And now I am here again, at my kitchen table, thinking about back-to-school nights and bringing in the washing, instead of there, thinking about the ends of things. It was an intense weekend-and-a-bit, but with a lot of help from a lot of great people I accomplished almost all I had hoped to.
It was very … elemental, maybe, is the word I want. Very much about life, the hard parts of it that are the most real. I met a friend who was coming from her father’s funeral, buying balloons for her son’s fifth birthday party. I gave small children things from my aged parents’ house, sent them back to their homes with the last of my childhood books, dominoes, pretty boxes, and my spare recorder (sorry).
But there was a story I wanted to tell. On Saturday afternoon, someone helping me put things in boxes pulled a string in the kitchen and it broke. It was fine, it didn’t matter. They noticed the string was attached to a little bell that rang when you pulled it. They wondered why. I explained.
My father’s office was downstairs in the basement, ever since the recession in 1987 or so caused him and his partner to downsize and move to working out of their respective homes. There was a phone down there, and a phone upstairs in the hall beside the kitchen, so if the phone rang during business hours my dad would answer it down there, professional-like. If it happened that the call was actually for my mother, rather than have to open his office door and shout loud enough to be heard through the door to the basement, or come all the way upstairs, he rigged up a little bell with a string that went straight down through the floor, so that he could ring the bell from right where he was to let her know it was for her. (Or for me, maybe, even.) No undignified yelling required.
It is a perfect example of how our house worked, and how the things in the house were exactly tailored to suit its inhabitants. A little thing, that nobody seeing that bell would know, once I’m not there to tell the story any more: not the person who shows the house to prospective buyers, not the one who looks at the house wondering how they will mould it to their needs, not the one who rips it off the kitchen wall after the house has been sold.
So now I’ve told the story, and the reason for the bell will always be here, not lost after all.
This evening I sat on the floor for twenty minutes casting off.
There was this knitting thing, you see. Back in May I had opened the bottom drawer of the bureau in the hall and found a bag with knitting in it. In May I was busy looking at nursing homes. My brain can only cope with one thing at a time. I’d closed the drawer and gone back to whatever else I was doing at the time, just like I had closed cupboard doors on moulding jam and half-used lipsticks and left them for another day, another trip.
Now I can do it. I can open those drawers and I’m ready to consign much of their contents to the skip that’s handily outside the house (yes, I arranged for it to be there). In May I threw out the tissue paper that was everywhere, consolidated items, put all the lone gloves into one drawer and socks into another, found the jewellery that had been secreted away in odd shoes and cubbyholes and hinged tchotchkes. Now it’s September and I’m ready to put them in boxes and send them away: to donate them, to bag them up, to remove them from the spaces they were placed into and set them free.
So when I saw the knitting this evening, that I had pulled out of the drawer yesterday, I said to myself, I need to just do away with that so that I can put the needles and the wool with all the other knitting needles and donate them to the charity shop.
And then, because I had twenty minutes to spare before I had to be somewhere, I thought, No, wait. I don’t need to unravel it. I can just cast this off. And I sat on the floor where the kitchen meets the hall, and in the dimming light I put my basic knitting ability to use and I cast it off.
It was going to be something in baby blue. I don’t know what, though I think there was a pattern in the bag. I suspect it was for Dash, when he was a baby, that it was found too frustrating and stuffed away. My mother was never a great knitter. The biggest thing she ever knitted, to my knowledge, was a moss green waistcoat for my father some time in the 80s. I found it on his shelf yesterday when I went through his wardrobe, but I put it in the donation pile because I don’t think he needs it in the well-heated nursing home. I have no sentimentality, no soul, apparently. Also, I don’t think he ever wore it much, he just couldn’t throw it away.
