Catch Me If You Can …

“You need something to look forward to,” declared my best friend at the beginning of January, assessing my black eye. “Come and spend some time with me in Florida.” I looked out at the snow-covered landscape and we sat down there and then and booked me a flight. The end of April seemed a long way off in the future.

Then, my eldest granddaughter proposed a trip to our holiday home on the north coast of Brittany, with her children and my daughter. Granddaughters Two and Three said they would also like to join us – sadly, Granddaughter Three couldn’t get time off work, but the rest of us were able to set off on 2 April, a jolly convoy of females plus my two great-grandsons. My son-in-law was able to follow a week later, so we have had a very full little house, but there was room for everyone, and no problems with the sleeping arrangements.

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IMG_0836.JPGI am still in awe that with four generations in such a small space, we had such a harmonious time; we have several alpha types in our midst (I won’t say bossy boots) yet all functioned perfectly as a team and if there were any disagreements,I wasn’t aware of them – apart from the two-year-old’s occasional short-lived tantrums, which are to be expected at that age. He was startled out of one of them when he flung himself on his face on the beach – nose and mouth filled with sand came as an unpleasant surprise!

The death of my mother in February and the subsequent chasing around organising so many things have left me in a kind of zombie state: I have been running on adrenaline for so long, and suddenly all the tiredness and exhaustion that I had been defying has crashed the barriers and overwhelmed me. I really needed that break.

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sunrise …

… sunsetIMG_0817

We returned from springtime in Brittany in full bloom, with two weeks of sunshine, sea and sand (incredibly, no rain!) to a cold wet Switzerland, and today it’s actually snowing. Well, admittedly, we are at an elevation of 500 m above sea level, but snow …

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And my friend reports from Florida that they’re having a heatwave …

I’m wondering if I simply shouldn’t have just stayed in Brittany!

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Elsie Williams, 9 May 1916 – 16 February 2017

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Taken just before her hundredth birthday, May 2016

When the expected happens unexpectedly, it still comes as a shock. Watching my mother dwindle, physically and mentally, over the last year has been painful, even distressing at times, and especially since she was obliged to give up her last shred of independence and move into a care home. Loss of mobility and no sense of purpose were hard to bear for a woman who spent her life looking after others. Her indomitable spirit kept her going, even as her body shrank and her mind sometimes became confused, and she always had a smile and a song on her lips. She was loved by the staff and residents in her new abode, but never really felt at home there and always longed to be back in her own four walls, in the house she had lived in since 1938. Alas, that wasn’t possible.

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1 February 2017

It was a great joy for her to be able to hold her newest great-great-grandchild in her arms, give her a cuddle and sing to her at the beginning of February, when her great-granddaughter visited with two of her brood. We knew that she was fading fast, and are so grateful for this meeting and the pleasure it gave her.

It was a comfort for us who were with her towards the end that the hospital Chaplain was able to come and pray with her and us and bless her. She lingered a little longer, but finally had no more strength to fight and she died just after 7.30 am on Thursday, 16 February 2017, painlessly and peacefully. She was an amazing lady, who touched many lives and inspired many people. Tributes are pouring in, and I will eventually get around to thanking everyone, but for the moment we are trying to get used to her absence, to the ache left by her departure from her earthly life, and the huge gap that this tiny woman has left in our lives.

Verses 22-23 in chapter 5 of St Paul’s letter to the Galatians list the fruits of the Spirit:
“…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control …”
All of these were manifest in the lady I was privileged and blessed to call my mother.

The quote that she wanted in her memorial is this:

“There is a land of the living
and a land of the dead
and the bridge is love,
the only survival,
the only meaning.“

 Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Long Dark Twilight Of The Soul Without A Signal

img_0688Alone in its dark little cupboard, with ne’er a bang nor a whimper, suddenly it died. I was checking out possible forefathers on ancestry.com at the time, so perhaps it gave up the ghost in sympathy. I don’t know, but I’m not aware of any obvious reason why all at once the message “YOU ARE NOT CONNECTED TO THE INTERNET” should flash up onto my screen. Whatever the cause, my router was no longer responsive.

I went through the usual routine of switching off and on again, disconnecting and reconnecting all the cables and finally giving it a thump, but all my CPR was in vain. I called the telephone helpline and a very polite gentleman called Trevor with a Caribbean accent took me through a catalogue of actions which all availed nought.

