Lucid is a Relative Term

My 85-year-old dad has vascular dementia, the result of four strokes over several years, and one of the things we’ve learned over the last few years is that when it comes to dad, lucid is a relative term.

We’re lucky in that thankfully he still recognises us, he knows who we are, by name if not always by relationship. He doesn’t always get the family connections quite right, but it’s close enough for dad to have a reasonably clear conversation with the people he knows best. He sounds a little bit confused, perhaps, and if you don’t know him well it seems like nothing more than memory playing a few minor tricks on a sweet old man. Everything seems perfectly fine until for whatever reason the conversation turns to the realities of time or place, and then the extent of his confusion becomes apparent – because more often than not dad has no idea where he is, geographically or chronologically.

My parents still live together in the house I grew up in – they’ve lived there for forty-seven years. When it comes to familiarity for someone with dementia, this is probably as good as it gets. Dad spends most of his day sitting in his chair – he has mobility issues due to the strokes – but can’t always find his way without guidance to the bathroom, or his bedroom. By late afternoon he frequently frets about where he’s going to sleep that night, and sometimes stops in his tracks with his walker frame, mid-journey, unsure of where to go next. He worries about which way he needs to go ‘to go home’ later on, does he turn left or right at the front door, which car will he be driving (although dad gave up his driving license due to medical reasons years ago)…

We tell dad he is already at home, and he looks startled, irritated, telling us he is in a strange place he’s never been in before. We tell him it’s OK, he’s somewhere safe, but he’s unconvinced, unsettled. ‘Do you know this place?’ he asks me – Yes, I say, this is the house I grew up in, we all lived here together as a family. ‘Where was I then, when you all lived here?’ asks dad, and I tell him he was here too. He looks at me blankly, so I try to reassure him that it’s all fine, as long as we know where he is and where to find him, everything is fine. He remains uncertain, insecure, and behind his piercing blue eyes seems lost, looking for constant reassurance, and this pattern of conversation repeats in variations on a theme, day in, day out.

Time has different meaning for dad these days, too. When we visited last week, both dad and mum were due a birthday – dad’s 85th the following day, and mum’s 79th a few days later. Dad made jokes about them getting old, and we all laughed. Then my husband mentioned he’d be turning 60 this summer and dad said ‘Oh, I suppose I must be coming up to 60 soon!’ so we gently reminded him that ship had long sailed, by a good 25 years… I told dad I was going to be 58 later this year, and he was shocked. I asked him what year I was born and without hesitation he said ‘1963’. We pointed out to him this was now 2021, so we did the sums together and dad conceded – for that moment at least – if that was the case he must be older than he thought.

The last time I took dad for a walk outside in his wheelchair, he was smiling and animated and I took a few lovely pics of him on my phone camera. When we got back home again, dad settled down in his chair with his usual cup of tea and a biscuit. I showed him the pics I’d just taken and he wanted to know who the old man was in the wheelchair? He was surprised to hear it was himself, so he wanted to know when they’d been taken? I told him – About half an hour ago… And got a blank puzzled look in response… Sad not to be able to build new memories with him, but thankfully we can still share old memories from the past. Well, most of the time, anyway.

Although one old long-term memory of dad’s that seems to have been erased completely has had a surprisingly positive outcome. In the past – at least in my lifetime – dad never ate yoghurt. Apparently one day when I was a tiny baby my dad was holding me up above his head when I was sick straight into his mouth, and ever since then even the smell of curdled milk in all forms had dad gagging and retching. Until his brain destroyed the memory, and now dad happily eats yoghurt without a care in the world. No memory, no trigger, no reaction. Amazing.

I suppose every cloud has a silver lining…

Fandango’s One Word Challenge: Lucid

Wedding China

So now what do I do with my wedding china?

When I first got married to my kids’ dad, 39 years ago next month, I was a fresh-faced pregnant 18-year-old and we had a typical, traditional marriage ceremony with me resplendent in a long white bridal gown and veil, ‘given away’ by my dad in our local church. All the men dressed in kilts and the women wore hats, and afterwards a formal wedding reception meal and dance was held at a reasonably posh hotel.

