I trace my life in words & verse & latin mass & prayers & family, faith & loyalty; the clannish cliques we recognise like a rhyme, a chant, a prayer, or a poem one’s never learned by heart but knows the words to.
I recognise the memory and the memory of the memory of generations of Irish mitochondrial recollections of the seven joyful mysteries of life – memories of nuns & hens & lavender bags & recipes & tragedies & cures for croop & all the love and pain and laughter, passed down in an atavistic genuflection, a salute to all the mothers and the maiden aunts who’ve gone before, and all who will come; passing around the fine bone china tea-cups balanced on saucers while nursing children balanced on aching knees, and sharing stories and recipes, ideas and laughter so much laughter that has tinkled and sparkled through the rooms of my life like chandeliers, casting a romantic hue over all the sorrowful memories.
We measure our life in larks and laughter; the life rafts that swear us through the quotidian hum-drum struggles. We laugh at all the struggles and the tragedies and the loss and the stupid mistakes. Though never at one’s own jokes for that’s such bad form, like patting oneself on the back, or awarding oneself a medal.
I remember the gay laughter embroidered into the travails of our SantOconnell family history, for always there are travails, but a problem shared is a problem spread and one must never trade the chance to laugh with those we love for a chance to gripe.
All these things I knew without being told, just as I knew the importance of posture and manners and sartorial standards. I see still in fevered sleep the sartorial magic of the ladies of Mount Street en route to Farm Street black lace mantillas hastily pulled from crocodile handbags as they dashed to mass; their sturdy-tweeds, and crocodile shoes that clickety-clacked along the pathways of Mount St Gardens & matched the crocodile hand-bags that snapped shut like pursed lips that brook no nonsense, softened by pearls & loosely pinned buns and floral scents.
Sitting and standing and kneeling on the cedar pews the atmosphere suffused with frankincense ritual mystery and the worries and fears we all share.
All the memories and the memories of the memories, of all houses lived in, the home-made Marmalade, the painting of rooms, the mowing of lawns and the packing up of trunks for school. All the stories told over supper, all the books read and read again, the books written and those placed on shelves built by husbands and brothers and sons.
It all matters; the children & the tales of family members long passed before my birth even who speak to me in ancestral voices & whispered warnings and reassurances in our prayers. They have guided me in dark despair, they speak to me in crisis & steer me in uncertainty, urging me on & pulling me through the long desolate nights I’ve wept; head in hands & cried out in despair and pain; No, I can’t go on, no it cannot be possible. I cannot endure this. I cannot go on.
And I go on.
We all go on, as our ancestors went on, slipping through the moments of our lives like Hail Marys, for life is fragile and precious and the past the future and the moment are only ever glanced at in a looking glass. So we hang on. Because it matters. I promise you this. It matters. It all matters.
The things we say and think, but refrain from saying; the hymns we sing, the prayers we murmur; the hands we squeeze for reassurance and to reassure, the genuflecting and kneeling, the fleeing and the fighting, the hurting and healing, the comforting and comfort, those we love and those whose names we write down and condemn to the freezer, our fears & faith & loss of faith, all follow on in a litany of life, through generations, through decades of prayer beads that slide through our fingers, year after year, crisis after crisis, famine after famine, celebration after celebration, century after century, Lent after Lent, Christmas after Christmas. The babies born, the loved ones buried and those we never had the chance to know.
It all matters, the tender ledger of gains and the loss. No matter how great the column of loss, life goes on even when we wish it wouldn’t, life goes on through us and in us… in genuflection after genuflection, benediction after benediction, immunisations, passports, book-deals, school-fees, graduations, tax returns. It goes on until one day it doesn’t and we realise all those moments, all those small, quotidian moments we almost missed while making the tea, taking a photograph, changing nappies or mashing the potatoes, whipping the cream, weeding the herb bed, searching for a lost sock, or editing a book have slipped by before we had the chance to properly notice.
All this matters; the heroic and the humble, the banal and splendid, each extraordinary as it is ordinary, stitched into the shroud of memory wrapped around our shoulders as we peer through the keyhole or into the words we once wrote in a journal or the half remembered face spotted in an old photograph album.
