The term ‘eye candy’ is one that I came to late in life but I’ve always been a glutton for colour.
Mother had a big thing about ‘eye appeal’ when it came to food and always had a pot of herbs on the go to ‘garnish’ plates that she felt needed a bit of a lift. I loved being the one to dash out the back and bring in a sprig of parsley, some chives, feathery fennel or maybe a mixture of everything and watch her transform plain to picturesque.
These memories of Mother are like interlopers on what I intended to write. Funny how that happens. I guess it’s because she appreciated the little things and life is made up of tiny, tiny moments which we need to appreciate as they are so precious.
So, I will just savour this moment and I hope you stop and appreciate a tiny memory from your day, week, life or loved one who has died but certainly not without leaving lots of shared moments to treasure.
I was flicking through some photographs that I took while I was on my blogging break and came across a few from a little expedition up the cliffs near Annestown on the Copper Coast which is about 8 miles from Tramore.
In ways, it’s like another world and to a large extent it’s a place that belongs to other times.
The cliffs remind me of May 1985 when Mother and I stayed in a caravan overlooking Annestown Beach and with views almost as far as Tramore. We were based there for an interim period between moving from Clonmel back to Tramore where Mother and Dad had lived for the first 15 years of their married life and where they lived out their lives up to 2009 and 2010 respectively.
I was supposed to be ‘helping’ with the move but somehow managed to avoid a lot of ‘mullacking’ (hard word) and spent endless hours exploring the cliffs with Mother and just savouring them in glorious Summer weather.
I feel that Mother would be more than pleased to know that I am here remembering those sun-kissed days tonight before I head to bed knowing that her 8th anniversary will have slipped by just before sunrise tomorrow.
We certainly slept well in that caravan ~ as we were getting so much sea air, dining al fresco, going for swims, walking the cliffs and sitting outside with our cups of tea chatting long after the sun had set.
On those nights, just as on the night she died, I would have said ‘Goodnight Irene’ as we drifted into sleep. That was part of our secret code a la Jim Reeves.
It’s strange how things happen. I was only saying to son, Harry, yesterday how fortunate I was to have the mother that I had in that she was so loving, humane, witty, comforting and understanding about everything.
We were driving round a roundabout when I came out with this utterance which arose as a reaction to hearing a lot of heart breaking stories on radio recently about people whose mothers had disowned them or with whom they simply couldn’t get along for all sorts of complex reasons ranging from clashes over arranged marriages, drug abuse, alcoholism, adoption issues, personality differences …
There was a time when I was foolish enough to think that everyone had a great relationship with their mother but over the years I’ve come to know lots and lots of mothers and daughters who have no connection whatsoever and maybe haven’t spoken to each other for decades.
Then, today, I was rummaging around on my desk and unearthed Mother’s red copybook which contains some English compositions that she wrote in 1934 when she was just 13.
The composition that jumped out at me was this one:
April is the last month of Spring. In it the good qualities of both winter and summer are blended, so helping to make it an ideal month. Hunting is prolonged, and hounds meet during the first week or two. Tennis courts are marked, racquets restrung and clubs open once more.
The trees break into foliage. Primroses, daffodils, violets and anemones bloom in wood and garden. The birds build their nests and pour forth glorious melody.
Little lambs frolic in the fields, while their mothers lie apart, watching them tenderly, and seeing that they come to no harm.
The woods are carpeted with celandines and primroses, while violets peep shyly from among the stronger flowers.
Farmers sow their corn and gardeners sow flower and vegetable seeds, which grow and blossom in due time.
Baby rabbits may be seen in the fields or near their burrows, ready to go indoors at the slightest hint of danger.
Here and there, one may see a squirrel jumping agilely from branch to branch. He has been lured out of his winter home by the glorious sunshine.
Easter generally falls in this month and Easter eggs are displayed in many shop windows in towns and villages.
Easter is seldom in March, and never in May; it is in April, which is a suitable time for festivals, for all of the world is in festive garb.
