The hardest goodbye

Sometimes, the biggest events in your life are the hardest to talk about, which is why I’ve been keeping a low profile for a little while. Besides, it’s never easy to say goodbye to someone you love, and I loved my Grandma A LOT.

For months … no, years… Grandma would get an infection and we’d leave her fearing the worst … only to find her the next morning, miraculously returned from death’s door, sitting up in bed eating tea and toast. Although, at 95 years old, I knew our days together were numbered, she’d defied the odds so many times that I still wasn’t quite prepared when it happened. But even the most resilient woman can’t go on forever, and one day – suddenly – that was it. She slipped into unconsciousness and never woke up.

If I’m honest, her abilities had been so reduced that it can’t have been much fun to be Grandma at the end. She couldn’t walk, her hearing was poor and her vision had become limited. One of her hands had almost no strength, and even eating became an effort that she was less and less willing to make.

Her pleasures were few: sitting in the garden with the sun on her face and hearing news of her great-grandchildren, whom she adored. Whenever we visited, the little guy would hold her hand, dispensing cuddles and kisses, and she’d exclaim what a little love he was to anyone who’d listen – even if she did sometimes get his name wrong towards the end.

Although, in recent years, Grandma had drifted into this weakened state, I don’t like to think of her that way. In my mind, she’s always a strong, vigorous woman – famous for long, energetic hikes across the moors and equally energetic catering for the troops once we’d all trailed back home and the rest of us were sprawled on the sofa, barely capable of speech – never mind whipping up a meat and potato pie.

Grandma was a Lancastrian lass through and through. Born in 1923, she started her working life at fourteen, in the laboratory of a local mill, and by seventeen she was managing a bakery, in charge of two members of staff. This goes some way to explaining her lifelong love of good bread and her tireless industry in the kitchen, never knowingly offering two menu choices where five would do.

Like most people of a distinguished age, Grandma lived a remarkable life. During the Second World War she dodged bullets from an enemy plane while visiting Grandad, who was stationed on the Isle of Wight; she was the driving force behind family holidays abroad – notably to Spain during the rule of Franco – in the days when foreign holidays were only slightly more common than hens’ teeth; and she learned to drive at the age of 55, getting fined for speeding at the age of 85. (I know. Speeding’s not cool, but … she was 85. 85!!!)

She was a thoroughly modern woman, even in the last years of her life, learning to use a computer and a tablet when she was already nudging 90, and was an avid consumer of news – not least the wins, draws and losses of her beloved Bolton Wanderers.

In short, she was a very special lady.

But one of the pleasures of growing up is realising that every one of us is special. Visiting Grandma in the home where she latterly resided, I’d often find her in the lounge, surrounded by the other residents in various states of depletion: some who’d call out to people only they could see; others who carried their doll with them at all times; still others who talked about getting back to the lives they’d left behind, no matter that the return was not likely to happen today, or any other day. On one level, you could read it as a tragedy.

And yet. And yet…

Getting to know this motley bunch of characters and gradually peeling back the layers, secret past lives were uncovered. The mayor, the chorister, the farmer, the flower arranger; those who had travelled and those who’d dodged death … every one of these residents – bound together by nothing more than circumstance – had lived fascinating lives, unique personal histories, deserving of celebration.

So celebrate we did. We gave Grandma the brightest, most uplifting send-off we could – or as joyful as you can be when all you want to do is cry. As I’ve mentioned before, she was a stylish dresser so drab colours were banned; everyone wore their brightest brights and the casket was adorned with flowers in vibrant shades.

No, it’s never easy to say goodbye to someone you love, but sometimes you have to focus on the person you knew and the influence they had on you, not on what you’ve lost. I loved my Grandma very much, and I was lucky to have her for as long as I did.


There’s no-one quite like grandma

This has been a landmark week in the history of our family: my beloved Grandma was 95 yesterday.

