Leonardo Da Vinci

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Somewhere in the world there’s always a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition open, or about to open. Which means someone, somewhere is always blathering on about Da Vinci’s genius for designing scuba gear centuries before it became a reality.

Mother is listening to someone doing exactly this and she is not impressed. Mother values domestic appliances more highly than scuba gear.

‘If he was that smart he’d have invented the electric kettle or the hot water bottle,’ she says.

If the British Museum asked Mother to curate an exhibition, scuba gear wouldn’t make her long list. Her prize exhibit would be the electric kettle followed by the hot water bottle and she would campaign for their inventors to be canonized because they deliver two quotidian essentials to old people – tea and warmth. A bed and the BBC, preferably free, would come third and fourth in her League of Useful Things for Old Age.

Hot water bottles are important because they are an antidote to the cold she constantly feels despite the fact her central heating is always full on. During the winter months, which is every month except July, she wears a faded brown flannel dressing gown over her clothes. She claims to sleep in her raincoat and hugs a hot water bottle to her chest whenever we go round to make sure we get the point.

‘It’s a Siberian gulag in here,’ she says. ‘I don’t think the boiler works properly. Can you get someone to fix it?’

There’s nothing wrong with the boiler. The pressure is fine; its lights are green and steady. But I have set up an account with a direct debit with the local plumber so she can call him round whenever she thinks it’s on the blink.

My Son, who is thinking of joining Extinction Rebellion, finds this difficult. He asks me if she understands how many polar bears she is killing with her selfish desire to avoid hypothermia and the gallons of tea she brews everyday. He suggests I tell her to wear more clothes and install a smart meter instead of whining about the boiler.

‘You can’t smart meter a person, darling,’ my Wife says, only half listening.

‘If she put on more clothes, she’d never be able to stand up,’ says my Daughter. ‘She’s a bag of bones as it is.’   

‘Is she on a renewable energy tariff?’ says my Son, suspiciously.

‘Of course,’ I say, faintly flushing.  I am lying. She isn’t though he has asked me several times to switch her to a renewable tariff.

The next morning I change her utility contract to a renewable tariff. Unfortunately, the changeover will take a month. I wonder if my Son will discover my lie before the contract changes?  I am scared he that might phone the nearest branch of Extinction Rebellion and organize an occupation of Mother’s flat, if he does.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ says wife. ‘He can’t find his shoes and socks most mornings. How is he going to find out what energy contract your mother has? Let alone organize an occupation?’

‘She brings her bills here for me,’ I remind her. ‘He could see them then.’

‘You’ll just have to live with the risk. But let’s steer clear of any David Attenborough programmes for awhile in case it reminds him.’

I am more worried about Mother scalding herself than her flat’s contribution to climate change. Every time she makes a cup of tea her hand trembles like a gambler shaking dice. Her wrists are frail and she spills tea from her cup as she walks. Everytime I see her making tea I wait for an accident to happen. Does she realize that her kettle is a threat as well as a favoured appliance?

Mother turns off the radio and goes to fill the kettle.

‘Do you need a hand with that?’ I ask.

‘No. I may not be Leonardo Da Vinci but I am perfectly capable of making myself a cup of tea,’ she barks.

The Tardis

Mother is like Dr Who. She is a Time Lord and has a Tardis, which she uses frequently to travel back to the past. Like Dr Who, she doesn’t like to travel alone, so she usually recruits fellow travellers from friends and family. 

Sometimes, she press gangs complete strangers on board like a nonagenarian pirate.  These press gangings happen without warning, though if I hear her asking someone a question such as ‘Everything is so expensive now, don’t you think?’, I know a kidnap attempt is imminent.

At moments like these I have to choose to flee or risk her wrath by intervening to save the potential victim.  She is most likely to attempt a kidnap at the chemist, Sainsbury’s, the bus stop or the doctor’s waiting room. But she’s also ruthless with people who sit next to her. If they’re stationery for more than two minutes, they’re fair game.

‘She hasn’t had her pills yet,’ I say, hoping the victim will take my weak joke as a chance to escape.

‘My son’s embarrassed by me,’ she says, fixing the victim like Medusa. ‘Has been since the 70s. Do you treat your Mother the same way?’ 

Each time I intervene, I end up agreeing she has every right to speak to whom she pleases about whatever she wants, wherever she wants to. It is, after all, a free country.  She tells me it is high time that I loosen up.  

The children are willing and frequent flyers in her Tardis. In fact, they have collected so many memory miles they have reached platinum card status, which gives them privileges to go where others are not invited. They return, like big game hunters, with trophies. They compete  to come back with a memory or a tale which I don’t know.

‘Did you know Granny modelled with Roger Moore?’

‘Yes, seen the photos.’

