January is supposed to be the month at which most people feel at their lowest point. Not for me, though. February, and particularly the first week of February, is when everything is a bit more of an effort than usual.
February 3rd – was Mum’s 76th birthday. I went to see her the day before and though I’m not sure she’ll really understood why I was giving her a present, at least she didn’t give this one straight back to me as she’d done at Christmas. I told her all about Singing for the Brain and even tried an impromptu duet or two. She remembered most of the words to Somewhere from West Side Story and together we climbed every mountain, though unlike Shirley Bassey, I don’t think we quite reached the top. It was hard to maintain Mum’s attention for long and we finished our short set without an encore. There was no hint of applause from the lady in the next door room so I don’t think she felt shortchanged by our modest performance.
There’s another reason why this month comes with a health warning for me. Five days after Mum’s 72nd birthday in 2009, my father died. A few days after that, Mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and so I think you can understand why this month isn’t my favourite.
It hasn’t always been so, obviously. Mum’s birthdays in the past, like all family birthdays, were an excuse for a special home-cooked meal. One year, I think it was around 1979, we threw caution to the wind and opted for a fondue, and not just any fondue but a steak fondue. Mum always shopped around for her cuts of meat and steak was a serious treat, only triggered by birthdays or significant exams results. Mum made four different sauces, of which I think she was quite proud, and we dipped our collective toes into this exotic world. I think Dad won the fondue set in a raffle and I remember it had a very cheesy (no pun intended) photograph of a 70s family on the box, a family resplendent in floral smocks and kipper ties. Had I worn a kipper tie, it would doubtless have ended up in the pot, as did most of my morsels of steak which quickly parted company from my fork. We followed the fondue with Mum’s tipsy gateau and The Mike Yarwood Show. I’m not sure 1979 was the year of living dangerously for the Jones family but they were happy, happy times.
When we cleared out Mum’s house before she moved into the care home, I found that she’d kept all her old diaries. Before she and Dad were married in 1962, she filled in a summary of each day. Curious, I looked for details of birthdays gone by. In 1958, for example, the postman arrived at ten past seven on Mum’s 21st birthday which concluded with a meal at The Burlington, a hotel which stands to this day in Birmingham City Centre. Incidentally, three weeks later, Mum’s diary tells me that she and my grandfather went to an FA Cup tie between West Brom and Manchester United, which was United’s first away game after the Munich Air Disaster. I don’t think Mum ever told me she’d been at that game. By the way, Mum informed me that the game finished in a two all draw and the diary entry of March 5th tells me that Albion lost the replay. Some things don’t change, it seems.
A year later, Mum’s favourite present seems to have been some record tokens and the family again chose the Burlington for Mum’s birthday meal. I bet they didn’t have a fondue though. Mum would have to wait for the racy 70s for that particular treat.
I bet you can’t guess where Mum ate on her 23rd birthday – yes, it was The Burlington again but by 1961, my Dad was on the scene and The Burlington was no longer the venue of choice. This year, they left Birmingham altogether for a hotel in Henley-in-Arden, not too far from where I live now. The hotel in question will remain nameless because our restaurant critic/diarist opined “v.good food but service poor.” With this kind of detail in my genes, is it any wonder I became a journalist?
I find Mum’s diaries hugely comforting. Even though these entries were written before I was born, they put be back in touch with the Mum I’ve lost, the Mum who liked to make events special and who loved nothing more than spending time with family and close friends. I’ll finish with one more diary entry from 1958. On April 5th, perhaps still blessed with some birthday money, Mum bought a gramophone in Hadley’s in Birmingham, a store which seems to be long gone. She celebrated by purchasing an LP by Charlie Kunz but my grandfather bought her Magic Moments by Perry Como, the same 78 which sits in my collection to this day.
Magic Moments indeed.