Weekly Smile: 6 Feb 2023

We’ve had some really weird sunset skies this week – this particular view was taken from my daughter’s back doorstep last night. Lots of pink and orange striations glowing on a purplish backdrop, hovering over dark finger clouds dotted and dashed beneath. Then in no time at all the colour just faded away as we watched, leaving ghostly monochrome stripes stretching across the heavens.

It was a lovely end to a lovely day spent together with my eldest daughter and her family, with grandchildren and pets and love and laughter… So that’s my smile for this week, precious time spent with family and a memorable sunset to mark the occasion ❤

Weekly Smile

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Kitchen Memories

Family memories seem to be order of the day today – the JusJoJan prompt word is Family and Amanda at Something to Ponder About asks us about memories of our grandparents, so it seems sensible to cover both at once…

My paternal grandparents lived on a coastal farm set high on the cliffs on the North-East coast of Scotland, just South of Aberdeen. It was mainly an arable farm but they kept a couple of cows for milk and chickens for eggs, and always kept a vegetable garden. The busy square-roomed farmhouse kitchen was large and multi-purposed, and as I picture it in my mind’s eye I see it from the simplistic perspective of childhood.

The door was in the top right hand corner, and on your right as you entered the kitchen was a huge carved wooden sideboard filled with boundless treasures, or so it seemed at the time. On the wall facing you was the fire – an old range when I was younger, later replaced with a ‘modern’ tiled fireplace as I grew older. In the right-hand corner corner was the hot water tank housed in a slatted-shelf airing cupboard, heated by the back boiler behind the fire. In front of the fire were the tired old armchairs where my grandparents sat in the evenings, although not so much during the day, constantly busy as they were. There was a small black and white TV tucked in to the left-hand corner, behind my grandmother’s chair, but I honestly don’t remember it being on much.

Along the left hand wall sat a solidly huge extending kitchen dining table, with heavy wooden carved legs and an almost-out-of-place cream formica-style top. I know it was an extending table because of the seams in the surface but I never saw it other than fully opened. There were mis-matched chairs pushed in all around the table, maybe nine in place constantly, but often seating twelve at a push. On the back wall was the big stone sink with draining board, a standard electric cooker, a small fridge and the kitchen ‘press’ – a 1950s-style larder cupboard with a hinged pull-down door creating an extra work surface as needed. Inside the press sat a large white enamel bread bin with blue trim.

The pantry was a separate deep-shelved small storage room off the hallway, and it was in this room external to the kitchen that the big, bulky pots and pans and suchlike were stored, and the milk-house (an outside stone-built cool-room close to the back door) was where meat and dairy were traditionally stored and where jams and jellies were cooled and set. I remember the old wooden butter churn being kept in the milk-house, but by the time I was born butter was regularly made using the much-prized electric bowl mixer that was stored in the pantry until needed. The milk was still left to settle on the marble work top of the milk-house, though, with the cream being skimmed off carefully as it separated.

So this was the big old kitchen in which I learned to cook – my mum has never enjoyed cooking, for her it was always a chore, but my paternal grandmother was a typical farmer’s wife and an excellent cook, and it was from her I learned to make the hearty soups and stews and everyday cakes and bakes that traditionally fed a farming family back in the day. My dad remembers his mum making oatcakes on the old range when he was a boy, but by the time the grandchildren came along oatcakes were generally bought in. Pancakes, however, were made almost daily, a staple sweet treat. Not thin crepes, but thick, fluffy Scotch pancakes, lined up in rows and cooled in a folded tea-towel before being transferred to the table.

One of my dad’s cousins regularly made a variety of cheeses, so oatcakes and home-made cheese (plus home-made butter) were the usual mid-meal snack eaten hungrily around the table, along with the home-made pancakes dripped with thick, sticky golden syrup. Meals I particularly remember eating there include boiled eggs in egg cups dipped with toast ‘soldiers’, mince and tatties and peas, smoked kippers, boiled crabs collected fresh from the fishermen, tasty cauliflower cheese with baked ham. Soup and pudding was a regular on the menu, too – a big bowl of thick soup with hunks of bread, followed by crumble and custard was a surprisingly filling meal without a ‘main’ course in between.