At that time it was still the norm for the bride-to-be to choose a particular pattern for fancy china with the intention that people who wished to contribute could then choose individual items of that same pattern to buy as a wedding gift, as the idea was to end up with a full (or thereabouts) posh dinner service made up of a collection of smaller pieces each gifted separately by various friends and family members.

I wasn’t ever keen on the usual fussy intricate patterns available at the time, so chose this Masons Ironstone ‘Fruit Basket’ design in green. Plain enough to suit my taste, but patterned enough to look good as a set. For the first few years of my married life my fancy dinner service sat unused in the china cabinet, and when that marriage ended it was packed into a storage box where it stayed for a good long while.

Eventually a few years later I decided it was silly to have it and not use it at all, so it became my special occasion ‘good’ china (which was its original intended purpose), but after several pieces got chipped and broken through normal wear and tear I packed it all up again until… whenever… And in the three decades since then I’ve dutifully kept the remains of my fancy dinner service untouched, still wrapped up and stored in the same big plastic crate.

In the year and a half since we moved in here the box of fancy china has sat hopefully in the corner of our spare room, biding its time, and today I decided finally to have a proper look to see exactly what is left in one piece, what is still there but damaged, and what is missing altogether. The image above shows all of the pieces that remain intact – more than I remembered, actually – and now it’s all sitting uneasily on my living room floor I’m unsure what to do with it.

Typically all the cups and saucers – six for tea, and six for coffee – are fine, but I only have four whole dinner plates, and only two egg cups. One further egg cup is cracked, and one extra dinner plate plus the sugar bowl each have an unsightly chip on the edge. Although the pattern design is now discontinued (not surprising after all these years) the individual pieces still seem to be quite expensive to buy online, so it’s clearly worth far too much just to give away, but as it was originally a gift I’m really not keen to sell it on.

I’ve even seen this particular pattern and colourway appearing on period dramas on TV – it seems to be a go-to favourite on Poirot – and I must admit it always makes me smile to see it. For me it’s a real blast from the past, a memory of a long-ago life that once was mine, and surely the fact that I still have it with me after all these years shows it still has some sentimental value for me?

So instead of making the difficult decision today about what to do with my wedding china, I’m taking pictures of it and writing a rambling blog post! Yes I know it’s more than one line, but that’s because the question is one line and of course I had to give it some context…

By tomorrow no doubt my dinner service will be back nestled tight into its plastic crate in the spare room, where it will inevitably stay for another several months (or maybe even years!) until I actually find a new home for it out on display somewhere in the house… 🙂

One Liner Wednesday

Passport to the Past

I need to renew my passport, so needed a new photograph with which to apply.

Our local supermarket has one of those photo booths that does digital images for passports and other formal documentation, so I went along this morning and did the deed exactly as instructed. I came home and duly completed my online application, and now it’s all done and dusted I’ve been sitting looking at my strange new photograph staring back at me from the little print-out provided.

There are of course so may rules and regulations around passport photography – no smile, no fancy accessories, no hair covering your face, no careful posing to get your best angle. No camouflage or intrigue allowed, no tactful hints nor graceful subterfuge. In fact no visible individuality or personality required to be shown at all – just a straightforward full-face-on mug-shot that bares your soul in a most disconcerting fashion. Raw reality packing its punches with no holds barred.

In my photograph I look… How best to describe how I look?

Blank, I suppose. Empty of emotion. Just a set of unremarkable features set into a gently ageing female face. Wrinkles showing quite clearly on my forehead, decidedly drooping eyelids and unsightly fleshy pouches gathering under my deepening eye sockets. The high cheekbones of my youth have lost a little of their shapely definition. Thinning mouth beneath a small neat nose, soft rounded chin, wrinkled neck. Greying dark blonde hair sitting with an easy, devil-may-care attitude on my shoulders. I look exactly like the middle-aged woman I am.

