‘Bloody cheek, I’m not getting old’: Simon Hattenstone interviews his 94-year-old mother, Marje | Family

Mum relaxes on her couch. She does a lot more than that today – watching TV, reading, doing crossword puzzles, being expected. Mind you, it took Marje until the mid-90s to get there. A few years ago, she felt guilty if she didn’t garden, cook, empty the bins, drive to the shops in her old Nissan Micra and visit the “old people” at the local nursing home before lunch. It took a bad leg for all that to change.

Now at 94, she’s learning how to calm it down. I am approaching 60. What advice would you give me about aging? “Just accept it gracefully,” she says. Did she find it difficult? “No, I don’t think I have. Most of the years I’ve been lucky that I didn’t look terribly old. ”You don’t look at it now, I say.“ Yeah, but I’m terribly old. ”She laughs.

She knows she’s lucky – she has two children and four grandchildren who love her to death, managed to stay in her own home with the help of wonderful caregivers, and her brain is still in good shape even though her short-term memory is ‘t what it was. But that too has its advantages. She won’t hold a grudge for long.

Marje is the youngest of four children, the rest of whom have long since died. She was never a confident child, despite being made a headmistress in her high school. She often says she thinks her parents had enough parenting before the time she arrived. “Did I ever tell you that my mother used to say that to Golda?” [the oldest girl] was the list and Renee [the second oldest] was the beautiful. I realized she had missed me. “She told me. Many times. In fact, Marje was smart and beautiful – and indifferent to it.

Her adulthood has not been easy, though she is quick to point out that few of us get an easy passage. When I was young, she took care of me three years of encephalitis surrounded by people telling her either I’m going to die or that there’s nothing wrong with me. In Dad’s later years she cared for him through psychotic depression. She has so many qualities (kindness, wisdom, a great sense of humor and an almost wild ability to protect her children) even though for most of her life she lacked the confidence to see those qualities in herself. Ironically, one of her greatest gifts was to make others feel good about themselves while she often felt worthless.

Marje and Simon Hattenstone at her home in Manchester.
Life lessons * Marje and Simon Hattenstone at her home in Manchester. Photo: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian

But that’s all a long time ago. For many years she has discarded the uncertainties of the past. At 60, she says, she had just started walking. “I thought I was at a very good age because most of my worries and anxieties left me.” What do you like? She points at me. “I guess if you have kids, you care about them as much as you care about anything.” Mom has two – my sister Sharon is two years older than me. “Sharon went very smoothly, but you always did the unexpected. So that gave me worries. “

I expect her to talk about my illness, but she doesn’t. Maybe that’s too obvious. “This example sounds ridiculous, but this time when you came home with massive high heels, my heart sank.” I remember it well. I was 12, and they were glorious – black matte plastic with a four-inch platform and a five-inch heel. Why did they bother you so much? “I used to think, ‘He’ll make such a show of himself.'” The shoes disappeared, mysteriously. “I didn’t want to get rid of them, so I hid them,” she confesses. I thought she had burned them. “No, I didn’t. I knew that would go too far. “

Marje was a curious mix – she hated convention, but she also hid with it. She was not religious but grew up among an Orthodox Jewish community, and was terrified of causing an offense by doing the “wrong” thing. “I wasn’t confident enough in my own judgment to be able to accept what other people were saying.”

In spite of everything, she was unconventional for her time – a timid free spirit. She went to Birmingham to do a two-year teaching diploma, taught in Glasgow at the age of 19, lived in Israel for two years just after independence, became an inspirational teacher of special needs children, and got engaged twice before marrying Dad.

