When I Wasn’t Looking

Just when I wasn’t looking, my mother became old.

I’m not sure when it was. Perhaps it was yesterday, whilst I was on the telephone or last night, as I mended the fire and my back was turned.

But when I looked up again, she had changed.

She has become shrunken and creased and has the jaw of an old lady, which quarrels with itself as she eats. A moment before, she had just been my mother but now she is small and transparent and I want to put my arms around her in case she should break. But my arms stay where they are. Not because I’m proud or embarrassed, but because I’m angry with her for being small and transparent and I’m angry with myself, because I can’t remember when it happened.

When I was little, my mother was comfortable and wise. We would stand together in the kitchen and she would zip me into my anorak, right up the neck, even though I wriggled and protested and told her I was too warm.

“It will rain later,” she said.

And it always did.

On days which were full of spring sunshine, she would still slide my hands into gloves and twist a scarf around my neck.

“You’ll be cold otherwise,” she said.

And I always was.

Other children had brothers and sisters and cats and dogs, but I had my mother all to myself and I was full and satisfied. Now, the shine of being an only child has become dull. Now it tastes bitter and resentful. Now I want to share.

I’m not sure when it happened, but one day I stopped feeding my life to her. Instead, I give her fragments, pieces she will easily understand. Not platefuls of information which confuse us both and force me to remember that she is old and transparent. But the little pieces aren’t enough and she is drifting further away from me. Now, instead of talking to my mother, I talk to the steering wheel and the bathroom mirror and the photograph of my dead father, who sits on the mantelpiece and watches us age without him.

Today we are going out. I organise and check and feed her pieces of information. I slide her hands into gloves and twist a scarf around her neck.

We stand together in the kitchen and she looks at me with old, transparent eyes. “Do you think I’ll need a coat?” she asks.

And I’m frightened to look away.


  1. BJ Walsh
    May 17, 2011 / 5:19 pm

    Beautifully thought through and then beautifully written. Unique take on a universal situation.

  2. May 17, 2011 / 5:20 pm

    I don’t have any words of wisdom for you though I sure I wish I did. I had my son when I was in my mid 30s and my greatest wish is that I live long enough to grow old and transparant to him because doing so will cause him less pain than if I do not. Does that help? Probably not! xo

  3. May 17, 2011 / 5:23 pm

    Goodness Joanna, this is absolutely beautiful and moving, finding it so hard to hold it together on this packed commuter train. It strikes a huge chord with me, especially the piece about the ‘picture of my dead father’ I gaze at the one of my father and think the same thing as I watch my mother struggling to cope with disability and terminal cancer. So beautiful thank you, it also reminds us how lucky we are to still have them 🙂 A-C xxx

  4. May 17, 2011 / 5:24 pm

    You write beautifully. Terribly hard, isn’t it?

  5. May 17, 2011 / 5:52 pm

    Sobbing, in a beautiful way. Thank you. X

  6. May 17, 2011 / 6:01 pm

    Beautifully described crossing over.

    It’s quite a chill point in life isn’t it?

  7. May 17, 2011 / 6:02 pm

    So beautiful Jo, as always. Very poignant and heartfelt which gives it still more depth. So talented.

  8. May 17, 2011 / 6:07 pm

    Oh this is just brilliant as always. You have such a wonderful way of telling universal truths. It’s true we move from child to equal to parent with our parents (& if we have children we’ll move from parent to equal to child). Doesn’t stop it being painful…Glad you are there for her.

  9. Cindy
    May 17, 2011 / 6:11 pm

    awww Jo xx

    very nice

  10. May 17, 2011 / 6:23 pm

    Even though I told you on Twitter how much I loved it, came here to repeat it! So very true about the moment when children start feeding fat-free life information to our parents.

    My mother is still running around, doing yoga, Jazzercise, and now zumba. She began four years ago as a way to make days less painful and lonely after my father died.

    I know when she stops, it will be an important, sad, and scary signal.

  11. May 17, 2011 / 6:24 pm

    What a beautiful post. You manage to convey so very much in just a few well-chosen words. My mother is experiencing similar feelings about both my grandparents at the moment; I’ll have to show this to her, as I think she’d very much appreciate someone articulating those feelings so well.

  12. Fiona Quint
    May 17, 2011 / 6:29 pm

    As always, great!