I am fifty-seven years old, and in this starkly unapologetic image I see myself as most of the real world probably sees me. Not carefully posed with my standard fake-prepared photo-smile or my preferred pouting-in-the-mirror-face, but instead I see a real reflection of me captured in the raw with resigned, been-round-the-block-a-few-times eyes and a defiant look of focused concentration. A little haggard, maybe, slightly careworn, but nevertheless appearing to carry my almost three-score years with the pride of a battle-scarred badge of honour saying – yes, the life I have lived shows in my face, and what of it?

I am surprised to find I quite like this blank-expressioned image.

She is growing on me, this mature in-my-face me with nowhere to hide. I am reminded of a portrait my mum painted of me fifty years ago. In the painting I am looking directly out of the canvas, straight on. Mum has painted me with my resting face on after hours of sitting still, not with the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t fleeting flash of a smile, and I realise in this new passport photograph I look just the same, but so much older. The association pleases me… the feeling of continuity across the decades, of shared common ground between me then and me now… a kind of visual deja-vu with a difference… 🙂

Boiled Eggs and Toasted Soldiers

OMG I love the taste of real butter – I remember so well the creamy yellow full-fat butter made by my grandmother on their arable farm. They always had a cow, though, kept for the milk. First the cow would be milked by hand, the warm, frothy milk splashing straight from the cow into the milk pail. Then the milk pail would be left to settle in the ‘milk-house’ which was a long, cool, stone-built out-building by the back door to the farmhouse. In due course the cream would be skimmed off the top of the milk and it was this cream that would be made into butter.

The old labour-intensive wooden butter churn still sat in the milk-house, next to the cool marble-topped work surface, but by the time I was old enough to remember the process the butter was being made in the kitchen using a standard electric mixer. From runny liquid whipped up to a thick cream to making little yellow globules of fat solids in white opaque liquid with minimal effort – perfect! Once the butter was fully separated from the buttermilk in the mixing bowl it was taken out and washed in cold water and salted to taste, before being carefully formed into a small rectangular block using ridged wooden butter pats.

In my memory the residual buttermilk was always given to the chickens to help keep them healthy… Oh, and thinking of the chickens reminds me of the fun of egg-collecting, too. I remember us grand-children being sent into the hen-house to collect the eggs, nestling so gently in the straw all brown and fragile. Carrying them in to the kitchen so carefully, then having them soft-boiled and sat in individual egg-cups with a steaming little cap sliced off the top, just enough to be able to dip in lavishly buttered toasted soldiers – long thin fingers of toasted bread, just perfect for dipping into the egg…

Such wonderful childhood memories… Actually I couldn’t tell you the last time I had a soft-boiled egg eaten with butter-laden toasted soldiers, but I’m almost tempted to give it a go tonight! 🙂

Stream of Consciousness Saturday: Butter

This Is Your Life…

When I was younger there was a TV programme here in the UK called ‘This Is Your Life’, with the premise that host Eamonn Andrews would surprise a well-known celebrity ‘live’ with a big red book containing the story of their lives as told by friends and family and photographs and anecdotes. The ‘lucky’ star concerned would then be taken to the studio set to sit in pride of place and as their life story unfolded page by page over the next half hour, as all other guests involved in the secret would come through the door to tell their part in the tale to date.

But I often wondered – that’s all very well if you have a nice straightforward successful life moving seamlessly from childhood through adulthood to a fantastic future filled with fame and fortune. But what about the shadowy bits of your past that perhaps you’d rather not re-live, people that once were important to you but who you no longer speak to by choice, places you’d gone to you’d far rather sweep under the carpet, or things you’d done that you wish you and everyone else would forget?

The show has been cancelled for years – I don’t suppose there’s much call for that kind of famous personality ‘reveal’ show any more. With social media and so much public sharing of what was once so private, much of everyone’s past is already accessible online and anything worth knowing has already done the rounds of the gossip rags if not loudly proclaimed on Facebook. And anyway, everybody worth anything in public life writes their autobiography nowadays. I do love reading people’s personal life stories – if it’s someone I like, of course.

