Moving Country

It’s funny how it’s the small things that get you. Getting dressed recently, I pulled out a long-sleeved top and held it up for examination before putting it on.

I need a new one of these, I said to myself, noting the fading and bobbling. I’m not a bass player in a grunge band.

My next thought was: Have to go to Springfield.

The said clothes shop has been my go-to outfitter for tops and T-shirts for the guts of twenty years. Except there’s no Springfield near where I currently live. There was a Springfield, though, near my home in Madrid, where up until two years ago, I lived for almost nine years.

I still haven’t found a tops and T-shirts emporium in my new city. Or a place to buy those jeans I like. Or a nice tapas bar. Or a replacement for that satirical news programme we used to watch every day before turning in. Or a million other little trivial, but-not-so-trivial-at-the-same-time things.

Moving country in your forties, while exciting, challenging, exhilarating and all the rest of it is not fun. For certain things the forty-year-old version of me had become set in his ways. Between the ages of thirty and forty, it seems as if certain patterns of behaviour, preferences – ways of being – had become set in stone. And while moving has been almost like an earthquake, it hasn’t been far enough up on the Richter scale to crack these hefty slabs of habit and choice. I still want to be like the pre-move me and do many of the things the pre-move me did.

For this reason, moving country has been bloody disruptive. And two years after the fact, I still haven’t reached a place as comfortable in as I was pre-move. And let’s face it, it’s not just the little things – the long-sleeved tops and tapas bars. The move has destroyed big things, important things which I haven’t recovered yet or am working hard at to recover. I’ve come to see a big move such as the one we’ve done as a huge dissolving process that takes with it all the certainties, life rhythms and patterns of the old life. The struggle is reforming the old ways of being to meet the new life in some sort of spirit of harmony.

Some examples: I used to do weights most nights in our old life. A half-hour of lifting and pressing in our large living room while the family watched TV together in the evening was deeply embedded into my routine. Somehow, with the change in location, the new living room, slightly earlier evening mealtimes, a different division of chores, I’m lucky to do weights twice a week. Similarly, I haven’t been as punctilious with my guitar playing as I was in the old life; I just can’t find a time/location where it fits into the new life as it did in the old. And writing and blogging . . . I’ve barely done any of that since the move. Things were so hectic immediately after moving country that I put these on the back burner for a couple of months, but that couple of months has turned into two years.

When you land in a new country you tend to take care of the big stuff first: the house, schools for the kids, the car, insurance, assurance, broadband, activities for the kids, the garden, that dog you promised them. And home life somehow seems to coalesce into a pattern just as easy and wholesome as the pattern you had pre-move. But the things that made you you – defined you – get left by the wayside in sorting out these large practicalities. And you need to find yourself again. The move has broken many things down, so it’s time to build them up again.

My new life will not be fully mine until I’ve found that go-to top shop in my new city.

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My Poor Garden

The first thing we did when we moved into the house fifteen years ago was the garden. For months before we got the keys, we had been drawing up plans for a cottage-style garden out back and a heather- and grasses-themed patch out front. We bought seeds – dozens of packets – and sowed them in trays that we kept in the sunniest spots in our little rented flat. We collected cuttings and visited garden centres, snapping up bargains, so that by the time the house was ready there wasn’t a square inch of dining area, floor or worktop of the flat free of leaf, frond or branch. We had very little plans for the house itself – that could wait. We figured that it was important to take advantage of the fact that we’d be moving in in summer: we could get the garden established first so that by the winter we wouldn’t be looking out at a sea of mud.

We were given the keys on the Friday of the weekend of the June bank holiday. After moving our few things across town, we set about whipping the garden into the shape we’d plotted out. We spent weeks digging and turning the soil, working late into the night in the glow of the midsummer sky. As we planted rows of seedlings as the midnight dew fell, we joked that our new neighbours must have thought us mad.

That garden is now mature. Some of our seedlings and saplings took hold and prospered, others not. Some plants for which we paid a relative fortune withered after a few seasons, while a pair of bay plants we bought for a couple of euro each and which were less than three inches tall at time of planting are now handsome trees, twice the height of a man. A eucalyptus sprouted too high, beanstalk-like, and had to be taken down. The winter of 2010 cut a frosty swath through the more exposed sections, took a camelia given to us by my late father. The tenants we left the house to while we lived abroad did not do the garden proud – I will never forgive them for pulling up a row of woody lavenders. But last summer the garden was beautiful. It reached the pinnacle of what we had dreamed for it. There was one night in June when we sat out with friends having a few beers and I thought: This is what I always wanted this garden to be.

