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A Shout From The Attic: The Birthday Girl

...“Hello.”

“Hello,” she returned, quite cheerfully.

“Do you know who I am?”

“No.” She smiled....

Ronnie Bray, with immense affection, recalls being with his mother on her 90th birthday.

To read earlier chapters of Ronnie's frank autobiography - a work in progress - please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on his page.

It is not every day that someone reaches his or her ninetieth birthday. Statisticians have determined that only one in a thousand make it that far. My mother, who was born Louie Bennett, made it on the twentieth day of May 2005. I flew to England to help her celebrate. I had last seen her in June of 2002, and had been surprised at the signs of ageing show on her face, and her sometimes yonderly gaze and conversation.

Opening the door using the security keypad, I let myself in. She raised her head as I entered the room. The old lady hunched down in the soft chair seemed almost a stranger. The last three years had not been kind to her.

“Hello.”

“Hello,” she returned, quite cheerfully.

“Do you know who I am?”

“No.” She smiled.

“Do you have a son who lives in America?”

“Yes.”

“What’s his name?”

A long pause, and then, “Arthur.”

“Not quite,” I said. “It’s Ronnie.”

“Yes,” she said matter-of-factly and without any surprise.

- - -

I tried again the next day, letting myself in mid-morning. I put my face around the door.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello,” she beamed back enthusiastically.

“Do you know who it is?”

“Yes!” she returned, with even more enthusiasm.

“Who am I?” I asked, ready to have my ego massaged by my glowing mother. Today was a good day.

“It’s Reg!” she retorted with the positiveness that Ambrose Bierce defined as 'Being wrong at the top of your voice.’

With my self-esteem crushed I decided not to prolong my agony.

“It’s Ronnie. I have come all the way from America to see you!” There was just a hint of triumphalism in my voice as I declared myself.

“Oh,” she said, with a lot less enthusiasm than that with which she had greeted ‘Reg.’ I drew up the commode and we talked.

We talked of family and how they were faring. Her memory for most family members and their ‘sitz im leben’ was reasonable, although I noticed with some satisfaction that she sometimes confused their names as I was wont to do.

At times the effort of conversation seemed too great a burden and so we sat in silence gazing at the television set that stays permanently on whatever channel some visitor or other sets it to. Not that she gets many visitors these days. Even those she was close to and who were close to her stay away. Some say it is because it upsets them to see her in her advanced years. Perhaps when they are old and lonely, they will remember their neglect and be sad. Others have no time to spare from their busy lives. And so she sits alone, sometimes sleeping, sometimes just being.

I asked her about her loneliness.

“What do you think about most of the time?”

She considered my question for a moment or two, her brow slightly furrowing with the effort. Ten she delivered her answer. ”Nothing.”

“You think about nothing?”

“Mmn,” she said softly meaning ‘yes.’

- - -

Ma never initiated a conversation, but she always made some response, even though her answers were concise and lacking in the detail I hoped to hear from her, and entirely without inflexion or passion. I felt the camera bulging in my pocket, but decided that it would not be fair to capture her image in her present state.

I had taken along a small voice recorder to have her voice to remember, and perhaps some memories from our past that floated to the surface during our talks. But I decided against that as well. It seemed too much like using her for my own selfish interests, so that stayed hidden to keep the camera company

Every day I was in Huddersfield, I went to visit Ma. Sometimes we sat in silence with only the occasional smile passing between us, but always a heartfelt farewell when it was time for me to rise from the commode chair, the only other chair in the room besides Ma’s. The couch was too far away, besides which it was being used as a filing cabinet for things people bring in and set down. And so, I pulled the commode across the room until I could sit facing her, face to face. There is nothing worse than having someone talk to the side of your head when you can’t shift position for yourself.

Mother’s brightness-acuity index goes in and out with the tide. Sometimes, not very often, she brightened and was totally accessible. Sometimes she struggled valiantly to express herself, but gave up in silent despair and shut down communications. The majority of the time she sat behind a heavy lace curtain that acted as a barrier to all the things I wanted to say to her and hear from her. There is an urgency that has fallen over me in my end years that drives me to want to see the last scene play out with a denouement that makes sense, a happy ending, and some cheerful music.

