Missing Mammy: Emigrants on their long-distance relationships
Irish people living abroad pay a special Mother’s Day tribute to their mammies
Melanie Cullen with her mother Shirley McHugh in Sydney
Our mammies – we think we can’t get away from them quick enough growing up, but when we leave them behind, there is often no one we miss more in the world. In advance of Mother’s Day tomorrow, The Irish Times invited readers abroad to tell us about their long-distance relationships with their mums. Here is a selection of the stories we received.
Jenny Foxe (New York)
My mom emigrated before me. In the early ’90s she won a visa lottery to the US, and after some confusion about dates, was forced to abandon the Big Goodbye Vacation to the Ring of Kerry with her sister and family, pack up my sisters aged seven and one and book the next flight to the US. She finished cutting a pattern for her former employer while simultaneously changing a nappy an hour before she left for the airport.
My stepfather stayed in Ireland for a while to tie up major loose ends such as selling their house and belongings. I stayed, moving in with my father, because I was 16 and had my reasons, understandable only to a teenager.
She arrived in New York in 1993. She had two small children, $500 in her purse, and a place to stay for a few weeks thanks to her husband’s aunt who she had never met. Within a week she had a job, childcare and a school arranged. After a few months, her husband joined her and they built a good life together from nothing.
Almost 20 years later, after an eternal wait for a visa, I packed up with my husband and two small kids and followed her. We lived in their beautiful house for three years until eventually we also built ourselves a decent, independent life, a better life than we could have dreamed of if we had stayed in Ireland.
My mantra has always been “If my mom could do it with no support at all, I can do it with hers”. Happy Mothers’ Day, Mom. You are truly an inspiration.
Catherine Cronin (Zurich)
Our Swiss telephone provider often tries to negotiate a more favourable contract for us. They can’t believe I’m willing to part with 70CHF (€64) per month just on calls to Ireland; more specifically, on calls to my mother.
We would love to Skype but broadband service in their area is non-existent. I think Mam will always prefer the intimacy of a phone call in any case.
Every time we see each other there is an excited urgency as we try to make the most of our time together. When I first came home for visits, I would plan lots of boozy nights out with friends. But these days I am happier staying in with my parents by the fire.
Mam will get another beautiful card on Mother’s Day to add to her collection stored away in an old suitcase in the attic. One with a good long verse always goes down well. But the love and gratitude I have for my generous, hard-working and good-humoured mammy extends to all 365 days of the year. Fortunately, 2016 affords me an extra day to show my appreciation. I should expect February’s telephone bill will be slightly higher than usual. I think it’s worth every cent.
Blathnaid Griffin (Singapore)
My mammy has magical powers. A wavering tone, a hesitant pause, too long between calls , more calls than usual, and she has figured out that in Singapore things are going well or are perhaps slightly askew. Even though I’m 50 now it is wonderful to have a mammy who is still so attuned to me.
l live the best life l can in Singapore, like I did in China, in Sacramento, in Manila and Donadea before, and just like she has in Galway, Dublin, Mullingar, Thomastown and Nenagh. My moves might be bigger in terms of distance, but some things about moving are universal, like a new house, new schools, new friends, new community, and a career on hold. She understands.
Mammy has never said “Don’t go”, and for that I am grateful.
Mammy has visited me in every country l have lived in, and while she obviously wants to experience the new culture she is more keen on meeting my ever-expanding circle of international friends, figuring out what is challenging for me in this new country, trying to get a sense of the community on which I have been imposed, seeing for herself if her grandchildren have settled.
Sometimes when we walked down Orchard Road, or sauntered around Shekou, I would catch a glimpse of us in a shop window and recall seeing Mammy and her mother strolling down Shop Street in Galway, and am happy I am like my mother.
Orla Bowman (Ohio)
It’s hard to tell if my relationship with my mam would be any different if I were still living at home in Ireland. One thing I do know for sure is that we couldn’t possibly be any closer than we are, despite the 3,667 miles between Dublin and Cincinnati, Ohio, where I have been living since 2003. As a child in the early 1980s, we would have to go to the local pub to make a phone call. We would write letters to our family abroad that would take weeks to get a reply. Now, I take for granted that I can call her from my mobile while cruising along the highway on my way to work in Ohio. We know the intricacies of each other’s daily schedules, who we talked to that day, what we’re having for dinner.
