How my mother changed her mind

Will Eaves’s mother, Cecily, had Alzheimer’s. No one suspected she would go into care – until she dropped a hint

Cecily, my mother, was born in 1930, in rooms off the Holloway Road in north London. Her father, a hand-for-hire with a weak heart, died of pneumonia six weeks before she was born. Her mother, Esther, had no money to pay the hospital bill and no widow’s pension. When a deputation from the council arrived to take Mum into care, she was fought over on the doorstep. My grandmother won: a doctor present at the birth paid the bill.

So Cecily grew up with her beloved mother, proved bright, went to art college, taught for some years, married and had four children, of whom I am the youngest. She was a woman of the mid-century: an evacuee, a working-class girl who went to grammar school and graduated into the middle classes. Thankfulness for what she had achieved at times shaded over into perplexity and vexation.

We were brought up in Bath in relative comfort. Because our experiences were not hers she could be vehement about our ignorance of hardship. The house was very cold, but that hardly counted. When I was seven or so, Mum read me The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a book I loved for introducing me to the idea of “blizzards”. In a remote South Dakotan outpost, Laura, the hardy pioneer girl, awakes to find her blanket caked with snow and ice. My room had a similar ambient temperature, with frost crazing the inside of the glass, and I seem to remember pointing this out.

Mum was an artist and a practical wife; a good cook and, like her mother before her, an excellent needlewoman. She tended her garden and let her children’s store of interests and demands become her own. She drew a little when we were older and leaving, or about to leave, home. But what she did more than anything else was write letters: to friends, to relatives; letters to us if we were away; letters to school if there were problems. These made my teachers laugh. She was anxious on my behalf – I was small for my age, and indefinably annoying to my friends, as immature teenagers tend to be. When would my balls drop? Letters by the yard, then, and along with them one or two more private, unsent epistles that came to light when, finally, she went into care.

The longest of these unsent letters begins with a definition of “thrift” (“saving ways, sparing expenditure”) and “thriftlessness” (“wastage that is unwise, unjust”). The tone is occasionally embattled (“although not a Victorian myself, I am the child of one”), as if her reader were someone against whom she felt the need to defend herself. She is of course the authority figure in question, the middle-class woman whose social mobility and aspirations represented a sort of fork in the timeline of the self. One Cecily Crocker became Cecily Eaves and had a gay son who wrote stories and poems; another went on existing in her imagination, and quite possibly didn’t pass her 11-plus, or, when mocked by a pompous headmistress for her “awful Cockney accent”, instead of growing quietly determined, left school at 15.

She was loyal to the idea of a home she’d left behind. It’s a common enough quality: we wish to have, and to conserve, a myth of belonging. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. Except that our memory of formative events is a shifting, dynamic process: a matter of some fact and quite a lot of reshaping to fit our current circumstances. It isn’t stable – and the more anxious we are about holding on to one version of the past, the more difficult it becomes; the more the present is apt to strike us as a series of betrayals.

Cecily told and retold the story of her childhood escape from care when her own mother sickened and had to go into a nursing home. Esther Crocker was blind and helpless. Mum felt, as many others have done, that by handing her over she had betrayed her parent, her kind, and her class. I was still at school in Bath in the mid-1980s. She went to see Esther every day, and was often tearful in the evening. Their shared background was a comfort, but also an accusing reminder of a standard of suffering and sacrifice to which Mum may have felt herself unequal. I was not very sympathetic at the time. The “home” that wasn’t home seemed unreal. I did not understand that she was afraid.

That fear resurfaced when Cecily was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003. Our efforts – my father’s, in particular – to keep her at home as long as possible conformed to her own wishes. Or did they? In retrospect, none of us could recall with any certainty exactly what she’d said about this, but we were sure of “what she wanted”. The desire to remain in family surroundings went along with an atavistic, class-based fear of being sent away; of being judged and found wanting, materially and morally.

The probable interpretation of someone’s wishes may not be the right one, or may not go on being right. In early 2005, Dad and I took Mum out for an evening, to Pizza Express. It was a difficult meal. She clung to the table and knocked over a glass of juice. She became distressed; Dad was exhausted. A few weeks later I came to Bath again and looked after Mum while he went away. That weekend, during a lucid spell quite as disorientating as the muddle it relieved, Mum said: “I think I’d be better if … if I were somewhere …” She was asking to be released from the clasp of affection, and from our prior assumption about where she would like to be.

This is a personal interpretation, but I wonder whether the loss of certain strands of my mother’s identity was altogether a terrible thing. Her myth of origin was a source of terrific pride: it underpinned a sense of her individuality within the family. It also caused her continuing distress – and when that distress, with its mixture of guilt and longing, disappeared, it seemed to me that she was free to inhabit a magnified present, whose possibilities were bright, sad and joyful.

The conserved aspect of memory packed up, like a hard drive. The dynamic component – the lit screen – flickered on. She let me dance with her at my sister’s house. In the care home’s sunny dining-room, she lapped up platefuls of jam and semolina, saying: “Oh, it’s lovely.” I think she perceived colours in a different way, too, because she pointed them out to us all, in the buddleia she saw from her window, in her purple skirt, in beads and clouds.

She didn’t choose to go into care. That would be overstating matters. But I do think that the change in mind she underwent, pathologically, was complemented at a crucial stage by a change of mind. She left one home that had served its purpose for another, in a former mining village whose working-class origins were not wholly alien to her. There she was looked after by overstretched staff who lavished affection on her and treated her with dignity. They all came to her funeral and one lady wrote a poem for her. The letter that enclosed the poem read simply: “I’m so glad that we had the chance to care for Cecily while she was with us.” So am I.

Will Eaves’s novel, This is Paradise, is published by Picador, priced £16.99. To order a copy for £12.99, including free UK P&P, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846


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