As I have mentioned in the past, my mother is 93 (born 1929). Currently, her energies are directed at moving herself into residential care. This project, she is undertaking with her usual energy, and to support her in it I and my siblings have been visiting regularly.
Mum loves it when I am at her bungalow. Sitting beside her, I find myself bombarded by her political opinions (outrageously right wing; formed through reading the Times and Telegraph and watching the BBC news) and her reminiscences, many of them oft repeated, but occasionally containing a gem I have never heard before. Read on, I’ll get to one of those eventually.
Recently, our conversation covered education. My mother attended a dame school with about 30 pupils. Here, the emphasis was on deportment and learning by rote, so she knows her times tables (as do I) and can recite historical dates and locate the (former) British Empire on a map of the world (which I can’t).
I, on the other hand, went to a school very similar to the one my kids attended: a co-educational grammar school in a cosmopolitan town. In my case, the school was less cosmopolitan than the Duckchester one of the girls. Less cosmopolitan because in those days, fifty plus years ago, there was not a single black or brown face among my fellow students. For my girls there were many. Not that I think this is important, I’m just marking the changing influences on, and advantages of, education today.
Mum usually starts our conversations with a firm opinion. On this occasion it was how inappropriate it is that small children are being taught about sex. I responded saying I thought it was an attempt to prevent very young girls from becoming pregnant.
Mum bulldozed on as if I hadn’t spoken. ‘Nothing’s romantic any more. Do you know, I was reading in the Times that they even teach young children about masturbation!?’ She gave me a wicked look. ‘Surely they could work that out for themselves!’
I grinned back wondering as I did so who among my middle-class friends would have such a conversation with their mothers. ‘I don’t think they actually teach them how to do it,’ I chortled.
Anyway, the reminiscences (not about my parents’ sex life – bleh!) came pouring forth and eventually moved to Mum’s Aunty Nee. Aunty Nee was artistic. My mum has one of her paintings on the wall, a small watercolour of Poveys, the erstwhile home of Lala, Mum’s maternal grandmother – now a housing estate. I painted a copy, larger and more colourful, for my mum’s Christmas present a couple of years ago and tried not to be hurt when she said that she wouldn’t be taking it with her to the residential home – not enough wall space, apparently.
Anyway, Aunty Nee was clearly a character with opinions that would match my mother’s. One of these concerned age, about which she lied, crediting herself with three years. When her brother Joe died at a young aged sixty-seven, because everyone knew Joe was two years younger than she, Aunty Nee had a date carved on his tombstone that implied he was sixty-four.
This reluctance to reveal your true age seems to be a generation thing (if you see what I mean). My own mother told us for years that she was twenty-one, until I was old enough to realised that if she had been twenty-one last year, she must be twenty-two this time, ‘And then you’ll be twenty-three, then you’ll be twenty-four,’ I reportedly continued, adding number after number, showing off my prowess at counting. ‘Then you’ll be twenty-nine…’ I paused. ‘You’ll be nearly dead then, won’t you?’
We have found a fantastic care home for Mum in Herne Bay, and she is excited to move in. Physically she is struggling but mentally is still a human dynamo powered by whisky and wine with a bit of butter and cream added for good measure. A social animal, now that she can’t get about easily, she misses her friends. Sitting beside her, filling the social gap and listening to her memories, I appreciate her company and feel a growing love and respect for her.
Back to the memories. Our conversation moved on to the fact that clothes have become disposable items. Young people reportedly no longer repair them but throw them out and buy new.
‘I don’t think they’re taught needlework so much any more,’ I said. ‘When the girls were at school, they had something called CDT (Craft, Design and Technology) but they only seemed to do a term on Craft, which included sewing skills.’
My mother looked thoughtful and with a dead pan expression announced, ‘They teach them how to masturbate, but don’t teach them anything useful like sewing on a button.’
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.