August 6, 2010: "Look who's here to see you!"

By Duncan McLaren, Friday 6 August 2010

Alphabet A Author Duncan McLaren documents his relationship with his mother, Mabel, who is now in a care home, in this tender and compelling online diary
Mabel and DuncanMabel and Duncan

Mum doesn’t get many visitors these days, apart from Dad, Kate and me. But she’s got some today. Five of the White family have arrived from the town where the McLaren family lived opposite them on Townhill Road for seven years in the Sixties. Mabel’s Tupperware and Crimpelene years, I’d characterise them.

I’d warned the home that there would be a party of nine of us, including Mabel, and they have risen to the challenge. That is, we’ve been booked into the upstairs lounge and promised a tea trolley loaded with pancakes.

I did warn the Whites too. I warned them that Mabel might not have a clue who they were, even though every time Mabel looked out of the front window for all those years, she could see the Whites, or at least their semi-detached house. And so it proves, judging by her vague reaction to each of the faces that approach her in turn. But she is pleased to see them anyway, because it gives her an audience for today’s obsession, which happens to be teeth. Mabel tells us of the day that she got all her teeth removed.

'"Ping, ping, ping" they went, as they were taken out by McPherson and thrown into a tin,' says Mabel, with every appearance of joy.

I ask Mum what the dentist did with the teeth. 'Sold them, I expect,' she says, which gets a laugh.

Being familiar with her diaries back to 1941, I’m able to tell everyone that Mabel got all her teeth removed in two sessions when she was sweet16.

Cue Mum: '"Ping, ping, ping", they went, as McPherson threw them over his shoulder into a bucket.'

Eventually, Kate who has got some heavy-duty dental work coming up, begs Mabel to change the subject. So Mum tries her best.

'When my husband was alive...' she begins.

Dad can’t be sure where she’s going with this, but he stops her there in any case. 'I may not be in the best of health, Mabel, but I like to think I’m still in the land of the living,' he says, provoking a smile of recognition from Mum.

By this time, Jean White, Mabel’s close friend from Townhill Road days, has come up to Mabel’s side and is holding her hand. Our former neighbour’s face is shining with a goodwill that Mabel is able to detect just as surely as I can. Jean doesn’t get very far with her chosen topic of conversation but then settles down on the edge of the table to listen to Mabel burbling away about McPherson, a man whose name I hadn’t even heard mentioned by Mum until he came into his own today.

'Well, I’d better not keep you,' Mabel says, after not getting much response for a while. It’s a kind of nervous verbal tic this. And I’ve learned that all I need do to deal with it is say something that distracts her attention from any fleeting sensation of self-consciousness.

'We’ll stay a bit longer if you don’t mind, Mum. I’m just going to see if Andrew wants another scone. He looks hungry like the wolf to me. Perhaps you would like another one as well?'

'No, I’m watching my figure,' says Mabel, her hand sliding out towards the plateful of buttered pancakes.

Two of the younger generation of Whites are twins. Mabel’s diary for 1967 records the happy day they were born. Today they are in their early forties, but still seem innocent. I’m glad they’ve made the effort to come here. By that, I mean not just because they’ve had to travel a hundred miles, but because they’ve had to cross the threshold of a care home. I intend to make it easier for them to do so again in the future, whether it’s this care home or another. Accordingly, I ask if they want to come with me to Mabel’s room where we can arrange the bunch of flowers they’ve brought. To get to the room we have to negotiate another resident’s wheelchair, which is blocking the corridor. Rona seems to have got most of a fruit salad stuck between her back and the back of her wheelchair, so we spend a couple of minutes sorting that out with her permission and gratitude.

Inside Mabel’s room, a picture of my brother and me wearing the ties of Townhill Primary makes the twins feel at home. They take in the interior, awash with family photographs, colourful paintings and sunshine. There is nothing to be afraid of here. It’s where Mabel lives these days. Once I feel the room has communicated this to its oh-so-welcome visitors, we go back upstairs.

By the time the whole visit comes to an end, Mabel has orientated herself a little. In between saying goodbye to her friends, she spontaneously comes up with the name of the town we used to live in. 'Memories...', she tells us, wistfully. 'It’s good to talk about old times,' she adds.

Well, as far as I know we haven’t talked about old times. But with the aid of her photo album I’ll give that a go when I see her on Friday.

Not alone yet, Mum. You’re not alone again with old McPherson yet.

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