Skip to content

At Home With My Mother

March 24, 2020
by Delwar Hussain

Anthropologist & Writer Delwar Hussain sent me this account of recent weeks of self-isolating, alone with his mother in the family house in Spitalfields

Portrait by Patricia Niven

I went out for a run this morning. It was a mild spring day and the sky was the blue-and-white of china plates with one side of the road in shade and the other bathed in warm sunshine. It has been nearly two weeks since my mother and I have been isolated together at home. Though neither of us has any symptoms of the coronavirus, she is over seventy and last year was hospitalised with a chest infection, so we decided we needed to retreat for her protection.   

I ran down the middle of empty roads following the sunlight through the City, along Liverpool St, and headed towards Holborn. It felt good to be outside with the wind on my face, the changing temperature on my skin and my body, active after being indoors for so many days. Following government advice to avoid public places, the streets were deserted yet, here and there, life continued. Builders worked, the noise of their machinery reverberating around. South American cleaners had just finished their shifts and chatted between each other at a distance. African security guards sat statue-like at receptions in glass and steel towers. Those finding themselves in the gig economy ferried around bags of food and parcels. A few people queued outside a branch of Boots the chemist, waiting for it to open with a look of despondency on their faces. 

Along Cheapside, opticians were open but Church’s shoe shop was closed. The plinths in the windows lay empty as though an industrious robber with refined taste had swiped them. The clothes shop next door had its doors shut too, displaying a familiar sign about needing to protect their staff and customers. 

I sped past, narrowly missing a delivery man who was packing his car with bouquets of flowers. He flinched as we were about to brush against each other, not just because he carried flowers in his latex-gloved hands but because these are times when any bodily contact is a potential threat. I was close enough to see that the cards he held were for Mothers Day. 

Initially, my mother’s routines did not change. She would wake up, have breakfast, feed Styger our cat, look at her plants – the beans and gourd seeds are in, the coriander is already growing, the onions are coming up, as well as the mula – then prepare lunch for any family passing through the house. In the afternoons she speaks to her sister in Bethnal Green, has tea, settles down to watch Hollyoaks, the Channel 4 News and then Eastenders before getting started on supper. 

Once the virus hit, siblings, nieces, nephews and her grandchildren stopped coming. With fewer people around, she cooks less. Her trips to Whitechapel market or to the grocery shops on Brick Lane came to an end. She stopped seeing her sister but she is on the phone more often and has learnt to use the video function on WhatsApp. 

One of the biggest changes in our routines is that we watch telly together in the evenings. This is something we used to do when I was younger but, as my siblings and I grew older and found other sources of interest and entertainment, we stopped watching with her, except perhaps the odd thing – the Olympics 100-Metre Dash, the World Cup and Eurovision.

Despite not speaking English, my mother is a wealth of knowledge on British popular television from the Two Ronnies, Tommy Cooper, Dane Edna – fixtures on television when she moved to London in 1978 – to contemporary films, game shows, serials, football and sports, and music and talent shows. As the technology has grown more and more complex, defeating me, she still manages to find her way around the remote control. 

So now in the evenings, as she sips her glass of hot water and lemon and I flick through the stream of messages about the virus on my phone, we watch Arabic and French detective series, pottery competitions and the recent adaptation of ‘The Pale Horse’ by Agatha Christie, which I liked and she thinks is merely adequate. She enjoys Masterchef. She is more interested in the contestants and their back-stories than she is in the food they prepare, which she considers to be monotonous and usually undercooked, even if the judges find it magnifique. 

As I approached Holborn on my run, there were fewer people on the street. Another runner passed me in a face mask and protective gloves, making me feel I transgressed by not wearing them. The virus is an existential matter, bringing our collective and individual fears about mortality and frailty to the fore. At this stage, rather than the virus being a source of alarm, my mother’s worry is about food. This is exacerbated by the news, and what friends and family are telling her about empty supermarket aisles. 

My mother was born in Bengal which has a history of famine, including the 1974 famine soon after Bangladesh was founded, as well as the more well-known Bengal Famine of 1943 when Winston Churchill diverted food to feed British troops stationed in East Asia. An estimated three million people perished from starvation, malaria and other associated diseases. These histories have become embedded in the identity of Bengalis, including those – like my mother – who have lived in London for over forty years. Want, shortage and scarcity are facts that I and my siblings had instilled into us. As a result, we always bought in bulk, in spite of our embarrassment, remonstrations and complaints as we were made to lug home sacks of rice, lentils, spices, salt, sugar and tea, and drums of oil.   

