Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vera's Leg

Today I accompanied my mother to a hospital appointment in Brighton. We went by taxi, which seemed liked a good idea until the driver cheerfully told us that he was being treated for a brain tumour and wasn't really supposed to be at work. I watched his erratic driving and wondered if my life was going to end where it began, with my mother.

While I was sitting in the back of the car, like a child on a day out, my mother talked about the light dusting of snow on the hills as if it was the beginning of a new ice age. The driver nodded and concluded that "There's worse to come, loike."

The hospital waiting room was packed and resounded with inane chatter about grandchildren and illnesses. I could tell that my mother was desperate to talk and I felt torn between being the good son and preserving my sanity. "I'm glad you could come with me. Vera wouldn't have been any good here. She has to have her leg dressed every day at the moment."

I knew that a graphic description of Vera's leg was about to follow, so I quickly got out my copy of Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom' and started reading. My mother took the hint.

An hour later, we were met by a different taxi driver. My mother introduced him as her favourite and as they sat in the front, chatting about the weather, kitchen extensions and the terrible parking at the hospital, I couldn't help feeling that he was the son she should have had.

I wonder if I am a disappointment to her.

Of course it goes both ways. I would like a mother who occasionally showed some interest in what I was doing, or even asked me about the book I was reading. But how many people have easy relationships with their parents? I can't think of anyone.

One of the most perceptive and moving television dramas about family life that I've seen recently is HBO's 'Olive Kitteridge', adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-wining 2008 novel by Elizabeth Strout. Beautifully acted, this four-hour mini-series has been almost universally acclaimed, apart from a Guardian critic who complained that it was "slack" (it wasn't).

Here's a trailer, in case you haven't seen it:

In the background, you can hear a haunting arrangement by Martha Wainwright of a 1980 song from the album 'Xanadu'. I'd never come across 'Magic' before and have tried in vain to find Wainwright's performance. However, if you strip away the cheesiness, the original by Olivia Newton John is rather gorgeous too:

You may disagree. 


Katharine A said...

I have just found your blog. Brilliant. I've been in that waiting room full of inane chatter. Helpfully I love inane chatter. I've put your blog on my reading list and will be back to find out how Vera's leg is faring.

Steerforth said...

Katharine - I'm glad you've found my blog and commented, because it's introduced me to yours and I have now learned about the Grayson Perry exhibition and been persuaded that my son would like the National Maritime Museum after all. I didn't know about the world map - it looks really good.

Rog said...

I used to dread taking my late Mum round a Supermarket where her key goal was always to locate members of staff (colleagues) to assist in the whereabouts of bizarre items that we both knew were not stocked by this branch of Sainsburys. Kept them on their toes anyway.

Leg ulcers are apparently one of the biggest single items of NHS expenditure, I read somewhere.

Olivia looks just like Kylie's mum.

Steerforth said...

Rog - It's worse than an ulcer. I do feel sorry for Vera, but I don't see how a blow by blow account of the gory details will make things better for anyone.

Olivia Newton John was gorgeous - well into her 30s by then, but like Kylie, she looks at least 10 years younger.

Amy said...

I loved both Olive Kitteridge the book and the series. It's an achingly beautiful study of the difficulties of human relationships, especially family relationships. Frances McDormand was perfectly cast.

Steerforth said...

"Achingly beautiful" is exactly right. I thought the casting was perfect, right down to the accents. I'd happily watch the whole thing again.

Anonymous said...

Because of your Mother/son relationship remarks in the past, I have made an extra effort with my adult son and I think it'a paying off. Please keep reminding us what sons need ; daughters are easy.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Anonymous. It hadn't occurred to me that my observations might have a wider relevance - I'm very glad that they've been of some help.

I suppose the lesson we all need to learn - parents and children - is to be interested in each other as people. My mother is very loving and supportive in many ways, but if I try to tell her anything about my life, she clearly has no interest and quickly changes the subject.

