WRITING FREE AS A LADYBIRD
Writing for children is something I love to do but isn’t the only thing I do as I also enjoy writing for adults as well. However, I must admit there is something different about writing for children – you can write with more freedom and there is less pressure to rein in the imagination.
One of my favourite stories for children, ‘Free As A Ladybird,’ started life with the title ‘My Granny Macken’. Originally it wasn’t actually a children’s story although it was definitely family friendly.
It was first published in an Irish Family Magazine called ‘Ireland’s Own.’ The editor of the magazine at the time retitled it ‘Granny Oh’ which to be honest I didn’t much like but back then I was just so grateful to get it published that I was afraid to disagree, so it was published under that title. I suppose it’s not so bad…
Many people suggested I write more stories for children but it wasn’t until years later I became a regular writer on a show called Fiction Fifteen, which was a children’s story show broadcast weekly on Ireland’s national radio station, RTE One.
I always liked this story and thought it might work well if adapted for radio. So I rewrote the piece and this time I changed the title to ‘The Jellyfish Catcher,’ this being one of the strange jobs ‘Granny’ does in the story.
‘Free As A Ladybird’ proved very popular, both with children and adults. I think it was due to the themes explored: love, control, freedom, denial and old age amongst others.
The family in the ‘Free As A Ladybird’ story is basically a happy one. However, and there is always a however in family stories – the efforts by one family member to protect another causes trouble. Natasha’s mother wants to protect her own mother by making her behave like a demure, elderly lady.
Trouble is, granny might be elderly to some but she is proud of the fact that she is far from demure. She doesn’t want to sit and knit.
Her daughter might see her new flat in sheltered accommodation as a safe and practical place for her to live but as far as Granny’s concerned she might as well go to prison.
Sometimes it is hard to get love just right and as with many family fights, outsiders can often see both sides but the people involved can only see what they think is ‘best for the other person.’
In trying to place restrictions on her mother, the daughter is acting out of love and care, but she fails to understand that her love and care is turning into control. Granny is an adult. She doesn’t feel like an old woman inside and naturally enough she rebels against these ‘loving’ restrictions. The two women have a catastrophic fight. Words are exchanged that are too harsh to be forgiven, or forgotten, at least not for a while.
In writing children’s stories, I often draw from my own experiences, however seemingly inconsequential and this story was no different. For ‘Free As A Ladybird’ I drew on several experiences for inspiration. One was a discussion I had with my own Mother when we were on a train coming back from Dublin – a long time ago.
The train stopped near some rows of tiny houses that were purposely built as sheltered accommodation for the elderly. I told my Mother how I would hate to be stuck in one of those little houses, but I was shocked when she said she wouldn’t mind, that she never wanted to be a burden and that I should ‘stick her in a home’ when she got old.
At the time my Mother was far from old and I felt that she would change her opinion when she got old. For me it was different. The reason I was so adamant against it was that I had once worked in a nursing home for the elderly and absolutely hated it. One of my own worst fears would be to be locked up in such a place – to be stuck there with my freedom curtailed. It still is.
In a way, a very sad way, my mother got her wish. She never did become a burden because she didn’t live long enough to be ‘old,’ at least not in the conventional sense.
She was only seventy-two years of age and enjoying great health, still working part-time to finance her travels, still swimming, still having fun with ‘the girls,’ still singing barbershop – when she got cancer.
She only survived a few months, which was shocking as well as heartbreaking. She always said she’d love to live until she was eighty and any day she got after that would be a bonus. In one of those strange irrational thoughts you get when someone you loved dies I felt cheated on her behalf.
Forgive me the cliché but time did do some healing and now, when I look back I can see that by avoiding the ill-health and infirmity of old age, my mother escaped being ‘a burden.’ Maybe she wasn’t cheated after all.
She never got ‘stuck in a home’ and she enjoyed every second of her freedom while she could – almost to the end of her life. Freedom is something that when we are lucky enough to have it we tend to take it for granted – we’re only human and it’s what we do. Yet not everybody is free. Maybe we could love life just a little bit more.