As I struggled to get out of bed this morning, the first workday of the New Year, my mother’s voice reverberated in my brain from beyond the grave.
“Rise and Shine,” she’d call out giving a quick rap to my bedroom door. I’d stick my teenage head under the covers, as I wanted to do this morning.
She was an indomitable woman, my mother; used to some of the pampering that the world had to offer before landing in our part of rural Ireland where there were few luxuries. But she somehow, in a country were women were still treated as one of Adam’s spare ribs, managed to hold onto a sense of herself, and the wider world that she had known before. Birth control was banned – she once told me that she went to the priest after her doctor advised her to have no more children (she had thirteen) and was told that it was her duty to procreate – that she could not deny her husband his conjugal rights!
One of the few luxuries that we did have was a six foot long bathtub heated by an emersion heater which didn’t hold enough hot water to fill it – extra pots of water had to be boiled on the range and brought upstairs in buckets. Mother would emerge after what seemed like hours, lathered in Ponds cold cream, her face pink. She looked like a queen descending the stairs in her silk bathrobe.
She did everything with aplomb. Even die, which she did on New Year’s Eve 2008.
How appropriate, I thought at the time. She celebrated every holiday like a champagne cork going off (without the champagne, of course). On Shrove (Pancake) Tuesday, we arrived home from school to the smell of pancakes (more like crepes), which we dusted with castor sugar and a splash of lemon. On Halloween, we bobbed for apples and had monkey nuts (peanuts) in the shell. We had barmbrack with its hidden treasures -- the ring and the wand. One meant you would marry, the other that you would die an old maid. In a country where young girls were brought up to marry, getting the wand could almost ruin the evening’s fun.
Birthdays too, were wondrous events. She baked the cake of your choice. Does it say something about me that mine was a sponge cake, while my brother Henry’s was a chocolate biscuit cake? And there was always a present. There were other treats too. On Saturdays when she went to town to shop we eagerly awaited her return. She always came home loaded down with books from the library and a bag of sweets (candy). When the messages were carried in from the car and put away, the sweets were counted out and divided up into neat little piles, one pile for each of us. She did this with grapes too (I can never look at a bunch of grapes without remembering), and, occasionally, with her special favorite, dates (surely harboring back to your young days in India). There was always dessert after dinner –- homemade apple tarts or coconut tops -- and two plain Marietta biscuits with a glass for milk before bedtime.
Mother loved her Marietta biscuits and even on her deathbed her hand reached out for them. By this time she had long been resident in San Francisco and the Marietta biscuits had become “Marie” biscuits procured from the Spanish bodega by my sister Molly.
Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, even for those of us who lived on farms, was a very poor country, and looking back, I wonder how she managed to keep us fed, never mind the treats. “Look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves,” she was fond of saying. She saved her pennies, and embarked on various entrepreneurial schemes – knitting sweaters (jumpers) for sale (she could read and knit at the same time) and raising turkeys, which was quite an endeavor for a city girl. (I recently read a line in an Alice Munroe story that went something like this: “If you think chickens are stupid, turkeys are ten times as dumb.” Indeed, the baby chicks would topple over into the feeder and drown if they weren’t watched carefully.
Christmas was the highpoint of all her endeavors. Cakes were baked and decorated, plum puddings doused with whiskey. My brothers would be sent out to cut down a tree – we were one of the very few families around our part with a Christmas tree back then – a bottle of Guinness and biscuits were left out for Santa or Sante as we called him, and presents and stockings were opened after midnight mass. It was magic.