Category Archives: memories

Just a girl

When I was growing up, one of my best friends was a boy. He lived at the top of my road, and our parents were good friends, so we were in and out of each other’s houses, and riding our bikes up and down the road, and happily duelling Sindys against Action Men and all that sort of thing for several years. But sometimes, especially as I got a little older, I didn’t always want to play the same games he did. “Let’s play cops and robbers!” he’d say. “Let’s do acrobatic tricks on our bikes,” I’d counter. So I’d be a robber escaping acrobatically from the cops, or a policeman doing an arabesque on my saddle as I pursued him.

Now and then, I had to pull out the oldest excuse in the book to get out of playing some game or other I didn’t feel like. I knew it was wrong at the time. The burgeoning feminist inside me cringed, but sometimes, to get out of things that looked too hard or too high or basically too uninteresting, I’d say to him “I’m only a girl.”

I don’t even know where my burgeoning feminist came from. She’d never heard of feminism. Her mother was not really flying the flag of liberated women, coming from the generation who had to give up work as soon as they got married, and not seeing any reason why a married woman would “take a job from a man”, as it was so quaintly perceived in those days. But she was the part of me who scrambled over rocks and climbed trees and turned cartwheels and read books and knew perfectly well she could do everything just as well, if not better, than her friends who were boys. Maybe that was why I knew it was wrong to say – it clearly wasn’t the truth. I may have heard it somewhere or read it in books, but in my own experience there was no reason to connect “only” with “girl”.

Tomorrow I’m taking my daughter with me – my fierce, independent, trail-blazing fighter of an eight-year-old girl – to vote for a woman to be the president of the United States. And I know that my daughter will never ever say she’s only a girl, because those words don’t go together at all. She’s everything a girl.



Mothballed memories

I wasn’t blogging much ten years ago, what with the move and the baby – a glance at my archives shows one short (but lyrical) entry from early August, and nothing else until the following January. So I never did write down what that road trip was like. I wrote a big screed about the first one, two years earlier, in the other direction, with the television sitting in the laundry basket on the back seat, but I haven’t been able to find it. For some reason I didn’t put it on the blog. So here are my road-trip memories, pulled out of the mothballs of my mind.

I remember that the baby cried and cried on the long highway up from Brownsville to San Antonio and on to Houston, and I made B pull over so that I could give him (the baby, that is) some boob, because apparently he was hungry, and then we’d start driving again and he’d start crying again and I’d look at him in despair because I’ve just fed you so there can’t be anything wrong, and I can’t hold you because we’re in a car, and you’ll just have to fall asleep. Eventually, he would fall asleep, but it was stressful driving.

We gave ourselves five days to do the trip, so that there was plenty of time for pulling over, and so we weren’t imprisoning the poor child in his car seat for eight hours a day. We probably sang “Don’t Fence Me In” to him a lot, because that was his theme song.

I remember thinking that it should be interesting driving through the deep south, but that the Interstate looked like the Interstate pretty much wherever you were, especially when it had those big pinkish sound-muffling walls on either side, as it so often did. We didn’t see anything of the leftovers of Hurricane Katrina even though I’m sure the towns around Mobile, Alabama, where we spent an unmemorable night, were still very much in recovery.

We had a night in Jacksonville, Florida, and I’d never been to Florida so I looked out the window with interest, trying to take it in and see something special or different about it. It was only Jacksonville, which is one of those armpit places, I’m told, so there wasn’t really anything to see. I still feel that I’ve never really been to Florida.

Trees in a square

A Savannah square

We stopped in Savannah, Georgia, because it sounded romantic and like the sort of place we’d like to see. It was very pretty, with its dangling greenery and intricate wrought-iron-work. I remember an ambulance coming past us with its siren going, waking the baby and terrifying him, making me furious at its thoughtlessness. We stayed in a cool-looking retro motel where the person who’d checked out before us hadn’t bothered taking their stuff with them: the closets still held suits and jackets and shoes. We told reception and they took care of it, as if it was a perfectly normal occurrence, but I couldn’t help wondering what sort of person just wouldn’t bother packing before they left.