All those houses and people and pets and parties matter, and what we wear and wore and said and did and refrained from saying and doing through all those meals of mashed potato, Irish Stew and Eton mess and the ballets at the Coliseum, arguments in Oxford, picnics at Glyndebourne, the speech days and the lazy Sundays. It all matters.
For there are triumphant memories: my eldest son carrying me through the floods of St Marks Square while crowds of police and tourists and locals applauded; the water around your neck, me astride your shoulders, like a character in a Boche painting rescued from the Bridge of Sighs, my shoes held aloft like a Medieval favour.
And there are memories of loss. Loss, so much loss. I remember all, the search parties mounted in Westminster for a lost little boy in long mustard socks and another boy who ran away in Mayfair and my little girl her tiny body wheeled into the operating theatre with dear Old Bear while I kept a my undignified vigil of tears. All those losses turned to rescue. So perhaps there is still hope for the ache in my heart.
It all matters. The saucers of champagne, the celebrations, the speeches and the eulogies of hatches, matches & dispatches – all this matters as much as the horses & spaniels & cats & hens & lambs & rabbits & birds & lizards we loved and lost.
I remember all those endless silent fishing trips with my father that seemed to last for ever as we sailed deeper and deeper out into the ocean of our relationship of father and daughter, leaving Mummy on the shore to knit our dinner and say our prayers and solve the puzzles while we pulled Marlins & snapper and silence from the sea bed.
Now all a memory. As are other fishing trips; sitting with other men on trout lines in small boats on frozen lakes, day after day, night after night our frosted eyes and frozen faces, the words never spoken the pain never mentioned. All the silent drives across deserts and jungles, passing by the dragging endless days in miles of prayers to St Jude and unmade unbroken promises and fingers crossed. My father the flying buttress to my mother’s Wailing Wall together supporting the roof of our family; always a small slipper in the eaves to muddle the little people whom I lived in fear of carrying me away in the daily looming gloaming dusk.
I remember clutching riffles with hands so numb with cold our targets uncertain; foxes in our chicken house, pheasant drives in windy fields and wild boar hunts; spot lighting in mad drives across the deserts around the world and the inevitable plucking and skinning and butchering of meat, gutting of fish & scrubbing of vegetables for the preparation of countless meals throughout the countless years.
I remember my trembling chill-blained inept childish hands opening latched gates and splinters, milking cows the warm milk, the smell of udder and porridge mingling together, kneeling on stone cold floors; lighting fires in the frosty dawn while my family slept.
So many dawn moments alone with my thoughts and plans to be the first to fetch the eggs, each a precious treasure holding their little warm fragile form in my tiny cold hands. The first to put the kettle on, the first to sit on granny’s lap, the last to be called to empty granny’s chamber pot.
I remember other mornings with you nuzzled warm against my breast in a sling, while those same cold fingers now more adroit, lighting different fires in different houses, in different countries, chopping wood, still brewing tea, still boiling marmalade, still baking scones, still scolding husbands & praying to Mary & all the saints in heaven that I – the twenty year old mother who longed to wrap you in cotton wool and keep you like Alexander Beetle in a matchbox in my pocket – that I would prevail, that I wouldn’t fail, that my love for you would be enough and that you would grow and I would be able keep you fed and warm and safe and happy and one day let you go.
For all this matters, all these memories ultimately find their way into the forefront of our lives, stitched as they are into our life, tiny moments snatched and gathered and spun into the silken maps wrapped around our necks, guiding us to other places that we & those we love have passed through.
We are all following the bluebell pathways leading into the woods of the lives we make, clambering through hedges still wearing woolly winter mittens & imperfectly knitted hats, and still crying over the gum boot lost forever in the bog & those tight tweed slacks far too small but oh so beloved. I refused to accept I was growing out of, had already grown out of, years ago… time was chasing me out of them from the moment I first pulled my skinny seven-year old legs into them.