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

In the living room, there are photos of dad and Alex who became her boyfriend after dad died 15 years ago. It was a fabulous, unlikely romance. When Marje lived in Israel, she and Alex were good friends. After his wife died he called Marje and reintroduced himself, about 65 years since they last saw each other. He still lived in Israel. They became inseparable – chatting and playing, eating and drinking, planning and reminiscing, dancing and dating, all over Skype. They never met physically. They thought it might ruin what they had. Alex died in 2017. Who do you think of more, Dad or Alex? “I think of them both in different ways.” What do you think when you think of Dad? “He was a good man; a very principled man. I heard you say that too. Fair. ”

It was Alex, though, who made her feel loved. “It simply came to our notice then. He was a very open man. He said what he thought, and what he thought of me was quite good, so I felt great. “Are you sorry not to meet physically the second time?” No. I think it would be very difficult. . ” She would be willing to visit him if he encouraged her. “I used to say he was smarter than I was, so he didn’t encourage me to go, because he knew it wouldn’t be perfect. I think we would both be in a bit of a shock. “

After Alex died, mom struggled. Her osteoarthritis was aggravated, she broke bones in her back, and often told me that aging is not for the secondary. She seemed lonely by herself, but wanted to stay in her own home and be in control. Last year she lost weight with a broken leg, a series of infections and a long hospital stay. It all resulted in a new, happier, stage of aging – home with the support of caregivers.

Of course, there are days when she’s down. Once we speak right in front of our daily Zoom crossword. I wonder if she still enjoys life. “It’s a dubious point,” she says. “Overall, the quality is declining a bit. As it does. I guess it’s closer to yes than no. ”

What do you miss most? “Go for a walk with my own feet.” She hates being pushed into a wheelchair. You’re fine enough, though, I say. “I am just fine. Of course I am. Yes. All right, are we playing baby? “

May I ask you more questions tomorrow? “No, ask them now and it’s over!”

Do you care about money? “No, I don’t care, I know you and Sharon take care of it. I think I have enough to survive until the end of my days. ” She always hoped to leave something for the grandchildren. Now if the money runs out, so be it.

I wonder if she’s sorry. “I do not regret it, that is certain, certain, certain. Do i have Yes. But it is foolish to think of regrets. There are certain things, Simon, that I cannot speak of. This is too personal. “

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

What are you proud of? “You and Sharon,” she says. That’s a police exit, I say. “Well, going back in life, I’m glad I was good at my job when I was teaching children with disabilities. I was made for that. I loved it. ” Marje loves to talk about her time at Bethesda – or give the place its full title Bethesda Home for Crippled and Necurable Children, in Cheetham Hill. She adored the children, and would take them home to her parents on weekends (the 1950s were very different times). Once, Dettol was drunk and she had to pile the children and wheelchairs into her car and take them to a hospital. “I was very happy with that job. It was perfect for me – half teaching, half nursing. “She began to believe in herself.

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

Anything else?

“It’s just that you’re aware that your time is short, and you sometimes think about how it will be?” Then you think everyone has to go through it, you’re not the only one, so you’re going to keep going. “

Marje says she never thought about it dying when she was younger. And now? “I would if I didn’t stop.” You look so phlegmatic today, I say. “I am now.” Why? “I don’t have to worry about anxiety anymore. They are gone. ”

That’s amazing, I say. What made them go? “There was a time when I cared a lot about what other people thought of me. When I was young, every word that came out of my mouth I thought: is that right, is that wrong? I did everything. I don’t care now. ” She is smiling. “Maybe because there aren’t many people left who think of me!”

Marje made us promise that if she became terribly ill or incapacitated, we would not live her longer than she wanted. But for now she’s looking ahead. She had just taken her first unsupported steps after she broke her leg. Yesterday she was in the kitchen making Easter cookies. There is only so much relaxation that you can do at 94. And she has set herself a new goal. By August, she plans to walk properly and finish with the wheelchair. We filmed her taking those first steps a few weeks ago. Reaching the end of the room, Marje shook the camera triumphantly and staggered back to the couch. “I think I’m going,” she said.

A a few weeks passed. Marje’s gait is greatly improved. She even made it up and down the stairs. I tell her we need to take a picture to accompany the piece. She asks me to remind her why we did this interview. It’s for a special aging supplement, I say.

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

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