I still wonder, though – what do you choose to put in, and what do you leave out? And how do you write it? Do you write a kind of personal essay, a timeline of important moments revealed in chronological order, or do you build your life story as a series of little vignettes linked by factors other than time? I mean, with me the things that most people would most likely like to read about from my life are the very things I’d rather avoid being out in the public domain altogether. The bits I wouldn’t mind sharing are the boring bits no-one gives a toss about.

I think it might be fun, though, to have a go at chronicling choice bits of my life – only the bits of my life I choose, mind – in words and pictures and mementos and memories. Make my own style of ‘This Is Your Life’ book just for me, and maybe even for my grandchildren to see one day. Snippets and stories and silly stuff to share, for no other reason that I’m alive and having a life matters, even the most boring of lives. Start somewhere, with something – I was born, I grew up, I started a blog – and see what happens… 🙂

Starsky and Hutch in 2021? Nope…!

Oooh, when I was growing up I just loved watching Starsky and Hutch every week, my sister and I never missed an episode and we never ceased discussing it in great detail with all our friends at school the next day… So when I saw the original pilot episode from 1975 was showing on TV today, I thought – yes, result! Blast from my teenage past to indulge in – woo-hoo!

Except… Nope… Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul looked as sexy as ever, Captain Dobey was shouting just as loudly as I remember, and Huggy Bear was… well… still the same old chilled-out denim-clad Huggy Bear. But seriously guys, how totally dated can a TV show be? It’s a bit like watching the old re-runs of ‘The Professionals’ starring Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw from a few years later – swoon!

Except… Nope… I can’t seem to get beyond the blatant sexism, the out-moded, out-dated smart-ass male-privilege attitudes, and it’s seriously spoiled the storylines for me. For both Starsky and Hutch and The Professionals, sadly neither translate well into the 21st Century. Why did I never notice it at the time? Why did it not stick out like a cartoon sore thumb after being hit with a giant hammer?

I guess because at the time it was all entirely normal for men – and women – to behave that way… Somewhere in the deepest darkest recesses of the farthest corners of my mind I still feel drawn to the magical memory of both shows, in spite of the main protagonists so clearly examplifying such sexist views about their female co-stars.

And somehow that sad realisation makes me feel very, very old… 😦

Stream of Consciousness Saturday: In the Corner

The Back of Woolies and Other Lost Locations

One of the weird things about moving back to a place where you grew up so once knew very well, but in the interim you have lived elsewhere for twenty years, is that past locations that are so clear in your head are now lost to the present world. The back of Woolies in Inverness is one such lost location.

The two-storey Woolworths store in Inverness had a great corner location with the front doors on the High Street, but with the ‘back’ door (actually at the side of the building) opening up onto Lombard Street, a short quiet pedestrians-only back street creating a quick and easy cut through to Union Street. Woolies was a favourite shop for so many bits and pieces, so always enjoyed a high footfall including capturing extra trade via plenty of casual through-traffic.

When I was growing up and catching up with friends on a Saturday afternoon ‘the back of Woolies’ was a regular central meeting place. In those days, before the advent of purpose built shopping malls to pull the bulk of people away from the middle of the town to congregate in cavernous indoor off-centres elsewhere, the buzzing High Street with its jumble of large and small retailers all jostling for prime position was the pinnacle of our everyday shopping universe.

Sadly, Woolworths as a company died a death many years ago, and the retail company that now inhabits the ground floor only of the site has closed off the back doors entirely, losing the fluidity and flow of customers in the current configuration. The street, of course, remains intact, but inside my head Lombard Street will always be called ‘the back of Woolies’, even though the Woolies store referred to no longer exists exept in my memory.