So I cast it off, the blue knitting that was going to be a cardigan for my baby boy, or whatever, sitting there on the floor in the evening light. I’ll take it with me for the girlchild to use as a doll blanket. Knit one, pick it up, push it over the one before. Off she goes. My baby boy is eleven now, he’d never fit it. I saw my mother today and she was delighted to see me, disbelieving that I was really me, asking me how my exams had gone, moving on to generic questions about mum and dad or the boys, things she could ask anyone, because she wasn’t sure any more who it was but she couldn’t let on.
And then I cut the yarn, pulled the knot through, put the rest of the ball of wool in the bag with all the knitting needles and the patterns, ready to go to the charity shop tomorrow.
And as I sat there I thought how poignant it should be, and how metaphorical it was, and how I could write a great blog post about casting off the past and all that jazz. But really, I was just knitting, waiting, in a messy house, full of memories; it’s reached its time, it’s moving on, as all things have to. Finished off, undone, sent on, sent away. An end and a beginning. There’s always a beginning too.
“I have lived in important places, times / When great events were decided”
Those are the opening lines of Patrick Kavanagh’s “Epic“, a poem that was used mostly to illustrate the form of a sonnet to my English class, early in second year (that’s 8th grade for Americans). No mention was made of the contrast of the title to the brevity of the poem, now I think about it, but our teacher had enough to do just trying to get the basics across to us, since this was our first encounter with such a high-falutin’ thing as a poetic form other than nursery rhyme or limerick.
Anyway. The reason those opening lines are running through my mind is that I’m trying to figure out what to do with my dad’s photo albums. In about two weeks’ time I have to go to Dublin (yes, again) and try to tidy up and get rid of as much as possible of the contents of my parents’ house as I can in roughly four days. They don’t live there any more.
(Mabel says I can’t go. She won’t let me. It’s too hard to go to sleep at night with only Daddy. I’m sorry, and all, but I’d love to not go, except I have to. There’s nobody else to do it. This is what happens. It’s what everything comes to in the end, someone clearing away your belongings, assigning importance to some and tossing others out. She doesn’t get that yet. Maybe I don’t get it yet myself, really.)
In anticipation, I’m mentally going through the house, listing items of furniture and categories of things, deciding what could be kept, what should be given away, what’s just irredeemable rubbish. My father has been trying to empty the house for years; my parents weren’t hoarders (though in her later years my mother had taken to squirreling away tiny bits of tissue paper and scraps of cellophane, but those are very easy to throw away, after making sure there’s no tiny treasure balled up in the middle).
I’m trying to simultaneously think of everything there so that I can plan what to do with it, so I can spend more time doing and less wondering, and also so that I can be mentally bolstered against the whole thing, the whole dismantling of my past, my parents’ pasts, my home, my history. I’m very practical, but I’m also practical enough to know that it’ll be hard. It’ll hit me in the guts, so I need to be prepared.
Anyway, as I think I already said. I was thinking about my dad’s photo albums. He has about 15 of them hidden away in a piece of antique office furniture in the spare room. As befits him, they are meticulous records of days past and travels in interesting places. He has lived in England and Ireland, spent two years in the US, and a year in Guatemala, and these albums record those places, and others he travelled to, probably mostly in the 50s and 60s. When I’d asked him about them he’d shrugged and supposed that they’d have to be thrown out. Who would be interested in such things, he asked rhetorically, assuming the answer was nobody.
I wasn’t so sure. The idea of just throwing out his carefully recorded memories didn’t sit right with me, even if I didn’t think I could mail them to myself in the States to go through at my leisure, even if I wasn’t sure I would be all that interested in unknown people and places. But it occurred to me that he was in a couple of clubs that are still active, that might have people interested in their history and their founding members. And then I asked a lot of random strangers in an Irish Facebook group what they thought and the response was overwhelming: don’t throw them out! Find an archivist! Find a library! Someone wants these!
I emailed the two clubs in question and at least one is definitely interested. I had a correspondence with someone from the National Library, who said they might be interested depending on how much of Ireland is in it. I am pretty sure, based on all that, that there would be someone out there – or maybe out here – who would love to see the American and Guatemalan parts of his travels and records. I won’t toss anything. I’ll ask someone to keep them for me, or see if I can find someone to scan them for me, or maybe I will just post them to myself, but I will not trash them.
