Sunday, October 11, 2009

Permanently Waving

If you have not already read ‘Deaf Sentence’ by David Lodge then I would highly recommend it as a thoroughly entertaining read whether or not you have any particular interest in hearing impairment. David Lodge exactly describes the emotions and practicalities of life with dwindling hearing, the frustrations of the victim and those around the victim, their respective inability to communicate. ‘Deaf Sentence’ is black humour, the kind I like most. One scene of many, particularly illuminates the underlying complexities of why a hearing impaired person might ‘pretend’ to understand a conversation but I shan’t include a spoiler.

Suffice to say that we experience this situation all too frequently as Nonna’s hearing declines. Sometimes it is simpler for her to just simply agree, a nod of affirmation, because deafness can be exhausting for the victim in the land of the hearing majority.

I believe I may have mentioned the repetitive nature of my relationship with Nonna. What I haven’t mentioned is that there are several different classes of repeats, the daily ones, the less frequent ones that simmer and boil up once a week and lastly the intermittent ones that pop up at random intervals. The last batch are generally stories of yesteryear. I had assumed that all family members were familiar with each category even if they didn’t share my categorization.

The intermittent repeats are many and various. One is an on-going nag. Nonna is an accomplished painter. Her neighbours gave her a photograph of their cat in the hope that she would produce a portrait of the feline. Nonna is reluctant to oblige. Her reasons are completely logical:- it’s a lousy photograph of the cat, doesn’t do him justice and his eyes are closed, the most important feature of any creature. We print out a picture of the moggy frequently, as they always seem to get lost. So it’s a recurring theme, her obligation and her avoidance, a mere prevarication.

Another is when my daughter offers to cook dinner, another random occurrence although very welcome, when I have commitments elsewhere in the evening. Her efforts are splendid as a new cook, wholemeal, meat-free, healthy and hearty. The children also object but that’s following one unfortunate incident with the timer because one person’s ‘well done’ is another’s ‘cremated!’ Sadly, that one incident of cremation has been seared into Nonna’s memory bank, a recipe for disaster, permanent. The association has been made, a cast iron link.

Although I warn Nonna in advance that I shall be out for the evening, it is not until I physically leave that she connects the dots. Suffice to say that some elderly persons have certain expectations when it comes to food, possibly more so if they are Italian. Whatever is on offer is shunned in favour of bread and brie, with a hunk of salami on the side. I’m not unsympathetic. Healthy eating is all very well but if I were over 80 I think I’d prefer to have my taste buds tickled than a clean colon.

Another is the visit to the hair dresser. “Wot about dis one den?”
“Which one?” She pats her head and pulls at strands of hair in exasperation.
“My air!”
“Yes, we must make you an appointment.”
“Wot I do wiv it den Maddy?”
“Short at the back, swept at the sides. You remember how you liked it when I did it last time?”
“Not a perm den?”
“No, you hate perms. Too much bother.”
“Yes dat’s right. Looks fine when you come out but dah next day! Ooo gawd it’s a bird’s nest.”
“Right. No perm.”
“No perm.”

Then there’s the other one, or one of the other ones, that follows intermittently after the nightly squirrel surprise during dinner. This amounts to a debate as to whether some animal lover has created a permanent structure of squirrel runs through the trees or whether it is a naturally occurring phenomenon. The latter, I assure you.

It is when the hairdresser issue is addressed that I realize that I am way behind schedule. My elder daughter offered to take the matter off my hands as she volunteered to take Nonna to the hairdresser when she went herself. However her life is busy, newly married, newly working. Hair is not a priority and days have morphed into weeks. I suggest that she may wish to push the hairdresser to the top of her list, the list that now has ‘acquire or purchase suitable clothing for substitute teacher post,’ in the number one slot. She accepts that personal appearances can sometimes be important. She recognizes that a professional appearance also encompasses hair. She jumps on the phone and confirms that she and Nonna will be off and coifed within the hour.

As they leave I have a quick after thought. I run after her to add detail, “remember, no perm just short at the back and swept back at the sides.”
“Got it.”

I continue my supper preparations and prompt each child to comment positively about older people when they return from the hair dressers. We practice out loud just to make sure there are no hic-cups, no references to curly frogs, no mention of lanolin and sheep and certainly no references punk rockers and their ideal hair colour.

