Garden of joy and remembrance

Here in southern Scotland we’ve had a very pleasant summer, allowing me to spend a lot of time out in the garden. Our back garden is difficult – heavily overshadowed by mature trees on an embankment just beyond our neighbour’s house which cuts off our sun at tea time.

We had a tree surgeon remove a large goat willow that might have been up to 40 years old and grind out the stump, and this allowed me to renovate a large corner of the garden. I found wonderful mail order sapling packs from The Woodland Trust and my corner now has a hawthorn, a blackthorn, a hazel, a crabapple and a wild cherry. Other shrubs that I bought (also online) include Cornus canadensis (creeping dogwood), Sambucus ‘black lace’ (elder), Cytisus ‘goldfinch’ (a variety of broom), Azalea ‘geisha white’, Pieris ‘prelude’ and Lavatera ‘barnsley baby’. So far they are all still alive.

One casualty of the tree removal was a glossy mature Mahonia; sadly it’s roots were completely caught up in the willow’s and it didn’t survive the operation. On the other hand, though, we rediscovered a previously overshadowed Potentilla, which – now that it has flowered – is probably the pink one pictured here.

This shrub is laden with meaning for me because we brought it here from my Mum’s garden when she sold the family home. My Mum loved perennial planting and had all sorts of shrubs with different colours and textures throughout that large garden. When she moved into her small cottage with a courtyard garden she had dozens and dozens of shrubs in pots and tubs, which turned into a dangerous obstacle course for her as she got frailer. I managed to save a few of those and rehome others when new people moved into the cottage.

My brother bought me some bedding plants to fill in gaps with colour; I haven’t told him that the marigolds and petunias were eaten by slugs the very first day. I managed to save the begonias, though, and today I have taken stem cuttings to root for next year. I have also learned that slugs adore Campanula spp., so my ‘pink octopus’ and Scottish bluebell (known in England as harebell) are under constant supervision.

You can’t always get what you want…

… and how can you possibly tell if you’re getting what you need?

I’m taking an inventory of the last 12 months, in no particular order:

Good things

The Celtic Connections Festival is online this year, so for just £30 I can see all the concerts without the expnse and trouble of travelling to Glasgow.

Visited my wonderful friend in Australia, returning to the UK just before either of our countries locked down. It was fantastic to see her; wonderful scenery, walks & hospitality. We watched the news every day, as covid-19 news from China & Italy emerged, and we felt for the people trapped on board the Diamond Princess in Japan.

Managed to have a Michelin-starred 21st birthday lunch with our son between lockdowns. The drinks cost more than the food!

Developed my tai chi practice with my friend Bill, who also gave up smoking in June – well done Bill.

Gardening & birdwatching. Cooking & baking. Daily quizes & podcasts.

Bad things

Really hurt myself falling on black ice in December; had to take 3 weeks off tai chi.

Eating too much and gaining weight.

Covid chaos & Brexit badness. Don’t even get me started on these. Increasing costs & restricted freedoms.

Seeing friends in distress & hearing about deaths. Worry for the future.

Always swimming against the tide

Since 23 March 2020 when Scotland was first told to ‘stay at home’, my mood has been on a remarkably even keel; not without a few sad days and one or two grumpy moments, but on the whole pretty damned good. This is all the more remarkable given my decades long history of being either overly emotional or irrationally angry.

There are two reasons. The first is that almost every day I’ve done about 40 minutes of Tai Chi & Qi Gong exercises in my garden, usually with my buddy Bill. When the world was normal, we were in the same pub quiz team. He’s a bit older than me, and a self-described ‘old hippie’, so it’s no surprise this exercise regime has suited him. He lives in a block of flats dedicated to the over 60s, so initially he always came to my garden; later in the summer of 2020 we did 3 days a week in his back yard. We were incredibly lucky with the weather; it was a long dry spring and fairly pleasant summer. When covid restrictions were reapplied later in the year, we reverted back to using my garden only.

The second reason is two stressors are absent from my daily life. For over 20 years, I now recognise, I’d been ‘not right in the head’; not coping very well with child-rearing and elder care. My Mum died in early 2019 and my son moved into a shared flat in the autumn of 2017. It became obvious to me and everyone around me that I got mentally & emotionally better as 2019 progressed. My sense of humour came back; I became more resilient to life’s ups and downs.

It’s amazing that this psychological wellness has persisted throughout this crazy covid and bonkers Brexit year, when I can see and understand that other people are really struggling with stress or isolation or finances or lonliness. I thank my lucky stars I have congnenial company in the house (my husband working from home in our dining room), money coming in as usual, village amenities nearby, and (most crucially of all) good health. We have not been under pressure to go into crowded places to earn our living, not had the ghastly guilt of having a loved one sequestered in a care home.

