Michael Harding: My mother, the choc ices and the gorging nuns

‘Sure God love them,’ my mother would say. ‘They don’t have an easy life’

I often wonder how much they knew about my mother, or about buns. File photograph: Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

I often wonder how much they knew about my mother, or about buns. File photograph: Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

 

I was at a garage in Carrick-on-Shannon getting petrol, and I picked up a lawnmower from a friend, because my own was broken.

I told my friend on the phone that the grass had gone so high I’d need a hunting gun just to walk through it. 

“My lawnmower is broken,” I explained, “and I can’t get it fixed because the shop is closed.”

So we met on the forecourt of the petrol station, and he put it into my van while I stood at a distance.

We chatted about the virus, and I wanted to buy him an ice cream, but he declined.

“You’ll catch the virus going in and out of shops,” he warned. 

I was going in to pay for petrol anyway. But even as I was unwrapping the ice cream, he persisted.

“There could be coronavirus on that wrapping paper,” he said, completely spoiling my pleasure as I tore the wrapper off and began to lick the dark chocolate shell. It’s just no fun eating an ice cream on your own.

“You can’t be too careful,” he said. 

One hot summer day my mother took it into her head to bring half a dozen choc ices to the nuns

My mother used to say that too. She’d always make me wash my hands before I ate an ice cream, which we often did with relish. It was one of our most important rituals of joy together, to share a choc ice sitting on the same bench.

One hot summer day she took it into her head to bring half a dozen choc ices to the nuns in the convent, and they all stood around at the children’s swing in the playground, in their black-and-white habits, and gorged on the ices, while the children played about them and wondered at the jollity of the murmuring nuns.

I had friends in the orphanage, children who were left there because their own home was temporarily unsafe. In those days everybody in town went to the convent with their worries and prayers, and they would light candles in the convent chapel.

But my mother brought buns. She would ring a bell in the yard, and a nun would escort us into the reception room where a grille in the wall signified the divide beyond which the nuns were cloistered.

And because my mother brought buns regularly they made an exception; she and I would both be allowed in through a creaking door to a parlour where everyone took afternoon tea, just like ladies in a Victorian drawing room, except that they were all nuns.

“Sure God love them,” my mother would say on the way home, “they don’t have an easy life.”

Although I noticed that my mother only visited them when her own life was particularly troublesome.  

My father would come into the kitchen every Friday and hand her a cheque to pay for the week’s groceries, but it was a meagre stipend. 

Some weeks she could manage within the budget and other weeks she couldn’t. And I’d sense her resentment as she washed the dishes after lunch.

The convent is gone now, and nuns have become as scarce as hens’ teeth

It was the way she took the plates out of the hot water and flung them on to the draining board that betrayed her anger. I’d ask her would she like me to dry them, and she’d say, “Whatever you want.” 

And sometimes she’d add a little extra. Like: “People in this house seem to do what they want all the time, but I’m not a magician.” 

I knew she was cross with him for giving her so little, yet in that patriarchal household of 1960 she had no way of getting the point across to him.

Eventually she’d take off the apron and shake it beside the range and hang it on a railing.

“Come on,” she’d say, “we’ll go in to the nuns.” 

That was her solution. She’d poke into the tin boxes in the back scullery and find a few Victoria buns and almond slices and put them all in her shopping bag, and off we’d go, with me holding the bag on the back of her bicycle. 

Perhaps it was a consolation to know that the sisters didn’t get many buns or choc ices. Or perhaps it was a deeper envy that grew in her, during her visits to the convent, when the women who lived without men smiled at her from beneath their starched white veils.

The convent is gone now, and nuns have become as scarce as hens’ teeth. But I often wonder how much they knew about my mother, or about buns, or about the little children who used to watch me with hungry eyes as I licked another choc ice.

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