In all my years abroad, my mother only phoned once
Letters were her thing: to be savoured and shared and put away and reread again
‘Often, “the Mammy” is the glue that holds so many of us Irish families together, which was no mean feat in a family as large as ours.’
I suspect social media, despite its apparent immediacy, is an imperfect salve for most of us long gone migrants. For despite our best intentions, the longer we’re away, the harder it is to maintain any meaningful links with those we’ve left behind.
When I headed off back in the 1980s, letters and the very occasional phone call were the main ways of keeping in touch. Back then, going was a clear-cut, almost clinical affair. Once you left, you were out the door, and out of the equation.
My first time on the overnight ferry to London felt eerie. I could sense I was walking in the footsteps of generations who’d gone before me, and I knew many others would continue to make the same journey. After London, my long flight to Melbourne was a leap into the unknown. Subsequent visits home, by necessity, were brief. The time spent at home would fly by in some kind of surreal jet-lagged blur; and before I knew it, I’d be on my way again.
After a while, the intervals between the trips home lengthened. This realisation of so much slippage hit home when I’d been gone for almost a decade. I had an accident riding to work one morning in Melbourne. I fractured my spine but luckily, I didn’t need surgery, and I was discharged from hospital after a couple of days. So, there I was, shuffling around in my flat one night, racked by pain and feeling sorry for myself, when the phone rang.
Picking up the receiver, I was astonished to hear the worried voice of my mother. My astonishment was due to the fact that Ma didn’t do long distant calls. Letters were always better value for money, and they could always be savoured and shared and put way and reread again. Ma could convey a lot of information in a handful of paragraphs.
Even though Ma kept all our numbers and addresses in an exercise book beside the phone in the hallway, there was an unspoken understanding that those of us who’d gone would do the calling. Phoning home also had its own etiquette. Evenings were preferred, when the day’s work was done and when the old man would be within reach. Ma would always answer. Indoors was her terrain. Invariably, when he’d came to the phone, the old man would be in his element, relaying the latest on the violence in the North or bemoaning the fickle weather or the vagaries of cattle prices. There was also a well-established hierarchy about who would and could come to the phone. Unsurprisingly, my younger siblings barely rated at all.
But now my mother wanted to find out about my situation. From the other side of the world there wasn’t much she could do. And, of course, I was even more anxious to allay her fears. But within a few moments I was upset too, and I was struggling to reassure her that I was going to be okay. It was as if I was a small child again and she was there to comfort me. We chatted for a few minutes and then she was gone.
That was the only time she ever phoned. But just as she watched the cars passing by on the country road where we were reared, I’m sure she kept tabs on my life abroad. She’d seldom directly express her opinion on what I should or could be doing with my life.
When I came to grief on my bike, I was still single; I know my mother was worried about my enduring bachelor status. She was also baffled by what she regarded as my constant studying. After all, she’d married in her early 20s, had given birth to a mini-bus full of children, and she’d lived her whole life looking out for us all.
Much is said about the long shadow of the “Irish Mammy.” The term has assumed its own unique meaning. Often, they are the glue that holds so many of us Irish families together which was no mean feat in a family as large as ours. And their canny knack for doing so, will, I’d argue, always trump the most sophisticated communication device.
In her final years, Ma acquired a mobile phone - one of my younger brothers’ discards. Compared to the landline, it was a flimsy looking thing. Being the polite woman that she was, she tolerated it with barely concealed scepticism and playful bemusement. I suspect she had serious misgivings about its utility. I don’t think she ever mastered the art of texting. After all, she had her phone and the answering machine in the hallway.
And there was that exercise book with all our updated contact details at the ready, on the hallstand.
Just in case any of us ever came to grief. It was all she needed.