Category Archives: family


We were at a wedding last night, and, as I somewhat effusively told the happy couple, it brought out all the feels.

It was really a milestone event, because it’s the first wedding we’ve been to where we’re “of the older generation.” As B is the baby of his family, he and I are the youngest of our rung on the ladder, and the nephew getting married is the oldest of my kids’ cousins, so the gap in years might not be a whole generation’s worth, but symbolically it remains true.

It was also my first non-church wedding. It took place in a hotel, just like in the movies. At first I thought it might be a little soulless (I’m such a hypocrite, an atheist who says it’s not a real wedding if it’s not in a church), but I cried just as much as I ever would at the lovely self-written  vows, and as a parent of two squirmy, unreliable children, I very much appreciated the tidy length of the ceremony. And it was nice not to have to worry about transporting ourselves from the ceremony to the reception, as all we had to do was step into the elevator and out again a floor above.

Also, there were babysitters laid on, so that we were able to send our children away to play raucous games of musical chairs and do crafts while we were civilized and ate our dinners and drank all the fizzy wine and danced to the Sinatra songs they played not intending people to dance to them. Our offspring did come back to us after a little while, but we enticed them onto the dance floor and ended the night with all four of us tearing it up to Uptown Funk at 11:30pm. That was a good moment.

These moments of ritual, though. Those were what got me thinking. The bride had a little trouble getting the groom’s ring over his knuckle; I remember exactly the same struggle and the same nervous giggle welling up when it happened to me. The groom is a marathon runner, like his uncle. She and he are two strong, determined, uber-smart people who will go far and do amazing things together.

A wedding date is really an arbitrary day to start counting from when you’ve been living together for a few years already; and yet, it’s important. This is why.

It’s important though, to mark this, to stand up, to have the planning and the party and the ceremony and the drama that goes with it all, because in some ways it’s one of your first challenges. It’s a time you’ll go through, and then you’ll look back and remember it at every other wedding you go to: we did this too, you’ll say, or we didn’t do that. And you’ll think about all you’ve done since, the twists and turns your lives have taken together, the glue that holds you together, the ritual and the symbolism and the flowers and the dances and the meals and the friends and the family.

And most of all it marks the point where you started out together to be a new family of your own, breaking free from everything you wanted to let go of, no longer forced into your role as son, daughter, sister, brother; the over-achiever, the stubborn middle, the baby of the family.

You get to go out there and be yourself, with your teammate, grownups together, to dance your dance to your own soundtrack whatever way you want to do it.

B and children dancing, blurry

On the dance floor

The family nose

The older I get, the more often I look in the mirror and see my mother’s face looking back at me. I’ve got over the shock now. It’s okay. I’m resigned to it. I know my Dad’s family is in there too, somewhere, but one side’s genes predominate as time goes on; at least from where I’m standing.

On Facebook, I see my cousins and my cousins’ children, and I see my place in a pattern that goes on and on, waxing and waning, being diluted and returning with vigour a generation down the line. We all look alike, and some of us more than others. “The O’Connor is strong with that one,” I comment, and they tell me about someone else’s young fella who look just the same.

(Of course, it might not be the O’Connor. That was my grandfather. It might be my grandmother, it’s hard to tell. And before her I don’t know whether it was Spencer or King, and I’m not even sure that King was my great grandparent on that side anyway… but someone, somewhere, had strong genes and they’re still around.)

Then I look at my husband’s cousins’ Facebook babies, and they look like my daughter, or my son looks like one in particular of his cousins more than all the others. The family lines prevail: the hair, the cheeks, the nose, the chin. The particular distance from the upper lip to the base of the nose. That way the corners of the mouth go whenever they smile.

We’re all just points on a continuum. We all take our place in the line, the tree, the human race. It’s comforting, really, to be a part of something that persists, regardless.

Even if I’m still not so happy about my nose.

Christmas Past

I remember the spindly fake tree we had for so many years, and how much I hated it. I remember the foil milk-bottle-top decorations on it that I must have made at playschool, and a cardboard Santa with impossibly long legs and cotton wool for a beard. I remember feeling the weight of the presents on the end of my bed before daylight on Christmas morning and the almost comforting thrill of knowing they were there to wake up to in a few hours. (How restrained I was.) I remember almost busting Santa the year we stayed at my cousins’ house in London – I heard someone moving in the room, but I kept my eyes tightly shut and was all the more excited in the morning because I had heard him. I’m sure all the adults heaved a sigh of relief.

