Monthly Archives: May 2012

Kaleidoscopes.

Life is a kaleidoscope of colour and texture. It is filled in and mixed up by the people that we meet and the experiences that we share. Stories that take us outside our own lives and invite us into other parallel worlds can be the ways in which we live and learn about life.

Actual living is relative and subjective, and the social interaction that we have with other people can add to the myriad of colour that make up the complicated versions of individual lives.

I believe that there are great stories to be told and I am going to attempt not be so inward and narcissistic in the future. Other peoples lives are much more interesting than mine is.

In conversation tonight with a man, I listened to his philosophy on life. He is a true poet (although he has no real idea of his eloquence or the simple beauty of his words and how he relays them.) He has suffered hardship and addiction and has found his way through. His honesty hit me like a bomb. He is stripped of all falseness and pretence. There was no boasting of how he recovered, just a searing honesty of how he lives his life now and how he sees the “inside” of people who he can relate to because of his previous addiction.

He prescribes no solution to people that he meets as equals, he just relates his own experience, and speaks eloquently and coherently about finding his own way. He searches out the joy and goodness that he believes lies at the core of all human beings, and he acknowledges that this is the way that simply works for him. He believes that most people are kind and loving although they may have lost their way, and he tries to “tap” into that inner core in his exchanges with people. He looks you straight in the eye. He owns his feelings and beliefs.

I looked straight back and found myself in awe of this man and his direct gaze. If I wasn’t honest in my own exchange I would have had to look away, such was his gentle power.

When meeting people in social settings I believe that we are conditioned to behave in a particular manner. We chat, exchange pleasantries, and rarely disclose matters that are of importance to us if the people that we meet are strangers.

This man did not observe the “rules” and I am so thankful that he didn’t. I will remember this encounter and sincerely hope that I will meet this wonderful man again someday.

Life can make you look again more closely when you least expect it in the most humblest of settings. Is this how destiny is shaped?

Tradition.

Being part of a family and having a sense of belonging that comes with the knowledge that I am loved is something that I can take for granted. I feel very fortunate. Living in modern times where people can be scattered across the globe, I realise that as a family we are not so different to many others who find themselves split up and divided.

One of my brothers lives in the sunny soaked Island of Tenerife with his wife, while another lives here at home in Dublin. My sister lives with her close extended family of children and grandchildren in Great Britain. As a result we don’t get together as a complete family too much these days and when we do I simply love it.

When some of us gather, our meetings have particular flavours and habits that have been replicated so often over time that I don’t think we really know how to do it any other way.

I suppose we learned this from my father.

As I have already written previously, my Dad was a lovely man. He loved his nights out dancing with his “burd” (my mam) in the days before they married, and for several years afterwards too. He enjoyed socialising in pubs in the city with drinking buddies but never drank at home. When he was present he was as attentive as a Dad could be. He checked homework, disciplined when necessary, and brought us on wonderful childhood adventures all around Dublin City on Sundays after Mass. We swam in the sea, we frequented museums, and we took long train rides to far flung places like Greystones and Malahide. Dublin was a lot smaller when I was growing up than it is now.

He loved his home and surprisingly for a man of his time he also loved cooking. He experimented with flavours and recipes all through his life, and I clearly remember going into school aged ten and my friends telling me that my breath was rank! Garlic had arrived into Ireland and into our house. The year was 1970. He was a trail blazer, and although we had never seen this mysterious bulbous vegetable before, we were game to try any meal that my Dad created as he was so much better at cooking than my mother was.

My maternal Gran and Granddad were regular visitors to our house and he loved them. He had lost his own parents very early in his life and he and his only brother had been reared by an aunt, so he loved the closeness that he shared with his “in laws”. My grandmother in particular loved and cherished him and they had a great relationship that was a joy to behold.

He loved when they came to visit and he would always cook and push out all the stops for them. He experimented with all types of foods and ingredients and served them up with the expectation that they would be well received. If they bombed he would just try harder the next time. They were easily pleased but loved the attention that he gave them, and relished tasting the exotic dishes that he concocted in his efforts to please them.

