I am writing this for Adrian, our four sons, my daughters-in and out-of-law, and my grandchildren, to help them understand why my spirit is still not defeated by multiple sclerosis.
My home, for the past three years, has been this nursing home; I have maintained the position of being the youngest resident here all this time. That has left me feeling aware of the deaths of other residents and of the fact that I also will be here until I die. On one side of me is a lady of ninety-nine and on the other is a deaf lady in her eighties.
I and my three siblings were brought up by parents who came from unsatisfactory families and I think their professions, which involved them being psychoanalysed, helped them to be “good enough parents”, a phrase coined by their friend Dr Donald Winnicott who was a psychoanalyst like them. Both my parents made life fun; Dad bought Singleton, and he also bought an elegant Alvis which had a roof that came down and had the number FKU 112 which I imagine would have tickled his humour; Mum couldn’t see why people thought it was funny! When Mum was writing her articles for The Observer, Dad would take us on expeditions; I remember an intolerably boring art gallery but also a trip to Portsmouth to see Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, and to Ryde on the Isle of Wight where we lost Oliver but, much to my disappointment, we found him. I was probably six or seven at the time so he would have been four or five. Another fun idea that my mother had was to shorten the wait for New Year by sending us all with torches up Brea Hill and when we got to the top we would flash our torches and Mum and Dad would flash the lights of the house.
My gusto for life was evident when, aged twelve or thirteen at Singleton, I invented some plays: “Lord and Lady Nithsdale”, and a version of “The Mousetrap” spring to mind, and there were probably others. I managed to encourage Jonny and Tessa and my siblings to help me present the plays and to make programmes and sell sweets in the interval. With my gusto I managed to inveigle people to come with me in my enthusiasms and I believe this is something I have done all my life. Certainly, friends and relations come to visit me and they say that they enjoy my company, and I like hearing their news.
Another “good idea” of my mother’s was to take us skiing on Christmas Eve; that morning we all came down dressed in our skiing clothes and went to my parents’ room and they told us that the hotel had let our rooms to Americans, so another hotel was found and we set off for Switzerland on Christmas Eve and slept snugly in six couchettes with our stockings on our feet. Mum loved skiing but she didn’t ski with us because she felt she was too old in her forties. Now my sisters, certainly well over forty, still go skiing. We rented a flat in Wengen for a number of years and while we skied, Mum went shopping and cooked for us. An image that I still have is of Dad falling forwards into a mound of snow which gave an exact imprint of him, and when he stood up his glasses had a good two inches of snow on them; we all laughed and poor Dad was really upset and felt that wasn’t an appropriate reaction to what, in retrospect, was of course not a nice experience for him.
We also went on holidays to France. My parents saw an advert in The Times newspaper for a big-ish house with a cook, to swap for their house in Nuits St George for two weeks in August. I was twelve, and my brother, Oliver, was ten, Jessica was thirteen and Lucy was nine. We went in the Alvis; my father was certainly excited to go to the wine region of eastern France, and he took the whole family to the vineyards to see the vines growing. The French family was with us for a few days before they came to Cornwall for their holiday in Singleton. They had two boys and two girls and they said that their younger daughter, Anne, aged six, was going to be a nun when she grew up. I remember looking at this child and wondering whether she knew of her fate, and I wonder if, now, she is a nun… On another occasion Dad borrowed a friend’s house and we played with the French children until they suddenly disappeared. Mum found out that they had gone back to school and so she decided to ask the headmaster if we could go to the school; Jessica and I were in one class and Oliver and our friend Jonny were in another class. Jessica and I couldn’t understand why the girls at playtime always walked around but, when we sat down we understood because the boys used to look up our skirts! Once, when we were driving in France, Oliver jumped out of the open-topped Alvis; Dad stopped the car and Mum had hysterics.
The fact that my father paid for all four of us to go to private schools makes me realise that we had a privileged upbringing. When you read this description of our upbringing you will not be surprised to learn that I have a daredevil attitude to life and a wicked sense of humour.
When I was thirteen I woke up one morning with a swollen left eye; this must have been my first sign of having MS. Dad sent me to his neurologist and athlete friend, Dr Roger Bannister, who presumably diagnosed my MS after a lumbar puncture; our GP told my parents that they shouldn’t tell me as that might blight my future.
