January 21, 2011

It’s Mum’s birthday. I’m seeing her at lunchtime, but this morning I’ve been looking through her diaries, focussing on the entries re her special day.

She didn’t keep a diary every year, but I’ve more than fifty of the little books to hand. On the 8th of January, 1944, she wrote ‘Well I’m 19 today, my! my! I sure am getting old.’ Mum mentions her age most years until she gets to 37, but evidently she has second thoughts about disclosing this information and deletes the ‘7’. She doesn’t note her age again, until in the 2007 diary - the last one she kept - she has a stab at it, separating with a decimal point (or a dementia point) the 8 and 2 of her then 82 years.

The first birthday present she notes is a pair of earrings that Ian gave her in 1956, the year she got married. But Mabel, the seventh child of working class parents, did not get many birthday presents as she was growing up, nor, it’s now clear to me, did she get many in her adult life. In 1980, she noted: ‘My birthday is round again, I try to forget it and judging by the few cards I get so does everyone else!’

When Kate and I get to the care home, Mabel is already sitting on her own at a table in the upstairs dining room. Her hair has been washed and she has been primed that it’s her birthday. She is very gracious to Kate and I, accepting the cards we give her though not making much headway with the messages written in them. I hand her Dad’s card as well, but Mum can’t get her mind round the fact it’s from him, not me, and thinks the sentiment expressed is slightly inappropriate. Perhaps Ian should have come along as well, but we decided that two guests was the optimal number, and Dad was here along with my brother for Christmas lunch. To distract Mum from her identity crisis, Kate asks: “How old are you, Mabel?”

“I don’t know,” she admits.

“I’m just turned sixty-one,” says Kate.

“I’m not that old,” Mum replies dryly.

The soup is served. And I get satisfaction from watching Mum weld her spoon so efficiently. Kate draws my attention to an adjoining table where an elderly resident, who I see has badly swollen ankles, is pouring an endless stream of salt onto her soup. I notice too that there is no conversation at any of the other tables. And no words of encouragement for the residents to make sure they drink their juice, or, when it comes, their tea. Perhaps our presence as guests is making the task-orientated carer self-conscious. Still, the food is nutritious and tasty. Mum, Kate and I eat with relish the cheese and broccoli flan served with butter beans and mashed potatoes.

After lunch, we go downstairs and a cake bearing four candles appears in front of Mabel. Mum takes in a deep breath. Which she holds until I for one am scared.


Suddenly Mum blows the candles away and the party starts. Sweet sherry all round! Actually, some of the residents prefer a glass of white.

Soon Kate, who is wearing her kilt, is dancing a jig with me. After that, I shuffle-waltz with Deirdre, a fellow resident of Mum’s. “Your son has the makings of a first-class ballroom dancer,” Deirdre says to Mabel, kindly. But Mum, confined to her wheelchair, is beginning to feel uncomfortable. “Let’s go,” she says, frowning. She feels out of things these days unless she gets consistent direct attention. I have learned to make sure she gets this, at least when I’m around.