Mammy was like a wizened autumn leaf when she died in the spring of 2018. An avid gardener all her life she was oblivious to the arrival of daffodils and tulips, snowdrops and crocuses in the gardens of her nursing home in the hills around Leixlip, Co Kildare. Parkinson’s and dementia had ravaged her fragile frame, left her locked in to an interior world where confusion reined supreme.
It had all started with a little catch in the throat and a loss of smell about eight years earlier. The debilitation was gradual, the loss of her independence heartbreaking.
Ultimately, we hoped that the emptiness in her eyes and the silence of her mouth meant she was already gone in the months before she officially passed away. Or, if that wasn’t the case, the etchings of her childhood memories had brought her back to the byways and boreens of Co Offaly, where she lived until we were all packed like sardines into our Ford Anglia and moved to the big shmoke in 1968.
In her last years before moving to the nursing home, we certainly knew that the midlands was her destination during those frequent stand-offs with carers or family.
‘I can’t believe we’re living here’: Historic Wexford cottage that was at risk of falling into decline is restored
[ I let out a scream that would put the heart crossways in a banshee ]
“I want to go home,” the poor pet would cry, as she attempted to escape up the hallway of the house she had lived in for 45 years.
“Let me go home,” she would screech as she bolted for the front door, on occasions armed with a sweeping brush or fire iron.
It doesn’t take much prompting for these sprightly octogenarians to slip back to the early 1950s
Three years after Mammy died I returned to Tullamore to travel down memory lane myself; invoke the ever-present past.
Serendipitously, I had discovered that one of my friends, here in the wild west where I live, had a Tullamore connection too. Indeed, her aunt, Kathleen, had made her Confirmation with my mother and was a childhood friend.
Wow, were there surprises in discovering the teenager who would later become my mother. Like all mothers, she was a beautiful young girl full of hope and innocence and, most surprisingly for me, a smattering of divilment.
[ Your Wellness ‘I intend to follow in my father’s footsteps and teach my grandchildren the art of political incorrectness’ ]
A deeply unhappy marriage to Daddy would ultimately culminate in a church annulment in the 1980s, albeit six children later. An irony that has caused me to laugh out loud on occasions.
But back to that visit to Tullamore and me and my friend Ursula are gathered with a group of Mammy’s childhood friends for coffee and cake in the foyer of the Bridge House Hotel. It doesn’t take much prompting for these sprightly octogenarians to slip back to the early 1950s.
For them, it was like yesterday, when girls still went to dances on the crossbar of their fellah’s bicycles; bought patterns for frocks from Hickey’s of Dublin; wore mantillas to Mass and giggled surreptitiously as recruits to the Women’s Sodality walked across Church Street in the Corpus Christi procession.
Mammy was an only child, the apple of her parents’ eyes and I would bet a fatted calf Nana and Papa believed that country butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth
Not to forget, however, this was also the time of the hell and brimstone sermons about the carnal temptations of “company keeping”: a favourite topic of the missioners who preached from the pulpits during Lent.
Thus, you could have knocked me over with a feather when one of the old friends, Joe, recalled a night when Mammy, a teenager still, sneaked her fellah at the time – her first love, it seems – in through the parlour window, along with himself and his girl.
Mammy was an only child, the apple of her parents’ eyes and I would bet a fatted calf Nana and Papa believed that country butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Not that night though in the parlour of St Anne’s, in Puttaghaun, as they slept in the next room.
That was the same parlour where a decade later we sometimes sneaked into, to play as children, the fusty smell of its stern couch and armchairs still evocative over a half-century later. This room was the preserve of the posh relations, the ones who were privy to the Aynsley china and the Waterford glass sherry decanter. They were served sandwiches, whose crusts had been cut off and shaped into rectangles; the Victoria sponge would be dripping with home-made strawberry jam from one of the jars lining a shelf in the scullery.
Still in her 20s or early 30s, I clearly remember Mammy flushed with the formalities of entertaining. It is comforting for me to now imagine that memories of her earlier adventures in this room were consigned to the secret chambers of her heart.
They were undoubtedly exhumed during those torturous times towards the end.