After each meal with my Grandparents, he always served Irish coffees. It didn’t matter what time the meal finished at or on what day. It could have been an ordinary meal on a Tuesday evening or it could have been the Christmas feast of many dishes served over hours. The meal always ended with the beautiful mix of coffee, Irish whiskey, sugar and cream. This particular drink is very Irish and was “invented” by a lounge steward in Shannon Airport many years ago when welcoming American visitors on a chilly cold night. This creative steward added Irish whiskey to the coffee being offered to the new visitors in the arrivals lounge and the legendary drink was born.

I watched my Dad prepare the warm glasses, add the ingredients, stir the mix and expertly pour the dairy cream over the back of a spoon so that it rested on the top of this beautiful dark liquid from the time I was about seven years of age. I think he allowed me to try making them at the age of ten. He was a great “get stuck in and see what you can do” kind of man. I soon became expert and assisted him frequently in the preparation of these after dinner drinks for his guests.

Imagine inviting children to mix alcoholic drinks these days…. It would be considered to be child abuse! It’s amazing how the modern landscape of parenting has changed. My Poor Dad- He would be ridiculed and castigated. Although I helped create them, I never tasted the elixir that was the finale of so many remembered meals until I was well into adulthood and I recreated them myself in my own home.

Tonight I was in my younger brother’s house in Dublin after he had prepared and served a wonderful meal for some of our family. My Mam was there, her sister, my son & daughter, her boyfriend, my husband and my sister in law. Following on in true O’Neill tradition my brother asked me to make the Irish coffees….. I asked him why he didn’t make them himself and his reply was “sure no one can make them like you can”. Praise indeed.

Each and every time I make Irish Coffees for my family I remember my Dad and how I learned at his hand. I remember his pleasure in cooking, and how he loved to please people rounding off each meal with this special tradition. This is such a part of how we enjoy being together as a family, and my Dads custom is something that will be continued as long as I can still keep on making them.

Destiny can lie in tradition and how it shapes our continuing lives.

Matriarchs.

Mam & Dad circa 1955

Most Irish people in the past 50 years have grown up in households where the matriarchal figure was the most powerful force in their lives.

“Irish mothers”. They are legendary, and many stories, plays and movies have been written about the archetypical version that so many of us are familiar with.

My mother didn’t fit into that category. She had a different outlook on life and one that was at odds with most of the other “mammies” that I was surrounded by as a small child growing up in the suburban streets of Dublin.

My father was a lovely man but he was also a man of his time who believed that he was entitled to nights out with boozy pals while my mam cared for myself and my other siblings at home. This was a ‘normal’ landscape for many couples in Ireland during the 1950’s/60’s.

Unlike the mothers of my friends that I was familiar with, my Mam simply believed that she was born to dance. She practiced it with vigour alongside her sisters as they were all growing up, and she was a regular “girl about town” in her day before she met my Dad. During their days of courtship they danced in every dance hall and every ballroom in Dublin. When she could, she would dance five or six nights a week.

My mother’s looks were stunning. She looked like a movie star. A “Maureen O’Hara look alike” she was. She had beautiful red curling hair and a figure that was “Pure Hollywood”. She was a great dancer too, so she was popular and was never a wallflower. She had many a suitor but was never inclined to ‘go out with’ anyone who couldn’t dance.

This is what defined my mother as a young woman in the post war years of Dublin. She lived her days working in a local factory making cigarettes, and when her beauty was noticed by a senior manager she was plucked from the obscurity of the factory floor to become a guide, taking tours of visitors around the production area explaining the process involved in the manufacturing of cigarettes. By day she conducted endless tours of the factory earning her wages, but by night she donned her sparkly shoes and clothes and  danced until the early hours of the morning when my Dad would walk her home, or give her a cross bar on his bicycle when her feet were too tired after a nights dancing.These are her stories relayed down through the years.

When she married, the law in Ireland of the time meant that she had to give up her job.

