Category Archives: memories

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.

Concerted effort

My favourite Christmas carol is God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, because as an alto I can’t get up high enough for all the other ones.

I used to sing in choirs. I don’t have a particularly good voice, or a particularly strong voice, and I can only stay in tune when surrounded by a group of people also singing the same thing, but I enjoyed it and I can read music decently enough not to go horribly noticeably wrong. I also showed up for practice, which is always a bonus from a director’s point of view.

My husband has also sung in choirs for many years. He’s much better at it than I am, being what you might call legitimately musical and with a nice voice to boot. He’ll even sing alone in front of other people, if you ply him with a drink or three. And it will sound good.

At Christmas, the Messiah is what we should be singing. I sang in the Messiah several times, in school and college and afterwards too. I could probably still get a fairish proportion of the alto line right, if given a score and placed right in the middle of all the other altos. Some day, I’ll go to a singalong Messiah and do that, I hope.

For years, the choir concert was part of the beginning of Christmas. Long black skirt, black long-sleeved top, putting on my makeup in the bathrooms in the Science building of UCD, or the ones Dramsoc used in the LGs of the Arts block. Waiting upstairs in the O’Reilly Hall, going through those last few bits where I still went wrong, marking them with a pencil so at least I’d know where to stop singing for two or three notes rather than mess it up. The sound of an orchestra tuning up; it’s like the clinking of ropes on masts in the harbour on a breezy summer’s day. Sometimes I was in the orchestra instead – third clarinet or something like that. Again, not very good, but a show-er-up.

I love the anticipation, the lights, being on stage, being important but camouflaged as one of many. Not being the one who faints, that’s vital; there’s always one. Watching the conductor, trying not to giggle, turning pages silently. Looking out for parents, friends, whoever you could strongarm to come along. Smiling keeps you in tune. File out row by row, one by one.

On the whole, I enjoy a concert a lot more when I’m part of it than when I’m just watching. But we should find a concert to go to, because it’s not Christmas without one.

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

The secret life of books

I started reading Charlotte’s Web to Mabel last night. She’s heard bits of it before, when B was reading it to Dash about a year (or more) ago, and she was concerned that she wouldn’t like it. She asked me to promise before we started that the pig doesn’t die. I said he didn’t.

I didn’t mention the spider.

I love reading books I loved to my children; but more than that, I really love having the exact copies I read to pass on to them. There’s so much history there. Even if some of it isn’t even mine. Case in point, this edition.

                                                 battered copy of Charlotte's Web

I’m pretty sure I bought it at my local second-hand bookshop (the wonderful and sadly now defunct Exchange, in Dalkey). I couldn’t tell you when, but I might have been around ten. It probably cost about 25p. It’s a 1976 edition, and still has its original pricetag on the back:

Original price tag saying APCK Bookshop and 49 1/2 p.

I don’t know where or what the APCK bookshop was, but I love that it was 49 and a half pence. The halves mattered.

On the inside, the plot thickens, because there’s this:

Stamp on inside front page saying "Mount Anville Junior School Library"
This is a nuns’ book! 
And further, this, written with one of those invisible-ink pens that didn’t show up until you rubbed the other end over where you’d written. I had one of those pens, but Thomas Galin (sp?) is not me.

Immature cursive writing: "Read by Thomas Galin"

For some reason, I never wrote my own name in, but I can guarantee that it has been sitting on my bookshelf for longer than it sat in the library of the junior school at Mount Anville or on the shelves of one Thomas Galin. And now it can sit on one of my children’s shelves, at least for a while.
I hope she doesn’t get upset about the spider.

Things about me

But first I have to steal one of my husband’s points about himself, because it’s so wonderful that it deserves a wider audience:

For some period around the age of 7, I became convinced I was actually Orinoco Womble. The Wombles merchandising at the time included chocolate bars, and I would look at my miniature pointy-nosed face in confusion when visiting the newsagents.