I remember the unshakeable ritual of Christmas dinner at my aunt’s, from consomme to trifle with all the requisite things in between. Turkey, ham, sausagemeat stuffing, sage and onion stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, carrots, celery and sprouts. Roast potatoes of course. Lighting the plum pudding. Brandy butter and cream. A walk in Marley Park to digest, and home for the big film on the telly and some post-prandial port for the grown-ups.

I remember getting new clothes for Christmas, when times were lean and I was dressed in my school uniform or hand-me-downs from my five older girl cousins for the rest of the year. The thrill of those cobalt-blue trousers-not-jeans that matched the green and purple and blue wavy striped sweater and the (oh joy) grey pixie boots to make a real outfit of it; even if it was all from Dunnes I didn’t care, they were new clothes and they were in fashion. I wore that outfit to Sunday mass all year, I think.

I remember clinging to the traditions as they started to crumble; the first year my aunt didn’t host dinner, and how I was bereft, feeling that it wasn’t Christmas at all if we didn’t drive over the winding road past Lamb Doyle’s to Rathfarnham, seeing the lights of the city spread out below us from the heights of Stepaside. I remember the way I established traditions where there had been none, insisting that we take turns opening and admiring our presents, making little piles for each person beside their allotted seat, ensuring that no moment of delight was missed, watching my father slice open the wrapping paper at the join of the tape with a craft knife, surgeon-like, careful to keep every re-usable scrap for next year, taking careful note of who had given what to whom.

(I remember the shock when I first attended the apparent free-for-all of another family’s Christmas, where paper was ripped with abandon and nobody took time to admire each other’s gains until the frenzy was over.)

Traditions are memories that you can re-create over and over. And when they’re finally done with, it’s time to forge some new ones out of folded paper and fruitcake and gingerbread and fairy lights and wrapping paper and carols and friends and family and laughter and maybe even a few tears.

Paper snowflakes on the window

This post is part of the Christmas Memories linky hosted by Naomi at Dr How’s Science Wows. Head on over there and read some more.

Christmas Memories: A Seaonal Linky with Science Wows

Well, this isn’t morbid at all

My grandmother died when I was 17. They asked in the hospital if I wanted to see the body, and I said no. I preferred to remember her as she always had been, sitting in her chair in her front room with her fluffy halo of white curls and the remote control, watching the snooker.

I’m 41 and that’s still the closest I’ve come to seeing a dead person.

Isn’t that a little odd? I mean, yes, it’s also wonderfully lucky, and I’m blessed, but isn’t it a little unnatural? I think it’s indicative of how much we try to hold the brass-tacks realities of life at arm’s length in the modern world: I’ve been involved in precisely two births – those of my own children – and zero deaths. Even when our family cat died, I had already moved out of the house and the first I knew of her demise was when my mother rang me at work to say she’d taken Mitzi to the vet that morning.

The thing is, I don’t think I’m reality-proofed at all. I think when something happens – as it must, because no matter how much we pretend life doesn’t end in death, it always does – I won’t have any precedent. I know intellectually that death happens, but I suspect being faced with the physical reality, especially when it’s someone you know and love, takes more than book learning. I’ve met grief, when my much loved mother-in-law died very suddenly; but it was my husband’s family’s grief; it didn’t belong to me.

Maybe it’s just autumn, these thoughts I have. One red leaf and I’m all moribund.

I do have this feeling that, having hit 40, I’m into the second half. I’m maybe on the downward slope. I’m freewheeling, but the destination isn’t really somewhere I’m in a hurry to get to. That’s probably why it’s going faster now; but I’m putting more thought into the process.

Having had one or two brushes with discomfort, I appreciate better the simple ability to move my body around without difficulty or pain; for my parents right now that’s not so easy. I have more pressing reasons to try to make my body strong or fit: I need to work on my core muscles not just because of the frankly pie-in-the-sky notion of a flat stomach but also because it helps my back not hurt. I have a newfound urge to create, to leave behind, to do worthwhile things because I won’t always be here.

(Don’t worry, I’m planning on being here for at least another 40. And my parents, while somewhat decrepit, are not yet knocking on death’s door. But it’s good to think about these things when they’re not pressing, you know.)

single red leaf on the pavement

My imaginary third child

I had a dream a little while ago about my imaginary third child. There were the other two, and there was a baby as well. It was nice. I wasn’t sad when I woke up, exactly; just a little wistful. My third child will always be no more than imaginary, but I think it’s possible that she/he’ll always be there in my head too.

