When I was little, I would watch my nanny picking her way slowly around the garden, stopping every step or two to examine some plant or other. I thought her legs didn't work.
Why else would she take so long to get anywhere?
Elderly legs might have been part of the reason, but in recent years, my mother is doing exactly the same thing.
Her legs work fine, but a snail’s pace is her preference. Obviously there is something else going on here.
Older people enjoy the details that faster, younger people frequently miss.
They savor things and they are mindful. Older people and the very young both seem to share this gift.
The other week, I spent a delightful few days at the beach. Puppies and small children were obviously having the best time, but a beach walk with a toddler can take forever. They are intrigued by every detail.
However, I didn't see any elderly people at the beach. None at all. I started wondering how long it had been since my mother had really properly experienced a beach.
Sometimes I drive Mum just outside the city to a place by the sea. We drink tea and have cakes at a café, then we wander over the road, sit on a log and contemplate the horizon. It’s all pretty civilized but strangely sterile—not like going to the beach at all.
The day of our “real beach experience” dawns warm, windless and overcast.
The road trip up takes more than an hour, and Mum loves every minute. We drive through small towns and Mum tells me about taking the train to visit school friends at baches (the Kiwi term for modest vacation homes near the beach). We pass the place where U.S. marines were posted at the end of the Second World War. She tells me about her friend’s sister who got pregnant by a sailor and had to go up north for a while.
It isn't just the places we are passing that spark new-old memories. It’s the trees, the birds, the clouds, everything. I feel like I’m driving a tour bus and Mum is doing the commentary.
Eventually we turn off the main road and head for the sea. The place is practically deserted.
“Nobody’s here,” says Mum. “People coming from overseas, they must find it hard to believe!”
I unload the rug and the picnic basket and then I take Mum’s arm. We spend several minutes choosing the best spot before staggering down the flower-strewn track.
“Gazanias,” says Mum, pointing at the starry flowers sprouting from the dunes like golden miracles.
I spread out the rug and we collapse in a heap. Mum sits up and runs her fingers through the pale, powdery sand. We consume sausage rolls, cherries and a bit of fruit cake. Seagulls gather round and shuffle in expectantly.
I pour lukewarm tea from the thermos. It’s much too cold to drink.
“Nonsense,” says Mother. “It’s perfect. Everything tastes better at the beach.”
The clouds have disappeared, the sand’s baking and the sea is calling.
“Come on Mum, let’s go for a paddle!” My mother gives me a look.
We walk down to the line where the sand turns hard and wet, just before the waves start licking the beach.
I kick off my sandals and I hold Mum as she stands on one foot and then the other, shakily removing her shoes.
“I’ve got good feet,” says Mum, wiggling her toes. “I’ve never liked my legs, but I’ve got good Maori feet.”
Next thing we are paddling in the sea, me holding Mum and Mum holding me, laughing and kicking in the warm, shallow water and scattering pipis (clam-like molluscs that can suspend themselves in the water column) all around us.
Later on, we drive home warm and sandy, first with a few stories, and then long stretches of contented silence.
“How long since you’ve paddled in the sea?” I ask.
“I can’t remember,” says Mum as the car draws up at the rest home.
Then she turns to me and kisses my forehead. “Thank you, dear. I’ve had the loveliest afternoon.”