Last week, one of the most influential women in my life celebrated a landmark birthday. Or, at least, I presume she celebrated; admittedly, I’m yet to check! See, I clocked this occasion a few months back. I told myself that I had plenty of time to think up a really unique, thoughtful and extraordinary gift; totally fitting for a unique, thoughtful and extraordinary woman. In fact, I was so determined to do something special that I ended up doing the usual… nothing! As per usual, I got so caught up in my own chaotic life that I forgot the date, neglected to so much as text and promised myself I’d make it up eventually! I mean, she’ll understand, of course she will; our friendship is one built to survive months of neglect and is powered by short but sharp injections of top quality fuel. Forgotten birthdays are mere discoloured bricks in a rock solid wall, my friend. I’m not worried.
The question doth remain… what does one give to the woman who has it all?!
Twenty useless Groupons and overpriced Googles later, I decided that the answer was staring me in the face.
Mrs H loves words. Legend has it she stuffed her Honeymoon suitcase full of books and had every intention of reading them. In present day, the evidence litters every corner of their home; piles of books prop up cards and recipes, whilst the Sunday Times is thrust promptly into your hands upon arrival, with the insistance to, “Read! Relax! … and tell me everything!”
Which, obviously, I do. With relish. Because I kinda like words too.
So, here we go, Mrs H. These words are for you.
I first met the H’s back in 2008, when I turned up on their doorstep with a suitcase full of really tall shoes and really tiny pants. I was a 22 year old actress with fake blonde hair and half a Mackem accent. They took me in on a trial run, just in case I was indeed the nightmare house-guest I surely promised to be. They were warm; kind; funny. A Devon-Mancunain mash-up with cool jobs, 2.4 kids and now, an actress in the attic. I’d been turfed out by my previous host; a single lady who preferred her lodgers to be neither seen nor heard. So, desperate not to disappoint again, I asked the H’s previous lodger for advice. “Well, they don’t really like hosting girls,” he told me cautiously. “You know, on account of the washing…”
“Mrs H. is away a lot.” He offered, with a wide-eyed look, by way of explanation.
Aaaah, I see. While the cat is away- no pants on display! Got it.
I managed about a month, eagerly squirrelling my apparently tiny pants and sweaty work clothes in and out of the washing machine and up to the attic before anyone knew I was there. Until one day, that is, Mrs H sat me down and, in true H-y form, fixed her eyes into mine and said, “now tell me… what on earth is going on with these clothes?!” And so I told her what their previous guest had said, and she laughed – that brilliant, raucous laugh- and said, “NOOO! We were just worried you’d be really annoying!”
Apparently, it turns out, Mr H is not half as turned on by laundry as my predecessor had presumed, and Mrs H is not half as weird about washing as I’d been warned. It also turned out that, by some miracle, I wasn’t considered all that annoying either – which sort of broke the ice! Before long, the H home became home to me- in all its warm and messy, happy, classy glory.
Of course, the house is one thing, and you always get a warm welcome. Home is another thing; it takes a while to put your bare feet on the sofa. But family? Family takes a while longer. I believe in this case, it started with a pair of stinky shoes.
One day, I was rushing to get changed from work and realised that my Theatre Company shoes were a bit worse for wear. Aware of a slight stench, I decided I couldn’t leave them downstairs, but was in too much of a hurry to get them up to my room. And so I hid them. I popped them behind the armchair in the front room; the room nobody really goes in, and shut the door, hoping to retrieve them in the morning before anybody noticed. The next day, however, I returned to find the offending footwear on the bottom step outside; it turns out the slight stench had been so offensive that the kids had come downstairs, sniffed them out and banished them outside forevermore!
Now I’m almost certain, only family would keep a roof over your head after that!
As I mentioned before, Mrs H. is an extraordinary woman. A born leader, speaker, teacher, communicator; a vibrant and vivacious influence in the early days when I was still discovering that women could indeed be all of these things and more. Kitchen table conversations kept me entertained and engaged for much longer than they lasted; lights disappeared as we wrestled with the past and put the world to rights in hopes of a better future.
Which is why, I think, we decided that Sex in the City 2 might be a good night out? And why, after 5 minutes of awkward silence, we both declared it to be the worst film we’d ever seen and ripped it to shreds it in pure, offended, relief. And why, then, it still makes me smile to remember the moment that our feminist ranting was abruptly stopped by the sheer horror of the car park’s locked gates, the dreaded penalty notice, and the sight of the almighty Mrs H near-on wetting herself as she called Mr. H to confess the news!