I took Mabel to the dentist yesterday, and Dash came with us to wait in the waiting room, since it wasn’t his time for a checkup. The dental assistant looked at me quizzically as we came in and said “Are you missing one?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, puzzled and a bit embarrassed, “I thought I remembered you had a baby as well…”
“No, no. Only in my imagination.”

In the car the other day Dash was coming up with some elaborate solution to a problem of sharing or something. He said we needed to adopt another baby, or just have one, so that then there’d be the right number of what ever it was to go around.
“We’re really not going to have another baby, Dash. Or adopt one either.”
“Oh. Well.” He had to think of another idea.

I’m really fine with it, and I’m not protesting too much. We’re moving on and it’s great to be past the baby stages. It’s just interesting to me that I still think three is the “right” number, under some hypothetical definition of right. I don’t know where that comes from – my Dad is one of three and so was one of my friends when I was small, but most other families I grew up knowing had more than that. It just looks like not too few or too many, theoretically.

But un-theoretically, for us, here, now, in this iteration of my life, it would be too many and it will not be happening. Maybe I’ll get three next time round.



The older I get the more I see myself turning into my mother. As Oscar Wilde told us, it’s a tragic inevitability. When I look in the mirror I see her face framed by my hair; my body is the same shape – plus a couple of inches in height (and width; it’s only proportional); I hear her words coming out of my mouth disconcertingly often; I find myself sitting up straight and putting a fist in the small of my back exactly the way she always did, thanks to our apparently matching spinal malfunctions. (She always did say she had a short back.)

I suppose there are also some things about me that aren’t like my mother. I suppose I take after my Dad in some respects. I suppose my feet are his and my eyes are his and my hair is his mother’s and my myopia is my aunty’s and I’m not sure where my interest in cooking came from but maybe it’s just my own.

Even so, though. Every time I open my mouth and the wrong word comes out, as does happen now and then, I wonder if everyone does that when they’re not really paying attention because they’re doing three things at once, or if it’s the beginning of a certain fuzziness.

I haven’t said it out loud here before, but my mum has Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t early-onset or anything; she was diagnosed at about 79, though it did answer questions that I think had been raised quite a few years before that. Her father had it too. Of her four living siblings, she’s the first so far to follow him down that road. She’s still at home, with my dad, but she can’t drive any more and isn’t really safe to be left alone. My conversations with her nowadays are all pretty much in the present tense and usually work their way around to the same questions and answers in the space of about ten minutes. Then I get off the phone and go back to my easy life here, thousands of miles away, and leave my dad, with his own age-related problems, to look after her and deal with the daily frustrations and sadness of living with someone with advancing dementia.

Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Roll the dice. Write it down and take a picture before I forget.


Avocados remind me of my mother-in-law.

I had never tasted an avocado. I was nineteen, and in Ireland in nineteen-ninety-three, that was not as ridiculous as it might sound today, now that we’re all starting our little snowflakes off on their baby-led weaning journeys with a nice piece of avocado. They were still called avocado pears back then, probably.

I found myself at my boyfriend’s house taking part in an assembly line of very sophisticated starters consisting of half an avocado with crab mayonnaise in the dip left by the stone, for a grown-up dinner party. (By which I mean we were not invited.) I tried a little of the smooth green stuff. The taste was clean and yet perfumey, but it was the texture that was so different from anything I’d had before – slippery like soap, but softer. I wasn’t sure I liked it.

(Only a year or so later I was blithely making avocados into guacamole and slathering it on tortilla chips. The Tex-Mex revolution came to our shores with delightful, deep-fried-chimichanga, speed.)

My mother-in-law’s chocolate mousse was the stuff of legends, made from large bars of Cadbury’s Bourneville. She made braised red cabbage that had me snaffling extra helpings of a vegetable I thought I didn’t like out of the serving dish with my fingers in the kitchen. She showed me how to make mayonnaise by hand, drop by drop of olive oil in Italy, and how to grind tomatoes to garlicky gazpacho with a Mouli. She usually had some Prosecco to hand, to sparkle up any celebration.

I showed her how to steam broccoli in the microwave: she didn’t know about that. I always had strawberry jam in the fridge if she was coming to stay, and maybe some nice emmental; though she was always nothing less than delighted with whatever we had to eat, whether it was a home-roasted chicken or the excitement of a cinnamon bun in IKEA.

It’s just coming up to two years since she died. Our guest room goes mostly unused, and when we go to Ireland there’s something – someone – conspicuously missing. In our minds she’s still on a long trip to far-flung places. But we miss her voice on the answering machine on a Sunday afternoon, and the children’s memories of her are more inspired by photos than what they really remember.

