After forty-five obsessively structured years in secondary education I approached retirement three years ago with trepidation. Determined to keep active, I became a Beanstalk reading volunteer, helped at the Oldfield lunch club, packed crates at the Chalk Farm Food bank, and walked seven-miles on Fridays along the Thames or Kennet and Avon canal with weekly theatre trips as a treat. Most importantly, every third weekend I travelled by train to Bristol to collect my two-year old grandson, then with my husband and older son, entertained him for two days before returning him to his parents. Perhaps I was making up for spending little time with my own children when they were babies. As many grandparents will agree, looking after grandchildren is like having your own children all over again.
This tight schedule exploded with lockdown. Realising I needed routine to cope with a very different existence, I created a daily timetable of cleaning, reading, exercise and theatre on-line – good to see ‘close-ups’ of previously enjoyed productions – as well as regular postings on the family What’s App and phone chats. Every evening we spoke to my step daughter, a respiratory nurse, who succumbed early to the virus, taking over a month to recover. Her experience made the Thursday evening clapping essential. But some glaring gaps remained: what about the volunteering and the lack of contact with my grandson – and how to keep my brain active?
I continued the weekly session at the food bank: with careful reorganisation to allow for social distancing and pre-packing crates, the wonderful manager has kept this vital lifeline going. Alongside many others, I signed up for local volunteering such as shopping or phone calls, so was delighted to help out Healthwatch Camden with some leafletting and research. Age UK Camden put me in touch with a woman from West Hampstead who was feeling isolated: we have chatted each week about The Archers, her passion for yoga and how differently we view the world now that we fully appreciate our natural surroundings. I have another phone friend too, who shares amazing tales of her life as a foreign correspondent; it’s so important to able to talk.
As to exercise, I realised that a daily cycle round Regent’s Park with my husband was excessive so an hour or more walking each day, often with my adult son, who moved in with us to work from home rather than being alone in his flat, replaced previous walks. We explored backstreets in the neighbourhood (finding all the locations in ‘Normal People’) as well as the familiar Regent’s Park, the canal towpath and Parliament Hill/Hampstead Heath. Where necessary I met my target of at least 10000 steps by unearthing old CDs and dancing to them alone.
I tried various ways to keep my brain cells active: brushing up my Italian with CDs and enrolling on short OU free online courses in French, Child Psychology, Philosophy and recently Coding – though the latter I gave up after 15 minutes. You even get downloadable certificates with the OU!
I rediscovered the joy of reading so the pile of unread books beside my bed steadily decreased; I can now focus for an hour without falling asleep. Odd how lockdown has improved regular sleep patterns leading to better nights.
I even had my 70th birthday in lockdown. All the plans for a family celebration were cancelled and instead I had a wonderful day at home with flowers, balloons and champagne, a cake from the Primrose Hill bakery and a family Zoom session. Much less fuss – but I still dressed up!
Perhaps the most rewarding activity was completing a task put off for many years: reading, dating, annotating and filing hundreds of letters my parents sent to each other between 1941 and 1945 during WW2, and others sent by my father’s mother and my maternal grandmother to him. My parents corresponded at least twice a week and the letters describe in detail my three sisters’ childhoods: starting school (the same school I later went to); flying bombs exploding on South London; daily evening trips to the Morrison and Anderson shelters; and evacuation to Reading – as well as giving insights into their own relationship, their feelings about the war and their longing for peace. Many of their anxieties, hopes and fears relate closely to the way people in isolation and those missing loved ones have been feeling today. Particularly poignant was reading about the birth of their third daughter in 1943; she didn’t meet our father till after the war when she was two years old. In one letter, so relevant this year, my mother describes VE day with all its joy and celebration. If only an end to the pandemic could be celebrated globally in the same way.
Back to my lovely grandchild, whose baby brother was born at the end of June; well, Zoom doesn’t work with two-year olds, as I discovered when showing him a favourite ‘London’ toy on screen. ‘Bring it here, come now!’ he demanded. It took a long while for his dad to console him. To keep in-touch I sent regular parcels of small surprises and each week videoed reading him one of his favourite bedtime stories. He answered questions I asked and searched for things in the pictures on the screen. Having come out of lockdown I have been able to travel to Bristol to meet the baby brother and spend time looking after big brother to give their exhausted parents a chance to rest.
It’s been an unsettling period but I am grateful to have had such an easy time compared with the tragic experiences suffered by so many. I will certainly never again take anything for granted.
With much in life back to a kind of normal it would be good to return to reading in the primary school next term. And I wonder if we can start up the lunch club at Oldfield again?