I watched Brooklyn in the “movie theater” here on my 39th birthday in December. It was chilling to realise what that generation of emigrants left behind for the chance of a better life Stateside in those days. We’re so lucky now.
Suzanne Darcy (Dublin)
I always saw myself as my mother's keeper. The first time I was away from her for any length of time was when I went to New York on a J1 visa in 1992. I kept travelling and ended up in New Zealand, and while I was there she met someone.
I returned home and met someone myself. The family joked that I only felt free to meet someone because she had! I was 22 and he was studying in the US. I asked Mum about the wisdom of starting a long-distance relationship, or LDR as she called it, and she said it was better than an NFR. “What’s that?” I asked. “No f***ing relationship,” says she.
The following year I joined him and I started another LDR with Mum. She wrote often using those pre-paid letters An Post used to sell, with the letter on one side and address on the other. She was always so gracious in letting me go, with no guilt trips, no tears, only best wishes for the future.
And this is how it was a year later when she was diagnosed with cancer. We wrote and spoke often; I never really missed her, because I always felt so secure in her love for me. Distance did not matter, she was always close.
And now we conduct probably the longest distance relationship of all as she is “upstairs” nearly 20 years. But she is always with me.
Tim Nolan (London)
Pope John Paul II arrived in Ireland the same year I left to take up bar work in London’s West End. “Sure, why wouldn’t ya be all right!” said my mum, as I boarded the train in Athlone heading for London Euston. “Don’t forget to give us an odd phone call when ya get chance!” She had a phone specially installed in the house so as I could keep in touch with her. “Sure the widow’s pension will pay for that!” she said.
That is typical of my mother; she always puts everybody else first, and she is always there at the end of the phone, solid as a rock and well able to deal with whatever life throws at her.
She still sends me pajamas, homemade brown bread, Barry’s teabags and Clonakilty black pudding. I’m now 56 and married with two daughters, but my mammy still worries about the bad food and cold nights in “that London place”.
She will be 85 in April, and she now has her own iPad which she uses to Google this and Google that, and woe betide if you don’t reply to her email quick enough, or pick up her latest Skype message.
Over the years she has had two new hips, two eye operations, and last year she got a new passport. She has decided that this summer we will all fly to New York for a few days and sail back on the Queen Mary 2. When I told her it would be expensive she said, “Sure, the widow’s pension will pay for that”.
Melanie Cullen (Sydney)
My husband and I moved from Galway to Sydney in 2011 and while we’ve had a whirlwind five years, I still miss my mum every day. Despite the 23-hour flight she has been over to visit me five times. For a woman in her 60s that’s some journey. Nothing could stand in her way to come over and help me when our first daughter, Rose, was born in 2014, and again when Holly was born last year. I know I would have been lost without her and her patience as I tried to find my feet as a new mum myself.
We speak on FaceTime or Skype as often as we can and my eldest girl loves the call, telling Granny all about the latest new words or songs she has learned. It is lovely to watch.
My mam is a worrier. And I am a worrier’s son. It’s a bit of a vicious circle, because when my mammy is worrying about me, I worry about her and so it goes on.
Growing up, my family were fortunate. We never wanted for much, and never had any real concerns. And so my mother’s worrying gene needed exercising in other ways. We kids of course, treated this as a challenge. With illicit drinking, the occasional detention and an incident involving a bad dream, a hurley and a phone call to the Guards; my mother’s capability to worry was constantly being tested.
As the eldest male, it fell to me to step up the game in the mammy-worrying stakes. And so I emigrated. This gave my mam the opportunity to experience the ancient Irish tradition of long distance worrying. A role she embraced with aplomb. She worried about phone calls (was she taking too much of my time), whether or not I’d ever move home (or worse, move farther away).
But even from a distance it remained clear, that my mother never ever worried about herself. Her worrying has always been a purely selfless act. To this end, on more than one occasion, her worrying has actually saved lives. In fact, as I write this, she sits in a hospital room nursing my father, who had it not been for my mother’s abundance of caution, would have self-diagnosed his heart attack as indigestion and medicated himself with an uninspiring dosage of gaviscon and a few aspirin.
