(Stream of Consciousness)
25 years before my sister's death, mum was two and her dad was working out the war years in London. Tragically during his time there he contacted TB, which developed when he got home to Ireland. And fortunately, when one considers all the grief of that time he died in his own bed. Granddad died on Christmas day in 1949 and mum told me long afterwards that that night gran put her to sleep in the bed he'd been coffined from earlier in the day.
I don't know if mum attended his funeral though I have visions of her finding religion as she and gran trudged behind his funeral car. But this all happened long before I was born. However, I remember granddad's greatcoat, for mum put me to bed in gran's room when my sister died and I'm older now than she was then, and wondering if on that night she was remembering her dad's deathbed.
But Emma is dead going on 40 years, and it's not her death that has me reminiscing, for I've lived with it every day since. It's the expectancy of the birth of my first grandchild, and sadly the expectancy of mum's death, which has aroused ghosts.
Granddad’s greatcoat hung on the back of gran's bedroom door -- the bedroom she and I shared after Emma died. It had black satin lining and was a dark grey colour. Every night before she got into bed, she took it down and threw it over our feet. She said that it would keep us safe in the night as she carefully fixed its empty arms. One to hang onto the floor and the other to chase up the bedspread towards our heads. I asked her how it would keep us safe, and she answered, 'your granddad owned it so if we keep it near us, he won't let us come to harm, for good energy works like that.’
So each night when she had it fixed to her satisfaction, she climbed in beside me covered from head to toe in a flannelette nightdress and lying down she blessed herself and started the rosary.
Gran knew what days of the week and the weeks of the year each of the mysteries were supposed to be prayed and she'd give out the rosary for me to answer. Sometimes she might check the dates to make sure she had chosen correctly, it was important that the prayers were said in tune with the church calendar, one must never confuse the Sorrowful, Joyful, Luminous or Glorious Mysteries. The title was acknowledged in the beginning of the routing and when we finished reciting, she'd speak the after-rosary-prayers and then making sure I had blessed myself at the end she'd tell me stories.
Her nighttime fairy stories were her personal horror stories about the death of her brothers who were killed in the WW1 and in our own civil war. Now looking back, I know it was her way to empathize and try and settle my head around the idea of loss in life. And in a fashion, it did, for in her bed each night I prayed desperate Hail Marys. And Holy Mary became my paraclete who interceded with God for me. And on those nights, I cried, and I prayed with a similar fervour both, for my sister who I missed and for my soul that was surely damned.
But I hated James Joyce. For how could a one take seriously the voice of a young cod who referred to himself as an artist? But then I was presumptuous--assuming that he and I lived on the same timeline -- for what did I know as a nine-year-old -- not realizing that he was dead as long as he was for wasn't he writing about my life.
Was it that he cemented his words so well that I was still walking them? for in 1970, I still lived the religious guts of “A Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man" with mum walking me down to the chapel every evening so that I'd build a conscience to keep my soul safe.
And in school, my hell, fire and brimstone, was a long thin stick that whistled fear as it came down onto my hand with the power of God behind it.
And when it struck it raised a welt that that quivered in anticipation of the next strike. And though the pain rattled it was never as bad as the thought that similar was waiting for me the next day. School routine and condition deemed it correct. But the flogging stopped after my sister’ s death for I was special then for I had a sister who had joined the choir of angels in heaven or that was what the old nuns said.
I don’t know if Napoleon really said that the day, he got his 'First Communion' was the happiest day of his life, James Joyce said he did, and it was a comforting thought for me, for my sister received First Communion before she died. And our head nun said he did and said she was an angel. I have her class photo still and in it she’s smiling and her white veil contrasts. with the black gap left from the tooth fairies visit in the early spring. Though my memory is different.
In my mind, she’s laid-out in a coffin, wearing her veil and white dress. She has a black bruise on her forehead, where she knocked her head when the car hit her, and she is as cold as a marble-floor on a hot day.
I'd wished her dead with a child’s fervour, for we argued the morning she died and my soul would pay the price for my thoughts.
So, when my grandmother prayed rosaries under the protection of granddad’s greatcoat I feverishly joined in praying to Mary. And forty years later it was coming to a head. For as I waited on the arrival of my first grandchild I prayed again for the new life that would arrive and the old one that was leaving as I watched my mother live a demented life in a hospital bed. But then I had this fanciful idea that mum's thoughts were eager companions to mine for when mum had wanted consolation she turned to prayer as well.
After I thought of your diagnosis I wondered if your confederacy was stamped with the seal of your God? Had he taken you all out of action to teach your ménage how to relate? Where are you, Mum? Your room is charged by your gist. In your bones I touch silence and pierce affairs, which were never written but were constant in your timbre, pitch and in my own perception.
