December 3, 2013

We’ve got a routine as we settle into winter. Dad and I arrive at the home at 2.30pm. Mum is sitting on her wheelchair dressed appropriately for going outside. I put my nose into the kitchen and the cook gives me a box containing three cakes. While I’m pushing Mum towards the front door, a carer spots me and asks if I want a hand. Well, yes, to transfer Mabel from the wheelchair to the back seat of the car is a job that is made much easier with a helper. However, I feel guilty asking a carer – dressed for the high temperature of the home – to come outside at this time of year, so I tend to leave it to the last minute in the hope that someone will volunteer to help, as today. Together, Shona pushes and I pull Mabel onboard using the transfer board. “That’s it, you’re in!” I say to Mum. And Shona scuttles back inside, cheerfully wishing us a pleasant afternoon.

Actually, there is not much left of the day, the sun is already low in the sky. But I know which direction to travel to make the most of what light remains. As we drive along, I’m thinking about the contents of the diary I’ve had with me the last couple of times we’ve been out. It’s a ‘Collins Motorists Diary’, as befitted Mabel’s post-driving test status. In fact, by the end of January, 1969, she was looking forward to Ian getting a Triumph 1300, using the phrase
‘I’m longing to drive this smart new car.’

I stop the trusty old Renault near the top of a hill looking to the west. There is already some pink in the blue sky and I suspect today’s sunset will be worth seeing. Meantime, we have 1969 to enjoy, second time around:

“July 20, 1969.
‘Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and Armstrong walked on the Moon.’”

I turn around. “Remember that, Mum? Man on the Moon!” Mabel’s eyes are open but she doesn’t respond to my voice, just looks blankly at the back of the front passenger seat.

The innocent optimism - the undiluted positivism - of the Apollo program might be from another life. Come to think of it, between 1939 and 1969, there had been a glorious shift for my parents’ generation, from Adolf Hitler invading Europe, to Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon. Mabel and Ian’s lives had moved from teenage angst, when the world was at war, to their forties, when things were so sorted that the Beatles were singing ‘Let it Be’ and American astronauts were walking on the Moon.

More particularly, the McLaren family had been living happily in Hamilton for five years, with summers spent back here in Perthshire, picking fruit on Mabel’s sister’s small fruit farm. According to Mabel’s diary, Apollo 11 splashed down on Thursday, July 24. In the four days the astronauts were outside the Earth’s atmosphere, Mabel spent most of the time picking strawberries. I like that perspective…

But by the time I’m sitting in the back of the car, having got Mum to ‘bunk up’ (a process that involves Mabel doing nothing while I gently but firmly push her into the middle of the back seat, so making room for myself) and have fed her a cake, piece by piece, my interest has moved onto another aspect of the 1969 diary. Our original next door neighbours, the Beveridges, who had left the street in 1967, came back to stay for a few days with the Myles at number 4. There was a street party to celebrate the Beveridges return to Townhill Road from which Mabel and Ian got home to number 8 at 3am.

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The Apollo 11 party. Is that Buzz Aldrin and Commander Neil Armstrong chatting on the Moon?

But wasn’t it later in the same year that Marion and Dennis Myles sold up and moved on? I have the diary in my pocket but both my hands are needed to help Mum drink her tea. She’s coughing because I haven’t been concentrating on giving her the tea in precisely the way she expects it. So let me just take my time here. Let Mabel enjoy the tea, together with the presence of her husband and son in the back seat of what might as well be the Triumph 1300 from 1969. That racing green car had ‘twin carburettors’, Dad reminds me. I ask him how many carburettors Apollo 11 had, and he smiles as he admits he doesn’t know the answer to that question. The view out of the Renault’s windscreen is great. Warm pink light and long evocative shadows...

OK I’m back in the front seat with the diary. No-one is in a hurry to go anywhere so I’ll just take my time and find what I’m looking for, courtesy of 44-year-old Mabel:

September 16, 1969.
‘Sewing bee at Marion’s. Don’t think Marion is selling her house now, think she got a shock at what a larger house would cost.’

October 28, 1969.
‘Marion sold her house today for £5.900 and is moving to Bothwell in 2-3 weeks. I think she’ll miss all her neighbours in the street.’

November 7, 1969.
‘Marion discovered today that a Priest has bought her house. The “parties” will have to quieten down a bit.’

December 5, 1969.
‘Over at Bothwell to see Marion and Den and of course the new house. It’s a very nice house but a bit big to furnish and keep clean and warm.’

I read aloud these four entries, with their undercurrent of dismay, and ask what Dad makes of them. But first I can’t resist giving my own view: “Surely the Myles were mad to move from Townhill Road! All the families had moved there at the same time, when the houses were new in 1963, and we’d all grown into the place. Looking back on those years now, it seems like the zenith of our family life, a very happy time.”

“The Myles house was just a bungalow,” says Ian, pragmatically. “As the three kids grew they’d have needed more space.”

“I suppose so.”

But I can’t leave it there. I recall that Marion had a heart attack a year or two later and died in the Bothwell house. Dennis moved away from the area and he died in Broughty Ferry, a few years back. Even the larger-than-life Neil Armstrong died last year.

What am I trying to say? One minute you’re partying on the Moon, your movements seemingly unconstrained by gravity. The next you're six-feet underground and will never move again.

The moral of this blog? Treasure life’s high noon even as the sun sets.

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Dennis Myles and Ian McLaren: astronauts for a day.