Other lost locations in my memory include the Record Rendezvous on Church Street, one of only two dedicated vinyl record shops in Inverness. (Incidentally, the other record shop was on the Market Brae Steps at the other end of the High Street and was actually called ‘The Other Record Shop’, known affectionately as TORS.) However I see that the aptly named Rendezvous Cafe now sits happily on exactly the same footprint as the old Record Rendezvous, and the continuity of the name makes me smile every time I walk past it.

And in the same vein only a few yards away along the street from the Rendezvous Cafe there is also now a pub/ cafe bar called ‘The Auctioneers’ on the site of what was in my day actually a proper old fashioned auction house selling household furniture and similar items – it’s so nice to see a nod to the old businesses of the past in the naming of the new.

Alternatively, places where the name has changed but the business is the same still catch me off guard – the Victorian hotel built in to the fabric of the train station may now be branded as the Royal Highland, but it’ll always be the Station Hotel to me. And in my head the more modern Mercure Hotel overlooking the River Ness is still the Caledonian Hotel, known to all and sundry of my generation as the ‘Caley’, although its probably been a good decade or so at least years since the name changed 🙂

Blast From the Past: Childhood Ice Lollies

Old-time rocket-shaped lolly named Zoom

Juice-filled frozen fruit flavours go boom

In your mouth layers sweet

Melt to mush as you eat

Wooden lolly stick sucked till exhumed

Although Fab was my favourite vice

With its hundreds and thousands on ice

Adding crumbly feel

And exciting appeal

To a fun lolly sure to entice

A blast-from-the-past limerick twofer for Esther Chilton’s word prompt of ‘Zoom’ for this week, helpfully illustrated by a retro metal sign hanging in my kitchen 🙂

Memories of Auntie George

Auntie George was my maternal grandfather’s spinster aunt, his mother’s youngest sister. She had been christened Georgina, my grandfather always called her Georgie, but to the three generations of family that followed – my mum’s, mine, and my children’s – she was known affectionately as Auntie George.

My earliest memories of Auntie George were of her living with another aunt, her older widowed sister Eliza, in a small fisherman’s cottage in a little village here in the Scottish Highlands. We used to visit as a family, and I remember the tiny cottage mainly as neat and old fashioned and dark and smelling of moth-balls, quiet apart from the tick of the large clock on the sideboard. I remember, while the grown-ups had tea and cake, being allowed a glass of fizzy lemonade in pretty tumblers that were kept in the sideboard, and the bubbles going up my nose.

After her sister died, Auntie George moved out of the cottage and in with my maternal grandparents, where she lived until her health deteriorated to a point where my grandparents simply became too old themselves to care for her. Although she lived to a ripe old age sadly she necessarily ended her years in a local nursing home, dementia robbing her of her past and so all knowledge of who any of us were, turning a neat-framed meek and mild-mannered genteel old lady into someone unrecognisable, violent and vitriolic.

But while she was alive and well and living amongst us all, Auntie George was someone who was simply always there as I was growing up, an integral part of my extended family landscape. She happily joined in with family occasions big and small, formal and informal, but always quietly hovering in the background, remaining self-contained and small in that inoffensive and unobtrusive way she had.

Embarrassingly in all those years I don’t remember ever having had any deep and meaningful conversations with her about anything that mattered. And in spite of me having had a living great-great-aunt in my life until I was grown up and married with children, I’m ashamed to say I know so very little about her younger life other than the fact, always relayed in hushed reverent tones, that her young man had gone off to war – this would have been the First World War – and had never come back.

I grew up surrounded by family photographs, and even now my mum still has several old boxes of tiny black and white family snapshots she inherited after my grandmother died. A few years ago we were looking through them again and I found a photograph I hadn’t ever seen before, of a tall young woman standing in front of a fancy car parked in front of what looked like a Swiss chalet, with a clear snow-peaked mountain range on the horizon. From her style of dress and bobbed marcel-wave hair and cloche hat, it must have been taken in the 1920s.

