Category Archives: family

Magic wand required

Orange and white cat on wooden floor with a fluffy yellow toy

You are so NOISY. Why are you so NOISY, cat? Stop licking my computer. Go away.

/cat lies down on the rest of the table/

On Friday I was driven to distraction because Mabel didn’t go to school and I couldn’t get anything done. Now Mabel’s at school (praise be) but this cat is giving her a run for her money.

The other cat is fine, he’s somewhere else. But no doubt they’ll swap and it’ll be his turn in a little while.

Stop looking at me, cat. Floofer, floof thyself.

I need more coffee.

—-

The last several times I’d gone home to Ireland before last May’s visit, I’d thought to myself “This might be the last time they’re here” – meaning my parents, both in the house I grew up in, the house they should have sold years ago so they could move to somewhere with no stairs, no hill, less upkeep. They were increasingly aged, increasingly in need of more help than they had, something had to give, and I was just hoping from afar that it wouldn’t be something tragic or drastic.

Similarly, every time I was in the house I’d spirit away a few bits and pieces – mostly books – and look around my bedroom to gauge whether there was anything left there that I’d be distressed at losing, if it all had to be done away with in my absence. As if one day a magic wand might wave and the contents of the house would disappear, the house would be sold, and someone would just let me know, as an afterthought.

Every now and then I’d acknowledge to myself that there was no magic wand, and if the contents of the house were to go anywhere I was the one that would have to be instrumental in the doing of it. On the spot, not from afar. It’s not the sort of thing you can orchestrate across an ocean, the dismantling and disposition of a household’s worth of belongings. And then I’d get stressed about when it would happen, and how, and how I’d know it was time, or who would tell me, and who was in charge, and if it was me.

The crisis happened in March, and it wasn’t terrible. My Dad went to hospital, my Mum went to a nursing home; then my dad went to rehab, they said he couldn’t go home, I went back to find a nursing home for him, he went there. Now the house needs to be emptied. The house needs to be sold. I’m the one who has to put it all in motion, because I’m the only one there is. My dad’s in charge, but he’s tired, and he can’t get about much. I’m in charge too.

I’m the one who will be emptying out my childhood bedroom, bringing the rest of my books to the charity shop, throwing out all my feis medals (it’s fine, I’m over it), my school awards, my recorder exam certificates, the mug I always used with the harvest mouse and the poppies on it. I can’t keep much – just enough to go in a suitcase and a few things to store with extended family, perhaps.

So many things, though. So much stuff. So many categories of stuff. In my mind I open another cupboard door and go “Oh no, all the cleaning things. The hoover! That ancient carpet sweeper! There’s an ironing board in there! And all those 70s serving platters and canapé trays that only came out once a year. Argh!”

Maybe by the time I come back I’ll have put together a really helpful list of how you too can empty a house in four days. Maybe I’ll tell you that I did as much as I could but the job overwhelmed me. Maybe there’ll be an emotional, midnight, mid-purge post over the weekend. I suspect I’ll be telling you how I couldn’t have done it at all without the help of friends and family, about how people are important, and knowing when to ask for help is a vital skill of the fully formed grown-up.

 

Important places

“I have lived in important places, times / When great events were decided”

Those are the opening lines of Patrick Kavanagh’s “Epic“, a poem that was used mostly to illustrate the form of a sonnet to my English class, early in second year (that’s 8th grade for Americans). No mention was made of the contrast of the title to the brevity of the poem, now I think about it, but our teacher had enough to do just trying to get the basics across to us, since this was our first encounter with such a high-falutin’ thing as a poetic form other than nursery rhyme or limerick.

Anyway. The reason those opening lines are running through my mind is that I’m trying to figure out what to do with my dad’s photo albums. In about two weeks’ time I have to go to Dublin (yes, again) and try to tidy up and get rid of as much as possible of the contents of my parents’ house as I can in roughly four days. They don’t live there any more.

(Mabel says I can’t go. She won’t let me. It’s too hard to go to sleep at night with only Daddy. I’m sorry, and all, but I’d love to not go, except I have to. There’s nobody else to do it. This is what happens. It’s what everything comes to in the end, someone clearing away your belongings, assigning importance to some and tossing others out. She doesn’t get that yet. Maybe I don’t get it yet myself, really.)

In anticipation, I’m mentally going through the house, listing items of furniture and categories of things, deciding what could be kept, what should be given away, what’s just irredeemable rubbish. My father has been trying to empty the house for years; my parents weren’t hoarders (though in her later years my mother had taken to squirreling away tiny bits of tissue paper and scraps of cellophane, but those are very easy to throw away, after making sure there’s no tiny treasure balled up in the middle).

