September 17, 2010: The Strawberry Tea

By Duncan McLaren, Friday 17 September 2010

Alphabet A A sporting challenge at the annual summer tea reminds writer Duncan McLaren of his mother, Mabel's badminton prowess in her prime
Mabel at teatimeMabel at teatime

Something happened this summer, a little thing that I hardly noticed at the time but which I keep returning to.

It was the summer’s day when the care home serves tea in a marquee on the front lawn to residents, their relatives and anyone else who chooses to brave the social event of the season.

As well as a local pipe band and strawberry tarts, there was a sports challenge this year, which Mabel was roped into. So suddenly there we were: Mabel in her wheelchair representing the downstairs rooms at the care home, and me standing supportively behind her.

"OK, Mabel, are you ready?" asked a carer. All Mum was required to do was roll a plastic ball along a plastic mat a few feet in the direction of a set of coloured skittles, the idea being to knock them down. Her first effort was so feeble that I think she would have been given another go even if the rules didn’t allow for such.

"Take your time, Mabel," said the carer.

"Just relax, Mum," said I.

Unfortunately, the second throw was just as lamentable as the first, and I felt my spirits sink. But before I could say anything to lighten Mum’s load, the something special happened. Unusually for her, Mabel was wearing a cap. It's a baseball cap that must have been a gift from my brother or me, because it says 'Warhol' on it, and I don't think that Mabel was ever aware of who Andy Warhol was. Anyway, Mum put her hand up to the brim and gave it a little tug while at the same time bowing her head for a second. It was the sort of gesture that a professional golfer such as Gary Player used to employ when they’d successfully holed a long putt and were acknowledging the applause of the crowd. Only on this occasion Mum was making the gesture into an embarrassed silence, and the applause only started when Mabel touched her cap. Yes, people were smiling and clapping. They were aware that Mabel, in spite of her dementia, was making a joke of her lack of sporting prowess, that, indeed, she was transcending it.

Mabel was a keen games player when she was young. And I know from reading her diary that she won a badminton tournament in 1955, when she’d not long turned thirty. She beat someone called Ray in the final, and when a week later she collected 'the first cup I’ve ever won', she wrote that 'I filled it with gin and orange. Hubba hubba.' The original diary entry was made in pencil but at some stage she’s gone over the last two words in ink.

Today I’m driving in the car with both my parents. Mum is sitting beside me and Dad is in the back, as per usual.

"We’ve been this way before," I suggest.

"That’s right, that’s right, that’s dynamite," Mum replies, surprising me with what might be the only Glam Rock reference in her repertoire.

I tell them about the diary entries for spring of 1955 and I ask Mum who Ray was.

"I don’t know," she says.

"Rae Neish, Mabel," says Ian. He adds for my benefit: "Spelt R.A.E after the loch. All of a Blairgowrie solicitor’s children were named after local beauty spots. But it didn’t stop Rae marrying a pig farmer called Neish out at Carsie."

There is no touching my father when it comes to local knowledge.

"Rae was a very good player. I couldn’t beat her," says Mabel.

"Sorry to disagree, Mum," I say. "But I have written evidence from your own hand that in April 1955, just two weeks after the badminton club held a dance which was attended by no less than eighty couples, you beat Rae Neish in the final of the Strathmore badminton ladies singles competition."

“I just remember her being light on her feet.”

"She was a hefty lass," Dad suggests.

"Quick," says Mum.

"But no match for you on the day," I conclude.

I ask Dad if he helped Mum drink the gin-and-orange from her trophy. He says not, but I’m not sure I believe him either! Because just a few days after the 'hubba, hubba' entry, Mabel writes: 'Ian and I went to Lintrathen in the afternoon, had a picnic and played gramophone records'.

It’s no coincidence that Loch Lintrathen is where I’ve brought us today. We are now parked alongside the expanse of shining water. But we’re not drinking gin and orange. It’s better than that. We’re sharing a flask of home-made tea that Dad’s provided.

Neither of my parents can remember the1955 picnic as such, though Ian suggests that Mabel and he would have sat together on a travelling rug if it was warm. He tells me that his sister had a wind-up gramophone player at the time, and on fine afternoons they used to borrow it and a few of the Victorian records from Joan’s collection.

I ask Dad if he can remember any of the actual songs that they played on the wind-up. After a few seconds, his voice pipes up from the back seat:

"I stand in a land of roses, but I dream of a land of snow,

Where you and I were happy in the years of long ago."

Often when Dad sings, Mabel joins in. But on this occasion she doesn’t appear to be listening. Rather she’s trying to get rid of the last of her tea through what she doesn’t realise is a closed window. I gently intercept Mum’s movement at the same time as I continue to listen to my father’s voice:

"Nightingales in the branches, stars in the magic skies,

But I only hear you singing, I only see your eyes."

It’s tough on Dad when, as now, Mum doesn’t make the connection between the past and the present. Though his love for her has long been unconditional, he is afraid that he is losing Mabel.

As for me, I look on the bright side. My afternoon comes together as we’re driving back towards the care home, with the image of Mum tipping her cap down through the years to Rae Neish. The woman who Mabel played badminton with – not really against - when they were both in the prime of their lives.

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