‘Dorothy’s Tea Towels’, as a title for a Tea Towel Blog, reminds me of my favourite CBeebies programme, ‘Tea Cup Travels’. ‘Tea Cup Travels’ is the story of Great Aunt Lizzie who collects tea cups and with each tea cup comes a tale; you get a glimpse of her past life; it weaves a story of her life through her tea cups. Tea towels can also offer that chance to learn, or reaffirm, aspects of someone’s life, whether they are tea towels from different places or presents someone has been given. So how did Dorothy’s tea towels come in to my possession? There is a short and a long answer: the short answer is that Dorothy needed to move into a residential home; she, therefore, had to give up her own home. When her daughters, Lyn and Liz, were sorting through the house, deciding what needed to be kept, what should go, who would appreciate any mementoes, they gave me Dorothy’s tea towels. They knew I had a bit of a fascination for tea towels (understatement of the year) and thought I might like them. I suspect that when most houses are ‘sorted out’, tea towels end up at the local tip or in the ‘rag bag’ for door to door collection by a charity. I was lucky enough to ‘inherit’ Dorothy’s tea towels. I was very excited.
I’ve known Dorothy for nearly twenty years. She has always known that I loved, and collected, tea towels. I am not sure that she understood why I might want to do that, but was very supportive all the same. Nearly every Christmas I got a tea towel; most gifts from her holidays were tea towels; even my Retirement Present was two tea towels. When I said I was going to retire, she was definitely disappointed that I was not going to take up golf (a favourite activity of hers) and somewhat bemused by the idea that I was going to do a Tea Towel Blog; she didn’t really understand what a Blog was but David, her husband, was intrigued by the Blog, was one of the first people to sign up to it; he read every Blog and printed off ones he thought that she would like, read them to her and then left them for her to read again at her leisure. I now realise why he did this; looking through their holiday postcards I can see that she had been to almost every place that I have written about.
Dorothy died in January 2017, suddenly, unexpectedly, without warning. No one could prepare for that. It seems strange to say that, since she was in residential care, not able to look after herself. The last 15 months had been a rocky rollercoaster for Dorothy. It started in December 2015, six months after her Diamond Wedding Anniversary, when David, her husband, had a massive stroke. He was left with right-sided paralysis and a loss of speech (with a lot of medical complications). He had to move to nursing care; Dorothy found that difficult because she couldn’t understand why a man so fit and healthy should have had a stroke (none of us could). It was only when he was in hospital did we all realise that Dorothy probably had some difficulty with her memory; David had been her sole carer, who knows for how long. Living alone, then with a full-time carer, wasn’t the answer for Dorothy, although she didn’t see what the problem was. She missed company of her peers, her routine was broken, her safety was in jeopardy, she was vulnerable and her confusion was exacerbated. These are issues many families have to face every day, making decisions that they live with for the rest of their lives, wondering if they made the right decision. The fact is Dorothy was fit, agile and healthy; she walked every day, no stick or Zimmer for her; she baked her own bread, she ate healthily but all this happened with the support of family and paid carers, not on her own. On her own, she had forgotten how to carry out a daily routine, forgotten how to cook, clean, shop, pay bills, take medication and much more; her anxiety levels increased. She eventually went into residential care in May; initially she was unhappy. It would be easy to put her anger and distress down to dementia but, it seems to me, to be a perfectly reasonable reaction to something she didn’t want to do. She eventually settled, made friends. In August she broke her hip. No one knew how she fell or why she fell. She didn’t remember. This was a help and a hindrance to her recovery. A hindrance because she didn’t remember falling, so didn’t believe she fell and refused to have an operation on her hip for two days. If morphine takes away the pain, it doesn’t help someone with dementia deal with their condition; it blocks the reality of what has happened, it blocks the pain. Her dementia helped because after the operation she still didn’t remember falling so wasn’t afraid of doing her exercises, walking about; she had no fear of falling again. There was no slow, ponderous walking with a Zimmer frame; she was moving at a rate of knots. She found the Zimmer frame useful for carrying her newspaper, handbag, post, biscuits, kitchen sink etc, not something to slow you down. In January this year, Dorothy fell again. Broke her other hip. No one knows how or why. Strangely, this time she knew she had broken her hip. While waiting for the ambulance, she had a massive heart attack; she was resuscitated but she never regained consciousness and died, peacefully, three days later.