What struck me about this composition was the extent to which it was so much ‘Mother,’ with her absolute love of nature and wild places as well as her observations about nature’s ways ~ for example, the violets peeping shyly from among the stronger flowers.
It also made me think of how much things have stayed the same since 1935 at some levels – like the ‘festive garb’ of the natural world and the lessons we could all take from nature if we took the time to observe.
Clearly much has changed in Ireland and the world since 1935 but, for me, what feels important tonight, are the continuities and that feeling that somewhere Mother, who died in 2009, is ‘lying apart,’ watching her little lambs tenderly, seeing that they come to no harm.’
January 29th will never mean anything else to me except your birthday. It’s far more significant than May 31st ~ the day you died in 2009.
It felt ‘your birthdayish’ from the minute I opened the front door early this morning to bring Stan for a walk. The birds were chirping in the Monkey Puzzle and the snowdrops in the garden seemed to have multiplied a hundred-fold since yesterday.
It was Men’s Final Day at the Australian Open so I planked myself down in front of the fire and the television from 8.30am until around 12.30 and savoured every single rally in a brilliant match between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Federer won in five sets and would you believe Rod Laver presented him with the cup.
I was thinking that you’d have been listening to it on the Radio if you were here and got to thinking then how it was you who got me into tennis in the first place and how it was your father who got you into it. I wonder who introduced him to it?
The game was played in the best possible spirit and Kipling’s If kept coming to mind. Roger even said in his speech that he would have been quite happy to share the tournament with Rafa. You don’t hear that very often and needless to say it had me balling, probably like half the people watching. So much for Dad’s ‘killer instinct,’ for today anyway.
I can’t imagine what on earth it would have been like to grow up in a house where sport wasn’t on the agenda or dogs, gardening, your trifle, poetry, the sea, rules about ‘no sweets before lunch,’ diaries, crosswords, slogans, horses, everyday phonecalls when we never ran out of stuff to say … never, ever, ever …
Harry and I went out to the beach in the afternoon with the dogs and we drew a huge heart in the sand and wrote in it with an old stick – the kind you always managed to find when the situation demanded. We agreed that writing in the sand is much nicer than going to a grave. I’d never given the’no grave’ bit any thought when you were adamant about cremation. It’s not an issue, you’ll be glad to hear, because we always seem to go to places you loved ~ or should I say ‘beaches you loved’ on special days like your birthday. Must be that every day is special cos we’re at the beach every day!
I came across a poem the other day that I thought you’d like and then I wondered if you knew it as it was written by a woman who lived from 1918-2001, not too different from your 1921-2009. Anyway here it is:
At the ship’s bow. It was my eye that drew
the perfect circle of blue meeting blue.
No land was visible. There was no sail,
no cloud to show the mighty world in scale,
no sky and ocean, by my gaze defined,
were drawn within the compass of my mind
under a temperate sun. The engine’s sound
sank to a heartbeat. Stillness all around.
Only the perfect circle and the mast.
That moment knew no future and no past.
It’s strange not getting you a present or even picking your little bouquet of snowdrops. Remember that year we were in Tenerife for your birthday and I got you the post card with the flamenco dancer with the real skirt and wrote it in terrible Spanish from our phrase book?
Well, there’s a touch of that today. I have a photo of a robin that seems to have been waiting for today. I hope you like him. Imagine him singing Happy Birthday; much more melodious than me ~ that’s for sure.
The first sighting of daffodils each year makes my heart sing and evokes the fondest thoughts of my late mother and father, both of whom adored the flowers, and the poems associated with them.
Well, today was the day of days. I was driving from Passage East into Waterford City and there on a bank on the side of the road the gleam of yellow had me enthralled, with all thoughts of the political crisis in Northern Ireland, Brexit and the coming of Donald Trump disappearing from my cluttered mind.
