It is a century since my mother’s birth – she would have been as old as the nation. Over the decade since her death, I have jotted down these vignettes / memories of a life well lived.
She cycled into the village in 1947 with her new husband by the light of a flash-lamp in the darkness of a September night. They left behind the wedding celebrations, the barrels of stout and the wild dancing three miles away in the townland of her birth. For the next 60 years, this village would be her place, centred on the soon- to-be constructed yellow pebble-dashed bungalow. She came to know every inch of the village road: walking with a basket of eggs to the local shop; cycling in the opposite direction to Mass and sodality in the parish of Bekan; waiting for the bus to take her and her neighbours on their weekly Bingo outings; watching out for cars to come into view around the corner; seeing grandchildren tumble indoors for treats of floury chips and apple tart. My mother would be in her 100th year if she still lived. In the final months of her life, she retreated little by little indoors, her only movements outside to place food morsels for the birds on the feeder at the front window. I stayed with her the night before she died. Drinking strong tea and eating brown bread, I looked out into the night and watched the lights in the village extinguish one by one. In a few days, we walked behind the hearse carrying her coffin, over the village road, around the corner until the yellow house was lost to view. She took her leave of the village.
There were seven of them – six girls and one boy – in my mother’s family. The 1922 sepia photo the only one we have of them all together. Lizzie, the baby of eighteen months, in her mother’s in America. Big ribbons tying back their hair at odd angles. 1922. Ireland, a new nation. A new beginning for the country. A new beginning for Maria, the eldest of the clan, about to set out for the States. A half-century later, in 1974, while working on a J1 visa in the US, I visited my aunt. I remember hauling my case up Pittsburgh’s Bessemer Street, a cobbled street of uneven red brick. A covered porch, white rocking chair on the veranda. The woman in the doorway wore an open-eyed, slightly startled gaze, a hazy impression of trauma in the features that I came to learn was her normal appearance. She ran her home like clockwork, trained in the grind of years of service in the homes of the Pittsburgh wealthy. A hot press packed with starched table cloths and impeccably folded bed linen. ‘You must come back’, I said, ‘to see them all.’ She did return, just once, in her 80th year. I collected her at the airport and drove west. Was I imagining it or did her expression relax as we neared our destination? My mother waited in the doorway. For the first time in 60 years, the flesh of sisters touched.
I cannot resist a cookery book. I have rows of them, seldom opened these days as, more often than not, I grab menu suggestions from the internet on my iPad. Now, a lifetime of my mother’s recipes rest on my kitchen table, gathered inside a sheet of folded cardboard held together by a thick elastic band. Her finger prints on every page. Selotaped notes on the cardboard covers. Odd pieces of paper hold jotted down recipes. A used Christmas card has instructions for beetroot with apple and red jelly. The back of a bank letter gives step-by-step instructions for a lemon cheesecake. A note on vivid green paper suggests adding pineapple juice when making marmalade. Then there are the cookery leaflets she collected over the years: Woman’s Own Guide to Success with Cakes and Pastries; Supervalu’s Pancake Sensations; McDonnell’s Good Food leaflet, I bake it better with Stork. Jam-making took my mother’s fancy and I thumb through advice for folding bramble apple, blackberry, gooseberry and a medley of autumn fruit into sweet delicious sustenance. Then I find what I am looking for. The hand-written notes for Nine Flighty Butterflies from One Easy Recipe. I am back in the kitchen of the yellow bungalow. Slicing the tops off buns freshly baked in the Stanley range. Spooning thick cream whipped from separated milk taken from our cows that morning. Licking fingers. Cutting pieces of sponge and placing them on top of the syrupy cream. Watching, open-mouthed, as butterflies spread their wings, ready for flight.
My latest notebook, a gift, is fancy. It has a green ribbon page-marker and a document pocket tucked snugly inside the back cover. I love the pristine feel of its fresh clean pages. It joins my numerous notebooks and journals on the shelf: strong, indestructible spiral-bound ones; another with a stylish Orla Kiely design; an elegant, china-blue notebook with leather covers made in Italy. Then there’s my collection of tiny pocket moleskins in vivid hues – cerise, navy blue, turquoise – that hold my travel jottings from journeys to Cape Cod, Camino de Santiago, Tehran, Berlin and Achill Island. But the book I now hold is tattered and discoloured, the black leather cover rumpled into grey streaks. The diary cover, dated 1950, is embossed with the name of an insurance company from Clinton Street, New Jersey. There was once a blank cream page to be filled in for each day of that year. For my mother, however, this would have been an entirely wasteful use of paper. And so, in sparse, precise language, she packed that diary year after year for over half a century with the ritual details of a rural life in an east Mayo village. Notes of crops sown and harvested; calves born, cattle sold at market; turf saved; village births and deaths. No inner musings. No stream of consciousness meanderings. No statements of emotion. I look for her words on the death of her husband of 55 years – my father. She wrote, unusually in red biro: ‘Pake died 8th November, a Saturday. Buried on the 11th.’