My dad was one of six children, so I grew up with myriad cousins and aunts and uncles and my grandparents’ farmhouse kitchen is the space where I picture us all in various combinations of family groupings at different times of the day and year, preparing meals, eating meals, and the inevitable clearing up afterwards. Another of dad’s cousins regularly avoided the washing up by always going to the toilet immediately after each meal, and always showing surprise on her return that the dishes had all been done already. This little trick was known within the family as ‘doing a (family member’s name)’ although we always had to remember not to say it when any of her immediate family were present!

I later realised as an adult just how hard a life it must have been for my grandmother, bringing up a large family as she did with minimal mod cons at the time, but for me as a child it was simply the perfect family environment, always warm and welcoming, always busy and bustling, always a place I loved to be. And I realise in my heart of hearts that’s the feeling I want people to get in my kitchen when they come to visit me. We don’t live in a farmhouse, or on a farm, but I try to make sure there’s still a warm welcome and wholesome, homely food on offer for all everyone we invite across our threshold… 🙂

My Beautiful Dad

Today’s daily prompt on WordPress suggests:-

Talk about your father or a father figure in your life

I’ve been thinking such a lot about my 86-year-old dad recently. He’s had vascular dementia for the last six years, playing cruel tricks with his memory so that he doesn’t always know where he is, or when he is, what is reality and what is not, or how to do some of the most basic of things.

After several strokes over time progressively reduced his mobility bit by bit, it became abundantly clear to all of us that even with all the social care support packages available mum could no longer care for him at home. Eventually after a bad fall a year ago resulting in a prolonged stay in hospital, dad now lives in a nursing home. It’s not a perfect situation for any of us, but we are where we are and it is what it is.

Luckily for us dad usually (but sadly not always) knows who we are, or at least recognises us as family members at some level – he frequently thought I was his favourite sister rather than his daughter, but we still manged to have some great ghostly conversations set in the distant past and in many different places which he clearly enjoyed. To me it was still a valued connection between us.

He would regularly ask me how ‘the old folks’ were and had I seen them recently, meaning his parents (my grandparents) who have been dead for decades, so I would prevaricate a bit, then simply say as honestly as I could that I hadn’t seen them for a while but as far as I knew everyone in the family was well, which always seemed to reassure him well enough. I treasure those conversations and the familiar closeness they brought.

Lately dad’s speech wasn’t always that clear – sometimes he might slur a bit, or forget what he was saying, or shift slowly to another decade and the words would just fade away – but he could still speak, I could hear his voice and I could remember, smiling inwardly at his dad-like choice of words or his dry humour turn of phrase, and I would think – yes, my beautiful dad is still in there somewhere…

But now dad has had another small stroke, and although he has recovered a lot, sadly his speech has not returned this time. In fact, he’s not uttered one single, solitary word since. He smiles and he nods, still looking confused at times, but there are no words. And for me, for the reality that somewhere down the line without knowing it I have had my last ‘proper’ conversation I will ever have with my much-loved dad, for me too there are no words…

Love you, dad, to the end of time, and I wish you could know just how much I miss hearing your lovely voice… ❤

Dementia 1: Dad 0

By the law of averages, my dad should probably not still be around. It’s not just a matter of his age – he’s now 86 – but of his slowly disintegrating health. Dad was diagnosed with vascular dementia when he was 80, after a couple of devastating strokes left him with debilitating mobility issues and a forgetfulness that was clearly going beyond just forgetfulness.

Since that time he’s had another couple of strokes, each one just a little worse than the last. Each time both his mobility and his memory have decreased further to the point where, after a bad fall at home and a serious knock to the head a year ago resulting in a prolonged stay in hospital, dad was finally discharged not back home to mum, herself finding life more difficult as she too gets older, but to a nursing home where he now lives with much-needed 24hr care.

It’s been so hard watching dad’s memories of who he is being erased over time. To begin with there were distinct periods where dad would seem fine, and then periods where he was clearly confused. Confused about time and place and people and reality and memory. And over the years those periods of lucidity became less and less frequent. Dad became less and less certain of where he was or who he was with. He began to live more and more in the past, present in body but not in spirit, out of reach to us much of the time, lost in an inner world of his own that only he could experience.

