Beginning, Middle and End

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Molly, my youngest, went off to university this week and this set me thinking about the cycle of life. I’ve had the odd brief message, just enough to know that Fresher’s Week is going well and that she’s making friends and getting used to living in London. This has nudged my twenty-eight years of parenting into a new phase—being there for them, but not all the time. People often talk of empty nest syndrome but right now even though she’s gone, the nest isn’t empty and that’s because my father-in-law Frank lives with us.

Molly is eighteen, I’m fifty-seven and Frank is ninety-six. That means that I’m positioned right in the middle – thirty-nine years older than one, and thirty-nine years younger than the other. In looking at these two members of my family I get a sense of what has passed and a taste of what the future might hold.

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We brought Frank to live with us fourteen months ago and hoped to spend some happy times with him. We managed that quite well up until the Spring—pushing his wheelchair across the Common to the pub, lunch in the sunny haven of my little garden, meeting up with friends, and having him there for family meals and celebrations. But he is very old and frail. Over the past year he has had three episodes of pneumonia, umpteen urine infections, several falls, two brain bleeds, seizures, his voice is reduced to a croak, and there is ever increasing deafness, loss of vision and confusion.

It’s been hard for him to give up control. We’ve tried for as long as possible to keep him doing things independently but he now needs help with almost everything. He gets very frustrated at these losses. “Don’t worry, we’ll look after you,” I’ve said at times, thinking it was reassuring. “Why can’t I do it myself?” he’s replied. And he’s then repeated that question over and over again. “Because you are old,” we say, but it doesn’t seem to help.

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I’ve realised through being with him that’s it’s crucial to know where we are in time—the season, the day of the week and most vital of all, the time of day. I can only imagine that without this knowledge it would be like floating in space with no anchor. Frank has a talking watch and presses the button throughout the day and night. But it doesn’t always give him what he needs. “What time is it?” he’ll ask, his face full of barely suppressed fear. “My watch says it’s one. There are two one-o’clocks in the day aren’t there – after lunch and at night. Which is it?” There’s little we can do to reassure him. We tell him and two minutes later he has forgotten.

So much of his body and his mind have suffered erosion. But his hair remains—thick and white.  A carer said on washing and dressing him for the first time, “I’m really sorry but I’ve made him look a bit punky.” “Don’t worry,” we said, “It always looks like that.” I enjoy imagining his mother back in the 1920s—a woman I will never meet being exasperated with her small son’s hair as she gets him ready for school. I’m bonding through the ages with her; mother to mother.

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We’ve met many good people in this year of living with Frank. The NHS and Social Services have been wonderful. Various carers come to get him washed and dressed and this week one of them offered to sit with him on her day off so that we could have some time together. “I don’t want any payment,” she said. “Just a cup of tea and a biscuit.” We happened to know that she is working fifteen days in succession. We couldn’t let her use her day off like this but the offer was undoubtedly genuine. Our friend Sheila regularly makes us meals and is sitting with Frank this weekend as we move furniture and boxes into our new home. And there was the elderly care consultant who came to see us in June and said gently what we had been denying to ourselves. He has progressive dementia. And in these past few weeks it has progressed very fast. He is lost in a world of agitated pacing and unintelligible rambling.

When he first came to us we considered finding someone to come and chat to him about the war. This was the formative period of his life and the one that he referred back to when other memories had gone. Then we realised that anyone who was able to chat about the war would themselves be in their nineties. As a child I knew plenty of people who remembered the First World War, let alone the second one. Now they are all gone. Life passes quickly. I don’t want to waste a moment.

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Word Journeys

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I was at a large branch of Sainsbury’s this week, and one of the items on my list was a pack of pens. I wasn’t sure where to find them so glanced up at the signs hanging from the ceiling and was surprised to see one that said ‘Stationary’. “Look at that!” I said to my daughter, Molly who was helping with the shopping. “A major company and they can’t even spell. It’s ‘ery not ‘ary”. An elderly man overheard my rant and chipped in. “Yes, it’s like the apostrophes,” he said. When I thought about it later I couldn’t be sure whether he was supporting me with my gripe or mocking my pedantry.

But does the spelling matter? A lexicographer from the Oxford English Dictionary seems to think it does. She argues that the words ‘stationary’ and ‘stationery’ have totally different meanings and that to use them wrongly causes confusion. In truth, there probably aren’t too many situations where serious confusion could occur – most schools have a stationery cupboard but these don’t usually move about so it’s rare that people need to comment on their state of stationariness. However, I’m all for linguistic propriety so am happy to go along with the opinion of the OED.

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This got me thinking about the origin of the two words and I discovered that they both come from the Latin ‘statio’ which means a standing place. Stationary, in the context of ‘still’, appeared in the English language in the Middle Ages while the word, ‘stationer’ was used to refer to traders who set up permanent stalls selling books and writing materials, generally next to a university. These stationary stationers were the exception at that time as most traders were pedlars who travelled around the countryside, selling their goods at fairs and markets.

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Another connected word is station—where one stands to wait—and I stood stationary on several stations last Monday. I was returning to Southampton after doing some work in Kent and decided to take the slightly longer but considerably cheaper route that avoids London. It did involve three changes but I didn’t let that deter me. However, it turned out to be an error of judgement when the journey of about a hundred miles ended up taking five and a half hours. Umpteen connections were cancelled and announcements were made citing trespassers on the track, signalling problems, an emergency up the line, and a member of staff who was unable to get to work. Each time, the announcer said very politely that Southern Railways was sorry for any inconvenience, before adding the further good cheer that there was a strike planned for Wednesday and Thursday.

With commuter journeys, it’s the arrival that’s the goal. But leisure trips are another thing altogether. The journey itself can be the purpose and a treat in itself. Travelling by train across America is one of the big treats on my list and as yet I’ve no idea when I’ll be able to do it. Planning is part of the fun, though, and so I’ve already done some preparatory research. At some point I shall have to decide whether to travel coast-to-coast via Chicago or New Orleans. At the moment I’m leaning towards Chicago.

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I’m pre-disposed to love the railways as I travelled to school by steam train including, for a brief period, on the famous Flying Scotsman. Not many people of my age can say that. The railway line alongside my school was closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s but then bought by the Dart Valley Railway which runs steam locomotives and carriages as a tourist attraction. The trains would puff past as we schoolgirls ran up and down the hockey pitch on misty mornings. I loved the sulphurous choking smell of the smoke. And there’s something mysterious about old trains with their narrow corridors, and secluded compartments with slide-up windows. They rattle along and whistle, passing through tunnels with the sounds and the darkness offering dramatic opportunities. Hitchcock demonstrated these brilliantly in The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train and The Lady Vanishes; all recent treats—see Murder, Blackmail and Other Stuff.

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Photo: Symonds Family Archive

Last Monday as I waited for several delayed trains, my mind wandered idly and I started speculating about the origin of the word ‘train’. I discovered later that it derives from the French for ‘to draw along’. So you can have a train of people or a train on a dress, and the first trains were known as ‘trains of carriages’. Oddly, the word ‘train’ was also once used to mean ‘delay’ because of the sense of ‘drawing things out’. I realised that in the same way as stationary and stationery have an unexpected connection and have been on a linguistic journey together, then so have trains and delays.

The trains and delays were too closely connected this week on my slow commute. But hopefully, an American train trip will be quite different and delays could even be opportunities. That’s an essential difference. Goals are all about standing on stations, fretting and longing to get to your destination. Treats are all about the journey.