Then, last September, we got a puppy.

The garden now resembles the front line of a World War I theatre of operations.

I knew prior to purchasing Archie that introducing a canine to a small cottage garden would spell an end to the near perfection achieved last summer. The dogs I had as a child were no respecters of herbaceous borders, trim lawns or sparsely planted rockeries. Amy, a cocker, was a digger. Muffin, a wheaten terrier, had a thing against cineraria, and sculpted these huge nests among the flowers for her many phantom pregnancies. I knew that dogs scraped before and after “doing their business”. That urine bleached grass. That number two’s needed collecting on a regular basis. In short, I knew it would be a struggle to keep as nice a garden as I wanted to keep with a dog in the family.

However . . . The beast has destroyed my garden. Beyond any of my prior experiences with pooches. Archie is: a digger; a rooter; a scraper; a puller; a stripper of bark; a snapper at leaves; a snapper of branches; a hunter, extracter and sucker of bulbs; a pooper on heathers; a stomper; a squasher; a tearer; a ripper. He either loves plants and wants to devour every gram of vegetation in the garden, or he hates plants and wants to devour every gram of vegetation in the garden.

I cannot see a way forward. This does not seem to be a mere phase the dog is going through. His interest in landscaping does not seem like something he will shed as he leaves puppyhood. As he approaches seven months of age, he’s as much of a digger and destroyer now as he ever was. I could restrict his access to the garden, letting him out only under strict supervision. But those moments when he is on his own among the laurels and willows are as close to freedom to mooch and mull as this teenage canine gets. I could fence off those parts of the garden I wish to keep out of the reach of his mighty paws and choppers, but the garden is postage-stamp enough as it is. I could change the garden, remodel it: theme it as dog-proof rather than cottage. Exasperation has led me to almost consider this. But, I have decided to adopt a Lebowskian attitude to this. I will abide, and perhaps in a couple of years when the mutt is middle-aged, his interest will turn from excavating to observing birds or licking drains. And perhaps then we might put the garden back together.

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The Joy of a Dead-End Job

It’s a wonderful thing to have a dead-end job. A luxury, a boon, a privilege. I once read that the more restricted your choices in life, the happier you would be. It’s all this humming and hawing over myriad options, this indecision spurred on by near infinite choice that makes us anxious and unhappy. A dead-end job most definitely cuts off your options. In a professional sense there are only two: stay or go. As long as the dead-end job pays enough and doesn’t “twist your melon”, as the song goes, you don’t even have to devote a single bite of your brain’s valuable RAM to this question. You’re content to keep walking up that professional blind alley, that cul-de-sac of the working world – you’re staying.

Happy in your dead-end job, you can devote every second of the time you spend outside work to living – real life and all of that. In between clocking out and in you dwell for not a whit on your work, workplace or colleagues. Your leisure time is your leisure time, one hundred per cent (if not more!). You see friends slipping away from the dinner table with a buzzing phone mouthing “I’ve got to take this – it’s work”, or people in cafés sighing while tapping frantic responses to emails on their laptops (and not enjoying that Frappuccino one bit) and you deeply feel both your luck and the rightness of your choice. Outside work your time is your own. You’re not worrying about the outcome of yesterday’s meeting as you butter your toast in the morning; you’re listening to Debussy or Calexico or that podcast you follow or chatting to the kids about their plans for the day. When you’re hammering out a few chords on the guitar, you do not suddenly pull up, a line of prickly sweat tricking down your back with the thought of “oh, my God, did I send Halpin the correct attachment this afternoon?” ricocheting around your mind. There’s no night terrors starring bosses, line managers, promotions, demotions, transfers, section mergers, restructurings, CV enhancement or any of the like: it’s all water off a duck’s back to you. Your spirit is free, untroubled. You pity those poor souls handing over good money to mindfulness gurus who will struggle to teach them what comes naturally to you: “forget about work, live – live in the moment”.