That year I went on holiday with my friend, Alice, and her family on the Isle of Jura in Scotland, and I happily climbed a mountain called The Paps with Alice and a gillie. I went to Jura with Alice’s family for a few years and I played very happily with her brothers and sisters. The house where we stayed, in Glen Batric, had no electricity or running water so we helped pump the water up to the kitchen every day. Of course, there was no television and we used to play games, some of them invented by me. I feel I ought to confess that at some point during a holiday on Jura I went deer-stalking which was enormous fun, crawling around in the bracken and lying down when Neil indicated it was necessary, and in all I shot two stags; I am telling you this because, in a way, I am not proud of it, however, I was told that there were too many deer on the island and they were inbreeding.
When I was seventeen and we were on Jura, I had a good idea which I put to Alice, that we should hire a dormobile (now known as a campervan) and drive round Scotland. I had recently passed my driving test, Alice was fifteen, and I thought we should have another driver, possibly a bloke. I had heard Mum say that Stephen Malleson had passed his driving test and so I rang him and he agreed to get a train from London to Glasgow. We picked up the dormobile in Glasgow and I drove to the station where we picked up Stephen. Then Alice had arranged for us to go and stay with her Aunt Wiss at Drummond Castle. After a night or two we then went on to Wiss’s daughter, Alice’s cousin, to stay and have dinner with her and her visitors, Lucien Freud and his son, Alexander. We were told not to ask Lucien any questions but his twelve-year-old son said he was enjoying having his father to himself! Then we decided to go to John O’ Groats and, as it is the northernmost part of the British mainland, Alice insisted on sleeping that night on the top bunkbed in the dormobile so that she had the pleasure of being the most northern person asleep in Britain that night! When we saw a beautiful patch of heather we regretted not having a camera, at which point I said that we would have this sight within our minds and we’d never forget it; it was only when Stephen reminded me of this moment that I remembered it, as did Alice when I told her. We enjoyed this adventure in Scotland without any mishaps.
On the 24th of July 1970, Vivien and I broke up from our school and we left our classroom feeling incredibly excited because we were going on a camping holiday to Italy. We had saved up for this over a couple of years, putting money in a Coke bottle. In front of me, Vivien broke the bottle on a sheet over a stone path. She provided the tent and I arranged to take one of my parents’ cars. I had passed my driving test, so her part of the bargain was to pass her driving test and my part of the bargain was to learn Italian. Vivien passed her test first time, as I had, and I attempted to learn Italian but, when asked what “meat” was, all I could remember was that “zio” meant “uncle”! My mother had warned us that the Italians would see us at petrol stations and they would put down nails to burst our tyres. She also said we mustn’t go south of Rome; that was enough to ensure we went to Naples! We had no trouble from anybody, the only slight problem we had was with an Irishman. We drove to Florence and Rome and saw the sights, we also went to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and to Venice. On the way back, driving through France, Vivien asked me if she could take over driving and when we swapped places she said she saw I was going to sleep. At some point her parents sent Vivien her A Level results; I rang my parents and they told me I had done well. We were probably away for five weeks.
My “good enough life” was enriched not only by my “good ideas” but also by my ability to make friends. I still have three or four school friends besides Alice, an early childhood friend with whom I went to Jura and who came dormobiling with me.
After the Italy trip I was asked to go to Exeter University for an interview; at the group interview a tutor asked us why we wanted to read politics. I said I wanted to find out whether Marx and all the people who had written political books had any repercussions from their ideas. A few days later I was offered an unconditional place to read politics at Exeter University. As I hadn’t done well in French I went to a crammer in Oxford to re-take French A Level. I stayed in a basement flat which was organised by my cousin’s wife and while I was there I met Adrian at a ladies’ bridge evening; need I say more…?
After we had had four children the MS had got so bad I was in a wheelchair. We went to stay with our friends, Jenny and Andrew near Alton Towers. They had free passes to go on rides; as I was in a wheelchair I went to the front of the queue with Andrew and the boys, and a helper lifted me out of my chair and into the seat for the ride. While Jenny and Adrian found the cablecar too terrifying, they were not inclined to go on the Corkscrew which took us up and down and round and round and has now been closed down!
Recently, with Nicki carrying on a tradition that I had started many years ago, Adrian and I with seven friends, enjoyed an “asparagus fest” using my mother’s silver asparagus tongs; the nine of us certainly had great fun!
I want the readers of this piece to understand how my life has been “good enough”. The phrase “good enough life” allows for things being good and bad, which is what life is like for everyone.
Mary Smith 25th June 2015