This weekend we celebrated Bernadette’s 18th birthday. This feels like a landmark, especially as she also effectively just finished school – the Easter holidays have started, and next term is just revision and exams. Then she’s off to University in the autumn.
All of which put me in a reflective mood. When she was born, her older sister, Antonia was two and a half. She was a good-tempered baby and the two sisters were quickly very close to each other.
However, as a toddler things grew more difficult. In particular, she found it very hard to express her emotions, so could suddenly (it seemed to us) fall into a black mood and be unable to tell us why. This could happen anywhere and we (and she) still have no idea what it was about.
On one memorable occasion, we were out for a walk, Ant and Bernie running around in a field. We eventually walked on to the stile at the far end of the field only to find Bernie had stopped. She was just standing there in the middle of the field, under a black cloud of her own making. No amount of calling or cajoling could get her to budge, Eventually I returned to her and picked her up – a fierce bundle of crossness unable to say why she was cross.
When Charlie was born, she was instantly devoted to him, and spent many hours with him on her knee, and she was likewise enthusiastic when Dominique came along.
But her moody temeprament persisted: Ant loved to devise and organise shows, where they would dress up and act out a story. On many occasions, Bernie would participate excitedly in devising the show, sorting the costumes, rehearsing – and then resolutely refuse to play her part in front of us. She tried Brownies but didn’t like the rules and uniforms. She had a spikey relationship with her grandma, and also with her early school teachers. We managed to improve those by telling the teachers how much she liked them one parents’ evening, and telling her how much the teachers liked her – from the next day things were much better, both ways.
An important influence on her and Ant was a Catholic Family group we joined. Here she met some older Catholic girls whom she loved and admired, and who continue to be role models for her. Pilgrimages to shrines in England, and eventually the legendary Chartres pilgrimage also strengthened her love of her Faith. A keen flautist, she also learned to sing Gregorian Chant. Through music and art she found ways to express herself, and her Faith, that she couldn’t through words.
As she moved into her teens, the moodiness of her childhood was left behind, and her teen years were very much easier, as she grew into a thoughtful, considerate and confident girl. I am sure that part of what helped her to achieve this was a combination of knowing she was loved unconditionally by her whole family, and knowing what was expected of her as a civilised and Catholic child.
She always loved animals, and when we moved to the country and got a puppy, she was delighted. That move also took her into a new school, where she made friends with a lovely, lively set of girls. None of them are Catholic, though some are church-going Christians. But Bernie is recognised as the most committed to her Faith, In a recent class debate, they asked her to debate with the most vociferous atheist – but each had to take the others’ position. She loved that, though found it very challenging to think of any reasons why the world might be better if we were all atheists…
Ant was very bright and hard working, and was chosen to be head girl at their school: a hard act to follow. We have always been aware of that, and have sought to help the younger children explore different paths from their elder siblings. So where Ant played the piano, and had sailing as her main hobby, Bernie plays the flute and rides horses. At school she works hard, but again has chosen very different subjects from Ant: Ant is studying Maths at University, while Bernie is studying philosophy, maths and art at 6th form, and will study Fine Art at University.
She is still my most penetrating critic – not only out of the kids, but out of the world; she observes me accurately and tells me just what she thinks: and for that too, I love her.
To celebrate her birthday, and a friend’s 18th, we organised a ceilidh in the village hall. The theme was Noah’s Ark, and all their friends came dressed as animals, and had a fabulous evening. We served lashings of juice and water, and a few of them bought a bottle of wine or two, but nobody got drunk, or misbehaved: they were a delightful crowd; and ceilidh dancing is very sociable, in sets, rather than pairs, and lively rather than lewd.
So now she is 18, and like her elder sister, still very committed to her Faith. It is tempting to feel ‘job done’ but actually, they continue to need our love prayers and support; that phase of moving out of the family into the wider world is not always easy.
So why am I sharing this here? I suppose I thought some might be interested, and also, perhaps, it may be helpful to hear that children who are difficult (and she was certainly that as a toddler and junior school girl) will turn out well if loved and taught.