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.’

Letter to Mother

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Mother is 95 years old. Her mind is as sharp as ever as is her tongue. 

‘Your stomach is larger than your father’s when he had his stroke. If you don’t do something soon, you’ll go the same way,’ she says.

She reserves her lectures for me. Everyone else gets a grey-age, charm offensive. She knows the birthdays of our friends’ children and what they’re studying at university. She remembers what people were wearing when she last saw them, sometimes decades previously. Everyone agrees she is unbelievable for her age and that we are lucky she doesn’t have dementia, which is undeniably true.

‘She has the knack of being interested in other people,’ says my Wife, ‘You could learn from that.’

Time, however, is beginning to take its toll. Her hip is chronically painful. A short walk to Sainsbury’s is now a marathon. Wet leaves are a bear trap and the stairs of her maisonette a mountain. Streetlights, dimmed to balance the council budget, make her scared of answering the door. The everyday is becoming filled with fear. 

Recently, she blanked out and I took her to A&E. It was a blip due to low blood pressure and she was home quickly. But it changed everything. Now, we talk about when something ‘bad’ will happen again and wonder how she will deal with it if we are not there. In dreams I am arrested for Dereliction of Duty because I’ve gone on holiday.

‘Pull yourself together. It’s time to plan for the Future. You must talk to her about it,’ says my Wife, who could have organised the D-Day invasion without breaking into a sweat. 

A shiver of fear passes through me. Talking to Mother is a great idea. But doing it is quite another. It will require diplomacy and patience. Frankly, I’m not sure I’m up to it.

I regret not having a sister. She would have known what to say. As self pity and cowardice consume me, I even consider bribing my daughter to talk to Mother for me. 

Then I have a breakthrough idea. I will write a letter. A letter will avoid confusion and save me from a tricky, face to face first conversation.

I write: ‘Perhaps now is good time to live somewhere better suited to your needs? We will support your decision whatever it is. And if you want to move in with us, we would be delighted. We just want you to feel safe, secure and happy.’

‘What’s this,’ she says, shaking the letter at me, a few days later.

‘It’s like the Irish back-stop,’ I say. ‘It may never happen. But we need to talk about the future, don’t you agree?’

‘I’m not going to a care home. I don’t like old people and I don’t need help. Anyway, who cares if I fall down the stairs? I’m ninety four, that’s par for the course at my age.’

The conversation is over. That night, I tell my wife about our chat.

‘OK. Now we know where we stand,’ she says.

I am confused. I saw a dead-end. My Wife has seen something else. Is this female intuition at work? 

‘She’s saying she wants to move in with us, only not yet. Which is fine because we’ll need time to convert your study into her bedroom.’

I reel with shock. In my scenario planning I hadn’t reckoned on losing my man cave.

My Wife sighs: ‘You’ve done well. Your letter did the trick.’