I’ve mentioned before how much I admire this strong and stylish woman, but it wasn’t always the case. When I was a child, my grandparents lived more than a hundred miles away, so I didn’t really get to know Grandma until Grandad died and she came to live with my mom. While that entailed a lot of sacrifices for mom – not least converting her living room into Grandma’s bedroom – I’m really glad it happened, otherwise I might not have got to know this wonderful lady in all her kind, stubborn and sometimes infuriating ways.

For an old lady, she has a surprisingly modern mindset, and is – or appears to be – unfazed by new-fangled ideas, such as gay marriage, and unperturbed by her granddaughter’s single motherhood.

(Mind you, there were probably more than a few single mothers knocking around after the war, which probably makes it less of a thing. In fact, anyone who’s lived through wartime probably sees very many non-standard circumstances as “less of a thing”, but that’s another story…)

Although Grandma has, undeniably, got weaker over the last year – she can no longer walk, her eyesight isn’t what it was and if you want an answer to your question, you’d better ask it on her good side and make sure her hearing aid is set to max. – I’m always surprised by the strength of her spirit.

A lesser woman, myself possibly included, would surely have been ground down by the gradual loss of life’s pleasures, such as reading her beloved Bolton News and keeping track of the Wanderers’ progress in the Championship, but Grandma’s vital spark remains surprisingly undiminished.

True, she’s not the fashionista she once was, but she’s still keen to make sure her outfits coordinate and would always prefer to be seen with her beads than without – even if her teeth are slowly becoming an optional extra.

I can only imagine how much has changed in her lifetime. What I can’t really imagine is how it feels to be 95, and to know that, unless life takes a very surprising turn, you can count your remaining birthdays on the fingers of one hand.

But despite Grandma’s apparent insouciance around each new depletion of her abilities, watching her grow old has made me more afraid of aging than anything else. As an older mother, I’m terrified that age will catch up with me before I’ve properly provided for my son, before he’s well and truly settled on his life path … and there’ll be no one left to help him on his way.

Still, it looks as though the genetics are on my side. If Grandma can make it to 95, there’s no reason for me to be any different. And, at the tender age of not-quite-five, he’s adamant that he’ll, “live with you FOREVER, Mummy” – that is, if current rules remain unchanged and he’s unable to actually marry me when he grows up.

Still a cuddly bundle of infantile sweetness, he’s doted on by all the women in our family – not least Grandma, who quite literally adores him. He, in his turn, fuels her adoration by fetching and carrying her personal effects and attempting to push her wheelchair whenever we take her on an adventure … such as today’s birthday jaunt down by the river.

We’re fortunate that the clouds break, and days upon days of grey cloud and rain are punctuated by glorious sunshine. We ask a passer-by to take a photo … and there we are, frozen for posterity: four generations – three strong, single women and the small, sweet subject of their affections. We took the same photo last year.

I hope we can take it again the next.

A chip off the old block

It’s a drizzly Wednesday afternoon and I’m cycling home from work. I’ve been in the office on my own all day and, fearing mental insanity if I’m obliged to spend the evening alone as well, I’m whizzing along, wondering whether a friend with a recently broken ankle will be mobile enough to meet for a coffee.

(Of course, I won’t be completely alone; the small human will be with me. But, as entertaining as he is, his 7pm bedtime leaves a whole chunk of evening for me to twiddle my thumbs.)

Lost in thought, I overtake an older gentleman on a mountain bike. As is often the case when I overtake members of the opposite sex, he sharpens his posture … and quickens his pace. Since I don’t want to be stuck in the middle of the road, I accelerate again so that I can get past him and back to the kerb. But he accelerates too.

Struck by how farcical this is, I turn and catch his eye. He grins, and accelerates again. I burst out laughing but, stubborn mule that I am, I match him metre for metre … then pull ahead just a little. Purely in the interests of ending the race, of course.

By now we’re tearing along down the narrow side street and I’m grateful there are no pedestrians who might be about to risk their necks at this inopportune moment. The road is a patchwork of bumpy asphalt and I’m laughing so hard I can barely ride in a straight line.