The reality of being stuck at home after a honeymoon baby must have been a culture shock for her, and I have often wondered at how different her life was as a young married woman compared to her previous carefree existence as a single girl.

My early life is full of images of her getting ready to go out. I remember sitting on her bed as a child watching her getting dressed in beautiful clothes with sparkling jewelled accessories. I realise that there were days when she was washing clothes and ironing to beat the band, but my most vivid memories are the ones where she was fussing and excited, and these were all associated with dancing and going out with my father.

She was animated on those nights and made sure that dinner was over early and that the baby sitter was organised. I believe that because of her beauty she got a lot of attention in social settings and when she went out she was able to revert to being that young and carefree girl and dance the night away with my father, leaving behind her life as a wife and mother.

These days were the days that my mother loved. In reminiscing and talking about times past she would speak of how people loved what she was wearing and about how exciting the Dublin social scene was. It was all about the clothes, the jewellery, the dancing and the attention from my father. Looking back at old photographs I know that she was telling the truth, and there are so many captured images of her looking vivacious and happy, surrounded by laughing people who never looked quite as beautiful as she did.

Times change and the ballroom scene in Dublin changed during the 1960’s. The music changed too. The great show bands of that era were replaced by a new pop culture and I remember her hating the Beatles and all the new groups that were emerging during those times. The music that they produced was not music that she could dance to, and she yearned for the halcyon days of her youth and the crooners like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Ella Fitzgerald.

As her family grew larger, her nights out became rarer and eventually they stopped altogether. By the time my younger sister was a teenager my mother and father no longer danced together.

Raising a family of five children meant that a lot of her days were filled with washing, cooking, cleaning and other mundane chores that were hallmarks of life during the 60’s and 70’s. By the time my Dad died when she was a young woman in her early fifties, she was still rearing teenagers and worrying about future finances as my father had left no pension or nest egg to make life comfortable for her.

She was the most terrible cook !

Her philosophy of food was that “she ate to live -unlike most people who she believed lived to eat”! She dieted constantly and maintained her pre marriage weight through discipline and denial and “kept her figure” throughout her whole life. As children, we suffered burnt, horrible and unsavory meals and we were encouraged to” eat bananas” if we didn’t like what was on offer. She still considers banana sandwiches to be a “meal”, and despite her loss of appetite recently she still gets through at least one a day !

Her determination and vitality were instrumental in her going back to work full time after my Dad died and she continued working until she was into her mid seventies long after all my siblings had left home and built their own lives.

She has enjoyed wonderful holidays to many countries with close friends, and her two dear sisters who remain a huge part of her life. She has travelled the world visiting relatives and has clocked up more air miles than I have. She has kept a loyal circle of old school pals close to her heart throughout her life, and has had to deal with heart-breaking loss as three of them have died in recent times.

At eighty two years of age she still enjoys watching dancing programmes on TV and it’s still all about the dresses and the jewellery.

She is a punchy little woman who is much admired for her indomitable spirit and unflagging energy. Her recent terminal illness has made many people realise how old she actually is and how her life landscape has changed so radically.

She has had a good life filled with music, dance and love, although her time is now taken up with hospital visits and treatments in the hope of gaining some extra time. She has a large extended family of siblings, children, grandchildren great grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins. She is loved and respected and is a true Matriarch although she never quite fitted into the archetypical role of the “Irish Mammy”.

Now is a time to celebrate her life and to look back at all it was. A life filled with dancing, beauty, fun, love and laughter. She possesses a determination, energy, stubbornness and an incredible quick wit that is unique to her. She has suffered the unbearable pain of losing her husband and her youngest daughter to untimely deaths, and yet she still has the strength and resilience to get up each day and live.

I may not say it often and sometimes it’s hard to recognise something special when it’s up so close to you, but I love her- and I fervently wish that she had more time to do more things, to go on more holidays, to laugh more and to live more.

“Stay with us as long as you can Mam- because no one will fill the hole that you will eventually leave behind”.

Is this feeling of living loss part of my Destiny?