Loose Lips

The Headstone

“Do you remember any affectionate moments with your mother?”

The therapist was probably feeling an awkward silence that I was blissfully unaware of while I attempted to route through a few decades in under a minute. 

“No”, I said, “Mammy wasn’t touchy feely. Just sometimes if she had an itch she might ask me to rub her back.” It was true that Mammy wasn’t the kind of Mammy to have us on her knee or give us a hug, but there were things I would remember later,  maybe too late. 

That day in Dun-Laoghaire when we went to the bakery and she told me to pick out whatever bun I’d like, and I had the chocolate éclair. I remember biting into it and some of the cream oozing into my mouth, with the rest of it falling from my lips to my chin. Bits of chocolate breaking away, but never getting as far as the floor, and that light choux pastry, all air and chewiness, slaughtered by the captor of my mouth. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to eat it on the spot. There was the torture of carrying it to the bus stop in its paper bag and holding it on my knee until we had completed our journey up the hill on the number 7A bus to Sallynoggin and then the ten minute walk home until I could tear open the bag at the kitchen table and demolish it with a cup of tea that Mammy poured from the same tin teapot that everyone else on our street had. 

There were other things I remembered. The time I was so sick that I couldn’t get off the sofa, and Mammy got a bucket and every time I got sick she emptied it into the toilet. The bucket was orange and Kay from next door was called in because she had a book where you could look up any kind of illness that a kid had. It was called the Dr. Spock book. You knew that if your mother went next door to consult from the book that it was serious. The time with the bucket was apparently a stomach virus. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded good. 

I was a bad daughter from the start. Mammy went in next door all up in arms one morning because I had such acute lower abdominal pains. Kay looked it up and diagnosed a kidney problem. The doctor was summoned. Neither the doctor nor the Dr. Spock book could diagnose that I’d been up until the early hours of the morning, straining my back, reading ‘Tom Sawyer’ with a torch under the sheets. I didn’t dare tell the truth. I had too much to lose. As the years went on, I missed copious amounts of school suffering from the insomnia induced by my secret reading habits: Enid Blyton, Patricia Lynch, Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain, are but a few of the bad influences who weakened my academic prowess. Thanks to the Dr. Spock book, I was unable to get through the day due to anaemia: “ look at the black rings under her eyes”, which sounded too professional to contest. I was on a roll, I could do all nighters at the age of nine and was already cute enough to know that the best policy was to keep shtumm. It worked. 

Therapists are always looking for a sad story, and if you are the victim in it, even better. People who do therapy all have the same story. It is ‘look at how damaged I was by my terrible parents and look at how well I have overcome it.’ My story is different. My parents were not the only perpetrators of my childhood misery and traumas, and quite frankly, not many people would have survived my childhood as well as I did. In my case, therapy helped me remember things from both sides, and ultimately all I could do was to thank the above mentioned authors for saving me. When the real world was too overwhelming to deal with, reading became a form of escapism. There was the real world, and the other world , the one I lived in, full of books  – novels, poetry and even the odd Dale Carnegie thrown in, that might have wandered in from my father’s bookshelf to my grubby child  hands. My favourite though, was Patricia Lynch ‘King of the Tinkers’. Granny gave it to me for my tenth birthday, along with a book of Irish fairy tales by Sinead DeValera. By ten it had become official that there was no point in giving me anything other than a book. One cousin was creative with a cookery book, and for about three years I managed to combine reading with making peppermint creams – a hideous paste of caster sugar, water and peppermint essence, rolled into little round coinlike discs. 

There are probably dozens, even hundreds of kind and loving things that my mother did for me, but the relationship sets the tone, and it was always strained. A difficult marriage, the demon drink and a basic lack of parenting tools were things that set the scene when I was a kid in the 70’s. I may not have been alone in this, the only thing that set me apart was the fact that my mother never really liked me. For whatever reason that may be, and there is a plethora of possibilities, it shaped our relationship and I never managed to find a way back. 

Ask her though. She may have a different story. Her prodigal daughter. No respect. Breaking with convention. A lesbian. Every mother’s nightmare. Maybe getting married and having children was a last attempt to win her over. And when the whole thing backfired, it was nothing but a confirmation for her that her daughter was a no good loser. Might she have influenced my decision not to follow my other true love, my passion for writing, in order to look good in a capitalist corporate role? Status, money, power. Not really. That was something that she only valued as something a man does. The woman really only needed to ‘mary well’. I didn’t.

