‘Bloody cheeks, I’m not getting old’: Simon Hattonstone interviews his 94-year-old mother, Marge family

MUm is resting on her couch. She does a lot more these days – watching TV, reading, doing crosswords, waiting. Mind you, it took until the mid-90s for Marge to get there. A few years ago, she felt guilty if she didn’t garden, cook, empty the cans in her antique Nissan Micra shops, and visit the “elderly” at the local care home at lunchtime. Took one bad leg break to change it all.

Now at 94 years old, she’s learning how to take it easy. I am close to 60. What advice would she give me on aging? “Just accept it gracefully,” she says. Did he find it difficult? “No, I don’t think I have. Most of the years I’ve been lucky that I didn’t look awfully old.” You don’t see it now, I say. “Yeah, but I’m too old.” She laughs.

She knows she is lucky – she has two children and four grandchildren who love her dearly, has managed to stay in her home with the help of wonderful caretakers, and her mind is still fine, albeit in her short-term. The memory isn’t what it was. But it also has its advantages. She is not going to hold any complaints for long.

Marje is the youngest of four children, the rest of whom have died. Despite being the head girl in her secondary school, she was never a confident child. She often says that she feels her parents have had enough upbringing by the time she arrives. “Have I ever told you, my mother used to say that Golda” [the oldest girl] was smart and renee [the second oldest] was beautiful I knew she must have missed me.” She has told me many times. In fact, Marge was smart and gorgeous — and oblivious to it.

Her adulthood hasn’t been plain sailing, though she’s quick to point out that some of us find an easier route. He raised me when I was little three years of encephalitis Was surrounded by people saying that either I am going to die or there is nothing wrong with me. He raised her through mental depression in her later years as a father. She has so many qualities (kindness, wisdom, a great sense of humor and an almost wild ability to protect her children) although for most of her life she lacked the confidence to see those qualities in herself. Ironically, her greatest gift was to make others feel good about themselves even though she often felt worthless.

Marge and Simon Hattonstone at their home in Manchester.
Life Lessons… Marge and Simon Hattonstone at their home in Manchester. Photograph: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian

But all this was a long time ago. For many years she has been brushing off the uncertainties of the past. At age 60, she says, she was just starting to make strides in her stride. “I thought I was at a great age because most of my worries and anxieties had left me.” How? She points a finger at me. “I think if you have kids you worry about them as much as anything else.” Mom has two – my sister Sharon is two years older than me. “Sharon got along very easily, but you always did the unexpected. That’s why it gave me worries.”

I expect she will talk about my illness, but she doesn’t. Maybe it’s too obvious. “This example sounds ridiculous, but the moment you came home with heavy heels, my heart sank.” I remember it well. I was 12, and they were fantastic—black matte-plastic with a four-inch platform and a five-inch heel. Why did he care about you so much? “I used to think, ‘He’ll show himself like that.'” The shoes mysteriously disappeared. “I didn’t want to get rid of them so I hid them,” she confesses. I thought she would burn them. “No, I didn’t. I knew this was going to go too far.”

Marge was a curious mix – she hated convention, but also hid from it. She was not religious, but grew up among an Orthodox Jewish community, and was afraid of committing crimes by doing the “wrong”. “I wasn’t confident enough in my judgment to be able to accept what other people said.”

Despite everything she was unconventional for her time – a distinctly free spirit. She went to Birmingham to pursue a two-year teaching diploma, taught in Glasgow at age 19, lived in Israel for two years just after independence, became an inspirational teacher of children with special needs, and before marrying dad Got engaged twice.

Simon with his father and mother, circa 1984.
Simon with his father and mother, circa 1984. Photograph: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian

The lounge features pictures of dad and Alex, who became his boyfriend after dad’s death 15 years ago. It was a fantastic, unlikely romance. She and Alex were good friends when Marge lived in Israel. After his wife’s death, he called Marje and introduced himself some 65 years later, when they last saw each other. He still lived in Israel. They became inseparable – chatting and playing, eating and drinking, planning and reminiscing, dancing and romancing, all over Skype. They never met physically. They thought it might ruin everything they have. Alex died in 2017. Who do you think of more, Dad or Alex? “I think about those two in different ways.” What do you think of when you think of Dad? “He was a good man; a very principled man. I’ve heard you say that too. Fair.”

