For the Love of Soysambu, For the Love of Reading.

I call mum often.

Sometimes I have to work hard to keep dialogue going, Dementia means we can’t pick up where we left off last time. Mum’s failing memory means there is no receptacle from which to sieve conversation starters.  She can’t remember anybody; often an entire call is spent dissecting family.

How many children do I have have? How many children do you have? How old are your children? Where are they? Who is your sister, again? Where is your sister? How many children does your sister have …

Those days, those calls, must be so frustrating for mum. I watch confusion tangle her expression and knot her brow in frowns as she battles to scale the family tree I’ve sown (it’s all apparently new to her) and keep her balance on top of it.   Those calls make me especially sad.  I try to avoid them – side step her who’s-who questions or scurry quickly by them.

So we talk about the weather instead, an easy one, she has only to look out of her window and she’s got a handle on a conversation starter; she is astounded that I am basking in warmth whilst she is snowbound. Her grasp on geography has loosened. We talk about the pandemic and she politely asks if I have it ‘where you are’. She doesn’t have a clue where I am.

But lately she has begun to devote more time to her reading and that effort always lends hopeful platform; so we talk about books.

At present she is reading For Love of Soysambu. It’s about notorious Kenya settlers, the Delamere’s and their ranch, Soysambu.

She is loving it. She tells me she will read it a second time as soon as she’s finished.

‘Just so I can be sure I’ve understood the story.’

I tell her my husband used to work on the same ranch (she has forgotten his name too though she always politely asks after him when I call, ‘how’s that hubby of yours’, she says, the affectionate composition of her question suggests she knows who she’s talking about even though she doesn’t).

‘Did he really? Work on Soysambu? Gosh, how interesting!’

And I imagine her relishing this funny far off connection that has been presented between one of her own and the book she’s reading.  I imagine it makes the story feel nearer.

Soysambu from Ant’s garden, 1988

Even though it was once much, much nearer: She doesn’t remember that dad used to work for Lady Delamere, on another ranch. She doesn’t remember that she used to feel peeved – and dad highly entertained – that his Christmas bonus was so paltry that the expensive Christmas presents Lady D ordered for us kids, from Hamleys, were worth more.  She does not remember that I used to ride the Delamere’s polo ponies, belting about the farm, reckless, sometimes hatless, until I fell off. She doesn’t remember that we used to giggle at the family’s private cemetary, walled on a hill on the farm, where Lady D buried all her dogs. 

‘Fancy burying your dogs in a graveyard like that’, she said at the time, ‘how pretentious’.

She doesn’t remember the bees in the wooden house we lived in which had my poor little sister wetting her bed at night as she was too afraid to walk the passage to the loo lest she was stung. She doesn’t remember the beautiful house we moved to after that, a stone house perched high on a hill overlooking Lake Naivasha so we could hear the reeling call of fish eagles that hung out in the Fever Trees at the lake’s edge, a house with vast windows so that the sun spilled in and flooded it with light. She doesn’t remember the archway between the dining room and the sitting room, designed like a horseshoe, grey brick work indented with gaps where nails would have been. 

The house above the lake, my little sister and I, 1977

She doesn’t remember saying, ‘that horseshoe is the wrong way up for luck.’

She laughs now, as I describe it to her but her laughter sounds hollow, she’s not really interested. This house, this far away house that she has no recollection of: ‘it sounds lovely’, she says, politely, but I can hear her distancing from the conversation: this house of my memories, where she apparently once lived, it has no place in her here and now.

Reading does though. And that makes my heart sing. Sing

Five years ago her neuro said, ‘she’ll never read again’. But she does. She does. After a fashion and slowly, but she does. She reads well enough to understand the Delamere’s were a colourful bunch, ‘interesting family, that lot, bit odd’ she observes so that I laugh. 

And clawing her words back means she can recast some new world of her own making even as the one she lives in is shrinking.

My heart sings because my broken mother is so startlingly brave at times that I feel winded.

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