I’m not sure if anyone can see daffodils without finding themselves quoting line after line of William Wordsworth’s The Daffodils. I certainly can’t as it is a poem that has embroidered my heart since I was a tot and the yellow threads grow deeper each year:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
I wrote a post on December 17th, 2012 about my experience of having written a ‘Thank You’ letter to my father when he was in good health and how it was one of the things that truly helped me in the aftermath of his death in 2010. I can honestly say that coming up to my sixth Christmas since his passing that I often think of that letter.
The post itself is one of the most read here on Social Bridge. People don’t comment, they just read it, and I hope that at least some of them write a letter while they have time. Far better to write it when your parent is alive and well than writing it after they have died.
Before I paste a copy of the post that I wrote in 2012, I must tell you that I recently came across a photograph that Dad took of the very place that I mention in the P.S. I will add it in at the end:
In 2003, when my father was 84 and in good health, I decided to give him the gift of a ‘thank you’ letter for Christmas. Interestingly, I can’t remember if I gave him anything else to supplement it but I know for sure that the letter meant the world to him then and means a huge amount to me now.
It was a five page letter, written by hand with a fountain pen, and started like this:
This may seem like an odd Christmas present but I want to remind you of all the really ‘fatherly’ things you have done for me since I was born.
It covered happy times growing up and moved on to his involvement in my education:
Another aspect of life was the academic; your willingness to pay for me all those years in Trinity. The PhD was the outcome for me – a lot of money spent the outcome for you! Trinity was my first time away from home. I have vivid memories of you delivering and collecting me from Trinity Hall, driving me to the station, meeting buses. The car was always there and so were you with your warm smile.
There was so much to say and on the last page, I wrote:
In so many ways, it’s been the little things that have been everything – mopping up the cuts, catching the mice, just being at the other end of the phone ….. Nights chatting over cups of tea and sugary hot orange drinks …..
Father never, ever mentioned the letter to me after I handed it to him in a yellow folder on Christmas Day in 2003 but my mother told me that he was deeply touched by it. After he died almost seven years later, I felt a great sense of happiness that I had taken that opportunity to thank him when he was fit and well.
I was rather surprised when I was clearing out his house that there was no sign of the letter. I doubted very much that he would have thrown it out as he always kept things that mattered to him. Then on the day I was handing over the key, I decided to have one last look and there in a special hidey hole, I found the familiar yellow folder. It was well thumbed and I knew that he must have read the letter on quite a few occasions. It has now become one of my treasures and sources of solace.
So, from my experience, I would say: write that Christmas ‘thank you’ letter now and don’t wait until it’s too late.
Oh and there was a PS in the letter:
PS: Remember that magic moment when we saw the deer crossing the mountains in the snow ….
Yesterday was one of those days that overwhelmed me. It was overwhelming in a positive sense but I suppose any kind of ‘overwhelm’ takes a bit of processing.
There were all sorts of juxtapositions involved that were to do with time. The whole thing developed out of a visit to the ruins of a church and an old grave site close to Dunhill Castle here in Co. Waterford a while back. I wanted to learn more about the people who were buried there but couldn’t read the inscriptions on the tombstones.
It felt a bit weird to be going to the Internet to find out how I might get the inscriptions to reveal themselves to me. Maybe I should just leave them alone and let the ravages of time take their natural course. But, there on YouTube, I watched a short clip in which a man showed how rubbing plain, ordinary flour on the tombstones worked like magic in enabling one to read the engravings.
It was a bit on the foggy side by the sea in Tramore yesterday so I thought I would head up to the grave yard with my bag of flour and slink into the mists of time.
The only flour that I had was self-raising flour and as I approached the graves I chuckled irreverently about the possible effects of using this as opposed to plain flour. Secretly, I was pleased that I seemed to have risen above the fog on the elevated site.
I only had enough flour to work on one tombstone. It’s the one in the foreground and as you can see I’d already done the deed by the time I took this shot. The flour does work like magic. I was able to read the full inscription apart from one date on the last line:
Erected by Matthias Phelan
in memory of his Father
David Phelan who Departed
this Life August 16 1781
Aged 63 Years. Also his
Mother Monica Phelan who
Departed this Life February
… 1795 Aged 72
As the words revealed themselves to me, I found myself thinking about all the times I spent as a child with my father in his chemical smelling photographic dark room watching images appear and emerge as clear black and white pictures.
