It hits you out the blue, when you’re least expecting it. I think that is one of the hardest things to try and manage – the sudden realistion and gut-wrenching thud of where we are and how bad things are, but also, how far we possibly still have to go.
It was whilst dropping my elder two off at tennis camp this afternoon that it hit me today. That unexpected, stop-me-in-my-tracks moment when I struggle to breath for a few seconds and have to swallow down the rising wave of fear and sadness.”Well, there’s nothing like your mum’s cooking, is there?” said the lady in front of me at the gym’s cafe. She was laughing with the waitress about going home for her dinner every week, despite being in her late 40’s (that’s a guess and I’m being nice). They both smiled and talked some more as I waited patiently to order my Earl Grey tea (with milk…yes, I know it’s supposed to be with a lemon and I just don’t care!)
As I tried to focus on Mabel and her foot stamping for another drink, rather than the prickle in my eyes and the dull ache in my heart I also remembered what that was like – the joy of going home and being looked after, of being cooked for. Proper cooking, home made goodness that nourished you right to your bones. That used to be the norm for me, in fact I remember my university friends used to love coming back to our family home for the weekend as they’d always get home cooked food, a great roast dinner before setting back to Uni on the Sunday and we’d be packed off on our way with Tupperware boxes full of homemade treats like Scottish tablet and chocolate caramel shortbread. My mum always had a love of cooking and baking and I remember many times helping her bake cakes, buns, puddings and other naughty treats when I was young. My brother, sister and I used to all fight to lick the spoon – that gooey dough mix was arguably better than the finished, baked-to-perfection product. She was pretty good at it too and put herself through a college course when I was a teenager, which enabled her to set up her own catering business, which she did for several years and loved it. My dad, siblings and I would be her guinea pigs when it came to testing out new recipe ideas; I remember some of them were hideous and combined some very strange flavours – but she was always creative and bold and seemed indestructible to me back then. She had found something she loved doing and that she was very good at and she revelled in her self-employed status for a number of years, organising and creating posh dinners for Nat West bank’s business lunches, doing private dinner parties and catering for events. We were all very proud of her.
Despite giving up the catering business some years ago, Mum still had her incredible passion for food and it was almost as if she could demonstrate her love for us in the time and effort she put into preparing food for us when we went to stay. There was always a choice of at least 2 different deserts after dinner each night, home made biscuits and bread to chomp through each day and healthy, balanced, tasty meals for the grandchildren to enjoy. The kitchen was her realm and she was at home there, moving gracefully around the space, confident in her ability to create something gorgeous out of just a handful of ingredients. Happy with her Fleetwood Mac albums blasting out of the stereo, singing along to her favourite songs (Gypsy and Rhiannon come to mind) whilst sauteing, roasting, frying, grilling, mixing, blanching, julienne-ing, peeling, chopping, grating, browning, slicing and whisking. She would sometimes have a moan about how long she had to spend in the kitchen on those big family get-togethers but would never let any of us get in there and help too much as we’d be in the way! She loved it. It was her domain and she adored the creative aspect of it, as well as the well deserved praise she received after every masterpiece.
As small children I remember wishing she’d be like the other mothers and just put frozen fish fingers in the oven with frozen chips – I used to love going for tea at friends’ houses and sometimes craved what I saw as the normal dinners they got. Instead, Mum would cook me and my friends home made pizzas (this was before you could buy ready-made bases at the supermarkets, so these were her own wholemeal dough bases with her own healthy toppings), home made burgers and fish dippers, home made bolognese and home made chips. I do remember when we got a deep fat fryer though and sometimes we were allowed frozen chips made in that – I thought it was blooming marvellous! I look back now and am amazed at my mother – she had three small children, a dog, a busy husband who was often on call, a large house to look after and she bothered to make us home made food virtually every night (I remember the only exception being Tuesday nights after swimming, when we were allowed fish and chips from the local chippy). It has definitely been a grounding for me with my own kids, who often moan at the home made sweet potato chips I have roasted for them, but who adore my home made fish dippers and bolognese.