But age and the continuing series of mini strokes and transient ischæmic attacks that have bedevilled Ma over the last few years have slackened the bands of her memory and things slip through the holes and sometimes get into the wrong letterbox.

These skirmishes are warning signs that she is at risk for a more serious and debilitating stroke. About one-third of those who have a TIA will have an acute stroke some time in the future. She has never smoked, and has only taken alcohol when the moon was blue, so she has no bad habits to give up that could improve her chances of a future battle that she could well lose.

But, for the present, she comes back after a few days of stroke-like symptoms to her old fighting self. It is a sure sign that she has recovered when she shouts and swears at the nurses and caregivers that daily attend her in her little bungalow.

A precious moment that I will always treasure and remember came after I had noticed that her fingernails were too long to be comfortable or hygienic, and decided to address them. That particular day I had arrived as she was finishing her dinner. She eats from a weighted tray that sits across her lap, but she cannot set it aside when she has finished her meal and so it stays in situ until help arrives.

This day her hands were covered with mashed potato and gravy from helping to load her dinner spoon. I removed her tray and plates, and brought a basin full of warm soapy water and a flannel.

Taking hold of her hands, I placed them in the water to soak for a minute or two to soften the encrusted food. Next, I gently rubbed them with the flannel, working it, between her fingers taking care not to bruise the white marble of her blue veined hands. The cleansing completed, I trimmed her nails with a pair of clippers, and then re-immersed her hands for another welcome soak.

Ma enjoyed the close personal care. For a variety of reasons, people keep their distance from the aged, not realising that what they crave and need to live and flourish is human closeness, and lots of hugs, kisses, and touching. Ma responded to my touching with smiles and gentle sighs of satisfaction. I knew how she felt.

“I enjoyed that,” she said as I dried her hands.

“I know exactly what you mean,” I replied looking into her teary eyes.

- - -

Then, The Time Machine sprung into motion, whooshing me backwards to when, as a little lad, I studiously avoided acquaintance with soap and water unless I was sat on the end of the kitchen table with mother washing my face and hands with a flannel wetted from the Electra geyser that sat over the kitchen sink.

I would have stayed and been washed forever, because the touch of mother’s hands, an all too rare an event, I recognised as love. Kind words, familiar conversations, and time enjoyed together, played no part in the strange association that lasted all my childhood through, reaching down the years to affect me even in my own old age.

In that strange way that role reversal often creeps upon our lives, I had become the parent, and she the child. Her obvious enjoyment at this strange intimacy reflected what mine had been over sixty years before when I

It was during this procedure that the heavy curtain cruelly draped across mother’s understanding was drawn aside in a bright awakening that persisted for the rest of my visit that memorable day, and we conversed as we had never spoken before. In all my life I remember with clarity only one conversation with her that could be called a dialogue, and that was when I asked her how babies came to be.

- - -

I was about twelve years old. She was on her way carrying the clothes basket indoors after hanging out the washing. As she mounted the steps up from the yard, I voiced my puzzlement.

“Mam. How are babies born?”

“You know!” she retorted, sounding angry, lifting the huge basket so as not to crush my head as she climbed the next three steps to the back door.

“I don’t!” I pleaded, turning to watch her disappearing through the door at high speed.

“No, but you’ve got a damned good idea!” she called backwards over her shoulder as the door slammed shut behind her. And that was the end of the subject, and the only conversation that I can recall having with her as a child.

- - -

This day we did better than that. It was light, inconsequential, even trivial, but it was a warm exchange. And it is the warmth of it, rather than its content, that I recall with purring satisfaction.

Her birthday came and went with little of it memorable. The veil had descended again. And though she seemed to enjoy the company, she spoke but little and only when addressed directly. Then, as suddenly as we had arrived, we were all gone. Driving away to travel to Telford, Kipling’s Recessional bled insistently into my mind.

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.

I left The Birthday Girl to her lonely life, watching repeats on Yorkshire Television, wondering where Ena Sharples, Martha Longhurst, and Elsie Tanner had gone, and when her mother would come to take her back to her childhood home.

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