I found this photo of me and my dad when I was clearing out my old bedroom a few weeks ago. Everything about it should make me cringe. Namely, the rather assaulting amount of pink going on, and that kitsch Groovy Chick lunch bag that I was definitely too old to be carrying around. There are not one, but two, buns on the back of my head, a nod to some sort of kooky Princess Leia look that I was obviously tying to achieve. My jeans are ludicrous, and look wide enough to have smuggled a small person on the inside of each leg, and I’m wearing purple trainers that look as though they have been orthopaedically enhanced. You can’t tell from this photo, but I’m also wearing a bikini top for a bra. Those were the days, eh?
This is all not to mention the adorable mise-en-scene of the photograph; the Gregg’s carrier bag, the thermos of coffee, the homemade egg sandwiches (always egg), the murky water and vast expanse of shingle in the background that we obviously considered picturesque enough for a picnic spot. That is a beach only a Brit could love.
But in fact, I didn’t cringe at all when I found this photo. I smiled, because I remembered where we were when the photo was taken, and that it was one of my happiest teenage memories. It was taken the day my parents took me to look around Bangor University, on one of those rare, blue-skied and sunny days that was barely seen again over the next 3 years in North Wales.
The sunshine helped to show Bangor at its best. I fell in love with the sprawling hills as I took in the view from the main campus building. I fell in love with the majesty and grandeur of the 100 year old college that could have easily been a film set for Harry Potter. I fell in love with the simplicity of the town, with its book shops and coffee shops and cosy old pubs. I was full of optimism that this was the place for me; this was the place I would live out the long-awaited fantasy of moving away from home. It was exactly as I imagined it should be, a romantic view that I’d obviously conjured up from reading too many David Nicholls’ novels and watching too many coming-of-age films.
I didn’t need to visit anywhere else. I told my parents on the way back that this was the only place I wanted to go. And neither of them said this was a short-sighted or hasty idea. Neither of them said it was too ambitious, nor did they say it wasn’t good enough for me. They didn’t tell me to explore other options ‘just in case’, or encourage me to visit somewhere that wasn’t nestled in the back end of nowhere.
They trusted me, just like they always did, to decide what was best for me. That was their parenting approach to most things, and whether or not this was a conscious choice or it happened by default, when I look back on my teenage years, I remember being supported to do whatever I wanted to do, and no matter how radical the idea seemed, they were willing to let me try it.
When I was nine, I decided I wanted to become a vegetarian; the very honourable and noteworthy reason being… because my sister was. Instead of obliging us to force down the lamb dinner she was having, or complaining about preparing two sets of meals, my mum stocked up on Beanfeast and let us both get on with it.
When I finished school, and my only life goal was to become a TV presenter, my parents took me to look around Sheena Simon Performing Arts College in Manchester, and entertained the idea that I wanted to go to drama school. Then when I changed my mind and decided that - actually - the only thing I wanted to do in life was to become a fashion designer, they accepted that studying textiles at my school’s sixth form was the way to go, sat back and let me fill out the application form. Then when I changed my mind again and had a revelation of WHAT AM I THINKING?! I’m off to college to study English because I’m going to be a famous writer or poet or playwright or something, they said, ‘Okay, Katy. You know what to do.’
At 22, after I’d finished my studies and worked for a year, I announced that I was off to Mongolia, to Ulaanbaatar, to help street children in crisis. I’d be going in the middle of winter, when temperatures averaged highs of -10°C , a comfort level I really hadn’t thought through because all I could think about was the children – the children for God’s sake! Instead of putting his foot down, and making it seem impossible, my dad drove me to Decathlon, where he helped me pick out snow boots and thermals and told me, “It’s your life, my love.”
And when that fell through (no doubt to their relief), after a prison-amnesty in Ulaanbaatar released thousands of criminals in order to make room for the ‘bad’ ones, and it occurred to me (yes, even to me) that perhaps this wasn’t the best time to go, I decided I was going to Indonesia instead, to volunteer at a summer camp in the jungle. And after that, I’d be going to India and then to Vietnam and I wasn’t sure when I’d be back.
I worked a bit more, and booked my flights and my parents drove me dutifully down to London. And although my mum cried, held on to me for as long as possible, and pressed a guardian angel good luck charm into my hand, they let me disappear into the crowds of the departure lounge of Heathrow. Off I went, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 22 year old traveller, to take a long-haul flight to Kuala Lumpur and then to Jakarta (by myself!), where I’d be met by a stranger on a moped, to take me to the bus, which would take me to the camp in the middle of the jungle, that had no known postcode or even an address.
Let’s be honest, that is nuts. I wouldn’t do it now, and the sane half of me wouldn’t let my son or daughter do it either. But then the better half of me knows that this was one of the greatest adventures of my life and whaaddya know? I lived to tell the tale. Some spectacular tales, I might add.
Now, I’m not writing all this to suggest that I had the coolest parents in town, and that family life in the Rigg House was one big group hug. Far from it. We argued and we raged and we slammed doors like the best of them, and we let each other down more times than I like to remember. In fact, when I think about that day trip to Bangor, we didn’t have many days like this at all when I was a teenager. My mum was ill for most of those years and I was fiercely independent – off out with friends circling the mean streets of Manchester – which meant family time as a teenager was pretty rare.
This photo is special because it represents so much more than a picnic by the side of the road. It represents the freedom my parents granted, the choices they allowed me to make (good and bad) and the backing they always gave me, whether they agreed or not. They may not have paid for the flights or the tuition fees or the snow boots or even for those snazzy purple trainers (numerous jobs and a hefty student loan covered that lot) but they supported me in more ways than they probably knew, and definitely more than I ever appreciated.
I hope one day I’ll be able to do the same – to send my children off as brave, independent, curious explorers, to see the world and everything it has to offer; to seize every good opportunity that becomes available to them (even if that opportunity happens to be in an Indonesian jungle). I hope I can see the value in sitting back, and letting them make decisions, instead of dictating the path I think they aught to take. I hope I will be a voice of encouragement instead of a voice of doubt. I hope I will tell them, It’s your life, my love.