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Dad, Dates & Nana Mouskouri

Just finished watching “Greek Odyssey” with Joanna Lumley. Before I get too into this blog, may I just say that if there was a school that employed Billy Connolly and Joanna Lumley to teach, I would send our children there. They would be fascinated, motivated and enlightened. I don’t know if it is to do with their natural performing abilities or with being free from having to deliver a set curriculum but I could honestly listen to them all day, learn a lot and never get bored.

My Dad loved the young Joanna Lumley. He would sit in his chosen armchair watching her through half-closed eyelids; pretending to be less than interested yet ever watchful lest he arouse the wrath of my mother. After 40 odd years of marriage and 7 children, I can’t blame her for wanting to remain the centre of his attention.

Tonight’s Greek episode saw Joanna visiting the giant amphitheatre at Epidaurus (definitely one for the Piglet Bucket List) with an older but still very regal Nana Mouskouri. Joanna persuaded her to sing Ave Maria unrehearsed. The voice was older, a little shakier perhaps but still as true, clear and evocative as I remember. Suddenly I found myself tearing up.

Why? Well, I would stand with my Dad in the “good lounge” – the one with the white sofas we were not allowed to sit on – at our suburban London home and sing our own version of Ave Maria while my mum played piano. Dad would choke every time and need a cuddle and a back slap to clear his throat and keep going. Nana’s singing and Lassie films were guaranteed to have the two of us bawling and clinging to each other while my mum, ever practical, tsk-ed at us from behind the ironing board.

I lost my Dad to the dreaded dementia years ago now. It was a long and distressing decline in a once huge, strong presence in my life. I lived my teenage years watching him lose the ability to chat, to concentrate, eventually to swallow and walk. Being the last child still living at home, I’ve “baby-sat” my own Dad while my mum had a much-needed few hours off. We’d watch the Two Ronnies or Dad’s Army and we would always laugh at the same places. We adored the “Charlie Farley & Piggy Malone” sketches the most. No more Lassie’s at that time – he would get too upset. I’ve bathed my Dad and fed him, put him to bed and listened all evening – nervous and panicky – in case he fell or woke up screaming as he often did. I’ve never told anyone outside the family that before. I was only 18 at the time. The evenings I was responsible for my father all those years made childcare for my own two children seem like a walk in the park when it came.

Dad died eventually after five or more agonisingly slow downhill years. I was glad at the end, relieved for my exhausted mum and grateful for his peace at last. Yet I miss him every day.

Nana singing tonight brought him back to me for a brief time. He was practically in the room. I remembered the man who waltzed my mum around the kitchen wearing a hankie on his head (why!?) and was truly rubbish at darts. The man who served in the Navy during the war then worked two jobs for many years to feed his large family. The man who insisted we buy a box of flipping “Eat Me” dates every Christmas! No-one else liked them; he’d eat one or two at the most and the rest would get chucked out in January. The man who was as daft as a brush with me, but so clever. A good, principled man. My Dad loved to hear Nana sing and, tonight, she sent him back to me for a brief while. Thank you, Nana.

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Caution: Parental Guidance Advised

Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a lurid tale of my sexploits (such as they are) or put up photos that nobody needs to see. No, this is a post about the start of secondary school and working out how on earth to impart self-motivation and responsibility into the average 11-year old.

My boy has been at his new school for over four weeks now. He has a time-table and the threat of detention which, you would think, would be motivation enough to bring some sort of order into his life and get him started on the path to self-responsibility. 

No.  In four weeks, the Man-Hog has already had to embark on several mercy dashes to school with emergency dinner money, forgotten PE kits and missing bits of homework.  Not a day goes by that the boy doesn’t leave the house to get the school coach (thankfully holed up just across the road from the house) only to return again 10 minutes later when he realises he has forgotten a vital piece of kit. It is like watching the worst case of short-term memory loss in action that I have ever seen. It’s Super-Tween-Dementia and it’s getting worse.

I’ll admit the boy has led a very cushy existence to date. He is terribly cute and I am an incredibly guilty working mum, so having to remind him to clean his teeth, tidy his room and not leave his skateboard at the bottom of the stairs has never seemed a burden. Doing these things for him when he’s forgotten has also been my way, perhaps, of making up for only seeing him an hour a day. And it’s not that he is unwilling or stroppy about doing any of it. He just has to be constantly reminded. In the end, it’s often quicker to do it ourselves.

Aside from all that, I  just thought that at 11 years old there would be signs of him taking some things on board for himself, at least the school stuff. But that is not happening.

I don’t understand it at all. In school he is learning new subjects, taking on new languages and creating plastic key fobs with joy and gusto. All of this new information is being retained and subsequently regurgitated at the dinner table, so I know it is not a learning issue. At weekends, he can remember everything he needs for football training including what time to be there, where the matches are  and the scores for the previous 27 games down to the names of who scored. So it is not some rare form of childhood memory loss per se. What I think we are dealing with here is “selective responsibility” – similar to only hearing what he wants to hear, my boy chooses to take control of only those things that interest and have meaning to him. School bags, uniform, PE kits, homework and feeding himself clearly do not. 

So, do I seek medical advice? Drill a hole directly into his brain and pump it full of omega-soaked fish oils for intelligence? Or discover the best way to apply electrodes to his head? How do I instill some sort of sense of responsibility into this boy? And where do I start? We are talking about an ability to retain certain information shorter than a millisecond. On occasion, our goldfish himself has had to lift the tank-lid to remind the boy what he should be doing.

It’s the most frustrating situation. I veer wildly between gentle lovely Mumminess: subtle clues and invention of clever codes, tick-charts and a plethora of colourful post-it notes dotted around the place;  to very unlovely non-Mumminess: absolute screaming foot-stamping hissy fits when despite all of the preceding help, he still doesn’t get it. Is this payback for treating him like the precious last baby that he is? Is it my own paranoia having dealt with a parent who actually had dementia and my inate fear that it is, somehow, genetic? Or is he, in fact, a Scientologist? Outwardly human but with an alien inside his head being controlled by a higher force? Is Tom Cruise, a vocal proponent of the philosophy, also as disorganised at home? I would like to get Katy Holmes on speakerphone and grill her on her domestic arrangements. If she’s allowed to speak that is – hasn’t she been silent since the birth of Suri or was that only during it?

So here we are on Monday of week five. I deliberately left for work early this morning so I did not end up sinking my teeth into the doorjamb as the bumbling, fumbling forgetfulness started another week’s domination. So far, however, no phone calls home the Man-Hog reports. That could mean one of two things: success at last (please, God, Jesus and all the archangels of domestic bliss let it be so!) or….he’s missed the coach, forgotten where school is and now even where he lives and is still sitting slumped in a fit of befuddlement in the bus shelter opposite.

I don’t think I can stand to know which, in all honesty.

So come on, you wonderful supportive people, what suggestions do you have for correcting a responsibility-starved 11 year-old? Am I being unrealistic expecting it this soon? Do you advocate the carrot or the stick approach? Have I, regardless, child-pampered my way to my own private Hell? Would love to hear any and all advice.