Rosie, my biological East Indian mother, is in an age care centre suffering from dementia. For the past week, I’ve been rummaging through her home tidying up and clearing old boxes of letters and artifacts. A box of coins fell into my hands – most of them gold sovereigns and guineas. Among all that gold was a copper penny from England, circa 1945. I hadn’t seen it since I was seventeen. I hadn’t thought about that penny since I wrote this in “Chasing Aphrodite“:
He abruptly crossed the road and stared at what was, once, Lulu’s old home. Each day on his way home from school, he was expected to visit her. Lulu was Flo’s mum and Flo, his foster mum.
“Tell Flo I’m at the end of me tether.”
She would say this each day as she fed her three cats or pottered around her sitting room dusting furniture. Close to ninety, her face leathered and tanned, she would then sit, regally ensconced, in her favourite armchair, her eyes glued to Coronation Street. She reminded him of a ball of crumpled brown paper and just as light to hold. Around her, the paint and wallpaper had slowly peeled away, while bric-a-brac cluttered every nook and side table. A pair of startlingly yellow budgerigars brashly chirruped on their shiny silver perches.
He last visited her when he was seventeen, shortly before she died. It happened on a Friday, when she would always have a special treat in store for him. As he kissed her goodbye, she paused.
” ‘ang on a minute,” she said.
” I almost forgot.” from one corner of her table, she extracted the latest copy of Bimbo, a comic for five-to-eight-year-olds and handed it to him. In her other hand she held out a penny, superannuated long ago by decimalization. It was the only tangible reminder he had left of her.”
At Rosie’s home, the penny weighed heavy in my hand. Rosie could never display such sentimentality- so strong, ruthless and single minded was she in pursuing her worldly goals. Despite all her independence and self-achieved power, she now occupies a cell in Generations Care Home for chronic dementia. At her last weigh-in, she was stable at 88 pounds ( 40 kilos ), reminding me once again of that “ball of crumpled brown paper” I had once thought of when observing at Lulu.
For more than a year, Rosie has hardly got out of bed and barely remembers her family.
Last Easter, one of her community volunteers handed me a large bar of Toblerone chocolate. Rosie had asked the volunteer to go out and buy it for me.
In England, Toblerone was an almost unheard of luxury. It was shipped in from Switzerland and sold only on special occasions. Then, Easter was a time of showering children with chocolate eggs. In desperate poverty, my mother could only afford a tiny bar of Toblerone to give me. And I, not even six years old, could do nothing to help her.
Despite her lifelong striving for wealth and recognition, suffering from chronic dementia, she thought first of a bar of chocolate over all her sovereigns and guinea, while I confronted by the same bag of coins chose a bent penny over all her riches.
How often have you watched the powerful and dominant in your life then turn into, ” a ball of crumpled paper? What have you chosen to be of import to you? What items do you think you will cherish until old age?