Time is chasing me still at midnight in the full moon on Arabian horses through the lay lines of the Libyan desert sands where Daddy’s cockpit once went spinning through the skies, time chases me in the melee of school hockey and lacrosse matches and french cricket and croquet on the fields of nuns, all my past, all my future and the perfect moment always there, hurrying me along through the polo chukkas & skiing slopes & love affairs and spinning dances where laughter drugged us to believe we could hold on to the ephemeral moment & stay forever in that one perfect embrace, a glass never empty, a dance card always full, one perfect ball-gown swishing & twirling into the first time I held your tiny translucent newborn fingers in mine….mine now speckled with age. I come to find myself saying all the things my mummy and my granny once said to me.
Every moment is perfect; the grazed knees, the earache, the nasty medicine, the nightmares, the loneliness, the irritation of a crowded room, the arguments, the tears and all the messes, all the tearful regrets are moments we wish we could take back, all are treasured now, each and all seem perfect moments as the past skips seamlessly into the present, as the moments slips suddenly into the future, spinning us, gasping for breath, clutching at the Ventolin.
All the memories of changing cloth nappies – the lavender bags I made and tucked in all your little draws and the scent of your skin, so distinctive and ever present, even now, the thought of you still redolent of all your precious cuddles.
And as I clutch and claw at the memories, desperate to cling to every moment shared with you like a child tries to preserve the smudge of benediction ashes, trusting the thumbprint of God will hold us safe, even as we fear it won’t, even as we hear life’s consequences stomping towards us in heavy boots, even as we hear the rush of hooves and tug the reigns of our life to make that sharp turn into the inexorable end of life, charging towards me now like the distressing sound of Auntie’s cocktail trolley rattling down the corridors of my memories laden with an array of a million sickly, sticky, awkward moments of conversations muddled and a crisis narrowly avoided like one of her ghastly Advocate Snowballs.
For in the end all merges with all in the kaleidoscope of memory; the cry of the Muzziens, our capture by the Kurds when we slipped sleeping into Iraq, Kalishnikovs in the small of the back and that first cold shiver of terror that life could be snatched, all could be lost, all merges with memories of hospitals beds, clutching the hands of kind strangers who promised they would stay.
So many hospital beds, so many clutched hands, so many kind strangers who of course didn’t stay, couldn’t stay. For even these – the precious painful moments cannot last, and yet here they are, still swilling through the mists of my memory, caste out like a net into words and verse into the lakes of those I love in the hope the perfect moment will live on.
Clutching Daddy’s hand before he died, BJ the flying buttress of my life, trotting out his ever ready lines, a line repeated endlessly for unwanted guests, like a sure footed pony he could always trust to carry him through, “How good of you to come, but we mustn’t keep you, you’ll want to be going now,” Predictably followed by Mummy’s scripted retort. For all our lives are scripted with those reassuring repeated conversations and arguments guiding us like lanterns through the awkwardness of life – like lines from a Noel Coward Play that never looses the magic to move.
I measure my life in sleepless nights of pain and terror and prayer now, and my medicine and my joy is remembering all the wonderful sleepless nights with you snuggled at my breast, and memories of the moonlit desert rides, tearing through streets in rickshaws and taxis in the company of madmen (your fathers), nursing my heartache or my hens and you my children, still cradled in my heart, wrapped in the eternal swaddling of cotton wool, I have kept you safely inside the matchbox of my heart – if nowhere else.
Mummy measured her life in afternoons of snatched naps, leaving me alone in my eternal childhood struggle to break free of the Beetle-back of my wooden high-chair, struggling to break free of my paralysing shyness through mummy’s mantra of “who’ll be looking at you!” Leaving me to read my books, write my books and sharpen my wit, the eternal inky-scribe. For indeed who will be looking for me? The shear relief at realising she was right, that the spot light of the world was not upon me, that I could go quietly about my life unnoticed – free to earwig and explore and find my clumsy way through the tenebrous tunnels of life – and experience all the brilliance of loving you.
