There are three little words in the life of an otherwise healthy elderly person that are widely recognised as heralding the beginning of the end: “had a fall”. A year and a half ago, my maternal grandmother, who lives in a remote village in the south of France, lost her balance in the street. It was not the first time, but on this occasion she cut her face.
Alarmed neighbours called an ambulance. She was in hospital for 12 days; tests were run, nothing untoward appeared. Her bones were unbroken. The incident, did, however, cause a loss of confidence, meaning she no longer trusted her ability to stay upright if she left the house. My family and I wondered what to do.
Aged 92, she has nothing overtly “wrong” with her. Until that autumn she had still driven, walked her dog twice a day and taught an English conversation class in the town nearest her village. She has never really had any health issues, which we have always jokingly attributed to a vegetarian diet incorporating astonishing amounts of turmeric.
My mother is an only child with a high-flying job and she lives in California. She could not leave for something as indefinite as this. I, on the other hand, was fresh out of university and had no job. So it was that I found myself setting off for Nana’s house of crumbly yellow stone.
It was the time of year when the fierce wind known as the Mistral roars down the village’s narrow streets; it made me feel as if she and I were two characters in a Brontë novel with a Mediterranean setting. Indeed, the conditions were ripe for a neo-gothic reprise: we were two women, separated by some 70 years, rattling around a large house. The backdrop was a hard landscape of scrub and crags. We even had some ruins to complete the picture: the remains of a Roman aqueduct.
As long as I can remember, Nana has not changed. Her favourite anecdotes settled into conversational set-pieces long ago. Some of her more peculiar habits (stockpiling butter wrappers) come from an adolescence in Sheffield during the second world war, when rationing was in place.
Like many of her age, she doesn’t use today’s terms when discussing race (“Oriental”; “ethnic”). Twice, she described the first black man she had ever met as “coffee-coloured” (Americano? I wondered in irritation. Latte? Cortado?)
But she is also remarkable for her generation. She has been a matter-of-fact advocate for gay rights all her life. When teaching at a Catholic college in the 1960s, she was pushed to resign for having taught her students about family planning. She is a passionate proponent of the European project and moved to West Germany in 1973, the year the UK joined the European Economic Community.
She was the first in her family to go to university. As a student, just after the war, she subsisted mainly on crumpets — but, of course, with no butter. “As you know, a crumpet without butter is a very sad thing,” she has told me many a time, with the same twinkle in her eye.
When she married my grandfather, they went to Misrata, Libya, where he worked at the British Council. My mother was born at the hospital in Tripoli, some 200km away by desert road. I once asked Nana how long it took to get there. “Oh, a few hours.” And you were in labour all the way? “Oh yes,” she replied. “Well, not really. I did some of the driving.”
After Libya, there were stints in Australia, Switzerland and Bournemouth, all before my mother turned six. Then Hanover, until my mother was in her late teens, when my grandfather persuaded Nana to move to the Languedoc region of France.
Though he loved it, she found it hard. She did not share the romantic enthusiasm that he, and so many transplants, had for the area. Nonetheless, she stayed, even after she was widowed 18 years ago. There has been a roster of shelter dogs, all with varying neuroses, to keep her company.
The south of France has long had a hold on the Anglo-Saxon imagination. It is a place seen as being suited to a certain time in one’s life. Even before Peter Mayle’s influential A Year in Provence (1989), people flocked to the area with a view to cultivating a more thoughtful pace of life, for their retirement or sabbatical. I, meanwhile, felt a bit young to be making the move.
Nana’s village is not straightforwardly picturesque. There are, indeed, stripy cats that sit in windows with lace curtains; olive groves and vineyards; and roads of white dust lined with plane trees. Shutters adorn the face of every house and the roofs are terracotta.
On Saturdays there is a market where you can buy rotisserie chickens and bunches of thyme, but also thongs for €2. There are angry young men too, on motorcycles, and the path to the cemetery and allotments is a riot of graffiti. The annual fête features gold Spandex-clad dancers and Maroon 5 covers long into the night.
I moved in with Nana in October. The vines had turned red and dropped their leaves. You could smell their cuttings burnt on bonfires in the late afternoon. Nana was cold, constantly. Her loosening grasp on time became a source of fascination for me. When she said “some years ago”, she could be talking about the 1970s, and “the other day” took on its literal and indifferent sense.
Individual words and phrases cruelly eluded her — she fumbled for “chest of drawers”, “fennel”, “handbag”. When she made shopping lists, I was treated to lengthy justifications for the purchase of yoghurt or cologne, her reasoning like a network of calcified pipes in which water must stubbornly push through from beginning to end.