It gets even better. You can even bring your private life into the dead-end job. In a complete reversal of almost everybody else’s angst-driven work life, you can take your hobbies and interests into your dead-end job and indulge them while on the clock. Of course, you must be one of the very lucky few whose dead-end job involves down time, or spells when you’re unsupervised, or where it appears as if you’re working, when in fact you can be updating your blog or studying that biography of de Gaulle. Or your job may be one of those which allows you to simultaneously work while also improving the self – a one-eye-on-the-widget-stamping-machine, a one-eye-on-the-laptop kind of job.

If you’re one of those people with more hobbies and interests than time to squeeze them into, then the above type of dead-end job is ideal. What to somebody else might be a soul-destroying, watching-the-paint-dry borefest, is to you an opportunity to cultivate that hefty bushel of interests. So, while you keep an eye on the widget-stamper, making sure those numbers are within tolerance and nothing is snarling up on the in- or out-take, you can simultaneously be tracing your tangle of a family tree back the generations, learning about hop isomerisation in homebrewing, or editing that short story. You actually look forward to going into work. At home there are distractions: the kids, the dog, street noise, phone calls. At work, the environment is more conducive to . . . work. Be that the work you are paid to do or your own dabblings.

Thus, your dead-end job can be a deep artesian well of self-esteem, instead of what would otherwise be the case – an unsatisfying, soul-destroying grind is transformed into intellectual and artistic stimulation. Instead of boring repetition, your working day is all about creative realisation and the growth of the self. What’s dead-end about that? When you feel disdain being directed at you by superiors or those to whom you reveal your lowly “roll”, you can happily deflect this by thinking to yourself: “In their eyes I am a mere factotum, whereas I’m a composer of symphonies/weaver of tall tales/theoreticist/genealogist/man of letters”.

But what, I hear you say, if your dead-end job doesn’t afford you the opportunity to write the great American novel or solve the mysteries of quantum mechanics? What if it’s an all-hands-on-deck type of job, no slack time, no chance to free up a hand or two to for knitting or leatherwork or typing or whatever hobby you might indulge in the workplace if allowed? My answer: you still have your brain. You’re a poet, a writer, or you’re studying for that diploma in water chemistry: while the body may be going through the motions of your dead-end job, your mind can be soaring over the artistic and creative highlands. Your shift is then anything but mind-numbing. While you roll your metaphorical (or real) doughnuts, you could be working on the fifteenth stanza of your epic poem on the Battle of Lepanto. Over and over, throughout the eight hours of company time, you’re composing, editing and memorising your stanza. And then upon clock-out you rush to the nearest phone, tablet or laptop and commit the said stanza to electronic immortality.

The amazing thing about pushing the possibilities of what can be achieved hobby- and interest-wise within a dead-end job is that the day goes by flying. What for your colleagues is surely a slow, clock-watching torment, goes by in the blink of an eye for you. In fact, you sometimes find that you could do with an extra couple of hours at work to finish that chapter/equation/blog/design.

Should one feel guilty about spending large chunks of one’s working day at one’s hobbies and interests? Not if one is simultaneously performing the work one is being paid to do. If my boss orders me to clean twenty-five windows before lunch and I do so with time to spare, why should I not spend fifteen minutes or half an hour between tasks on that short story that needs finishing? If there are no customers, I’ve taken stock, done all the ordering and dusted the shelves is there anything wrong with me studying a couple of pages of Virgil or the Spanish subjunctive? Should every moment at work involve scurrying from one menial task to the next? Isn’t true work-live balance all about work grazing – a little bit of activity here, a break, a little bit of activity there, a break? We are not slaves, after all. If jobs exist which are so menial and unchallenging that 99% of our spirits and brains do not need to be engaged in order to perform them then where’s the wrong in harnessing that unused creativity and intelligence during the working day to our own benefit? In a perfect world dead-end jobs would not exist. Every job would stimulate, involve and excite, and the work you performed would slot in seamlessly with your personal life in terms of passions, interests and motivations. There would not even exist the concept of “going to work” – you would be your work and it would be you, or at the very least a closely woven extension of you. But until that perfect world comes into existence and dead-end jobs cease to be, I cannot recommend them highly enough!