So for the time being, I’m swimming against the tide, but beginning to wonder for how long.

Finally an orphan – an open sandwich

I began writing this blog to offset and unload the pressure I was feeling from being the filling in the sandwich: daughter, wife, mother. There’s been a very long gap since my last post, and it’s because I’ve been less busy…

It wasn’t until after Mum moved into a nursing home that I began to realise that I was really ‘not right in the head’ for the five or so years of her vascular dementia when she was still at home and demanding more of me than I was equipped to give. She moved into the residential home in February 2017 and lived there for almost exactly two years until her peaceful and timely death earlier this year.

In the summer of 2017 a close-enough friend told me that I seemed much more relaxed than I had for quite some years. It was true; I could see the funny side of life more easily, I started to wear make-up and be more interested in my clothes; I was generally calmer.

I began to feel love and respect for Mum again, rather than frustration and resentment. Even as her personality ebbed away, she always still knew that I was her ‘special person’ and she was always pleased to see me. I enjoyed visiting her again and would go out of my way to find something to talk about to interest her, or to bring her something she’d like (even although she stopped knowing what she’d previously liked).

A few days after Mum died it struck me that I am now an orphan (although in my 50s – my Dad died too young over 20 years ago). I thought it was a ridiculous thought until the Registrar of Births, Marriages & Deaths said that she had felt the same way when her second parent died – so it’s probably a universal realisation. Quite frequently this year I’ve been conscious of wondering about family matters and being sorry that I can’t ask Mum (or Dad) whether they remember so-and-so or such-and-such.

So, I’m no longer the squeezed filling of an uninspiring sandwich; now I can be the glorious 21st century avocado & smoked salmon on toast that is really me.

When you get the last bus home on a Saturday night, and you’re completely sober

Before I even start writng this post I know its going to be difficult to categorise; thank goodness for tags.




I just caught the last bus home from our nation’s capital on a Saturday night. It’s actually a long distance bus, its route is a full 80 miles, so you have to understand that we really depend on that bus. It’s the only bus.

So, when the bus has left the city behind, and the suburbs, and the dormitory town, and is bowling along a trunk route at 50 miles an hour at least, and the fuckwits that have had too much to drink and are feeling sick insist on having the windows open; and if anyone disagrees with this their pals will all gang up on them…..

What a monumental sense of entitlement.

Maybe get off the bus if you feel sick? No can do because it’s the ONLY bus home.

Maybe drink less? Well, too late for that, even if it is a valid argument.

Demonise anyone who disagrees with you? Of course, because it’s me me me.






Car insurance claim: it’s a Saga

Today for the first time in over 20 years I made a car insurance claim. A great big 4×4 rear-ended my wee town car while I was stationary at traffic lights. Things looked a bit twisted at the rear of my car and it looked a bit down on the left side, as though something was amiss in the suspension.

Coincidentally, the bump happened just down the road from the garage where I bought my car, so after getting the other driver’s details I drove slowly to that garage and phoned my insurance company, hoping to ask them if the garage I was at could check the car over to see if it was roadworthy.

Silly, naive me.

I now realise that anyone with any experience whatsoever of car insurance claims will laugh at my assumption the process could be anywhere near rational. Not only is it not rational, it’s also immensely time-consuming, and absolutely not designed – whatever they say in the adverts – for the ease of the customer.

I was on the phone – mobile phone mind you – for an hour and twenty minutes; first to Saga (Niall) who took all the details at great length and then said that since it was almost certainly a ‘no-fault’ claim they would transfer me to ClaimFast (a claims management company) (Josh) to organise the recovery of my vehicle and the provision of the hire car as per my policy.

I only had to repeat a portion of what I’d already said to Niall to Josh. Sigh.

What  I now know is that the claims management company’s role is to sign me up for another insurance policy that will pay them if the third party insurer doesn’t pay up. Let me repeat that: instead of Saga dealing with all that sort of thing as a back room function, I have to sign up to another consumer credit agreement – the paperwork will be coming in the post soon. [But Saga, I thought I paid you all that money for fully comprehensive insurance so that I’d be covered if the unfortunate event happened.]

And there’s more: the replacement car that I paid extra for in my premium turns out to involve an agreement with yet another company, Enterprise, and I was to be collected by one of their staff, taken back to their depot, sign documents there and swipe my credit card before I could have the car. Un-be-lieveable!

Poor Josh. I began to lose patience with him at that point: “I need to go home,” I wailed, “I have responsibilities.” The Enterprise depot is 10 miles in the opposite direction from my home, where I was already an hour and a half overdue as a result of being rear-ended and talking on the phone to Niall and Josh.

I suggested to Josh that the car hire guy could come and get me at my home tomorrow, and he checked with his supervisor and they decided that was OK. Finally, I was able to get off the phone, call my husband with the news and ask him to come and pick me up and take me home.

