Mind the Gap
By Heather Harris
It had been noted on the calendar for months but, like godchildren’s birthdays and dental appointments, somehow crept up unexpectedly.
“But why does she have to actually stay with us?” came a voice from the fridge (three teenagers on study-leave means that at any one time someone is ‘studying’ its contents). “It’s great she’s coming, but why can’t it just be for lunch like normal?” came another sleepy voice from the sofa (it was 3pm).
The trouble is, I tended to agree with them. The thought of my octogenarian mother-in-law coming to stay for seven whole days was daunting. Don’t get me wrong, though – contrary to what the late great comedian, Les Dawson would suggest, I do think my mother-in-law is wonderful. When I had three children under three, for example, she would drop everything and arrive (shepherd’s pie in one hand, three huge bars of Dairy Milk in the other) ready to charm my toddlers into submission. As an ex Domestic Science teacher she could whip up a meal out of the contents of my ‘not shopped or slept for three days’ cupboards without so much as a judgmental glance.
And we even took her on holiday with us; she relished her time on sandcastle duty and took time to listen to each child in turn (something that, as busy parents, we often overlooked).
But then she started to forget things and grow fragile. A second hip operation meant she couldn’t help around the kitchen and her ability to follow a family conversation around a noisy dinner table diminished.
Since she turned 88 this year we have all become carers rather than equals. And the teenagers have taken on their role without question – repeatedly locating lost glasses/handbag/Daily Telegraph and listening to the same muddled story numerous times in one day.
Her lunchtime visits – although increasingly strained – were accepted as ‘pay back’ time for all the memories they had of her while they were growing up. But staying for an entire week – this was a different matter. After all, two generations under one roof was bad enough with teenagers, but three…
Day one – things didn’t bode well as she arrived and plonked herself in front of the TV, just as my 19 year-old son was in the middle of a particularly ‘fruity’ episode of The Inbetweeners. He swiftly switched over to BBC2 and a handy documentary on The Queen at 90 and then left the room.
“Oh, please come back,” shouted my mother-in-law. Much to my astonishment he not only re-joined her on the sofa, but sat through the entire programme discussing the salient points.
Over the following days, ‘sofa tag’ became an unspoken routine as each teenager in turn sat with their elderly resident tv critic. And how their television habits changed. No longer did the sound of the latest reality programme interspersed with the Simpsons and Sky Sport seep under the lounge door – the theme tune of Midsummer Murders was now a regular soundtrack to our early evenings. In return, my youngest son introduced his granny to the joys of Euro 2016 and even smiled when she announced at the end of England’s fatal defeat to Iceland, “I don’t know why you’re all so upset, they only lost by one!”
I also saw my life through the eyes of another. “Why do you never sit down? Let’s go for a cuppa and cake.” And we did, most afternoons. I would stop work/chores/emails and drive to her venue of choice. I slowly learned that we didn’t really need to chat, as people-watching was her favourite pastime, along with ‘window’ food shopping in M&S. “Just because I’ve lost my appetite doesn’t mean I don’t like looking at nice food!” suddenly made perfect sense.
As a family we all slowed down. And we were nicer to each other. Conscious of continually shouting up the stairs to the teenagers, I actually went and found them and had a conversation. In turn they were embarrassed to be seen lifting their feet so I could hoover and even more ashamed if an 88 year-old was seen starting the washing up while they snoozed after lunch.
My husband also clocked off work early, aware that family dinner was the highlight of his mum’s day. And, amazingly, his company didn’t grind to a halt. In fact, he admitted being more productive in meetings knowing that he was on a strict 6pm deadline.
Of course, we didn’t turn into The Waltons overnight, and the minute she left we all returned to living life in the fast lane – and usually in different rooms. But for seven days I caught a glimpse of what family life used to be like – before handheld entertainment and tv dinners.
Far from being daunted, however, I am actually looking forward to having ‘granny-cam’ coming to shine a lens on our lives again. Well, except for Midsummer Murders…