“I am very sorry ma’am,” he finally admitted, “but I can’t find an online solution. I’ll arrange for an engineer to call and see what the problem is. Goodbye, ma’am.” This all happened Tuesday evening, last week, around 9 pm. The engineer (have you noticed? They are no longer technicians, all engineers) will call sometime on Monday morning – or maybe Monday afternoon. My helpline guru warned me that if the problem was not a technical one, I would have to pay a large fee, but that is not an issue: I need wifi! It’s scary how desperately I need wifi. But – wait until MONDAY??? Six days???

“Very sorry ma’am. I wish you a very good evening, ma’am.”

Oh yes. If I hadn’t already noticed, this was evidence that I’m back in Bllghty! Just for a visit, as my mother’s condition has been deteriorating and I need to be on hand. Of course, I have spent most of the past year back home in Switzerland, and have quickly become accustomed once more to systems that work. If something goes wrong, an expert appears on my doorstep as soon as summoned, like a genie from a bottle, and fixes it. Swiss call-out charges are high, but prompt service is worth paying for.  I had forgotten that “EFF–I-Ci-EN-CY” is no longer a current term in the English language. Is “Blighty” derived from “Blight”?

Meanwhile, this huge jolt makes me very much aware of how much I need my broadband. No Internet. Not only no ancestry.com and no Google allowing me to look things up or catch up on current events, but also no e-mails, no social media, no Skype or FaceTime, no WhatsApp, no Siri: oh dear, how isolated I feel! How can I communicate with people?

Er, ahem! Look, there’s the phone! Oh yes! Good old-fashioned phone! I have both a landline and an iPhone, so surely I’m not so cut off from civilisation. Ah, but most of the people I want to talk to are abroad and if I use the phone for international calls, it’s going to be expensive. Can I claim compensation from the phone company for these wifi-less days, the inconvenience and the extra costs incurred due to having to use the landline?

Of course, the scariest thing about all this is the realisation that I have become so dependent on wifi. Not so many years ago, whenever I was in England, I was quite happy to take a five-minute walk once a week to the public library and use their PC for an hour. That was more than sufficient, and occasionally they would print stuff out for me, too. Now I’m running around like a headless chicken with my iPad, looking for a hot-spot so that I can download my e-mails, many of which will be junk. But I need to see them, need to know who is trying to reach me, and reply instantly. Don’t I?

What a long way we have come from my childhood and youth, when hardly anyone I knew had a phone, and we wrote letters, real letters that we took to the pillar box, to be delivered the same day if the addressee was local, or by the next day if further afield. We ordered our lives, made plans in advance, scheduled our activities, arranged meeting places and times, and it all seemed to work smoothly. The whole pace of life was more leisurely and predictable. Did our hearts beat more slowly? Were there really more hours in the day, more days in the week, more weeks in the year? Is the world really more chaotic nowadays? Or is that simply a common illusion as we grow older?

A voice-mail message from Trevor on Friday advised me that the problem was outside my home, and the ingenious were going to fix it. (Ingenious? Engineers in Caribbean pronunciation, I realised as I listened to the message for the third time. I like that, and will henceforth adopt that pronunciation.) So I didn’t have to hang around all day waiting for the ingenious to call. Or the genies to leave their bottle, come to that.

When I still had no signal by last Tuesday, a week after it disappeared, I called the helpline once more. A soft American voice this time, a man called Lee.  He put me through to the technical helpdesk – a competent-sounding lady who identified herself as Chanu, with a pretty Madame Butterfly accent and I felt very guilty at having constantly to ask her to repeat herself. She informed me that the external fault had been rectified and it was therefore, after all, my hub that was defective. She generously offered to send me a new one, free of charge. It would come by post and should be here by the end of the week.

Does the fact that I am on first-name terms with half the helpline staff make it any easier to bear? Am I supposed to think that, because we are now good pals, they are pulling out all the stops  to get me reconnected? I’m not that naïve.  One thing is in their favour, though: none of them appear to be European, so even with Brexit their jobs appear safe. And maybe they will eventually all learn to speak English intelligibly.

My eldest granddaughter arrived with two of her brood of four on Tuesday evening. I lamented the loss of the wifi to her, and she looked at my router. No power. She pressed the button on the side, and hey presto! Everything worked!

The new router arrived on Wednesday afternoon.

