I’m in a mildly agitated state because I feel slightly scatterbrained. Lots of different things are screaming for attention and wanting to make it into today’s post and there’s a mental clamour that makes me feel a bit pooped even though it’s not yet 11 o’clock in the morning. Good thing I’ve had four ginger cookies to fortify myself. And these are excellent cookies, purchased in a big tin I daresay I will empty unaided in the coming weeks. I found them at the Scandinavian store in Man Town the day I went after and lassoed my couch cushions. They’re soooo tasty; spiced instead of sweet, light and thin instead of thick and doughy (though ordinarily I say give me chewy cookies over hard biscuits ANY DAY – I make an exception for these). The tin is seasonally red and quite festive, and if I can decipher that Viking font correctly, they’re called ‘Nyakers Pepparkakor’ – damn fine ginger snaps could well be the literal translation. I find them soothing. Might have two more.
One of the things I wanted to tell you is that it’s Lady Alzheimer’s 86th birthday today, and by phoning at 7:30 am, I succeeded in catching her in her room – mid-ablutions, according to the staff member who answered the phone (when she came to the phone, Nana more cryptically suggested she was “having some thing done,” the combined information instantly conjuring the more regrettable, er, end of the image spectrum). Well, wasn’t the birthday girl bright as a button? She was very jolly, and pretty lucid. Note to self: call early before her brain gets tired and starts playing silly buggers.
“How old am I?” she wanted to know.
“86,” I said.
Suddenly I doubted myself.
“Well, what year were you born?”
Pause. And then a giggle.
“Oh, I don’t remember!”
“I’m pretty sure it was 1923.”
“Oh,” she said, pleased, recognising the year, “I think you might be right!”
“Well, in that case you are 86 today.”
“It doesn’t seem right somehow,” she said dreamily.
“I think perhaps it’s because you’re now older than Granddad lived to be.”
“Yes,” I said, wanting to kick myself. What a stupid, thoughtless thing to say! Sometimes she doesn’t remember that Granddad – although the first of four husbands, he and Nana remained friends, and when both were widowed became twilight sweeties – has died. But on I ploughed, like a runaway train. “Granddad died at 83, two months before his 84th birthday.”
There was another pause, and then Nana said throatily, “Dear Keith.”
My turn to choke up.
“Dear Granddad,” I managed at last.
We kept chatting.
“How’s Llewie?” Nana asked for the second time. No memory problems on that front; she may not recall my answer to the original enquiry only moments before, but she sure does know who she wants to know about!
Anyway, all’s good on that front. Nana said again how lovely everyone is at St Andrew’s, how often Kate and the kids visit, how there’s a nice gentleman whom she considered but ultimately declined because she didn’t feel like getting into anything, supposing she’s too old for that kind of thing.
“That’s not the sort of attitude I want from the birthday girl,” I protested.
“That’s true,” she said, “but I do suit myself. I am able to suit myself.”
“Well, I’m hardly going to complain about that. I hope you didn’t break his heart. Are you still friends?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I still wave to him and he waves to me. I can see his room from my room. It’s just over on the other side. Everyone here is very nice.”
“It feels funny not seeing you on your birthday,” I admitted. “We spent the last seven of them together.”
“That’s true,” she said. “We always went out for lunch, didn’t we?”
After this round of IVF is over, I’m just going to have to get up there to visit her. I know just what to do, too: take her out for lunch.
Other things quickly now:
* I knocked over The Loved One, one of my birthday books, in record time, not simply because it’s such a slim volume but because it’s a riot. Some of the best lines of satire ever. Highly recommended.
* I’m now reading Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, perhaps a peculiar choice given the current fertility battle, but the writing is so compelling I find I can’t help myself, and there’s a pretty massive distinction between fiction and my own lived experience. All I’ll say for now is wow, that lady can write.
* I’m also reading another of my birthday books, Stephen Fry in America, which is an excellent dip-in-dip-out diversion that mainly makes me jealous of his trip. It resembles to a large degree a journey I have long imagined undertaking myself, and it would be really nice if someone would give me cash and crew so that I might begin it. Thanks.
* I was talking to a friend about his two (really cool, smart and funny) kids the other day, and I asked what his son was reading, because the last time we were at their place for dinner (his wife is Italian and a fantastic cook), O was reading His Dark Materials, the Pullman trilogy. He’s 12 years old, an avid reader, and it reminded me of all the really difficult books I read at his age, novels I should reread simply because of all I must have missed first time round. Anyway, that got his father and me onto the subject of their local library, and how great the kids think it is, and I had this full-body-heart-and-mind flashback to a particular library of my childhood.
Oh, my refuge.
Sometimes I think libraries saved my life.
But the other thing that occurred to me while talking to my friend, whose young daughter happily skips out of the library with upwards of twenty books at a time swinging in her book bag, was how utterly empowering libraries are for children. You have no money, and therefore no real capacity to acquire things independently, and very little choice in terms of the rest of your life: what you study, what you eat, what time you go to bed, what clothes you wear, what sports you play, what instruments you learn, and even which children you play with is all largely restricted by decisions your parents make for you. So imagine – remember – the magical revelation of being able to borrow books from the library. To take them from the shelf, to build a small kingdom of longing, and to clutch the stack en route to the loans desk. To stand on tiptoes and push the lovely load toward the always impressed librarian.
“Are these all for you? My, my, you must be quite a reader!”
Oh dear, I’ve just burst into tears!! And now I’m laughing at myself, but still tearing up, too, oh, I know I’m silly, but I’m also serious, because this experience – of choosing my books, and waltzing them out the library door during those days and years when I can honestly say I had not one more thing to look forward to, especially not waiting for me at home – was just like magic. And I still believe.