Ruby Millington is a journalist, zeitgeist expert and great cook. During the lockdown, her mother Maria, 95, moved in. In fact, they came to my family Boxing Day Funk Up this year. Recently, I asked Ruby if she would interview her incredibly glamorous mother about how it is to be her age.
Maria MacLaren was born in Devon in 1925. She was in the ATS during WWII and worked as a secretary for the Southern Electricity Board Consultative Council until her marriage to John in 1959. She has two children, Martin and Ruby.
R: When did you first feel you were ageing?
M: At 80. I’ve never been afraid of physical work but I realised I could no longer dig the garden, wheelbarrow bricks or walk long distances. My eyesight was deteriorating with macular degeneration and I began needing cortisone injections for arthritis in my hands. I feel my hands and eyes are just 49% of what they were and it’s frustrating because I always liked to be busy. But that’s not to be now and I just have to accept it and feel lucky that I can sit back and be cared for. Not everyone has that. But don’t forget I looked after your father during the last years of his life, pushing him around in a wheelchair, so I learned a bit about what was coming my way. And my life is very enjoyable now. You’ve taken me into your home and we’ve had a lot of fun and done many projects together. And I’m in the fortunate position of knowing that Martin and you would do what you think best for me. I don’t feel I’ll suddenly be abandoned and that gives me a feeling of peace and security.
R: What are the important lessons you’ve learnt over 95 years?
M: My parents taught us from an early age never ask or expect people to do for you what you can do for yourself. And never be afraid of hard work. Most important has been believing in the goodness of others. That certainly made me a better person than thinking everyone was horrible and I hope I continue believing that till the end of my life. During my last stay in hospital, for example, a few people were stealing surgical socks and abusing and threatening the nurses and yet the staff treated those patients just as well — lovingly really — as they did the rest of us. That’s stuck with me. It reinforces that most people are decent, caring and kind.
And I’ve always tried to look on the bright side, to be optimistic and make the most of life.
R: You do always seem bounce back very quickly. And you never brood or sulk. Is that a factor in your longevity?
M: Very probably. I’ve had ups and downs but I geared myself up to put them behind me and get on with life. I was very close to your grandmother and when she died in 1991 and when John died in 2004, those were very dark days. My sixties were another low point. Something was missing. Although I was happy I felt there was more to life than dinner parties. I feel there are more positive things going on around me now, especially being here. And I’ve been very touched by the kindness of your friends too. I feel involved and part of something.
R: I think it’s crucial for old people to stay engaged. Most people want to feel recognised and valued and accepted. You used to say you were still learning every day. Do you still feel that?
M: Definitely. My education wasn’t as bright or helpful as it could have been but 80 years ago it was considered adequate. I’d hate to stagnate. I’m constantly learning — thanks to you mainly because I’ve learnt a tremendous amount through being here, about the world and about myself. I’ve never used a computer, for example, but the internet has changed my life with shopping online and Instagram, eBay and Zoom. I’ve learned lot about you too. You’re very vulnerable and caring and supportive and very, very willing and not afraid of hard work. You’re not the tough nut people always thought you were.
R: I can’t imagine anyone would ever think that about me.
M: We didn’t know you. You were away from the age of 17 and then you lived abroad. So I feel I know you much, much better now.
R: What about disappointments or regrets?
M: I wish that John and I were younger when we married but then, as you know, he was married to someone else and we were carrying on an affair for ten years. It was out of our control. And it’s no good looking over your shoulder.
R: That’s one of your favourite phrases.
M: Well, it’s true. I always look forwards.
R: You still buy lottery tickets every week! What are you looking forward to now?
M: Christmas. Or the summer at least — seeing your garden progress, the vegetables coming to life. If you don’t look forward to the seasons you’re pretty well done for. I feel I have everything to look forward to, being part of life here. I look forward to all my meals and my walks and even just planning my outfits. I’ve always tried to keep myself looking good and been interested in fashion. It’s not vanity. I dress to please myself although it’s always good to bear in mind what other people might think and I was often stopped by strangers in the street who’d comment on how elegant I looked. Now little things give me a lot of pleasure. Some flowers, a new ornament to look at…
R: Do you feel that over 95 years you’ve had any control over what’s happened to you?
M: A little bit. I’ve never had to worry too much about material things but life hasn’t all been plain sailing. Obviously you can’t control everything that happens. You know the old saying: Life is what you make it. I think that’s very true. I’m grateful for having a life at all.
R: But what if someone can’t make life what they want it to be?
M: Lower your expectations. Like Jo Brand said when I heard her at Christmas. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t keep striving. Hope is the one thing that keeps us going.
R: I’m sure you thought it would be business as usual for the rest of your life and never imagined a pandemic would happen.
M: I knew life would be very, very different and it has been for the whole world. I remember being very frightened about what would happen to me when they said the over 80s should stay indoors, alone, for three months. But then you said I should come here. I was also terrified about the number of deaths and the lack of ventilators and how the NHS would cope. I was frightened, not just for myself, for everyone. If I’d been on my own I’d probably be dead now.
R: You think so?
M: I’m sure so. I would have been so frightened and so lonely it would have been the end of me.
R: So when people talk of losing the will to live, it’s not just a figure of speech. You can will yourself to keep going?
M: A lot of it is luck. I came from good hardy stock on both sides. I’ve inherited good genes and lived a fairly privileged life. But quite a bit is attitude. My advice is try to stay healthy, have a target and find something to look forward to, whatever your age. I know the future might not be great for me but it doesn’t stop me hoping.