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Planning Retirement Online

The In-betweener in later life


THE IN-BETWEENER   by Helen Franks

(daughter, wife, mother etc etc etc)

There was a time some years ago when Thursday was my hate day. That was the day I would attempt to buy up the contents of my local Waitrose. Two loaded trolleys, a massive sort-out of plastic-bagged groceries when I got home, and then delivery time. 

First it was my parents. They were both in their late nineties,  still living in their own flat, and as the crow flies a mere five minutes from me, but give it ten in the car.  Then there was a daughter, her partner, their two-year-old and  new baby.  Even nearer en route.

I shopped for them all. Well not for the new baby, though she was the reason for my helping out. And yes, as an extra, there were me and my husband too.

It’s what happens when you are the in-between generation, the one that answers to the description of daughter, daughter-in-law, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, wife. The one who still makes Christmas dinner for the family. (Men can be in-betweeners too, but not every Thursday.)

On Wednesdays, in preparation for the Big Shop, I would get my parents’  list. It was always the same - eggs, milk, lemonade, soups, bio yoghourts, olives. Naturally, I would add a few forgotten extras - bread, potatoes, fruit, fish, the sort of thing you might forget when you get to ninety-plus.

My parents were the unwilling recipients of Meals on Wheels just two days a week.  It was the deal we reached after their very effective attempt at sabotaging the delivery system. When the MoWs first arrived my parents, denying all knowledge of the arrangement  despite months of agonising discussion, sent the food back.

They talked themselves into believing that they still shopped and cooked most of the time, and had to be convinced that a few guaranteed hot dinners on the doorstep were no bad thing, given that my mother was suffering from arthritis and rarely left her flat without help, and my father had an unconventional approach to cooking which amounted to wilfully disregarding instructions, especially printed ones. 

Understandably, they got bored with the MoWs, but they also got bored with everything else, with disheartening speed. There was a craze for poached salmon, so I made some for several weeks at their request. Then poached salmon was out, and no amount of persuading could re-instate it even months later.  Home-made leek and potato soup met a similar fate, as did some of supermarket ready-made meals which gained sudden popularity and were equally suddenly dropped without explanation.

In case you are wondering about the olives...  My father had a passion for them - kalamata olives, green olives, stuffed olives, herb-marinated olives, olives in jars, in cans, in plastic containers. None of these ever met his expectations. And then I found plain canned pitted black olives.  A bit tasteless, I’d say, but my father could get through a few tins a week. He also liked sardines and anchovies (only certain brands). Lots of anchovies. Perhaps it was the salt.

(Yes, he did have raised blood pressure, but so would you at 97 with or without a pinch or two of salt, if you worried as he did about the way the country was going to the dogs, the state of the world and Brent social services.)

My daughter’s family was easier to please.  ‘Pasta’, said the two-year-old, as they all do. And mushrooms, for some reason. For them, my only problem was to keep an eye on artificial colourings, synthetic flavourings, hormone-fed meats, chemically-sprayed vegetables, waxed fruits and products from politically incorrect countries. I do that anyway, but you know how you can slip sometimes -  buy a ready-cooked chicken and then wonder about its provenance, or succumb to a fruit-flavoured yoghourt with a list of ingredients from hell.  

All this made my weekly shop perplexing to say the least. The only way to cope with funny looks at the check-out was to pretend to myself that I was buying for a soup kitchen or for a sheltered accommodation unit. True in a way.

Once home and wading in a sea of plastic shopping bags, came the even-more-terrible bit. Waves of groceries spread themselves over the kitchen floor.  I did try to pack separately for each family as the stuff came through the conveyor belt in the store, but people in the queue behind clucked and shuffled at the extra delay so the filing system had to be jettisoned.

I sorted out the chaos at home and would then go delivering. It may have been done on wheels, but I felt like a witch on a broomstick, doling out air supplies over the skies of north west London to the marooned and housebound below.

People rarely refer to the pleasures of being an in-betweener because it’s more fashionable to grumble, embarrassing to admit openly to the rewards of giving, and not easy to live with a saintly reputation. So I‘ll dwell on the irksome and the nearly-last-straws for a bit longer. 

There was the day when I nearly threw a tantrum because my carefully-planned schedule hit the dust yet again. I had arranged to take my mother to the doctor, then go to the chemist for my daughter, then return home and finish a chapter of a book I was writing. Having delivered my mother home, my father appeared at the door clearly dressed to go out.  

‘Just a short lift,  it’s on your way home,’ he pleaded. But of course it wasn’t and then the chemist had shut, and... I was simply furious!

And so it went on, till they died and my grandchildren got older, and my daughter less needy, and I asked myself then and sometimes now, what did I do it for? Responsibility, duty, compassion? Yes, yes. But it’s still a couple of four-letter words that count most. Being right at the heart of the loving and the giving is a privilege.  Don’t let anyone tell you this caring business isn’t a pleasure, whatever the pain. 




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