I think my dad will be happy about it. Bemused that his old snaps might now be considered archivable, important bits of history, even if the times he lived in were not important-seeming, if no great events were apparently being decided there and then. Sometimes ordinary lives are the most important. Patrick Kavanagh taught me that.
When I was growing up, one of my best friends was a boy. He lived at the top of my road, and our parents were good friends, so we were in and out of each other’s houses, and riding our bikes up and down the road, and happily duelling Sindys against Action Men and all that sort of thing for several years. But sometimes, especially as I got a little older, I didn’t always want to play the same games he did. “Let’s play cops and robbers!” he’d say. “Let’s do acrobatic tricks on our bikes,” I’d counter. So I’d be a robber escaping acrobatically from the cops, or a policeman doing an arabesque on my saddle as I pursued him.
Now and then, I had to pull out the oldest excuse in the book to get out of playing some game or other I didn’t feel like. I knew it was wrong at the time. The burgeoning feminist inside me cringed, but sometimes, to get out of things that looked too hard or too high or basically too uninteresting, I’d say to him “I’m only a girl.”
I don’t even know where my burgeoning feminist came from. She’d never heard of feminism. Her mother was not really flying the flag of liberated women, coming from the generation who had to give up work as soon as they got married, and not seeing any reason why a married woman would “take a job from a man”, as it was so quaintly perceived in those days. But she was the part of me who scrambled over rocks and climbed trees and turned cartwheels and read books and knew perfectly well she could do everything just as well, if not better, than her friends who were boys. Maybe that was why I knew it was wrong to say – it clearly wasn’t the truth. I may have heard it somewhere or read it in books, but in my own experience there was no reason to connect “only” with “girl”.
Tomorrow I’m taking my daughter with me – my fierce, independent, trail-blazing fighter of an eight-year-old girl – to vote for a woman to be the president of the United States. And I know that my daughter will never ever say she’s only a girl, because those words don’t go together at all. She’s everything a girl.
I wasn’t blogging much ten years ago, what with the move and the baby – a glance at my archives shows one short (but lyrical) entry from early August, and nothing else until the following January. So I never did write down what that road trip was like. I wrote a big screed about the first one, two years earlier, in the other direction, with the television sitting in the laundry basket on the back seat, but I haven’t been able to find it. For some reason I didn’t put it on the blog. So here are my road-trip memories, pulled out of the mothballs of my mind.
I remember that the baby cried and cried on the long highway up from Brownsville to San Antonio and on to Houston, and I made B pull over so that I could give him (the baby, that is) some boob, because apparently he was hungry, and then we’d start driving again and he’d start crying again and I’d look at him in despair because I’ve just fed you so there can’t be anything wrong, and I can’t hold you because we’re in a car, and you’ll just have to fall asleep. Eventually, he would fall asleep, but it was stressful driving.
We gave ourselves five days to do the trip, so that there was plenty of time for pulling over, and so we weren’t imprisoning the poor child in his car seat for eight hours a day. We probably sang “Don’t Fence Me In” to him a lot, because that was his theme song.
I remember thinking that it should be interesting driving through the deep south, but that the Interstate looked like the Interstate pretty much wherever you were, especially when it had those big pinkish sound-muffling walls on either side, as it so often did. We didn’t see anything of the leftovers of Hurricane Katrina even though I’m sure the towns around Mobile, Alabama, where we spent an unmemorable night, were still very much in recovery.
We had a night in Jacksonville, Florida, and I’d never been to Florida so I looked out the window with interest, trying to take it in and see something special or different about it. It was only Jacksonville, which is one of those armpit places, I’m told, so there wasn’t really anything to see. I still feel that I’ve never really been to Florida.
