March 22, 2013

Grand Dames & End Games

A year ago today, the Barraclough clan gathered at the home of my splendid mother-in-law Dorothy. We sat around her antique mahogany dining room table, spread out the place mats and coasters like she always showed us, and ate Shepherd's Pie. We talked and told stories and even laughed a little while down the hall, Dorothy lay in her bed (her own bed, mind you) dying.

And it was beautiful. Sad, of course, but also beautiful. Being together as a family, surrounding her with love, going as far as we could on the next part of her journey with her. It felt like the highest honour.

While we ate dinner, a carer sat with the sleeping Dorothy. Her jobs done, her patient comfortable, she sat there holding Dorothy's hand, stroking her hair, talking to her softly, crying occasionally. Why was she so devoted to this dying elderly woman, lavishing so much love and care on her? She had barely known her patient and the Dorothy she had known was not healthy, vibrant, golf-playing Dorothy, champion roast dinner cooker and witty raconteur. She was at the end of her life, fearful of leaving, tired of staying - a combination that will make anyone a tad cranky.

But something always shone through. Even when things were at their most grim, Dorothy had a light inside her that still burned brightly and an elegance about her that never left. She was a Grand Dame in the full trouser-wearing, razor-witted, glamourous Katherine Hepburn-esque meaning of the word.

The formidable Ms Hepburn once said "If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun" and that was so true of my spririted MIL. Her grandchildren adored her because she had such an enormous sense of fun, setting up games of indoor bowls and encouraging them to raid the biscuit jar when parents weren't looking. She told me only a few years ago that she still felt like her 21 year old self in her mind. I'll remember that when my own body starts to fail me.

Kate Hepburn also said "Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get, only with what you are expecting to give, which is everything". Truer words were never spoken. Dorothy gave and gave, with never any expectation of return, a quality that I admire and strive to emulate. It's hard to do (try it!), but she made it a way of life. Giving - love, money, food, golf tips, an ear to listen - was her modus operandi. Even at her sickest in hospital, she would learn all about her favourite nurses lives, asking them questions and taking an interest in them. I suspect this may also have been one of her wily ways of detracting attention from herself. The nurses and carers were all devoted to her.

She could also be tough, especially in a debate. But so damn classy with it. A velvet sledgehammer sipping Irish whiskey.

Tonight, I'll be thinking of that final dinner in her home, the night she breathed in and out for the last time and drifted off to meet her badly missed husband on the other side of this life.

She's with us though. We like to keep her around, not just in our hearts and minds, but in the photograph that sits on top of the piano where, in her wedding dress made of pure white parachute silk, she keeps an eye on Jack's fingers skipping across the keys. In the quilt that rests on the back of a chair in Francesca's room. In her favourite crystal tumbler from which John drinks his nightly whiskey. And she is brilliant about finding me car parking spots when I most need them.

I wrote this poem (actually that seems too posh a term for what is just a few rhyming sentences) and read it at her funeral. For it is the minutiae that can sometimes offer an insight into a person.

Dorothy’s Pearls Of Wisdom

Bridge is wonderful, you must learn how to play

Don’t ever call in during Home and Away

The best bananas are Lady Finger

After one’s putt, one mustn’t linger

In arguments or debates, you must be a ninja

Every dish is improved by the addition of ginger

Skim milk is awful, you must drink full cream

When sewing one must do a neat French seam

Religion is suspect, have you considered Buddha?

Some of those priests and ministers shoulda

Embrace golf and bridge but give bowls the flick

And Richard may be Rich, but not Rick or Dick

Those new fangled tech investments are far too risky

Whatever you do, don’t drown the whiskey

The only dog worth having is a golden retriever

Behave like a lady, never a diva

When on the tee, just breathe and swing

On the car? It’s a scratch, never a ding

A book must have a decent plot

And the name is Dorothy, NEVER Dot!

Vale dear Dorothy. We miss you every day xxx


  1. What a wonderful tribute. Smiling through a few tears.

  2. Thank you Jen. I know you know . . . xxx

  3. Wow, what a beautiful tribute to your mother in law. I never met Dorothy but I feel like I know her a little now through your lovely words x

    1. Thank you gorgeous girl. She would have adored you and your two sweet girls xx

  4. Lovely Michelle. Expressed so beautifully about a wonderful woman. Dorothy always made me feel so welcome to be part of her family through you.

    1. That is such a lovely comment - I wish I knew who you are Anonymous! Text me :) xx

  5. this is so beautiful chelle xxx

    1. Thank you Jacqui. So great to see you a few weeks ago too xx


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