Smoking Granny’s cigarettes
Visiting a sick granny brings up thoughts and memories for this dad.
My mother sits near the door and smokes.

We are visiting Granny because she is ill - well, more ill than usual; and I am here with my family to cook her breakfast, clean up her flat and make sure she takes the right pills.

The activity is slightly frenetic and we laugh and tease each other as we go about the tasks we have been assigned. The assignor (my wife and mother of my children Jessie, 14, and Tom, 10) is striding backwards and forwards with that straight-backed nose-in-the-air manner as she carries bundles of manky linen from the bedroom to the laundry. She makes perky comments of encouragement each time she passes.

I am making breakfast, Jessie is washing the dishes (with only the tips of his finger) and Tom is watching Sunday morning TV over Granny's hunched shoulder. The smoke from her cigarette is curling up past his downy cheek.

‘Tom,’ I say, ‘Stop smoking Granny's cigarettes.’
He looks at me with injured innocence, his finger pointing at his chest.

Jessie turns around from the sink and catches the look. ‘Jeez, Tom he's joking ...’  then he notices the smoke ‘... but I can see the smoke going into your lungs and I can see the cancer crawling ...’

‘Jessie!’ I warn as Tom, worried now, looks around and waves his hands through the swirling cloud.

‘Just get up and open all the windows and doors... and then go and help your mother,’ I say as the bacon in the pan in front of me starts to spatter.

Throughout all this my mother doesn't look up and only occasionally drags on her cigarette, her mouth trembling.

In my earliest childhood memories she is always smoking; a Rothmans Plain delicately smudged on one end with crimson lipstick angled between her fingers. She was famously sharp-tongued and in those memories she is laughing, head back, or with a crooked flirtatious smile in the middle of telling a story at some dinner party in which she is always the centre of attention. Or she is playing tennis, strong forehand and double handed backhand, her long brown legs flashing in the sun.

Saying goodbye

We banter and boss each other around and poke fun and the early winter sun pours into my mother's apartment. Eventually she eats some fruit and ruffles Tom's curly head.

We say our goodbyes and the boys embrace her in the same way that Jessie washed the dishes: with fingertips and at arm’s length; as little skin on skin as possible.

As I kiss her she looks up at me and the morning light streams into her beautiful milky blue eyes. ‘It is so lovely to wake up to a family.’ she says then hesitates "with the children ... and all the sounds."

As we walk away I think how like her own mother she seems now and it hits me that my children will know her and remember her only as a decrepit old lady. The sense of loss flares briefly and intensely, but I walk away with my hands on the shoulders of my own children, my wife striding to one side, and guide them to the waiting car.

How can we help children understand old age?

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