However, it was Alex who made her feel loved. “It was all said aloud. He was a very open man. He said what he thought, and what he thought of me was all good which made me very happy.” Do you regret not meeting you physically for the second time? “No. I think it would have been too difficult.” She would have been ready to meet him if he had encouraged her. “I used to say that he was smarter than me, and so he didn’t encourage me to go, because he knew it would be far from perfect. I think we both would have been a bit shocked.

After Alex’s death, Mum struggled. She had osteoarthritis, broke bones in her back, and often told me that old age is not for the wicked. She seemed alone on her own, but wanted to stay in her house and be in control. She bottomed out last year with a leg break, a series of infections and a long hospital stint. All this resulted in a new, happier, aging phase back at home – with the support of caregivers.

Of course, there are days when she’s down. One time we speak just before our daily Zoom crossword. I ask if she is still enjoying life. “It’s a controversial point,” she says. “Generally, the quality is going down a bit. As does it. I think it’s closer to yes than no.”

What do you miss doing the most? “Going out for a walk on my own two feet.” He hates being pushed in a wheelchair. However, you are doing great, I say. “I’m doing fine. Of course I am. Yes. Okay, are we kids playing?”

Should I ask you more questions tomorrow? “No, now ask them from me and get it done!”

Are you worried about money? “No, I don’t care, I know you and Sharon are running into this. I think I’ve had enough to see me through to the end of my days.” She always hoped to leave something for her grandchildren. Now if the money runs out, so be it.

I ask if he has any regrets. “I’m not going to tell you my regrets which definitely, definitely, definitely have. I have? Yes. But it’s stupid to think about regrets. There are some things, Simon, I can’t talk about.” It’s very personal.”

On balance, Marge is in a good spot. I ask how important it is that she and I have a healthy relationship with Sharon. “Incredibly important. That’s the backbone of my life; the biggest thing that keeps me going.” Marge was an early adopter of the technology. Since Sharon and I live in London, and she is in Manchester, Skype has played a huge role in keeping us close. She also seems more aware that it is not passed on to the parents and children to move on. “I think a lot of people just don’t like each other,” she says.

What are you proud of? “You and Sharon,” she says. It’s a cop-out, I say. “Well, going back a lifetime, I’m glad I was good at my job when I was teaching children with disabilities. I made up for that. I loved it.” Marge loves to talk about her time at Bethesda—or giving this place in Cheetham Hill its full title Bethesda Home for Crippled and Incurable Children. She loved children, and took them to her parents’ house on weekends (the 1950s were very different). On one occasion, one drank Dettol and had to pile up children and wheelchairs in his car and take them to the hospital. “I got tremendous satisfaction from that job. It was perfect for me – half teaching, half nursing. She started to believe in herself.

What scares you the most about getting older? “Don’t laugh at me,” she says. “I never want to be a stinky old lady. That’s number one. People say you become a yuck when you get old. I don’t want people to say that about me.”

Anything else?

“Well you know your time is up, and you sometimes wonder how it will be? Let’s move on together.”

Marge says she never thought Die when she was younger. and now? “If I don’t stop myself, I will.” You look very phlegmatic these days, I say. “I am now.” Why? “I don’t have to drive away worries anymore. They’re gone.”

It’s wonderful, I say. What did them do? “There was a time when I cared a lot about what other people thought of me. When I was little, every word that came out of my mouth I wondered: is this right, is this wrong? I did everything. Now I don’t care.” She laughs. “Probably because there aren’t many people left to think of me!”

Marje has promised us that if she becomes seriously ill or incapacitated, we will not keep her alive longer than she wants. But for now she is looking ahead. He recently took his first unsupported step after breaking his leg. Yesterday she was making Passover biscuits in the kitchen. At 94 you can rest so much. And he has set himself a new goal. By August, she plans to walk properly and is done with a wheelchair. We filmed him taking the first steps a few weeks ago. After reaching the end of the room, Marge triumphantly nodded toward the camera and returned to the couch. “I think I’m on my way,” she said.

a Two weeks have passed. Marge’s walking is improving a lot. He’s even made it up and down stairs. I tell him we need to do a photo to go with the piece. She asks me to remind her why we did this interview. This is for a special supplement on aging, dare I say.

“Bloody cheeks,” she replies. “I’m not getting old!”

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