And what of the Phelans? David was born in 1718 and his wife in 1723. What kind of lives must they have led? The fact of having such an ornate tombstone led me to believe that they probably had more money than most. At a time of large families, was Matthias an only child and how did he cope with with deaths of his parents ~ 14 years apart. Losing parents has been going on forever and will continue as long as the world goes on. Matthias’ parents were elderly by the standards of the 1700s.
Even though I had no intention of climbing up the rocky path to the ruin of Dunhill Castle, I found myself being drawn there by the force of history.
For the first time in my life, I climbed up to the top and was peering out through the U that looks towards the church and what I now knew was the Phelan grave. Turning on the small grassy space up there towards the Anne Valley, I was stunned at the reflection that looked back at me:
The castle appeared whole again, perhaps as it looked way back in the 15th Century. The holes that are so glaringly obvious when one is standing on the ruin were rebuilt for those fleeting moments that I stood watching as the sun went down.
What revealed itself to me more than anything yesterday is the extent to which life is made up of moments. David, Monica and Matthias Phelan had their moments in the sun and the setting sun; I am in the process of having mine. These are moments to savour, to use wisely, to share with love. They are fleeting and fragile but they have layers of colour that we can have a part in defining.
How could it happen? is a question I could ask about many things but all my attention this morning was on the sea.
As a sea baby, I sometimes fall into the nonsensical trap of thinking that I’ve seen every possible mood of the ocean in and around Tramore. I’ve seen a fair few variations and I make a point of going in search of them ~ high tides, low tides, sunrises, sunsets, storms, calm, choppy, dancing, splashy, wild, ferocious, powerful, terrifying, bliss, seaweedy, jellyfishy, transparent, blue, grey, Turneresque …..
Well, this morning in the space of about an hour and a half, I saw my sea make the most remarkable changes and I’m talking about places that I feel I know like the back of my hand.
Here’s how it all unfolded:
Newtown Cove is at the bottom of the wood where I usually take Puppy Stan for his first walk of the day. It’s also a place that my late father took about a million photographs of in his time and there is one special one of his that I have hanging in our hall that he and I referred to as ‘The Wave.’ Even if I say it myself, I think this wave that I encountered this morning would give Dad’s a good run for its money and I’ve been having a secret competition with his for years now!
I couldn’t resist dropping by the Doneraile Walk in Tramore which was the place where Mother and I used to walk most days. (She walked there everyday while pregnant with me and as my birthday is on Tuesday I felt very drawn to it this morning as I thought about her waiting for me to arrive.)
The ‘Don,’ as Mother and I called it, gave me an October smile as I was pushing against a rainy gale on my way back to the car:
That patch of blue out by the Metal Man gave me a yen to see Garrarus in what I thought would be mad wildness with maybe a little bit of sun breaking through. Garrarus is about seven or eight minutes drive from the Doneraile and what I saw when I got there is still baffling me.
So, tell me about your ‘How Could It Happen?’ moments. I’d love to hear about them.
There’s something incredibly special about being able to read an English Composition that my late mother wrote on October 2, 1935. She would have been fourteen then and poised to set off for boarding school after being schooled by a governess with her brother and sister. They lived on a farm which had no schools nearby so my grandparents went down the governess route.
I have to confess that I’ve never met anyone else whose mother was taught by a governess. It seems extremely ‘old-world’ ~ a term that Mother used to say a friend of hers once attributed to my grandmother.
Old-world or not, the red copybook is all I have to evoke thoughts of Mother’s time with the governesses. She talked a fair bit about those days and how she and her Big Bro did everything in their powers to encourage the governesses to let them do English, History and Geography ~ anything rather than maths!