Perhaps sensing that I’m not about to quit any time soon, my rival ducks his head as he passes an imaginary finishing line, and says, “Yesss! Made it! You have to take me out to dinner now!”

A small voice in my head says, “Made it? I thrashed you!” but I laugh and make my excuses, give a cheery wave and say, “Nice racing with you!” before I zip off to collect the wee one.

But speaking to a human, a real-life human – albeit in a ridiculous context – has cheered me up … and also made me aware of how little human interaction I sometimes get. Which, for a born chatterbox, is a very sad state of affairs.

Of course, I’m not on my own in this. There are probably single parents up and down the land lamenting the days when they went out every night and had scores of mates on speed dial, ready for a coffee and a chinwag. (There may be lots of married parents thinking the very same thing, but I can’t speak for them.)

The trouble with having a full-time job, a distant family and an absent parent on an ever-diminishing visiting schedule is that opportunities to hang out with other grownups are few and far between. And although I pick my son’s playdates carefully to allow me to mingle with the very highest calibre of bright, funny mummies (and daddies), it’s hard to have a proper conversation when you’re interrupted every two minutes to wipe a nose, administer a snack or kiss a scraped knee.

Even trying to invite said mummies round to our place is fraught with difficulty. Between work, family commitments and feeding schedules it’s hard enough to pick a date, never mind stick to it once it’s pencilled in the diary. Forgotten commitments rise up like a phoenix from the flames, people get ill and, sometimes, you just don’t have the energy.

Anyway, in the interests of staving off solitude for the evening, I decide to call the limping friend. I tell her about my high-speed cycle race.

“You mean,” she says carefully, enunciating every word, “you turned down a dinner date with a fellow cyclist?”

“What?!” I splutter. “You’re joking?! It was a throwaway comment!”

“You don’t know that,” she says, with a slightly smug air.

“I don’t need to know,” I retort. “Anyway, he was firmly in the niche.”

Ah, yes. The niche: my inherent attraction to gentlemen under 25 and over 55 – and total lack of attraction to those in between.

I can almost hear her roll her eyes at the other end of the phone.

“You’ll never get anywhere with that attitude.”

“Wait… what?!” I snort in indignation. “Never mind elderly gentlemen on bicycles! Can you come out or not?”

She can’t. She already has plans. Of course she does; she doesn’t have kids.

It’s getting late, so I collect the young gentleman and we treat ourselves to a bag of chips on a park bench. Because that’s the kind of rock’n’roll lifestyle we lead.

“Mummy,” he says, nuzzling up to me with one greasy paw clutching a bunch of chips. “This is nice, isn’t it?”

And you know what? It is. It really is.

Mamihlapinatapai on my mind

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Mamihla…. what?

Allow me to explain.

Because I’m a bit of a word nerd, I tend to spend quite a bit of time on (Yeah, I know…) Anyway, I was hanging out there the other day when I found an article about terrifyingly specific words that don’t exist in English … which is where I met mamihlapinatapai.

Apparently, it comes from Yahgan, the language of the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego, and it describes, “a wordless, meaningful look between two people who want the other to initiate something they both desire, but neither wants to start.”

It’s a pretty specific word, and I’m rather impressed that it exists – and I’m quite sure I’ve suffered from it on more than one occasion in the past.

Nowadays, however, I fear it’s more like hemi-mamihlapinatapai, or whatever it’s called when only one of you is being reticent about making a move and the other is wondering what they’re going to have for dinner tonight.

And, no, I’m not saying which side of that equation refers to me.

If I’m honest, though, I’ve pretty much stopped giving my single status any thought; there doesn’t seem much point. It’s a static condition – an ossified state that’s become so much a part of me that I may as well try to remove my head as try to change it.

On the rare occasions that I do think about it, I realise that of all the roles I play in life – parent, daughter, colleague, friend – my overriding identity is single mum. It’s who I am. It’s how I see myself, and I can’t imagine the day when ‘single’ isn’t part of that equation.

