Gladys Owen, my daughter's new mother-in-law, is 96, a small, round woman. She has arthritis severe enough to make it almost impossible for her to walk without help. Tom, the oldest of her six children, a retired bricklayer, spends most of his time helping her with the normal tasks of everyday life. There is not even a whiff of self-pity about either of them, no sense from Tom that he is burdened with his mother's care, no sense from Gladys that she resents being dependent and in pain.
They are warm, hospitable people who made me feel welcome with cups of tea and gentle curiosity about who I am and what my life here is like. They speak with musical accents that are probably a stew of Shropshire and Wales, easily understandable to me and echoing a bit of Ireland through long-ago Celtic roots. I shudder to think what my flat American accent sounded like to them.
In Gladys' front room, there are two green recliners. Gladys sat in one, and I took the other. "That one you're in was mine," she told me, "and this one where I'm sitting was Bill's (her husband of 64 years). I got sad looking at his after he died, so I moved over here so I wouldn't have to look at it."
Gladys has had both knees replaced and recently had the second of two cataract surgeries. She's got six or seven books of popular fiction piled up beside her recliner awaiting the arrival of her new glasses.
Gladys' routine: after she wakes up and has breakfast, she takes her "tablets", 11 or 12 prescription pills, which "knock her out" for most of the rest of the morning, after which she stays up sitting in the green recliner until mid-evening visiting with Tom and others of her children who drop by, watching TV or looking out her window into the back yard. Just beyond the window is a young tree that grew from a "stick" she took from a flower arrangement and stuck into the ground. Neither she nor Tom knows what the tree is, but both are delighted that it grew from a random decorative "stick" into a substantial and healthy young tree.
In her younger years, Gladys was "in service", working as a cook in the home of a local aristocrat. (Yes, just like "Downton Abbey".) Then World War II came, and she went to work in a munitions factory mixing ingredients for explosives. "We were lucky," she told me. "When the Germans flew over to bomb us, they dropped their bombs a mile or so away."
A few years back, Tom realized that Gladys was becoming more and more confused. After some investigation, he realized that the medications left in the bottles didn't match the days they were supposed to cover. "I had let her count out her own pills because I wanted to leave her as much independence as I could," he said, "but I didn't realize how bad her eyesight was getting. 'Can you see the pills?' I asked her. 'Not real well, I just guess the best I can,' she said."
The last time I saw her, after Tom had driven me around north Wales so I could see the countryside, she gave me some parting gifts: three little scented soaps about the size of small eggs and three embroidered handkerchiefs. As Tom drove me to the airport the next day, he said he had seen some tears on her cheek because of my departure.