I turned back at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, aware that my energy would not stretch any further, passed the High Court and then headed towards St Pauls where there were more people on the street. On closer inspection they were tourists, with the city to themselves, taking photographs without any competition now. They all wore face masks and gloves. Finally, I turned into Bishopsgate and sprinted home through the empty Spitalfields Market. 

Outside our front door, one of my younger brothers was standing with a bunch of flowers and a box of doughnuts for my mother which, in all likelihood, would once have been eaten by him. He did not want to come inside and risk infecting her. Would I take them to her?

That evening, my mother and I watched a scientific documentary about birth. One of the questions scientists have been asking is how babies and mothers bond from the moment of birth. I did my best to translate this for her into Sylheti, a language I am growing increasingly rusty with now that my mother is one of the few people I use it with. Yet she understands without me having to say anything. ‘It’s like asking why we breathe,’ my mother says, matter-of-factly. ‘If babies and mothers don’t bond, then there is no life.’

From Delwar’s window

Empty Spitalfields

You may like to read these other stories by Delwar Hussain

Arful Nessa, Gardener

Arful Nessa’s Sewing Machine

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Jennifer Taylor permalink
    March 24, 2020

    This lady is obviously a person of great wisdom & this is such a fluent piece to read. Thank you.

  2. March 24, 2020

    Delwar is a wonderful & inspiring writer.I’m 71 years old & have recently decided to write my biography & hope, one day, to be as skilled as her.
    Heartfelt & humerous.Congratulations

  3. March 24, 2020

    Wishing you, your mother and the rest of your family health and strength Delwar.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 24, 2020

    Another very timely piece, especially now that we are all in lockdown.

    I am also self isolating at home with my mother (90) for the foreseeable future and so this all rings very true, although unlike Arful my mother hates cooking. She does however share her love of gardening and cats.

    We also be watching TV together but never cooking programmes – Pointless and re-runs of The Bill are her current favourites.

    I have also had to adapt having none of my usual freelance work projects on the go, and have had to get creative with any materials I have to hand (currently making decorative bells!)

    Hmmmm… and no excuse not to get on with all the ‘woodgers’ which need doing (as in “would ya just do this” and “would ya just do that”…)

    Try to think positive everyone!

  5. Paddy kerr permalink
    March 24, 2020

    Wonderful to read Delwar’s story about life at home, through this crisis, and with her mum. It’s well written and observed – I wonder if Delmar writes in some capacity for a living.

    I, by contrast, am holed up on my own in a 200 year old cottage snuggled between the verdant hills of the South Downs. A few feet from my window, sheep graze safely and unfazed in the early sun. The cat stalks something in the shadows by a low brick wall. I am now part of an inferior race – trapped in my lair in case something brutal should capture me if I venture beyond. But the sun IS shining and the sheep radiate their contentment back to me. Life is still very much ‘open for business’ after all.

  6. Sarah Ainslie permalink
    March 24, 2020

    Thankyou Delwar for a beautiful account of your days during isolation with your mum and where it is the simple things that are so important. And yet you travel with her daily weaving your worlds together. A lovely touch of humanity and a wonderful picture of your mum.

  7. Bonny Young permalink
    March 24, 2020

    A beautifully written piece, thank you.

  8. March 24, 2020

    A heartwarming, delightful story beautifully told by a devoted son.
    My mum …….like many others is in ‘lockdown’ in a nearby Care Home and I wish I could be there to give her a reassuring hug during these difficult days.
    Make the most of this precious time with your dear mum Delwar.
    Thinking also of those reading this blog whose mums are no longer with them, this story will seem all the more poignant.
    Keep positive and keep well everyone and thank you dear Gentle Author for sending us these ‘silver linings’ every day.

  9. Rubi Bibi permalink
    March 24, 2020

    A great read into a short yet intricate experience of a daily life.

  10. March 24, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a lovely reflection by Delwar Hussain about his stay with his mother during this emergency. I enjoyed following his jog around London, past so many places I know well. Alas, I will not be returning this June as planned, but remain with you in spirit.

    I agree with Delwar: “The virus is an existential matter, bringing our collective and individual fears about mortality and frailty to the fore.”

