Thursday, 29 November 2007

Bag Lady

It’s getting towards that time of year when my head feel like it will explode from all the detail contained within it. It does seem to be the lot of a mother that along with childbirth and breastfeeding, remembering every single detail of your children’s young lives will fall to you and you alone. I have become the repository of the communal family memory. I need to remember presents for class teachers, costume requirements for school plays, evenings when I need to book a babysitter, days when K has to be in school all day, days when she comes home at 12.00, days when J has after-school activities, days when he doesn’t but does need to bring his PE kit home. I need to remember what they wrote on their letters to Father Christmas but have changed their minds about; things I need for packed lunches but I haven’t got in the house, what homework needs to be done and where the library books are and and and …you get the picture. All run-of-the-mill stuff that goes with the territory of having children, and probably sounds positively lightweight to those with more than two, but which at certain times of the year threatens to overload the system in anticipation of an almighty crash.

I was vaguely wondering what it would feel like when I didn’t have to be a walking memory-deposit for other people’s lives, when I glanced in my bag. And was jolted back a few years, to when going out of the house was a military manoeuvre. Time was when my bag had money and make-up. No mobile phone, back then, but usually a card from a mini-cab company, a pen for scribbling down numbers, maybe a couple of Nurofen. Then, instead of things that only I might need, my bag was invaded – and, indeed, had to be upgraded. Bottles. Breast pads. Wipes. Tissues. Nappies. Then it changed again. After a couple of years, I could ditch the huge unwieldy rucksack. But I still had to find room for snacks, for juice cartons, for plasters, for sting relief, for wipes, for tissues, for sachets of Calpol. For hair ties and glittery pencils (her) and mini Thunderbirds figures and light sabres from cereal packets (him). For crayons and drawing pads, if the journey was long. Apples and packets of raisins featured strongly.

My bag is shrinking again now. Apart from a few things that are still essential, I am reclaiming it. There is space around my wallet now, and my keys rattle. It doesn’t feel quite right. For a bag like this was once the preserve of a party girl with no dependants, and she’s long gone now. By the same token, I know my mind will never be entirely free of the minutiae of other people, never left clean and fresh and able to focus only on its own needs and interests again. And I think I quite like it this way. And after all, there will come a day when I will probably cart around a carpet bag worthy of Mary Poppins, from which I will pull boiled sweets and knitting needles and photos, and my mind will be allowed to roam and my stories will ramble and my memories will be like jewels brought out to sparkle in the light.

Monday, 12 November 2007


11 November

95 years ago today, a baby girl was born in Newcastle. The eldest of eleven children, only four of whom were to survive past infancy, she was born into what we might casually call slum housing today, although the term would have appalled her parents. Her father was always in work at the shipyards (vanished now), and he and her mother considered themselves to be respectable working class. There was a long tradition of working at the shipyards for the men in her family; further back they had been fisherman on the Northumbrian coast, and one of her maternal grandfathers had been a ferryman on the Tyne. There were some hard years ahead for the family, although they didn’t know it in 1912. The little girl celebrated the armistice of 1918, on her sixth birthday, and as a young woman witnessed the Jarrow Marchers, which included one of her uncles by marriage. Her parents believed in education, and she was a clever girl, but she couldn’t stay in school long, with so many other little ones at home to take care of, and less and less money coming in as the 20’s went on. She worked hard, with the spirit and enterprise and determination that she became well known for. She worked at home, of course, looking after infant siblings, so many of whom they had to bury, with few funds available for funerals. She also worked in a milliners and a dressmakers, and learnt good skills; she was a striking figure, apparently, in her neighbourhood, with her long back hair and piecing blue eyes, and a penchant for wearing red. Music was her passion, she had a lovely voice and could play anything by ear. Musical evenings were the norm in her family and she grew up knowing, and singing, all the old border laments. She married a man twenty years older than her, who also worked at the shipyards, a man born in the late Victorian age, who could remember the old Queen dying, and who had fought in the First World War. She had twins, a boy and a girl, followed by two more sons, and carried on working. Mostly domestic work, of course, and hard work it must have been too, with twins, little money and few appliances that we consider essential today. She would never have left her children all day, except occasionally with a neighbour or family member, but needed to ensure that more money came in, so she cleaned pubs in the evening, and began to sing in them too. She and her brother were well known for their voices and apparently the pubs would be packed when they sang.

In due course her daughter passed her 11 plus and she was allowed to go to the grammar school. Permission was tacitly needed; her daughter remembers the stares and comments and – sometimes - jeers she got from many in the community, for she was ‘set apart’ by that; her twin brother, who’d also passed, refused point blank to go back after the first week and went, with all the neighbourhood boys, to the secondary modern. Her daughter remembers with gratitude her mother’s energy and determination, and the way that she would shine in any social situation, however uncomfortable she felt. The headmaster, no doubt appreciating the shining black hair and the inevitable red dress, would always talk to her mother for the longest time. Her husband died early, and she remarried twice, but both subsequent husbands died young as well. Life never got her down, though; she continued to work, and even in her sixties she embraced new opportunities. She learnt to drive at 60; travelled to Australia for the first time at 64, and learnt to swim, in the warm Australian ocean, at 66. At 95 she still reads a couple of newspapers each day and completes the crosswords. She’ll discuss anything, from books to current affairs to Coronation Street, and has amazing recall. She is one of the brightest people I have ever met, with a restless, striving energy which I, too dreamy by far, didn’t inherit, although I see it strongly in my daughter, her namesake. She owns her own little bungalow, bought in her seventies, and is fiercely proud of her acquisition and her independence. Owning her own property was an impossible dream when she was young, and she said she was talking in her head to her parents and dead siblings non-stop on the day she moved in. She felt their astonishment too, she says.

But she is increasingly frail, and often lonely, and reliant on help from carers. Her siblings and eldest son are dead. Her surviving sons live in Australia. Her daughter lives 300 miles away and is in her seventies, with poor health. She has grandchildren scattered across the north east and abroad, but none are in much of a position to offer her a home, although the more local ones do their bit, helping with shopping and cooking and visiting often. She could, conceivably, move in with me, another of her grandchildren. It would be hard on us all, but we could do it, and have offered, but she can’t bear the idea of leaving the area where she has lived all her life. But here’s the rub. If she moves into a home, or sheltered housing, the bungalow will have to go, to pay for her care. And the thought of this tears her apart. To be able to leave something, anything, to her grandchildren is her greatest desire. To be able to leave a house – “look, see what I was able to buy, look what I worked so hard for” – is a given for many people, but has never lost the sheen of a miracle for her. She still can’t believe, sometimes, that she owns it. And we want her to keep it too, if possible. Not because we’re mercenary – even if we were, there are twelve of us grandchildren, a score of great-grandchildren, and the house wouldn’t raise six figures – but because it means so much to her. She remembers her own parents dying, and the indignity of having to borrow money for the funerals. There were few possessions worth keeping, and even those that were kept for sentimental reasons haven’t lasted. That horror has never left her. It doesn’t matter to us – our memories of her are burnt into our DNA – but it matters to her, to leave evidence of a long and hard-working life. Her oldest friend married a man from just across the border, and they went to live in Scotland. Her friend is widowed and also 95, but nursing care is freely available to her, and she doesn’t have to sell her house. Not many miles away, my grandmother sits and worries. An accident of birth and geography ensured she had a tough life, with few opportunities to pursue her talents. It seems that an accident of birth and geography is ensuring she has some tough decisions to make at the end of her life, too. Happy birthday anyway, Grandma. We love you.