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In Convalescence With My Mother

April 16, 2020
by Delwar Hussain

Anthropologist & Writer Delwar Hussain sent me this follow-up to his recent pieces, describing his experiences of self-isolating with his mother in the family home in Spitalfields

Portrait by Lucinda Douglas Menzies


It has been several days since our bodies returned to us. My mother and I are free of the virus. We no longer have coughs and pains but await the return of our senses of smell and taste. During the ordeal, I put on weight while my mother, who has always been lean, looks thinner. The inability to taste has had an effect on how much she eats. Yet we remind ourselves that we are the lucky ones.

My friend’s father died of the virus and was buried in a body bag with just five members of the family allowed to attend the funeral. My brother’s best friend’s father was buried in Ilford when the death certificate was eventually issued. Some people my mother knows have died and several are in intensive care. Our neighbours are unwell. My friends are living with uncertainties around employment, homes and, indeed, their health.

As we recuperated, my siblings brought us food. Dressed in surgical masks and rubber gloves, they dropped off curries, fruit and lemons on the doorstep. Friends and neighbours offered to deliver supplies too. We accumulated so many Tupperware containers that a mountain of them formed on the kitchen table, threatening to topple over onto the cat when she brushed her neck against the table leg.

In the evenings, I put the scraps in to the compost bin and wash each container fastidiously, making sure I clean in the creases and the binds of the lids, ready to return to the owner the next day. And herein lies the problem – I cannot remember who it was that gave us which one. The boxes look the same yet belong to different people. My sister-in-law who works at the Royal London Hospital asked my mother on the phone whether she had seen the one with the blue lid, it belonged to her own mother.

A friend once told me that Tupperware containers are not to be held on to but should always be in circulation – amongst friends, neighbours, family, colleagues – preferably with something inside. Apparently, it is bad luck to return an empty one, not in keeping with the spirit of reciprocation. However the washing is all I am able to manage before the little boxes go back out in to the world to be returned to other sets of hands than those that gave them to us.

Over Easter weekend I stood in the garden. Leaves glistened as though encrusted with tiny jewels. Birds swooped and circled, reclaiming the skies. I stared up at the sun with my eyes shut. Stars floated and danced behind my eyelids. Filled with intimations of summer to come and memories of ones past, I felt a quickening of the heart, reminding me of why I live and want to continue living.

Like everyone else, I want life to go back to normal. At the same time, it was that ‘normality’ which delivered the pandemic. That normality was also the cause of climate change, deforestation, wars, streams of refugees, scarcity of resources and excessive consumption. So I wonder, what is the normality without all of the devastation and how do we get there?

My mother arrived at the kitchen door, swathed in shawls, surveying the garden. She had spent the morning transferring little bean and gourd plants that she had grown from seed into individual pots and, once bigger, she will plant them out in the garden. She has placed the pots on every available space in the house including, most inconveniently, on the staircase. Throughout the day, she rotates them into the shifting pools of sunlight. She always grows much more than she needs so she can give some to her sister, friends and neighbours – receiving plants from them in turn.

‘Seeing as you’re just standing idly around’, my mother said, ‘Can you attend to the compost? The roots of the olive, plum and orange trees could do with a boost of new soil.’ I harrumphed, preferring to be reminiscing about summer glories but she asked again. From experience, I have learnt it is best to acquiesce to her gardening demands yet – regardless of her wishes – I knew the spade was missing. She could not remember who she had last lent it to or whether they had returned it. I thought about using one of the Tupperware boxes to shovel the soil until she indicated with her chin the little hand trowel, with its handle broken, half-buried amongst the gooseberry bushes.

I approached the compost bin. The top layer had not fully decomposed, with scraps from recent meals still evident, and I was relieved that I was still unable to smell it. As I dug out the compost the best I could with my broken trowel, I came across the old credit cards my mother had snapped in half and put in there as a secure way to dispose of them. Thick worms, as thick as my finger, and a cornucopia of other creepy crawlies grew irritated as I disturbed their lives.

