A dappled thing

Red hair and freckles seem a curse to a sensitive child, but I lived. This is the factual history of me. The obvious, external and objective facts only partly form the nature of a person. I can remember and recount my history quite simply, but that is not all there is to it. The internal and subjective, the light and shade, come in my next entry.

Child of the 1950s, child of older parents, clever, plain, I went to a local Montessori nursery which must have had an unusually liberal approach to the education of infants at the time (though it didn’t look much like Montessori method I encountered later). The little boys and girls were prepared for entry to private schools if they were judged to have the necessary brains. I have so many memories of this little school, from the head teacher’s  grand-daughter with a hole in her heart and blue lips to the sad puppets we could take home for the evening if we had been good. Writing was learned by joining dots; my geometric patterns did not meet the approval of the second grade teacher. One day I had to stay for lunch and it was mince and butter beans which I could not eat. 3rd and 4th grade girls shared a room, where there were horse chestnut sticky buds on the teacher’s desk. My interest in the natural world was evident from the beginning, and I left the school for my private junior and secondary school with a little prize, ‘The Dumpy Book of World Nature’ which I still cherish.

darling book

My parents were religious, a stance which unsurprisingly I accepted initially, but then rejected when I came fully to an age of reason. Maybe not all children with such a history would be as bothered by it as I was, but my struggles later became rather complicated, and crossed the boundary into an extreme complexity of meaning. This will have to be unpacked at a later stage of my journey. I believe my parents were kind and good, but their generation had ways of being, and were lacking in ways which have been explored all too fully by the next generation. I loved them, even admired them, considering the travails of their lives; I don’t blame them, but there’s been some working out to do, enough for a lifetime. So this too must wait for its exploration.

To an external view, my childhood was privileged and reasonably happy. My mother was a good cook, and I learned a lot in an informal way, which was a good foundation for future culinary exploits. Although I wasn’t happy at my girls’ school, and starting to struggle and fail in every subject except biology, I got the results I needed to go to university. I managed to defer entry for a year, another  astonishing act of rebellion,  and had a delightful time as a student gardener at the Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley. Here I met people I could never have imagined, including boys.

Durham University when I arrived there in 1975 was another liberation. I loved Botany, a degree subject which no longer exists. It is a lasting regret that I had unreasonable aspirations to be something other than a career botanist, but I say that with hindsight. The life of plants has come to be the greatest interest in my life.

my precious

After two less happy years moving into the domain of design at Sheffield, I had my Masters degree and a job I would come to hate, in a busy landscape architecture practice in London. I also married during this time, and maybe it was a face-saving exit from the profession when my daughter was born, consolidated with my two sons in rapid succession.

Family life followed a conventional path. I actually liked my children and I hope they could say that they were happy despite the occasional blip which I recall with mortification and shame, and I hope more accurately then they do. We had messy days in the kitchen, muddy days leaning over pigsty walls, bonfires and picnics, and the cheapest camping holidays available, on the basis that any experience can transform a child’s understandings, and a parent is not going to know which will be formative, or lead to future happiness. They weren’t completely free, but I hope freer in their minds than either their father or I had been.

Later in the children’s schooldays we took a chance to live abroad for a short while. Switzerland was a lovely time of excitement and new experience for the most part. Like so many of my experiences, maybe every experience any person can have, living in Switzerland was composed of almost violent juxtapositions of light and darkness. The summer sun is brilliant and hot, perhaps too much so for an English shade plant such as I. But the society has another side, and winter can be bleak. I had time on my hands, and it was a time for reflection and integration. It was also a time when I began to take photographs, and to explore the incipient and ambiguous world of social media.

lavaux lake light
light  on Lac Leman

I returned to live in England again after three years in Switzerland. For pragmatic reasons, the family was now apart, living in different countries and pursuing different objectives. I was aiming to begin another career (studying to return to work in the field of mental health), while also caring for my aging mother and also keeping an eye on the eldest and youngest child, while my husband oversaw the final stage of the middle child’s secondary education. In the end, I decided that I was not cut out to be a mental health nurse. The theory was fascinating, the clients (as they were then termed, rather than patients, though they did mostly have the patience of saints) seemed to warm to me, but the paperwork, the chaos of the NHS at the time (sadly it has continued so to this day) and the prospect of ‘watching my back’ seemed, in the final analysis, too frightening and worrying to contemplate. I hold a position almost midway between regret and relief at this decision.

Most recently, I took a succession of menial jobs to while  away the daytimes and give me some social contact and minimal income, while I continued to care for my mother and indulge my love of my family, friends and home, my garden, my ‘making’  and my books.

making …

My mother died and my daughter became pregnant within three months. I already knew that in my adult life  I had more played a succession of roles than become myself, and now I take this task in hand, with a greater sense of clarity than I expected.


Author: hilary neilson

Middle aged woman with green tendencies

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