ageing

our children, our teachers

Something they don’t tell you before you become a parent: your children are your best teachers. I remember a London park on a hot sunny day and me boiling with frustration over our toddler who simply would not appreciate the wonderful outing we had planned for her. We had all come out together, we had found swings and slides, there were plans for ice cream later and here was this tiny person, so beautiful on a good day, turning redder than the strawberries on her cute little sun hat and yelling with rage.

I was close to stamping my feet and storming out of the park myself when I remembered the tantrum I had had at breakfast the day before and waves of guilt flooded me at the memory of my little girls’ bewildered faces. Chastened, I made another effort to work out what was going on with our miniature Fury. As I flopped down on the grass beside her, I suddenly saw the park from her point of view. Masses of feet and legs hurrying around, the heat oppressive, the noise unintelligible to a two-year-old. We scooped her up and went home.

Later that afternoon, our bundle of rage was transformed into an angel of light, splashing quietly in the paddling pool in the garden, radiating peace and contentment. Watching her I understood more of my own anger the day before, how it had stemmed from lack of sleep and from refusing to acknowledge that introverts like myself get excessively grumpy when they ignore their need to be alone. Like my daughter I had exploded out of simply being unable to cope with what was being demanded of me.

That toddler is nearly twenty now and we had some tears the other week, about facing new challenges, about the difficulty of moving away from the familiar. I kept hugging her, telling her it was the right thing to do, that life goes in seasons, that you can’t stand still or you stagnate and become boring. When we left her at university just over a week ago she was beaming and I was full of a good kind of proud, like when her elder sister returned from Madagascar, like when the team you have been cheering through thick and thin suddenly makes it to a cup final.

Then – bam! After a couple of really good years I am suddenly back with the sleepless nights, the exhaustion, the feeling that everything is too, too much to cope with. I thought I was through with this, that I had learned to manage it but I start to feel panicky at the prospect of more isolation, more days, hours, weeks lost to the numb inactivity that is depression.

I don’t know what makes me connect with the memory of my tearful teenager but as soon as I do I understand: she reflects me back to myself just as she did that day in the park, just as all three of our young ones do over and over again. It isn’t just they who are moving into new seasons, shaking off the familiar, called to embrace the new. It is me as well and I am as scared and reluctant as any teenager; probably more so because somehow this year autumn is reminding me more than usual that winter is not far behind.

Life goes in seasons, you can’t stand still …  I am repeating my own advice over and over and drawing strength from the beaming smiles of that young woman in her first university flat.

shifting focus

Almost as soon as I arrive at my parents’ house I take a walk around the garden. Of all places on earth, this is the one I associate most with my mother. Gardening, and especially vegetable growing, has been her joy and passion for fifty years or more. Like many people, she had a brief fling with roses and herbaceous borders in the seventies, but with a growing family to feed she was always most focused on edible plants.

Ungrateful teenager that I was, I really did not appreciate the privilege of having fresh, seasonal food at every meal. I took it all for granted, the bowls of organic raspberries, the rhubarb crumbles, the apparently unlimited supply of French beans, salad and peas.

During the harvesting season, Mum hardly moved beyond the garden and the kitchen, sometimes falling into bed at one or two in the morning after hours of blanching veg for the freezer. I remember when she had three freezers in the garage and every one was full of square Tupperware containers packed with fruit and vegetables, neatly stacked and meticulously labelled. That was probably a legacy of the war and of growing up with rationing. She was like a squirrel who couldn’t rest until there was an abundant store of food.

Things are different now though and for the first time in my life I do not see my mother outside in the garden. Aged 77 and suffering from a horrible degeneration of her spine, she mostly sits in what we call her ‘nest’, a space on the sofa where she is surrounded by piles of gardening and cookery magazines, her glasses, her phone and her medicines all within reach.

In theory I know this must have affected the garden; in practice I am not fully prepared for what I find.

The sun shines and I take my camera into the garden again and again. After weeks of cloud and rain in Sheffield, I am fascinated by the way the light changes, how the shadows shift across the grass and how every few minutes a different plant is lit up by sunshine.

I take shot after shot of the roses growing around the arch by the shed. They have been there for years: deep pink ones beaded with dew in the early morning, and some velvety crimson ones that have flopped off their supporting arch towards some self-seeded foxgloves. You would think the colours would clash, but in fact they blend to give an impression of majestic, imperial purple. From the window my mum points out how they complement the reddish buds of the Belgian honeysuckle.

Someone is coming later to mow the grass but for now drifts of speedwell sweep across it. The bed Mum planted specifically for pollinators is a riot of ox-eye daisies; later in the day I watch the bees dance to and fro between them and the intensely blue borage flowers.

The arch into the vegetable garden is smothered with jasmine, literally hundreds of tiny pink flowers. I pass beneath it and catch my breath. I take in the raised beds choked with bindweed, the empty compost bins, the gooseberries that will rot on the bush if nobody picks them soon.

It seems wrong to linger here, like an intrusion. Instead I turn around and go back towards the house, taking more pictures of the roses, the foxgloves, the honeysuckle. I keep focusing on these, adjusting the lens of the camera over and over again as the light moves.

Later I sit with my mum and try to get her to talk about how life is with my dad in hospital and her problems with mobility. She doesn’t try to deny that it can be hard, but she focuses mainly on the good things: their many friends, the television programmes she enjoys, the pleasure of texting her grandchildren. She is a profoundly spiritual person; when we talk together she makes me think of deep rivers and of a steel blade, shining, strong and unbreakable.

We do not like to talk about ageing much in our culture and like most people I fear it, all the loss and the letting go. But sitting with my mum I realise that however much she has had to give up – and she has given up a lot – she is no way diminished as a person. It is a privilege to sit there, peaceful, with the sun streaming through the window and a song thrush calling noisily from the garden.