She will never not be missed.

Granny and Dash, 2011

November 2011


Grandad’s bedtime stories

My late father-in-law used to tell bedtime stories to his children. And rather than have to think up something new every time, he had some stock characters and some particular scenarios that would be told over and over again. And because he was that sort of person, at some point he typed them up.

Sadly, he died when his first grandchild was only a few months old, and before I had even met my husband. But the stories have persisted. About ten years ago my sisters-in-law put the stories together in several sets of photocopied pages illustrated by that same first grandchild and held them together with comb binding. It was a lovely thing to have and as my children have grown older they’ve loved their grandfather’s special stories.

But the typed pages were getting was so old that some of the words were practically illegible, and the binding was starting to fall apart. I decided it was time for a third iteration, and went looking for some technology to help me.

A little Googling brought me to, which will print hard- or soft-cover books for you, as many or as few as you want, with lots of photos or none at all. It’s a step up from making a photo book in Shutterfly (as I have done several times), and it seemed to be the only option out there for something that was mostly text, which was what I needed.

So I spent a few evenings in November typing out the thirteen stories, and several more frustrating nights trying to typeset it to my satisfaction. You download the Blurb program and work on your own computer rather than saving things online, but even so I had trouble with the application and lost my work many times, which was pretty frustrating. I can’t honestly give it a five-star review for this reason, but on the other hand I didn’t try calling the customer service, so maybe I shouldn’t blame them. There might have been a simple fix I didn’t know about.

Anyway, I wanted them to be done in time for Christmas, so I didn’t spend quite as much time as I should have making sure it was all perfect. I chose a colour for the cover, uploaded some photos, and sent the whole thing to Blurb with my order for one book for each branch of the family. And a couple of weeks later I was the happy recipient of five nicely made hardback books of stories that, in spite of a total lack of any design talent on my part, are immeasurably precious to my husband and his siblings.

I love that we can do this. Flying cars are all very well, but being able to make a book from the comfort of my sofa and send it to my family is really wonderful. I love that my children can read their grandfather’s words and continue to hand down this little piece of family history. Blurb ships to all over the world, so if you want to do something similar, it might be worth a shot.


This is not a review of Blurb, as such. I just thought it was such a nice thing, and I was so pleased with it (inevitable crazy-making typos notwithstanding), that I wanted to show you what I had made. I paid for my books just like everyone else.

A little flight of fancy

My grandmother met George Bernard Shaw once. This is not how it happened, but this is what I imagined before I knew more of the story.
The young woman with the thick chestnut hair wore a long skirt and a high-necked blouse with big sleeves. It may have been fastened at the neck with a cameo brooch. She stood behind the long wooden counter of the bookshop, coming around the front from time to time to re-shelve a hardback or reorganize the display on the table. I don’t know what bookshops looked like then, so I may be taking some liberties here. There may have been a ladder on wheels attached to the shelves lining the walls, but perhaps her boss didn’t let her scale it. She was only 19 or 20, still unmarried. Perhaps she had already met her fiance, the handsome Tom Doran, also a Londoner of Irish descent.
She looked up as the bell on the door rang, smiling to see one of her regular customers enter. He was accompanied by a bearded gentleman who looked distinguished and carried a cane. It was raining; they were happy to come into the warm shop. Their heavy coats steamed a little and smelled of wet wool.
“Good afternoon, Mr Russell,” the shopgirl said. “Lovely weather for ducks.”
“Indeed, indeed, Miss Wall,” he replied. They were on second-name terms, though she wore no name badge. He was always happy to see her friendly smile and suspected she had a dry wit, though that was not an appropriate trait for a young lady to display.
“My friend, Mr Shaw, is looking for a particular volume, Miss Wall. I wonder would you be able to assist him?”
“Yes, of course,” she replied, looking at Mr Shaw and wondering if she’d seen him before somewhere. His impressive beard seemed more and more familiar, now that he’d taken off his top hat and unwound his thick scarf in the warmth of the room.
Mr Shaw, with a cultured accent that had more than a hint of Irish to it, began to describe the book he needed; he wasn’t quite sure of the title, or the author, but had a definite feeling for the content and was almost certain the binding had been red. Miss Wall did her best, looking at her shelves and mentally cataloguing their contents until she had its probable location narrowed down to one particular section. She made a suggestion; it was shot down. She tried again. Mr Shaw paused, reflected, laughed a short “Hah!” and agreed. The binding was blue, but the contents were as he had remembered. He was grateful.
“Miss Wall, you will go far,” he announced.

