We’ve just spent a quiet family Christmas, just the five of us including mum. Last year we hosted 18 -20 people over several days, as we entertained extended family and friends who had nowhere else to be. Two very different Christmases in lots of ways.
As I went for my much needed solo boxing day walk this morning, I reflected how Christmases have changed for us, over time. Christmases have always been about family, for us, and the only time we’ve broken the mould and spent the festive season abroad, for Richard’s 50th birthday, in the West Indies, we felt a bit flat, and a bit weird, spending Christmas in the sun, away from home and all the paraphernalia that anchors us to a ‘real’ Christmas, and of course, family.
Ironically I spent many Christmases abroad, growing up in the tropics, eating gritty bacon sandwiches on the sandy shores of lake Malawi or Asian infused turkey in Hong Kong- but now I like my holiday season to be in a chilly and dark climate!
Nowadays, as we have space, family often gravitate to us, which we entirely embrace, glad not to have to pack up the car and tramp down the busy M5 to Cornwall as we did for many years whilst mum and dad lived there.
Ultimately , as the child/ parent relationship changed, we found ourselves organising our own Christmases , and 5 years ago we had to learn how to do Christmas without dad, who despite his pretence at the Christmas grumps, clearly revelled in being around us all, and the food, and the gift giving, (even though he was the hardest to buy for and, to my knowledge never actually bought a gift himself, happily leaving that to mum) and of course the delicious and enormous spread of home made delights that come with the season.
So this year it was us and mum, and it was quiet, and cosy, and very relaxed. It occurs to me now that Christmas is a sign of time passing, not just in the obvious ways- it comes but once a year, after all- but it also serves as a marker to illustrate how mum’s dementia progresses.
This is what I mean- the chronology of Christmas pudding; A huge part of mum’s Christmas has always been to prepare all the food far in advance; cakes, puddings, mincemeat, chutneys, sweets and stuffings. Up to three years ago, she managed well; jars of mincemeat lining the pantry walls, butting up against against excess jars of mincemeat from previous years, that we’d not managed to quite get round to eating or giving away.
Two years ago I found her in her kitchen one day, frustrated and cross as she had started to make a cake, or a pudding, she couldn’t quite remember which, and together we tried to work out whether to put the batter in a tin and bake it, or in a pudding bowl and steam it. This involved identifying suet, cherries and other delights, and a lot of tasting!) Happily it all worked out ok, and the cake was wonderful as always, but it did remind me in which direction things were gradually heading. Day to day the changes are almost imperceptible, but when you find yourself thinking ‘this time last year…’, the changes are hard to deny.
This year, in early November, I found her on several occasions surrounded by time-worn and butter-stained cookery books, and a dozen half-finished lists on scraps of paper in a faltering hand, detailing the currants and cherries and suet and butter that needed to be bought.
It made me sad, and then it made me cross, and then it made me think, OK, we need to do this together this year. So on the premise of the fact that I’d never had to make Christmas cakes or puddings before, it was about time I learnt, and would she help me? This is the language mum speaks, and will never lose. It’s all about helping, and giving. We went shopping, mum giving me advice on the juiciest sultanas and sweetest currants. The next day, mum had forgotten we’d been shopping, and called me in some distress to say that it was really time for her to start the Christmas cooking. I reminded her that we’d made a start, soaking the fruit in brandy, and the next day we would put it all together and do the baking. Later that day she called again, and again the next morning.
The level of her anxiety over this illustrates that it is such an important activity for her. (My brother Richard worked out subsequently that in fact she was particularly concerned that Christmas was only a week away, having confused the 25th of December with the 25th of November. With all the Christmas ads on TV and decorations in the shops, it’s an easy mistake to make!) Mum did come to me and we did the cooking together, and went through everything step by step. It took some vigilance on my part, watching carefully what and how much was being added. Numbers are a problem for her now, and measuring out the ingredients is beyond her. Not really a big deal if things went wrong, but we didn’t really want to mess up £30 worth of ingredients! But we managed, and the proof of the pudding was in its eating, and it was delicious, even though she had no memory of making it, and congratulated me on doing all the work, when it came to the big day. I am proud to say that I didn’t take all the credit and congratulated her on her own part in teaching me how to bake!
Possibly next year she may not remember that its time to make the cakes, although I could well be wrong, as its such a deeply ingrained habit, that I wouldn’t be surprised that even when she’s completely lost the power of communication, she’ll be able to remind me somehow that its time to crack open the brandy and get baking.
On Christmas morning mum woke in a mild panic, clearly upset and having lain awake for some while. In faltering language- even simple words are hard to find for her now- and clearly emotional, she tried to explain that as she’d forgotten to buy everyone presents and hadn’t done anything to prepare for Christmas that she might just as well go home and forget the whole thing. I sat with her and tried to reassure her that we were completely prepared for Christmas and that the day before we put money into envelopes for all the grandchildren, and the previous month (in a triumph of forward planning on my part) we had arranged to send narcissi from the Scillies to all her brothers and sisters and close cousins. But when your short term memory is as eroded by dementia, the worry just keeps coming back, as it did time and time again that day. I’ve learnt from this that maybe we should have shopped for presents and wrap them just before Christmas instead of taking the easier option of money in envelopes and the remote option of sending flowers, both of which clearly had no impact at all in her memory. Next year, then. But of course, next year the issues will be different. Or, at least, more extreme. We don’t know what this coming year will bring for mum, but we are prepared, as much as we can be, for an unknown future.