January 8, 2011

I’m absorbed in a book:
The hand that first held mine by Maggie O’Farrell. But at ten to two I manage to pull myself out of it. I have a prior appointment with the hand that first held mine.

Mum spots me behind the glass panel of the home’s front door as I’m punching in the entry code. “
Hooray! ” I hear her yell from her wheelchair. “Here he is!” she adds, her right arm pointing towards me as I enter the corridor.

Soon we’re driving through the streets of the town. I pull up alongside a house called Delhi. It’s where I was born, a fact that Mabel acknowledges readily enough. But when I ask for any memories she has of being a mother with a baby, I draw a blank. “These things just happen,” she says. As we drive on I ask if I was breast- or bottle-fed.

“You got the bust,” is how she puts it.

“For how long?” “Six months or so. As long as you wanted it. Mother fed me for as long as I wanted it.”

“How long was that?” “Six years.” Which reminds me that I can’t trust Mabel when it comes to numbers.

We pick up Dad from The Beeches. He was 63 when he retired and my parents moved back to their home town. Given how much trouble I have keeping the garden in check now, I realise that moving to such a big property was a bold choice. Dad tells me that he and Mum were still full of energy in their sixties. He even bought a little cement mixer for jobs about the place. “The mixer,” says Mabel, enigmatically. I ask if the plan had been that either my brother or I would marry, have families, and eventually take over the house. “No,” says Dad. “We just wanted a house that was roomy enough so that you and John could visit whenever you wanted. I hoped that we would be happy here and that we both might live to see the year 2000.” That’s ten years ago now. Does that make my father good or bad with numbers?

As we drive into the countryside, Mum asks if I want to borrow one of her gloves. She often asks me this, whether I am bare-handed or not, prompted by some deep-rooted maternal instinct. Her question seems to have particular resonance today, perhaps because of the novel I’m reading.
The hand that first held mine is the story of two young women who become mothers, one around1970 and the other in the present day. The boy child of the first woman grows up to become the partner of the second woman, parenthood throwing him back in time to confront the mystery of his origins. It’s a story I’m greatly enjoying but mustn’t be in a hurry to get back to. To live in the moment is what I’m after.

When I park the car for tea, Mabel again offers me a glove. So I take off my blue right-hand glove and swop it for her brown right-hand mitten. This causes Mum no consternation, even though she often claims at the start of an outing from the home - when she has slipped one of her mittens onto her wrong hand - that I have given her two left-handed gloves.

Dad stays quiet during our glove malarkey. But as I reverse out and drive away from our tea-spot, with the steering wheel held between my mismatched blue- and brown-gloved hands, I hear him singing: “
You put your right arm in. Your right arm out. In, out, in, out. Shake it all about. You do the Hoky Cokey and you turn around, That’s what it’s all about.” Mabel doesn’t join in. But, a mile or two later, when Ian begins to sing in a deep, bluesy voice: “My Mamma Done Told me… ” she is straight in there to join him with: “…When I was in knee-pants.”

I don’t catch the next bit, which they sing out of synch. I’m tempted to ask Dad to shush a minute. I know he knows the words to a thousand songs; I’m curious as to what Mum still has access to despite her memory loss. When I ask Mum to sing the song again, she does so with relish, and I catch some more of the lyric: “
A woman’s a two-face… A meddlesome thing.” Mum tells me she learned the words at school. However, when I get back home, I discover that the song was written in 1941. By then Mabel was 16 and had been out of school for two years. So, no, I can’t trust Mum with numbers and dates. But I can trust her diary.

In due course, I get back to
The hand that first held mine. It’s an impressive book, clearly based on the author’s profound experience of being a mother. As a reader, I’m not big on plot, but I must admit this novel’s got one that helps tease out the book’s concerns. However, following this afternoon’s interaction, I like to think that the story can be summarised in the following way: ‘You put your whole self in. Your whole self out. In, out, in, out. Shake it all about. You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around. That’s what it’s all about.

The hand that first held mine is holding it still. That makes this 53-year-old a Hokey Cokey boy.

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