de(tales): Nan’s scales


When she started hiding cash around the house in empty food tins, and forgot to throw out food that was past its sell by date, the family realised it was time. Still entirely unaware of her own limitations, my Nan nonetheless needed 24/7 care, and the hard decision was made to find an elderly care home near my aunt for her to live in.

My mum went up to help sort out her house, clearing out the years of accumulation and the many small things that probably once had sentimental value but the meaning of which was now long forgotten in the fog of dementia. I was at University, so my mum emailed me the list of the contents of my Nan’s house. I should let her know if there was anything I wanted to keep.

I glanced down through the list. There wasn’t much I needed. Nan’s wicker armchairs weren’t exactly my taste and, not adoring dogs as much as she did, most of the knick knacks didn’t appeal either.

But then my eyes skimmed one item: “Old fashioned scale with weights, a little rusty”. Sitting at my desk in a small Scottish town I was transported back twenty years to a little kitchen in south London, standing waist high to my tall slim Nanny, the scale on the table in front of us.

We count the heavy weights together and she encourages my simple addition skills until the right number sits on one side, weighing it down. Patiently she watches and helps as I heap spoons of sugar into the metal bowl on the left, watching carefully as the scale slowly tips towards the middle.

This was how I learned to bake. At the side of my Nanny, and my Granny and my Mum. These women who first handed me a wooden spoon, tied an apron at my back and pulled up sleeves safely out of reach of the cake batter.

I’d forgotten that moment in the kitchen until I saw the scale listed in that excel spreadsheet –  just one of many objects that had made up a life that was now disintegrating. Nan still recognised me as her Granddaughter then – only a simple reminder of which of the six (“Fiona, Alan’s daughter”) occasionally needed.

Later she’d forget. At that last visit, when I hardly let go of my sister’s hand beside me on the sofa, she’d look at us with glazed eyes and nod wordlessly when her son, the golden boy, reminded her who we were.

She passes me a small heavy weight to add to the scale, and I watch the whole thing swing back again as I begin adding white flour. One ounce, three ounces, six. I empty the flour a little jerkily into the mixing bowl leaving a cloud of dust over us both.

The irony is, she wasn’t even the greatest baker. When we visited my Granny, the table would be full of homemade rock buns and cherry cake. Nan was more likely to have bought the premade cakes from the shop – lemon bars and chocolate shortbread individually wrapped in cellophane. I liked them as a little girl, so spoilt with weekly home baked goods that the overly-sweet and factory tasting cakes from the supermarket were an exotic treat.

Now though, I wanted that scale so badly. It was my link back to the Nan I remembered, the one who was completely present to us, who watched EastEnders episodes religiously each day, who offered us strong cups of tea every half an hour, who adored her dogs equal to her other family members.

The second last Christmas, we visited her in the nursing home, spread out a picnic of Christmas tea on the little table, perched on the soft bed awkwardly and pulled crackers with only slightly forced enthusiasm. She was cheerful and pleased to see us, wearing her paper crown with pride, declaring happily that she had no idea what she’d bought us for Christmas. In truth, my aunt had purchased all the presents from her: mixing bowls and aprons for my sister and me.

There was only a hint that afternoon of the daily misery and confusion the illness had brought her – small sad notes scattered around the room, written to no one, watered with tears in the middle of the night.

Dementia is a cruel disease. It steals loved ones too early. It reduces them to shadows of the people they once were, causes final months of misunderstanding and hurt where it seems there should be peace and, hopefully, the satisfaction of a life well lived.

She lifts the small cakes out of the oven, risen and golden. She shows me how to cut off their heaped tops, turn them upside down and create butterfly wings, fixed in place with butter icing. When they’re all done, we eat them with the rest of the family in the wicker armchairs, the dogs sniffing hopefully for the crumbs she’s sure to leave them.

I still use that mixing bowl when I bake. It’s the most useful size I have for a quick batch of muffins or scones. The scale has been resigned to the living room as decoration, its mechanics too rusted to be accurate any more.

But its presence still reminds me of my Nan. I pick up the weights sometimes when I’m dusting. And the weight of them in my hand undoes the final painful years, takes me back to the Nan I knew before disease took away all stability, the Nanny who let me spoon flour into a scale, and watch the scales tip back to a perfect balance.



This post was originally published on Cara Strickland’s blog as a guest post. The photo above was taken by the lovely Cara herself when she came all the way to little Luxembourg for a visit.