Dorothy had two daughters (Lyn and Liz), three grandchildren (Jai, Sarah and Phil) and four great grandchildren (Hamish, Lyra, Erin and Robyn). She had a husband of 61 years who she visited regularly; she had loads of friends. For me, the importance of Dorothy’s tea towels is that they represent the time when she lead a full, active and independent life; a time when she went on holiday, saw family, played golf, cooked and cleaned; there are memories associated with them. People say that dementia is a cruel disease that robs people of a family member, a bereavement before death. That is not always true; I don’t think it was true of Dorothy. I think it is important to remember all aspects of Dorothy’s life, especially all those things that she retained to the end. Dorothy was officially diagnosed with a mixed form of dementia about a year ago, although the symptoms had been there for some time, often cleverly disguised. Dorothy had an amazing vocabulary that she never lost; she confounded the Memory Nurse, when asked to think of all the words that began with the letter ‘P’, by listing so many, so fast, that the words came tumbling out and the Memory Nurse not only couldn’t write them all down, she couldn’t spell them – from paraphernalia to parapsychology, from philosophy to porridge and so forth. She could have cogent, articulate and relevant conversations with people; the facts weren’t always accurate but there was a sense to them; she did crossword puzzles, took part in quizzes, made new friends with people through conversation. But her short-term memory was ‘shot to pieces’. She could write and recognise words very easily; she couldn’t read a book or a newspaper because she could not retain what she had read, the moment she had read it. She remembered her role as wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother; she didn’t always remember the names of her great grandchildren. She remembered all the things that she had loved: she never forgot her love of tennis, both playing and watching, her love and admiration of Andy Murray; she never forgot her love of playing and watching golf, and her love of Ian Poulson who played, as a youngster, at her golf club; she never forgot her work with Customs and Excise where she met David; she never forgot all the houses she lived in, all around the country, of being evacuated to Norfolk during the war; she remembered her holiday in Canada; she never forgot loving going on holiday, even though she couldn’t always remember where she’d been; she never forgot her love of the humour of Gervaise Phynn and Pam Ayres or the singing of Neil Diamond and Aled Jones; she never forgot how much she loved Blood Brothers and the world of musical theatre; she never forgot the time that David took her to Aberdeen to meet his father and three sisters, how nervous she was, the new coat she bought for the occasion, and how they welcomed her into their family; she never forgot the card from the Queen for her Diamond Wedding Anniversary; she never forgot her love of baking both bread and cakes, of going to traditional mills to buy her flour; she never forgot her love of Terry Wogan, Pointless and Eggheads.
There are three great memories that I have of Dorothy, all of which I remember with such fondness: firstly, her cooking; her apple pie and Lemon Drizzle Cake. Dorothy made a mean apple pie and Lemon Drizzle Cake; she was famous for them. Brilliant roast potatoes and parsnip balls but she could certainly kill a carrot, having boiled it to death; vegetables weren’t necessarily her speciality. Secondly, it was her phrase of ‘Forgettery’; when she knew her memory was not as it should be, she used to say that she hadn’t lost her memory, she just had ‘Forgettery’. The Memory Nurse thought this was a wonderful phrase, as did the home. It was a word that could be used to talk to her about her memory. And lastly, there was last Christmas. We spent Christmas Day with her, taking her to see David, sharing Christmas presents, going back to the home, having a full Christmas Dinner, Christmas Crackers, funny hats, jokes, a huge glass of wine and at the end she turned and said “It must be Christmas soon, what are you going to do for Christmas?” We sat there, gob-smacked, smiled and said “I think that was it, we’ve had Christmas” and she smiled, thought a while and said “Ha ha, got you there!”. She knew she had made a mistake and she was clever enough to cover it up. Laurie Graham wrote “The terror dementia sufferers must feel is unimaginable but the techniques they use to hide their difficulties – the ducking and diving and keeping the world laughing – are perfectly understandable”. I think Laurie must have been there that Christmas Day.
In my family, we are not ‘huggy’ sort of people, none of this greeting people with a big hug. For 18 years, my relationship with Dorothy was based on conversation and a wave good-bye. One day, when I arrived at her home, she gave me a big hug. This took me aback a bit. She did the same thing when I left and from that day forward that is what she always did. She didn’t seem to remember that for 18 years, we had never hugged. It’s good not to get stuck in a rut! She certainly changed my approach to hugging. In the residential home, not only did she make some good friends but she also developed new interests: singing, crafts, going to church, going to the ballet, carpet bowls. She won a cup for carpet bowls, her art work is still on the walls of the home, she joined the church choir.
