In July's blog we have an excellent piece from Dr Wendy Wills reflecting on Mary; her grandmother and how her experiences of acquiring food evolved over her lifetime. Do leave a comment.
Mary was a wonderfully warm and wise person who put her family first throughout her long life. I am lucky to have had Mary as my grandmother and in this month’s ‘food provision in later life’ blog post I want to recount the story of Mary’s life through the ways that she acquired and enjoyed food, from her early days through to her death a year ago. Her story perhaps resonates with many other older people in our study and in the UK – a tale of making ends meet, of family celebrations centred on food through to less enjoyable experiences of accessing food, once her physical health started to decline and she was no longer independent. Perhaps what made Mary strong, her love of family, celebrations and food, made her more vulnerable in later life, as the lack of choice about what and where to eat was felt very deeply. Is this true of other older people?
Mary’s early days and months got off to a shaky start and the story goes that she was fed on bread soaked in cow’s milk as a baby but, somehow, she managed to thrive. She lived in a rural village that sometimes had a village shop but very often didn’t. There was a post office that sold a few provisions but eventually that also closed down. Local butchers and bakers visited the village weekly, selling meat and bread from the back of a van and this was a lifeline to many people as the bus service to the local town was infrequent – not helpful when you run out of milk!
Mary worked as a maid at a local public school and then married Jerry just as the Second World War broke out and they were apart for a long time whilst Jerry fought for his country. Their first child, my mother, was born at the end of the war and four more babies followed. Money was tight but I’ve never heard my aunt, uncles or mum say they were short of food.
Provisions from the shops were supplemented with local eggs, game such as rabbit or pheasant and even eels, which my mum says would thrash around in the scullery sink until put out of their misery, ready to prepare for the table. Ah, the table – this, as in many homes, was the centre of family life. When I was a child my grandparents lived ‘down street’ in a large council house that had a kitchen with a Raeburn oven, in front of which sat the kitchen table. We would sit around it when we visited for Sunday tea and many a birthday celebration was held here.
In the late 1970s Mary and Jerry moved to a warden controlled bungalow. My granddad grew lots of vegetables in the back garden until his health declined in his late 70s/early 80s. Mary cooked big meals for the two of them but once Jerry passed away Mary’s mobility got much worse and she found it difficult and tiring to stand in the kitchen to cook (not to mention the transition to cooking for one person). So she started ordering frozen ready meals from a provider who markets food to older people. She would pore over the brochure and phone through her order for a month’s worth of ‘dinners’. The delivery driver would always bring the food into her home and put it directly into the large chest freezer – a big help for someone who struggles with standing and bending. Mary never did like the vegetables with these meals (too hard) and always grinned keenly when any visitor brought her a cream cake or some other tasty offering.
After a while she started to find it hard to put the meals into the microwave and so carers were organised for her – they came three times a day and Mary really enjoyed their visits. She was by no means lonely, with family visiting regularly, but she liked a little chat with her carers and some would help her with her jigsaw or sit and read the paper whilst she ate her lunch – no doubt this wasn’t ‘allowed’ in the tight timeframe agency carers are allowed but they did so nonetheless and Mary appreciated it.
Eventually Mary became too physically frail to be safe on her own and she moved to a nursing home in another village. This was a heart-breaking development for the family and for Mary – she never really accepted being in the home for the year that she was there. She didn’t want to eat in the communal dining room with other residents. She tried it in the early days and I was very proud of her for doing so but she preferred to eat in her room, for a variety of reasons – these things are never straight forward. So food was brought to her and there was plenty of it, not just meals but biscuits with a cup of tea and yogurt mid-morning. The carers delivering it were mostly kind but having no control over what food you can access is not ideal for any of us, is it?
But should we judge a life by what happens only at the end? I don’t think so and Mary had many wonderful meals and celebrations with her family during her long life and that is what we will think of when we gather this summer to celebrate her life with a family ‘bake-off’ to try and recreate her famous ‘coconut tarts’ (p.s. I won last year’s competition!).