  13. May 17, 2011 / 6:30 pm

    I can really empathise with your post and you write beautifully. It was certainly true for me that I looked one day and my parents had become old. Suddenly. I still remember the fear I felt. Thank you, I’ll come back to your blog.

  14. May 17, 2011 / 6:35 pm

    Beautiful. This expresses so much of what I am experiencing now. Being at a distance from them, it scares me.

  15. Alan
    May 17, 2011 / 6:41 pm

    You have pretty much summed up my relationship with my own elderly mother – I can empathise with most of what you have said. I could never have written it as well as you, though.

  16. May 17, 2011 / 6:46 pm

    Just beautiful. Really want to encourage you to enjoy every minute in spite of everything. I lost my mother long before she reached that phase. Put her coat on and button it up with all the love a daughter can muster. x

  17. May 17, 2011 / 6:52 pm

    You have beautifully put into words the pain and bitterness so many of us feel when the roles are reversed and our parent becomes the child. Our desire to be mothered never goes away, especially, I think, if you are an only child. My own relationship with my mother is difficult and fraught with anger and resentment. In many ways I envy what you had with your mother. I never had that close relationship with mine. But when I read about the pain you are in now, maybe I’m better off.
    You have a real talent for touching our hearts Joe. It makes you very special.

  18. May 17, 2011 / 7:00 pm

    What a beautiful post, it makes me feel very emotional.

    I notice changes the most when we watch old videos. It suddenly hits me how much younger everyone looks. As I see my parents very often I don’t notice it week by week.

    It really is important to enjoy every moment.

  19. May 17, 2011 / 7:18 pm

    Beautifully written, as always Jo. And so poignant for me at the moment. I’m lucky enough to have both my parents but their vulnerability has come home to me so much recently. And like you, our roles have become reversed.

  20. May 17, 2011 / 7:44 pm

    For some reason I want to send this to my Mum (a fellow anorak zipper) but know it’s the wrong thing to do…

    Wonderful post. Thank you

  21. May 17, 2011 / 8:14 pm

    Hi Joanna,
    Your writing comes straight from the heart and that shows in it’s lovely rhythm and unique style. It’s beautiful and makes me feel for you. I can imagine how difficult it must be to see this kind of role reversal and live with it. I haven’t experienced it myself, and never will. What I have experienced, is not being able to speak to my mum, to ask her opinion or share a problem with her, and to watch her deteriorate in a matter of weeks, days even. Do I think it’s easier for you because it’s happening over a matter of years? Absolutely not. I guess it’s all part of life and nature. We may not understand why, but we have to accept it and cherish the time we have together, however long that is. And that, it seems to me, you are already doing.

  22. May 17, 2011 / 8:53 pm

    That’s quite, quite heartbreaking. And also a gorgeous piece of writing.

  23. Jane Smith
    May 17, 2011 / 9:00 pm

    Every time I visit your blog I insist to myself that I won’t be moved to tears by it.

    Every time, I am wrong.

    This is lovely, Jo. You are an inspirational, beautiful writer and a lovely friend, too.

  24. May 17, 2011 / 9:06 pm

    Joanna this is simply beautiful x

  25. Anne Booth
    May 17, 2011 / 9:07 pm

    This is beautiful and heart breaking and almost unbearably tender. I would have felt that (because of the power of your writing) even if my mother wasn’t suffering from dementia, but as it is so close to my own experience I am astonished by your bravery. I am too overwhelmed and can’t bear to write about my own mother like that yet- but I hope that if and when I do I will convey the love that you manage to. The detail about the anorak and the gloves is so lovely. You are such a talented writer.

  26. May 17, 2011 / 9:15 pm

    This is beautiful. Beautifully expressed and written – and so sad. My mother died before she got old but I did experience the role reversal you talk about when I cared for her during her last days.

  27. May 17, 2011 / 9:16 pm

    Glad to be reading this at home and not on a train! Beautifully written and I echo other thoughts. My mother died a long time ago. My father is 92, fit and in great mental health but I recognise that we are making this crossover in our lives.

  28. May 17, 2011 / 9:17 pm

    Everyone’s said ‘beautiful’ and I can come up with nothing better. I’m on the cusp of this with my mum, but am watching a friend go through it with hers at the moment; it’s painful enough to watch, let alone experience.

    This is an awesome piece of writing. Thank you.

  29. May 17, 2011 / 9:23 pm

    Very moving. I’ve been there too. Now, when I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window or a mirror, I’m sometimes taken by surprise. I seem to be turning into my mother.

