Just a Number

This is my mother dabbing.

If you want to mortify my daughter (always very tempting), dab.

This mortifies her even if I do it in the privacy of our own home when there’s no-one to see. If I really want to mortify her, I do it when one of her friends will see me doing it. Double mortification is when her dad joins in.

‘You and your mates dab,’ I say.

‘Yes but we’re doing it ironically,’ she says, as if I do it with the seriousness required of a U.N. security meeting.

Dabbing, in case you didn’t know (and are getting worried) is what is being demonstrated by my mother in the photograph below and I’d explain its origins except that the wikipedia article is a bit too long to summarise. It started in 2015 as a youth thing. Nowadays, according to my nearly-seventeen-year-old daughter, you only do it if you’re a kid (e.g. from her perspective, anyone under fourteen) or being ironic. You do not do it if you’re a parent.

I read a blog post about the meaning of ‘old’ (link below). When does one become old? Is it an age or an attitude? Part of the author’s aim was to raise awareness of fiction aimed at or written by people over forty and whose characters are older than, say thirty-five and who yet have adventures, fall in love, exist in the real world without needing slippers and a cup of tea.

There is a prevalent attitude in western society that youth is king and that getting older means no longer being switched on to the modern world or able to keep up. It’s total nonsense.

I am sure, if you’re beyond forty-nine and watch ‘The Apprentice’, you shout at the television when the candidates are asked to market things at the over fifties and start assuming a complete IT incompetence and general out-of-touchedness, despite the fact that the IT revolution was started by people now in their seventies or eighties. I’m in my fifties and surprise, not only do I know how to use a mobile phone and various computer programmes but am working in a digital modernisation project. At this precise moment, my husband is helping my mother with her laptop (see – she’s eighty and has a laptop). In reciprocation, if I need help with photoshop, I ask Mum, because she’s an expert. It’s all relative.

The generation gap is quite different now to what it once was. When I was a teenager my parents watched ‘Top of the Pops’ in despair, complaining about hair length, make-up, high pitched screeching (and that was just the boy singers). Nowadays my children and I enjoy the same music without anyone (generally) criticising the other’s taste. I don’t care about anyone’s hair length or who’s wearing make-up or what anyone’s gender identity is. I envy the clothes my daughter wears but won’t copy her. I don’t want to look mutton dressed as lamb and anyway, ripped jeans would give me cold legs. But we do share sweaters and coats sometimes (although they’re just a tiny bit looser on her). Any suggestion that ripped jeans and perfect, identical eyebrows will one day be looked back on with derision is met with the confident assertion that this year’s fashion is different and classic and eternal. I have learnt to keep silent, having grown up through the 70s and 80s with the terrible photos to prove it.

Sometimes I feel younger now than I did when I was in my twenties. I was out with colleagues last week, all but two of whom were over forty. We felt that we are lighter hearted now. We may be more … cynical… realistic… (call it what you will) than the two twenty somethings who possibly wondered why they’d come out with a bunch of giggling middle-aged people, but we know we’re more inclined to laugh at ourselves, not to mention forgive ourselves than we once were. We know that life won’t be roses all the way, we’ve seen enough change to know that there is nothing new under the sun whether it’s an appraisal system or a theory or a plan or a political crisis.

I know I am very fortunate to have been born at a time and in a place where I have had access to free healthcare since birth, in a place where efforts to reduce pollution and limit artificial additives in foods have meant that my environment is better than many. I had parents who were able to physically, mentally and emotionally nurture me. All of those things mean that my life expectancy is better than huge numbers of people round the world, particularly other women. Believe me I don’t take that for granted.

Anyway, the point is that while my body is starting to send out little signals that I’m getting older, inside, I’m still a girl, just a grown-up girl who knows that I can make a fool of myself without the world ending. All being well, one day my daughter will jump over the invisible generation gap and take a simple delight in embarrassing the generation below hers and maybe we’ll high five or whatever the equivalent will be then.

Right now, I’ll keep looking for characters of my age in books and writing them too. The book I’m working on now is set in AD190 and has two women who have somehow, against the odds lived to their early sixties. One is deliciously nasty and the other delightfully wise. I have a teenage girl character too, who naturally thinks these ‘old ladies’ know absolutely nothing about anything. I think I need to make one of them mortify her.

Back in the 21st Century, I am sure you can imagine my daughter’s horror at being asked to show her grandmother to dab so that I could take a photograph and put it on my website.

All I can say is mwah-ha-ha.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

When is old not so old

Books for older readers

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A Cigar Box

A cigar box.

It is quite old now. Once it smelt of tobacco. Now it smells of almond and beeswax polish.

Once it held cigars. Now it holds memories: memories which are mine and memories which are mysteries.