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Get Out of My Shop

I’ve been playing the guitar for nearly 30 years now, which means I’ve been regularly visiting music shops to buy strings, plectrums, new pieces of kit and the odd new guitar for the guts of three decades. I’ve been a patron of either specialised guitar shops or general music shops in the cities and towns in which I’ve lived all over Ireland and Spain. On city breaks to places such as Berlin or Basel, or on longer holidays in it is not unusual for me to find myself almost magnetically pulled into music shops, from where I may or may not emerge with a small present to myself – an effects pedal, an unusual ethnic percussion instrument, or just a funky hat pin. Something I noticed very early on in my frequenting of guitar shops, and something I continue to experience, is the almost guaranteed obnoxiousness and condescension of music shop owners and employees. I would estimate that greater than 75% of my interactions with music shop staff see me out on the footpath post-purchase thinking to myself: “What a w#nker.”

There seems to be a general type working behind the desk of music shops: male (of poor hygiene and dress), smug, know-all, put-upon, the kind who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And you, the customer, are that fool – a know-nothing worm, who is not worthy of having crossed the shop’s threshold, let alone taking up the time of this fountain of infinite knowledge of all things musical, this veritable god of strings, bows, MIDI and monitors. Patience is not one of these guys’ virtues. They are not there to help; they are there to stand in judgement over your scant musical knowledge and accomplishment. There was one shop in Galway, now closed down, where, unless you were at least a Grammy-winning underground jazz musician the owners’ attitude was “F-off out of my shop”. I still went back there time after time – they had good kit after all and knew their stuff. Glutton for punishment or what?!

My latest experience of music shop owner disdain came in the run-up to Christmas. My younger daughter wanted a pickup for her violin as one of her presents. (She wanted to “go electric”.) Since the pickup was to be only part of the booty set to fill her Christmas stocking, I was looking for a mid-range pickup – in between professional grade and bottom-of-market cheap. I visited four shops in search of the perfect pickup. In two of these, my interactions with the staff were positive, in that the guys behind the counter were pleasant, helpful, informative and not in the least bit condescending or smug. In the third shop I got the slight feeling that I was being looked down upon – not full-on this-guy-hasn’t-a-clue, derision, but a clearly detectable soupcon of smug. It was in the fourth shop, though, a small, but very well-known family business, that deals primarily in traditional instruments, that I got the Michelin-star music-shop sneer. The man’s attitude from beginning to end of our interaction was that I knew nothing of what I wanted, zilch about music and even less about musical instruments. What I wanted, a cheap, functional plug-and-play pickup, was an amateurish and silly notion. The deluded thinking of a village idiot. What I really wanted, was this elaborate (and expensive) gizmo which he was offering. But I shouldn’t even entertain the idea of installing it myself: “You’d need someone who knew what they were at to be able to connect it”. After some to-ing and fro-ing his implied position was that if I didn’t accept his recommendation then I could get out of his shop. Which I did. Without purchasing. And I may never purchase there again. (I’ve spend hundreds of euro there over the years.)

In writing this blog, I remembered an article* from perhaps 15 years ago written by one of the musicians from the Scottish group, Mogwai. In the article, the musician listed the humiliations and insults he had endured over the years as a professional musician making purchases or soliciting repairs from Glaswegian music shops. Here’s a selection of nuggets delivered by guitar shop employees:

These microphones are for ‘high-end applications’.

I’m sorry I can’t fix your stuff, there’s a professional musician bringing in stuff I have to fix first.

This delay pedal, I’ve not fixed it properly so I’ve not charged you but as long as you’re careful, it should be fine.

I’m only going to sell this bass to someone who would really play it.

The Mogwai musician concludes the post with:

What irks me more is the fact that I’m a 29 year old professional musician with some sort of confidence in my job, but transfer that same scenario to a 13 year old kid, and he’ll be crippled with self-doubt and feel like he can never go back to that (or any?) music store because of the total lack of encouragement he is to feel because of some minimum wage prick’s unhelpful, foolish comments.

I couldn’t agree more.

*I remember the post as having appeared in the Guardian sometime in the mid-naughties, but was only able to locate it pasted into musicians’ discussion boards, not in the original format.

