My mother, Doris came to visit me here in London last summer. Nothing too unusual about that but the thing is, Doris hasn’t really encountered the 20th century, never mind the 21st century. She was born in a cottage that generations of her family have been born in. It was out in the sticks, rural Ireland, miles from the nearest town. She had no running water, no indoor loo and definitely no modern conveniences; electricity, gas, telephone..
She spent all her life (until two years ago, see photos) living like a character from some Charles Dickens novel. She grew her own vegetables and had a well outside the back door which produced some brownish liquid she called ‘drinking water’. You can probably guess that my twin sis and I weren’t brought up by Doris but in a land far far away with all modern conveniences. Doris had never really travelled too far in her life, up to Newry on the bus was the big trip but otherwise it was stay at home and feed the herd of wild cats she seemed to acquire. She didn’t get to see too many people out there in the sticks, the occasional lost hiker and maybe a farmer or two on his tractor spreading muck across his fields.
So, you get the picture, she was very isolated but that was her life.. Two years ago I invited her over to London for a visit.
Getting her to London via Air Lingus was bad enough but here’s the thing, she’s lived quite an isolated life with only mangy cats and the radio for company, so when I eventually got her to London she insisted on saying hello to everybody and chatting to them. This was OK on the Tube (captive audience!), but once we got out onto the streets she kept smiling at folk and saying hello and trying to engage them in conversation… “hello, that’s a nice raincoat you have..” “hello, where did you get your scarf from..” “hello, where do you come from..” I was almost going to put blinkers on her to stop her talking to absolutely everyone… We were walking to my flat and it was “oh, there’s a house….. there’s another house….. oh look…another house… this ones got a green door… oh another house, why do you think they have a red door…” it took me ages to finally get her back to the flat.
However, growing up in rural Ireland means that your exposure to multiculturalism is limited… severely limited, it basically boils down to thinking of left handed folk as curiosities. I didn’t really think about this until we were walking along the street and four huge black guys came walking along, nothing unusual about that but Doris said in a voice slightly too loud “Oh look, here comes four darkies…”
Shit! I nearly fell to the floor! Doris!! You DON’T EVER refer to folks skin colour, nobody see’s skin colour in London this day and age, its completely unacceptable to refer to anyone by the colour of their skin! To which she replied “but they are darkies…” at which point they definitely were within hearing range… for a moment I thought of just disowning her and running like hell away but I just apologised profusely to the guys and explained that this was my mothers first trip outside of rural Ireland and she wasn’t house trained yet. And all the time she eyed them suspiciously…
I consider myself lucky to get away without a beating that Saturday afternoon but she did the same thing on the Tube that evening, a gang of Asian youths got on, a bit boisterous but good natured and she said it again “Oh, watch those darkies over there…” We only narrowly avoided being lynched by me pleading complete insanity..
Sadly, I can understand just where Doris is coming from, I have made the same error when visiting Arizona a few years ago. I was talking to some folk in a bar and I was telling them what Tooting, SW London was like, (it’s full of Asians and curry shops BTW) so I said it’s full of Indians but they said Indians?, in London?
So I realised that they thought I was talking about ‘American Indians’ so I said “no, no, not red Indians, indians from India..you know, with the Marajha’s”
Everyone looked shocked and I thought bugger, what’s wrong, is it not correct to refer to Indians here? I was politely informed that the correct term is Native American’s, never ever RED Indians… oops! You see, over here in the UK our only experience with Native Americans is from old black and white movies of cowboys and indians and the wild west and in those days the term Red Indians was acceptable. Of course everyone has stopped making Cowboy and Indian movies so here in the UK we are still using terminology from 40 years ago..and yes, I ‘now’ know that the red bit comes from the war paint they used on their faces..
So I digress, after those two episodes I thought it would be prudent to keep her well away from anybody… everybody.. Sadly she decided that whilst she was in London then she would buy a new raincoat, What I didn’t realise was that when you are 82, buying a new raincoat is ‘an all day event’. I took her to one shop and there were some bargains there, half price and very good quality, a done deal? No chance, it was lets see if we can find any cheaper ones, and it was traipse around half a dozen shops and engage every single sales assistant in idle banter. Eventually it was getting dark and she decided that nope, she would wait until she was back visiting Newry.. Lord, give me strength.
The thing I noticed about 82yr olds is how slow they walk, and how they have to negotiate steps one minute at a time, a dotterly foot hoovering gingerly over the step, almost trying to decide if it’s maybe too high..or too hot.. and then indecisively touching the step before lifting it up again and placing it two millimeters to the right… I could feel the life slowly draining out of me trying to get Doris up three steps..
It’s interesting that as you get older, you become more childlike. Walking any distance takes forever and you are easily distracted (there’s a house!) and just like when you have toddlers, you have to point out steps, obstacles and any dog poo on the road… and you have to help them cross the road safely…even if it means the drivers waiting 20 minutes whilst she places one foot laboriously in front of the other.. And eating, a toddler makes a huge mess and so does a 82yr old, give a toddler a drink in a cup and most of it will be split, give the same drink to a 82yr old and because of the shakes, the exact same amount hits the floor as well.. Place some garden peas on a plate and watch how both a toddler and 82yr old skits them all over the place and eventually used their fingers to eat the few actually remaining on the plate.
The other thing is, of course, that toddlers and 82yr olds fall asleep at the same time of the evening – just after the 6pm news actually and strangely, they both wake up at the same time in the morning – 6am. I thought I had burglars on the Sunday morning because ‘nothing’ ever surfaced in my place on a Sunday before 9am, sadly it wasn’t burglars but Doris, fully dressed and trying to put the plastic (electric) kettle on top of the cooker and trying to light it… oh dear.. something to look forward to ;)
The only differences between toddler and 82 yr old’s as far as I can see is that 82 yr olds watch the News constantly, we have BBC News 24 here and they are addicted to it, I took her for a walk and she was impatient to get back ‘incase she missed something..’ The same news had been repeated for the past 12 hours but there seems to be some fascination with news the older one gets, I jokingly asked Doris if she was worried about missing her obituary but she replied that it had been written many many times but never published and never will be and then proceeded to cackle.. honestly, she actually cackled…