But sadly since his bad fall last year, since the long isolated stay in hospital where he caught and fought Covid along with everyone else on the ward, dad’s growing dementia deterioration appears decidedly more marked. He can no longer walk at all, and seems to have lost the last of that small precious spark of triumphant defiance that still remained. It’s as if the dementia has won, as if the shutters have truly come down for good this time, and I feel the loss keenly.

Dad no longer comes out with the little quips and humourous comments and groan-inducing bad-dad-jokes that were such a recognisable part of his character. We no longer seem to have access to that shared familial experience, the secret short-cut code that is the DNA of everyday life. It sometimes seems dad is more comfortable with the company of the staff and residents than with his family when we visit. I’m pleased that he appears so contented, genuinely I am, but at the same time it hurts like hell…

This is not the life dad had imagined for himself, not the old age he (or we) had envisaged. But clearly it is his reality – and it is our reality too. Dad is still with us in body but not in spirit, and I honestly miss him more than I can possibly say…

Ragtag Daily Prompt: Law

Word of the Day: Erase

Chives

Perhaps not the most exciting flower in my garden, but I’m so pleased this chive plant is doing well – it was donated to us last autumn by my mother-in-law, from her garden in Peterhead (along the east coast towards Aberdeen).

It’s a small part of a plant she’d taken with her from her previous garden, which was situated only about 10 miles from where we are now. And the original had been given to her as a small plant by someone else who had it growing in their garden, so it’s been a well-travelled herb and I’m so glad to see it surviving happily in its new home back in Inverness again 🙂

Flower of the Day

Maw-Maw T’s Cornbread Recipe

  • 1 block oleo (here in UK that’s 4oz baking margarine)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup milk

Combine oleo, eggs and sugar until fluffy (about 5 mins), sift dry ingredients and add alternately with milk. Pour into a greased pan and bake at 350 degrees F until done (approx 45 mins)

After posting about my mother-in-law’s hand-written recipe cards for this week’s Weekly Prompt, a couple of people have asked me for her mother’s recipe for cornbread, a family favourite from my husband’s childhood and one he still uses today – so here it is, definitely cake-y rather than bread-y despite the name but lovely in its rich yellowy sweetness… Enjoy! 🙂

Firm Family Favourites

Tucked safely inside a small old cardboard box on our book-shelf sits a stack of well-used hand-written recipe cards passed on to my husband from his mother, detailing some of his favourite family recipes from childhood. Included are his grandmother’s recipe for cornbread – a firm favourite with our grandchildren – one for Mrs Simmon’s pecan pie (whoever she was), one for a luscious lemon meringue pie copied from a tin of condensed milk in the late 1950s, and one for sweet potato souffle which I just adore.

To be honest the whole concept of sweet potato as a dessert seemed a bit strange to me to begin with until I thought about carrot cake, which I also love.

If you’ve never tried it there’s absolutely nothing vegetable-y tasting about it at all, if anything it’s a bit caramelised over-sweet for some tastes. It’s basically cooked mashed sweet potato mixed with egg yolks, brown sugar, cinnamon and cream, then whipped egg whites are folded-in before it’s all put into an oven-proof dish and topped with dots of butter and mini marshmallows. Bake it for about 20-25 minutes until the marshmallows are all melted and browned and you have a gooey, scrummy sweet potato souffle to enjoy – yum! 🙂

Weekly Prompts: Recipe Cards

Family First

Didn’t mean to disappear without notice for the last three weeks, just have some urgent family stuff going on that inevitably takes priority over everything else at the moment… Will be back blogging soon enough when life calms down again, see you all on the other side… 🙂

Being There…

Today’s one hour visiting slot at the hospital was taken up by me sitting quietly, watching my 85-year-old dad sleep.

Dad’s usually up and dressed and sitting in the chair next to his bed, but apparently he was feeling really tired this morning so after his breakfast, instead of getting him washed and dressed as usual the nursing staff let him go back to sleep. And sleep he did… in fact he slept, and he slept, and for the full hour I was with him (between 11am and 12pm) he didn’t wake once. Not when I carefully placed a metal-legged hard plastic chair next to his bed and sat down, not when a friendly nurse spoke to me and we discussed how surprisingly deeply dad was asleep today rather than his usual on-and-off dozing (resting his eyes, he used to call it). Dad didn’t even stir when the domestic assistant inadvertently knocked his bed while mopping the floor underneath, or again when dusting the top of the curtain rails around his bed.