Seriously though. It was more of a blessing than I realised at the time, that I met and married my own Husband while living under the H’s roof. To have a loving, honest, realistic, down-to-earth, supportive-yet-sufficiently-mocking, happy, healthy, completely equal Christian marriage modelled for us so closely, so clearly, right from the start of our relationship was, indeed, a Godsend. There are a thousand reasons to be thankful that this family opened – and continue to open- their home and their lives to us, but this is by far the best.
I regularly refer to Mr and Mrs H as “The King and Queen of hospitality.” And it’s not just the smile at the door. It’s not just the awaiting wine glass, or the freeflowing snacks, or the paper, or the remote control or the box full of toys that their kids have long grown out of. It’s not even the en suite bathroom with the hotel freebies or the phone call days before to ask what we’d love to eat. It’s not even the trampoline complete with supervision, or the cup of tea and magazine brought to the car because the kids are asleep. Heck, it’s not even the polite teenagers, trained and poised, ready to play with the under-5’s the minute they’ve gotten over the ice machine.
To me, it’s living on the other side of the country, having not seen them for a year, and realising that our placement accommodation has fallen through 5 days before we’re set to arrive. It’s wondering who on earth would put me up, on my own, with a two-year-old and a baby, for an entire week, with only 5 days notice?!
We hadn’t even seen their new house. They warned us it “wasn’t quite finished“, but of course, we could stay.
To me, it’s turning up to the exact same welcome; the warm, open, carefree invitation to feel at home, even though “not quite finished” was an understatement and a half! It’s finding out a few days later that “my room” was actually their room when I first sent the message; that Mr H. had spent the last 5 days building their actual bedroom, to make sure they had a spare. “It needed doing anyway,” he shrugs. Whilst she adds, “you will ALWAYS have a home here.”
That, dear friend, is why they wear the crowns.
2 Christmasses ago, Husband was heavily scheduled and I was heavily pregnant. Facing a long, empty Saturday with 2 energetic kids and zero personal supply, I headed to the H’s. When we had moved back over their way, Mrs H had offered their place as a retreat; “don’t stop coming to visit! We want this to be a home from home- a refuge- when you need one.”
And so off I went; expecting a brew and a chat and an afternoon of parenting by teenagers and Netflix. Standard. What I got, however, was a instruction at the door:
“Go and get the pram out of the car.” Okay… I do as I’m told. (Mrs H also has that effect on people!)
“Right,” she dons her hat and gloves while I assemble Toddler’s ride. “Mr. H and I are taking the kids to the park. Your bed is made, we’ll be back in a couple of hours. Go and have a nap!”
I could have cried. I did cry. These people are something else.
Another Christmas on and I had hit rock bottom. We stayed a couple of times and it was clear that I was struggling. They were, of course, the best people to be around. Not only because they were encouraging and empathetic, alongside joyful, as usual; but because they don’t stop there. From Mr H gently modelling how to discipline the wilful Toddler when I felt at breaking point; to Mrs H’s list of ‘helpful talking points’, emailed to me a week after we’d gone. The H’s posess that rare gift of holding up, whilst holding accountable; advising, whilst reassuring; encouraging, without patronising; and helping from on the same side.
Mrs H is always offering for us to come and use the house while they’re away, or to go out on a date while they stay in. Wonderful as those offers are, however, the truth is, they’re just far too good company to pass up! (You see, I wasn’t around for Mr. H’s school days, and Mrs H has never offered me a cocktail in a tea cup… so we know we’ve somehow crept up to royal position for such precious times as these! Opportunities are not to be missed!)
One of my favourite games to play at the H household is to ask Mr H a question in Mrs H’s hearing, and then see just how long it takes before she interupts his version of events with,“No! You’re not telling it right! Let me start the story again… you’re missing out the details!”
The first thing I think of when I picture Mrs H is her eyes. Big, bright, lively, honest, searching eyes. The hair is bouncy, the smile is one of the biggest and warmest smiles in my memory; but somehow, at the very same time, the eyes mean business! The smile says, “we are delighted you’re here! Tell us your news!” Whilst the eyes let you know what’s coming next. Because whatever you tell her, whatever your news, you need to come prepared with details. For you never know exactly which detail she’s going to hone in on, (though if you stay long enough you’re bound to cover them all!) Either way, I guarantee you, my friend; you won’t get one sly nugget past Mrs. H. Just you try and fob her off with a platitude, or a generalisation or an assumption! The smile says, “How lovely…,” as the eyes close in for, “Come on…. what’s this really all about then?!”
I think what this all adds to; to sum it all up in one final word; is quality.
Mrs H you are a woman of the highest quality. From your cooking, to your conversation; from your hair to your heels; from your home to your husband; from your mind to your meals; from your faith to your family; from your brain to your baking; from your work to your wardrobe… such high quality, five decades in the making!
♡ Happy birthday, Mrs H! ♡
(Sorry it’s so late!) Xxxx