‘Did you know Granny’s mother was imprisoned for stealing from a blind woman in the war?’.

‘Standards were different then. So, let’s keep that under our hats.’

‘What about the American she was engaged to, after the war? If she hadn’t dumped him, none of us would be alive,’ says my Daughter. This is news to me.

‘Even if she had married him, 25% of our DNA would still exist, just elsewhere. It could be worse,’ says my Son, combining dubious biology and maths.

My imagination becomes a tumble dryer. Why is Mother reminiscing about an old fiancé? Does she regret marrying my father?

After all, she has taken me back through time to Denham Studios, where she worked on wartime films. I have been in the Tardis to a 1930’s Peabody Estate in Covent Garden, where she lived with eight siblings, trapped between a weak father and an alcoholic mother. Why has she never trusted me with this story?

I speculate that most places the Tardis goes are sepia-tinted and sweet. But sometimes it crash lands into a bog of remorse or returns to scenes of unresolved dilemmas, which should be forgotten, but can’t be. Perhaps the American fiancé is one of these?

‘It doesn’t matter,’ says my Wife. ‘This is oral family history in the making. Embrace it.’

‘So, Granny is like Homer and she’s recounting her Odyssey?’ says my Daughter.  

‘Exactly,’ I respond. ‘One day, I plan to do the same with your children.’

‘Only your story will be more Homer Simpson than Ulysses,’ says my Son. 

Bored Meeting

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Mother, age 95, is going to move in with us. It’s a question of when, not if, according to my wife. I am not as sure as she is. Mother actually hasn’t said she wants to move in.  

But my Wife hasn’t made a mistake this decade, so I’m following her instruction to ‘get on with the planning’.  I create a folder on the Mac called ‘Moving Mum’ and start the serious work of researching. First, I canvas friends.

‘Don’t do it,’ says one. ‘Living with my grandmother ruined my teenage years. Think of the children.’

‘Think of your marriage,’ says another.

A third talks of a scheme, which would move Mother ‘offshore’ allowing her to avoid tax and us any form of traditional family responsibility. But, as it involves moving to India, I’m certain it’s a non-starter from Mother’s perspective.

At the end of a week’s research, I’ve made a word cloud from the feedback: costly, challenging, unsettling, disruptive, difficult and dilemma.  But the most popular word is ‘Umm’. This comes from friends either dumbfounded by the concept of inter-generational living or too polite to say they think we’re nuts. Either way, ‘umm’ is a useful word only when meditating.

Some things are clearer, though. Mother has too much money to qualify for much help from the State and too little to afford private care or assisted living for long. Moving in with us looks like her and our only realistic financial option right now.

I want to share my research findings with the Family. So, I call a Family Board Meeting which are usually reserved for major decisions like ‘Where to go on Holiday?’ or ‘Should we re-subscribe to Netflix, again?’

‘I want all of you to buy into this,’ I say earnestly. ‘Nobody leaves this table feeling disenfranchised. All for one and one for all is the family motto, after all.’

Their sighs suggest I’m losing them already.

‘We’re going to start an experiment in inter-generational living. Granny is moving in. We just don’t know when. This is what Donald Rumsfeld would call a known unknown. ‘

‘Who is Donald Rumsfeld?’ asks my Daughter. 

My Wife lowers her eyes and shakes her head. I am not sure which she despairs of more, my analogy or her daughter’s political ignorance. I re-explain the situation.

‘I’m abroad next year,’ says my Daughter, a language undergraduate. ‘So, I’m not bothered. But morally, this is the right thing to do. As long as she doesn’t get my bedroom, of course.’

‘Granny watches TV all day. What if I want to play Fortnite and she wants to watch one of her old movies on London Live?’ asks my Son.

He’s put his finger on one of the pinch points in the plan: who controls the TV. A shiver of uncertainty runs through the room.   

‘She must have her own TV,’ says my Wife, definitively. ‘Possibly, two. In her bedroom and downstairs.’

Immediately, everyone chills.

‘I’m OK with the plan, then,’ says my Son. ‘But I’m worried about the Cat. She’s always prodding him with her stick. He may object, especially if he hasn’t been consulted.’

Son is pro animal rights, localism and participative democracy. He may be serious or he may be winding me up. Either way, this is not the time to get distracted by a complex philosophical and political issue, so I press on.

‘Great. That’s the principle sorted. Now, let me take you through the detail.’

‘Detail? Yawn! Board Meeting Not Bored Meeting, Dad. You and Mum are here to sort the details out. Come back to us if you hit a strategic impasse,’ says my Daughter.

As she leaves, the Cat comes in.

‘Let me handle this,’ says my Son. ‘I’ll explain to him that while he didn’t get a formal vote, his views were fully considered. He trusts me. He’ll be fine with it, eventually.’