It’s my mother’s birthday today. Given how old I am, you can imagine she’s no spring chicken (spoiler alert: she’s 89). She’s the person I have known longest and, surprisingly, there is no one alive in the world who has known me longer… (and I think she still likes me). It feels bittersweet to write about her here. She may never get to see it (she doesn’t use the internet) and even if she did, two minutes after getting to the end she’ll probably have forgotten everything she’s read. It’s hard to see someone you love lose their memories. She still knows who I am and who she is and has a good awareness of what’s going on around her but her short term memory for the most part is terrible…
And it’s not going to get better.
Of course, as hard as it is for me to see this on the few occasions in the year when I visit and when I experience it almost every Sunday in our weekly phone call, I must put the spotlight on my sister who lives with my mother and sees this every day. She’s doing an extraordinary job and our whole family owes her a debt of gratitude.
You may already have become acquainted with my mother’s father: He was the commodore in the British Merchant Navy I mentioned a couple of days ago whose submarine was sunk by a U-Boat in 1943 but who survived into the 1950s. He died when I was 9 months old – so my mother was almost 28. I remember my mother’s mother very well – she lived to be about 82 I think – but she was a regular smoker (Players Navy Cut – untipped) and a stroke precipitated her decline. Mother would have been in her early forties then.
Rosemary (that’s her name) was a schoolgirl in the second world war and I did record some of her childhood memories a few years back (but I can never lay my hands on things when I want them… they’re filed away somewhere safely, I imagine). I remember her telling me about the bomb that landed in the playground, but failed to go off. And the time she and her father (home on leave) were walking along a country road and had to dive into the ditch as a German fighter strafed them.
After the war and after school she trained to be a nurse. She was at Westminster Hospital in London at the same time as my father was qualifying as a doctor at St.Thomas’ Hospital on the other side of the Thames. Back in those days 2d (less than 1p in current money) would get you unlimited time from a phone box and my parents spent long hours chatting to each other. I believe my father proposed after only 3 weeks.
They married in July 1951 and #1 son arrived in December of 1952. #2 son arrived in December of 1955 (that was me). A daughter joined the gang in 1960 and that was us! We were enough…
Parents do their best. It’s so possible to look back and wish things had been handled differently but you just don’t know, and to judge from this kind of distance is so hard. In my memory I think she was a wonderful mother – but I was lucky as the second son, without all the expectations thrust onto the shoulders of a first born.
As a mother, she was a great teacher:
I remember on one occasion, when my parents had friends over, I was sitting at her feet and she (shock, horror) invited me to puff on the cigarette she was smoking (this is the early sixties – she and my father quit about then). Just one, to see what it tasted like… yuk. I’ve never felt the desire to take up smoking, but it was never a banned substance. I didn’t ever get the sense I was doing something forbidden or that cigarettes were something to show off about.
Secondly she showed me how easy it was to burn yourself or set fire to things on an electric stove even if the ring, or hot plate, looked harmless. She put a paper doily on top of one of the plates and in a few seconds it burst into flames… After that you bet I checked the top of the stove before I ever touched anything there!
Those are just two life lessons – I bet there are thousands I don’t recall though they all went to make me who I am. She surely was the one who encouraged me to read… and we had bookcases all around our sitting room. I often pulled random books down on a rainy afternoon to see what was inside – I have some of them here in my bookcase with me now and there’s one I particularly used to love:
Apparitions and Haunted Houses by Sir Ernest Bennett (it has my father’s name in it and is dated 29th March 1945… though come to think of it that could also be my father’s father’s name…much more likely). Used to scare the bejesus out of myself. I’m almost too scared to read anything from it now.
My father died in 1979 and my mother lost the love of her life at the age of 51. She never re-married. Instead she went back to caring for others as a home help until it just became too much for her. And then my sister, in a way, became her home help. Me, I’m no help… too far away. Though last year I did fly over three months in a row when mother had a fall and things looked bad. But she’s rallied physically and seems tough as an old boot (and she’ll hate me saying that, too).
I hope the memory loss, the Alzheimer’s, isn’t what takes her in the end. But if it is, her memories (as many of them as we can gather) will live on for as long as possible in her children’s hearts and minds and maybe I’ll be able to secure a few more here another time.