  30. May 17, 2011 / 9:26 pm

    Lovely writing.

    But on a basic level, the reason it touches all of us is that it is at THAT moment we realise – even though we might have a family that we are responsible for ourselves – that we are now the grown-up one and it will never now change. And that’s bloomin’ hard to take.

    Stay strong, lovely.

  31. Fiona
    May 17, 2011 / 9:28 pm

    This is absolutely beautiful. Made me cry. Everyone is in the same boat one way or another… My Mum is only in her 40s – she is experiencing this with her own mother and I fear the day she gets old, too. X

  32. Jan
    May 17, 2011 / 9:49 pm

    Jo, it’s hard to sum up how beautifully touching your blog posts are. I can only echo the comments above. So moving and as Elpi says, straight from the heart. You truly are an extremely talented writer x

  33. May 17, 2011 / 10:05 pm

    And I sure as heck will not be showing this one to my father!

  34. Effie
    May 17, 2011 / 10:06 pm

    Ach. ACH! I could say so much but can’t … and a lot of it has been said above me by many others.
    I just wish I had been a better daughter and now it’s too late.
    As ever, a beautiful piece.

  35. Mardi (Tillywinny)
    May 17, 2011 / 11:23 pm

    You have such talent when expressing emotion. A precious gift.

  36. May 18, 2011 / 2:22 am

    Oh you’re terrible. I was totally fine, until the last line… Then I choked right up. I mean how am I supposed to remain a jaded middle aged man, when I keep tearing up at your writing? Sigh… seriously though, beautiful as always. You write with your whole heart.

    Thank You

    Peace…. Mike

  37. clarekirkpatrick
    May 18, 2011 / 5:53 am

    Oh Joanna 🙁 I’m crying now. I’m so sorry you, and so many others, are going through this. I had never even considered the burden of doing that on your own – my mum gets so much strength from sharing it with her brothers.

    Much love x

  38. May 18, 2011 / 6:38 am

    I, too, have a photograph on the mantlepiece of my father, frozen in time. Since he died there has been such a big gap in my family – I tried to fill it but did so only partially, and was too young to realise that some gaps aren’t supposed to be filled. Ended up with way too much responsibility too early and have spent much of my life teetering between trying to find a childhood that was lost and feeling like an incomplete adult. So this post really touches me as I can understand and sympathise with so much of what you reveal here. Beautiful writing as well.

  39. May 18, 2011 / 8:05 am

    Absolutely lovely, made me cry.
    Thank you

  40. Claire
    May 18, 2011 / 9:53 am

    Congratulations, another beautiful post Jo.
    I haven’t reached to the stage you are at with your mother yet but have recently noticed my vibrant mother displaying traits very similar to those of my grandmother. In her case the vibrancy turned into solitude, the older she became. She just wanted to be left alone.

    In my case the picture on the mantle piece is of my dead brother who I am angry with for not being here to support us both. Maybe that’s selfish but as with lots of things from the past there are many ‘if only’s’ to deal with.

  41. May 18, 2011 / 10:07 am

    How very true. Illness has brought it suddenly to my own mother.
    Happens to most of us, in the end, I guess.

  42. May 18, 2011 / 12:50 pm

    Beautifully written and very moving, I could feel the sadness and emotions in every word.

  43. May 19, 2011 / 12:13 am

    What a terrible place to find yourself. I say talk Jo. Let it flow. Now is the time. She needs it. You need it. Now is the time.

  44. Anne Mackle
    May 20, 2011 / 11:09 am

    Once again Jo you have made me cry! I have been through similar with both my mum and mum in law and with the latter I had to put aside years of her interfering ways and care for her. I wish both you and your mum love and strength x

  45. May 24, 2011 / 4:32 pm

    What a wonderfully poignant post, Joanna.

  46. May 30, 2011 / 9:57 am

    I’m completely stuck for words Joanna. A post many of us recognise or are at least becoming aware of the fact that this will soon be here. We are fragile as human beings, but as vessels that hold love, we are immense. No matter the fragility, you will always have that. x

  47. Emma
    June 6, 2011 / 12:14 pm


  48. Kim Milward
    July 1, 2011 / 2:16 pm

    Beautiful and poignant. So true how the roles reverse in the blink of an eye. Also so true how being an only child can feel like a poisoned chalice whose burden you wish to share with siblings xxx.

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