I am looking at you. Always. Looking for you, forever reliving the sacred ever celebrated moment you were first placed in my exhausted arms. Three perfect moments, I replay on a loop of pleasure that overrides all pain, all regret. For these things matter. The perfect moments I missed from sheer exhaustion. I lie here in my heart, in my mind; the memory still ever clear though all the fog of pain. Your tiny fingers curled around mine. My perfect bonny boys and my sweet little angel, the most perfect accidents ever delivered by fate.
Mummy died in one of her afternoon naps, bequeathing me her memories to toast the life she lived in champagne salted in forbidden tears and pick wild mountain thyme all along the blooming heather.
Still I weep, for her memories are spinning through me now; whirling me through delphinium fields & ballgowns & Irish sayings passed down like laughter up a ladder, dancing on tables in foreign lands, priests dropping in for tea “put a stick in it for me will you Veronica ” rosaries & flowers, her love for daddy and her own mummy, my sweet granny & that fierce VM determination, that mind like a bacon slicer, brooking no argument, taking no prisoners. “Surrender now,” Daddy would say nudging me. I should have treasured her more. For now I have nothing but unanswered crossword clues & unfinished crocheted shawls & loss.
Such enormous unrelenting loss – all about me, so much loss. I walk in eternal corridors of loss through all she loved, all her gardens, all her songs, all her shawls, all her family and friends every birthday of every friend and relative committed to memory and all her sayings and opinions all treasured as carefully as all the eggs I gathered from all the hens; as precious to me as those warm little eggs I placed in my straw lined basket and carried so carefully up the stairs, knowing I must surrender them like a sixpence in a sweet shop in the kitchen…so I lingered on each stair to stretch the pleasure of the perfect moment out like toffee on a spoon.
I must give it all up now, all the past, all the life, all the love, all the places, all the pain all the pleasure all the laughter, and you.
There is no now nor then, nor future looking back, or looking forward, not for me, not for any of us. As I rattle along like that inexorable sticky cocktail cart, trundling towards the awkward moment when I must clutch loving hands & say. “How good of you to come, I don’t want to keep you, you’ll want to be going soon.”
The glorious retrospective moment I was already looking back on from my inelegant birth in the back of an ambulance, a blue baby gasping for breath and yet surviving it all: all the hospital beds, the terrors and the terrible, the Kalashnikovs, the cruel men, the IRA bomb on the central line, the Kurds who inexpertly held us captive in their squalid little village of women and old men and donkeys, the desert poker games of inscrutable stakes with Bedouins who tipped in Cartier lighters & Mercedes Benz, the rose bushes that wrapped around our houses like a floral heraldic shield & mummy’s herb garden of sayings, the husbands & the sons and the precious daughter, all the players making chess moves through the Mayfair nights of secrets kept and spilled, the crocodile shoes on cobble stone paths, going cliquey-clack on the way into Farm Street Church, all seen through a prism of a saucer fountain of champagne, in garden squares, quaffing F&M hampers & sipping Pimms No.1 cup, on Easter egg hunts in St James Square, a signature scrawled across a cheque never cleared for promises never made and others never kept, all stored safely in granny’s lavender scented hanky-bank of memories.
Now, always, forever, the Past flows with future & present in the same river of fast flowing regrets & triumphs, hopes & dreams, all things realised & unrealised bubbling along & sweeping us all along in a rushing river like pooh-sticks dropped from the Bridge of Sighs.
As I dip my toes into the water of mortality & eternity I see in the reflection all those I loved & live to love & never really knew I loved: the spinster aunts of Ireland, the silent nuns, the visiting ghosts; wraith like figures that have hovered about my life, that slipped & whispered about the edges, peeping in but never really entering the fray.
The broken dreams & penance & the glorious moments of such exquisite pain when I gave birth & the soul destroying moments when even St Jude lost hope are all now blessed memories, all are ever here in the precious moment, as much there as in the past, in the now & in the still yet to come when I am no longer here, when your Mummy the irritating loving presence, the wailing wall to SP’s & Eric’s flying buttress that held up the world you would escape, has quietly departed.
