MY mother is now in a care home. This is very much not what she had had planned. At the age of 92 she had decided not to have her flu jab this winter; her plan was to catch flu, which would progress to pneumonia and then end neatly in her demise. Instead she succumbed to sepsis and was rushed, blue lights flashing, to her nearest hospital. This happened, unluckily for her as it turned out, to be a super efficient, newly built NHS establishment where, with excellent care, she recovered. A month’s respite care, in a home we had to choose by default, because it was Christmas and there was nowhere else, made us all realise, even her, that this was where she would have to be for the rest of her life. She was and still is, furious.
She doesn’t like having lunch at midday when she used to sit down with the paper, some pâté and salad, at one o’clock. She doesn’t like to have a light supper at 6pm, when she used to draw her chair up to a substantial plateful of food at 7.30pm. Her breakfast, served very early by anyone’s standards, consists, she says, of flabby toast, milky tea and cold porridge.
We’ve pointed out that now she’s fit again she could go down to breakfast in the warm and welcoming dining room and have crisp toast, hot porridge and tea to her taste, but so far she hasn’t quite got round to that. She dislikes the fact that she’s ‘always eating’. She belongs to the old school where eating between meals, unless it was afternoon tea with crumpets and cake, wasn’t done. Or rather, that the things you ate between meals, snacks, barely existed.
All this is because of her own independence. Until ten days before Christmas she was still capable of cooking a meal, and often did. My husband was soundly ticked off when he rang one evening as she was just about to decant the lamb shank she’d been braising in her slow cooker. “It’s overcooked as it is,” she said. “This thing’s on the blink,” a phrase she was beginning to use more and more frequently as even the simplest technology began to defeat her.
So there she sits, with the look of an overfed bird of prey chained by a leg to keep her from flying back to her natural habitat, in her case her kitchen. “This place is a zoo,” she says bitterly, “they just keep feeding us.” I point out that lunch smells delicious, and that if it is a zoo the keepers are definitely doing their level best to provide the sort of food the animals are used to, and in her case this was excellent, home-made and varied.
She refuses to be mollified, but cheers up when we get in to the lift and find a pewter-coloured whippet called Nigel and his owner. “I’d forgotten it was Sunday. Dogs are allowed in on Sundays. Probably to eat up the leftovers.” Nigel’s owner and I exchange smiles, in that insufferably smug way of those who have only come to visit. We will soon be free. We can go home to our kitchens and prepare whatever we like, to eat whenever we like. I move her chair to her place at her table, with her name on a card. On the side plate is a red foil wrapped chocolate heart, and the waitress comes up with some champagne, which is carefully poured into the correct glass.
My mother is joined by her dining companion, a delightful and interesting man. “What’s all this about?” she demands, rather gracelessly, I thought, pointing to the chocolate and champagne. “It’s St Valentine’s Day,” he explains kindly. I look round the dining room – no one is under about 89, all seem totally unmoved by romance. The dining companion tells us that all the festivals are observed, the Burns lunch was very popular, pancakes were on the menu on Shrove Tuesday, Christmas had been terrific.
On the way back to Somerset we stopped at my mother’s empty cottage. In the kitchen, by the stove, was the jug which held her wooden spoons, all worn down to the quick into idiosyncratic shapes. I remembered the porridge spoon when it was in its prime, from school mornings when the oatmeal, left on the back of the Aga overnight, was stirred up with extra milk and brown sugar. There was the tall paddle that had kept the marmalade from burning, and the tiny spoon which had started out much fatter, used for what I couldn’t remember – yes, making mayonnaise once olive oil had reached an availability and price we could afford. Our family’s culinary history.
I pulled open the drawers of the freezer and found, stacked in boxes and neatly labelled in wax crayon, stewed fruit for breakfast, beef mince for shepherd’s pie, “add garlic” she had written tersely on the lid, another said “remains of Simone’s venison cass.,” and finally “parsnip and curry soup,” her favourite. I slammed the drawers back in place, relocked the back door, and we drove home.
I rang her when we were back. “How was your lunch,” I asked. “Not bad,” she said, grudgingly. “I had the tian of Mediterranean vegetables and wilted spinach. Told them it needed more garlic. The blackcurrant sponge was good, really. A bit too sweet.” I heaved a sigh of relief – she’d be fine once she’d had a word with the kitchen. A cook is rarely bored for long, even in captivity. I wondered how the other inmates were going to cope with all that added garlic.