The perfect summers of my mother's life
I WAS WAITING for the train to Dublin one morning last week and began thinking of my mother. Later I had lunch in Boyers Co on North Earl Street. The stew was only €8.50 and I had a coffee and bread pudding as well for just €2 extra. The seating area was full of elderly ladies with grey hair and old men with shopping bags.
I like Boyers. I am drawn to it’s cosy café because I often met my mother there, years ago, when she would come up on the bus from Cavan, after her husband died, and she got the free travel pass. But when I visit her now in the nursing home she’s always asleep, and there’s not much talking can be done. It is unlikely that she will ever be able to come to Boyers again to look at the clothes, like she loved doing, even in her 70s.
She’s in a nursing home in Westmeath, near Lough Ennell, where she once cycled as a girl to meet apple-picking boys, when she was on her summer holidays in her grandfather’s pub in Castlepollard.
There is something heroic about her solitude now, in sleep, because she is the last of eight children, who all used to go on holidays to Westmeath. A train took them from Cavan station, and a pony and trap completed the journey from Inny Junction to the square in Castlepollard.
She is the last of her siblings. I suppose the others still exist in her dreams and memory. I imagine them all running around the station, mad with excitement waiting for the train. I imagine Freddy, the little chubby red-haired boy, who would sing Mother Machree at parties, and Oliver, the nervous altar boy, and Johnny, the shy ghost at everyone’s table, and Paddy, the one who never got his fair share of any cake. But they’re all gone. And still my mother sleeps and holds them in her memory.
I imagine her sister Bernadette, a young slender girl with a passion for fashionable hats, and as nervous as a faun and deaf in one ear. And Molly, the brash stout girl who bossed the others, played the piano and instructed the younger ones in their lessons. And Nancy, a wiry slip of a tom boy who smoked cigarettes behind the wall of Halpin’s orchard. I imagine eight of them at the wooden board, where their father would sit in boots full of money, when he had returned with pigs from Belfast for the factory in Cavan, and I see fresh parsley floated on her mother’s chicken soup on the black range in the kitchen of their home in Cavan.
But everything is gone now; the pony and trap, the railway station, Halpin’s apple trees, and all the children who sat around that kitchen table.
But yet my mother lasts and sleeps alone, and holds it together in her heart. All you have to do sometimes is hold her hand and say, “Mother, do you remember the bridge of Finea?” and she will smile and squeeze your hand, and say, “There’s money under that bridge.” Eventually it will all dissolve, I suppose, the fabric of life that they wove together; the arguments and jealousies, the excitement over frocks and weddings and childbirths and graduations, and then more weddings where she and her sisters became the aunties with the funny hats.
I remember all the funerals, one after another, and my mother standing at each open coffin and scrutinising the faces of her siblings. But still she endures, quietly breathing, her eyes opening now and again for a cup of water, or a bite of an Aero bar, as she smiles at the nurses.
“Will you say a prayer for me, Nellie?” the nurse said one day. And Nellie nodded because that is her name. That’s what she was called when her father drove the pony and trap to the station, to wait for the train, and the long hot summer stretched before them all. The fields and meadows around Lough Ennell, white with daisies and loud with corncrakes and honeybees and apple-picking boys.
There they waited, in the stillness of a railway station. And though she is limp now and dry-lipped, and lies all day in a bed with cot sides, and a drip sending tiny drops of sustenance through her boney arm, yet I prefer to imagine her at the station, in her grandfather’s pony and trap, quietly excited, in a summer frock, and just waiting for summer to begin.