Suspended on the wall over mum's bed are photos of her grandchildren. A few prayer cards and a rosary lie on her bedside locker behind a water jug. I studied my nieces and nephews as I bent over to rest my arms on her guardrail struggling to allow my eyes to drift-down onto her slight outline. Then reaching into her, I touched her hair, stroked her cheek and expecting no recognition I made a comment about the weather and then about the children’s photos.
Since the onset of her dementia, I’m used to being disavowed, so I was surprised to see her spirit fight to reach out through the veil that guards her eyes and I willed her on. Wanting to share my breath as I watched her struggle to build thoughts - to get her tongue around the words she needed to build her sentence. Her hand fluttered over the bedcover and as she beckoned me closer, she said to me, "you were once my baby." Then my heart dropped like a pebble splashed into a body of water; it shimmied a sense of life -- without beginning or ending for my mother remembered me. She recognized me and taking her hand I held it lightly as I replied, "yes mum, I was once your baby."
And then I saw her as she was" a young woman walking the boreens where cowslips and primroses swayed a procession as she held my hand to guide me safely over dales where hedgerows scented the air with woodbine.
Too soon she looked away and loosened her grip to drift into dreams where I hoped she travelled to someplace glorious and safe where her heartache had ended, and her thousand natural shocks were no more.
My up-swelled thoughts:
We’re sitting on a picnic bench in Stratford Upon Avon; mum's wearing a Jackie Kennedy type suit with hat and gloves and carrying a large handbag out of which she hands me breadcrumbs to feed the pigeons. I'm four years old and my long curly hair is tied with a red ribbon.
Fast forward four years and we're in a Dublin cinema watching 'Mary Poppins' on the big screen. When it's over we run down Grafton Street to catch a bus to make the train. She holds me by one hand and Emma by the other as she tethers on high heels and we wish for a 'Poppins' umbrella to magic us there.
Then it's Christmas and Mum struggles to squash a large turkey into a small oven and when she succeeds she sits back onto her heels, her feathered fringe falling into her eyes as she wipes the sweat o f her brow delighted with her success calling out to nana to put the kettle on.
And always at night; shouting upstairs, calling for us to go to sleep and be quiet or she would be up to sort us and we’d laugh louder to bring her up to say our prayers one last time.
I saw her cry for the first time while standing at the edge of my sister's grave. I was nine years old and watching her, as the priest dropped a handful of soil down into the black hole. It splashed outwards--on the lid of the small white coffin--paying out an orchestral backdrop to the muttered Hail Marys we answered as tears trickled down our face and when the priest finished prayers I waited with her as dad filled in the grave.
After Emma's death there was just the walk to the church for mass and devotions. Novena on Monday, mass on Wednesday, rosary on Thursday, mass or devotions on Friday and regular chapel on Sunday and there was a awful boredom at home in the house. I was on my own and the loneliness drove me into the pages of the books that sat into a small bookcase that fit into an alcove beside the fireplace and it was here I met Stephen Dedalus and he informed my worst fear - my reality was as dull and boring as his had been.
But in our house it was gran who made the fried bread, mashed potatoes and apple cake-- she was born in 1901 and if it was a weekend night she'd teach me songs about the civil war.
"We'll hang DeValera from a tree up in the park ... they sang that," she'd say.
"Where's the park, nana?"
"The Phoenix Park in Dublin."
"Why?" I asked
"For murdering Collins...I'll teach you the words" and she did over the next few days. She'd open a bottle of stout for herself and sitting me down at the kitchen table beside her she'd sip the black stuff and we’d sing.
I saw my face in gran's,
me, a child of nine,
she, going on sixth nine.
On her skin I saw years bet-in
from sun, wind and living
yet I knew each line;
from deep within I knew I'd walk her path
and live her kith and kin.
Now at forty-nine I reminisce her life
and comparing mine I know that
I knew her knowing when I was nine.
My son and daughter met my grandmother. They don't remember her, but she touched their lives, and I wanted mum to meet my first grandchild. So I called to her in dreams and when she came to me I was standing on a grey floor in a shiny room.
Its only light beamed from her smile as her gaze connected with the new soul that I held in my arms. She admired her shock of black hair; traced her nose with her finger; smoothed her cheek with the back of her hand; counted fingers and toes before she acknowledged me and I kept insisting; 'Look it's a new baby, a new baby, mum' as I intently listened for her reply. And when it came it fell on a soft breath as she said, “and isn’t she lovely! but she’ s not for me!'
'She's not for me!' her whispers gather; like a breeze they follow me as I go about my days awaiting the birth my son's baby, her great grandchild, awaiting mum's last breath.