Musings about Memory in Suffolk and New Jersey

Late afternoon, River Orwell, Suffolk

Late afternoon, River Orwell, Suffolk

Ipswich, Suffolk and Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey

We are wrapping up our ten-week trip, the majority of which has been spent with parents in the U.S. (my mother and father, divorced for many years) and England (Clive’s father; his mother is in Australia).

As I wrote in ‘Paris, at Last,’ we struggle regularly with worry and guilt, wish we could be in three countries (and continents) at the same time, and do the best we can to spend quality time with all our parents.

In my early years living abroad, I thought coming and going would get easier, the more we all got used to it. But as every longtime ex-pat knows, it gets harder and harder to say good-bye. During this trip, we’ve been more conscious than ever of the power, and precious value, of memory.

As rivers meander, so do memories.

River Wye, Wales

River Wye, Wales

Clive’s Father – Living in a Time Warp

Clive sometimes says his father, Jack, lives in a time warp. Since I’ve been visiting Jack with Clive in recent years, I’ve seen for myself what Clive means.

Jack will be 90 in October. He’s spent his entire adult life in the same house in Ipswich, where Clive was born in an upstairs room. It’s just around the corner from the house in which Jack himself was born, and where he lived until he married Clive’s mother.

Jack’s house has many challenges, not least of which are narrow stairs, ancient plumbing, and a primitive heating system. Like many elderly people in similar circumstances, he knows every inch of the place and could live there blindfolded. It’s his home.

Jack and Clive, in room where Clive was born

Jack and Clive, in the room where Clive was born

Jack turns on the evening news while he’s having his tea (supper), but spends most of his viewing time watching movies from the 1940’s and 1950’s. His favourite actress is Deanna Durbin. He was a professional drummer in the Big Band era, and listens to Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller CD’s.

When Jack goes out by himself, he drives a 1959 Wolsey, one of two cars he still owns. The other is a 1952 Austin A40 Countryman. He has entered both in the Ipswich to Felixstowe Classic Car Rally every year for the past 30 years. Clive and I accompanied him in the rally twice, an occasion not to be forgotten (or repeated ever again, after experiencing the driving style of many octogenarians in their classic cars).

Classic cars on their way from Ipswich to Felixstowe

Classic cars on their way from Ipswich to Felixstowe

When we take Jack out, he chooses places like the East Anglia Transport Museum and Yesterday’s World, where he loves to explore and reminisce about days gone by. He can’t walk as much as he used to, but still enjoys a stroll on ‘the Prom’ at Felixstowe, and loves to go to the Speedway.

On this trip, Jack also wanted to go to the British Imperial War Museum at Duxford, a fantastic airfield just over the Suffolk border in Cambridgeshire. There he made a point of seeing the B17 Flying Fortress, which was introduced in the 1930’s. In contrast, Clive and I wanted to see the Concorde. (Suffolk and the broader areas of East Anglia and Cambridgeshire are goldmines for anyone interested in aviation history.)

Clive, Jack, and Flying Fortress, Duxford

Clive, Jack, and Flying Fortress, Duxford

Every Friday morning, Jack drives his Wolsey to the crematorium where the ashes of his late wife, Marjorie, are stored. Marj died in June 2004. Since then, the only time Jack has missed his weekly visit was in 2007, when he was hospitalised for several weeks. He always takes fresh flowers and talks to Marj while he changes water in the vases and tidies the area around her casket.

Marj's casket with flowers from Jack

Marj's casket with flowers from Jack

Back at his house, Jack is surrounded by photographs of him and Marj in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They had no children of their own, and Clive and his sister were in Australia, so virtually all the photos are only of the two of them, at home or on holidays. They were each other’s life, happily married for 51 years. We find it strange there are no pictures of them in their later years, and Clive says it’s another aspect of Jack living in a time warp. I wouldn’t have known what Marj looked like as an older woman if Clive hadn’t shown me his video of Jack and Marj’s 50th anniversary party.

Jack has a number of serious health issues and we’re increasingly concerned about his ability to live in the old house by himself. Clive has worked with him to put various support mechanisms in place. Along with many others his age, Jack guards his independence and wants nothing more than to stay in his own home.

Jack told us several times, “I never want to move. I have too many happy memories here.”

Clive and Jack, ready for the Rally, Ipswich

Clive and Jack, ready for the Rally, Ipswich

My Mother – Another Kind of Time Warp

My mother’s early Alzheimer’s presents us with a different kind of time warp. In recent years, I have experienced first-hand the gradual disappearance of her short-term memory. On this trip, we now recognise the beginning of her long-term memory deterioration.

Last week, my mother asked me who died first, her sister or an elderly aunt. She was very close to both of them. They died 20 years apart, her sister in 1987 and her aunt in 2007.

My mother is in a transition stage, in which she often, but not always, knows when she is confused. She says things like, “My short-term memory is shot,” or, “Oh dear, that’s long-term memory and I can’t remember.” She still ‘gets it’ most of the time, but those of us closest to her are aware the disease is progressing. I know this stage is terribly difficult for her, but she never complains.

My mother was, and is, one of the greatest women I’ve ever known. She suffered great losses during her life, kept the extended family together, and was loved by friends, relatives, teaching colleagues, and students of all ages. I am so lucky to be her daughter, and like millions of others whose parents have Alzheimer’s, I am devastated, and heartbroken, that she is losing her memory.

