I had one last thing to do in London before going home to my parents in Hampshire, and that one thing is to visit my mother-in-law. My MiL is in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease. She does not recognise me. She lives in a world where her parents are still very much alive, where she still goes to work. I no longer exist in her world.
Oh, Mum! I don’t have a husband but I have a much-loved MiL. Mum brought me up, because I joined her family when I was a spoilt, screwed-up teenager. She wasn’t going to put up with my nonsense, the way my family had. Her son and I used to sneak into bed in the afternoons, and she would knock hard on the door. “Get up, the pair of you,” she would holler. “Why are you in bed? You are not sick!”
We fought. Because I was lazy and spoilt and did not know the value of money that she had to work so hard for, firstly as a cleaner and then as an office clerk for London Electricity Board. She scrimped and saved all her life, whilst I did the opposite. My parents’ pleasure principle did not sit well with her.
She showed me how to clean the shower cubicle. With a toothbrush. And told me that I have to clean behind refrigerators. “Mrs. Lumkin does that at home,” I told her haughtily. “Surely you can get someone in to do this?”
We fought over sausages. I refused to let my children eat the cheap ones she bought from the local butcher. “Mum, 99p for six! What rubbish goes in there!” I would exclaim. ‘No way will I feed my kids that!”
“Nothing wrong with my kids,” she would retort heatedly. “And they were brought up on these sausages.”
“We’ll bring our own food for the kids when we visit your parents,” I said firmly to the poor man caught in the middle between his warring mother and the mother of his children.
“How do those poor children of yours ever survive?” my MiL would say, half in disgust.
There were always faults she could find with my parenting. Babies being breastfed on demand, no set mealtimes, clothes smelling of mildew, late potty training, kids jumping on the bed, parents sneaking off to bed in the afternoon, oh you name it, and you can bet your last penny that I had transgressed.
I was the daughter-in-law from hell, but Mum never gave up on me. She taught me to sew and knit with varying degree of success. She taught me to cook and clean, of course. In the process, she learned how to love me. We grew especially close despite the tempestuous nature of our relationship when we had to move in with the in-laws whilst saving up for the deposit for our first house.
“Oh, Jack, you didn’t have to go through all this trouble for me!” she would exclaim each time I brought her fresh flowers or a little cake that I had baked. She never wanted to trouble anyone. She was a carer for her mother who went blind when she was 11. Her father died when she was still in her teens. Mum never had anyone looking after her. She never had any frivolities. I loved treating her and see the light in her eyes miraculously switching on.
“Oh, you didn’t have to!” she would exclaim each time, with my every little gesture.
Over the years, as the children grew, she could see that my extravagances and strange values had not marred her grandchildren at all. My children are still ‘salt of the earth’, equally happy in a rough working class neighbourhood as they were in Knightsbridge or the country. My second son especially did them proud. This boy had always been close to his father’s roots: during his school summer holidays, he would come home to this working class neighbourhood and worked as a furniture removals man. I know that through this son of mine, his father’s race continues. And through my youngest child Georgina, who fights in the same fight club in Woolwich that her grandfather had all those years ago.
My MiL used to come and watch G fight. She would take the front row seat. I could see the dreaminess in her eyes, as she reminisced about her late husband fighting in this same club.
“Nanny, I have beaten up all the English boys,” G would say proudly, sliding her little hand into her grandmother’s.
Children are indeed a wonder, because they are the source of my MiL’s love for me, and mine for her. I have a lot to be thankful for. My children’s strong Spanish genes, for example, and their physical beauty. The tough love my MiL had given me, that was the making of me. My strong relationship with God. A sense of belonging to the bedrock of England. My love for her grows forevermore.
Today, I hugged her close, glad I made this journey. ‘I had to,” I whispered. “Because you are my Mum.”
I hope somewhere, deep within her Alzheimer’s diminished brain, she knows just how much I needed to make this journey to tell her I love her.