Sometimes, I wonder what will happen when the little guy has left the nest – or worse, entered the twilight zone of his teenage years, where parents become desperately uncool and hugs and kisses are distinctly passé.

At the moment, he’s an affectionate little being and I’m the lucky recipient of endless cuddles and daily drawings of hearts with ‘Mummy’ written on them. But one day, in a not-too-distant future, he’ll be rolling his eyes and sighing when I try to give him a hug … and I’ll be totally bereft.

Of course, it’s a natural progression, and a sign that I’ve done my job well if he leaves me behind with nary a backward glance … but I do wonder how it will feel to face that separation on my own, with no one to hug me in his place.

Still – who knows? – by then I might be married to a handsome prince and living in a thatched cottage with chickens round the door. And, if not, there’s bound to be some study, somewhere, that says single women have more fun, live longer and are more likely to win the lottery.

And anyway, one gorgeous guy in my life is significantly better than none at all – even if he does sometimes sneeze in my face when he sneaks into my room at 6am. At least he puts his socks in the wash basket and cleans the loo after himself.

I mean, really, with a guy like that, who could ask for anything more?

With friends like these…

“You mean to say,” asks my friend over a coffee in the park, “that’s there not a single man ON THE WHOLE PLANET that you find attractive?”

Her eyes are nearly popping out of her head as she stares at me, agog.

“That’s not what I said,” I reply. “There are many men that I find attractive. It’s just that they aren’t necessarily single. And the ones that are don’t seem to be attracted to me.”

She tuts in disgust.

“The trouble with you is that even when a bloke is super-keen, you don’t notice!”

I consider this.

Whilst there haven’t exactly been hordes of men beating a path to my door of late, it’s true that, historically, I have been a bit obtuse in that department. But there once was a time – admittedly many years ago – when I was confident in my ability to attract gentlemen that appealed to me. Now, my default is to assume that they just wouldn’t be interested … mostly because they’re not.

“What happened to that guy you wrote to on the dating site?” she persists.

“Didn’t reply.”

“And the guy you were spending all that time with?”

Ah, now this was a single gentleman that I did like. And I thought that he liked me. He spent enough time round at my place, anyway… initially, at least. He was even great with the little guy. But then one evening we went out together and I made the tiniest of advances … and was so firmly rebuffed that I didn’t dare try again. And that was that.

We’re still mates, and he’s still in the little guy’s Top 10 of favourite human beings, but I’m under no illusions about the fate of that friendship.

“Wasn’t interested,” I mutter.

“Whaaat?!” She narrows her eyes. “He spent all that time with you because he wasn’t interested?”

I have to admit, it seemed odd to me. But what do I know?

“Apparently so,” I say.

My friend rolls her eyes in disgust.

“And did you challenge him about it?”

Challenge him?!”

I’m not sure what my friend has in mind, here. Ask him how very dare he spend time with me if he had no intention of making an honest woman of me? Maybe he just wanted to spend time with me. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he loves hanging out with the little guy. Whatever his motives, I doubt very much he’d change his mind just because I challenge him.

“You have to fight for what you want,” says Friend.

Now it’s my turn to roll my eyes.

“You can’t force someone to like you,” I say.

“Why not?” she says. “It worked for Belle.”

Actually, improbable as it may seem, it really did work for Belle.

Belle is a woman we used to work with, full of fun and raucous laughter, bustling and hugely efficient, but also feisty and maybe just a tiny bit pushy.

Anyway, despite having been engaged to each other for no short time, her other half took it upon himself to dump her. But she wasn’t having that. Oh, no. She hassled him and harried him and refused to take no for an answer. Now they’re married with two kids.

So yes, it worked for Belle, but that’s just not my style. I don’t want to be known as the woman who bullied someone into being with her.

“If I challenge him,” I explain patiently, “then I might lose a friend. And I’d rather have a good mate than a reluctant boyfriend.”

“So you’re just going to yearn quietly from afar?” says my mate.

“Yes. Well, no. I’m done with yearning.”