But for now I scratch at the edges of your life occasionally slipping in, like a cat paw that slips under the door of a forbidden room, a face glimpsed in mirrors and memories and dreams of your own Noel Coward Plays in years to come.
But as VM so wisely told me, “Who’ll be looking at you?” I leave you only words and verse and prayers and wishes. All my love, all my larks, all my laughter; all the places, all the dreams, all people and the past, and the perfect and the imperfect precious moments – they are all for you.
Even when I am not with you, I am always thinking of you, looking for you in the jumble of my mind like I once looked for you in the surge of children racing out of class. And one day you will tell your children as you bounce them on your knee, knowing they would be so much safer wrapped in cotton wool in a matchbox like Alexander Beetle, that it all matters, that life is short and that all the perfect and imperfect moments and each tiny seed pearl of life, every seemingly forgettable experience and place, every little seed pearl of a moment…they all matter.
Places, people, secrets, songs, prayers and even the silly lost sock and the threepenny bit in the Christmas pudding matter. I still have those threepenny bits I’d produce every Christmas. I have three so you don’t have to toss for it when I’m gone.
Never doubt the secrets locked away in the turrets of what you daren’t dream, for therein your future lies in wait, like a hen seeking out a place to lay her egg, a kitten to birth her litter, or my unfaltering love for you, trying to find a place where it won’t be in the way or hold you back – your mummy; the silken map around your neck, the scarf around your shoulders, the parachute you’re always wearing never needing to pull the chord. When all seems lost, look within for I am there, oh so very, very embarrassingly proud of you.
There is much I do not know and much more I have forgotten & far too many crossword clues & pieces that I can not place, but this I do know; the past matters; all the small and minor moments matter, the places where I dried your tears, and soothed your hurt feelings, and nursed your fevers, and sang you lullabies and shared your secrets, and taught you your prayers, and baked your cupcakes, and boiled your peas, and listened to your poems, and stories and admired all your drawings, and helped you tie your shoe-laces and blow your nose, do hair and lifted you on a chair so you could help with washing up and all the houses where I watched you stage your plays and let you paint your walls pink or dark-blood-red, and hang your signs, “No Boys Allowed!” I am there still, listening as you sing or play piano, watching you, fencing with you, dancing with you and listening in rapture as you play me Chopin and gaze in wonderment as you did your magic and your ballet and photographed you and all the fish you’d caught spread like prizes across the Isle of Wight summer lawn; the Summer of Sun In and swimming in the pool with Loopa.
I still hold your hand and fuss over your sun-block and walk with you remembering the jungles we walked through together, remembering the beaches we wandered along and the cobbled alleys we travelled through to visit churches and museums. Every place made precious by the presence of you, examining antiques in foreign markets, slurping Chocolate Milkshakes in Monte Carlo, chasing moles, falling in rose bushes.
Yes all these moments and places matter. The Mayfair flats where you climbed the stairs and brought me your friends to interview, the gardens and parks and garden squares where you found your own eggs and lizards and the fields you ran through and the trees you climbed, and the churches where our family took up the whole pew, kneeling, sitting, standing, singing, praying. They all matter.
And the restaurants where we toasted triumphs and I delved into your private lives. And the church in which you took your vows and the rooms where I couldn’t find you. Places matter. People matter even friends in minor ways matter, but family matters utterly and completely for family is all, even those family members you never knew, the peripheral names that wander the periphery of our history in tweed trousers and floral print dresses, smelling of camphor boxes and lavender bags, sipping tea from fine-bone china cups, tipping their hats, monitoring, guiding, correcting a phrase or mending a seam through the twisting flips & turns of the perfect quotidian chaotic moment we risk missing, in search of the perfect route, the perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect man, the perfect wife, the perfect husband the perfect way to say, “I love you” and never say goodbye, never let go of the places the memories, the laughter, or the tears.
When all else fails, when all hope seems lost, when all prayers seem unheard, when you don’t believe in yourself, never forget: “Mummy loves you, Mummy loves you most of all”. And she couldn’t be prouder of who you are and all you will achieve and become.
©Tyne O’Connell – Mummy 25 December 2015