I said in the beginning of Nestless and Restless 3 that these blogs were about different kinds of journeys. People talk about the aging experience for the elderly as though the speed of aging increases when you get into your seventies and beyond, but of course we all age at exactly the same rate every day from the moment of birth. It’s the experience which changes. Being part of my parents’ later life is also part of my aging; we are on individual trails which intersect, branch off, circle round and join at various intervals. Every time I visit my nonagenarian parents, I am amazed at the evolving and ingenious ways in which they map their daily lives.
The morning after I arrived in Sharnbrook, I found my father at the kitchen table with a brand-new roll of white labels, a pen, a ruler, Sellotape (scotch tape) and scissors:
E: “You’re busy”.
M: “Yes, I’m doing my labelling up.”
E: “What are you labelling today?”
M: “The hairdresser who comes to the house, Nicola, left her shampoo here. I’m labelling the bottle.”
The nearly empty shampoo bottle was duly labelled, and placed upside down in a plastic container of sand, to help Nicola get the shampoo out quickly next hair-do day. Have a look at the picture. His sense of humour is still upright. The “YES!’ and ‘NO!’ sign on the door from the kitchen to the living room puzzled me for a while. I thought my father was channelling Yoko Ono or something. A carer explained my father told her to swing it to ‘NO!’ when she’s folding the laundry on the other side of the door, so no one opens it and hits her. The label on the aluminum foil packet is cryptic. It makes opening a draw or a cupboard in this house interesting.
‘Labelling up’ started when we were young, and my father bought a Dymo machine. Do you remember those? I loved it. You fed special tape through a hand-held thingy, rotating the alphabet dial for each letter and pressing a button which punched up the tape to form the letter with a satisfying ‘thunck!’ Next you peeled off the backer and stuck it on boxes, containers, drawers, your hole-puncher, anything which needed identifying. My father always had a workshop with plenty of tools and bits and pieces which needed labelling. A childhood in boarding schools and a career in ships and submarines where ‘a place for everything and everything in it’s place’ is a way of life, and over a dozen full household moves over the years, means that identifying stuff is second nature to everyone in the family. Then when my parents settled in Sharnbrook thirty years ago and bought their 23’ sailing boat, a whole car full of gear had to be labelled and transported to and from the marina every season. The Dymo worked overtime.
Labelling up the house is relatively new, and I am always curious to see what’s been marked up since the last visit. Logically, when carers started coming in to help in the house a few years ago, my father started with labels on the kitchen cabinets and cupboards, so new carers would know where everything was. Last year he labelled the upstairs doors: main bedroom, bathroom, spare bedroom, and needing privacy after many years of not needing to lock a bathroom door, installed those green/red free/occupied locks on the bathrooms. There’s a label on the loo roll dispenser which reminds you which way to insert the roll so that the paper flows correctly, and each fridge and freezer draw has a label indicating its contents. When you take something out of the fridge or freezer, you mark it off on the running content lists which hang on four clip boards on the fridge.
Increasingly, the labels also contain instructions. The large wooden breakfast tray has positions marked for the bowls, the fruit juice cups, the coffee mug and, most importantly, the Diary. The impressive, large yearly Diary (agenda) is placed in a certain position on the tray with the reverence given to the Queen’s Despatch Box. The day doesn’t start until the red ribbon marking the current page is used to open the book and the day’s plans read. Nothing happens unless it is written in the Diary, and as my father says: “If it’s in the Diary, it must have happened”. The carers are supposed to store the tray in a very specific place and way. My first day, I noticed a label on the side of it which read:
If you are reading this label the tray is the wrong way up
I hurriedly turned over the tray.
I think I messed up the sheet folding system, which consists of letters inked into the corners of the sheets so that you fold them as precisely as a Japanese origami artist. I’m more of an if-the-colours-match-it’s-OK sort of bed linen folder.
This visit I was immensely impressed with a different kind of marking. My father had bought reflective stripping and had stuck it on to all the light switches, door handles etc. An easy solution to make sure they can find their way in the dark. I think that should be built into any home. And here’s the summit of ingenuity – reflective strips on their slippers, so they can find them easily at night. Brilliant. Literally. I have a strong suspicion that when my father reaches the Pearly Gates, he will be taking the list of people getting into Heaven from St. Peter to make sure it’s properly alphabetized.
Despite the labelling, things go missing daily. For a whole morning, we looked for the source of a curious pinging which occurred at regular intervals, thinking it was a fire alarm battery or something, eventually realizing that the sound travelled with my father. Deep in the cavernous pockets of his trousers, someone had rung his mobile phone and left a message when he didn’t answer it. The beep was to tell him there was a message. A little red Fiat skidded to a stop in front of the house and a kind villager ran in to drop off the shopping he’d paid for but left on the counter of the Co-Op.
The taxi was waiting at five am to take me to the train station in Bedford, engine idling gently. My parents were asleep, we’d said goodbye the night before. I closed the front door softly behind me. The dry November morning air caught at my throat. As we headed out of the village down the impossibly narrow High Street, a pheasant flashed across the road in the headlights. The Bangladeshi taxi driver chatted to me about solar panels and hybrid cars, and I boarded a commuter train to Gatwick that was waiting at the station, its head facing resolutely South towards London in the dark. By the time I was going through airport security for my flight to Miami at 8:00 am, it was barely getting light, and in Sharnbrook, my father would be getting up.
The breakfast tray is ready to take upstairs. He places the cereal bowl under the label indicating where to put it, the juice glass just so, lines up the regal red Diary on one side. He counts the stairs up to the bedroom: one, two…. nine in total, the reflective tape on the back of his slippers winking left and right as he climbs. He sets the tray down on the bed carefully next to my mother, opens the curtains to let in the morning light, and together they set out to journey through the new day.
Thank you for meandering in memory with me in Nestless and Restless Season 3. Want to know what happened in Miami? Continue with me in Nestless and Restless Season 4, The Caribbean. It’s quite the contrast to Memory Lane, England.
England, December 2019