So rather than disturb dad’s rest I just sat with him, next to his bed, and watched him sleep. I watched his ageing face, eyes tight shut, not a flicker of movement to suggest he might be about to wake. I watched his lower jaw lying slack within his weathered skin, his top denture sitting too loose in his slightly open mouth as he gave a soft snore every now and again. I watched his chest and stomach rise and fall gently and rhythmically with every inhale and exhale, so peaceful in his repose. I leaned over and held his hand for a while, and although he didn’t stir from his slumber dad’s fingers intuitively folded around mine too. I felt such a surge of protection towards him, this vulnerable old man with dementia and minimal mobility. Because underneath this confused old man exterior, he’s still my lovely, loving dad.

So for a full hour I just sat in a hospital ward and watched my dad sleep, watched him with the same loving scrutiny as when I watched my children and grandchildren sleep when they were babies. He may not have known I was there, but I knew, and the precious time we spend together with dad asleep matters just as much to me as when he is wide awake… ❤

Ragtag Daily Prompt: Watched

A Place Full of Strangers

I haven’t written about visiting my 85-year-old dad for a while because sadly, due to Covid restrictions coming into force at the hospital for three weeks, I simply wasn’t allowed to visit for the duration.

We kept in touch with the ward by phone, so we knew he was doing fine… but still, it was a difficult time not to be able to see dad in person. He has vascular dementia and doesn’t remember about the Covid pandemic, or understand why ordinarily he is only allowed two designated visitors never mind none at all for weeks on end.

So as soon as hospital visiting recommenced at the end of last week I booked a slot to see dad again, and it was such a relief on that first visit to find that we simply picked up pretty much exactly where we had left off – he seemed to have no recollection of the fact that we hadn’t seen him for a few weeks, he was settled and chatty and he looked well.

I noticed that dad has had his hair cut since I saw him last, and with a puzzled look he brushed his hand over his head and said in surprise – oh yes, so I have! So I asked him who had cut his hair, but all he could offer (with a wry smile) was – I’m buggered if I know!

But as soon as I saw dad this morning I realised he was having a ‘lost’ day – where he finds himself neither easily in the here-and-now, nor happily living in the past, but stuck somewhere in between. He said hello and gave a brief smile as I hugged him and sat down, but he kept looking around, distracted and agitated, seemingly trying to pick up visual and aural clues to work out where he was.

I asked him if he was OK, and with sad eyes he said he was in a place full of strangers where he didn’t recognise anyone… A friendly nurse came in and spoke to him by name, and he was surprised that she knew him – he was so sure he didn’t know her. Poor dad, he was so aware that everyone else seemed to know with confidence where they were, so he concluded he must be the one who is confused.

While I was visiting we called mum at home with my mobile phone, and then afterwards my brother called us with the on-screen video function so both he and dad were able to see each other in real time, but dad really struggled to keep his attention on the screen with so many distractions in the background and soon handed the phone back to me, disappointed he was unable to follow the conversation.

I reassured him that it was still good to be able to see my brother via the phone, and dad agreed but wondered why he hadn’t spoken to his mum and dad for a while – he hoped they were still doing fine? I smiled and quietly admitted I didn’t know – what’s the point of reminding him his parents have been dead for a good 30 years…

Dad often lives in this nightmare psychological no-man’s-land these days, alone and lost in a mental landscape ravaged by dementia, increasingly burdened by his inability to make sense of his surroundings. He tries so hard to make his brain work the way he wants it to. He thinks and he thinks and he thinks; puts in so much effort to try to understand it all but somehow nothing makes sense any more.

It hurts us to see him hurting and struggling so much, but with the best will in the world there’s nothing any of us can do to ease that burden for him. There’s no easy-to-read how-to handbook to help with all of this, no instruction manual for coping with the disintegration of mental capacity caused by dementia. All we can do is be there for him and guide him and continue to love him for a long as we can…  

Fandango’s One Word Challenge: Handbook