Not long after I’d been identified as dyslexic, my cousin Paul (also in his early 60s) and I found that we had a few days off at the same time, and decided to take a trip France, to visit his mother: in my childhood, my favourite aunt, Mary.
In her late – 80s, she’d been widowed a few years before and gone to live in France, not far from another of her sons. Paul and I flew to Rennes, hired a car, and drove towards Mayenne, taking the odd coffee, and glass, on the way, and chatting.
‘She loves it,’ said Paul. ‘The village is quiet. The checkout girls at the supermarket know the things she likes, and help her with her change and shopping trolley. There’s a little café that she goes to. Everyone calls her ‘Madame Anglais’. She’s got a bit of French, but not much. I’m worried in case there’s some sort of emergency, so I’ve got her some French language learning discs. Couple of my mates swear by them.’
A few hours into the visit, the subject was broached. ‘How are you getting on with the French discs?’
‘Terrible, terrible,’ came Mary’s reply. ‘I learn the first one perfectly. Start on the second one, and forget everything that was on the first.’ I was stunned. This was exactly my foreign language learning experience. I now knew that dyslexia had familial links, but also that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. ‘Have you ever thought that you might be dyslexic, Mary?’ I ventured.
‘It’s funny you should say that,’ she replied. ‘When I was about 17, I was out with a friend, and we passed a poster, and I said, ‘Oooh look, it says……,’ and my friend said, ‘It doesn’t say that,’ and went on to tell me what it did say.’
Online, I found the first questionnaire I’d had had to fill in, to discover if I was dyslexic, and went though it with Mary. She came out with a result that was exactly the same as mine. We talked, particularly about schooldays, and about how Mary had been bullied at school, by teachers. ‘I knew something was wrong,’ she said. ‘I just didn’t know what it was.’
More conversations followed, over the telephone, and during further visits. She was cynical about any notion of ‘the gift of dyslexia’, but became aware of why she was witty, astute in her assessment of people, good with customers, a problem-solver and always able to see ‘the bigger picture’. When she died, at 93, Mary knew that she was not ‘thick’ or ‘stupid’, but that she was dyslexic.