 But who really knows what makes us do the things we do? Not even the shrink. Not even ourselves most of the time. Life happens, and if we decide to navel gaze we can come up with all sorts of concoctions.

In life she was quite the drama queen; in death she was very amenable. A short illness without much pain, one that meant we could say goodbye. There were nights on a recliner chair in the nursing home. There were long days where all we could do was sit around her bed and wait. But what were we waiting for? Does your mother ever die? Now, years later, I have discovered that no, she doesn’t, she is always there, and no matter how difficult the relationship was, she is still your mother, and yes, even if it was the hardest love you ever had to fight for, you loved her.

She was right. I’m a bad daughter. It’s taken me four years to get the ball rolling to have her gravestone heading engraved. Since 1979 it boasts my father as a permanent resident. She has been there with him since 2015, unbeknownst to strangers who like to roam graveyards reading the epitaphs. 

Having a gravestone engraved is not easy. We edited and reedited and found multiple errors before realising we had forgotten to add that she was also a grandmother, and then the issue that her name was not written in the same size her husband’s was, which her feminist daughter was not going to let happen. Then, there it was. A sentence that said Mammy was there with Daddy, in St. Fintan’s graveyard, on the other side of the bay, the place they grew up before they got married. All of the lettering correct perhaps, but is that where she lies when I can hear her right here beside me, egging me on to eat an éclair or retreat to read a book, still whispering into my ear that I need to be respectable, that I’m a lost case, her ghost handing me a gin and tonic to keep my misery company in the only way that she knew how to deal with misery.  So now, instead of giving her an angry lecture on how turning to drink  might be, I just raise the glass and say ‘Cheers’. Rest in Peace Mother, see you another time. 

3 thoughts on “The Headstone”

  1. It’s funny, whenever I talk to someone else about my mother, I only talk about the good things. The truth is, she was very flawed. She was an alcoholic prone to crazy mood-swings. One of my earliest memories is her telling me that if I wasn’t good, she’d go away and never come back. She pulled that crap on my brother when he was just six, it was the first time I stood up to her. I told her if she left and never came back, she’d be a terrible parent, and we’d be better off. It was the scariest, most real moment of my young life. Even so, we love our mothers, don’t we? The folks that I hear say how much they adored their mothers are usually serial killers, but maybe that’s just something made up for TV.

  2. I’m not sure that everyone who goes into therapy has a cookie cutter story. Are some of us victims? Sure. But not everyone has overcome it or dealt with it well (speaking from personal experience here). We just survive it and try to live by the “one day at a time” mantra, even though we’re not addicts of any kind. Then again, maybe we are. Addicted to our pasts and the ghosts we allow to haunt us from afar.

    Letting go of trauma and pain isn’t something easily done, despite what those Hollywood writers like to claim. Like so much else, it’s not like it is in the movies where it’s superficial and fixed with some generic hallmark saying and a hug that somehow manages to mend every ache. It’s just not a realistic expectation to have for yourself, or anyone else.

    You’re not a lost cause until you’re dead – and if it takes an eclaire and a good book to get you through a rough patch, I’d say you’re doing better than you’re giving yourself credit for.

  3. I know what it is to have a strained relationship with your parents. Mine divorced when I was 8. My father was a violent, abusive alcoholic. Disputing rights of custody, my father went so far as to kidnap my sister and I. My mother, not wanting to miss out on government paychecks, found and reclaimed us. She lived a very fast lifestyle and shielded my sister and I from it very little.

    She went through six live-in boyfriends in as many years. One of which offered me cocaine when I was 11 and, well, the rest I’ll spare you the details. I got thrown out of my home at 15 and, as a homeless drug addict, I spent the next couple of years in and out of juvenile detention centers. I spent my 20th-32nd birthdays behind prison bars.

    I still don’t have contact with my mother. I’m not sure which one of us is at fault, I can understand why she’s ashamed of me. But she didn’t want me me before I ended up an addict who couldn’t seem to keep out of a cell. I wonder if I was just a hook to sink into some guy she wanted to keep around, or if I was wanted and loved, but just a bad seed from the start.

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