October 14, 2011

I drive into the cemetery and stop the car close to the grave where Dad’s parents are buried. Removing a wreath from the boot I bring it into the front of the car for Mabel to admire the flowers, particularly the yellow roses.

‘What do you think, Mum?’


‘They’re from Uncle Jimmy’s funeral.’ And for the third time in a week I try and explain that her brother-in-law has passed away. On this occasion, the fact that someone who she knew has died does, in a strictly limited way, penetrate her consciousness:

‘How old was he?’


‘My God!’

Mum, aged 86, has the idea that she is only 81, and finds it difficult to believe that someone could fight their way through to within striking distance of 90, though her father did, and a sister is in the process of doing so. I can’t draw any further response from Mabel about Uncle Jimmy’s death, which seems to have come at about the right time for those most concerned, so I leave it.

Dad and I travelled into Edinburgh to attend the service at the crematorium. Ian’s sister, Joan, whose husband was the man who has recently died, asked if some of the funeral flowers could be placed on her father and mother’s grave back in her home town. So that’s what we’re here to do. Stepping back from the grave I recall that when Joan’s father - my grandfather - was buried here in 1984, Uncle Jimmy, Dad and I travelled from the funeral in the same vehicle. Jimmy said to Dad, who was driving, ‘Well, Ian, it ‘ll be our turn next.’ When that perspective had sunk in, I announced perkily from the back seat: ‘And after you two it’ll be me.’

That conversation took place 27 years ago, when I was 27 years old. (Out of the mouths of babes!) And in another 27 years I’ll be 81, if I’m lucky. Perhaps Mum had a similar experience and that’s why she remains that age in her own mind. What I mean is, we’re all in this mortality trap - this numbers game - together.

I get back in the car and drive the three of us a hundred yards to where my mother’s parents are buried. I let Mabel admire a second splendid wreath before taking it away and placing it at the foot of the gravestone. Although my aunt has not asked me to dispose of my uncle’s flowers in this way, I’ve decided I can legitimately do so for two reasons. First, I would find it difficult to come into the cemetery and pay respects to one set of my grandparents and not to the other. (At some level, I am such a dutiful family member. I put that down to having respect for the way I was raised, and, in particular, for the notion that everyone is fundamentally equal.)

Second, I know from Mum’s diary that she spent the evening before Joan and Jimmy’s wedding in June of 1955 making sprays and buttonholes for the guests. It seems appropriate that her gesture from that summer long ago be returned in this way today. What goes round comes round. Which, I suppose, takes us back to the notion of fairness.

When I return to the car, Mum says simply, ‘well done’, which moves me. She is not moved though. She was never a sentimental person, but dementia seems to have removed altogether her capacity to shed a tear or two in grief. Perhaps this is just as well. It stops her feeling sorry for herself, or even of being aware of what her situation is. When I come across Mabel at the home she is never moping, never weeping. She is usually dozing, occasionally shouting, often staring vacantly into space. And when she sees me she smiles. In an important way she remains in the land of the living. Glass one-tenth full, not nine-tenths empty.

We drive along. ‘Look at the birds,’ she says. True enough, a flock of crows are performing acrobatics in the blustery autumn wind.

We stop at a parking place at the side of a wood. Soon the three of us are drinking tea. A slice of walnut cake goes unnoticed on a paper plate on Mum’s lap. But every couple of minutes I break off a piece of the moist cake and move it towards her mouth. Which deigns to open.

It was eight years ago, not long after I’d moved north, that I drove Mabel and Ian to Edinburgh to see Joan and Jimmy, and we had a meal together in a restaurant overlooking the sea at Musselburgh. (That’s also where tea was served after the funeral the other day, though without either Mabel or Jimmy present this time around.) I took a photo of the four of them that day in 2003, which I get out of my bag and show to my parents. It shows, from left to right, Jimmy, Mabel, Joan and Ian.


‘There’s Jimmy,’ I say, pointing. But Mum doesn’t recognise her brother-in-law. Nor, indeed, as I go through the sitters one by one, does she recognise any of the people in the picture.

‘But look, Mum,’ I say, unwilling to give this up. ‘You were wearing the same pink jacket then that you’re wearing today.’

Mabel looks up from the picture. ‘Trees,’ she says, looking through the windscreen, ‘So many of them.’ The imperious old pines are all around us, paying as little attention to the shadows on the piece of paper as Mabel is.

There is an older picture that I was going to show Mum. It was taken when Dad's and Joan’s sister, Maureen, got married in 1955.

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Ian (back row, third from right) and Joan (front row, middle) and Jimmy (back row, second from left) are in this picture, which was taken in front of Stormont Lodge, Mabel’s present home, when it was a pub/restaurant.

I wonder why Mum wasn’t in the picture as she was engaged to Ian by then and was at Maureen's wedding. Perhaps she took the photograph. She took most of the photographs of yesteryear that appear in this blog.

Oh, but why am I concerning myself with a few ghosts outside Stormont Lodge over fifty years ago? Can't I learn from my mother and focus on the living? Can't I be in the here and now?

But the past
is in the present. Otherwise, why would I have turned up today? So let it be.