For full enjoyment of this fact, you have to know what both parties looked like: 

Stunning resemblance, no? (Also, clearly there’s no argument about whose son Dash is.)

Now that there’s no topping that, here are some much less interesting random facts about me.

1. I played Miss Prism in selected scenes from The Importance of Being Ernest in high school. I knew everyone’s lines.

2. Around the same time that my future husband was posing as a womble, I used to hide behind the sofa when the Daleks appeared.

3. As soon as the weather gets cold, I lose all blood from my fingers and toes, which is very useful when I want to dress up as a corpse for Halloween but otherwise annoying.

4. I had three boyfriends in first grade, but not one more until after I turned 18.

5. I can still recite, phonetically and probably unrecognizably, the “We are now approaching a station; please mind the gap” phrase from the Prague city train system. I can also ask for two beers in Czech.

6. I have not, and never did have, any wisdom teeth. This does not mean that I am less wise than you, but rather that I am more highly evolved, so there.

Tell me a random fact about yourself.


One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was pretty easily attainable. I wanted to go for a walk up the hill. The hill that’s close to my parents’ house, the one we always went up for a walk, either to the quarry (turn left at the fork in the path) or the obelisk (turn right). One morning the sun was shining (intermittently) and the playground meetup I had planned was postponed and the stars aligned and this is what we did instead.

There’s a broad wall to walk along most of the way, making the steps a lot more fun.

Walking along the wall through the woods

You can stop at the shop counter and sell a few twigs or a nice selection of autumnal leaves to the passersby.

Children at a stone "table"

And then, just before the obelisk but when you’ve come out to the breathtaking top of the hill, there are the wishing steps.

Pyramid steps

Walk around each level in turn, and when you get to the top you can have a wish.

Walking each step

Certain things earn wishes, you know. Birthday candles, of course; falling stars – but other things too, like the first strawberry of the season (also applies to rhubarb) and hopping three times around the base of a round tower. My mother has the definitive list, I believe.

Girl walking the steps

They wished solemnly, to themselves. Mabel couldn’t contain a secret, though, and had to tell me when she got down to the bottom again, that she’d wished for a new teddy. Because she’s clearly lacking in teddies.

Girl standing on the top

Dash wanted to cash it in as many times as possible. I had to decree that only three wishes could be had on any visit to the steps, because more wishers were arriving. Another family came along and we heard their mother tell them the same thing – walk around and when you get to the top you get a wish.

Boy on the top step

It’s not written on a plaque or an informational leaflet anywhere. It’s local folklore, it’s how you tell the natives from the tourists.

Looking out to sea

It’s important to know about the wishes. You never know when you might need one.

Killiney Bay

What you remember

My memories of childhood don’t include my parents very much.

I think that’s just fine. I don’t think it’s indicative of anything other than that my parents gave me my space and didn’t helicopter over every little thing. (Additionally, I suppose, my memories of childhood are more of when I was eight or nine, say, than when I was four or five.) My mum was at home, my dad was at work. I played at friends’ houses and they played at mine; I played outside on my bike with the other kids on the road, and I read books by myself. Lots and lots of books.

Watching Dash and Mabel going crazy together the other day, a friend commented that they’re great friends. Well, yes, they’re great friends who beat each other up and push each other’s buttons and drive each other nuts on a regular basis. “They’re very close,” I said, because I think that describes it better. When someone habitually sits on your head or wakes you up by jumping on your belly or thumps you in passing because you told them what two plus two was and you wanted to work it out yourself, they’re not so much your best friend as an unavoidable part of your day, every day. And because that person would defend you against bad guys and robbers and bedtime, and holds your hand walking down the street, and is always there to scream beside you as you jump up and down on the sofa, you’re okay with that.

I love that. I never had it, and I love that they do. I love that when they think of their childhoods they’ll think of each other, not so much of us. The parents should be a constant, that’s all. A non-variable presence that provides security and stability and a sense of the where the edges lie – what can be done, what’s available, how grown-ups behave in grown-up land. Everything else about childhood, really, is about the children.

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.