I came home from the Honk a little while ago under a curved moon and one of the last pure blued night skies of the expiring year.
The Dutch Nation and the dogs and cats were all abed. The Christmas tree was still lit up in the corner of the front room of the cottage, and the stove was glowing redly. It was warm and cozy.
From the bottom of the little tree, down near the stand, the old familiar face of Mastitis leered out at me from behind a bulb in the shape of a holly berry. Though he looked quite frightening, I still raised my glass to him before beginning to write this piece, the last of the Old Year, the first of the incoming infant.
Mastitis has been a good friend to our family now for the better part of 20 years. Did I ever tell ye his story?
If I did I still make no apologies for retelling it, especially for any of you who are lone parents facing into a new calendar with all its upcoming joys and sorrows.
Mastitis is a rubber finger puppet who remarkably resembles Popeye the Sailor Man. I do not remember for sure how he was christened, but I do know that he was one of a set of finger puppets that the four children had from when they were very young. The others got lost, but Mastitis continued to reside safely in a fuel box beside the hearth fire in our original home in Barna in Connemara.
Occasionally he would be taken out, especially by Dara the third son, and he would elasticate his face as he told a few jokes. He was then just another of the plethora of toys about the place.
Hard times made me a widower responsible for the rearing of the kids and the running of the house. Ciara, the only daughter, was nine years old back then, Cuan the oldest at 15, the economy like now, my poor old newspaper dying on me, the mortgage to be paid, a lot to be done.
Widowers make bad mothers I suppose, but the most of them do their best. My answer to my plight was to work hard, ensure that my teenagers adhered to a short set of house rules, and to let God look after the rest.
The rules included the requirement to wash up your own delph and cutlery after meals (which I would cook), to not use bad language or chewing gum, and to always do your allotted chores. It was Dara's chore to keep the fire going in the hearth.
I arrived back from Mayo after a hard December day's reporting one year. The fire was not lit. I still had dinner to cook and I was crabby.
I attacked Dara instantly, going way over the top, over-reacting totally. He went out of the living room to get fuel for the fire.
He left the door open and, almost immediately, the finger puppet appeared around the edge of the door and launched into a fierce tirade against me! The language was as foul as that of a drunken Yarnmouth fisherman. No four-letter word was missing.
I was informed that I was late home to cook the dinner, that there were no firelighters to light the fire, that I was the worst ******** organizer in the world anyway, and that I had grossly treated the poor Dara.
All I could do, as the other kids watched on with their mouths open, was laugh until my sides split and tears ran down my face.
It was a brilliant riposte. It transformed the whole evening.
The fire was lit, the dinner was cooked and enjoyed, and at some stage of the evening afterwards the finger puppet was christened Mastitis (which is a bovine disease!) and he became a central figure in our family circle ever afterwards.
I think it could be said that his became the most important voice in the Connemara house. He was worth his weight in gold. He is still worth his weight in gold, come to think of it.
In the months and years to come Mastitis voiced all the realities of our strange (happy) household that nobody else could do as freely. Most of the time, but not all, he attacked me in the foulest of language for all of my many failings.
In this way the kids were able to vent their feelings about the way in which I was behaving as head of the household. Mastitis, usually through the fingers of Dara or Scobie, would come around the kitchen door at least twice a week to let me know how I had let the family down. He gave me no quarter at all.
Actually he gave nobody any quarter. If Cuan got drunk on one of his early college outings you could be sure that Mastitis would record the matter the next evening.
("We're not the life and soul of the party now are we?") If Scobie missed a tackle in a Gaelic football game then Mastitis would be very cruel: "You'll never play for Galway anyway."
If Ciara at 15 came into the room before a teenage disco with a tight top and a bare belly and short skirt then Mastitis would leer out from the kitchen immediately: "The cute lads in Salthill will have a great night tonight with the little country girl with a bare belly and no commonsense!" After that happened she went back to her room and changed at once!
Mastitis effortlessly achieved what I could not have achieved as the father of the house. He was magnificent, always foul-mouthed and sarcastic.
"Here's the hairy Cormac heading into Galway, the poor ould divil, still chasing widows and young wans at his age. When will he get a bit of sense?" And I'm leaving out all the bad language.
He went missing briefly years later when we moved to Clare and the children went their own way. But when Ciara went on her fun year to Australia there came a morning when a cardboard box arrived in the post.
It contained my special Australian leather hat, and reposing inside the hat was a new Mastitis with a clean face that she saw in Sydney.
"I'm back you old **** you!" said the legend attached to him. "I'm still keeping watch on the whole ******* lot of you!"
And now he lives in style in the Clare cottage with the Dutch Nation, dogs, cats and me and occasionally emerges to create hell. And always takes his stand on the Christmas tree when the family time comes around.
Dara and Ciara were here for Christmas Day this year. Sometime during the festivities he addressed me directly, foul-mouthed as ever: "You are getting awful ould at last but Happy New Year anyway!"
I can think of no better advice to all families embarking on the voyage into another year, but especially lone parent families, than to invest a few cents in a finger puppet like our Mastitis (call him/her what you wish) as a venting voice for all the internal things that otherwise might never be uttered until it is too late.
All these years later, if we exist as an especially close clan I think most of the credit belongs to the leering Mastitis, who is looking out at me now from the bottom of the tree. "Go to sleep you old ****!" is what he is projecting.
I will, but first can I wish all of you the quintessence of serenity and peace for the times ahead.