We are told there are five stages of grief. When dad died mum went into her shell for three months, nodding occasionally to suggestions, answering questions about some issue around his estate but otherwise she avoided indulging in anything like the classic steps. We always knew she would process her feelings in her own unique way and waited for her to emerge. I wondered what she would want to do first. Maybe clear out some cupboards or something. I wasn’t expecting her focus to be a combination of the medical and mechanical.
I took a call one weekday morning. On my mobile, unusual as that was. ‘Darling, I’m getting my knee done. I should have done it before but what with your father needing care…’
There was no way she would have incapacitated herself when he needed her most. She was of a generation that didn’t do pain, really fought it with every fibre so she could keep going. However it was a struggle, especially driving.
But like her knee so the family car, a Rover that dad loved, suffered from neglect which just added to its creaks and groans. While the knee operation was successful in that it removed the pain, her recovery was slow as there was no one to nag her to do the necessary exercises. And there was no way back for the car. Her frustrations with the old lady, and its rebellious clutch, grew.
Another day, another call. ‘I’m getting rid of it.’
I knew what ‘it’ was. It was a constant in our conversations. ‘Ok. Shall we go and have a look at options? I can come down at the weekend and…’
‘I’ve found what I want. I just need some advice on trade in values…’
I had to slow her down. The Archaeologist and I had already discussed this situation and we agreed we needed to try and persuade her to get an automatic. A committed driver, 80 plus with a knee replacement didn’t need the constant movement of a clutch pedal.
‘Why would I want an automatic? Your father thought them unmanly.’
He probably did but he never told me. ‘It would be easier.’
‘In the war we drove 10 tonne trucks with none of your power steering.’
‘That was over 60 years ago, mum.’
‘Doreen put me off automatics.’ Mum was excellent at moving the argument on if she felt her base becoming less than solid.
‘She’s this year’s President (of the WI so had to be sage in her advice). She listened to her son and look what happened.’
I began to back down. When she started a conversation about people I didn’t know it usually meant I was about to be outflanked, but mum was nothing if not a terrier with its blood up when she thought she was winning. ‘She bought an automatic and ended up in the hairdressers.’
‘So was Doreen. Imagine if it had been a school.’
‘Can we back up? What do you mean ‘she ended up in the hairdressers?’ ‘
Was that tone exasperation that I didn’t understand or a smug realisation she had me where she wanted me? ‘Just that. She took this fancy-dan automatic you love so much to get her weekly wash and set – we were having a jam making day so she had to look right – and was leaving when the car took over as she tried to reverse. It shot backwards, like a cork from one of your father’s infernal illegal calvados imports and ended up back in the hairdressers. Jean – Claude said he nearly self-permed he was so shocked. If it wasn’t for the reception desk stopping the dratted car, we might never get to enjoy Mrs Hudson’s Caramel Three Tiered ever again. Not that she’ll be up to baking much until she recovers her composure. Apparently she was showered in so much glass she looked like a nonagenarian glitter-ball.’
‘I know he’s a little camp, but really darling you shouldn’t call him a creep.’
‘Not Jean-Claude. The car. Automatics creep. Makes reversing tricky if you don’t practice.’
‘The point is I’m too old to learn such a delicate skill. I’ll stick with proper gears, thank you. Anyway, I’ve paid for it.’ Pause. ‘It is French. A Peugeot.’
This last was said with some hesitation. And a tincture of guilt. ‘Buying foreign’ was not something mum approved of. Nor did dad.
‘A Peugeot? They’re a good make. I’m sure it will be fine.’
‘I’m not sure your father would approve.’
We both fell silent, imagining his reaction to hearing mum had bought a French car. Dad loved France and all things French. When he was there. But on this side of the channel? Not so much. I waited for her to speak so she could finish her conversation with him first, no doubt reassuring his memory that it was a good deal.
‘So trade ins on the Rover? Do you think I should hold out for more than £250?’
We debated pros and cons though she had already decided. She was merely making me feel as if I had been useful. Then, as we were about to end the call, she added ‘Oh and I’ve ordered two deaf-aides.’
Now that was a result. Her hearing wasn’t too bad but it was beginning to fade and we, the family, had made some hints. At last we were being listened to (sorry that’s a cheap attempt at humour…). But perhaps I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy and that somehow the new car and the deaf aides would find themselves intertwined.
And dad’s contribution is one of his humorous poems:
When you’re young, in the morning, you’ve no time for yawning,
You’re up and about and away,
And though you were tight the previous night
You don’t show a sign come the day.
You sing in your tub, have a brisk healthy rub
With one of those huge hairy towels,
But what you don’t do, is waste time in the loo
‘Cos, of course, you’ve no problem with bowels.
You dress in a trice, you don’t have to think twice,
All your clothes fit and that makes it simple,
And your solitary care, while combing your hair,
Is you notice you’ve still got that pimple.
Hurry up! You’ll be late! Ah, that breakfast smells great!
And there’s sausage and eggs, too – how nice!
The coffee is made and there’s thick marmalade,
Yes, please, I’ll have just one more slice.
You eat in a hurry, you don’t have to worry
With flab and the weight-watching game,
You’re unlikely to bulge even though you indulge,
And tomorrow you’ll look just the same!
But we with more years shed sad, bitter tears,
Now our prodigal youth has long passed,
Some are happy, they say, to be old bald and grey,
Not me! I just hoped it would last!
But it wasn’t to be, and that slim handsome me
(Oh, I was a conceited young cub!)
Is beyond recognition, a poor apparition,
So I think I’ll stroll down to the pub!!