Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Remembering my mother at Christmas

Lives lived abroad garner subtle differences. Perceptions are altered. We who leave never forget our roots but we soon see things differently. Emigration instils a sense of independence and family bonds are shaken loose and set adrift with the passage of time, writes Philip Lynch.

Thu, Dec 27, 2012, 08:00



Just after Christmas two years ago, my mother died suddenly.

On Christmas Eve – the last time I’d ever talk to her, she’d sounded out of sorts. She’d nearly strayed from her stock of small talk; especially when she’d made mention of my father’s inexorable decline. A subject she’d previously avoided. But she’d look after him – at home, and advice from the other side of the world wasn’t what she wanted. So she’d talked about the terrible weather and the tough times in Ireland and such things. She’d perked up when I’d told her we’d just booked our flight and it wouldn’t be long before she’d get to see her granddaughter again, after six years. For some reason, the line was lousy, full of feedback and we’d cut the call short.

Ten days later, though of course neither of us knew it, she’d be gone for good.

And after two days and nights sitting in planes and transit lounges I was finally able to stand at the side of her coffin in the parlour, where she was being waked. The January sun filtering through the lace curtain was falling well short of her face. I’d forgotten how weak the winter sunshine in Ireland could be; though that winter of 2010 was astonishingly severe. And my trips “home” usually coincided with summer. But this was a trip to say goodbye and to pay my respects.

Her face was reduced to an empty expression. She looked like a slip of a thing; a phrase she’d often used to describe others. She used to fret about thin people. But in her final years, she must have also become thin.

They’d put on her purple two piece suit. That same suit she’d bought for our family reunion three years earlier. That day, on the lush lawn outside the reception centre, all twelve of us had stood shoulder to shoulder, squinting in the mid-summer sun as the flustered photographer adjusted his Nikon and attempted to get everyone to smile simultaneously. And afterwards we’d sat awkwardly together around the long table, complete with a starched white table-cloth, in a room given over to us for the occasion.

Though my brothers and sisters had returned from England, Australia and the States, if truth be told, most of us had grown apart with little desire or inclination for each other’s company, and the clinking of cutlery was clearly audible over our faltering conversations. Lives lived abroad garner subtle differences. Perceptions are altered. We who leave never forget our roots but we soon see things differently. Emigration instils a sense of independence and family bonds are shaken loose and set adrift with the passage of time.

I remember my ailing father that day, hunched forward in his wheelchair and silent, and how he’d picked at his roast, and how my mother, ever attentive, had propped him up whenever he’d listed. But before dessert arrived, some of us had already slipped away to the bar for a pint or a sly smoke outside or, ostensibly to watch a game on the big screen. If my mother was annoyed by these early departures, she never let on. Over the years perhaps she’d become inured to us heading off on our separate journeys. She wasn’t one to let slip what was on her mind. Though she’d later tell one of my sisters she still couldn’t believe we’d all gotten together again after twenty-five years. And she was talking about it for months afterwards.

“Sure we’ll see ye all soon then,” she’d told me that last time we’d spoken on that lousy line. “It’ll be grand. I’ve a spare turkey in the freezer.” But when I’d got there, alone, numbed and jetlagged, and there was that feeble winter sunshine, and a terrible feeling of emptiness in the kitchen. Her shopping list written on the back of an envelope was still on the kitchen bench and her flour-smudged apron was hung on a hook on the kitchen door, as if she’d just popped outside to fetch something. But of course she hadn’t. A rosary beads had been threaded through her fingers, and wax was already congealed at the bases of the burning candles. Mass cards had piled up on the dresser in the parlour and mourners in their whispered conversations were coming and going. My father, baffled by her sudden absence and the unexplained influx of visitors, was beside himself.

Early the next morning, the undertaker arrived to take the coffin to the church. He asked for some Fairy Liquid to ease off her gold band so that he could affix the lid. So we all waited in the hallway until he was done. The candles were blown out and we helped him ease the coffin outside to the hearse in the frozen driveway.

She was no weight at all on our shoulders, as we carried her through the snow-covered graveyard, barely a mile from the house where she was born. We lowered her coffin ever so gently into the frozen ground, as two gravediggers without overcoats stood silently at a distance, waiting to complete their task.

I have a framed photograph from that day when we all gathered on the lush lawn. It’s hanging in the hallway. Occasionally I’ll stop as I’m heading out and take the time to look at it again. And even though my mother is trying to smile, there’s worry in her eyes. She has only the hint of a smile. But it’s a smile alright, and it’ll do.

And so half a world away, she lies beneath a mound of red clay. Just down the road, at the edge of the village, church bells, no doubt, still sound on Sundays in all kinds of weather, summoning those who are of a mind to enter in through its open oak door.