The first time I met the lady who became my Mother-in-Law she was standing at her oven. She turned around as the back door opened, the jug of batter mix poised over the smoking hot Yorkshire pudding trays, and said a rather cursory hello to the girl her eldest son had “brought to dinner”. As the rest of the family lounged around talking and teasing and waiting, she systematically and effortlessly went through the process of getting their family’s special dinner on the table. She heated the plates and bowls, drained the steaming pots, carved the roast (with an electric knife – I was awestruck!), and did that magic gravy voodoo. Then afterwards, she got up and did the dishes. I confess now to heaving a huge sigh of relief that she rebuffed my offer of help, and not just because of the teetering mountain of post-roast debris. In truth, the lady scared me with her snapped, gruff statements and unquestionable profundity.
Time went on and got to see through all the snap and bustle. The lady my boyfriend teasingly referred to as “Mutti” was just very shy and didn’t want to embarrass her son in front of his friend. I grew to like her. A devout Catholic who had long since given up dragging her children out of bed on a Sunday morning, she quietly and expertly moved through life doing all the things good mothers should. She just knew stuff; like how to keep shirt collars looking good and when you had to make your Christmas cake. I just knew that I could never, in my wildest dreams, be half as good as her.
We started our family and she was just there. She’d magically turn up at four o’clock on one of those days where all you’d done is hold a screaming baby. “No, I won’t stop,” she’d say to my half-hearted offer of a cup of tea and, before I’d registered, there’d be a pot of spuds bubbling on the stove to go with her trademark casserole, keeping warm in the oven next to the fruit sponge for afters. I realised I loved her when, overnight, she stopped her packet a day cigarette habit in favour of cuddling her grandchild. Years later, during one of the many million cuppa and biscuit moments we shared, this shy, introverted lady confessed to loitering near complete strangers smoking in the street to obtain her nicotine fix. We both laughed until we had to reach for our hankies.
Nana is coming to the end of a week in Respite Care. She’s not enjoyed it; Alzheimers is a horrid disease. The lovely, funny, unassuming lady who rustled up full roast dinners without a thought can no longer make a cup of tea or dress herself successfully. She struggles to find the right words, any words, to answer our carefully posed questions and spends a lot of her time feeling bewildered and scared.
Now I’m one of the ones bustling about, hearty and loud and bossy – her utter antithesis – jollying her out of her melancholy and moodiness with silly stories and nonsense. We call her our Queen, stop her agitated pacing by helping her assume her easy chair throne and, as her humble subjects, lather the hands she agitatedly picks and fusses at with lavender scented lotion because anything’s worth a try – and it makes her laugh.
The Homestead make it our mission to leave her laughing.
We reach for our hankies afterwards.