My time was spent cooking, cleaning and making sure she was comfortable. I liaised with her doctor in French, scrambling for the medical terminology associated with nonagenarians; I went to and from the pharmacy with various walking frames that she rejected. I had to tread a fine line between solving problems before she was aware of them and active disinformation.
When I was unsuccessful, she accused me of “keeping her out of the loop”. If I was not quick enough to shield her from causes for concern, she seemed to luxuriate in her distress.
This labour was composed of a hundred gritty, grubby, bone-wearying acts of love. Her thanks were delayed or absent, although there were rare moments of overwhelming gratitude. This was so unexpected, it left us both embarrassed.
I felt almost as uncomfortable on her behalf as I did on my own when I first saw her naked — I had to help her undress for an X-ray. The line, when friends came to call, was that I was “staying with her” while I looked for work. Little did she know — or want to believe — that a silver lining to my unemployment was that I could take care of her.
We commiserated over a world she no longer hopes to understand. Her wilful pessimism wore me down at times, but then I thought of how adrift she must feel in an age of ubiquitous mobile phones and the political earthquakes of the past three years. In Brexit, she saw an assault on her life’s work of drawing Europe closer together, which she carried out on the microscopic scale of her own family.
Perhaps the most worrying thing of all was that she had stopped reading anything except catalogues, having always been a voracious reader. Not too long ago, she told us that she had been rereading all of her favourite books, and that taking each one down off the shelf was like greeting an old friend. I wondered if this was some sort of pre-mortem victory lap of her library, and if she felt she had finished it somewhat ahead of schedule. Instead, she sat on the sofa, wearing a silk scarf fastened at her neck with a brooch, and gazed into space.
She returned from hospital without an appetite, so I tried to tempt her back: with broth and stock that I cooked overnight. A glimmer of hope came when she asked for some olives. I cooked endless vegetables: turnips and carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks. I fed her things heavy with cream and butter: risotto, carbonara, moussaka. I got through a litre of olive oil every fortnight.
Eventually, she stopped reading junk mail and asked if I had a copy of The Waste Land. “He had a grasp on reality,” she said of TS Eliot, “which was very rare.” She began, grudgingly, to walk with a stick (“Now I look like an old lady!” she exclaimed indignantly).
The old in western society are often pushed into quiet retreat. With friends and family distant or deceased, their condition can be one of isolation and loneliness. Too often, we rush them to the ends of their sentences, knowing what they will say. With no one to care for and no jobs, they are exiled from the productive classes, left to derive meaning from emptier days. I derived meaning because I was looking after her, but there is little glamour in doing so for seniors. It is much harder to gloss over its drudgery with sugary platitudes about it being life’s greatest joy than it is to do so with child-rearing.
My working life, supposedly, lay ahead of me, but caring for her felt like I had skipped a chapter, even as I desultorily sent off round after round of applications. A few of my peers had taken time off to travel; most had moved to London and got jobs, placements on grad schemes and fast tracks.
But while the rat race raged at a distance, I nonetheless learnt invaluable lessons about work. It made me more patient: it is hard to maintain a good mood when you have to shout to be heard, but I got used to addressing Nana face-on, making eye contact, engaging with her fully. I made consideration of her age central to everything I did, and am the more empathetic for it. Yes, it was often thankless but I was soothed knowing that I was helping her to live with dignity. Few 22-year-olds get this chance.
And then, in January, I got a job. While the news that I would be moving back to London flooded me with relief — that I was, in fact, wanted by the job market and that I could rejoin my friends — guilt at leaving her crept into the pit of my stomach.
In the days before I left, I went to the supermarket and stockpiled heavy things she wouldn’t have been able to carry: washing powder, big bags of onions, bleach, tins and tins of beans. Systems were put in place. A carer would come twice a week and could help her do the shopping. The village handyman would have a key, nominally to water the terrace, but also so that he could pop his head round the door. The morning of my departure, Nana hugged me, hard, and I wept at the bus stop.
The new job was fun and demanding. It brought holiday days, which I frittered away on going to Greece for the first time. In the late summer, I went back to see Nana for a flying visit. She had forgotten I was coming and was overjoyed when I arrived. She busied herself making us lunch and I let her. We talked with optimism about the women running for Congress in the US midterms, she asked about exhibitions I’d been to and I lent her some books. In the morning she braved the 100m walk to the bakery to buy me a croissant. I left again, and cried some more.
Now back in London, I miss her company. Hard as it may have felt day to day, looking after her did us both good. My love for her was strengthened. It went beyond the tokenism of Christmas and Sunday lunch, and allowed me to bear witness to Nana’s long and extraordinary life. She reminds me that I too can aspire to having the words “tough as nails” whispered of me, in tones of semi-derisory awe, when I am old and grey. I should be so lucky.
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