Of Tin-Openers, Potato-Peelers And Weird Exotic Finds

Kitchen drawers fascinate me. No, not the neat and tidy ones of OCD owners, but those that are used as repositories by absent-minded people who aren’t quite sure what this is, or where it really belongs, but the kitchen drawer is handy. Over the years and decades, if nobody interferes with its evolution, a wonderful gallimaufry accumulates in a relatively small space. Gadgets, gizmos and widgets reside untouched and unused as their owners forget their original purpose, or the appliance to which they belonged dies and is thrown away. You can find cutters for turning potatoes or carrots into intricate chains, bought at long-forgotten domestic exhibitions,  or seals for vacuum cleaners that were disposed of back in 1995. Matchboxes with unidentified contents – seeds or gooey black stuff – mingle with parts of something that broke and was going to be repaired.

One of my granddaughters was puzzled a few years ago that she couldn’t find a potato-peeler in Great-Granny’s kitchen. She was looking in the wrong drawer. That is another aspect of kitchen drawers that fascinates me: the logic by which instruments and utensils are allocated to specific places. It may seem blatantly obvious to you that a potato-peeler should go in with the kitchen knives, but to my mother it belonged with the tin-opener.

Also, gadgets develop and change in appearance as they evolve over the years. Once my granddaughter had located the seven and a half potato-peelers in among the tin-openers, there was only one that she recognised as the object of her search (the orange one in this photo).

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Evolution of the potato-peeler – note the blade tied onto a clothes-peg! Wartime make-do and mend!

She also failed to identify two of the tin-openers as such, and was totally perplexed by the perforated metal discs attached to metal spikes with a ring handle. I have fond memories of using these as a child, when I was allowed to help with small tasks in preparing meals. Do you know what they were for? Does anyone still use them for that purpose? (If you are also perplexed, read on – I will explain.)

In a friend’s kitchen drawer, I came across this strange implement:

orange-peelerShe demonstrated how practical it is, and claimed that even though hers must be well over thirty years old, you can still get them.  She produced the second – newer one – as proof. We googled the item, and she was right, you can still buy them online for under £10 each.

Still wondering about these gadgets? Well, this picture might help with my friend’s treasure.

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It has a sharp lip in the middle of the blade that cuts a long narrow slice out of the equator of an orange. You can then insert the looped metal end between the peel and the flesh, and finally scrape off any pith with the edge of the blade.

As for the perforated discs, in my childhood we used them to beat egg whites into a stiff snow. The advantage over a normal balloon whisk was that, in the days when eggs were rationed, you could put a single egg white into a glass beaker and beat it quite easily by pumping the handle up and down. I have a modern gadget for frothing milk for my latte macchiato that works on the same principle. And the reward for the hard work was the fun of holding the beaker of stiff egg-white upside down at the end, to prove that the job was done!

 

 

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas …

I’m getting accustomed to strange Christmases. This year is no exception. With my mother now in a nursing home, where they will be fed a traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, given crackers and paper hats, presents from Santa’s own hand followed by the Queen’s speech on TV and a snooze, I am leaving her to it and sneaking off for celebrations with my Swiss family. This will be the first Christmas I have spent with my own children/grandchildren in Switzerland for about 10 years, and it’s sweetened this year by the fact that we have a new baby to cuddle, my fourth great-grandchild. How could I miss that opportunity? Christmas is so much more fun when there are children around, and on Christmas Day they will be aged eight, five, twenty-one months, and three weeks.

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Of course I’m feeling selfish and guilty about abandoning my mother. It is probably her last Christmas, as she is now aged a hundred and a half. But I know she’s in good hands, and I have been here in England for two weeks beforehand, visiting her frequently, and that has cheered her up. We’ve had some chuckles and reminisced, I’ve passed on all the news and have been pleasantly surprised to find that she has taken it all in and remembered what I’ve told her. We have even been able to FaceTime my daughter and granddaughter, so that Great-Granny could see and speak to her great-great-grandchildren and admire the newest little girl.

My mother is a shadow of the person she was, but sadly that was to be expected. She is in no pain, is lucid and alert much of the time, and frustrated at the loss of her independence though she has resigned herself to the situation, and appreciates the patience and kindness of the staff who look after her. They will do their best to give their residents a merry Christmas, and I know my mother will be happy to join in any carol singing. She still knows all the 12 Days of Christmas, much to everyone’s amazement.