I’m trying to simultaneously think of everything there so that I can plan what to do with it, so I can spend more time doing and less wondering, and also so that I can be mentally bolstered against the whole thing, the whole dismantling of my past, my parents’ pasts, my home, my history. I’m very practical, but I’m also practical enough to know that it’ll be hard. It’ll hit me in the guts, so I need to be prepared.

Anyway, as I think I already said. I was thinking about my dad’s photo albums. He has about 15 of them hidden away in a piece of antique office furniture in the spare room. As befits him, they are meticulous records of days past and travels in interesting places. He has lived in England and Ireland, spent two years in the US, and a year in Guatemala, and these albums record those places, and others he travelled to, probably mostly in the 50s and 60s. When I’d asked him about them he’d shrugged and supposed that they’d have to be thrown out. Who would be interested in such things, he asked rhetorically, assuming the answer was nobody.

I wasn’t so sure. The idea of just throwing out his carefully recorded memories didn’t sit right with me, even if I didn’t think I could mail them to myself in the States to go through at my leisure, even if I wasn’t sure I would be all that interested in unknown people and places. But it occurred to me that he was in a couple of clubs that are still active, that might have people interested in their history and their founding members. And then I asked a lot of random strangers in an Irish Facebook group what they thought and the response was overwhelming: don’t throw them out! Find an archivist! Find a library! Someone wants these!

I emailed the two clubs in question and at least one is definitely interested. I had a correspondence with someone from the National Library, who said they might be interested depending on how much of Ireland is in it. I am pretty sure, based on all that, that there would be someone out there – or maybe out here – who would love to see the American and Guatemalan parts of his travels and records. I won’t toss anything. I’ll ask someone to keep them for me, or see if I can find someone to scan them for me, or maybe I will just post them to myself, but I will not trash them.

I think my dad will be happy about it. Bemused that his old snaps might now be considered archivable, important bits of history, even if the times he lived in were not important-seeming, if no great events were apparently being decided there and then. Sometimes ordinary lives are the most important. Patrick Kavanagh taught me that.

Man posing on skis in late 60s

Just call him Bond

 

Notes from the airport

When I saw my mother on Thursday they told me she was a bit agitated. She was delighted to see me, of course, when I explained that I was me, but she didn’t really retain it. She kept saying she should go and check on the people in the other room, see if anyone needed anything, offer them some tea. She felt that she must be the hostess, but she wasn’t really sure who all these people were. She asked me where Dad was, and if he was looking after them. She told me the lovely nurse we’d been talking to was the new maid, that she was excellent and they were lucky to have found her. She was tailoring her narrative to her reality as well as she could, but it kept breaking down because she knew she was missing something. I’d sit her back down every time, telling her that the people were being looked after, that she could relax and just take her ease, but she didn’t really believe me. As I left I looked back into the room and saw her standing up again, a nurse heading over to settle her.

When I saw my mother on Saturday I brought my dad with me. I brought him in a wheelchair, because his knee is very dodgy and he can only progress very slowly with a walking frame. She was so happy to see him. She held his two hands in hers, all their knuckles knobbly, their skin blotched and stained by age. The staff watched in delight, teary, because they say she asks for him all the time, wants to know where he is and how he is and when he’s coming to see her. We stayed for some tea and biscuits and halfway through the conversation she rediscovered who I was and was delighted all over again. When we left she told him he’d been a lovely husband and the nurses all blinked back their tears again.

She’s a real lady, they all said to me.

He’s such a gent, they all say about my dad at the hospital.

When I saw my mother yesterday she was having breakfast in a pink dressing gown I’ve never seen before. She was calm and sensible and very much herself. She got all the news from me, anew – that Dad’s in hospital and will have to go into a nursing home and she will join him wherever he chooses, that I’m back off to America today because I can’t stay, that we’ll sell the house. That she lives in that nursing home, and has a lovely view of the sea from her window, just the same view as from our kitchen window but without the neighbours’ hedge in the way. I brought some pictures for her walls and some new toothpaste and socks because they’d told me she needed toothpaste and socks. We shared a whispered joke, because her hearing’s still fine and she’s as amusing as ever. ‘Well,’ she said philosophically as she looked around the breakfast table at her companions, mumbling their toast and picking at the tablecloth, ‘it’s all a new stage, isn’t it. I must remember that. Maybe I should take up a new hobby.’

She was so much herself that time, her real normal my-mum sensible self, that was the one that nearly broke me when I left and got into my little red rental car and drove down the hill for the last time. That’s what’s bringing the tears here in the chilly boarding area of the airport as I wait for a plane to take me far away, back to the other people who love me too, whom I love too.

Getting old sucks. Not getting old sucks as well. There’s no way around it; we can only forge on with whatever hand we’re dealt, and hope we have as much good humour and grace as my lovely mum.

A blown poppy, dropping its petals over grass.

I just missed the poppies. This was the last one.

Mawidge

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.

 

Genetics

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

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