I can tell she’s about to berate me again, so I jump up brightly and suggest getting lunch. Which is, apparently, all that’s needed for the guy who’s been sprawled on an adjacent bench to come to his senses and join our conversation.

“Lunch? Yes please, darlin’!” he crows, before breaking into the sort of wheezy laugh that has you reaching for the Lemsip in emphysematic empathy.

I look sideways at my friend, biting my lip in an effort to suppress a rebuttal.

She smirks at me and, raising a suggestive eyebrow, whispers, “Get your coat love…!”

And I do get my coat. I get my coat and I throw it squarely at her head. And then we go for lunch.

What to do about Alan Carr

It turns out that second dates aren’t that easy to arrange. Or, at least, second dates without a four-year-old in tow.

Yep, I’m referring to Alan Carr.

You wouldn’t think it could be so hard for two grown-ups to arrange a get-together of some sort. But it is. And, I must admit, it’s mostly my fault.

Part of the problem stems from my reluctance to bother any of my mummy friends who already have two offspring of their own to wrangle with. The other part of the problem is my reluctance to pay the exorbitant rates demanded by professional babysitters: although we’re not flat broke any more, I can’t contemplate coughing up fifty quid on childcare before I even put a foot out the door.

And the other part of the problem – yes, there are three parts, OK? – is that weird, undefinable mummy-guilt that crashes down on my head every time I even think about dumping my beloved offspring on a babysitter just so that I can go out and – horrors! – have a good time.

Complicated, no?

Add to that a man who also has a social life of his own and … yeah, you can see why Alan Carr and I have yet to meet up again.

Mind you, it’s almost easier that way. Because if the next date goes well, I’ll have to think about the date after that. And the thought of having to go through this rigmarole EVERY TIME I want to leave the house pretty much kills my enthusiasm stone dead, right from the off.

The only time I feel completely happy about skipping off for a night out is when Nanna is here – a sporadic happening – or when the Baby Daddy visits, once every six weeks.

I do have one or two childless mates who, for some illogical reason, fall into the category of people I don’t mind hassling, but I usually prefer them to be on the night out with me, rather than guarding my snoozling child.

Anyway, it seems the only way that dating is likely to be a stress-free experience is if the gentleman in question is happy to pop round to mine for a cuppa after infant bedtime. Pretty much every time. (It’s a rock’n’roll lifestyle, I know. He might struggle to keep pace.)

Truly, I’m destined for an old age surrounded by cats.

But, like the good Yorkshireman he is, Alan Carr is being stoic about it, and we’re still in touch … although I imagine I’ve been downgraded from a top prospect to my own special corner of the friend zone. Not that I blame him. From his perspective, it must look like he’s been sold a pup.

Still, I mustn’t get downhearted, because I’ve been the object of not one but TWO gentlemen’s attentions this week.

Yep, the mysterious owner of the-flat-two-doors-down – who hasn’t been spotted in the eight months since we moved in – finally made an appearance … and wasted no time in suggesting that he could, “knock me up for a drink” (a peculiar turn of phrase) next time he’s in town.

He seemed friendly enough, but since he seems to orbit this way … well, about once every eight months, I don’t suppose I need to get too excited, especially since he’s about 20 years my senior. He might be on a zimmer frame the next time he pops by.

Anyway, gentleman number two popped along with his son to buy my old vacuum cleaner … and, discovering that we were both single parents, suggested that I might like to meet him sometime – sans offspring – to, erm, chat about the trials of single parenthood.

Great, I hear you say. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s no delicate way to put this: he had a faceful of tattoos. He had a faceful of tattoos and that just doesn’t float my boat.

Lord knows, I’m not normally so quick to judge people on their appearances: I had dreadlocks for years and I’m no stranger to the odd tattoo myself. And yet … a faceful of tattoos is somehow a tattoo or two too far. It’s a demarcation line that says, you want to be perceived one way, and I want to be perceived another. And so I politely declined.

Still, it’s good to know I’ve still got it.

