Mama J spent the day with Mama J Senior yesterday and, as ever, it was a mission just to keep up with her relentless energy and caffeine-fuelled encyclopaedic chat; 93 and she could give most teenagers a run for their money. If I can keep up with her pace, I am finding these days that she is becoming an even richer source of family stories – stories that she insists I already know, but ones I swear I have never heard before.
Yesterday, after a brisk circuit around her mammoth local garden centre (well, she calls it a garden centre but how many garden centres boast a resident pianist, deli counter and haberdashery? I swear I didn’t see a plant all afternoon) we segued to memories of my grandmother Ida, over a cup of barista – worthy coffee. (I would share the name of the garden centre, but as there were already queues and a ticketing system to enter the ceramic centre and food hall (yes, these are also garden centre ‘things’ apparently), I just can’t risk the additional footfall.
If you cast your mind back, you may recall that Ida was the sole source of the knitted pants that our childhood dolls were expected to wear, for Ida could not abide exposed nether-regions, either plastic or flesh. Ida was incredibly strict, and incredibly interesting because her childhood had been so tough that she never liked to talk about it. If her past was referred to in any way, she would usually brandish a paper bag full of Trebor Xtra Strong Mints, pop one theatrically in her mouth without even as much as a, ‘would anyone like one of these?’ before buttoning up her housecoat and disappearing off in the direction of some imgainery kitchen chore.
Ida’s theatrical crunching of Trebors was a sign of displeasure and probably the reason she kept an impressive pair of dentures in a glass by her bedside. Her breath always smelt fresh but her comments could be a little acidic.
It has to be said that Mama J Senior didn’t have the closest of relationships with her mother-in-law, Ida, so I was surprised yesterday to hear her reminiscing about her so fondly. Back in the day, if Ida came to stay with us for a holiday, Mama J Senior would soon be heard muttering about Ida’s endless supply of bagged Xtra Strong Mints. There would be a bag left on the kitchen window sill for when Ida insisted on washing up; a bag by her bedside for crunching before her teeth came out at night and a bag on her dressing table for a cheeky chomp while powdering her nose each morning. Mum was more of a Chocolate Caramel type and felt that this relentless supply of mints would surely ruin both our teeth and appetites. Fat chance, Ida rarely shared her mints around.
Being Ida’s son, Dad was much more accommodating about Mint-Gate. Although he wasn’t a Trebor man himself, he was a big supporter of a post dinner ‘After Eight’ mint as a digestive aid. He even bought a silver “After Eight’ box holder from a catalogue; we didn’t host many dinner parties, but dad certainly wasn’t going to be exposed for not having a mint receptacle to accompany after dinner coffee if ever the opportunity arose.
Thinking about it, I don’t think that box holder ever got a real public debut. Dad became so concerned that it had sat on the sideboard all year without use, that he relented and allowed the silver stand on to the dining table at the end of a Christmas meal to ensure that its contents didn’t pass their sell buy date (actually, that could be a Mama J myth – when did sell by dates actually start being used?).
Anyway, the truth of the situation is that this catalysed into a memorable game of trying to slide an unsheathed After Eight Mint down our face and into our mouth using only facial expressions. Renowned for the size of our genetic nasal scaffolding, this was no mean feat. Memory doesn’t recall if either Ida or Mama J Sr. joined in on this occasion. I have a feeling that it would have been too messy a game for an Xtra Strong Mint cruncher or a Chocolate Caramel chewer to enjoy.
Back to yesterday’s story though; it transpires that the real reason that Ida was an Xtra Strong Mint devotee was that she felt they had antibacterial and medicinal properties. Apparently Ida believed that sucking a strong peppermint before entering a Woolworths store would guarantee returning unsullied from any airborne germ shared by any fellow shopper. It transpires that Ida was a bit of a Woolworth shopping snob – she loved the idea behind the store, ‘a handy place where good things are cheap’ – but didn’t like mixing with the general public en masse. She kept a ready supply of Xtra Strong Mints in her handbag to ward off germs in the same manner that garlic was used to see off vampires. Ida probably enjoyed Woolworth prices for bulk purchase of Extra Strong mints even if she had no need of their ‘Pick n’ Mix’ offer; she was the most unlikely candidate to mix her tried and tested medicine up with Humbugs and Mint Imperials.
Mint story. No wonder Woolworths came off the High Street after Ida’s death. Perhaps they should have investigated a pharmacy chain tie in.
This tale does beg a question about why Ida crunched on so many mints whenever she came to spend a holiday with us. I am left wondering whether she felt our house was so germ-ridden that she needed additional protection when she came visiting. I can now see – against this context – why Mama J Sr. might have been less than warm about such visits from her mother in law. On the positive side, I do now have Ida to thank for my love of all things minty. Toothpaste (oxymoronically) for example. Less positively, I also have a mouth full of fillings and a face smeared with melted chocolate (I am in training – naturally – for the Christmas After Eight Play Off).
I intend to hold out stoically before putting a denture glass by my bedside, but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that if I do need to purchase one, there is a garden centre close to mum’s that boasts a really good range.