South Carolina had long sandy beaches, not very wonderful to our eyes as we’d just come from the environs of the similarly long sandy beaches of South Padre Island, Texas. We stopped near Myrtle Beach and got out to take a good look. There were wooden boardwalks out over the dunes, which were pleasantly novel. And it was very windy at the Atlantic. I thought the Atlantic should feel more like home than the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s all the same water really, and it was still the wrong side of the Atlantic from the one that would feel like home.

Beach houses and boardwalks on the dunes

South Carolina coast

We had been planning to head to somewhere like Newport News, Virginia, the sort of area where Dawson’s Creek was filmed, which would probably look nothing like the peaceful inlets and idyllic tiny docks of the show, but we were being tailed by a hurricane (Ernesto, it must have been), so we headed inland instead and stopped in some tiny place whose name escapes me instead. It turned out to have nothing but a very nice Holiday Inn with a restaurant where I ordered shrimp and grits and enjoyed them mightily. I was quite getting the hang of this southern eating.

When we finally got to Maryland, we stopped in a town called Waldorf to stay at a Super8 and eat at an Olive Garden, and I wondered what sort of place this was. When you’ve lived somewhere all your life, the very sound of a placename seems onomatopoeic: you can tell that it’s rough or posh or the back of beyond or the most Stepfordesque of suburbia just from the sound of the word. But all Waldorf said to me was salad. Apples and walnuts in the Home Ec book. I still don’t know what Waldorf is like, because we haven’t been down that end of the state since, but I know the motel wasn’t very upmarket.

We had to take shifts over our dinner that night, I remember, because the baby wasn’t in the mood to sit around and watch us eat. The waiter was very understanding and kept things warm as first one of us and then the other paced up and down outside with the tetchy four-month-old. You poor thing, I thought, whisked away from everywhere you’ve ever known and staying in a new place every night for a week, no wonder you’re grumpy.

But we’re still here. We’re your people, and we’re here. Isn’t that enough?

He was a baby. That was enough.



Less than clement

We are having a lot of rain. It’s been raining since Tuesday or so, and it’s Friday afternoon now. I think it’s due to stop on Sunday.

I shouldn’t be sorry that it’s not a hurricane, because hurricanes are bad and this is causing plenty of problems just with flooding, but I was sort of looking forward to being cosily housebound for a day or two. With electricity of course; not the uncivilized sort of housebound. The sort where you bake things and watch movies and do jigsaws companionably and nobody goes stir-crazy and kicks balls inside the house and splits their head open on the hearth because they were doing gymnastics off the sofa onto the coffee table.

Oh wait, I was envisioning a nice cosy hurricane without children. We had one of those in 2005 when we lived in Texas. Emily, it was. A category 2 that whirled past the town causing a wall to fall on some cars. We assumed our apartment complex would deal with any boarding up that should be done (they didn’t do any) and our friends who lived across the way came over to play Trivial Pursuit and drink wine. It was just lovely. I probably made nachos, or a cake. There may easily have been mojitos.

But still. It’s cold and wet and miserable, and now that I’ve finished driving the length and breadth of [a small portion of] the Beltway, where things are not improved by such conditions, it’s really the nicest sort of weather for making a vat of chili and opening a bottle of red, with salted chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. We can have a hurricane without the hurricane, and sleep soundly to boot.

That’ll do, then. And nobody needs to split their head open.


I admit this is not today’s rainy view. There are still leaves on the trees.

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

Beginner’s luck

At the weekend I won a photography competition. Not since the great drama-exam drama of 1983 have I been party to such an upset.