In contrast, my wife is brilliant at listening to our sons, even when the one with Asperger's is having one of his obsessions and talks incessantly about a subject like cryptography. I try to be as good as her, but it's a tough act to follow.

nilly said...

Be assured, YOU are not a disappointment. Mothers almost always adore their offspring, however difficult they make it. Children, on the other hand, find parents boring, difficult and embarrassing.
And the older we parents get the more fun it is to bore, annoy and embarrass them!

Catherine said...

I haven't seen Olive Kitteridge, how can one see it now?

Your story about your visit to the hospital reminded me of a trip I made with my late father. He absolutely loved going there, it was a US Veterans Hospital, so free treatment for ex-servicemen. One day, after a routine appointment, kept inventing other things that he felt were wrong with him, like his sight felt worse, so we ended up spending the whole day there. After having his eyesight tested again, the doctor told him his eyesight had actually improved. I was being driven quietly round the bend. We were there the whole day. I felt like leaving him there, to move in, as he obviously loved the attention he was given by the staff.

Sarah said...

Thanks for the heads up about Olive Kitteridge. I'm looking it up.

I have boys too, and am taking note of your views. I am actually very interested in what my boys are doing and what they think about things so just hope we'll be okay. :)

Travellin' Penguin said...

Olive Kitteridge is brilliant, both book and mini series of which I've seen Parts 1 and 2. Olive doesn't show much affection either but her son was all she thought of and look how she treated him. I love this series.
Enjoyed this always.

Steerforth said...

Nilly - Too true, and I'm already embarrassing my youngest son, by daring to ask his friends if they'd like something to eat or drink. Terrible behaviour! If you want to really annoy your children, give them a blow-by-blow description of what you had for lunch, or ask them if they watched some awful daytime quiz show.

Catherine - I expect it will be available on HBO, but failing that, ask a teenager and they will be able to mysteriously obtain it, I'm certain.

Your father's love of attention sounds familiar. If someone lives alone, I can understand it - many old people miss being touched. But perhaps it's also because one feels invisible and irrelevant after a certain age, so being centre stage in any context is pleasurable.

My mother ended her visit to the eye hospital saying, in a very brave voice, "Of course, I will go blind". I reminded her that she'd been saying this for years and that I overheard the doctor telling her how good her sight was. She ignored me.

Sarah - As long as you're interested in your boys and remain positive about the world they live in, you'll be fine. Too many older people fall into the Daily Mail trap of only being interested in current affairs insofar as they prove that the world is now a terrible place and that the old days were much better. Whenever I was enthusiastic about anything, it was dismissed as modern rubbish, which was disheartening.

Penguin - I'm glad you liked it too. When a suitable period of time has elapsed, I'll read the book as well. You're absolutely right about the son - she did always love him, but couldn't see clearly beyond her own depression.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I can totally empathize with you on this one. I want so badly not to be a cranky son but sometimes it is so hard. I have learned over the years to change my expectations which has improved my outlook quite a bit. Although I must say, I would prefer listening to inane chatter over reading Jonathan Franzen.

Thomas at My Porch said...

Following up on one of your comments, have you seen The Imitation Game? Is it something your son would like. Is he too young for it? I gather it wasn't entirely faithful to the facts, but I sure did enjoy it.

Steerforth said...

Thomas - He's old enough, but I'm not sure how receptive he'd be to the film - I think Die Hard is more up his street. However, if I can sell it to him from the cryptography angel, he might be persuaded. I'll have a go.

As for Mr Franzen, I've just read a passage where a character picks up a copy of Atonement and struggles "to interest himself in its descriptions of rooms and paintings." He doesn't go out of his way to make friends.

You'll probably enjoy this, if you haven't read the story already:

Helen said...

That is unquestionably one of the best songs ever written. I love "Magic" for a host of sentimental reasons.

Steerforth said...

Glad you agree Helen - nobody else has commented on it. In purely musical terms, it's very well constructed, with some gorgeous cadences that really stir the emotions. Martha Wainwright's performance on the piano showed what a good song it still was, even without the lush arrangement of the original (which I love too).