Opaque Legacies

Today is the anniversary of my grandparents’ wedding. They were married on the 3rd of January 1928 in Calstock, a beautiful, tiny place in Cornwall – Edith Christian to Josiah George. Her own parents, Minnie-Annie Frances and Alfred had made him wait 7 years for her.

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My grandmother, Edith Christian

It sounds Biblical, and in 2016 unthinkable. Now they would just have gone and done the deed, but back then I suppose things often happened that way. They didn’t want him to marry their daughter, not for any other reason than that he would be taking her away to far off Derbyshire. It was a long way, in an age when lots of people didn’t move very far. The irony was that Christian had met him on a reluctantly agreed day out with some of her girlfriends – they went off to St Michael’s Mount together and there he was, a ‘foreigner’, waiting to sweep her off her feet. She must have been 20, or 21 and I daresay she’d had plenty of time to weigh up the local lads by then, and obviously none of them cut the mustard.

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Alfred and Minnie-Annie Frances

I never knew my grandmother. Either of my grandmothers, for that matter. They both died very young, so perhaps Minnie-Annie Frances or Alfred had a premonition that time was short, and kept her close for as many years as possible. She died when my mother was just 11, going on 12, and I believe that she died on Valentine’s Day, which seems a cruel twist of the knife.

I remember my grandfather looking at me, when I was about 16 or 17. I remember the expression on his face startling me, frightening me almost, because he looked so – vulnerable. Hurting. With tears in his eyes, he told me that I looked just like her.

He didn’t have a very happy life, I think. He waited 7 years for the woman he loved, travelling up and down to Cornwall and taking her for walks through the woods by the river there. Hare Wood. They named their house after those woods. He took me to them once, when I was quite a small child. I remember it still, running down through the sloping glades, the bluebells coming up to my waist, a sea of lavender blue stretching in every direction, the smell of them – the never-to-be forgotten smell of them, the river glinting in the valley beneath. He married again after his wife died, but not for love. I don’t know why he did it, probably to provide a maternal figure for his twin daughters, but it was a mistake. She was tight-lipped and unloving, and she possibly regretted it too, realising that she could never take my grandmother’s place, either in his heart or theirs. My mother hated her, and I have often wondered whether she ever forgave her father.

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My grandfather, George

 

He wasn’t a large part of our lives, although he wrote, and sent presents and cards. We lived abroad all through my childhood and into my teens, so we rarely saw him, apart from my elder brother who, at school in England, spent the shorter holidays with them if it wasn’t feasible to come home. When my family finally moved back to England, he would come to stay two or three times a year, but his wife never came at all, and if anyone referred to her ever, is was as ‘Aunt’.

I grew up loving him and hating ‘Aunt’ for the hurts she had inflicted on my mother, but it is only as an adult, looking back, that I have sensed the uncharted territory that surrounded my childishly simple emotions. The complexities of family relationships are unfathomable, and the difficulties that lay between my mother and her father are no exception. Difficulties that have never been discussed at home, but they have come into my mind often recently, now that my mother is frail and needy, and often very difficult herself. My sister lives only 15 minutes away from my parents, and there are times nowadays when I could wish, for her sake, that the distance was a good deal further. She and I have both had cause to ask my mother: ‘How would you have felt if Grandad had lived so close to you?’ Her lack of response has, as they say, spoken volumes.

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My mother in her grandfather’s arms, her twin in their mother’s

The other – inevitable – legacy of all this is that my grandmother has lived her whole incorporeal life on a pedestal, and – which is far worse but completely understandable – my mother has never recovered from her loss. It is heartbreaking.

I may have been painfully like my grandfather’s first and only love, but there are little things I have inherited from him too. He kept birds, apparently, in a large aviary in the garden when my mother was young. She often tells me now of the day she accidentally left the door open when she went in to feed them, and the miracle – the sense of which has never left her – that none of them flew away while she and her twin were at school, and her father was at work. Her garden birds are her only ‘pets’ now. She cherishes them, as he cherished his. And as I do mine. But then, perhaps my grandfather kept birds because Christian loved them? I guess I’ll never know.

 

You can find the latest post from my other blog, Writing from the Edge, here

New Beginnings

…as anyone who has cared for elderly relatives knows, there is no status quo. Everything changes on a daily basis, and sometimes things are only as good as last night’s rest. Nowadays, I am one of my mother’s primary carers, and, as anyone who has filled a similar role knows, it’s not easy.

 

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Dogs of yesteryear awaiting Christmas treats

It has been a difficult time recently, but today is New Year’s Day, and it occurred to me – lying awake in the dark watches of the night – that this is the perfect time to make a new start. I have been feeling the need to somehow log this era of my life, record it in some way, and to have an outlet for my feelings and emotions as I help care for my elderly parents, but up ’til now I haven’t found a way. And then it struck me that I have had this blog page for years, sitting idle. Now is the time to put it to use.