Old dog, new trick

My dad is 84. I remember when his office got its first computer – I must have been around eight or ten. He would come home with tales of how the secretary – whom everyone loved and who, despite her glamorous blonde hair, was far from an airhead – had lost some file or other again, thanks to the silly machine. He had no time for this new technology. He kept his files, his records, his drawings, his specifications, his letters, safely and securely on paper, in filing cabinets, where they were swiftly to hand when the need arose.

About six years later the recession (the other recession, the one in the 80s) hit the building trade hard (history repeats itself) and with it, the architectural firms. His company was reduced to two men – himself and his partner, now the senior members – who retreated to their respective homes and worked from there, renting out the floor that used to be a workspace for thirty employees.

Luckily, we had a basement room that he could use as an office, and I remember the day all his huge hanging files of blueprints and plans were moved in, in giant cabinets that took up most of the space, leaving a thin passage for him to walk between, and of course a place for a tall stool at the angled drawing board. It may have been then that we acquired our first home computer – an Amstrad with a nice green screen and square type that functioned mostly as a word processor. It also had two games, which I played to death. It never occurred to us to get any more games for it, though I suppose they were available.

Luckily for us, my dad’s partner is a couple of decades younger and an early adopter of new technology, so every time he upgraded his computer we would be the happy recipients of the hand-me-down. Thus we progressed, eventually, from the Amstrad to an Apple, and a newer Apple, and finally even one with a colour screen. I learned to type from Mavis Beacon on one of those Apples, for which I will be eternally grateful. There was even a modem attached by this time – a phone-line modem, the sort that crackled and screeched and cost as much as a local phone call – which in Ireland is not free. But nobody ever used it, because it was too much of a hassle, and the Internet was not very interesting yet, and it took a long time to work.

My dad only ever used the computer as a word processor, and continued to print out, photocopy, and file all his paperwork just as he had always done. He never saved anything, except by accident, so that every now and then I’d go home and try to clean up the desktop, littered with things nobody wanted any more. My mum used it too, for her official correspondence, in the same way. I set them up with an e-mail account, but they never used it. “I’m too old for that,” my dad would say, self-deprecatingly, when I suggested that it might be nice to have. He couldn’t really see the point. He continued to do his drawing work by hand, faxing things through to people who couldn’t wait, sending letters by snail mail, talking on the phone. He was past retirement age, but he kept going as long as he had clients who would work with him in spite of his Ludditeism.

In only the last few years, things have changed. He really has retired now, the office downstairs is mostly disused, he and my mother face health problems of varying types. They have mobile phones, which stay nicely charged in their cradles, and are never used. I doubt either of them could figure them out at this point. Texting would be way beyond them.

But then. This is not a sad story of how technology that seems peripheral can become so central to life that people have difficulty interacting with you when you don’t use it. This is a story of hope and new beginnings. Of old dogs who do, after all, learn new tricks.

Because my dad’s partner, a good man without parallel, refused to give up on the idea of setting my father up with technology that could improve his life. He upgraded his iPad and gave Dad the old one. Dad got the house wired for broadband (though Eircom seemed to sit on that particular challenge for about six months). My dad mastered the art of the touchscreen, figured out that this one was pretty hard to mess up, kept at it, and now sends me an e-mail most days. I can send him little tidbits from our day, a photo embedded in an e-mail so he doesn’t even have to click away to see it, and he and my mother can see into our lives over here, so very far away, from a new angle.

My dad doesn’t like the phone. He’s the sort of father who says “I’ll get your mother,” at the first opportunity when I ring home. If trapped, because she’s not home, he’ll talk about the weather, or current affairs. (He gets his news from the radio at 9am and 1pm and the television at 9pm promptly. Missing the headlines is a bad, bad thing. I put a shortcut on the iPad to The Irish Times website when I was at home, but I’m not sure if he’s using that yet.) Anyway. I’ve inherited his dislike of phones, to some extent, so e-mail is the perfect medium for both of us. I don’t think he’ll be on Facebook any time soon, but baby steps are fine with me.

It’s a tiny thing, but it’s a great thing. If Steve Jobs is to thank for this, then I’m thanking Steve Jobs. I’m also thanking my Dad, who’s not been feeling so great lately but has powered through and made himself keep at this, picking up the iPad every day and trying to send me a message, even though sometimes it doesn’t seem to work, or the router has a red light and isn’t doing what it should, or he might think he has nothing to say. I’m proud of him for finally admitting that he’s not too old a dog after all.

B and my Dad looking at a camera