I always like to identify the lesson in things that happen to me in life, and the lesson I have learned today is that come renewal time I won’t use Saga and, whichever company I choose,  I’ll be taking out just third party, fire and theft cover plus a nice big RAC membership. That way, in the unlikely event of another accident I’ll be able to get home promptly and choose the contractors I want to do the repairs.

The first day of the rest of our lives

Mum moved into a nursing home today.

The woman who has given me merry hell for the last several years about not wanting to accept any carers because she thought it was the thin end of wedge towards me ‘getting rid’ of her and ‘putting her in a home’….

The woman who 10 years ago rejected her solicitor’s advice (to put her new house into joint ownership with me and/or my brother “in order to preserve the assets for the family should she ever need to go into residential care”) because she thought we would turf her out into a care home in order to get the money…

The woman who called me every day with some excuse why I had to attend her, but who told the doctor and the social work key contact and random passing strangers that I was ‘vicious’….

The woman who has lived with donkey’s years worth of clutter and obsessive repeat purchases ‘in case she ran out’ and would never let us move anything, including the rugs that were tripping hazards….

Yes, that woman, has today elegantly and with a very brave face on moved into one small room in a nursing home without so much as an enquiry about what’s going to happen to all her stuff at home.

No, she doesn’t want to take any of her furniture. And she seems rather happy that we’ll have to sell her house in due course to pay the fees.

“The empty busywork of visible consultation” [Don Paterson]

Sometimes you read something that resonates so powerfully that it brings previously unconscious thoughts or attitudes into the light of conscious awareness.

That’s what happened to me when I read the open letter written by Dundee poet Don Paterson and published in The (Glasgow) Herald in September 2012.

He was publicly criticising the way Creative Scotland had asked writers to take part in a consultation on some issue or other of importance to Scottish writers, but had then completely disregarded the input from those consultees. Here’s the relevant passage:

“A couple of years ago I was part of a group set up by one of our most literate MSPs to review literature funding in Scotland. I was honoured to find myself in a room with a handful of the more serious players in the Scottish literature sector. We were, however, assembled to do the empty busywork of visible consultation, and we should have known at the time. The process itself was unprofessional, mendacious, corrupt, and ruined by just the sort of nepotism, autocratic whim and lack of oversight that our final report complained of.

“Predictably, not one recommendation was directly acted upon, nor received anything but the most anodyne lip-service. The report was charged with providing a strategy. That the one we proposed was summarily rejected was bad enough; perhaps it was the wrong one. But that precisely none has been seen or enunciated since is wholly unforgivable.”

When I read this I suddenly realised that this had happened to me and my village community when our local authority ‘consulted’ with us over the location of a much-needed new primary school. The community worked together very well to raise awareness of the alternative proposals, and a very strong consensus emerged in favour of one.

Guess which one was built? Yes, of course the other one, resulting in a real material loss of a popular and much-used playing field.

Not only that, my newly raised consciousness started recognising all the other times in recent years when I had been given the illusion of influence where, in fact, it was all a sham.

For example, the same local authority (starved of cash as the all are in these times of Austerity) ‘consulted’ with parents over whether to switch to an asymmetic school week. It was a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, as the benefits of such a change to our kids’ education were promulgated, but absolutely everybody knew the change would definitely be implemented because it would allow the Council to save £350K on teacher salaries.

We are currently being consulted over proposed changes to flightpaths around Edinburgh Airport. Will it be any wonder that they get a dismal response rate? I simply feel sorry for the poor residents who will inevitably get more noise while rejoicing for those who will get less.

So what I realise – maybe later in life than I should have – is that sometimes you shouldn’t play football; instead you have to pick up the ball and run with it.

A poignant moment

How strange that I didn’t feel emotional when I ordered these name tapes – in my Mum’s name – last week; but opening the envelope just now and seeing them gave me a real kick in the gut.

I was clearing out some drawers in Mum’s house last week when I came accross a nearly fifty year old name tape bearing my name; I remember so well those name tapes inside all my school uniform clothes. I remember too being puzzled that my name was in a lovely shade of brown on a white background, whereas the uniform was blue with touches of red, light blue and yellow, so the name tape didn’t match at all. I don’t remember if I ever asked Mum why she ordered brown, and I doubt very much if she’d be able to tell me now.

I ordered a blue name on a white background for Mum – she likes blue and has many blue skirts, blouses, tops and cardigans. I think sewing the name tapes into all her clothes will be a labour of love, and I suspect she enjoyed doing it for me when I was a child.

The WRVS doesn’t serve vodka (saving carers from themselves)

The last straw in a crap day was the freak accident when I stabbed myself under my thumbnail with a fork tine while loading the dishwasher.

