SEPTEMBER 27, 2013

I’m driving towards one of our usual afternoon spots when suddenly the countryside opens up to my right. A field of wheat has been harvested and the stubble has not yet been ploughed, so I drive through an open gate and – hey presto! – a new view from a solid base.

I lean back to hand Ian his tea and scone then I thicken Mum’s tea with Smart Starch and leave it to cool on the dashboard. I don’t think she minds Ian and I slurping and chomping away first, and anyway the fact is I make a better job of feeding and watering Mum once I’m satisfied myself.

Today I’ve brought along Mum’s diary from 1962. It was the first diary she kept since my birth in 1957 and I think what motivated her to keep it was the move that we as a family made from the little Perthshire town Ian and Mabel were brought up in, and where we live again now, to Currie, a suburb of Edinburgh. The entries made from January to March are a flurry of curtain-making and carpet- laying and more.

“You tiled the kitchen in one day, Dad.”

“I seem to remember spending much of the year building the garage.”

“Mabel calls it the car port in her diary. Don’t you, Mum? Odd that the house didn’t come with a garage.”

“They didn’t in these days.”

What a good idea this was. Mabel is sitting there with her eyes open but otherwise unresponsive. Is she hearing this conversation about a busy and happy year of her life? Perhaps at some level she is. But the important thing is Ian and I have her voice back through her diary.

17 March 1962
‘Decided to give up smoking!!! Ian’s plans for car-port were passed.’

19 March 1962
‘Still not smoking but feeling like it at times. Thinking of renting a T.V. with what I’m going to save!!’

23 March 1962
‘Got a 19” Echo T.V. on rental. Nice looking set and good reception with indoor aerial. Washed my hair as we’re going to Blair for weekend.’

26 March 1962
‘The T.V. is certainly distracting. Can’t get away from it at night.’

I turn around. “Ah, Mum, so now we know. 1962 was the year you swopped one addiction for another.”

I go on to read that 1962 was also the year that I learned to ride my two-wheel bike without stabilisers. A step to independence, travel and everything else I take for granted these days.

By the time I’m sitting in the back seat, squeezed into the narrow space between the door and Mum, patiently feeding her scone and even more patiently encouraging tea down her throat, I’ve read out what Mabel wrote about the death of Dad’s mother in spring 1962.

On the Monday, of April 23, Ian was told his mother was very ill and he drove the hundred-odd miles to see her in Bridge of Earn Hospital. On the Tuesday he returned to Currie, picked the rest of us up (Mabel, John and me) and we were all taken to Blair. Ian’s mother, Emma, was in a coma by then. She died at 7.30am on the Thursday morning.

“I won’t forget something that happened at the hospital,” says Ian. “I was sitting with my mother when her sister said, ‘I think she’s away now’. My mother squeezed my hand just then so I knew she was still hanging on. It was an insensitive remark by May and it was typical of her.”

Dad says all this while holding Mabel’s hand. Nobody is going to jump the gun by saying, ‘I think she’s away now,’ this time around.

Mabel’s diary tells us that, the day Ian’s mother died early in the morning, he took the day off work in order to make the funeral arrangements. But the next day, Friday, he had to drive on his own back to Edinburgh in order to write some reports for work. The funeral was the following day, Saturday.

“Odd that you couldn’t take the Friday off, Dad.”

“Work came first in these days. I felt lucky to get the job with British Gypsum and knew I had to work hard to justify the faith that a particular director had in me. Extra time off for funerals just wouldn’t have washed.”

Mabel has drunk most of her tea. So that’s good. I open the car door long enough to dispose of the dregs.

Dad goes on talking: “I remember it was a white Hillman Minx that I had at the time. It had been the car of another rep, Freddy Mills. But after six months I got given a split new company car, a blue Hillman Minx this time.”

We have a photo that Ian took of the car one day we were all out in it. I’ll look it out for the blog I realize I’m going to write about today’s outing. Of course, it’s a red Renault we have now and which has been pictured in several blogs. The same red Renault that I’ve been driving Ian and Mabel around in for over five years.

mabel - Version 2

Back in the driving seat, I’m about to start the engine when I pick up the little diary again. Wasn’t 1962 the year I started school?

3 September 1962
‘Took Duncan to school, he’s there from 8.45am until 3pm, a long day to start with. His keenness has worn off after the first day.’

Dead right my keenness had worn off. That first day at school was hell on earth.

4 September 1962
‘Duncan not keen to go to school but all right once he’s there.’

All right for who once I was there? For me, the agony of transition from home to school went on for days.

7 September 1962
‘Duncan quite resigned to school now, I hope!’

So after five years of looking after me, Mabel could see that I’d started out, however falteringly, on the road to independence. After five years of visiting Mabel in the care home, I can’t expect the same sense of progress from her, just more of the same gradual decline towards death.

But that’s just the way it is. And there are ways of coping with it. I suspect I’ll be making more use of these precious little diaries from now on.