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Short Story: Getting Ready for the Birthday Party

It’s my mother’s birthday today. She’ll have an even bigger crowd of oddities and stragglers around her bed today than she usually does. Even on a normal day here she’s surrounded by quite the shower. Aul’ ones nearly as decrepit and out of it as herself, the lame, the blind, the deaf; ones pulling canisters behind them, ones with all sorts of tubes snaking out of them, craggy old men who think they’ll never die, aul’ ones who think they’re more on the ball now than they ever were, with their Facebooks and their Twitters. I’ll have to show my face at some stage this morning — make a display of kissing her on the cheek and wishing her many more prosperous years (even though she doesn’t know me from Adam and hasn’t for the best part of two decades) and stay for the festivities (damp squib of a thing, guaranteed). It’ll be harmless: cake, candles and slack smiles. If I don’t pretend my mother’s ninety-eighth birthday is the be-all and end-all they’ll think me a monster, although even if I set her on fire and laughed like a madwoman as she shrieked in the flames I couldn’t be as much of a monster as the yokes who run this place.

We’re just meal tickets to them. Assets. Dwindling assets. Or liabilities. I suppose it depends on the way you look at it. I can’t work out whether they want us to die in here as quickly as possible or linger on like my mother. I often wonder what’s more economical for them: is it the short-stay, croak-in-the-middle-of-night “guest” (we’ve had so many of these I couldn’t begin to list them) or the malingerer? The ideal resident would be somebody in rude enough health not to be constantly having them call in the doctor or changing dressings or being brought to outpatients or “therapy” (whatever that means) — somebody such as myself.

But anybody who winds up here is only here because they can’t live on the outside anymore, so their health can’t be all that rude. Eventually, everybody becomes a risk to this place’s bottom line.

Speaking of which, “rude” is a term one cannot escape in here. Or rather “rudeness”. The nurses are rude, the nurses’ aids are rude, the administrative staff are rude. The cooks, the cleaners, the porters: all rude. My fellow residents (inmates!) are rude. I’m probably rude myself. Most of the staff in here are from abroad. The New Irish. I’ve nothing against them, but they’re not the same as our own. They don’t have the manners. And there’s no warmth. They have no time for you. It’s all business. Ruthless efficiency. And you can never have a chat with them. They haven’t the knack for conversation. A dry aul’ sort of talk comes out of them the odd time they do make the effort. I suppose they just don’t speak English well enough to hold a decent conversation.

I’d love to just go. Leave here. Wander out the big wrought iron gates and leave the high walls of this place for dust. (This place used to be the workhouse, you know.) But I can’t. My walk is gone. I can just about shuffle up and down the corridors, but any bit of a slope or an uneven surface and I’m gone — as unsteady on my feet as a toddler. Not to mention if the ground is wet, or if there’s soggy leaves or a bit of wind. And the last thing I want to do is break my pelvis or femur. I’d be at their mercy then.

I’d love to just, on a whim, decide I wanted to spend the day up town (we’re not that far — I would have walked it in fifteen minutes in the old days) and skip on out of here. Go to one of the boutiques I used to visit and buy a blouse or a skirt. Just for the thrill of it.

Or go to the bookshop. Or get my hair cut. Or go visit my houseen (it’s still mine — nobody’s sold it out from under me yet). Or go to the pictures. Or buy a bottle of gin and some tonic and smuggle it back to my room. Or a box of Carroll’s.

They don’t encourage drinking in here. But it goes on. Some of the men keep whiskey stashed away in their rooms and they have a nip or two every night. Some of the women have bottles of sherry. I was never one for sherry — an aul’ one’s drink if ever there was one. G and T was my tipple. The thing about drinking in here is that you have to get rid of the evidence. The empties have to be disposed of behind the staff’s back. That’s no problem if you’re mobile; you take the empty bottle with you on your next walk, hidden in an umbrella or in a deep raincoat pocket. But for someone like me . . . Who would I get to spirit away my empties? I wouldn’t let myself down by asking any of my visitors to take an empty bottle of Cork Dry with them. They’d get ideas about me.

Not that I get many visitors these days. Interest in you tends to wane once you sign yourself in. When they visit you, it’s like they think they’re visiting someone in one of those hospices; they think they’re visiting someone with a death sentence hanging over them. But let me tell you this: I’ve outlived more than one embarrassed and infrequent visitor. My mother has seen dozens, if not hundreds down!

