Category Archives: family

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

 

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 Blurb.com, 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

Family car

As the only child of tidy-minded parents, I always found that other people’s cars had an air of messy family-ness that ours lacked. I loved it. I loved the casualness and the randomness and the disorganization. It seemed to be the hallmark of a real family to me, and I loved being subsumed into the families of my more-siblinged friends, whether for a whole week in the summer or just an after-school playdate.

At my house, when we got home, whatever had come with us came out of the car and back into the house, to be thrown away or put away as appropriate. The glove compartment contained one pair of gloves, one pair of sunglasses (in their case), an orange chamois to de-mist the windows with, and the car’s owner’s manual. (Of course, this was before you needed twelve different adaptors for all the things you might conceivably charge in your car, and also before cars were littered with broken CD cases, defunct cassette tapes, and album inserts that didn’t match the contents. We didn’t even have a car with a radio until I was 14.)

Other families’ cars, though, had cyclinders of wet wipes on the back window and crumbs between the cushions, lost hair bobbins on the floor and abandoned liquorish allsorts under the seats. There was a fine line, of course, between the endearing and the disgusting – used tissues proliferating on the passenger seat, mysterious stickiness on the door handle, half-eaten packets of Tayto scattering as we rounded every corner were definitely out of the grey zone and into the gross.

More often than I could understand, there was a hairbrush in someone’s car. My hairbrush never travelled more than a foot from my dressing table, where I picked it up, brushed, and set it down again. My mother’s was the same. I always puzzled over the migratory hairbrushes.

————

Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve achieved nirvana, where nirvana is the perfectly messy family car. Art projects on the passenger seat? Check. Discarded toy parts and litter and tissues liberally spread around the floor? Check. Crumbs in every crevice? Check. Hairbrush on the back seat? More often than my former self would believe.

Oral tradition

There are things I say just because my parents said them. If it’s foggy outside, I’ll announce that it’s a mishty moishty morning, as my father would if he saw it. Any mention of Delaware will have me humming “What did Della wear, boys, what did Della wear?” even though I’ve no idea how the rest of the song goes, because I know that if you say Delaware to my mother, that’s what she’ll do. (The state of Delaware doesn’t come up much in Irish conversation.)

Sometimes I wonder which of my parents’ sayings came from their parents. There must be some. I’d like it if I knew, so I could make a point of passing those ones in particular on to my own children. An oral history family-tree, we’d have.

When my parents came to visit us in Texas we took them to the zoo. When I rounded a corner and saw a bison ahead of us, I whispered to B that if he asked my Dad what that was, he’d say it was a biffalo buffalo bison. Sure enough, those were the first words out of my father’s mouth when he saw the hulking shaggy brown creature.

My parents regularly employ the following words without irony: wireless, slacks, plimsolls, the mail boat*, hanky, cardi, serviette. I don’t say any of these words, even ironically, because they’re not things I need to say, or sometimes because I decided I didn’t want to be someone who says “cardi.” 

Ireland is another country, and so is the past. My children will be at two removes from these words, and since they don’t see their grandparents more than once a year, they’re unlikely to remember them unless I do it for them. (My granny would offer me a chocolate from her ubiquitous box – people were always bringing her boxes of chocolates, because old ladies don’t need anything – and say “Would a duck swim?” That’s the only phrase I have that’s uniquely hers in my mind. I wish there were more.)

I always feel that my syntax becomes more mobile when I’m in Ireland, my vocabulary a little more vernacular, my pronouncements more colourful. In America I bland it down, even it out, try not to confuse. I’m sure my friends and neighbours here will tell you that I still sound Irish, that I still say things that leave them scratching their heads on occasion, that I’ll never just blend in: nor would I want to. But I feel a certain richness – if I ever had it, and I’m a very mild sort of Irishwoman really, from well inside the Pale – is lost, and maybe my new melting-pot land is the poorer for it. 

*The ferry into Dun Laoghaire from Holyhead; it hasn’t brought the mail along with its passengers for many a year, and why it’s mail not post I don’t know, now I come to think about it. Maybe it was used by the Royal Mail, back in the day.

Weird

Someone said a very reassuring thing to me a while ago; something so helpful that I return to it almost daily and take a deep breath and get over myself.

“Your children cannot possibly be weirder than my children.”

I know, at first glance it doesn’t sound all that comforting. But it was my sister-in-law, mother of three who are older than mine and are all turning out just fine, becoming upstanding young adults I’m proud to have call me Aunty. (Except they don’t, of course, because I’m not that old.)

So partly there was the comfort of thinking that any weirdness is genetic (and not from my side of the family, to boot), but mostly it was just nice to hear another mother admit that kids are weird. Kids have their little quirks and things and requirements and desires and demands and individualities, and they all end up being pretty much on the normal side of weird, so there’s no need to worry. I like that.

Another thing I liked happened when I was explaining, in slightly embarrassed terms, the limited nature of Dash’s diet to my aunt and uncle. They totally took it in their stride, and reminisced about a certain niece (not me) who always came to visit with her box of Corn Flakes in tow, because that was what she ate. (I was the niece who ate everything with a side of cranberry sauce for several years.)

It’s quite possible that we were all deeply weird as children, but we got over it.  Or at least, we grew up and learned the coping techniques that everyone uses to hide their internal weirdness from the outside world, to the appropriate degree.

 They probably will too.