All the while my mother watched me, cautiously making sure I did not spill any of the thick, dense, heavy compost I was digging at the bottom of the bin. She wanted to make sure I was treating it with due respect and care. ‘Most of that,’ she said, her breathing laboured, ‘was the peels and scraps that your brother and sister brought back from Jennifer’s restaurant in Spitalfields Market when they worked for her. She’s dead now. What a good woman, she loved your brother and sister.’ My mother was not being morose, she was instructing me that gardening is about remembering. Remembering those who are still with us and those who have passed on.

Portrait by Patricia Niven

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48 Responses leave one →
  1. Venetia permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I am so happy they are recovering to hear they are recovering! Give them my love. From a gardener in Oxfordshire.

  2. Ronald Wilkinson permalink
    April 16, 2020

    My wife said your mom is pretty. Love your garden and plant startings. Your friend is right about Tupperware. Stay safe and well.

  3. April 16, 2020

    A lovely piece of writing, thank you. As you head towards Summer we head into Winter and I have just come inside from sitting in my garden, acknowledging my good fortune to have such a pleasant place to isolate. The days have a gentle warmth to them, enough to sustain us and cheer us and encourage us outside. Lovely leaves, autumn fruits, plantings to be done.

    I must say that as I came to the end of your writing and the photograph of the woman appeared, my breath was taken away. My immediate thought was ‘oh, what a beautiful woman’. She looks so elegant in the gold-coloured fabrics, just radiant.

    Again, thank you.

  4. Christopher permalink
    April 16, 2020

    Lovely story, thanks for sharing it and giving me the understanding of those who have suffered much loss and endured with what appears to be such strength and stoicism during this pandemic and the value of life whereas I have so far managed to escape it…..kind regards

  5. Fiona Larcombe permalink
    April 16, 2020

    So happy to read this story of recovery, renewal and hope. Thank you all for writing, publishing and living your lives.

  6. Judith permalink
    April 16, 2020

    Beautifully described my own feelings of intense pleasure at seeing my little garden, the birds etc. When i had recovered enough to venture into the garden. I couldn’t eat at all for 3 weeks, now am rediscovering food (what my husband manages to find – he didnt get the virus ).
    Thank you Delwar and hope you and your mother’s recovery continues.

  7. jane Jones permalink
    April 16, 2020

    Phew. What a relief that they’ve pulled through. Love the tales of this delightful family.

  8. April 16, 2020

    Wonderful writing and insight.

  9. April 16, 2020

    Wonderful piece.

  10. April 16, 2020

    I am realy delighted that these two are on the road to recovery, having read the earlier posts. A wonderful and wise reflection on the power of nature, the kindness of neighbours, and the plight of modern times.

  11. April 16, 2020

    I am so relieved to read that you and your Mother are recovering. Much love to you both. What a beautiful oasis you have grown in the city, I can’t even keep my rosemary plant alive! Thank you once again for sharing

  12. Mary Nicholls permalink
    April 16, 2020

    Loved that story… it reminded me of my own mother and all her funny little ways…Thankyou

  13. Leeza permalink
    April 16, 2020

    This was beautiful. Sad but filled with hope. Thank you for sharing it. May you all stay well.

  14. Lesley Harrison permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I am really enjoying Delwar’s tender accounts of isolation with his mother. He paints such a broad picture which one can relate to on many levels. Thank you

  15. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 16, 2020

    Yes – agreed – I am so pleased that Delwar and his mother are both recovering and that she has got back to her beloved gardening.

    I also agree that it would be wonderful if and when “normal life” returns, it is kinder and causes less devastation to our planet.

    Another beautifully written and thoughtful piece – thank you, and stay safe Delwar.

  16. April 16, 2020

    A heart warming and beautiful piece- so glad you both pulled through.

  17. Sofía Craxton permalink
    April 16, 2020

    Just to say that you and your mother have been a lot in my thoughts and that I am very glad to hear of your recovery. Look after yourselves and wishing you and your mother all the best.

  18. Amanda permalink
    April 16, 2020

    So happy to learn of your recoveries Delwar and to see the photo of you looking sunny and happy, even if this was beforehand.