Intrigued, I asked mum who it was, and she said it was Auntie George, taken when she was in service with a well-to-do family who travelled a lot, taking some of their staff with them wherever they went. I was amazed to see her standing so tall in her youth, because the elderly Georgie I knew had both a scoliosis and a kyphosis, twisting her spine forward and sideways, giving her a rather crumpled, apologetic stance. And I was stunned to realise she had travelled so extensively in the past, even if only in the employ of others. How could I have known her all those years and yet not have known that?

Thinking about that little photograph and the untold secrets of the life behind it, I look back today and I wonder – did Georgie enjoy her single life? I realise that like so many other young women of her generation she effectively lost the chance of marriage and children when her fiance was killed in the war, but had she got married as intended she would most definitely never have had the chance to see any more of the world beyond her kitchen sink. Did her long-term single status and a chance to earn her own living actually give her more freedom to be herself in the end? That’s something I’ll never know.

One thing I do know, she outlived everyone else in her generation and even her neice and nephews – my grandfather, his elder sister and his younger brother all died before her. When I knew her, admittedly in her later years, she certainly seemed contented enough with her lot. Not left on a shelf but included and embraced and always there in our family snapshots, smiling and a definite part of the proceedings even if on the periphery.

I’m really sorry I didn’t ever think to try to get to know her better as I was growing up, but nevertheless I’m very proud to have had her as my great-great-aunt. I still have a few little sentimental trinkets of hers that I’ve kept close all these years, including a glass hairpin jar with silver screwtop, a cut glass perfume bottle, and a beautiful hand-sewn linen handkerchief sachet, pictured above. Thank you, Auntie George, thinking of you! 🙂

Weekly Prompt: Family Photo

Coffee, Tea, or Milk of Magnesia?

I thought I was going to be totally stumped today by Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday prompt of Coffee, Tea, or Me – flirty phrases are just not me, especially not embarrassingly dated stuff like that.

Then I read John Holton’s SOCS post mentioning about air stewardesses back in the day writing a book of that name and suddenly it all became clear. Yup, in the context of the sexist world of the original ‘trolley dollies’ (such a ghastly, demeaning name) I can see how that phrase might come about.

But to be honest the thing that struck me most about John’s post is the 1970s ad he’s included at the bottom for Milk of Magnesia – because oooh, there’s something I can post about, family medicine cabinet staples from my childhood! I suppose it’s a kind of Stream of Consciousness post once removed – related to Linda’s topic, but indirectly, through reading John’s post.

I so clearly remember the blue bottle of Milk of Magnesia, we were usually given a spoon of that white milky liquid for the solid kind of bellyache caused by constipation – I can even remember the odd taste of it. It was joined in its choice of eye-catching blue glass bottle by a little jar of Vicks Vaporub – its powerfully strong menthol heating sensation when rubbed on your chest and back was used to relieve congestion due to a cold.

My dad used to be bothered with indigestion a lot so there was always a tin of Andrew’s Liver Salts to be had – a spoon of that dissolved in water would fizz up into salty bubbles to be drunk down straight away, usually followed immediately by a huge belch, to settle any stomach discomfort. And I remember dad also carried little white square Rennies tablets in his pocket at all times for his heartburn.

Another duo of products that spring to mind is a tub of Vaseline petroleum jelly and a tin – a proper round tin, not a tube – of thick, pink Germolene antiseptic ointment. Now there’s a smell to stick in your nostrils. In my mind’s eye I link the strong smell of Germolene to the memory of fabric sticking plaster strips, because scrapes and grazes were cleaned with the sting of diluted Dettol, Germolene antiseptic ointment was applied, then a plaster cut to size was stuck over the top and you were sent on your way.

The painkiller I remember most from childhood is Disprin, a dissolvable asprin. If there was such a thing as ibuprofen available way back in the 1960s and 1970s they definitely didn’t make it as far as our medicine cabinet. These were the main generic products I remember, but I was ill a lot as a child so had my prescribed medicines to take too – Phenergan Syrup for my allergies tasted absolutely vile… yuk!

OK, that memory has put me off now, so I’ll just stop there while the going’s still good 🙂