With my mother, son, and son's girlfriend

With my mother, son, and son's girlfriend

Our Own Memories

It’s not just our parents who remind us how precious our memories are. Clive and I have memories of our own, which come to the surface when we’re in Suffolk and New Jersey.

When we’re in Felixstowe, we usually drive past the house where Clive grew up (it’s on a busy road), before his mother and stepfather moved the family to Australia. I’ve seen the schools and church Clive attended, the house where his grandparents lived, and the housing estate that used to be open fields where he and his friend Philip played and rode their bikes.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Ho-Ho-Kus, Clive has seen the town and street where I grew up, the schools and church I attended in neighbouring Ridgewood, and my grandparents’ house in Paterson.

We still have family and friends in England and the U.S., and for the moment I think our memories are pretty typical ones. Childhood memories may not always be happy, but for most of us they’re important and can be very powerful.

Clive and I hope we never get to a point where our children think we’re living in the past, but we do enjoy sharing our memories with each other.

Welsh ice cream memories

Welsh ice cream memories

We also have recent trip memories, having just arrived back in Sydney. Between Suffolk and the U.S., we had an amazing week in Wales. That will be the subject of my next few posts.

11 Responses

  1. Sweet stories. It is not easy growing old and particularly seeing our parents becoming older and weak… Thank you so much for sharing those stories with us.

  2. Such lovely memorable stories Caroline, it must be very hard for you and Clive..being on the other side of the world. I worry about my mum, and she only lives in near Newmarket, Suffolk. Hey she is off to Felixstowe with the old folk next tuesday 🙂 🙂

    I have been thinking, how lots and lots of people of Clives dads age, still live in and around the same area, but to live in the same house and same street. Bless him.

    Must of been hard for him when clive moved to Australia….and hard for Clive too..he is such a good man.

    It must also be so hard for you Caroline, very sad when a parent is hit with this terrible illness, you are doing wonderful and such a great daughter, to your mum.

    Take care and thank you for all your wonderful comments on my blog ..xox hopefully we will meet up again soon!!!

  3. Hi Carol,

    I have a good friend here in town who is 96 I believe, and graduated from Penn State in the class of 1934. She should not be living in her home, but she would rather live there than anyplace else that she can imagine. He children live in Philadelphia and North Carolina and her husband died many years ago, so she is on her own most of the time. She gets a bit mixed up, although she was pretty good when I brought her home from a luncheon we both attended on Friday.

    It is just so tough to see friends and family that we have loved for so long to age and have the problems that go along with getting old. My mother calls herself an “old, old woman,” which rather shocked me, but each time I see her I know it is true. She also says that “dogs don’t live long enough and people live too long.”

    However, your post was both interesting and loving.

  4. My parents are in their 80’s and I worry about how much longer they can live alone but they keep plugging along. Aging can be so hard to watch-not to mention going through it myself.

  5. Oh, gosh, what a bittersweet post. God bless Jack, and God bless your mother. I have a friend whose mother is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and she has really deteriorated over the last 18 months or so. My heart breaks for you.

    Your mother looks very sweet, and doesn’t look very old.

  6. Fascinating about Jack literally immersing himself in a bygone world . . .even to the point of the cars he drives and the sites he sees! It’s very sweet that he goes to see Marj each week. When the time comes for him that he can no longer live independently, that is going to be very tough indeed for all of you, I can see.

    And the heartbreaking deterioration of your mother. I just can’t imagine. Thank goodness you’ve put yourself in a position where you can go see her every six months or so. I can’t imagine how wrenching it is to leave and am sure, as you said, it gets harder and harder.

    So glad you had this time with both of your families although it’s not always easy. Looking forward to hearing about Wales as well. Hope you’re feeling settled back home!

  7. Thank you all for your kind comments and great empathy.

    Nadege, so true it’s not easy for our parents (or anyone) to grow old, especially with health issues. Anne, I didn’t realise your mum is near Newmarket! That’s great and I hope she has a lovely time visiting Felixstowe.

    Eleanor, your mom’s quote is very poignant. She’s a wonderful woman. Linda, I agree with all your points! and Jo, thanks for stopping by and for your lovely thoughts. Kim, appreciate yours as well, and hope you enjoy your upcoming visit with your parents.

    Again thanks all! I feel lucky to have such wonderful readers and commenters on this blog.

  8. Hi Carolyn;
    Nice to be here again.
    OMG; you have touched me so much with your post.
    Your stories about your Father-in-law and your own Mom, and their lives today, and esp with you both so far away is an ex-pat’s echo.

    Unless one is an orphan that has never had parents or other elders to love, all expats live between HERE & THERE; Going back when we can trying to bridge our gaps the best we can.In the past 3 years, D & I have had 2 trips back; out of 6 total stops, 4 out of 6 were family related. Including my Mom 2 years back.

    Hugs to you a safe travels on to Wales !

  9. Thanks, Barbara. You really understand and your words about expats living between here and there are so very true. Sounds like you and your hubby are doing much the same with so much of your travel being for family visits. I hope your mom is doing well!

    Take care and cheers.

  10. You are so right about it getting harder, not easier, for long-term ex-pats to say goodbye! It’s especially hard if you are leaving a relative who is in poor health!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I’ll be adding yours to my RSS feed – I can see I will enjoy reading it!

  11. Thanks for visiting, Almost American. I know you understand from your own experience.

    Cheers and I look forward to reading your blog.

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