Mum was always into her fitness too. I remember she did yoga for a while at home and the dining room used to have weird ropes and stretchy things in it, sitting next to the Abba vinyl albums. I used to sit in there and watch her doing her movements, spellbound by her in her lycra. It made me smile to myself yesterday morning (and again this morning) as Martha asked if she could join me in doing an Insanity workout (google it – it’s hard!). We squatted, jumped, jogged and sweated in front of the TV, my eldest daughter trying very hard to keep up and coordinate herself throughout the tricky moves and I smiled. Perhaps she will always be into keeping fit and exercise, like I have always been, after watching and wanting to be like my mum from a very young age. Perhaps I am setting a good example in my grunts and groans, showing them that keeping fit and being healthy is a choice and sometimes it’s hard. I used to go to aerobics twice a week with my mum in my late teens and early twenties and I used to stand at the back of the class, trying to keep up as I watched my mum (always at the front on the left) bouncing around, full of energy, sometimes more energetic than the teacher and always more coordinated than anyone else in the room. I am sure for newcomers she probably appeared intimidating with her excess of energy and effortless coordination and grace. She used to ask me to stand next to her, but no way! She was too good!
I miss seeing her energy, feeling it as you walk in their house. Her enthusiasm for life, for doing things, for her get up and go. Fancy a walk? Yes, let’s go. Shall we decorate a room? Yes, why not. Fancy getting the train to Edinburgh/London/York for the day? Yes, fantastic, let’s do it. Shall we make some blinds / curtains / dresses / bed covers? Yes, wonderful.
Dad has done a sterling job over the past year or two, teaching himself to cook, investing in cookery books as Mum withdrew from everything she has ever loved doing. Losing interest in cooking, golf, dancing, walking…everything really. He has taken up the slack admirably and is now quite a proficient chef as mum is unable to get herself around the kitchen anymore, is unable to find the fridge or to turn the cooker on. Unable to find the utensils she needs, unable to know what to do when, how to chop an onion, what to put anything in. Her brain has lost the ability to work any of that out and it is so heartbreaking to watch. That I think is when I am saddest, when I see her in an environment that is so familiar, where she should look so at home and yet she looks tiny and lost, confused and frightened. That is hard.
I spoke to Mum this afternoon and she is pretty bad today. Dad in his constant state of positivity declared it a 7/10 day, but when she was on the phone to me, I would have rated it a 4 or a 5 at best.
“How are you Mum?” I asked. “You having a nice day?”
“These kids here, I don’t know. I can’t cope anymore. They’re being horrid to me and he takes his time.”
“Well, I’m coming up next week Mum, I’m looking forward to seeing you,” I said, tryng to keep positive.
“It’s different these days. I don’t want to get to people. Anyway….you do what you have to do.”
“Don’t worry Mum, we’re trying, we’re all trying,” I tell her, trying desperately to make her feel calm.
“I wish to not be scared,” she said then. “I’m always on my own.”
Oh Mum. You’re so not on your own. We are beside you every step of the way. Dad is there with you trying to keep you safe, trying to make you feel warm and happy and content. We are all here for you but you just cannot see it. These are things I want to say to her, I want to tell her she is wrong and not to be silly, but I have tried that before and it only makes things worse. So instead I tell her, yet again, that I will be up next week with the children, “Wednesday lunchtime, Mum, so get some soup ready,” I quip, knowing full well that making anything, even soup is beyond her now. But she responds positively, clearly happy in her role as provider, carer, feeder of the family.
“Oh yes, I’ll have some soup ready. I’ll put it on the calendar,” she says and I can hear the smile on her face.
I don’t tell her that it is already on the calendar and has been for weeks or that I will make her lunch when I get there. Instead I tell her what she wants to hear, “there’s nothing like your cooking Mum! I can’t wait!”