Ma

She grew up on the banks of the Grand Canal, where her father was the lock keeper, tending boats that brought cargo down from Dublin, dropping her and eleven siblings at school on the way. Afterwards, she went to London, trained in Hammersmith Hospital, qualified as a registered nurse and midwife. Was offered a post in Fulham, but delayed her start date. Told the Matron her sister was taking final vows for the Convent. Wangled two weeks home for the carnival.

The marquee pitched beside the Shannon, water rustling under the bridge, a bellyful of September moon above it. Maurice Mulcahy and his band ‘In the Mood.’ She was standing at the canvass wall, her russet hair falling in waves down her back, when my father invited her to waltz around the saw dusted floor.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Sadie,” she said.

They danced every second dance; his friend, Gerry, asking her for every other, so as nobody else could. A city boy landed in the country, he was an engineer in the new power station, flooding the Midlands with electricity, a sportsman and member of the Parish Summer Revue.

“Would you like a lift home?” he asked when the band announced last dance.

“Yes,” she said.

They squeezed into the back seat of Gerry’s Morris Minor, lingered awhile outside the lock house, made a date for the following Tuesday. A fortnight later, he walked her into town. Settled her suitcase on the roof of the bus, tied it with twine. His heart in a knot. 

She got as far as Dublin; found a position in the Wentworth Nursing Home. Never made the boat to England. Wrote him letters and arranged to meet outside the GPO; for a picnic in Phoenix Park and a dance in the Olympia ballroom. They took the train along the seafront to Killiney, trekked up the hill and gazed over the Bay. Saw the mail boat disappear around Howth Head and shivered.

Six weeks later, he proposed. She ran home shrieking, “I’m getting engaged!” Her mother fretting, invited him for tea. Thought him untidy, too casual, not at all like an engineer. On top of a double-decker bus at Christmas, he slipped a three-stone diamond ring onto Sadie’s finger. 

“What colour are her eyes?” his Auntie Nan wanted to know.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “But, her hair is colossal.”

He took her to Limerick on Stephen’s Day, where his father walked her around the city. Nan instructed on which basin to use for washing the dishes, the vegetables, feet. Younger sisters charmed by her beauty.

They’ll never believe it, he sang at their engagement party, that from this great big world you’ve chosen me.

“August will suit best,” his father told them.

“We’ll get married along with ye,” said her sister, Peg, who’d been courting Myles for seven years.

She sent to England for the dresses; powder blue lace with matching jackets and hats. Arranged for Auntie Kit to make the bridesmaids’, pink taffeta. Washed her hair two weeks before the wedding, waited for the frizz to calm down. Whisked egg whites for a face mask.

They were married at eight o’clock Mass on August 12th 1953. The Priest produced apples in the sacristy and everyone munched merrily, having fasted since midnight to receive Holy Communion. Breakfast was served in the Shamrock Lodge, followed by Peach Melba. He sang on one knee, This is our Lovely Day, before setting off on honeymoon to the Isle of Man.

Ten months later, I was born. Da was transferred to Donegal to electrify the North West. Ma and I followed by train. She didn’t take off her headscarf for six months, in case her hair blew away. Three boys were born. Me dressed as a Crolly doll for the fair; Ma voted best dressed; me brushing her hair before bed every night, Ma telling me her stories.

After four years, we returned to Offaly, close to grandparents for Sunday teas. When Da was working away and Ma was lonely, she’d send a telegram for Myles to fetch us in his blue van, to stay with Peg and their three girls. Two sisters were born and we were off again.

Next stop was a small seaside town in Sligo, in the shade of Knocknarea. The Silver Slipper ballroom across the road, me at the window, describing the dresses to Ma sewing by the fire, a row of pins between her lips. Then, it was Dublin and the end of our moving.

And every night I brushed her hair and listened to her stories.

The seventh child was born that month, the eight a surprise five years later. The kitchen strewn with schoolbags, prams, the washing machine, baked bread cooling on the counter. Saturday night, twin glass bowls on the sideboard with raspberry jelly setting and peas steeping. Shoes polished and lined up under the table; eight of us smelling of Lux soap after our weekly bath.

Sunday drives, wedged into a Volkswagen; a baby on Ma’s knee; People counting, as we piled out. Home for tea and television and the sinking feeling for school. The boys sliding up and down the hall before bed, their socks soaked in floor polish, to shine the floor.

Sunday sports commentaries and not allowed make noise. Blinds drawn during Wimbledon, the World Cup, Horse Shows, All-Ireland Finals and Rugby Internationals; the boys re-enacting in the back garden. Ma at the sink, their number one supporter, tapping at the window if they strayed near her rosebushes.

Birthdays were celebrated with a cake. First Communions and Confirmations with a trip to the Zoo or cinema, chips in the Ritz Cafe. At Christmas, the tree twinkling behind the glass door, a candle in the window beside the crib, guiding baby Jesus home. Gifts galore, the Limerick Santa came too. Roast turkey and ham, salty gravy. Plum pudding drenched in whiskey; a match lit to ignite a blue flame. Fruit cake topped with marzipan and vanilla snow icing, surrounded by a red ribbon.

She sewed costumes for the musical society and baked coffee cakes for the orphanage fete. Helped a beggar lady who called for food, money for bills, or a communion dress to be made. Neighbours had her take temperatures, feel foreheads, listen to problems, and mind children home sick from school.

And every night I brushed her hair and listened to her stories.

In August 2003, they celebrated their Golden Anniversary, surrounded by eight children, fifteen grandchildren, Da on one knee again, serenading her with another ring, eight birthstones.

She left this world listening to his voice, God Keep You is my prayer, her hair falling out in tufts. Chose a cream cardigan for lying in repose. When Da was laid to rest, people romanced about them singing in a heavenly choir, but their only duet was Pretend you’re happy when you’re . . . and her chiming in with, “Blue.”

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