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A pause in ‘a week in Provence’ instalments for me to remember my mum. Today is her birthday.
Just after she died I was full of good intentions. I thought I would pop down to her home every now and then. Keep in contact with all the lovely staff and residents I’d become close to over the last couple of years. In fact when I was clearing out her room the week after her funeral I’d promised Alice, a sweet soul who’d arrived the same week as my mother and with whom I sheared a special bond, that I would see her on her 92nd birthday in a month’s time.
But I didn’t. I haven’t made a phone call. Haven’t even driven the road.
Once the adrenalin-numbness of those early days after her death and funeral had worn off, a small but persistent compartment in my mind has continued to run snap-shot vignettes of her life at Springhouse. Very ordinary. Very mundane. Nothing spectacular or sentimental. But every time I went to make that call or plan a visit something would stop me. I wasn’t yet able to fully accept her death.
Until today. For the first time since she died I feel tears pricking the lids of my eyes when I think of her. Actually I believe it began during Benjamin and Berengere’s wedding service. Out of the blue I heard the priest mention ‘Morna Thomson’. Through my haze of wedding nerves, emotions and spoken French I realised he was asking the congregation to remember those who had recently died and could not be there. Unexpectedly tears welled.
This morning I made that phone call to Springhouse. I spoke to Carol who was with me when Morna died. Perhaps I’ll manage to get in the car and drive there for tea this afternoon. And, with the staff and residents, remember her last year’s happy birthday.
On Sunday it was Robert’s birthday – and yes, yes I did the table bit. Will, with his girlfriend, Kat, came down to make sure the proper ceremonial direction was followed to the tee! I’m joking. Will and Kat did come down to celebrate with Robert; it’s the last time they’ll be home before Christmas. Will is off to Glasgow to work on the new series of Phoo Action for the BBC – he’s the production designer – and Kat, a graphic designer for Heat magazine, will be spending any free weekends she has in Glasgow with Will.
For Robert it’s, of course, hedgerows; and there can’t be a more perfect time to have a birthday with a hedgerow theme. Despite our diabolical summer I still found a basket full of berries, seed-heads, sinuous twisting ropes of bryony, dusty bloomed sloes, glossy haws, hips, translucent bracts of guelder-rose, ferns and on-the-cusp-of-changing leaves.
Sunday was a glorious day. Soft, mellow sun which we desperately turned towards like sickly, yellow-white seedlings. We decided on a walk on Dartmoor at Scorhill where there’s an evocative and impressive stone circle. It’s an extraordinarily atmospheric place.
Nearby, in the river Teign, is the Tolman; a solid block of granite about 10 feet in diameter and two to four feet thick, where the action of the water has worked an almost perfectly circular hole. Passing through the hole is said to be a cure for rheumatism or arthritis, whilst children would be cured of whooping-cough or tuberculosis.
Another legend is that if you pass through the hole you will see the future. I thought that in view of it being Robert’s birthday and the beginning of a new life direction for him what could be better than to ‘re-birth’ through the hole (for those that think I’ve lost the plot, I am about 7/8th Celtic!). And to my amazement he did.
This last weekend we had cause for celebration, Will’s birthday. Backalong, in the days of our rapidly expanding family, when we were young, our dreams were golden-ripe and ready for plucking, and pennies were few and far between, we devised different ways of celebrating. Unable to afford the more conventional bought birthday presents we made, invented and recycled our gifts. The centre piece of each birthday became ‘the table’ – as it’s now referred to. And when the birthday boy came down in the morning the table would be transformed into the theme of his birthday, his passion of the moment – knights, dragons, space ships, monsters and castles, anything. With gathered branches, flowers, objects, homemade papier-mâché, presents and cake, I would create some kind of wonderland which signified the specialness of the day. This homespun tradition hung on over the years, gradually becoming more of a complementary backdrop. Will, though, holds onto the childhood magic fiercely; he’s a full-on birthday kind of guy, jellies and all.
Last year he was working up in Scotland. Rushing headlong towards deadlines and living in temporary rented accommodation he told us not to bother. We’d celebrate later, at some more convenient time, he said. We duly did as he suggested, phoned, emailed and texted our happy birthdays. But without the celebration he was devastated, felt miserable and forgotten – abandoned! To make sure it didn’t happen again he’s been reminding us gently, and then rather more urgently, about his birthday for the past month or so, reaching a crescendo of calls this last week.
This year the theme was orange, I’m not sure, why. Orange flowers, montbresia and nasturtiums were picked and arranged, orange shredded paper festooned from the overhead chandelier (yes, we are dead posh), presents wrapped in yes, you guessed it, orange paper, and so forth. Rob wore an orange shirt from his youth. The chocolate cake was adorned with tangerines –just joking, they were cherries.
Will, never one to let feelings of pleasure show, grunted mild appreciation and started to open his presents with agonizing slowness. Drawn out, excruciatingly-tantalising elongated delight. The family left him to it after an hour or so, he’d only managed to remove the envelope from one card.
Today is the real birthday. Happy Birthday Will!
Today’s my mother’s 86th birthday. I gather together a small bag of things that might stimulate or trigger a memory. Soap – translucent – looking like a giant wine gum; a small bunch of lavender from the garden; a chocolate heart; rose scented powder; a card depicting a stylised branch of apple blossom similar to the ones she painted on silk scrolls when I was young.
Will and Kat made a card with a photo of them both; they’d strewed and sewed it with buttons and beads making it tactile and surprising.
I bake scones with buttermilk, butter and eggs and take them over for tea along with strawberries, clotted cream and homemade jam. The dogs come too.
She is happy and bright and twinkles when I arrived. This is a good day for her. We sit and chat; her about nothing yet everything that means something; I about something that means nothing. I open cards and presents that have no real significance. Her eyes travel to a far away place that buzzes and pulses with a life’s worth of memories. When she returns she looks at me with such intensity and depth I feel the one that has lost connection.
She eats the scones. I feed her small mouthfuls and see how she savours the sweet soft crumbly texture; I watch delight as she tastes a morsel of strawberry; she screws up her face with pleasure.
She tires quickly today. There has been much excitement. As she drifts into sleep I sit and stare and stare and stare at her face…I’m overwhelmed.