I used to smoke, but that’s all gone now. When I came here first, you could smoke in a class of bus shelter they put up at the far end of the car park. Shuffling out there with my Carroll’s was just about within my ability. A couple of years ago they banned smoking from the “campus”, as they grandly call it. To smoke now, you have to go outside the gate.

For a while, I used to drag myself out there, but as well as the trip nearly killing me (there’s steps, and a rough aul’ footpath leading to the gate) you’d catch your death. It’s a breezy, exposed, bare sort of place, with not a tree or even a light pole to stop the wind. And I felt like I was being watched every time I went for a puff — by the staff in here and the people passing by on the road, who looked out at me from their cars like I was some sort of corner boy, or worse, a street walker. And, what’s more, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me my Carroll’s. I found myself begging nurses and cleaners and porters and even priests to buy me cigarettes. I didn’t like being under a compliment to anyone.

The priests are around you like flies on you-know-what, of course. Touting for business. And on the make. They get the scent of that four-letter word: W-I-L-L. I’m not leaving them a penny. There’s plenty of mugs in here who’ve let it be known that a “sizable” portion of their worldly goods are being left to so-an-so priest or such-and-such order. As if it will buy them into heaven. I won’t have much left behind when I finish with this place, but I’m not telling a soul who it’s going to. That’s between me and my solicitor. A lot of old people get queer about their wills — King Leer comes to mind. They have what amounts to beauty contests between their children, lead people on with the promise of this, that and the other being left to them if a son or niece does this, that or the other. They’re running up and down to their solicitors to change the bloody thing every second day. None of that for me. I’ve made my last will and testament and that’s it.

It’s time now for me to put on the warpaint. I never go anywhere without my make-up on — even if it’s only down the corridor to my mother’s room. You might say that isn’t it sad that an aul’ one like me still has notions, but I’ve worn make-up since I was a young woman.

Every day of my life without exception. My own mother is a make-up wearer as well. Most days, one of the nurses’ aids daubs a bit of lipstick, some blush and some eye-shadow on her. I have to say that at her age, with the amount of wrinkles she has and the general slackening of her features brought on by her condition, the make-up does nothing for her. But maybe deep down it cheers her up. I always feel better after a good long, hard stare at myself in my mirror and a good session fixing up my face. I know I’m no oil paining at this stage of my life, but I’m still able to bring out the best in myself with a brush and a pencil.

One thing they do do right in here are the manicures and pedicures. A little Filipino one comes around once a week. It costs extra on top of the daylight robbery you’re charged to stay here, but it’s worth it. I’ve always prided myself on my nails and they’re as well-turned-out these days as they’ve ever been. You get a lift out of silly little things like nails in this place. It’s all you have. I get the young one to do my mother as well. I tell the girl to go mad with her — to try any style or colour or pattern she likes. She has full license to do whatever she pleases. My mother isn’t going to complain, and perhaps the more garish the colour the more stimulation she’ll get out of it. There’s a nurse here who’s always on about stimulation.

You can get your hair done here as well. My mother and I were both given the red-carpet treatment yesterday. In preparation for her birthday. A woman from the town comes in a couple of times a week and sets up in a room alongside the television room. She does men in the morning and women in the afternoon. (I’m glad she’s not into this unisex thing: I never felt comfortable getting my hair done in the presence of men.) She does the works: colour, perms, styling — or she’ll simply set your hair if that’s all you want.

She’s a great memory for each client’s preferences. There’s no need to tell her how you want your hair. But if the mood takes you and you ask her for it she’ll do a completely new style. A couple of the other women have gotten complete makeovers from her and it’s usually turned out well. The woman will do you a cup of tea or coffee while you wait or while you’re under the drier and it almost feels like a real salon.

It won’t be all that bad, the party. Who knows whether my mother enjoys the fuss being made of her? She’ll eat and drink what’s put in front of her (she was never picky, and that’s one thing that hasn’t changed about her) and today there’ll be treats — cakes and buns of all description, little vol-au-vents, cheese, meats, the works. They might even let her drink a glass of sherry. Someone always brings a bottle to these things. Whatever about not knowing where she is or who’s around her, my mother still loves her food. It will surely bring a smile to her face. That and the singing. We had such a sing-song last year. The smile on her face. I even thought at one stage that she was about to join in.

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