was happy, and our family grew. More children, more cousins, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren to further the story of our family.

Celebrating each other is an important part of how our family works, and we do it with a great deal of pleasure and joy. My mother‘s 90th birthday was no exception.

So … what can I say about my special little mother? Having spent most of her childhood alone in a hospital due to tuberculosis of the spine, planting solid roots and creating a family is what her whole life has been about.

And she has done it very well. Married to my very happy-go-lucky father, life throughout the years has often been a roller coaster, but she has been steadfast. With her feet on the ground, she has kept our family strong.

My beautiful ninety year old mother

My beautiful ninety-year-old mother.   The queen in our family!

Mum learned from a young age to live by a set of rules. Refined, patient and particular by nature, she loves order and cares very much about doing the right thing.

While Dad brought excitement into our lives, Mum brought her kind heart, her compassion, and her loyalty. She has always been guided by her heart, and the older she gets, the more important it becomes.

She believes in God, in Angels, in the Great Good and in miracles. She loves a laugh, loves being right, can get very feisty, and without exception, will argue the point.

And, she’s a worrier.

But all you have to do is ask anyone who knows her, and they will tell you she touches them all with her kindness and wisdom.

And she gets back in abundance what she gives. Everyone loves her. Frail and struggling with her health now, she manages to get through her days with a determined smile.

She loves her garden, which my brother lovingly tends and makes more and more beautiful just for the pure joy of bringing her pleasure. My sister is also very close to Mum. Being the baby of the family, they have their special bond. As for me, Mum and I are very good friends. We speak every day and discuss everything from politics to religion, the treasured memories, and of course, life and death.

My mother loves nothing better than a good chat. Ask any of her grandchildren. She’s a great listener and she gives great advice.

Mum having a cuppa

Mum with a cuppa enjoying her flowers on the day of her 90th Birthday.

She has been through so much in her life, worked so hard. She is brave and courageous. She is determined and strong. And she is honest and true.

Living by her high standards has not always been easy. But thankfully, the boundaries between black and white have blurred somewhat over the years, and these days, she is much kinder to herself.

And now she relies on all of us. It is our turn, and our privilege, to make her life as good as she has made ours.

Preparing Mum's Lunch

Preparing the Birthday Lunch with my siblings

So, as we have done in the years since she became the matriarch, we came together once again to celebrate her birthday. The weather was perfect, the food was wonderful, and the family was relaxed and happy.

The day hummed with love and goodwill as we all caught up with each other’s lives. Mum, as usual, gave her emotional rambling speech, loving us all with her words and her tears.

And with gratitude, we all accepted this as the blessing it was, from an amazing little lady who celebrates love every single day of her life.

Inara Hawley © 2013

The Best Years

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Today is my 37th Wedding Anniversary. It’s the second time around for Hubby. Not for me though, and while the research says that second marriages are more likely to fail, they obviously got it wrong when it came to us. Ours continues on in all its glory and bliss.

Our Wedding Day

Our Wedding Day in 1976

Like everyone, we’ve had our ups and downs and spits and spats, but the hard times, and there have been some very hard times, pale into insignificance when compared to the love, joy and happiness we’ve shared ~ it abounds and bounces around like glittery stars, and with each bounce creates more and more of the same!

So, after all these years how did we celebrate? Well, we did our favourite thing ~ we had a lovely breakfast followed by a quiet day in, enjoying each other’s company and reminiscing about what a fabulous life we’ve had. And we have! We’ve done so many things together ~ we’ve worked as partners in business from day one creating and building our best life, travelled the world enjoying fabulous moments and wonderful friends, and created an enduring family filled with love and joy. Not everyone could take being together 24/7, but for us it’s been easy! We knew from the very beginning we were a good team.

Words of thanks, especially those which are written, are a wonderful thing. Eleven years ago when Hubby celebrated a special birthday these are the words I wrote …

‘We have enjoyed 28 wonderful and eventful years together, 26 of them in a committed loving marriage. We have spoken many times of the gratitude we both feel to be so very blessed. Over the years we have not only been each other’s most important support, but we have given each other many special gifts of love, hope and joy. Before our beautiful child was born, our life was only about us. Now, having shared the joys of parenthood and the many paths travelled together I am cushioned by the wonderful memories of the past and the ones yet to come.

I look forward to every day with you. You light up my life. You are a rock and a comfort … my handsome everlasting love. Thank you for the romance, the nurturing, the spoiling, the wit, the humour, the fun, the good times, and also the hard. You have never wavered for a moment. You have always done your best with a kind and giving heart. And thank you for being so understanding, for loving me so completely and always allowing me the freedom to follow my own pursuits… and also, for sharing your sadness and your joy ~ for sharing the real you.

