The Food of Language

The thing about care homes, with or without nursing, is that once your relative has moved in, your relationship changes.

For some, that might be an improvement. I have very mixed feelings.

I confess that I shan’t miss scrubbing out the microwave when carers have forgotten to cover food, or rushing backwards and forwards from the laundry, or a myriad small and large inconveniences associated with the scheme where Mother has her flat.

But however good (or bad) her new home is, the days of spending hours with her, cooking, giving her simple tasks, getting her to help me with the washing up, eating in private, pushing plates aside to enjoy our poetry and nursery rhymes, walking out of door straight into the garden, making her a hot drink, or watching her surprise and pleasure when she tastes a soup I’ve just made, all these days are over.

Privacy, already compromised when she moved first to a retirement home, then to the scheme, is likely to be in short supply. Someone else will let me in and out. Food will be prepared in the kitchen by the cook or chef. We shan’t be washing up.

Food has always been an important part of our family life. Mother cooked and baked. As a child, I used to long for bought cakes and biscuits, ready meals. A Vesta curry seemed unbelievably exotic. The closest I got were the Club biscuits I had with my packed lunch, and Smiths’s Crisps.

Both my sister and I enjoy cooking. I think it’s a legacy of when we were growing up. Tight budgets and parents who matured and were forever marked by the war years, meant food was valued,and it was cheaper to grow veg and fruit and prepare meals from scratch. Food preparation was a central part of family life. So we would hang around the kitchen, fight over the mixing bowl, wait hungrily for the oven door to open.

I recall standing on a chair with the brown jug (where did that go?) in my hand, waiting to pour a small amount into the pan to make drop scones. Before I left primary school I was the family omelette maker. I spent pocket money on mushrooms and cucumbers.

The kitchen table, in my memory, was always in use. Either food being prepared or tempting cakes and biscuits cooling on wire racks.

And Mother worked full-time.

Since her dementia has progressed, conversation, as we used to know and understand it, has ceased.

Food has become an important part of the currency of communication. When I cook for Mother, or even if I just make her a cup of hot Complan, we are conversing. She knows and understands that I care for her. I enjoy her pleasure in the textures and flavours. When she cleans her plate, we have connected.

Think of Babette’s Feast. If food be the music of love, cook on.

You’re very kind, she says. I kiss her. I watch jealously as she eats the food I have prepared.

So now, I am mourning the loss of this part of our relationship.

The care homes we have visited have probably been puzzled by the detailed questions I have asked about food. They think they are being reassuring when they say that I only have to ask a member of staff for a drink to be made. But it lacks the spontaneity and immediacy that we have now.

Perhaps, by the time I am Mother’s age, relatives’ kitchens will be the norm, but for the moment, I am wondering how we shall breach this hole in our vocabulary.

8 thoughts on “The Food of Language

  1. Another tale that brought me to the verge of tears.

    Thank God I can take comfort from the fact mum’s beyond all memory and feeling. I couldn’t begin to care for her the way you have your mum. I struggle with guilt daily when I recall the times I was sharp with her, frustrated beyond reason because I couldn’t communicate.

    At least I loved her and I think she knew it even after I had to surrender to the inevitable. I did manage to visit her for at least an hour every day.

    But it still hurts and I’m hurting now.

  2. A touching blog again, Isobel. I always think food is one of the basic currencies of affection and love. You can still take home-made soup for her can’t you? It would be unnecessarily harsh to ban you from taking in little touches of home. She wouldn’t be able to help create, but she could still enjoy.

    • Maybe just being there at mealtimes. I don’t know. It felt weird at the hospital to have to tell someone she wanted the loo and then be excluded the other side of the curtains. The times I’ve sat on the shower seat chatting with her while she’s on the loo, or cleaned her up when she’s had an accident, and now suddenly it’s strangers who attend her most intimate moments.

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