One day my mother told me she had no regrets about coming to live with me in France. She arrived alone on British Airways at 86 her hat firmly planted on her head at the usual slightly rakish angle, clutching her handbag rather like the queen. The angle of the hat, I was convinced harked back to her days in the WAF when she and her friend Bunny Boswell were just one of the girls. I believe my mother rose in the ranks to become a captain and I know she was Billeting officer at the end of the war for Devon and Cornwall which is where she married my father and how we all came to be born there.
‘I thought I had reached the age where all one has is the past.’ She said to me one day.
I had taken in her tea; a Strawberry tart from out favourite patisserie and ‘coup’ of Champagne, the bottle offered by a friend.
‘ I was clearly mistaken’ she added sipping her champagne, eyes twinkling.
By then she was bedridden and eleven years had passed.
Three in Provence, in her own place below mine in a medieval square where she easily charmed our neighbours with both the hat and her carefully pronounced Bonjour on her way to the local market with her translated list of groceries. Amused too at her habit of chatting in English both to the small dog who lived opposite as well as to the pigeons that they themselves were petitioning the local council to cull. Even our migrant neighbours took her to their hearts when she gave them a camp bed she had no use for. It transpired that the tenant was sub-letting illegally to seasonal workers so she had innocently aided and abetted his little business. She was, as a result of this characteristic kindness the recipient of an endless supply of fruit in season. Melons in particular, brought to her with such regularity that they perfumed her entire apartment.
When we moved to the Cote d Azur it was time to start keeping an eye on her activities. I took over all the household duties for us both in the spacious ground floor apartment of the Villa where I was acting as guardian. She enjoyed having a garden again, reading under the Olive trees throughout long summer afternoons. We made occasional trips into Nice to visit the large department store in the Place Massena and enjoy an ice while people watching on the Promenade des Anglais.
Four more years passed when still active both physically and mentally we moved to Menton. One hundred meters from the Italian frontier, balconies looking due south out to sea our location was ideally suited to short walks. Later, when a wheelchair made it easier to go into town or for coffee at the bar on the Italian side of the frontier she still got around the flat by herself. She remained largely independent, writing to her friends, reading, following her French tv programmes by translating the TV guide to get the gist of the subject. By now very deaf she made up what she did not understand.
The last two years I would push her bed almost onto the balcony in summer where she could watch passers-by most of whom she knew from their respective dogs. The cat would sleep on her bed all day, they were both old now. It began with the usual falls, the decent into this. I had no experience, could not interpret the veiled hints of the doctor, having no point of reference; it was the beginning though of the inevitable end.
I was going through her things afterwards, when it was all over. I found a card she had written to me, addressed as if she intended posting it to me to the flat we both shared. In it she thanked me for everything I had done as if that did not pale into insignificance beside all a mother gives to her child. It reminded me of the conversation we had the day I spoke of at the start of this story. Any doubts I had that I may have uprooted her, she was after all so quintessentially English, and in the end laid to rest in a ‘foreign field’ were dismissed.
She was 99, so wanting to make that century, finally just 7 months short of it when she died. If anyone had told me the immensity of the loss I would feel I would not have believed them. I wrote the following Poem for Mazie sometime after the end of the following year. I remember so much with joy and laughter as well as with a deeply held hope, but underneath it all the sadness remains.
A Poem for Mazie
This unexpected solitude so hard to bear
This reading of poems by beloved poets long dead
This ache beneath the greetings we give to friends
The terrible quietness of parting.
Of leaving, the birds filling the room with song
While life slipped from her a threadbare cloak of sorrow
Mute, yet still yearning for the loves she had lost.
And I, staring into the cold river rushing away over stones
The last who loved me, for myself, with no restraint
Desolate, torn by my own regrets.
I came from wandering far oceans away
And tears fall as they did then
To be lost in this river of life’s missed moments.