Oh how our life together has grown, only because we have been so united and so confident that it would. We have shared so much yet the time has been but a blink of an eye. But we have never, nor will we ever waste a moment. We will always fill our lives with laughter, joy and happiness. As always, my heart is full. I salute and serenade you with love, love, love.’

The Best Years

Hubby and I today!

Those words are just as true today. People often ask me, how is it that we have such a good marriage, and the answer is easy ~ we’re worth it! We respect and hold each other in very high esteem. We have never tried to outdo the other ~ competition has no place in a marriage ~ instead we always work to each other’s strengths. And we learn from each other too ~ impetuous me for instance, has learned to ‘sleep on it’ while Hubby has learned to slam a door! We laugh every day, especially at the things that annoy us, and we do ‘silly’ a lot. We spoil each other, we celebrate the special moments, we have loads of fun and most important of all ~ we play the mutual admiration game and trust each other completely. My marriage is the most comfortable place in the world. I am treated like a princess by the kindness, most caring, funniest and gorgeous bloke I know!

We’ve had 39 wonderful years together, and if you were to ask me which were the best? My answer would be: all of them and every single one yet to come! As I was writing this, Hubby came in, took my hand, kissed it and said, “We got it right!” Yes, we most certainly did!

Inara Hawley © 2013

Dreams Do Come True

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Do you believe that dreams can come true? I’m not talking about those special goals we make and aim for ~ I’m talking about the miracles we wish for. In this busy world of ours where everything moves so fast, many of us don’t have time to sit and dream about miracles. But miracles do occur, and it’s when we hold tight to a burning desire with passion, that they come true.

So let me tell you a story about a miracle. In1936, a few short years before the Second World War broke out, a desolate and very unhappy young girl was living a miserable existence in an orphanage. Her legs were scratched and bleeding from the rough woollen socks she wore, her feet were wet because she had no gumboots, she was lonely, and she was sick. For you see she had spent most of her life in hospital suffering from tuberculosis of the spine. When it was time to leave she had no family to go to. Her parents and her grandmother had long since died, and her only close relative, her grandfather, had fallen on hard times. He lived in a rented attic crammed full of memorabilia, and the authorities would not allow him to take her, so the only place left was the state orphanage.

The safe refuge of the hospital was gone, and daily life was now about the survival of the fittest. But unfortunately her lungs and spine were badly damaged and still very weak, and having to fend for herself and deal with the harsh daily regime was not easy. She slept in a twenty-bed dormitory, and her life was dominated by bells. There was a bell for everything; for washing, for dressing, for eating, for school, and for sleeping. Bell after bell controlled her every movement. There was never a moment to recover. She had to be sharp and fast, something which was very difficult for a girl who was not physically strong. She even had to fight for her food ~ breakfast was a case of the quick or the dead, and she was not quick.

Getting around was also very difficult. There were lots of steps and it was slow going. She didn’t walk like other children, nor could she run or play as she still wore a spinal brace. And because her gait was different, the other children made fun of her and pushed her over. Years of living in an institution had left its mark ~ she was insecure, fearful, and lacked self-esteem. So she spoke with no one, and no one spoke to her. Her only respite was school ~ she loved it. Learning became her sanctuary and she excelled. It gave her something to hang on to and feel proud of.

When she was discharged from the hospital and moved to the orphanage she was given a parting gift ~ a book of her favourite stories, and the one she loved the most, was about an angel who was sent to earth at Christmas to do a good deed. The angel’s mission was to find a child for a broken-hearted mother whose baby had gone to heaven. The angel searched and searched, and on Christmas Eve, found the child he was looking for ~ a destitute orphan who desperately needed a mother. And in the words of the book, ‘by the love in the light of a candle flame’, the angel brought them together.

With heart and soul this little girl believed it to be a true story, and with burning faith, believed it was also her story. She slept with the book under her pillow and knew the words by heart, whispering them to herself every single night and praying to God and the angels for her miracle to come. So deep and intense was her belief that she was convinced her prayers would be answered with the coming of Christmas, only weeks away. Just like the story, the angels would send her a mother, exactly the right mother, to fill her life with love.

In this lonely existence, one day she had an unexpected visitor ~ her grandfather. And what he found not only shocked him, it made him very angry. He may have lost his wealth, but he was not about to let his granddaughter get lost in a world of poverty and struggle. He was still owed money from the days when he was a wealthy man, and if he couldn’t get the money, he was going to make damn sure those who owed it to him met his granddaughter’s needs. And so without ceremony he made his way to the doorstep of the man who owed him the most.