The thing that surprised me most about Dorothy’s tea towels was that there were only 17. Dorothy was 87, had been married 61 years, had lived in her four bedroomed home for over 40 years, had never ‘down-sized’; more significantly, she was part of a family who didn’t actually collect tea towels but they all bought tea towels for each other from their holidays. You would expect that to mean that there would be more than 17. Dorothy’s tea towels are, in some way, a reflection of how she had conducted her life. She was organised, neat, tidy and methodical. She had one drawer in the kitchen for tea towels; this was full of neatly folded tea towels. But she didn’t like things that were old and worn out; once there were holes or tears in a tea towel, it was relegated to being a duster and eventually made it to the dustbin. Dorothy didn’t see any sentimental value in a tea towel! Dorothy had a beautiful Sophie Allport Christmas tea towel with robins on it; she loved it but one day she left it on the top of the electric cooker and it got burnt. If it was me, I would definitely have kept it; the burn wasn’t that bad. Dorothy binned it; she wasn’t going to use a burnt tea towel. The seventeen tea towels I collected from Dorothy’s house were well used, washed and ironed but they hadn’t worn out.
In her kitchen, Dorothy was neat and tidy; a place for everything and everything in its place. She had a rack of hooks for hanging her tea towels. She used two tea towels and one hand towel at a time; she liked to see them hanging in a row. But horror upon horror, she bought plastic hooks, which pierce the fabric of the tea towel. I don’t know where she bought them from but they are a nightmare in a washing machine and are more likely to ruin a tea towel than lying it on the top of a hot cooker.
If someone gave Dorothy a tea towel, she always remembered who it was from and if they were going to visit, that was the tea towel she brought out. She also did that with ornaments, vases, photographs and even ensured she wore a jumper or brooch that a visitor might have bought her. Dorothy wasn’t a collector, or hoarder, of possessions but because she had lived in the same house for 40 years, there was always space to put things in a drawer or cupboard and rotate them for visitors; I thought she might have done that with some tea towels, and there would be a secret stash, but no!
Anyway, I took the tea towels home, washed them, ironed them, tried to remove any stains, photographed them and got to thinking. These tea towels were a joy, a good addition to my collection but I also knew some stories about them, where they came from, how old they were. Dorothy’s family was an important part of her life: her husband, two daughters, three grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Perhaps the tea towels should be distributed amongst her family. I came up with a plan. Sarah and Kush, Jai and Roger, Phil and Hannah, Lyn and Rob and Liz should all have some. When I had divided them up, I wrote each of them a letter and suggested, that if they wanted, they could take a photograph of themselves, with the tea towels, which could be included in ‘Dorothy’s Tea Towels’. What I really loved was the five completely different approaches to the photographs; together, they are a great family ‘album’, a story in themselves.
So how would I decide who got what? There were three Red Check, poor quality tea towels. I can’t imagine how she came by these, because they were very unlike Dorothy, possibly something the carers bought. So one each for the grandchildren. Lucky them! I tried to do it so people didn’t get one they might already have. The easiest place to start was with Liz.
There were two that I knew she didn’t have: one was a map of the Paris Metro. This was bought on a holiday that Dorothy went on, with David and his sisters (Lyn already had one), about 30 years ago. There are loads of photos of Dorothy and David in Paris, obviously having a good time; most photos involved both food and alcohol. The second tea towel, for Liz, is the one at the top of the Blog, with Dorothy holding up the tea towel. The tea towel was created from a photograph that Liz had taken in 2014, of her grandchildren (Dorothy’s great grandchildren). It was a Christmas present to Dorothy. She loved it, had her photo taken with it and said “I will never use this; it is too good to use”. She did use it; it has been washed on a number of occasions and there is now a tell-tale tea stain across one corner. One person sorted, four to go.
Lyn and Rob’s photo of their three tea towels is conventional. A happy display of tea towels! I’ve spent a lot of time at Lyn and Rob’s house recently so I was familiar with some of their tea towels. I know that Lyn loves mustard so the Coleman’s Mustard tea towel was an easy choice; Lyn loves her Scottish roots, has spent more holidays in Scotland than I’ve had hot dinners, so the Outer Hebrides seemed an obvious choice. They are going to Arran again this year, a favourite place and one with a lot of Golf Courses; perhaps this tea towel will inspire them to go further north, there are certainly Golf Courses in the Outer Hebrides. The Herdie is a lovely tea towel so that made a good third one (and I don’t think Lyn has a Herdie). The Herdie has a small hole in the centre but I think it has a few years to go yet. Liz bought all three of these tea towels for her mother. They have travelled through the family now.
