Today is my granny’s tenth anniversary. After drinking too many cups of coffee yesterday afternoon, I lay awake until late last night trying to capture memories of her. You’d think that the most recent memories are the ones that appear clearest in your mind, but it’s not like that. I can remember the last time I spoke to her though, on the phone, a few days before she died.
Some people’s goodbyes are melodious, effusive and prolonged: a closing sequence of call and response where the two people talking move toward the final ‘bye-bye’ the way a series of cadences in a piece of music move toward the final tonic chord. Not hers: you’d say something like “ok, well, I’d better be going”, expecting to initiate some sort of ending sequence, and she’d just say “right” and hang up, leaving a feeling that the conversation had ended mid-air. That was the way our last conversation ended. Unusual for her, she’d said to me “you will call, won’t you?”: I had always called fairly regularly, and thinking about this in the days after she died I figured she knew something was up.
Before that, I can’t remember that well what it was like the last time I saw her. Usually before flying off I’d call in to her house the night before and sit down and have a cup of tea and talk about the matters of the day. Even though her movement was slowing she’d insist on making the tea, setting the table and doing the washing up. I’d say “you sure?” “Aye,” she’d say, “get the bible out.” This scene happened so many times that I find it hard distinguish the last one from all the rest. I’d give her a hug and a kiss and hit the road.
When I was away I’d receive packages from her from time to time. The last one was a consignment of socks she’d expropriated from my uncle. Another time it was a loaf of her wheaten bread. She was always baking and cooking: buns, scones, pancakes, tarts, jams. And she grew her own ingredients: raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, scallions, broad beans, peas, cauliflower, cabbage. An early memory is the sight of onions hanging up in stockings outside the scullery. Before I was around she kept chickens, goats and the odd pig too. There’s a photo of her with a dead fox slung out on the bonnet of a car out the front: she’d happened upon a fox in the henhouse and beaten it to death with a hurling stick.
I wouldn’t say she was easily swayed by rules or hierarchy. We have a photo of her in Dublin Zoo, feeding the animals, beside a sign that reads ‘Do Not Feed The Animals’. One time, I’m told, one of my uncles had annoyed a member of the local aristocracy who was passing on horseback on the way to the hunt. The rider chased him up the garden, still on horse. My granny confronted the rider with a graip, and told him that if he didn’t get going she’d bury the graip in him “up to the straps”.
She’d worked many years as a nurse and a midwife, and had that no-nonsense disposition you often find among members of those professions. I doubt she was easily shocked. My dad recalls her arriving home after attending a car crash and removing her shoe, pouring the blood from it. When in later life she was treated for cancer she kept a diary of her treatment in hospital. I read it once: she had written concise and withering criticism of the nurses’ and doctors’ practices, of their patronising attitude toward older people, in enviably clear prose, all in her immaculate handwriting.
Once all nine of her children had grown up, a great deal of her time and seemingly boundless energy, into her late seventies and beyond, was spent working and organising in volunteer groups: sick, disabled, poor, elderly, prisoners. She’d get us involved on occasion – I remember being at one Christmas party she’d organised for old people in the area when she was a good few years older than many of the party-goers. She often said that one of the cruellest things you could do to an old person living alone was to pay her a visit and not go back, because they’d spend so much time looking forward to your next visit only to be end up feeling more abandoned.
One time when I was ten or so she took us out in her car to deliver butter to people who I presume she knew were in severe financial difficulties. The story was that it was surplus butter from the EEC. I remember feeling embarrassed at the prospect: how could anyone need butter? Indeed, some people didn’t seem too pleased when I landed on their doorstep with two pound of butter for them. But for many others even I could tell that it was a relief.
When you have such an imposing figure in your life, you can’t help but ask yourself: what would she expect from me? When she died I started to think about the books she had bought me when I was in early primary school -the Bible, detailed studies of Julius Caesar, Marco Polo- and wonder rather grandiosely if I had made good progress in dashing her expectations. In fact, the only thing I ever heard her say on the subject was in response to my mum’s complaint at our lack of application to studies: as long as they’re good people, nothing else matters. No pressure then. Thinking about those words now at Hallowe’en, I realise that being haunted need not be a matter of white sheets and things that go bump in the night.
Back at home, she’d read crime novels and watch snooker, tennis, Countdown and Inspector Morse. She liked John Wayne and Clint Eastwood films. Some of the films I remember watching with her: Captains Courageous (she liked Spencer Tracy too), I Confess, An Inspector Calls (in England she’d nursed JB Priestley’s wife). Saturday mornings she always read James Kelly in the Irish News. She told the odd joke. One was the couple confronted by a genie on their way into town. The genie grants them three wishes. When they get into town, the woman spies a fancy new ladle. “Oh, I wish I had a ladle like that,” she blurts out. Wish granted: a ladle appears in her hand. The husband, enraged at the stupidity, says “you stupid eejit, how could you waste your wish like that? A ladle! By God I wish that ladle was stuck up your rear end.” They end up using the third wish to get it back down again.
At her wake I stood in the space beside the window in the kitchen where she used to sit doing her lacemaking, and looked out on the fields, the hedges, along the telegraph wires. It felt at that moment like everything that had until then grounded the way I’d seen those things, and everything else for that matter, had given way. At times it still does. But other times you realise people don’t leave you so easily. The other day I came in from the cold and without a thought cupped my freezing hands on our boy’s cheeks, and as soon as I did I recalled my first memory of someone doing that to me, of my granny darting through the door on her way to the kitchen, smiling as the cold from her hands gave way to show me the warmth in my cheeks I never knew I had.