His actions set some very powerful wheels in motion ~ the wife of the man he visited decided to go to the orphanage and see for herself this child he was so passionate about. She was a kind and loving woman, and it was with a caring heart that she sat down beside a frail little girl in the dormitory. And as if it was heaven sent, the child beside her instantly knew this was the miracle she had been praying for. This kind lady with the loving eyes was her mother ~ she was certain of it. And without a second’s thought, she looked into her eyes and said, ‘Mother, when are we going home?’ These words were the turning point in both their lives.

Dreams Do Come TrueSo yes, dreams do come true. This was the miracle she had been longing for. The young girl was my mother and the kind stranger was the only grandmother I ever knew. And so it was that my mother spent her first Christmas in ten years in the care of a loving family. And as time went by their bond grew. With the blessing of my mother’s grandfather, within a few months they adopted her, and Omi and Opaps, as we always called them, became my grandparents. Omi did everything in her power to bring my mother back to health and Opaps lived up to his responsibility and gave her everything she needed, and more. Omi saved her life after years of illness and Opaps kept her safe during the war.

My two siblings and I became much loved grandchildren to our Omi and Opaps. Even though they had a natural granddaughter of their own, we were a loving part of their family, and many years later, when the meagre proceeds of their estate was distributed, it was divided equally amongst their four grandchildren. So their debt was finally paid, both in honour and in obligation, and the miracle of love lives on.

Inara Hawley © 2013

*This story is an abridged extract from my book, ‘Conversations With My Mother’, published for the family in 2010*

Happy Birthday Dad

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Dad, today is your birthday. You would have been 90 years old, so this morning I toasted you with my first cup of tea. And because you have been on my mind all day, these words are for you.

Life with you was never dull, and being the happy-go-lucky person that you were, you swept us all along on that roller coaster ride of yours. You may not be in your earthly body anymore but your energy and lust for life is still here as strong as ever. How could anyone not have noticed you. So sure of yourself that you told your bride she would be your wife the very first time you met her. So affable, fun-loving and irresistibly charming that she couldn’t resist. And such a good dancer, that you waltzed around the dance floor with commanding ease.

Riding the Motorbike with DadMum called you a hero Dad for the way in which you fought till the end, and when I was a child, you were certainly my hero. To me you seemed invincible. So big and strong. As far as I was concerned you could do anything, and you did! You saved my life when I stopped breathing as a baby, you got your family safely to a free country and you did extraordinary things for us like the time you rode 12kms on a pushbike with a huge glass window strapped to your back so we could have light in our meagre garage lodgings. Dad, you were amazing!

And you were such a doer too ~ always committed to doing your best and getting the job done. If something needed doing, from organising a function to moving house, you were the man. You were the ultimate wheeler-dealer ~ smart and sharp. You always found a way, and you did it the quickest and the best way without any fuss. Over the years we all witnessed your incredible determination, will and drive. Growing up we were inevitably caught up in what you were doing, and whatever it was, it always involved people and action. 

You worked very hard for us Dad. You saw that as your duty, but you also played hard as well, especially in your hey days. Having come through a horrific war, like most, you refused to discuss it and instead you lived in the moment, took chances and loved a gamble. You locked away the demons and focused on the pleasure. You saw yourself as a winner, and when that winning moment came you revelled in it, often throwing caution to the wind. And oh how you loved those impulsive breezes and where they took you.

A free-spirited farm boy and a believer in ‘live and let live’, there was no hiding behind a bush for you. You did your own thing, secure within yourself, never feeling the need to impress anyone. Your only sadness, and it never left you, was the heartbreak of having to leave Latvia and your family behind. In later years, as you worked in your garden, I know you often thought of your father and mother, and never once did you fall asleep without closing your eyes and walking through your childhood home first.

Dancing with Dad

Dancing with my Dad

So you see Dad, we all understood you very well through all the ups and downs. We felt your sadness and your joy, and we loved and accepted you just the way you were. Strong of mind, body and will. Anyone who shook your hand felt your strength and assuredness. Your ideals were simple: family, hard work, friends, good food and fun. You lived your life exactly as you wanted, and you enjoyed it. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Dad you may have been a man of few words, but you left us with so many memories and so much love. I am a better person for having you as a father. So thank you… for saving me, for being my hero, for teaching me how to dance, for instilling in me your work ethic, for letting me be me, for being proud of me, and for the times you made me feel like a princess. But most of all, thank you for showing me how to celebrate life, live in the moment and in-joy it.

Inara Hawley © 2013