She won’t thank me for saying this (but she’s not online, so if you don’t tell her I won’t), but my mum is now in her 80th year. Even so, her birthday is always an event. Oh, the parties I could tell you about… But I won’t, in the interests of decency and good taste.
The last major party she had was when she was 60, though, and since then it’s become a tradition for her to have an open house on the day itself, when there’s pretty much a constant flow of visitors.
Most years my oldest sister is there to make sure all Mum’s guests are fed and watered. I know she’s reached the end of these days feeling exhausted, but she does it because she wants Mum to enjoy the company she receives and not be distracted with the catering.
This year, Mum’s birthday fell on a Monday. As my other two sisters live on the Isle of Wight and she lives in the Midlands, the most practical day for a family gathering was the Saturday beforehand. After a pleasant afternoon with my mum (and the obligatory group photo), my sisters and I gradually took our leave. Presents and cards had been left and there was only one thing left for me to do in relation to her birthday.
I was working on the Monday and, unusually for me, expected to put in a full day at the office. Even so, I picked up the phone several times to call and wish her a Happy Birthday. The line was busy. A lot. So it was late afternoon by the time I managed to speak to her.
“I’m knackered,” were pretty much her first words to me. My sister, it seemed, had been unable to get out of a work commitment that morning and had only been able to assist for part of the day. So Mum sounded relieved as she said she was glad the visits were pretty much over.
She laughed at herself as she said that: we both knew she was well aware of how fortunate she was to have so many friends who looked forward to spending time with her on her birthday. I could well imagine the array of cards and gifts scattered around her living room, some unopened because she wouldn’t have had time to get to them.
The reality for a lot of people her age is that friends are thinning out, and my mum is no exception. Yet over the years she’s built up an extensive network with ages ranging from 40s to 90s – and those are just the ones I know.
I’ve become very conscious in recent times that this is not the norm. My partner’s mum, for example, lives a comparatively solitary existence. As it happens, shortly before Mum’s birthday, Nora had a fall that led to her being hospitalised. A card arrived from my mum soon after. But, to Nora’s astonishment, more followed – a steady stream, in fact – all with the usual best wishes, but their presence sent the real message: my mum was thinking of her.
To me, this is normal, because it’s what I was brought up with. I don’t follow the practice and have often gently mocked it, but my mum is a great one for sending messages of support and love (the advent of texting means she can now do it promptly and more often!). But, for Nora, this was alien. She’d clearly never experienced it before. Probably the odd card, but not a steady flow from one person.
Don’t get me wrong, sending cards is not the solution to growing a range of friends. It’s the sentiment behind it that makes the difference. Mum has a way of reaching out to people, has a genuine empathy for them, has been supportive to them when they’ve needed it. They say you get back what you give out, and – although she is no saint and, like all of us, can display less than attractive traits at times – in the main she is a good, caring person.
I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting Nora isn’t. But her own background clearly hasn’t taught her to reach out in the same way, and that must be true of many others.
And it’s making me think. I need to work on getting friends, especially younger ones who’ll outlive me. I just hope I’ve not left it too late to change my ways, otherwise I’ll end up sitting alone with a blanket around me for warmth, and daytime TV for company until my carer pops in to feed me.