“Things to ask Kate”. I spot the scrap of paper with this heading, on the kitchen table. My 84-year-old mum is dishing up lunch, talking animatedly about “the bloody government doing bugger all” about Ukrainian refugees. “It is so awful,” I reply, picking up the envelope and handing it to her. “Are there some things you want help with, Mum?” “Oh yes,” she replies, standing up again. “Where have I put my glasses?” I glance at the cooker to check the rings are all off and pick up the newspaper cutting she handed me when I arrived that she wants me to read. “Do you know,” she says, “I was writing an email at 5am and all of a sudden it just vanished. Vanished.” She turns to look at me, opening her eyes and hands wide to signal the void it’s fallen into. “I’ll have a look and see if I can find it,” I say, wondering whether to ask if she checked the drafts folder.
Falling into a void is perhaps my mother’s greatest fear. Forgetful and sometimes wandering, she finds the world increasingly confusing, the spectre of dementia hanging over her old age. “That bloody thing,” she complains frequently, pointing to her iPad, “it drives me mad.” Lost emails are often on the list, along with occurrences such as The Crown going back to the beginning and showing her episodes she’s already seen, and variations on what “two dashes and a dot with a wiggly thing above it” means. She often asks where she can buy such-and-such – the ubiquitousness of Amazon having escaped her – how to pay bills or give to a cause she’s read about. The answer is nearly always online. Online. Online. Online. Sometimes I show her, knowing she almost certainly won’t remember. Mostly I do it for her.
The topsy-turvy nature of this mother-and-daughter dynamic was perhaps on my mind when I thought of a plan for dealing with a problem of my own – I needed new curtains for my front room. Could my mum, who had made all our curtains when I was growing up, but whose sight and steadiness of hand were not now reliable enough for her to make them herself, guide me through the steps so that, between us, we could make them together? The idea appealed to me, and not just as a way of making my front room more cosy. Would this project, I wondered, give our relationship an injection of vitality, a focus on creating something I could remember her by, as she was shortly to move 200 miles away to live opposite my sister?
I put the idea to her thinking that, despite her struggle to remember the recent past and to take in new information, she would remember how to make curtains. Her response – “Oh, it’s easy, you just sew the sides together and then turn it inside out, like a pillow case. Then there’s the rufflette tape, but even that is straightforward, really” – gave me confidence. I’ve never been a seamstress, but knew my way around the charming old Frister & Rossmann sewing machine that had been her grandmother’s. I set about measuring the window space and looking at material. “They’ll be much nicer if you line them,” said Mum, when I’d confessed I wasn’t going to bother. Her sentiment percolated over the coming days, segueing into reassurance of her investment in the project – and I began to fall in love with the idea of my beautiful new velvet curtains, which would indeed deserve to be lined.
“Don’t ask them to cut it, they won’t do it evenly,” she counselled, when it came to ordering the material. But I ignored her on this. With three widths of curtain material and the same again of lining for each curtain (12 widths in total, each 3m long), I didn’t trust my measuring and cutting skills – or our mutual patience – and asked for the material to be sent already cut. I was counting on her having forgotten her advice by the time the material arrived. She hadn’t!
We laid the lining out on the bed in her spare room and began to pin; Mum picking out and handing me colour-top pins from her tin, one by one. Then we tacked, Mum painstakingly and often triumphantly threading a new needle in the time it took me to sew the previous length of thread. We lifted the material on to the table with the Frister & Rossmann at the ready and I began to sew, winding the handle with my right hand, Mum sitting opposite me, receiving and straightening the material as it fed through to the other side. By the end of our first session together one of the linings was ready. We were both elated. This really was going to work.
The second lining went just as smoothly. Our third session, however, repeating these steps but with the velvet, wasn’t so straightforward, the top piece buckling. “It will be fine, you won’t notice,” said Mum, to my surprise – her more usual Eeyore tendency to believe the worst will happen having apparently dissolved. Enjoying her calm authority, I carried on, but by the time I got to the end, one piece was longer than the other. She continued to insist it wouldn’t matter. “When they’re hanging you won’t notice it in the folds. Honestly.” She was proving so sure-footed about the sequence of steps and what needed to happen at each stage, that I trusted her judgment – plus, I couldn’t face unpicking it all. Her reassurance was touching, too. Our roles, so often the other way round these days, had reverted back again. She was the expert, I the neophyte.
Then the sewing machine, which hadn’t been used in decades, faltered, making large, loose stitches instead of small, tight ones. Our little operation at a standstill, Mum suggested handstitching the curtains – as she had done with hers – pointing out that this would allow more “give” with each stitch, avoiding the buckling. But I felt my energy drain away at the idea of all that handsewing, so I bought special oil for the bobbin and, when that didn’t work, sought out a specialist who serviced the machine and told me to change the needle. He also pointed out that it was ambitious for a novice like me to work with velvet. “The two surfaces move against each other,” he said. “It’s probably the hardest fabric to work with.” Eventually, we were back in business, the machine running smoothly again, and me handling the velvet more assertively as I fed it through.
Meanwhile, arrangements for Mum’s move were hotting up with various workmen in her house preparing it to be let. Decorators were in the spare bedroom, so we relocated to the kitchen – but it was too dusty in there – and then to her bedroom, which was a squash. “I don’t think we’re going to get them finished in time,” said Mum, her anxiety about the upheaval all around her taking its toll. We’d sewn the curtain material to the lining, but the ends were very uneven – and for the first time Mum was stumped about what to do next. We needed to put the project away – again.
Christmas came and went and by mid-January we were going again, Mum’s enthusiasm – and clarity – having returned, along with proof of just how competent and clear-thinking she was still capable of being. We cut the bottom to an even length and sewed on the rufflette tape. Now they were ready to hang, the final step – the hems – to be measured once up. Expectation at home was growing. We’d been without curtains since the previous spring and a cosy front room was longed for. My neighbour lent me her drill, my daughter’s boyfriend put up a rail, and my son drove the curtains from Mum’s house to ours. I put 20 hooks in each curtain, slotted them into the rail and stood back to admire our handiwork.
Lush folds of gold velvet fell the length of the bay, shutting out the black winter night. It was wonderful. Mum hotfooted it round with her walking stick and with me up a ladder encouraged me on as I pulled the threads in the rufflette tape to get the tops to concertina. At various points the thread was caught in the stitching and I had to snip it free. Mum had warned me about this as I’d machined on the rufflette, but I’d been convinced she was worrying unnecessarily and ploughed on. I couldn’t help thinking of the 50s housewife card I’d given her on Mother’s Day last year: “It turns out everything my mother said was right!”
We were all in tears when she moved a few weeks later but she’s now happily lapping up my sister and her husband’s care. And I look at my beautiful and flawed curtains – with a buckled seam that with judicious use of the folds does indeed disappear – and see what a fitting and poignant reminder they are of my relationship with my mum.