Actually, the day wasn’t all bad: I took Mum to visit a care home today, and we immediately knew that it was ‘the one’. When we arrived the residents all looked out of the window with interest to see who was coming, and the atmosphere inside was lively and welcoming. I’ve visited a lot of care homes in the last two weeks, and this was special. Mum is on the waiting list for this home – second on the list – so I just have to hope I can stall the NHS long enough – her discharge date was supposed to be last Friday – for her to get a place there.

When we left, though, I scratched my car on the bin shelter as I manoevered out of a tight driveway. Then when we got back to the cottage hospital Mum is staying in at the moment I got a text from my son to say that he’d not been successful in getting a business apprenticeship at Ernst & Young: meanwhile Mum was having a demented, anxiety-fuelled hissy fit about something that was impenetrable to me. As I sipped my Pepsi Max, I regretted that the vending machine in the WRVS cafe doesn’t dispense vodka.

Then after dinner, while loading the dishwasher I got an excuse for tears when I stabbed myself painfully under the thumbnail with a fork tine. At least that took my son’s mind off his rejection for a few minutes.

A mother’s place is in the wrong

Here’s something I wrote back in 2010 before I properly understood my son’s executive function difficulties.

Our Town, June 2010

Dear Stan,

It’s a few minutes before midnight as I begin this letter of love to you, at the end of a very busy day.

Earlier this evening you shed tears of disappointment as we walked back to the car after the great Our Town Scout Jamboree. All the Beavers, Cubs and Scouts were gathered for a games night: tug of war, hide and seek, the bucket filling race, and toasting marshmallows on the campfire. You were awarded the Chief Scout’s Silver Award – the highest badge available in Cubs – and formally passed from Cubs to Scouts.

cub_challenge_badgeBut still you cried, even though you have never been a cry baby. Why?

Because you did not receive the ‘Scottish Challenge Badge’.

And you blamed me.

When you were younger, you used to resist doing your reading homework, using every dodge, trick, displacement activity you could think of, and you had many, many tantrums about it. Later on, in P5, your homework refusal transferred itself to maths. Luckily for you, you hardly ever got maths homework in P6, but when you did my heart sank as it was always a horrible scene.

One evening a few months ago, you had maths homework, but wouldn’t do it. Work that should have taken 20 minutes took over an hour, and most of what you did was incorrect. By the time the maths homework was finally finished it was nearly 7.30 and you had missed an hour of Cubs. As the Cubs meeting finished at 8 pm, I said you couldn’t go at all, thinking that missing something you enjoyed would be a good lesson to encourage you to get your homework done in future.

Well, it turns out that three activities counting towards the Scottish Challenge badge were done that evening at Cubs, and it all came home to roost tonight when you saw other boys get that badge and you didn’t. You cried bitter tears, you couldn’t keep them in, as we walked back to the car after the meeting broke up. You said it was my fault you didn’t get the badge because I had made you miss that Cubs meeting. I could tell you remembered that evening even more clearly than I did.

I tried to gently reason with you that if you’d done the work quicker you wouldn’t have missed the Cubs meeting. You said I had made you do extra sums as well as the homework, and perhaps I did to try to reinforce what you’d been getting wrong. I reminded you that you’d had a dreadful tantrum and refused to do the homework. You said, “Of course I had a tantrum, because you were hitting me.”

I did hit you. Smack you. I did lose my temper. Although it was after I spent a very long time and a lot of emotional energy trying to get you to do a few little sums on a worksheet. It was after you were in a full blown oppositional-defiant tantrum, and I had used up all my resources, not before.

I’m sorry I hit you, I’m sorry I lost my temper. Those things are my fault and I am to blame. I am responsible for my behaviour.

I’m sorry you are sad about the Scottish Challenge badge. But is it my fault you missed out on it? It was a consequence of a chain of events that began with you refusing to quickly do a little bit of maths homework. When will you be responsible for your choices?

But I feel awful and am crying as I type this.

I love you more than I love my own life and I always will.

Mum x

What the future holds – moving goalposts

I read this short essay by Justine Brooks on social media today, and immediately realised that she and her mother are probably just a few months – maybe a year – ahead of us on the vascular dementia journey.

“Recently, a friend who has been there said to me, “The thing with dementia is, you have to do your grieving when they’re still alive.”

It’s true. You watch helplessly as the woman who brought you into the world – held your hand, wiped away your tears, was your friend and confidante – slips away, slowly, one week at a time. What you’re left with is a person who both is and isn’t your mother.”

The essay is beautifully (and simply) written. It also happens to say things that I either already recognise, or can imaging happening soon, like this notion of shifting goalposts:

“And yet today, when she really doesn’t know who I am, I’m calm, I’m accepting, I’m not upset. That’s what happens with this disease: it moves the goalposts. Or perhaps that’s about human nature’s ability to adjust to any kind of situation.”

Thank you, Justine.