Sarah and Kush said “This took a lot of planning. No spare person to take the photo. Our first tea towel ‘selfie’!”. A brilliant photo and Sarah is right, it must have been carefully planned. I love the idea that the tea towel with a recipe of Beef Tripe Stew (Callos a la Andaluza) in Spanish takes pride of place, a stroke of artistic genius although somehow I don’t think Dorothy knew what that recipe was for. Dorothy was a plain cook, meat (or fish) and two veg; food you could recognise; the only woman I know to announce that she had done Delia Smith’s recipe for potatoes with garlic and rosemary but she hadn’t used garlic and rosemary! There are at least five similar tea towels to this one amongst the family, all with different recipes. Lyn has one already, Liz has two and the Aunties had one and now Sarah has the fifth. A family tradition. Sarah’s third tea towel is from Orkney where Liz watched the Torch Relay for the Commonwealth Games pass; Dorothy and David were fascinated by Liz’s tale, as well as by watching the Commonwealth Games, as lovers of both sport and Scotland. The last tea towel is one celebrating loose leaf tea; a passion that both Dorothy and David had, as they did for tea rooms; people after my own heart.
Phil and Hannah were given Dorothy’s tea towel of Scottish Golf Courses. Dorothy and David bought this on the last holiday they shared with Jean, David’s sister, in Fife, near to Carnoustie Golf Course. David and Dorothy were keen, and successful, golfers, holders of golfing trophies. Dorothy had even been to her local Golf Range when she was walking with her Zimmer. The photos prove she still had a good swing and a smile to go with it. The golf gene obviously runs through the family and Phil has recently started to play golf. Seems a good home for this tea towel. Their third tea towel was Clan MacKenzie: the motto, emblem and detail about the Clan MacKenzie, Phil’s roots, through his grandparents, on his mother’s side. Now everyone in the family has a Clan MacKenzie tea towel.
Finally, Jai (who will inherit all my tea towels eventually) and Roger got one with the Sayings from Newfoundland, bought for Dorothy by Lyn and Rob (These tea towels are going to become heirlooms as they circulate through the family; it’s good to have a record of them). I thought this would be good for them because I have four or five tea towels from the Eastern Seaboard of Canada so this will fit in nicely, when Jai gets her inheritance. This tea towel has a notorious plastic hoop. There is a tea towel of Norfolk, where Dorothy and David spent loads of holidays. They had bought two beach hut ornaments, from Wells, which Hamish and Lyra now have; the tea towel makes a complimentary set. Jai and Roger’s last tea towel was from Yorkshire, somewhere Dorothy had been on holiday several times, although this one was bought in 2013 by Liz. Nice Emma Ball tea towel.
There is, of course, one tea towel missing; a tea towel whose final resting place hasn’t yet been determined. It is the one in the ‘David and Dorothy; 25 June 2015’ story, listed at the top of this Blog. It is a tea towel, made from the photo of David and Dorothy’s wedding in 1955; a present for their 60th Wedding Anniversary. It has never been used. Dorothy had it in her room at the residential home where she lived. She often talked about her “marriage vows”, how important they were to her, “till death do us part”; she remembered her wedding day and her wedding dress, which she had kept and was most likely a Norman Hartnell creation, and the first flat they moved into. One day, someone needs to decide where this tea towel goes. That’s not my job; it is too personal.
Having wrapped the tea towels up, written the letter and posted them, it felt right. It felt like the tea towels were where they belonged, with the stories that I knew. I have the photos. By this point in the Blog, I have a lump in my throat and a feeling of sadness because I know that Dorothy would not have been able to remember where her tea towels came from but I could have helped to join up the dots for her; I know where a lot came from and I have seen the records she kept from her holidays, going back more than 40 years. She had bought a postcard (or pinched a free one from the hotel they were staying in) and wrote a diary of their holiday on the back of each. The postcards were tied up with shoe laces. A truly brilliant way of keeping a record about your holiday; I wish she had told me about this method because I would have started it many years ago for myself, maybe I wouldn’t have started a tea towel collection. No, that is a step too far. But her method of recording holidays would have been a useful way of helping her live with the past. To do that you needed to know they were there, and I didn’t. Dorothy kept ‘significant’ cards – Retirement Cards, 60th, 70th and 80th Birthday cards; 25th, 40th, 50th and 60th Wedding Anniversary cards, again all neatly put together. There is a message from someone called Julie in one of her retirement cards which says “Happy days ahead, Dot and happy days behind. Hope there will be happiness in everything you find.” I think that sums up Dorothy’s life; family need to hold on to that.
Tea towels can weave a story of someone’s life.