Whilst sipping on a cup of Earl Grey in a café, my sister pointed up to the rafters and said, “Look, that lampshade looks like Mum’s old crystal trifle bowl, the one that Grace lived in.”
Grace was our first pet, a goldfish we won at a funfair in 1976, a time when it was still acceptable to carry a living creature home in a small sandwich bag. In a rush of giddy excitement I dropped the bag in the back of the car. It landed with a plop and a skoosh, which was followed with a mad scramble to rescue the flapping fish from underneath the driver’s seat. I still recall the water pouring out of a hole in the bag and thinking I had killed her. We could have refilled the bag with my guilty tears.
Despite her early ordeal, Grace lived to a ripe old age, albeit with a weird, squishy lump on the top of her head. She lived in luxury, swimming around in my Mum’s best Edinburgh Crystal trifle bowl, a wedding present and family heirloom. Grace swam around happily in there for 51 weeks of the year but every December 23rd she would be temporarily re-homed in a less elegant Tupperware sandwich box so that Mum could make her festive trifle. I know it sounds revolting but she always gave it an extra good clean and the carefully positioned layer of tinned fruit covered the marks at the bottom where the gravel had scratched the glass. None of the dinner guests were ever any the wiser. On the contrary, they always ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhd’ and commented on the ‘extra special something’ that they’d never tasted before. Of course, my sister and I were threatened with death (or at least a week without Swap Shop) should we ever let the secret out. Cue much giggling and footsie under the table when it came time to spoon the first serving from the bowl. Mum’s death glare usually put a swift end to the hilarity.
My Mum still uses that crystal bowl and I always smile whenever I see it. If I run my finger over the fine web of scratches along the bottom I can still imagine Grace bobbing around at the surface with that strange, eyeball-shaped lump I gave her on her first day as our family pet. There’s something marvellous about family traditions and secrets. Happy secrets, of course, not the kind that destroy. Silly memories are what link us with our past and our families in unique ways. They provide us with common bonds and shared experiences. They still make us laugh 35 years later when we spot a familiar looking lampshade in a café and are suddenly transported back to our 1970’s living room.
To the outside world we all grow old. But not to our siblings. Somehow, we always see each other as we always were. We share private jokes, we remember family feuds, griefs and joys. A sibling is like having a little bit of childhood that can never be lost. Different flowers from the same garden.