My job this weekend has been to chauffeur my (very nearly) 93 year old mother from Oxfordshire back to her Hereford homeland. The occasion is the memorial service for her 95 year old sister; the death of my aunt on Mothering Sunday left my mother as the eldest in her family and, when I arrive to begin our adventure on Friday night, I soon realise that this new position of authority has gone to mum’s head.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a great thing when you think back to last summer, for then we felt mum was ready to turn her face to the wall during her stay in hospital. Since then, she has proved herself to be made of steely stock, and, since the instalment of her stair lift, has literally taken an upward trajectory.
After ringing mum’s doorbell on Friday night, I’m left waiting for a long time on the doorstep and then through the front door window I can see her gliding down the staircase on her Stannah (I’m sure other makes of stairlift exist), phone in one hand, coffee cup in the other, clearly barking orders to the cousin who has been named Master of Ceremonies for the memorial service next day.
When she eventually opens the door, mum is furious. My cousin has told her that although she has been approved to deliver a eulogy – on account of her most senior status – she will not be gifted the 20 minute slot she has requested and there will be no bowl of pink carnations in her dressing room as her rider demands. She lets me in, and then immediately picks up the phone to her agent.
I manage to edit the five totally different versions of the eulogy mum has written – on various scraps of papers and a calendar – into one four minute piece. It’s late on Friday night when we eventually begin rehearsing. Mum is unable to read the eulogy through in one go because she is still spitting feathers that I’ve edited out a pithy anecdote about my aunt adding salt to a custard recipe during the Second World War. I tell mum she’s doing well and remind her to look up between paragraphs. She can’t take my feedback, tells me she’s been public speaking much longer than I have and throws the speech on the floor before flouncing off to bed in a Stannah-like fashion.
I’m then summonsed to her bedroom where she launches into a tirade about my bossiness and controlling nature. I defend myself, reminding her that I’m on her team, but then realise she has taken out her hearing aids and can’t hear a word I’m saying.
Next morning we start the day as friends again and wend the most scenic route to Ludlow. We are due to collect one of mum’s younger sisters and take her to lunch before the service, but when we phone her to say what time we’ll arrive, she clearly can’t hear a word mum is saying from her mobile phone. Mum can’t hear her sister either because it turns out she has no battery in one of her hearing aids. I detour for a coffee stop so that I can phone someone to run around to my aunt’s before we get there.
Mum is chuffed about the pit stop (she’s just broken her second coffee machine and the novelty of instant coffee has been wearing thin) but on seeing some leaflets for Slimming World in the cafe, she comments in a loud voice that most of the cafe’s clientele would do well to join. Strangely the cafe clears and we are served quickly and silently.
Over lunch I take the role of a UN interpreter for neither my aunt or my mother can hear each other. I said, neither my aunt or my mother can hear each other. They have chosen the restaurant because they say the acoustics are good, but then bemoan the fact that the noise is bouncing off the ceiling. I repeat what each sister says to the other and then replay their answer. I can sense the other diners are all listening in. By the end of the meal, the whole restaurant is worried about my mother reading the eulogy, for her younger sister has spent lunch correcting the factual accuracy of some of mum’s memories of their older sister. Sadly she does endorse the custard story, but as you know, that didn’t cut mustard with me, albeit savoury.
We arrive at the chapel and both sisters are shepherded with deference to the front row. The chapel is full and fit to bust and the service has to be transmitted to a side hall of other folk who also want to attend my aunt’s memorial ‘party’. They are disappointed not to see the vicar in person for they have heard that his dog collar flew off during my aunt’s cremation a few weeks back.
I think that to live 95 years and to be remembered so fondly by so many is surely more than any of us can wish for. I’ve got some work to do.
Listening to both mum’s eulogy (she smashed it) and my cousin’s (so did he) it is clear that my aunt was far from the clipped wing farmer’s wife caricature that family history has made her out to be. Yes she married a man twenty years her senior and on her wedding day inherited a farmhouse with no heating and a double-seater outside privy, but although she had seven children in seven years, it transpires that she was not a stay at home mum because she was never at home. Family diaries show that she and my uncle had a rich life of WI, beetle drives, choir, chapel and farm shows. Why draft in baby sitters when you have your own in-built brigade?
My cousin’s eulogy fondly remembers my aunt’s appalling driving and the christening of her car as ‘the red dent’ so frequently did she turn and bump it on the country lanes to and from the farm. Although generous with her time and kindness, my aunt was also very canny with money. My cousin recalls that when their prodigal brother returned from New Zealand for a visit, the family went out to dine. They had on this occasion assumed that my aunt would treat them all, however, after polishing off dessert, she put down her spoon and said, ‘well, I don’t know who is paying for this, but who ever you are, thank you very much’. Way to go.
The day closes with afternoon tea in a local village hall and I’m reunited with many of my 30 cousins and introduced to their children and grand-children. I look around and see that our family legacy is a sea of grey hair, distinctive noses, hearing aids and a lot of laughter. I’ll take that.
I struggle to hear many of the stories I’m being told for the noise seems to be bouncing off the ceiling. A delightful young man walks towards me, offers me a chair- for he feels I must be tired after my long day – and then steps in as my own personal interpreter so that nothing is lost in translation. I then relay the story I am hearing to mum who is sharing a plate of sausage rolls with her younger sister and chuckling over that custard yarn. I do feel quite tired and think I may just be about to lose my chauffeuring gig on account of my age; I feel that I’m in good company though. I said, I may just be about to…