The September I was ten, my ballet class moved to a time that was inconvenient, what with our habit of eating dinner and so on, and so my mother deemed that I should stop doing ballet and take up drama instead. Apparently I was a very malleable child, or perhaps I just wasn’t all that into ballet any more, because I took it pretty well and showed up at my new drama class ready to do whatever it was people did in drama. The teacher was a large woman given to wearing muumuus, who had a lot of bichon frise dogs, which is why I know a bichon frise when I see one. (Also a muumuu, but that episode of The Simpsons helped there too.) She was stridently West-Brit, and very hand-wavy, and pretty much exactly as you’d expect a drama teacher. She was, in fact, an institution.

The other kids in my class seemed to have taken up drama as toddlers, and to me they all appeared to be slightly posh, private-school girls (were there any boys? I don’t remember any) who had no need or inclination to befriend the unfashionable new girl. That was okay; so long as there was something we were meant to be doing, I didn’t need a friend particularly.

I really have no idea what it was we did in drama class. But I do remember the end-of-term exam with crystal clarity. I’d taken recorder exams and ballet exams, but this drama exam seemed particularly freeform. I was first up and had no idea what to expect. I went into the room alone (save for the examiner) and was asked to pretend I was an astronaut, I think. (“Crystal clear” may be an exagerration. Through a mottled glass vaguely, then.) With none of my peers in the room I didn’t bother with self-consciousness, and happily loped around in imitation of weightlessness, talking to myself about the hopes and fears of an astronaut, for the allotted minutes.

When everyone else was finished and the results were announced, I was astonished – and the rest of the class was probably pretty much disgusted – to hear that (while everyone had passed, I suppose) I, the newbie, had won the gold medal and come first.

I moved on to a different drama class the next term, with a smaller and more motley group, and we did a little thing from The Great Gatsby for a feis (that’s a competition). I was Jordan, and I had to wear a knitted sweater vest (tank top) over a shirt, and have a book under my arm. (Not a golf club. Hmm. I think they took some liberties with this dramatization.) We didn’t win. I think the group doing Lorca’s Blood Wedding did. It was very, well, dramatic.

So. To return to almost the present day, last year at the Labor Day Festival I looked at the photo show and thought “Hey, they need entries to fill up these displays. I could enter a picture next year.” And this year I did just that, with two photos I liked, which I went so far as to put into frames and get to the show in time. (That was really the hard part.) And my surprise was just about as great as it had been at the drama exam when I was informed that I had taken a blue ribbon in both my categories.

(I have to point out that judicious choice of categories went a long way here. There were only three entrants in one.)

I am no more a great photographer than I turned out to be a great actress. A creative type is not something I ever used to think of myself as being, but maybe my right brain has just been biding its time for a while.

Sometimes beginner’s luck gives you a boost just when you need it.

Framed photo of branch with ice on it

“Ice storm”

Framed photo of steps in Perugia

“Perugia, Italy”



Less is more

One of the things I struggle with as a parent is trying to get my kids to be content with less. Less stuff. Fewer toys. A smaller serving of ice cream.

Sometimes I feel that good parenting has to be saying “No” a lot. No to stuff, no to more toys, no to incessant whining. I’m sure that when I was a child I didn’t whine for new things every time we went out. I didn’t feel an outing wasn’t complete if I hadn’t brought home some new piece of crap to fill up the house. I got new things for Christmas and for my birthday, which were conveniently at opposite ends of the calendar. In between, barring unexpected visits from far-flung relations, I played with what I had already.

I remember, though, very much wanting to have lunch in a snack bar when we would be out on a Saturday, and to get a sausage roll, instead of the “horrible” picnic my parents would pack. Because children don’t appreciate anything, a boring sandwich in the car, watching the waves roll in over a deserted beach in County Wicklow, was not interesting to me. A lukewarm sausage roll, on the other hand, flaky and golden outside, salty and pink and spongy inside, eaten at formica tables under buzzing florescent lights – now you’re talking.

I rarely got the sausage roll, but when I did, it was a treat.