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“Five go-old rings …”

See how I’m justifying my decision? I really and truly hope and trust that she will spend a happy Christmas in the beautifully decorated Home among a cheerful bunch of her contemporaries and their dedicated carers.

And I shall swallow my pangs of conscience with my turkey and Christmas pudding (home-made and kindly donated by a good friend here).

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!

She knows how to make a dramatic entrance. Exactly a week after the stork was due, my newest little great-granddaughter finally decided the time was ripe. She didn’t want to be a Saturday’s child (“works hard for its living”) but instead, aware that “the child that is born on the Sabbath Day is bonny and blithe, and good and gay” she delayed until four minutes after midnight before slipping into the world on the second Sunday in Advent, the day we light the candle for Peace.

Joline is here. My granddaughter’s children all have unusual names, but my instant reaction was, “What, Dolly Parton?” No, I am assured that the initial ‘J’ is pronounced as in French, like ‘jolie’ which is some relief. Because she is, of course, très jolie, beautiful. Like all my children (grandchildren, great-grandchildren).

I had just stepped out of a nice warm bath, all relaxed and ready to slide under my cosy duvet, when I received the message that my granddaughter had left for the hospital. It was just after ten pm. Knowing that my granddaughter is one of those truly fortunate women who give birth relatively easily, I decided to wait a couple of hours for further news. And yes, she didn’t disappoint: just as I was giving up and finally going to bed, a text message popped up announcing that Joline had arrived, weighing in at 3840 g, which is something over 8 lbs.

Few children get such a hearty welcome as this little mite. As is usual in Switzerland, her Daddy was present at the birth. Since it was the weekend, not only my daughter (Joline’s Nana) had gone to babysit the other children, but my son-in-law (their grandfather) was also there. So that was the reception committee when she arrived home from the hospital. And then such delight when her siblings woke up and rushed to cuddle their new little sister, not to mention that both her aunts and her paternal grandparents then turned up. I’d be there, too, if it wasn’t quite so far – my home is 140 km away, so I shall have to wait a while before I can visit – but hallelujah! We have the ability to share photos instantly nowadays, so here she is, just a few hours old:joline-04-12-2016

What a wonderful gift for Advent!

Home …

My mother didn’t want to go into an old folks’ home. I didn’t want to have to put her into one, either. But the decision was taken out of our hands by events, and she has now been in a nursing home for almost five months whilst I have had to return to Switzerland. Yes, I can pop back to England now and then for a week or so to check up on her, but those visits result mostly in frustration and a sense of impotence, because even the best “Home” isn’t capable of providing the individual personal care and attention she was receiving in her own home. But she needs nursing and I am no longer able to continue looking after her.

img_0320The staff are caring and kind, but my mother is dwindling. A tiny, frail little figure, no longer the matriarch she was even on her hundredth birthday. And yet, she is still here, still battling on, despite her loss of independence and sense of purpose, despite the fact that she now gets confused and muddled; unable to see properly because of her macular degeneration and frequently unable to hear what is being said because either her hearing aids have been mislaid or there is simply too much background noise; and unable even to stand on her own two feet any more. She hates the hoist that has become necessary whenever she needs to be moved, she hates having to ask for assistance for even the simplest task. Yet she is still here.

The wise, wonderful, witty, kind, considerate and lovable person she was is now a treasured memory in the minds of her family and friends. Her own memories, the source of many a merry tale, are as muddled as a mixed salad. She is no trouble and doesn’t complain, so the staff are quite fond of her. But they have little idea of the person she was for a hundred years, until her little accident in May and the traumatic events that landed her here, and have wrought such change in her. Her birthday party was the last occasion where she seemed really happy and still herself.
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I tried to give her news of the family, the recent successes of her great-grandchildren and the amusing doings of her young great-great-grandchildren. Photos were of little help, as they appear blurred: is that little brown-haired girl really her great-great-granddaughter? Or maybe her great-granddaughter, her granddaughter or even her daughter? Maybe even herself? As five.year-olds we all looked very much like this, so that kind of confusion is understandable: the experiences of a century blend together into a timeless mass.

She is not in any physical pain, thank God, but mental and emotional suffering are taking their toll. Does she feel abandoned? She hasn’t said so, but she would so like to go home and that is just not possible.

Am I selfish to pray that this situation will not have to last much longer, and that she can, finally, really go home?