Climb the Alps Why not, dear, I'm only 89
It may be Mother's Day on Sunday, but one woman won't be putting her feet up
01:22 GMT, 15 March 2012
Phoning my mother last summer to finalise arrangements for a weekend visit, I was rather taken aback when her first response was to ask when I would be going back home.
‘You see I’ve got a new job that starts on Sunday,’ she explained. She was 88, for God’s sake, and already volunteering at a nearby historic house. Now she’d become an attendant at her local museum.
But I was delighted — for that vignette sums up my mother Janet’s outlook. She’s indomitable. Since my father died in 1998, she has lived in the same house and still talks of ‘we’ sometimes, as if he is still alive. In the summer she strews rose petals on his grave, explaining, ‘Neither of us could stand dead flowers but rose petals just blow away.’
Holding back the years: Fanny with her mum Janet
However, she has remade her life alone. And how. There are French and piano lessons, and watercolour classes. She hurls herself into technology — using a laptop, emailing and employing Google for information and to skirt around senior moments, such as reminding herself of forgotten names and facts.
When my father William was alive, they frequently travelled abroad. His absence has not deterred her. A couple of years after his death, she and I signed up for a spring walking holiday in the mountains of southern Spain. We had never been on holiday alone together, and certainly not shared a bedroom for as long as I could remember.
We haven’t rushed to share one again — I discovered she snores and she discovered my moisturisers! There were eight walkers altogether: I was the youngest and my mother the oldest. The itinerary grew increasingly challenging. But only one walk along a stony track defeated her. Afterwards, some of our companions told me how ‘marvellous’ they thought she was. ‘What they mean is for my age,’ she remarked wryly.
Since then we have been with my younger sister to the Alps. Like the Spanish Alpujarras, the gradients are ferocious and the air is thin. One hot day, as we struggled up a hill, my sister and I thought Mum was on the point of collapse. This was when, practical to the last, she told us who we should consult about her affairs if she died.
Different generation: Janet with baby Fanny, she gave up her career when she became a mother
Thank God she survived — only to push herself to the limit again on a trip to Oslo. We had been on our feet all day when Mum announced that she wished we had seen a 13th-century church on the /03/14/article-2115131-122C5045000005DC-834_468x684.jpg” width=”468″ height=”684″ alt=”New pursuits: Janet has taken up numerous hobbies in her twilight years including golf” class=”blkBorder” />
New pursuits: Janet has taken up numerous hobbies in her twilight years including golf
But she never resented her career coming second. That was expected by her generation. It seems extraordinary, but women involved in nursing, teaching or hospital medicine back then were expected to stop work when they got married, which my parents did in 1947.
After my sister and I were born, my mother took occasional locum work in GP surgeries. Later, when we were at school, she worked part-time for the local health authority in community health, but her work was tailored around being a wife and mother.
She was always there to pick us up from school and be at home with us in the evenings. My own experience as a full-time working mother, first as a publisher then author, has been quite different. My mother may not have always agreed with the way I’ve brought up my three boys (now in their 20s) but she would never think of criticising.
One thing I’ve learned from her — although I suspect she may have forgotten the incident — is to be scrupulously honest. She once left a friend and me, aged ten, in her car while she went into the dentist. Playing around, we inadvertently released the handbrake. As the car began to move, we leapt out and watched it roll down the hill . . . into the dentist’s car!
To pay for the damage, Mum stopped my comics. When I went behind her back and bought a copy of Girl with my savings, she simply remarked, ‘If you think it’s clever to deceive me then I’m very disappointed in you.’ Her simple but powerful words stayed with me, and I’ve tried to drum that message into my children.
Zest for life: Fanny often has trouble keeping up with her active mum, such as when they go on walking holidays
When I hit my teens, our relationship became predictably more turbulent. We had clashes over my lying about where I was going, and her finding out the truth. Somehow, we emerged into my adulthood unscathed.
Mum is not someone who expects confidences, although I know I can confide in her if necessary and rely on her to give a sensible opinion. When I was separating from my first husband, I asked her what she thought I should do. ‘I’m not going to advise you,’ she replied. ‘You’ll end up doing what you want anyway.’
'She is everything I hope to be when I'm
that age: a loving mother and grandmother, fully engaged in what’s going
on in the world'
How well she knew me — and how sensible not to involve herself beyond letting me know I would have my parents’ support whatever I did.
Though a woman of strong opinions, Mum has never forced them on us, encouraging my sister and me to make our own way in life. She has been an enthusiastic grandmother of five — the kids always look forward to seeing her. As do my friends. Two or three of them frequently ask if they can come with me to stay at her house for a weekend — quite a tribute.
She has reached 89 without succumbing to any major medical problems, and remains extremely fit. Whenever I visit, we go on long walks in the countryside. Not long ago, towards the end of one, I complained of being exhausted. She suggested I stay where I was while she got the car. Was she joking I’m not sure.
Real friends: The mother and daughter have a close bond
We are real friends. Neither of us is particularly sentimental, and we are unswervingly loyal to family and friends. Neither of us enjoys being the centre of attention. We share a love of reading, particularly crime fiction, and can often be found in front of the TV, supper on our knees, gripped to an instalment of a new crime drama.
She is everything I hope to be when I’m that age: a loving mother and grandmother, fully engaged in what’s going on in the world, reading the papers and watching the news, and always inquiring. She is essential to our family, although doggedly independent, living without a daily to help with the cleaning.
She has taken over the garden that my father spent so much time on, and does an hour of work a day in it if the weather is fine, although she does have help for some of the heavier tasks.
She occasionally talks about moving, aware that her three- bedroom house and garden may one day become too much, but nowhere has appealed more than where she lives now. I can’t imagine her anywhere else.
If we’ve ever had a major falling out, it has long been forgiven and forgotten. It goes without saying that we love each other.
Of course we irritate each other from time to time, and her deafness can drive me mad, but like so many women of my generation, I feel blessed to have my mum.
Fanny Blake is the author of What Women Want (Blue Door). Her novel Women Of A Dangerous Age is published next month