I remember trying on a new duffel coat in Dunne’s. My mother wanted the grey, because it was a sort of heathered colour that would “hide the dirt”. I wanted the navy – it was smooth and sophisticated and … oh, I have no idea why it was so much nicer in my mind than the grey one, but I wanted the navy. I tried them each on, and when wearing the navy I pranced with a spring in my step and a smile on my face; in the grey I slouched and dragged my feet. I was making them laugh, though, not really being a brat. I knew I was trying it on in both senses of the phrase.

They bought the grey one, and I wore it and thought sadly of the navy that was denied me for at least two winters.

As an only child, I probably had more than most. But we didn’t have a lot. Some years were harder than others, I know; but I never saw it in the food on the table or my Christmas presents. My parents are frugal people who hate waste and will never buy something just for the sake of it. (My mother’s handbag purchases excepted. Once or twice she shocked me to the core by buying two handbags in one day. I have not yet reached those heights of flathiúlachas.)

And now I have these children with all this stuff. They can’t go to Target without assuming the right to something from the dollar section; and I think it’s okay because it’s only the dollar section and there’s still the entire toy department for me to have to say No about. They both get an allowance now, and Dash is scrupulously saving every penny he has – not for anything in particular, but just to see how much he can get, I think. He likes to count it and gloat, Scroogelike. Mabel forgets to put her two quarters away and they float around the kitchen for a few days, or she turns them into parts of her game and I find them in the dollhouse a week later. She spent her previous amassed fortune on a mama and baby fox in Ikea a while ago, even though originally she’d been saving for an Anna or Elsa doll. But she’s not really interesting in saving for something else. It takes too long, when you’re five.

When we go to the thrift store or a yard sale, they know they can get something; though I try to enforce an exchange system – they have to bring a toy to donate. And it’s so very hard for them to choose – it’s so difficult to give up their Stuff, even when it’s totally crap stuff, because it belongs to them and they take ownership so very seriously.

It’s impossible to give your children the childhood you had. And for plenty of the time I don’t even want to. I’d still pick the sausage roll, though I’d go and watch the waves afterwards. Maybe so long as I can get them to appreciate the waves, or the flowers, or the rainbow, it’s okay to go to the yard sale once in a while too. I just need to purge these shelves when they’re not looking.

Bursting toy shelves

Three paragraphs in search of a theme

Growing up, my bedroom was the cosiest, safest place on earth. Lying cocooned in my bed under the eaves, listening to the wind howl outside or the rain lash against the window, nothing could harm me. I felt all the warmer for it. I may have had the usual childhood preoccupations with how I would jump out the window if there were robbers or a fire, but storms never bothered me. Our house was sturdy. My daddy had built it, so it couldn’t be moreso.

Really. My dad bought a leftover plot of land in the 60s, awkwardly shaped because someone had miscalculated the spaces for houses in that cul-de-sac, and built a house on it. He had a contractor lay the foundations but the rest he did with his own hands, a little at a time. I don’t know how long it took him, but it was a work in progress for my whole life, and he’d probably say it still is. There are always little modifications, little improvements and updates to be done, a shelf here, a window there, even a big project now and then. He even outsources the work sometimes these days, now that he’s 84.


Dash decided to give his bedroom a makeover recently by moving the bed to a different wall and changing everything else around accordingly. Where before he had a window just beyond the foot of his bed, now he has one right beside him and at just the height of his mini-loft. He can gaze out at the lights of the houses below us twinkling in the darkness all night, if he so desires. (I told him it would be colder by the window, but I suppose that won’t really be an issue till next winter now.)

Of course, Mabel had to move her bed around her room to match, and now she can see out her window by standing on the bed. So long as nobody’s climbing out their windows, I’m fine with that.


Dash will be eight tomorrow. Eight years ago tonight I was, well, the same person I am now. But so much was to come. So much has happened. It feels like a lifetime ago to me, but it’s his lifetime, not mine. He’s totally a person in his own right now. He’s the one snug in his bed, gazing at the lights, just beginning.

