Elders

Elders

In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. Read on for Kathleen Jamie's essay, and visit guttermag.co.uk to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.

Under the plastic lid, a tundra landscape, as seen from the air. Blooms of bottle-green, circlets of paler green, of faun.

‘Dad!’ I said. ‘You can’t eat this. Why in god’s name won’t you keep it in the fridge?’

My father is shrinking. He leans on a stick.

‘Why don’t you eat them when we bring them? On the same day?’

Down the toilet go several small, once-nutritious portions. We are good daughters, my sister and me. Trying to be. We’ve taken to bringing round food because, we insist, a daily bowl of soup is not enough.

My dad is comfortable. He can afford, we can afford – to keep his bungalow heated. He has been widowed for a decade, and before that, carer for my mother following her stroke. Hence the move to within a couple of miles of me and my then young family. We weren’t going anywhere, not then, so they moved close.

Friends say it’s a good arrangement. Not having to drive half-roads across the country every weekend.

Round the corner, out of sight, I text my sister. At dad's. Just chucked all that food we brought, trying not to boak. Later I confess I shouted at him. 'Dad, what are we to do?' He snapped back 'Just leave me to my own devices'.

Daughters, you'll note.
 

*

On the Friday, two friends collected me. We were going north for a long weekend. They are older than me, both retired, and skilled and competent hill-walkers. I think they’re glamourous. One of their chief hill-sports is to receive the slightly patronising comments of men, then turn the conversation to reveal that they have both done all the Munros, and even climbed Himalayan peaks. Both were widowed quite young, for very different reasons.

Into the car go boots, ice-axe and myself bearing another small dish of mashed potato.

‘Can we stop at my father’s, so I can nip in?’

‘Of course!’ One of the two recently lost her own mother at an advanced age. Forests and peat-bogs and abrupt snow-shining mountains. Buzzards on tilting telegraph poles. Passing places. We have hopes of climbing Ben Loyal. We’ll stay with friends in their cottage, where a peat-fired Raeburn warms the wood-panelled rooms.

In the evening, the talk ranges over land-ownership and politics, and life-choices. Housing. How and where it’s best to live as you age, if you are free to make choices. We all know people who are in their 70s, still with parents alive. People who will never know life without a living parent until they are elderly themselves.

‘We should live together in a commune.’ someone suggests. Yes, we should.

The forecast is not great but we go anyway, for a look-see. In a certain deserted farmyard, we gear up and begin walking over land which is boggy, heathery. The hill is clear of cloud, its complex snowy summits bright against cold blue sky.

But the sky soon darkens and a squall drives down the glen. The three of us fan out, hunched, battered by sleet, each picking our own way among bog-pools, thinking our own thoughts. None of us likes chatterboxes on the hill. We enjoy the freedom of our own interiority. The squall passes; we follow a burn up toward a low ridge. It’s heavy going and the snow-field above looks like it might be wind-honed, icy. Soon the sky darkens again and a new squall drives in.

Now we’re glancing at each other, laughingly. Who will speak first?

We descend back to the car, peel off gaiters and coats and muddy boots, enjoying ourselves.

I deeply trust these women friends. As we drive back down to the Kyles of Tongue, I feel free to voice what I've been thinking about of late, out of this phase of my life. I feel I have a window of opportunity but it's closing fast. No, rather I feel it has barely opened at all, because I'm being delivered straight from childcare to eldercare, without passing ‘GO’. And the day job, of course.

But this is my chance, or should be. My own health is good, the kids are grown. Soon they might even be making their own money. My husband seems happy to wave me off on adventures his own arthritis prevents, but give it a few more years...

Life has been good to us.

‘Chance for what?’

I'm not actually sure. ‘I’d like to travel. Go on a gap year, with a backpack. Somewhere out of Scotland. Get a sense of the majesty of the world.’

‘Do it!’ They say. ‘Before your joints give out!’

I’m not sure I can imagine it. Anything can happen, as we all know. It can all come tumbling down. The walking axe I use was my mother’s. She used it before the stroke. She was 60. Did she ever feel free? She was the only child of a single parent who needed a lot of help.

We’ve congratulated ourselves several times already on making the right decision in retreating from the hill.

Imagine the headlines, they say ‘Pensioners rescued from mountain blizzard.’

‘Old ladies!’

‘Speak for yourselves,’ say I.
 

*

‘Did you eat your tatties?’

‘Aye.’

‘Good. You know, there’s a company that delivers frozen meals… small portions. You could give that a try, too.’
 

*
 

‘Tell us what freedoms would you champion,’ they asked. Well. Now I’m staring at the page, stuck. What to do? Get outdoors, wander alone without fear, think my own thoughts then write them, even publish them. Aye, those are freedoms too, and hard won.

Say ‘freedom’ and I hear ‘transience’. I suspect our love of freedom is sourced in the knowledge that we are mortal. Of slavery or repression, I know only that others suffer them, and when those people find the chance and courage to speak, I guess my obligation is to listen. All I know are the negotiations we make every day around duty, love and mortality, which come from deep within our cultured, gendered lives, and which change as we age. And that’s all.

 

Copyright © 2018, Kathleen Jamie. All rights reserved.

Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.

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