    And I loved that shot of his mother’s balcony garden in the shadow of Christ Church…

  11. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 24, 2020

    An interesting piece to read and a relevant one for me. My son and I are isolating as much as we can but we have a business which we run together and we share our home. We closed our shop on Saturday but we also have an internet business and that stock (books) is in the shop premises so we are agreed that my son will continue to walk in, avoiding contact with other people, and he will also work on constructing more shelves in one of our rooms, that is providing the builders’ merchants are allowed to deliver the wood that we have ordered, it is wait and see time with regard to so many things.

    As always life goes on and I have been watching Mrs Blackbird filling her beak with nesting material over the last few days, the sun is shining, plants are blooming in the garden and I am being entertained by Humphrey Lyttleton so it is a good day. Thinking positive is essential now.

    I wish Delwar and his mother well in every sense of the word.

  12. Paddy Kerr permalink
    March 24, 2020

    Please allow me to apologize to Delwar for

    A/assuming he was a woman (even though you had taken the trouble of say he was a man at the outset)

    B/Asking if he wrote for a living (even though you had taken the trouble to say he was an anthropologist and writer – at the outset)

    My only excuse is that I was still half asleep – even though my shameful prejudices were clearly wide awake)

    My sincere apologies Dalwar – will look up your work now and always in the future.


  13. Saba permalink
    March 24, 2020

    A reminder to parents fortunate enough to have adult children to help them with their needs during isolation and even to come to stay with them — be thoughtful, kind, and pleasant. Let this time remain in your children’s memories with whatever good feelings you created from your own good spirit. They will treasure the experience and you will be grateful forever.

    Enough said. My life’s story is in the reminder. I wish all parents could be as gracious to their children as Delwar’s mum.

  14. Amanda permalink
    March 24, 2020

    Yes, thank you GA for these ‘silver linings’ allowing us calming escapism into another’s world while isolated.

    This beautifully written flow lead me to find Delwar’s book ‘Boundaries Undermined’ on the previous post.
    All good reviews on Amazon – one commented accurately he writes with humane clarity.

    His mother’s wisdom shines out.
    The very last sentence so poignant.
    For me common language has never been essential. Communication comes from willingness and eminates from the soul through our eyes.

    Like Jill, l am fixing anything which get on my nerves in the house and decorating with gusto, now that moving on is an impossibility for some time. l have finally unpacked and accepted.

    Like Paddy, l am getting extra pleasure from observing wild life and birds, as my world of gadding about has ‘shrunk’ to a small plot of garden for which l am grateful. Somewhere to be and somewhere to grow vegetables.

    Author Paul Coehlo believes there is never any need to travel to seek the perfect life, everything we will ever need is right ‘in our own back yard.’

    Whichever way it goes for me, l will have spent my days happily creating a mini paradise here on earth.

    At last ! the Gov has sent a STAY HOME TEXT (at 12 noon on the New Moon) for those who live obliviously with no connection to newspapers, online or TV news bulletins.

    The GA will keep our minds tranquil.

  15. Eleanor Bloom permalink
    March 24, 2020

    Beautifully written and very descriptive.

  16. Adele permalink
    March 24, 2020

    Hello from sunny but cold New York. How I envy Delwar’s energy to run through an empty city past buildings and streets I was visualizing along with his run. Beautifully written piece. Thank you. Stay safe and well everybody.

  17. Heather Cole permalink
    March 24, 2020

    A pleasure too seldom indulged — I probably have two weeks’ worth of Stories to catch up on!

    This one’s a treasure. I’m pretty good with cats, but I’m a failed gardener — sprouting seeds sicken when I come too close — so I am enthralled with this glimpse of a loving home.

    Thank you!

  18. Monika Rangnau permalink
    March 24, 2020

    Hello from Flensburg,Germany,
    Thank you very much for your Impressive Run which implemented the pictures directly into my head.
    I think it really feels good to be physically active in these days and it is necessary to take care of our older ones.
    Stay healthy,

  19. Richard permalink
    March 25, 2020

    Beautiful. Thank you i feel a little better now.

  20. March 25, 2020

    There is something really life affirming about this beautifully written post.

  21. Daniel permalink
    March 26, 2020

    I really enjoyed reading your account. In this time of fear and uncertainty, readings such as this bring beauty and tranquility .

  22. Suzy permalink
    April 1, 2020

    I thoroughly enjoyed Delwar’s account of a London in lockdown and his own personal story of self isolating. It fascinates me how I can currently talk with friends in Italy, Spain, london, Glasgow, New York, Maryland, California and other places and we all be experiencing such similarities in our daily experiences. I mean, how often does it happen that you can send a meme about shortage of loo roll to different parts of the globe and everyone just gets it? :oD

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS