A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. Squeezed by the demands of the demographic time bomb and the requirements of the rest of the family, the Man in the Middle is bemused that life has become a hi-wire act, just when he thought it should start getting easier. How can he keep everyone happy and survive with his sanity intact?
If you’d like to begin at the beginning and missed the first instalment, you can read
No. 1: The Letter here
No.6 – Shopping with Mother
I don’t know many men who enjoy clothes shopping. I know even fewer who’d risk buying clothes for their wives or girlfriends without them being present. I certainly won’t any longer because I never again want to feel the hopelessness provoked by the question: ‘Did you keep the receipt?’
I did once have a male friend who enjoyed clothes shopping for and with women. It was like watching a trapeze artist on a hi-wire. His girlfriends thought his commitment to clothes shopping with them was proof of his concern in them. I thought it was a cunning ploy, like a fox pretending it cared about the interior design of a chicken coop.
I haven’t seen this friend for thirty years. But I am thinking of giving him a call because Mother wants me to go clothes shopping with her and I am wondering if he has any tips on how to handle this challenge. Or better still, if he can come along.
I have tried to persuade her we don’t need to go to the shops. I have explained that we can buy clothes ‘on-line’ and ‘quibble free returns’, one of the great advances of human civilization. But she still insists on going to the shops.
‘Don’t worry. I won’t ask you for an opinion on anything,’ she says hitting on one of my deepest fears.
At the retail park, things are going better than expected. I try to help by saying things like ‘Man-made fabric looks good on you’ and ‘The sale stuff is over there’ but Mother wants to ploughs her own path down the aisles, pleased not to have me fussing nearby.
I haven’t seen her for a few minutes because I am becalmed in front of the stretch jeans, but I can hear laughter at the checkout and look over to see an assistant talking very, very slowly and loudly to Mother. There’s a queue of bemused people around her. I walk over.
‘Can I help?’
‘She had a turn when I gave her the bill,’ says the assistant.
‘What’s the matter?’ I ask Mother.
She mouths words but makes no sound. She points to her ears and shakes her head.
‘Is she deaf and dumb?’ asks the assistant.
‘Not when we came in,’ I say.
Mother is tugging my arm. I lean down.
‘Lost my wallet. You need to pay,’ she whispers.
Being unable to pay is one of Mother’s great fears. It’s linked to childhood memories of seeing her mum and dad fobbing off the rent collector. She has nightmares of being caught in exactly the scenario she’s just been through. I pay for the clothes and we leave.
Walking to the car, I can’t resist asking if her strategy wasn’t a little excessive? Couldn’t she just have admitted she had lost her purse and wait for me?
‘The queue was building up, so I had to take decisive action. Last year, in M&S I pretended to faint. They sent me home in a black cab,’ she says with a slightly wicked smile.
I wonder if these extreme avoidance strategies become common as you get older? I remember a friend saying his mother pretended she was going to hospital for a blood transfusion to avoid going to her grand-daughter’s primary school pantomime. Compared to this, playing deaf and mute seems understated.
The shopping trip is over. We’re both feeling good, though, despite the drama. We’ve come away with new clothes, a full set of receipts and without an argument. This is the greatest retail success I’ve had since I chanced my arm and bought an omelette pan for my birthday without consulting anyone. I can’t help feeling my old mate was there with me, like a friendly retail sprite, guiding me and Mother to this state of shopping satisfaction.
I turn out of the car park and mother tells me to ‘slow down’. We’re doing 10 mph.
First published in Age Space
Read the next in the series – Chapter 7 No Respite here