    Sad to read of the losses you have endured all around you. God bless all of them.

    Your healthy dietary regime and calm outlook will have played a big part in your rehabilitation.

    Your mother’s garden is such a lush, peaceful oasis of healthy planting and l spotted the seeds for the bendy zuccini in her seed basket SICILIAN SERPENT – that did make me smile.

    l too have had a change of heart since my abject despondency prior to this life changer l can only describe as a shaken
    cocktail of emotions.

    l feel younger instead of older and an inner contentment by accepting my fate, whichever outcome.

    l feel nothing will be impossible if l wish to achieve something and our smallest daily accomplishments will be so appreciated, as will our gift of life.

    Thank you dear GA for Delwar’s update.

  19. April 16, 2020

    Maybe the herbal remedies were helpful? Glad to read Delwar and his mother are on the mend.

  20. April 16, 2020

    Some uplifting news amidst the daily sad news.
    So pleased to hear that both you and your dear mother have made a good recovery surrounded by the kindness, generosity and love of friends and family. Thank you for this latest update Delwar.

  21. April 16, 2020

    It is wonderful to read that Delwar and his mother are recovering. I have found his account of their experience very moving and the photographs are a delight.

  22. Joan permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I have so enjoyed reading Delwar’s reflections. I too am guilty of placing redundant credit cards in the compost – though I do put them through the shredder first. Every so often, when digging the compost in, there is a glint of shiny card. Delwar’s mother’s portrait rung bells in my mind – there was a familiarity about it. Then I realised that it reminded me of a Velasquez painting that I had seen in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Spanish art back in 2009. It is his portrait of Mother Jeronima de la Fuente, pictured aged 66, from 1620. Mother Jeronima was Franciscan nun known for her holiness. The picture is easy to find via google. There is something special about being able to draw a connection between women separated by centuries and cultures but sharing a resolute look speaking of long lives of careful observation of all that is going on around them. All best wishes to Delwar and his mother in their recovery and beyond.

  23. Elaine permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I love your stories featuring your mother. What an amazing woman! She seems to exude serentiy and calm and contentment. I think you must have those traits too because your writings are indeed “gentle.” Please continue to show us this wonderful life. I hope you are fully recovered.

  24. April 16, 2020

    What a wonderful writer! I’m so glad that Delwar and his mother have pulled through, and wish them and their family and friends all the best for the future.

  25. Kate Bacon permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I’m so glad to hear you and your mother are recovering. What beautiful writing and insights, thank you Delwar.

  26. Pauline Taylor permalink
    April 16, 2020

    It gives one hope to read such an eloquent narrative from Delwar describing his own and his mother’s experience of the virus and I couldn’t agree with him more, there is nothing like standing outside, in the sunshine, looking up at the blue sky, seeing plants beginning to shoot and show signs of life after a long cold winter and watching birds gathering moss to line their nests. For those moments at least all seem right with the world and we should take time to count our blessings, although we must never forget those who are not so fortunate and those who have lost loved ones.

    I also agree with others about your mother’s beautiful serene look but you are pretty handsome yourself Delwar, and you write so well, thank you. May you both be fully recovered soon with your senses of smell and taste fully restored so that you will be able appreciate and enjoy your lovely home grown produce.

  27. Naomi permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I haven’t read any of the previous articles, but this is a lovely piece of writing from the heart. Very visual, very touching, very intimate. I agree with the tupperware mentality and I also find the compost bin can be a scary place, to be approached with caution.

  28. paul loften permalink
    April 16, 2020

    Thank you both for this wonderfully descriptive account of a Spitalfields family suffering from this deadly virus. It will be just as valuable a reminder to future generations of what we have all had to endure as the Plague diaries, written by the Stoke Newington resident Daniel Defoe.
    My son had this virus, so I know all the symptoms. He lives on the other side of London and by good fortune, we were not in close contact beforehand and he told us not to come and visit. Although we did have to make the long journey on several occasions and leave groceries outside of his front door and we could communicate from the outside, through his closed kitchen window. This is not ordinary flu and he was quite ill. He is a very fit young man that plays football for an amateur team. He said he had not suffered anything like it before. He, fortunately, has now recovered and is back to his old self.