By six o’clock, supper time, they are all well versed, exhaustively rehearsed. By six fifteen they begin to flag. There is no reassuring telephone call. By six thirty, they have lost interest in everything, as well as hair and food. There is no sign of the salon goers. By seven fifteen interest in everything has waned to inertia. Empty stomach walls adhere to each other. By seven thirty the dried up, not to say burnt bake, is somehow far more appealing than it was at it’s peak, an hour and a quarter earlier. All of a sudden there is a flurry of activity as Nonna bursts into the room accompanied by my fully flustered daughter. The heated debate that ensues is difficult to unravel. A combination of English as a second language to Spanish, Italian and some Asian language which wasn’t Cantonese, a mislaid hearing aid, the accusation of the possible theft of the battery to the hearing aid, conspire to confuse. They’re all tangled up with breathy swearing and volatile hand gestures. Whatever the truth to the matter one thing is clear, Nonna is annoyed. The second thing that is clear is that my daughter is exasperated. The third thing that is pertinent, is a very tightly curled head of hair, Nonna’s hair, as well as a very tightly coiled temper.

Now lets be fair as I wasn’t there, I was at home, so I shall choose my words with care. I can picture it all too clearly as I have experienced it many times before. There are certain situations where Nonna morphs into another being. She adopts an easy persona, that of the dear sweet little old lady with beaming, gentle smiles of compliance. This generally occurs under a very specific set of circumstances. It is in situations where the conversation is too difficult to follow, she is with people that she trusts to interpret accurately for her and she hopes that her stereotype will be accepted by whosoever is about to act upon her, benignly. Not an act so much as mere expediency.

The hot air of emotion in the kitchen is mixed with the crusty black flakes of the supper as Nonna attempts normal breathing patterns in the face of adversity.
“Well……enough of dat……..what about supper den……or did I miss it?” I look at the casserole with a certain degree of doubt, Nonna’s eyes follow mine, “dat’s not supper is it?”
“I tink I am not hungry really……I just ave a bit of bread.”
“With some brie?”
“Ooo yes dat would be nice.”
“And salami?”
“Ooo yes.”
“Wot I don’t understand is……?”
“Why you are ere?”
“I live here.”
“No……I mean……ow can she be in two places at once?”
“Who is in two places at once?”
“Tamsin…….she is ere cooking dis…er…..dinner……and she is with me at the hairdresser?”
“Well…..I think perhaps……”
“Next time you take me to dah hair dresser……leave her to cook dinner?”
“Well I….”
“It’s better dat way.”
“You think? I thought you didn’t like ……….her dinners?”
“I have cheese! Dat’s good. I make it in minutes…….but my hair! Gawd! Dat will be months!”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fruit Salad

“So what’s your favourite fruit then?” I ask my son as he makes vomit noises during dessert despite half a gallon of cream to take the edge off. It has been a very long dinner, the light is fails as the chill rolls in.
“Chocolate pudding.”
“That’s not a fruit dummy it’s not even a proper food! Is it mom?” But I can’t get another word in edgeways as the more verbal exercise supremacy.
“There’s only one food group and it’s not a pyramid it’s shaped like a bean, a cocoa bean.” I turn to my silent son, the one who loathes fruit, all fruit, especially bananas, a mere whiff from fifty paces will make him gag, “what about you dear?”
“What’s your favourite fruit?”
“Fruit…… fruit to eat?”
“Oh……..maybe……pineapples.” It’s like extracting teeth to get him to say anything sometimes.
“Nonna……what about you? What’s your favourite fruit?”
“Me? I like anything…..everything….pasta is my favourite though.”
FRUIT!” we all bellow in unison. The unison is surprising as it means that in one very rare occasion we are all on exactly the same page at the same time. Unfortunately, Nonna, unusually, is wearing her hearing aid, together with fully functioning batteries. I watch her reel with deadly feedback and blink, repeatedly, as she regains her composure, “oh, fruit you say? Well I like peaches best, whatever is in season really.” As an after thought, seconds later, when no-one is listening and the conversation has moved on to the subject of a fish called croissant, the French for fish which sounds like croissant but is really poisson, she adds, with an expression crippled with distaste, “but I do hate bananas,” and in a snap, my son who has only uttered 12 words since breakfast blurts, sotto voce, in a tone of dripping ice, “welcome to the club.”