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Occasionally Perfect

As a child, I was always impressed by the love and care that my mother put into occasions, beautiful gift-wrapping, incredible birthday parties, designing and painting posters for an arts group that she was a part of to advertise events they ran, creating exceptional fancy dress costumes for an annual fancy dress ball that my Dad’s Rotary Club held for charity each year. The list goes on. Each task was undertaken with such flair, imagination and attention to detail. “It’s good enough” was never a phrase in my mother’s vocabulary. She was meticulous, not because she had OCD or was a control freak or because she needed affirmation, but because she believed that it was respectful to do things properly and carefully. It would have been absolutely alien to her to hand someone an unwrapped gift, and she spent hours producing not one, not two but generally three cakes for my birthday parties, as well as buns and other goodies, to ensure that there was something that every child would want to eat. She liked the table to look magical and colourful and she strove to make everyone happy.

I’m a firm believer in teaching by example and I certainly learned from my mum’s example. So, it has always been second nature to me too to treat occasions with respect and to put a lot of effort into everything I produce for each one, whether it is someone’s birthday, Christmas, a christening or simply having friends around for dinner. Just as my mother wanted, I too want to create something that will bring pleasure and joy. And I get such enjoyment and pleasure out of thinking and planning and executing. I don't put pressure on myself to do this. I like doing it. Some people derive pleasure from other pursuits, and decorating and designing just isn't their thing, but it is mine. I can literally spend an entire afternoon elaborately wrapping gifts, a pot of tea beside me and some music in the background. It's my happy place.

At one stage I even considered setting up a business involving ideas I had for occasions but I believe that some things are best kept as hobbies. I would hate for what I love doing, and find relaxing, to become a chore. Take baking as an example. It's something I enjoy too but I never used to make elaborate, themed, iced birthday cakes, which everyone seems to want these days. Ten years ago, my eldest daughter requested a Twilight-themed cake for her birthday (she was reading the Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series at the time and was obsessed), so I decided to attempt to make it myself. When that worked out well (I even made the apple out of fondant - what a waste of sugar!), for every birthday after that my daughters all wanted themed cakes and gradually family and friends started asking me to make them too, to the point that I dreaded birthdays. And that’s when I stopped doing them. For one thing I actually don’t like icing. I always remove it before eating a cake that is covered with it and much prefer cakes made with fruit and cream and chocolate. I also find working with it messy and way too much stress. Secondly, there are people who really enjoy the art of cake decorating and do it so well and I'm happier to support and recommend them. A friend of mine is a case in point. She makes incredible occasion cakes and is passionate about it. At the end of the day, I need to like what I am creating otherwise I just can't get enthusiastic about it. If I feel under pressure to do something, and particularly something that I have no real interest in or appreciation for, I walk away. But give me some paper, card, fabric, ribbon, ink and other bits and pieces and I come alive. Here are some things that I’ve really loved doing over the years.

The first iced, themed cake I ever made, for my daughter's Twilight-themed birthday
My 'recession' wrapping

Christmas has always been my favourite time and each year I try and do different themed wrapping. I used to buy elaborate papers and ribbons but since discovering how non-eco-friendly wrapping paper is, I’ve switched to plain brown paper and I decorate with things like sprigs of holly or rosemary or little pine cones and handmade gift tags. Of all the Christmas wrappings I’ve done over the years, I have two personal favourites. The first was what I call my ‘recession wrapping’ for Christmas 2009, a time when the world was reeling from the financial crisis. I roughly cut out words and phrases from the headlines of newspapers and created inspirational messages out of them that I stuck onto plain brown paper. The look was deliberately low key, handmade and a little rough, and everyone loved it. The second was a double wrapping, the first layer was white tissue paper that had little flecks of gold and silver in it and I overlaid that with a layer of inexpensive gold netting that I got in a fabric shop, topped off with a dramatic ribbon.

Sweet pea seed pot as a favour/memento of my daughter's christening

However, of all the things I’ve done for various occasions and events, my favourites were the little mementos/favours that I gave to the guests at my youngest daughter’s christening. I put a lot of thought into arriving at something meaningful and symbolic of new life, and finally came up with sweet pea seeds, my favourite flowers. How better to celebrate new life than giving seeds that grow and produce beautiful, sweet-scented flowers?! I actually googled to see if anyone was doing seed favours and couldn't find any (yep, one of my business ideas! Now, of course, you can get them online). So, I bought packets of different varieties of seeds, tiny terracotta plant pots, cut out two circles of cream tissue paper for each pot and then drew a golden rim around the edge of each circle with a gold marker. I also printed out the information about each variety of sweet pea on tiny pieces of paper along with a little card with the name of the variety of seed handwritten on it. The seeds, paper and card went into each pot, I placed the pot in the centre of the two circles of tissue, brought the tissue up around the pot and tied with a thin ribbon (see pics). I am very grateful to my mother-in-law who, after she had removed her seeds and planted them, kept the pot, little card, instructions and wrapping and, when moving house recently, found the favour and gave it back to me because she thought I would like to have it. And I am thrilled that, thanks to her, I’m able to post photographs of it here. There is something truly special about receiving a unique, handmade memento of an occasion.

I love writing and calligraphy and so I’ve also designed and handmade birthday and other invitations and, again, I feel they are much nicer than bought ones. It’s also so much more interesting and exciting to get a personal, handmade invitation in the post, especially now when most invitations instead drop into a Whatsapp Group chat or email inbox.

I have also involved my daughters in helping create and decorate. At Halloween for example, we buy lots of sweets and then sit at our kitchen table together and make little decorated treat bags for the children who come to our house on Halloween night to trick or treat. The look of wonder on their faces when we hand them the treat bags is priceless.

I believe it’s worth taking the time and making the effort to bring a smile to someone’s face and I get pleasure in the process. As one of my daughters watched me lovingly wrap gifts for her sisters at Christmas, she said “Mum, you always go through so much trouble to make things nice for us, I’m going to do the same when I have children”. And that makes me smile. Different people inspire their children in different ways. This is one of my ways, just like my Mum.