Like I said though, I’m a worrier’s son. And so, my greatest worry is that my mammy doesn’t realise how wonderful her worrying is. Sure we poke fun at it, and are the cause of much of it – but unless you’re the child of a gifted worrier like I am, you’ll never understand how when your mammy does all the worrying for you, life becomes pretty worry-free. Thank you Mam.
Gavan Kelly (Jerusalem)
I have been living in Jerusalem, Palestine, for the last six years after marrying the most amazing Palestinian lady ever, who my mother loves like one of her own.
My mother and I have always been close but the news that I had just asked my now wife to marry me after only 23 days of meeting her and had decided to convert to Islam must have come as a surprise, even to her. But no, she greeted the news as only she could, with complete unconditional love and support.
We remain close, as technology allows us to keep up-to-date with the most important and totally irrelevant news from either side. We usually see each other a couple of times a year, either in Palestine or Ireland, and of course when I go home I am spoiled rotten.
One of the most interesting aspects of me living in Palestine has been the transformation of my mother into a social justice and human rights activist. I have such admiration for her activism and I have no doubt that if there were more people like her, with her energy and passion, this conflict would have been solved a long time ago. And in a world where technology plays an increasingly dominant role it’s refreshing to see somebody that refuses to rely solely on “clicktivism” but gets involved in real activism.
Living in a place which is consumed by such hatred and suffering regularly makes me question humanity, but then I think of my mother and remember that it’s not all bad, that there remains some hope.
Emmet Bradley (Pamplona)
My mother had a love affair with Spain for most of her adult life. Having studied Spanish in UCD to living in Santander she held a fascination with the language, the culture and the people. I distinctly remember a holiday in my teen years where we visited Northern Spain and found ourselves in Santander, unfortunately however the memories for mother were somewhat bittersweet as she told us that it had lost some of charm in the last 30 years. I thought it was great, being one of my first holidays abroad I thought the whole place was “mad”.
The years rolled on and my mother clung onto that Spanish affiliation. She taught Spanish in many of the local primary schools, gave grinds to secondary students, and even wrote a Spanish grammar book for Leaving Cert students that I´m proud to say is still in print.
It should come as no great surprise to tell you then that I am writing this piece from Spanish soil, Pamplona to be exact. I can tell you right now that when I came here I hadn´t a word of the lingo. Being a typical stroppy teenager I refused to share any sense of my mother’s fascination with the language. I was a royal pain in the arse.
I came here because of a woman I met at my parents 25th wedding anniversary. She worked with my mother in the local primary school, and to give an idea of what thick headed dope I was, I refused on multiple occasions to meet this “lovely girl”. Who wants to be set up by their mother? But along came their anniversary and the union couldn’t be avoided. Eight years later and we´re married. Nice one Mum!
So here we are now in Pamplona. My mother loved coming over. She was here once for her birthday and we had a big bash in the apartment, up until all hours (as is the Spanish way). The smile on her face that night made me think she was nearly as much at home here as in Ireland. I always had it in my head that when retirement age rocked up, my parents would split their time between Ireland and Spain.
Alas it was not to be, as my mother died suddenly four years ago. I was in Ireland at the time studying, splitting my time between there and here and I got to spend time with her beforehand. The Euromillions multi bajillion jackpot couldn´t make me give up that time I had with her. Going home now is more difficult. Living there allows the process of grieving to proceed more naturally, but visiting brings the memories back in droves.
I know she loves that I live here, and that I have somehow inherited her love of this place and everything beautiful that it has to offer.
Derval May O'Sullivan (Colombia)
My mother Jean left her family home in Co Dublin in 1978. She met my father in Paris, France in 1982. They have been part of the Irish expat community there ever since.
I left my Paris home in 2008. That’s when the 8 year long-distance relationship with my mother began. The first four years were easy enough. I was studying in Dublin, so the short distance and cheap flights allowed us to visit each other several times a year. But it was my move to Colombia over a year and a half ago that complicated things.
The six-hour time difference between Medellin and Paris has been a bigger challenge than the 8,600 km that separates us.It limits our Skype calls to the weekends or exceptional days off. But when we do manage to jump on a call, it is a laughter-filled hour-long chat. We get to catch up on the week’s gossip, she gives me advice about whatever is going on in my life and I muse her with the new kitten I adopted.
