|Three cliffs bay on the Gower|
I am visiting Oldmasock who is a tad demented. She has been out foraging.. nicking a couple of heads off a neighbour's 'interesting' coloured hydrangea for her dried flower arrangement in the hall. Later, when I take her out shopping, she spots a poster outside the wine merchant's advertising 'Free tasting'. By the time I realise she is no longer standing next to me she is already sampling her second glass. "And my daughter will have a glass of the red" she announces to the startled young man serving her as I enter the shop. Too late to disown her completely I turn to him with big sad-dog eyes and say "I was adopted" by way of explanation. I knock back the proffered wine in one.
It makes me smile when people talk about foraging for food as if this was some new, exciting discovery. A rediscovery perhaps - but for me a glorious childhood was filled with frequent trips out onto the beautiful Gower Peninsula, an area burgeoning with free fish and food. I have previously written of our fishing trips, returning home with a booty of lobsters, crabs, prawns, mackerel, sole, bass, whitebait and more. No autumn day out complete without stopping to pick blackberries for jam, hazel nuts to nibble, rosehips for syrup, nettles for soup. My parents knew where the tastiest wild mushrooms grew on Oxwich head, the puffballs in the pinewoods near the sandy stretches of Llanmadoc, the wild damson tree my brother and I climbed to pick the tastiest plums from the top branches. Samphire, sorrel, sloes, all made their way into our baskets for baking and bottling.
But there was another side to this coin - OldMaSock's obsession with thrift. No new tube of toothpaste could be opened until the last one squeezed, rolled, cut open to scrape the last tiny morsel of paste onto your brush. No Heinz tomato sauce finished until the last splot tipped out and the bottle flushed with a small amount of milk leaving a thin, pinkish, liquid with floating globules of red clotted sauce to pool under the fish and chips. OldMaSock's favourite lunch out a Carvery in the days when you could return time and time again to the buffet to slice off pieces of turkey, ham or beef. Until the restaurants realised there were too many OldMaSocks around carving off turkey legs and sneaking them into their handbags for a later meal, the trophy turkey invariably tainted with the taste of the plastic bag it was sneaked out in.
And "Waste not Want Not"! A fine maxim if not carried too far where every single thing on the plate must be eaten. How many lumps of meat fat did I swallow whole to avoid chewing on the repulsive stuff. How many scraps of unwanted food ended up in the hankie on my lap, to be scrunched up and then flushed down the toilet when no-one was looking. I once told my astonished 6th form friends at Grammar School that I was still being force fed food... they didn't believe me until I produced from my pocket a tissue wrapped piece of congealed bacon fat not yet disposed of from that days breakfast.
I could write a book of tales of OldmaSock's obsession with saving food - and maybe one day I will. What started as thrifty foraging has gradually become worse over the years and is now a genuine OCD. Despite being quite well off OldmaSock is a miser refusing to spend money on herself or her needs. I always take meals on visits as her fridge is full of food scraps of indeterminate age which she refuses to part with. Luckily OldmaSock is still very active and goes to three different church lunch clubs during the week which ensures she is well fed. Each church club a different denomination - she changes her beliefs to fit the day - I have to hope she doesn't join the Jehovah's just for the lunches.
Whilst I am there we make a trip to Marks and Spencers so I can stock her freezer up with nice meals she can microwave to death (as she does all her meals, jumping up from the table several times throughout the meal to reheat the food). "Are there any free tastings here?" she asks an unwary assistant. I try to persuade her to buy some new clothes or let me buy them for her but she is horrified at the idea and won't have it.
Later my brother phones as requested with a list of tasks for me to take care of to ensure things run as smoothly as possible for our mother. The phone is on the hall and after a short time OldmaSock starts hovering around fretting. "You don't need to worry" I tell her, exasperated "BroSock is paying for the phone call!" She disappears but a chasm of anxiety is opening up inside me. I so hate it when she does this, a reminder of all those times she interrupted my chats to friends after two minutes. Or when I left home and she called me, setting an alarm clock next to her phone so that she could cut me off after the allocated five minutes. In the days before mobile phones I once rang her from a phone box on Hove seafront, the wind and rain howling round the booth as I poured out some sorry tale of boyfriend woe and misery.. just as I reached the climax of my angst the alarm went and she cut me off... my five minutes were up!
Now thirty years on you would think I'd be over it but I'm not and I never will be. As BroSock is telling me how to turn her heating to its winter setting I know she is hovering behind the lounge door, the doorhandle moving occasionally as she decides between the knowledge she will upset me and the need to stop the dreadful waste of money on the phone call. Finally she bursts onto the hall jumping up and down like an agitated monkey, jabbing at her watch in a frenzy and motioning me to put the phone down. "For God's sake you're not paying for the call" I snap. "You've been on for fifteen minutes" she retorts pettishly. "Yes fifteen minutes of discussing how best we can help you - I don't know how you can be so incredibly rude!" my voice is raised. "My house - my phone!" she snaps like a spoiled child. The ball of rage explodes in my head and I slam the phone down in mid-sentence. It's all I can do not to jump in my car and drive straight back to Brighton. I want to throttle her but manage to walk away until I have calmed down. When I do speak to her it is merely to gently say to the spoiled child "That really was very naughty of you - I am quite cross." The matter is dropped and I say no more - she won't remember the incident anyway as her short-term memory is shot to pieces and she is old and vulnerable now and there is no point being angry with her.
In some ways OldmaSock was an original Eco-champion, foraging off the land, recycling wherever possible, growing the food for her family. Much to be admired. But what started as a post-war cost consciousness and need to be thrifty has gradually over the years become an overwhelming necessity to economise.
Beware you thrifty foragers less you end up with the madness of OldmaSock!