The governesses lived in and most came for just a year at a time ~ some for less as they were very isolated. Mother recalled how she was very fond of some of the governesses and how she kept in touch with a few for many years after they had emigrated to America and Australia. Others, she wasn’t so keen on and was thrilled when they would depart the scene. Reflecting back, she used to think what a lonely life it must have been for these young women who were part, yet apart, from the busy farming family.
Here is that English Composition that Mother wrote on October 2, 1935:
WOULD YOU RATHER BE A BIRD OR A FISH?
I would rather be a bird than a fish. I would love to be able to soar into the blue sky and roost among the leafy trees in summer. If I were a fish I would be very cold and clammy and live in the same bit of the river, assuming I was a trout, all my life. I would see much the same things every day. Of course, I would be able to swim but I would prefer to fly.
If I was a bird there would be danger too. Guns, birdlime and net would be used. Or if I was an attractive bird, which would be most unlikely, mischievous boys might set up a trap with a riddle and a piece of string, and some dainty which birds love for bait. If I were caught alive by this or any other method and put in a cage I feel sure I would pine away and die.
Another deadly menace to small birds is the hawk, who swoops down on his prey and carries them squawking away to be killed and consumed by the hawk.
A bird would be able to travel and see new places and new birds. Also they are more intelligent than fish. Birds eat nicer things than fish. Berries, fruit, especially strawberries, and other appetising things. I can’t say I would relish worms so much, though. Perhaps if I were a bird I would like them as much as they appear to. I daresay I would never be the early bird, though.
Most birds sing sweetly, and that would be another advantage to being a fish, for if they communicate with each other they do so very silently.
If I were a crow I hope I would have the decency not to inflict my voice on the other inhabitants of the rookery. Or perhaps I would imagine, like the crow in the fable that I was sweet and enchanting.
Still I would like to be able to sit on the topmost branch of a leafy tree in summer and warble in the sunshine.
However, I doubt if I will ever be a bird or a fish, but if I am I hope the gods will be kind and make me a bird (not a crow or a crane, though, please!)
It’s fascinating how some turns of phrase that I associate with my late mother, like ‘I daresay,’ appear in this piece of writing. In ways, the composition seems childish to me ~ a far cry from the sort of essay one might expect from a fourteen year old nowadays. On the other hand, it shows a deeper knowledge of nature than one would be likely to find in our modern social-media- oriented world.
I’m well aware that there is a strong movement away from going to the well of our memories in favour of striving to ‘live in the moment.’
While I’m all for living in the moment, I feel that our present moments are often framed by our pasts and I love nothing more than to bring my bucket to the deep well that lives in my heart and let it pull up a fine glass of memories that were made years ago.
The end of September is always a nostalgic time and it’s interesting that it is the first month of the year that carries with it the word, ‘mber’ that so often starts conversations about the old days. ‘mber the time …?’
Well, the memories that are with me tonight are walking trips that Dad used to bring me (or one of the others) on. I’m talking 1970s and he was a big, strong, fit man for whom walking meant striding out for maybe twenty miles before lunch!
The walking trips were to wild places and a couple of cameras were always part of his luggage, as well as clean white cotton hankies, a strong black umbrella and his toothbrush. He was ever so careful, even vain, about his teeth in spite of being addicted to all things sugar.
The September song that brings me back to those times is this one sung by Nana Mouskouri, who I was fortunate enough to hear in concert in Dublin around 1975.
In September 1974, Dad and I went on a walking trip to his native Co. Clare ~ the place he loved more than anywhere in the whole world. Back then, the Cliffs of Moher hadn’t been commercialised and were wilder than wild. Dad must have taken thousands of photos of the The Cliffs during his lifetime and this is one that he took during our visit that year:
It was on those expeditions that I got to know about my father’s youth and heard lots of stories about how it was to grow up in the West of Ireland in the 1920s and 30s. I’m so glad now that we had those shared times as they give me a sense of my background too. They also make me smile as I think of his urgings to ‘step on it’ if he caught sight of a black cloud heading our way! For me, ‘stepping on it’ meant jogging along beside him as his stride lengthened and lengthened …