The hardest moments away from her are always Sunday mornings, when together we would have a cup of Barry’s tea on the sofa while listening to Buena Vista Social Club. Luckily, she sent me off to Colombia with a Barry’s stock--it always tastes like home. I miss my mum every day, but she understands my need to live my life abroad, just like her parents did when she was my age.
Marie Claire O'Brien Amorella (Chicago)
I am originally from Dublin and have lived in Illinois for the last 13 years. Through all of that time my mum has been an unending source of support and encouragement as I navigate my way through a career, marriage and motherhood. We email, text, Viber and Skype frequently and I am fortunate to have her over a couple of times a year to visit. She supported me during my husband's recent 10-month deployment with the US Army. At the time I had a 4-year-old and 9-month-old and was about to start 16 weeks of student teaching in order to complete a Masters in Special Education. Mum dropped everything and came to help. For five months she stayed with me and looked after all of us. I could not have done it without her.
Alana Walsh (Spain)
I miss my mum when I have a hard day and can’t talk it through with her over a cup of tea. I miss her when I’m feeling poorly. I miss her hugs. But most of all, I miss her when something good happens and I can’t tell her face to face.
My mum was so supportive of my move to Spain after I graduated in 2013. Moving away has changed our relationship but not negatively. Realistically, even if I was still living in Ireland, I wouldn’t be living at home and we would also be relying on a largely technological-based relationship. However frustrating the distance can be at times, I still feel as close to my mum as ever. She’s a busy woman and has my two teenage siblings to fret about but never fails to have that Irish mammy knack of making me feel like her “baby” whenever I get the chance to visit home.
To put it simply, my mum is home. And while my communication with my dad and siblings might not be daily, mum keeps us all informed about each other and up to date. She is the heart and soul of our family. I’ve formed a life for myself on the Catalonian coast and my happiness makes my mum happy. I miss her, and I know she misses me too.
David McNamee (Canada)
Anyone who moves abroad will tell you that the hardest thing to leave behind is your family and friends, but the one person who you will miss most is your mam. She is centre of our family and my brothers, sister and I all gravitate towards her for guidance, reassurance and a sense of consistency.
I moved to Canada over a year ago, leaving home for the first time at 27 years of age, and with that came an adjustment to our relationship as we are now separated by thousands of miles. I miss her most on special occasions like birthdays and holidays, or for example, the day when I received the photo of her holding her first grandchild. There is an emotional wave that hits you and disrupts your state of equilibrium, but only momentarily before you “steady the ship”.
This weekend I’m cleaning my oven and moving apartment. I have a vivid memory of mam cleaning the oven at home while blasting Pavarotti loud enough for the neighbours to enjoy. Once the job was done, she’d say, “that oven is so clean you could eat your dinner off it”. I should hope so mam, that’s where you cooked the dinner in the first place!
Moving abroad definitely gives you the perspective to realise just how lucky you are to have a mam who is as wonderful as mine. My next visit home can’t come quickly enough.
Emily Cavanagh (Edinburgh)
My disappointing Leaving Cert results, coupled with a typical teenage relationship with my parents, led me to Scotland to begin a six year master’s in architecture. I thought I would be doing my parents a favour by getting out of the house and buckling down to get a good degree.
The reality of being 17, away from home and knowing absolutely no one at university soon hit me after the fresher’s week high wore away. I struggled with the workload and drastic changes in my routine. I felt lonely even though I lived in a flat with eight other students. Despite having a busy career, my mum was always on hand to help during this time. No problem was too complicated to solve over Skype, she came to stay and made pots of Irish stew during exam weeks, and sent me perfectly timed surprises in the post when I needed a pick me up.
I would like to think that I have largely overcome issues relating to workload and routine, and I cherish my relationship with both of my parents, although I know that I took them for granted before I left. We still chat daily through a string of messages on Facebook, sending funny videos or simply messaging to say “good luck today”, although this will never compare to meeting my mum for a coffee during a tough work week or going for a walk with my dad down Dún Laoghaire Pier.
