Visited a friend the other day; a new mum. She’s called her beautiful daughter Mae. This isn’t about my friend or her daughter. This is about me and my aged parents.
My parents live a ninety minute drive from me, so I don’t see them as often as I’d like. In hindsight, pity that fifteen years ago, they sold the house, five minutes from where I now teach, to make a sea change. Was a good move for them, back then, when they were in their sixties. Now that they’re elderly, and my dad ailing, they’re a bit far away.
Nonetheless, most days I call my mum to keep up with the minutiae of her days and to keep us both in each other’s loops. This is the thing: despite being brilliant, hilarious and the very archetype of what a mother should be, age is taking its toll and my mum’s memory is going a bit. Which led to this.
“Visited my friend and her new baby this arvo,” I said. Minutiae, as I’ve already said. The stuff of conversation.
“Oh, lovely! What did she have?” Mum sounds genuinely pleased with the news of a former colleague of mine, someone she has only heard of in passing.
“Lovely! And what has she called her?”
“Mae,” I say.
“May?” Mum sounds incredulous, for some reason. She raises her voice to enunciate her thoughts more clearly. “May?” she repeats. “M-A-Y?” She spells it out, in case you hadn’t worked that out from how I’d written it.
“No, mum. M-A-E. As in Mae West.”
“Mae West? What Mae West?” She sounds puzzled as if I’m deliberately trying to trick her by throwing some gobbledegook into the conversation. “Mae West? I don’t know anything about Mae West.”
“Of course you do, Mum. Mae West, the film star.” Why am I explaining?
“I’ve never heard of her. Must have been before my time, “ says mum. And why don’t I let it go there?
“She was a sexy platinum blonde. She said ‘Come up and see my some time, big boy’.” I do my best Mae West impersonation. “And ‘Is that a pistol in your pants or are you just happy to see me?’”
“Never heard of her.” Mum is dismissive. If she hasn't heard of Mae West, I must have invented her.
“Mum, she was as famous as Marilyn Monroe. Of course you remember her.”
“I know Marilyn Monroe. But I’ve never heard of Mae West. Dad! Dad!” She invites my dad - never calls him by name - into the conversation. “Dad, do I know Mae West?’
“Lusty Busty,” pronounces my dad in his profound bass voice with its Yorkshire accent. He'll be sitting in his chair, his walking frame to one side, a glass of red on the table beside him.
Laugh at my dad. He does the memory for both of them these days. My mum’s as fit as a trout and we laugh about the fact that for the first time in her life, she is, due to memory loss, living in the minute, like everyone says you’re supposed to do all your life. My dad’s still good on the one-liners, but it takes him all his time to get around and his fine motor skills – dental technician, talented musician, carpenter, a man who could repair anything – have gone. And now I’ve made myself cry.