Words per minute

More times than I should admit to, I sit down here and have no idea what I’m going to end up saying. Sometimes it works out, other times not so much. Sometimes just sitting and typing will trigger a thought that turns into a decent post, and then I go back and delete all the drivel at the top that got me to it, and ta-da! it looks as if I had a plan all along.

If you don’t know what to blog about, but you’re fairly good at typing, I recommend it. (I’m not sure how it would work if I had to hunt and peck for each letter – my brain-to-finger motion is pretty seamless at this point.)

Though really. My mother had 60 words per minute on an old-fashioned typewriter, not even an electric one at first; probably with a sheet of carbon paper underneath and working from shorthand dictation. If I didn’t have a Delete key up there within easy reach of my right little finger, this would be a whole ‘nother ballgame. She was a proper secretary, like the sort they had in Mad Men. (I wonder if she’s ever seen Mad Men? Must ask her. I bet she’d love the clothes but she’d spend her whole time telling me how it wasn’t like that in The Bank.) (There is more than one bank in the country, but apparently not when you worked there. Everyone, according to my mother – that is, all the unmarried ladies in Dublin – either worked in The Bank or Guinness’s. That’s just how it was in the 60s. They were also all in either the tennis club or the golf club.)

I’ve used one of those old typewriters – my mum still has one at home in its own lovely wooden case. You have to bash down each key with the force of a concert pianist going for broke on Beethoven’s Ninth, and you have to sit up straight and hold up your wrists too. None of this slouching over the kitchen table with my elbows all noodly, like I’m doing now. And I imagine it would be pretty hard to take your typewriter to bed with you and type on your knees, cosily wrapped up in a dressing gown, as I have been known to do. The people who habitually blog while on the loo would have a bit of a problem too, even leaving aside the problem of how to connect your manual typewriter to the Internet and how you might insert a hotlink.

I suppose what I’m getting to is that blogging is so much a product of this time, and I imagine it will be superseded by something new and improved in a few years, so that our children will read about it in the footnote of a history book and say “Oh yes, my mother used to do that,” and they’ll wonder how we managed when life was so hard and laptops were so unwieldy and you had to use all the fingers of all your hands to put words on a screen. Maybe they’ll all be vlogging, or they’ll attach electrodes to their brains and mind meld, and the whole Internet will be In Your Mind all the time…

If I had lived in any other century – or other few decades, I suppose – I might have filled diaries with my blathering, but I’d more likely just not have bothered. Blogging gives me a tiny, supportive audience – just enough to keep me writing, not so much that they become critical and put me off. The fact that I’m just one of bazillions of bloggers means that if someone doesn’t want to read what I’m saying, they can easily go elsewhere. No harm, no foul; no money or time wasted; no skin off my nose. I get the validation that keeps me writing, I get the creative outlet and outside connection I need in these years when former at-home mothers would be isolated and inward-looking (back to Mad Men, and I’ve only seen the first season so don’t go spoiling me). I get to feel like a writer, without all that character-building, soul-destroying rejection that “real” writers have to go through.

Because if you write, you’re a writer. If you write for an audience, you’re a writer. If you write a blog, or a book, or on the back of a napkin, you’re a writer. If you write because there are words inside and you want to get them out, on paper or on a screen, or somewhere in between, you’re a writer.

I blog because I want to write, and this is where I get to do it.

God Save Our Socks

Times were hard in Dublin in 1979. I wore hand-me-downs from my cousins most of the time. I didn’t really care, as I was a bit of a tomboy and not interested in clothes, but it was a far cry from today’s “If it’s not pink I’m not wearing it” tutu-splosion in my own daughter’s closet. (Though a large proportion of her stuff is also pre-loved.)

Anyway. I remember a particular pair of knee socks that came from my cousins in England. They had Union Jacks all over them. My mother, aware that this might not be the most politically correct statement to be making, made me wear them inside-out.

I’m really not sure how much of an effect that had. These weren’t little Union Jacks randomly arrayed over white socks, that might be taken for purple dots from a distance. No, these socks were overwhelmingly red-white-and-blue, with a repeating unbroken pattern of inch by inch-and-a-half flags, one after another with no spaces in between. Add some sequins and Ginger Spice would have loved them. Even inside-out, any casual viewer over the age of seven would probably have known what it was.

I was five. So that was fine.

You’d think, in hindsight though, that perhaps we could have done without that one pair of socks. I mean, from my point of view, the murders and kneecappings and car bombs I heard about every morning on the radio might as well have been taking place in another country, as they never involved places I’d been to or people I knew; but Dublin had been bombed by the IRA the year after I was born, and murders and bombings continued in the UK and the North of Ireland until as late as 1996 (and beyond, from various factions). The late seventies were the height of The Troubles, as they were known. While nobody I knew in Dublin was a rabid Republican, almost everyone I knew was Catholic. In general, it would not have been the done thing to fly the British flag (metaphorically; literally would be totally inconceivable), even if my father happened to have been born there. (Which he was.)

(I’m trying to think how to explain this to Americans. It might be a bit like wearing the Confederate flag to school in New York. You know the way over here people fly the flag of the country of their forebears with pride, and paint themselves those colours and enthusiastically support the teams in the world cup? Well, you don’t do that in Ireland if you’re English. You certainly didn’t do it then, and I’m really not sure how loudly you would want to do it even now.)

But, in my family in 1979 at least, a perfectly good pair of socks was not to be turned down on the grounds of political correctness – not when you could just pull them the other way out and pretend nobody could tell. I suppose I should be glad it wasn’t a Union Jack woolly jumper.