  29. April 16, 2020

    Glad you and your mother are over the worst of it. I envy your mother’s knowledge of gardening. I am so fortunate to have a garden, unlike many, which yields up new surprises each day.

  30. April 16, 2020

    Good news should always travel quickly. Especially now.

    I am thrilled to read this optimistic update from Delwar and his lovely mother.
    Onward and upward.

  31. Jill Carey-Stuart permalink
    April 16, 2020

    A truly lovely triology about Delwar and his mother’s experiences during these strange times. Thank you. Best wishes for a full recovery and a wonderful harvest!

  32. Elizabeth Ann Lynch permalink
    April 16, 2020

    What a beautiful, lyrical account! Beautiful portraits of your mother, the photograph and your description.

  33. April 16, 2020

    Hello from Dallas, Texas. So good to read you and your Mum are recovering. Amazing garden. I hope you share more photos of it and your Mum. I am a novice gardener and she give me hope in my tiny efforts on my back garden.Cheers and stay well.

  34. Donna permalink
    April 16, 2020

    Thanks for sharing your lovely story!

    Stay well; stay safe!

  35. April 16, 2020

    Poignant and beautiful writing that turns a harrowing experience into a deeper insight about the garden as a place of regeneration and remembrance. I hope your recovery brings you back soon to full health and wish the same for your friends and family. Many thanks

  36. April 16, 2020

    Sending you and mother best wishes from New York , please stay safe a healthy.

  37. Helen Billing permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I am so glad to hear that Delwar and his mother are on the road to recovery. But the little details he cites to show us that they are getting better are lovely – his mother organizing him to attend to the compost and his Easter weekend delights in the weather that make him (and us) look forward to the future. Many thanks to Delwar for letting us know that their health is improving.

  38. Mary Connolly permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I am so happy they are both recovering. So sad to hear of all the deaths. So greatful that Delwar shared an insight of their journey. Sending my love and prayers to Delwar and his Mother. Mary. From Malvern in Worcestershire.

  39. Pence permalink
    April 16, 2020

    So glad that you two are doing better. I love the sound of the garden.

  40. Rene Eyre permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I have loved reading Delwar’s accounts of his lockdown experiences with his Mother. They are beautifully written and detailed, and I am so relieved that they have managed to throw off this awful virus. Looking forward to the next blog.

  41. Bert Woodruff permalink
    April 16, 2020

    This is a lovely, lovely entry. Thank you very much for taking me–however briefly–out of my necessarily circumscribed life. Thank you for sharing your life. Good health to you both.

  42. Lesley permalink
    April 16, 2020

    I love your mother. She also looks extremely elegant.

  43. April 17, 2020

    A lovely piece of writing and pleased you are both recovering. To think I often walk those streets and there’s such a hidden treasure. Keep well and safe.

  44. John Grimsey permalink
    April 17, 2020

    Fantastic news! Mum looks incredibly fit and well. Very pleased for you both.

  45. Suzanne permalink
    April 17, 2020

    Best wishes to you and your lovely mother in your continued recovery. Your beautiful thoughts and flourishing garden brightened my day here in chilly Maine, USA.

  46. April 18, 2020

    The personal accounts in Delwar’s writings really brought home the reality of someone with the covid 19 virus. I feared that his mother might not make it and I’m so relieved they are both now recovering. Best wishes to them, their family and friends, and Delwar, please continue writing!

  47. Jill permalink
    April 19, 2020

    Hooray! I nearly missed this update. So good to hear of recovery. ???

  48. April 22, 2020

    Thank you, I’ve now read all your pieces here, Mr. Hussain. Your mother’s kindness toward her sewing machine, her gourd, her apple tree, her compost, her neighbors, her grandchildren is the fruit of a life well-lived. And of her contribution to the great city for which she stands. So beautiful.

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