Isn't it funny how we so often assume that we are still good at the things we were good at when we were young? I foolishly assumed, for example, that I was still a star athlete because half my life ago I used to win medals for running.
The reality check came when I eagerly volunteered to run in the teacher race at the athletics carnival at the school I worked at last year: I was the last runner in my relay team and we were winning by a good twenty metres by the time I got the baton. I took off like a bull at a gate, just like old times, but very quickly I realised that my legs could not actually keep up with what my brain was telling them to do. Suddenly, my knees gave way underneath me and I started to wobbled towards the ground. Through some merciful act of God, I didn't fall completely on my face. No-one will have noticed I told myself, as I pumped my arms and continued hurtling down the track. But oh, oh no oh no no no no ... it was happening again! My brain told my knees to run and my knees answered back: you've gotta be joking! When was the last time you actually made me do any running of any kind? Six years ago? Seven? The knees started to wobble once more, but this time more violently. My arms flapped around like an injured bird, as I tried to hold myself vertical. I slowed down. All the other teachers running the last leg overtook me. I staggered over the finish line with my heart pumping like it was about to burst out of my chest.
Image courtesy of picturesof.net. Luckily there is no actual photographic evidence of the event (that I know of!)
It wasn't that bad, said the very naïve voice in my head. If anyone did notice, they'll think you got your foot stuck in a hole in the ground. Twice. Then up came the deputy principal and slapped me on the back.
"You right there, Liz?" he asked with a sneaky little smile on his face. "We thought we were going to lose you there a couple of times!"
Luckily my cheeks were already so inflamed that he couldn't see my crimson blush.
Now if anyone ever makes derogatory remarks about the current state of the younger generation, I fondly remind myself of this: although this incident was apparently blatantly obvious to all spectators present, not one single student ever mentioned it to me (what they said behind my back is their own business!). My male colleagues, on the other hand, were a different matter. Apparently this spectacle was hilariously funny and looked, as one of them informed me, "like someone falling down a flight of stairs".
There are several other things that I used to be quite good at that I am gradually discovering I really am quite embarrassingly unskilled at. Let's take fire lighting for instance. I was once quite handy at lighting fires. Not in the pyromanial sense, but in the campfire and pot-belly stove sense - a skill I mastered in my Girl Guide days, many moons ago.
We have a cozy wood-fire stove in our family room which we have lit every chilly winter's day this year. When I say "we", I don't actually mean we at all: what I mean is that Giuseppe throws the wood in and lights a match in the morning before he goes off to work and I keep it alive throughout the day while he's away.
Recently, we got into the habit of going to bed late and throwing a log on just before we do so, so that when we get up the next morning there are still enough coals to ignite a spark and keep the home-fires burning without interruption.
Unfortunately, last night was somewhat different: we were so tired by the time Annalisa was finally asleep that we collapsed into bed, neither of us remembering to stick on a log. When Giuseppe's alarm blasted intrusively into our sleep several hours later, he reached out and whacked it into silence. When he woke up again sometime later and realised the time, he bolted out of bed and fled off to work.
When I eventually dragged myself from the bedroom about half an hour later, I discovered that the fire was completely dead. This of course was a nuisance, but I didn't feel particularly worried. I was, remember, a very gifted fire-lighter in my Girl Guide days.
So after Ben was safely off to school, I set about constructing the wood the way I remember I'd been taught: the kindling at the very bottom, then the smaller pieces of wood and the big ones last of all. I couldn't find any firelighters but that didn't bother me - I'd seen Giuseppe douse a ball of newspaper with cooking oil many times to achieve the same outcome. Then I went looking for the matches and the newspaper. Usually, we have oodles of both, but this morning all I could find was half a box of matches and today's newspaper.
That didn't really bother me either because the only real thing of value in that particular daily paper is the crossword, if you want my opinion, which I rarely have time to do anyway. I'd actually like to have a cross word myself to the editor about the current state of that rag. Still, it seemed a shame to use it to start the fire when I know Giuseppe enjoys looking at it when he comes home from work.
With little other choice, I reconciled that if I started at the back and just used the sports pages (he has yet to be converted to Australian football) he couldn't possibly be upset. Besides, at least he would be coming home to a warm house.
So off I set on my mission. I screwed up some newspaper into a ball, doused it with oil, struck a match and shoved it in. It burned fiercely for about a minute then fizzled out. So I tried again. And again. Annalisa, at this point, decided it was very unfair that mummy should be giving so much attention to the fireplace and not to her. She started to bellow.
When I die and go to heaven (assuming that's where I do end up) after thanking the good Lord for my children, the first thing I am going to ask him is why, despite all his marvelous creations, he neglected to provide mothers with a third arm. It would have made the greater part of the last 8.8 years of my life considerably easier, particularly today. In between comforting baby bellows, I did my best to continue to strike matches, pour oil on newspaper and poke the wood around, experimenting with every imaginable angle.
Then I remembered being taught that oxygen fuels a fire. So I began to blow. I huffed and I puffed and I puffed and I huffed until my eyes filled with smoke, my face was burning hot and I was beginning to feel light in the head. Mercifully, by this time Annalisa had exhausted herself and fallen asleep.
A grand total of seventy-five minutes, three quarters of a newspaper and 23 matches later, I heard the first spark crack in the hearth and my little fire was finally in business.
This afternoon, when Giuseppe got home, my beautiful blaze was burning merrily. I was all set to divulge the saga of my manic morning when the phone rang. It was his mamma, calling from Italy.
Now I'm not usually into eavesdropping, but as anyone who knows a born and bred Sicilian could attest, quietness is not their forte. It's summer over there at the moment of course and I heard him ask about the weather. He listened for a moment then responded: "How nice; it's freezing over here" (a rather gross overstatement in the scheme of things). "But we're not suffering", he continued. "I light the fire every morning for Lizzy and all she has to do is throw a log on every now and then. It's so easy for her".
I'm sorry. Did I just hear the word EASY?!
I considered storming into the next room, interupting the conversation and informing them both that this particular FREEZING morning somebody FORGOT to light the fire and that the process required to amend that little problem was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from easy, thank you very much!
I took a deep, deep breath and resigned to stay calm. Telling him that he forgot to do something is akin to a cardinal sin anyway.
Then a sneaky little smile crept onto my face. There's no need to try to even the score, I told myself ...
because any moment now, he's going to find out I've burnt his newspaper.