Ciara Sutton (Abu Dhabi)
My mother is the reason why my brothers, at 25 and 28 years old, still haven’t left our family home; with their meals cooked, clothes washed and rooms cleaned, they might as well be living in a hotel. I have never appreciated my mother so much as I when I climb over a pile of clothes in my room for days on end promising I’ll clean up tomorrow, or when I am not as tired. Now I realise the constant effort she makes to keep our house tidy and clean.
I moved to Abu Dhabi in May 2014 and I talk to my mam now more than ever. I ring her every day at the same time and she updates me with stories from home. She is the one that manages to get my brothers to sit down and say hello on Skype rather than the usual grunts I get from them when they pass in front of the screen as I am speaking to my dad.
Riona McCaughey (Vancouver)
Mother’s Day is around the same time as my mum’s birthday. This is the fourth year in a row I have missed both events. Despite my occasional trips home from Vancouver to Tyrone, it’s still never enough. I long for the day I get to taste my mum’s home cooked dinner, catch up and discuss family dramas over endless cups of tea, simply just to go grocery shopping together and talk about our latest baking ideas. I was always mum’s go-to, her reliable source for all things family. I cherished this role and took it as serious as my own career. Now with the Canadian time difference and busy schedules it’s harder for me to retain that role. WhatsApp, phone calls, Skype and Face Time are all great; but things are just different.
Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and family weddings are tough events to overcome when you are so far away from home. But it is the small day to day things that make me miss home the most. A proud smile from mum when I reach a career achievement, a hug from mum when I am homesick or ill, or a nod of approval when I make a tough decision; these are the real mum moments I miss the most.
Stuart Kelly (Cairns)
I have been away for nine years now and the hardest part is missing my parents. Being Irish, sharing emotions and telling them you love them is always difficult, although I hope my parents know they mean the world to me and always will.
Even now as a senior executive based in Australia, my mum has the ability to bring me back down to earth and remind me who I am and where I am from. It's heartbreaking she does not see her grandkids, but with the advent of Skype and FaceTime, things have improved enormously. Sunday evening at 6pm is FaceTime time. There is nothing quite like an Irish mum.
Ciara Lynch (London)
I have lived in London for nearly six years. I love living here but I miss my mam, who is my best friend, every day. We speak daily at 8.40am between going to the gym and work. She is an Irish Times addict and the one benefit of my being in London is that we don't argue over who gets the magazine on Saturday first! She saves me Roisin Ingle articles I might like so I have a store of them when I get home.
We send each other silly texts and emoticons daily to make each other smile; she has an emoticon for everything. I still feel really close to her despite the distance. I would like to see her more often but with work demands for us both, it is hard. I miss her most when I have happy news to share or if I’m having a bad day and the phone signal is bad; it is tough when we want or need to talk but can’t. When I can’t get through to ask her advice, I invariably try to pretend what she would say if she were there and act upon that.
Annabel Kirwan (Colorado)
When an incredible opportunity arose in 2013 that would involve my husband, two young children and me moving to Colorado, my first thought was – how can I leave my mother? Again? I had already moved to Boston with a green card “for a year” in the 1990s, and stayed for eight. But leave for the Rockies we did, with my mother Noelle’s blessing. During our phone calls home with the latest news about our life, children and jobs in Colorado, she rarely shows sadness but only pride and encouragement.
She had at one time wanted to emigrate from Belfast, where she grew up during the second World War, to New Zealand, but it wasn’t to be. She moved to Dublin in 1962 when she married my father, raised three children and worked as a bookkeeper until her retirement in 1996.
As the breadwinner in our family, my earliest memories were going to the Building Society every Saturday in Stillorgan, and sitting high on the counter as I watched her pass her savings to the cashier. As a feminist, she instilled in my sister and me the strongest of work ethics and never once did we, along with our brother, consider not having a bright and fulfilling future. She was an active participant in International Women’s Day over the years, and along with her job, keeping house, and actively involved at her church, bridge club and bowling club, she still has the brightest of minds.
As I now actively campaign in Colorado to put the first female in the White House, and as a member of “Mom’s Demand Action” lobbying for tighter gun control in the US, I know that this apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
Zoë Adamson (US)
On a cold and rainy December day in 2009 I followed my heart to the US. With my hand on the window of the airport bus, and tears running down my face, locking eyes with my beautiful mum, I knew that no matter what happened, if I was gone a week or 20 years, she would always have her arms open and a cup of tea made for when I eventually return with my husband and daughter in tow.
