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A Shout From The Attic: Conversations With Ma

Ronnie Bray recalls conversations with his mother, who died at the age of 91 earlier this year.

I talk to Ma about once a week now. The telephone lines between the United States and England are so good that she sounds as if she is in the next room although she is five thousand miles away and five hours ahead in a weather system that kills iron men and makes ducks grumble.

In the eye of my mind, I picture her in her bungalow in the grass between the cherry trees that spill their confetti in indecent haste each May, at 87 Longfield Avenue, with souvenirs of her long life plastered around the walls and standing atop of every flat surface. Most of her time, she spends alone with her fading memories.

Unable to rise unaided, her walking reduced to a memory and, sometimes, a delusion, she sits surrounded by ghosts of the past: photographs of children who now have children older than when their photographs were frozen in time by the clicking shutters of worn out and discarded cameras. She admits to talking to them and would be surprised that anyone would find this surprising, and swears that some of the little ones move their mouths to smile at her. I hope they do.

The carefully constructed history made from the disappointments and mistakes of her early life is slowly crumbling, revealing the pain of her girlish follies, exposing the fragile walls she erected to hide them from an unforgiving world. She has never been safe inside herself enough to realise that there is more mileage in honesty, and has been too afraid to trust the hearts of those who loved her and understood her best.

Now she is solely dependant upon those good hearts who discount her mistakes, counting them as of no consequence when set against all the accomplishments of her life. But such is life that the many friends and neighbours to whom she was an unlikely mentor no longer darken her doorway. She, who cradled their babies, advised them on the trivia and the consequentiae in their lives, harangued their doctors on the street’s only telephone, and called them in sick at work, attended their children’s weddings, and their grandchildren’s christenings would benefit from a little reciprocated attention in her declining years.

She has her gold fish, growing shabbier by the month, as they receive imperfect attentions. I used to be their saviour, changing their water, cleaning the sides of the tank that once belonged to my friend Shahida, defouling the pump and aerator to keep their environment as clean and healthy as possible. And she has her cat.

When she got her cat, the budgie had to go. Just as well because if the cat, who is nameless, had not actually eaten the bird to death it would have frightened him to death by paying too close attention for the strange bird’s heart to stand. The little green and yellow creature would sit on his swing and stick his head under the bell as if it was a fireman’s helmet, and that’s strange! Someone got the bird and Ma got the little black vicious kitten. He’ll be alright when he’s a little older,” she insisted, as he ran up the curtains before throwing himself off looking as if he enjoyed it. The curtains took on the aspect of artistically fashioned vertical Venetian blinds, or plain Yorkshire tatters, as blunt folk would say.

“How’s your walking, Ma” I asked her one Monday.

“It’s alright, except when I have to go upstairs to my room and … and … and … to my other room.”

That sounds normal until you remember that my mother lives in a bungalow and there are no stairs and no rooms up the non-existent stairs either. She told me how convenient it was now that my sister René was living in the same building: “Different rooms, but the same building.” My sister lives two streets away. I don’t bother to put her right because she seems settled and comfortable in her world.

Her ‘Home Helps’ come twice a day to get her up, give her breakfast, give her supper and put her to bed in the living room. René goes on each day to see to her dinner and do errands. Arthur visits each night and ‘sees’ to the cat. At Weekends, Shirley pays her a visit and she enjoys her company. Shirley is Ma’s late sister Nora’s eldest daughter who owns and runs the “Sit-a-While” café at Moldgreen. District nurses visit two or three times a week to keep an eye on her leg ulcers, unpleasant and stubborn products of her late-onset diabetes.

She spends long period of time alone and takes some satisfaction for her television permanently tuned to Yorkshire Television so she can keep up-to-date with her, and my, favourite soap operas. She talks to her cat. I am designated as the cat’s uncle although, as I pointed out to her, if she is, as she insists, the cat’s mother, then I must be the cat’s brother. That is far too complicated for her and I am still the cat’s uncle. I have learned how to accept the inevitable without an audible sigh.

Time hangs heavy on her hands and she nods in the chair in which she spends her days and in which she will eke out most of what is left of her life. To think that life should end like this in the shadows of a room lined with days that are gone and that bore little fruit at their height, waiting for the telephone to ring, or for someone to let themselves in through her front door and do for her or spend some of their rushing moments listening to her version of changing reality before the telephone clicks down, or the door closes behind them and the silence pours back into the empty spaces and the television volume that was not turned down turns itself up and leaves her to sleep and dream her dreams: dreams that are bleeding into her waking moments and allowing her to do the things she once could do but now can do no more.

Her days run on one after the other, tumbling over and over, turning to years and days gone years ago and mixing one with the other without regard for time or sequence, building better days from lost fragments and wishing that she was gone from this place to the place of angels where pain is vanquished and tears are no more.

The evening light dims and the day fades, leaving her laid on her bed in the living room, hardly able to see the images peering at her from all four walls, and I know in my heart of hearts that her light must soon dim and fade into no more than a memory. Lives, like days, have their beginnings and their endings.

We have our time to be here, our time to do and to be and to meet, love, grieve, and think of what it all meant and how it could have been most of the time “if only … “ But she knows, as I know, that ‘if only’ is a waste of time and tears. When her day finally closes and her sun sets for the last time, she will slip away with a smile and hardly a sigh.

Monday 12 February 2001

Called Ma in England today. She is getting a little confused, but she seemed in excellent spirits. Her cat is getting better. She still has some delusions but nothing that will hurt her. I would not prick her little comfort bubbles. I told her that we would probably visit in summer of 2002 if things worked out and we managed to sell the house in England. She said it was something to look forward to. If she holds on, she will be 88 then. If I hold on, I will be 67! Gay will be a youthful 66.

Thursday 21 June 2001

We called Ma in Huddersfield this morning. She seemed robust in her spirit, but fed-up. She is in the Norman Hudson nursing home in Lockwood, Huddersfield so that Rene can have some respite. Respite and René is an oxymoron as she has the day-to-day care of Michael, her son David’s son, as his wife, Emma, and he are parted, and Emma appears to be a disinterested mother. Ma goes in for two weeks every six weeks, so René gets a bit of a break from going round to Ma’s several times a day.

Arthur goes every evening, and cousin Shirley goes on Sundays and does all Ma’s washing and ironing, so that helps too. At 86, Ma is becoming feeble and confused, from time to time. Most times, she recognises my voice, but she tells me of her adventures. I never contradict her, because she seems happy with her fleeting delusions and why spoil that for her? Sometimes, she tells me that Ernest is there. I just accept it, as there is no reason to tell her that he has been dead for ten years and have her grieve all over again for him. It was hard enough the first time.


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