Mine may be a rarefied cachet, but it turns out there are plenty of youngsters, older gentlemen and social self-excluders who think I’m the bee’s knees.

And in the circumstances, I suppose I should be grateful for that.

Save me, Alan Carr!

I know in some ways it’s a bit daft, but every now and then I have a pang of guilt about the little guy and the fact that he’s growing up in a household that has no men.

I mean, sure, he’s under no illusions about who his daddy is – he sees him every six weeks – but … on a day-to-day basis, he’s missing out on all the things that boys do with their dads, from fixing and dismantling stuff to poking about under the bonnet of the car.

I know that plenty of boys grow up without a father around at all, but in our gang, we’re pretty much the only ones. (I recently discovered one other single mum – one! – after four years of searching.)

I also know that not all dad are practical gurus and that I’m quite welcome to get into DIY or bike maintenance myself, but whatever a parent’s skills are, by the very nature of the beast, they can never be as broad and varied as those of two parents’.

Now, generally speaking, I’m not the sort of mum who panics because her child hasn’t mastered quantum mechanics shortly after ditching the diapers … but I do sometimes worry that I can’t help the little fella with lots of things he might be enthusiastic about. Which might, I suppose, be one of the reasons why I find myself here, back at the speed dating again.

I know, I know. The devil made me do it.

Even though these soirées tend to be about as much fun as stepping on snails in the dark, they’re also the only practical way for a single mum to meet other singles – what with having approximately zero socialising hours and all. But honestly … why I do it to myself I just don’t know.

Masochism, maybe?

Anyway, so far I’ve sat through a full five minutes of Baz’s jalopy racing (Baz doesn’t know a thing about me beyond my name); an intense conversation with a Russian nuclear physicist whose greatest passion seems to be collecting beer mats (what is it about me and Russians?); and a highly jocular, if slightly forced, conversation with a guy from the American airbase who pronounced caramel as cormel … leaving us at cross purposes for a decent chunk of our allotted five minutes.

Yeah, I know… but these are the kind of conversations you have at speed dating events.

Anyhow, just a few seats away, coming closer with every round, I see a guy with a striking similarity to Alan Carr. And throughout the beer mats and whatnot, he becomes a beacon of homeliness; a cosy, Paddington Bear-type character that I’m quite looking forward to meeting … though not necessarily in a romantic context, it must be said.

He’s not exactly like Alan Carr. Obviously.

He’s presumably less funny … and almost certainly less gay, given that he’s elected to spend his evening at a decidedly hetero speed dating session. But nonetheless, I can’t deny I’m expecting some sort of similarity. So when he opens his mouth and a deep Yorkshire baritone comes out, I nearly fall off my chair.

“I didn’t expect that accent,” I say.

“It’s the Alan Carr thing, isn’t it?” he replies, quick as a whip. “Everyone says that. They’re expecting a mincy mockney then this voice comes booming out.”

“You do have a bit of the Alan Carr about you,” I say, as if I’d just thought of it. “How does that work out in the world of dating?”

“Not as well as you might think,” he says, grimacing.

“Well, at least you seem to fall into the ‘normal’ bracket,” I reply. “You’re not into jalopy racing, are you?”

He shakes his head.

“Beer mats?”

He starts to laugh. “You’ve had a good night, then?”

“The best,” I say wryly.

Around us, everyone is starting to pack up and leave; our five minutes are up and the event is drawing to a close. Nearby, the Russian physicist hovers expectantly.

“Oh lord,” I say, tilting my head in his direction. “Beer Mat Man. Save me, Alan Carr!”

And do you know what? He does.

He holds my coat for me, then pulls my arm firmly through his, gives Beer Mat Man a robust nod by way of farewell, and marches me out of the door.

We hold our poise until we’re well clear, then burst out laughing.

“That was impressive,” I say. “Truly masterful.”

“Oh aye,” he smiles. “Alan Carr doesn’t mess about.”

Then he pulls me close and kisses me, and I think, you’re darned right: Alan Carr really doesn’t mess about.