For now, we live 5,300km apart. Since I have had a daughter of my own, I cherish her even more, and rely on her motherly advice so much. Life would be perfect if she was down the road, but when we speak on the phone it’s like we are sitting beside each other laughing and nattering away.
Fiona Kerns (San Francisco)
I moved to San Francisco nearly 10 years ago. It was a very hard decision to move away, but my future husband had just started a company in California and I was with a bank that could get me the L1A visa. The first year was filled with countless calls home holding back the tears trying not to let Mum worry. As time went on, I've developed close friendships here, and am married with two beautiful sons.
My relationship with my Mum in many ways has grown stronger as a result of a challenging fertility journey. She was by my side that scary night my first son was born via gestational carrier at 27 weeks. I will never forget getting the call at 3am and the drive down to the hospital. I was so fortunate to have my Mum with me to provide comfort and support. As luck would have it, my second child was also an adventure. I carried him, but went into pre-term labour at 26 weeks and was put on hospital bedrest. Mum was on the first flight out to San Francisco when she heard the news, and stayed in our home looking after our son for over a month, leaving my poor father to fend for himself.
Mum is the most selfless person I've ever met, and I feel very lucky to be her daughter. We are fortunate to be able to see each several times a year, and have our weekly FaceTimes with the kids. It's still incredibly hard saying goodbye, but at the same time I've never felt closer to my mum.
I left home and moved to London eight years ago encountering such unknown responsibilities as bills, screwdrivers and ancient water boiler break downs. I had lived at home in my parents’ house until then and did not have the space to grow up. Mum and I drove each other mad at times, I couldn't see her nagging was helpful advice, her repetitive stories as wisdom. Her life experiences felt completely unrelatable to mine, her genuine interest in the minute details of people's mundane lives seemed monotonous, and her love of nature and open spaces somewhat kooky. It was only when I left and obtained perspective, my own space and distance from her that I began to appreciate all my mum had to offer me. Distance gave our relationship a whole new dimension, as I came to see her as a mentor and strong female inspiration. From being away I could see her more clearly as a person who wasn’t just my mum, and began to realise how much I admired her strong sense of self and her honest approach to life.
I moved home a couple of weeks ago. I know I will always be grateful for the days we are spending together right now.
Maeve Halpin (Washington DC)
Every day for ten minutes, that’s all it takes really. To hear her voice, to laugh, to roll my eyes, to complain to, to commiserate with. Every day? I know people think it’s too often. “But do you have any news to talk about?” they ask, “Surely once a week on Sunday does the trick?” My colleagues shake their head in bewilderment when I pop out for ten minutes to Face Time home. My flat mates laugh when they over hear our conversations. But I don’t want just the highlights, the summary; I want to hear about the lows, the mundane. Some days just the sound of her voice because she’s flipped the camera the wrong way. She’s my mum, my confidant, my friend - and just because I live 5,000km away doesn’t mean that we can’t be there for each other.
Melissa McMahon (Abu Dhabi)
My relationship with my mother has always been special but since I moved to Abu Dhabi in August 2014 her support love and advice has been invaluable to me. The way we have communicated has changed since I emigrated. Initially Skype was a regular port of call as I tried to navigate my way through a sea of changes in my life. I felt I needed her by my side regularly and seeing her face made me feel like she was just next door.
As life went on and I settled in to my new home and job day to day life got in the way and those Skype calls became less frequent. Last Christmas my father got my mother a smartphone, and that has made staying in touch more convenient as we now communicate regularly through WhatsApp voice notes. I love coming home from work or waking up in the morning to those voice notes from my mother.
My father has gotten into the voice notes too. I tend to fill dad in on the practical things in my life like work, but with my mother I talk about absolutely everything.
I suffered two leg injuries here since September and her words of encouragement were invaluable in my recovery here as I struggled to be patient with the healing process.
I miss my mother the most for the little things, like going shopping and seeing something and thinking “oh Mam would like that”. I miss her hugs and just being around her. I miss the tea and chats. My mother always said her job was to give me roots to ground me and wings so I could fly. No matter where I am in the world, wherever my mother is, that for me is home.