Doing the "final bump" picture on the day I would have been 40 weeks pregnant but instead had a two-week-old baby already.

Doing the “final bump” picture on the day I would have been 40 weeks pregnant but instead had a two-week-old baby already.

Angels in the architecture / spinning in infinity

My past and my present are squashed into one moment, right here right now.

B put Negotiations and Love Songs on tonight while we were eating dinner. “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” and “You Can Call me Al” and “Me and Julio down by the School Yard” are songs I can sing all the words to without even being aware that I’m doing it, but then it got to “Something So Right.” And it sends me straight back in Boston in 1993, looking at summer sunlight on splintery wooden floors in a rental condo full of Irish students, feeling absolutely positively in love, swooping and reeling with the words of the song and the amazement of being 20 and finding out that it’s all true and hoping with all my heart that he feels it too.

And now I’m sitting here looking at our children.


The approach of Valentine’s Day, mind you, fills me with ennui. It’s not about the husband; we are happily united in our decision to pretty much ignore it. But the children, or at least the pre-schooler, is not merely expected but actually required to bring a Valentine for everyone in her class; so much so that we were e-mailed the list of names at the weekend so that nobody would be left out. Now, a pre-school Valentine is not much – a square of cardboard, maybe a heart shape, store-bought or home-made, with or without a Hershey’s kiss, pink pencil, or other such tiny offering. But SIGH, it’s another THING I have to DO. She’s not the one who will download some cute printables or pick something up in Target or, heck, pull out a sheet of pink construction paper (as if we had such a thing to hand): I am.

I don’t even know if the second-grader is meant to do anything. He’s off school that day, so maybe we can just pretend it’s not happening. I don’t know at what age Valentines stop being a “friends” (that is, classmates, not actual friends) thing and start being a romantic thing in this country. Does he have a few years to go yet? He’s not a tween till he turns 8, right? I still have a couple of months in hand.


In Boston in 1993 I did not ever look forward to this point. When you’re twenty you will never ever be forty, boring, going to school board meetings for the thrill of it. Life is a blank canvas and the world is yours to conquer.

And when you fall in love when you’re twenty, you can just be in love and not worry about what’s going to happen in the future.


However, as the man said, still crazy after all these years.




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



When I was about nine, hanging out with the older girls from up the road behind the house of another girl up the road, I took my first drag on a cigarette.

I choked, coughed, gave it back, and wondered why anyone would ever want to do that.

And that is my entire history of smoking. I’ve honestly never had a puff since, or wanted to. I’m pretty sure I don’t know how to inhale without burning the back of my throat off. That moment was a better deterrent than any advertising campaign or good advice from a respected adult ever could be.

The funny thing is, I didn’t even like those girls much. I don’t know what the logic was that led me to be there with them, except that they went to my school and we all “played” together, if you can call whatever pre-teen girls do when they get together playing. I think they tried to tell me about sex as well, but not in any way that made any sort of sense to me. I was happy not to think about it.

My mother didn’t like those girls much either, but she knew I habitually walked home from school with them. If she’d known about the cigarette, she might have felt the need to go and have a talk with their mother, but of course I had the sense God gave me and never mentioned a thing about it.

Maybe it could easily have gone the other way. They might have started me on a long road of addiction to tobacco, and more. I don’t think it says a lot about my strength of character in resisting peer pressure: I took the pull, after all, when it was offered. Maybe the fact that they weren’t good friends whose approval I sought made it easier for me to reject a second try.

I don’t really have a parenting takeaway from this. It’s just a story of a time when I did things my parents would be horrified by, and I still turned out okay. I think it’s good to remember these stories as our children get older, and spend more time with other kids we don’t necessarily love, whose parents we might not know very well, behind each other’s houses without direct parental supervision.

Trust them. Set them free, within limits. Let them have their own lives and their own secrets, even as children. They’ll very probably be fine. That’s all.