So I shall start. It is New Year’s Day. I spoke to my mother this morning. She is well, had a good night, and for once sounded rested. She doesn’t often sound rested these days. so it was good to hear her voice sounding light, to talk about the day that’s in it, to tell her of our early walk with the dogs and go on to chat about all the animals, dogs and cats, she has had, and loved, and misses. I suppose it is largely because of my mother that I have felt unable to write about this anywhere else. My other blog, Writing from the Edge, has been a part of my life for years, but my mother has been a regular reader from the start, so naturally I haven’t felt free to say what’s on my mind.

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My parents in their garden, Summer 2010

My mother is 84, and although she doesn’t – apparently – have Alzheimers, she is certainly suffering from exhaustion-related forgetfulness, which amounts to dementia, whether it has a recognisable name or not. She is my 94 year old father’s primary carer, and is doing an amazing job. But – but – as anyone who has cared for elderly relatives knows, there is no status quo. Everything changes on a daily basis, and sometimes things are only as good as last night’s rest. Nowadays, I am one of my mother’s primary carers, and, as anyone who has filled a similar role knows, it’s not easy.

One major problem is that I live in a different country, so it is an hour’s drive, a flight, a two hour wait, an hour and a half’s bus journey and then a half hour taxi or lift to reach her. I’m lucky, she isn’t on the other side of the world. She lives on the East Anglian coast of the UK, while I live on the west coast of Ireland. It is perfectly do-able, just not instantaneous. My sister, on the other hand, lives 15 minutes down the road from our parents, and has, for years, filled all the gaps. But, however much you love your relatives, it is arduous and ever-increasing work to care for them in old age. It is also work that, however lovingly given and however much appreciated, can easily be taken for granted, not just by the primary recipients, but by the rest of the family.

They are lucky, my parents. They are fundamentally very fit and still live together in their own home, in the centre of a beautiful village. But nearly three years ago the inevitable happened: my mother had a fall and the slow but inexorable downward spiral began. That was when my periodic visits became a bi-monthly fortnight to give my sister a break, and my mother some respite-care. Looking back, that was when my life bisected and I stopped writing about half of it on my blog.

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One of the ‘annual photos’ my father kept on his office desk (mid 60s)

 

On my last visit, in early December, things had moved another notch south, so to speak. It’s hard to institute changes that might benefit everyone, when two members of the party won’t remember the new regime within five minutes. ‘Don’t try to move the bins, I’ve arranged that the Council will come in and collect them’ my sister told them. A simple way to improve life and keep them safer, but despite a reminder phone call and a note in mum’s diary – her Essential aide-memoire, my sister arrived to find them trying to haul heavy wheelie bins out of their habitual resting places, through the gate and onto the lane. It resulted – unbeknownst to anyone – in my father pulling a muscle, so when I arrived a few days later, it was to find him practically immobile, my mother beyond tired, my sister worn to a frazzle. Yet they are of that generation who rarely seek help. When, a day or two later, I rang their surgery to ask for a visit to see why my father could suddenly barely walk, the Receptionist asked uncertainly if my parents were patients of theirs, as she didn’t immediately recognise their names.

In one way, it was all a good thing, as it spurred me on to make lots of changes that we siblings have wanted, but which our parents were resisting. I took them to the neighbouring town where the three of us tried, tested and bought Dad a riser/recliner chair that deposits him onto his zimmer frame in a semi-upright position. ‘Hurrah!’ I thought. But neither he nor my mother seem to be getting the hang of the push-button mechanism, so it’s usefulness has (to date) been limited, and by the time I left Dad was often to be seen perched precariously on the up-risen seat. Definitely not something to bring me peace of mind in absentia. It would be funny if it wasn’t for real.

So now I find myself carrying them with me constantly, and it is exhausting, especially as there is nothing I can do. If I ask my mother about such things as their grasp of the chair, it might as easily elicit a ‘don’t treat me like a child’ response, as a straightforward (if depressing) ‘nothing doing’. Somehow I have to find a way of switching in and out, of distancing myself mentally and emotionally, concentrating on the things I can do for them, but ‘putting them down’ and focusing on the things I have to do for the people who need me at home. It’s very hard, and to be honest, I’m not coping very well yet.

But it was good to talk to my mother this morning, and hear her sounding bright and cheerful. Most of all I think she enjoyed reminiscing about her beloved pets of long ago.

 

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Chase, my mother’s dog, curled up with my lurcher. Both were Rescues