This box, new and full of cigars, was once a Christmas present for my father. Our family never gave big presents. Mostly Dad bought me books, mostly I bought Dad cigars. I seem to remember that it was still legal, when I was a child, for me to buy them myself from the tobacco counter in Woolworths, but I may be wrong.

I don’t know why the box itself was kept. I imagine my mother thought it was too nice to throw away. I understand that. I can never throw away a good box either. There is something hopeful about a box, perfect, with its snugly fitting lid, waiting to be filled.

Then one day, my mother sanded, polished and varnished the cigar box and gave it to me for trinkets. I have kept it ever since, popping inside odds and ends from time to time.

The newest thing inside is perhaps twelve years old. The oldest is from 1926, long before even my parents were born.

Each thing has its own story.

The things at the top remind of being a young adult: single, unattached and time-rich. My ID card from when I  volunteered in Romania in 1992; a thank-you letter from a child in a holiday club.

Lifting those aside, here are things from my teens. My Girl-Guide promise badge. My Robin patrol and three challenge badges. I ducked out of Guides quite early, never finding a kindred spirit. I wanted to build shelters and make fires. The other girls wanted to talk about pop stars. I gained my accident prevention badge, my cook’s badge and my writer’s badge. I remember the last two. I wrote a poem about washing dishes for the former and a heavily plagiarised novella uncannily similar to ‘The Secret Garden’ for the latter. Here is my fifth year* prefect badge. I loathed being a prefect and spent my duties chasing second years** out of the ‘old’ block at lunch time (which we all enjoyed) and ignoring the bad girls who were smoking in the toilets because, frankly, I preferred to stay in one piece. And here’s my ‘Young Enterprise’ badge from when I had my first ‘secretarial’ role. I learnt at seventeen that I hated taking minutes and yet, here I am, all these years later, still doing it from time to time. At least I get paid for it now.

Here are random bits of costume jewellery from my late teens and some little glass ornaments bought for me in Tenby by children (with some help from Daddy) twelve years or so ago. I want a little glass cabinet to put them in where they can mingle with the tiny glass animals my grandmother collected and which currently live in another box, wrapped individually in yellowing tissue.

Here are some 1928 German Reichbanknotes. Both sets of my grandparents married in 1929, but as far as I know, none had German connections at the time. I have absolutely no idea why I have them, why anyone in my family had them. One of them is a 100,000 mark note. In 1928, at the end of a period of hyperinflation in Germany and shortly before the Great Depression, I believe it had relatively little buying potential. I would be interested to know.

Then there is a little box with coins inside. These are all pfennigs, pre-euro German pennies. The oldest of these is from the 1950s and I assume that they were brought back by mother when she went to visit a new penfriend. My mind boggles to think of my shy mother travelling alone as a teenager, to stay with someone she’d never met before in a country which, less than ten years earlier had been enemy territory. Some of the pfennigs are ones I brought back from visiting my own German penfriend in the early 1980s, and tucked in amongst them is a letter ‘a’ from a printing press which I was given in a museum on my first visit. I can’t remember now whether I chose the ‘a’ (and if so why) or whether I was given it.

Last but not least is a box of medals and badges, none of which are mine. Many of them are my paternal grandfather’s motorcycling medals. My grandmother said he only stopped racing when he broke an arm and she begged him to stop. I think she always felt guilty afterwards, but on the other hand, after marriage, when a motor-cycle was their only means of transport, she used to sit in a side-car, knitting, completely blasé. I seem to be descended from insanely calm women, without having inherited the calmness.

One of the medals is from WWI and Canadian. For years and years, it baffled me, as I was unaware of any Canadian connection. And then, when my daughter was doing research for history, I found out. My paternal grandmother was the youngest of four children. Her eldest brother Reginald flew for the Royal Flying Corps and is on the Virtual Canadian War Memorial. I haven’t quite worked out the link, but I do know that he was in 39 Squadron and an observer in a Bristol F.2 which was shot down on 25th September 1918. He was 21. The pilot was 19. My grandmother would have been 10. My father said that one of his abiding memories was, as a small child, seeing his grandfather (Reginald’s father) sitting with a fragment of propeller, turning it over and over in his hands in silence.

This is a cigar box. It no longer holds cigars. It contains nothing of value to anyone but me. It contains memories, some of which aren’t mine.

It is a box full of treasure.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

*Fifth year – equivalent to year 11 now or 10th grade – the year at school when you are usually 15-16 and in UK take the first set of public exams.

**Second year – equivalent year 8 now or 7th grade (my school had the first years/year 7s in a separate building and we didn’t have a sixth form/yrs 12 & 13. Therefore the fifth years were the eldest hence being prefects. Much to my relief, when I went to another school for sixth form, I wasn’t selected as prefect).