My mother is in reminiscent mode. She’s got to the age, nearly 84 as she reminds me constantly, where that old cliché about having nothing left but the memories is starting to manifest itself.
In her day she was wildly active, forever starting this, chairing that, raising money for the other. Now she’s largely sedentary. The once constant flow of correspondence, in her large expressive hand, with much underlining and postscripts that curled round the corners and along the edges of the pages, has dried up. She doesn’t like using the telephone and is no longer interested in being sociable. It’s as if she has quietly and gently closed the door on the world – which is not to say she’s planning to leave it. She’s quite happy, she says, and thoroughly enjoying herself ‘being lazy’; as well she might now that she’s ensconced in her own fully serviced flat in the very nice care home five minutes walk from my house.
She spends her day reading voraciously, watching television and, when she has a visitor – which most days is me, reminiscing. She returns frequently to the Clyde blitz and the bomb that brought down her bedroom ceiling on the night that she was providentially sleeping in another part of the house with her mother. The bomb, jettisoned by a plane returning after the main raid on Greenock, the other side of the river, fell in the garden at the east end of the house. But the blast, in the peculiar way of such things, travelled round the narrow space between the rear of the house and the grassy bank behind it, and demolished the west wing, leaving the east wing unscathed.
It must have made the war personal for her in a way that nothing else could have done. She’s never said ‘I beat the Germans’, but I can’t help feeling that that’s there in the undertow of the story. It’s definitely a source of pride that she survived. Often she tells the story the same way, but last time she added an intriguing detail. ‘It didn’t break any of my possessions,’ she said, ‘except some Chinese fairies.’
Chinese fairies? I was in a rush and didn’t follow it up at the time, but I will. In the 1930s her father served in China, commanding a flotilla of Royal Naval gunboats charged with keeping the West River free of pirates. She travelled out there with her mother, aged seven or eight. That journey must have been another hugely formative experience, and although I already know some of the stories, a little digging will undoubtedly throw up more.
But the story that’s really caught my fancy recently is the one about their summer holidays in Scotland with her maternal grandparents, who used to take a shooting lodge near Callander, in the Trossachs. My mother and her parents were then in naval quarters in the south of England. Her grandfather, a City grandee, lived in Buckinghamshire. To ship the whole family, plus domestic entourage, north, he simply hired a private railway carriage. They embarked at Taplow station and sometime the following day disembarked at Callander, having presumably been towed up to London, unhitched at some terminus, then re-hitched to another train heading north – all without the inconvenience of once having to step down from their carriage. My mother shared a sleeping compartment with the cook and a chambermaid, and loved it.
When I’m talking to groups about stories, I invite them to imagine for a moment that they are books, in which each successive page and chapter contains the stories of the incidents and experiences, the encounters and relationships, that make up their lives. I then ask them to picture a giant coming along, wrenching the book from their hands, and rubbing out those stories, starting at the first and working through to the last page, when the book is empty. What then are they left with? I ask.
As I watch my mother growing older I realise more and more how our identity is nothing but the stories we tell ourselves. Without them we are really no longer human.