We stopped in Savannah, Georgia, because it sounded romantic and like the sort of place we’d like to see. It was very pretty, with its dangling greenery and intricate wrought-iron-work. I remember an ambulance coming past us with its siren going, waking the baby and terrifying him, making me furious at its thoughtlessness. We stayed in a cool-looking retro motel where the person who’d checked out before us hadn’t bothered taking their stuff with them: the closets still held suits and jackets and shoes. We told reception and they took care of it, as if it was a perfectly normal occurrence, but I couldn’t help wondering what sort of person just wouldn’t bother packing before they left.
South Carolina had long sandy beaches, not very wonderful to our eyes as we’d just come from the environs of the similarly long sandy beaches of South Padre Island, Texas. We stopped near Myrtle Beach and got out to take a good look. There were wooden boardwalks out over the dunes, which were pleasantly novel. And it was very windy at the Atlantic. I thought the Atlantic should feel more like home than the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s all the same water really, and it was still the wrong side of the Atlantic from the one that would feel like home.
We had been planning to head to somewhere like Newport News, Virginia, the sort of area where Dawson’s Creek was filmed, which would probably look nothing like the peaceful inlets and idyllic tiny docks of the show, but we were being tailed by a hurricane (Ernesto, it must have been), so we headed inland instead and stopped in some tiny place whose name escapes me instead. It turned out to have nothing but a very nice Holiday Inn with a restaurant where I ordered shrimp and grits and enjoyed them mightily. I was quite getting the hang of this southern eating.
When we finally got to Maryland, we stopped in a town called Waldorf to stay at a Super8 and eat at an Olive Garden, and I wondered what sort of place this was. When you’ve lived somewhere all your life, the very sound of a placename seems onomatopoeic: you can tell that it’s rough or posh or the back of beyond or the most Stepfordesque of suburbia just from the sound of the word. But all Waldorf said to me was salad. Apples and walnuts in the Home Ec book. I still don’t know what Waldorf is like, because we haven’t been down that end of the state since, but I know the motel wasn’t very upmarket.
We had to take shifts over our dinner that night, I remember, because the baby wasn’t in the mood to sit around and watch us eat. The waiter was very understanding and kept things warm as first one of us and then the other paced up and down outside with the tetchy four-month-old. You poor thing, I thought, whisked away from everywhere you’ve ever known and staying in a new place every night for a week, no wonder you’re grumpy.
But we’re still here. We’re your people, and we’re here. Isn’t that enough?
We are having a lot of rain. It’s been raining since Tuesday or so, and it’s Friday afternoon now. I think it’s due to stop on Sunday.
I shouldn’t be sorry that it’s not a hurricane, because hurricanes are bad and this is causing plenty of problems just with flooding, but I was sort of looking forward to being cosily housebound for a day or two. With electricity of course; not the uncivilized sort of housebound. The sort where you bake things and watch movies and do jigsaws companionably and nobody goes stir-crazy and kicks balls inside the house and splits their head open on the hearth because they were doing gymnastics off the sofa onto the coffee table.
Oh wait, I was envisioning a nice cosy hurricane without children. We had one of those in 2005 when we lived in Texas. Emily, it was. A category 2 that whirled past the town causing a wall to fall on some cars. We assumed our apartment complex would deal with any boarding up that should be done (they didn’t do any) and our friends who lived across the way came over to play Trivial Pursuit and drink wine. It was just lovely. I probably made nachos, or a cake. There may easily have been mojitos.
But still. It’s cold and wet and miserable, and now that I’ve finished driving the length and breadth of [a small portion of] the Beltway, where things are not improved by such conditions, it’s really the nicest sort of weather for making a vat of chili and opening a bottle of red, with salted chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. We can have a hurricane without the hurricane, and sleep soundly to boot.
That’ll do, then. And nobody needs to split their head open.
I remember the spindly fake tree we had for so many years, and how much I hated it. I remember the foil milk-bottle-top decorations on it that I must have made at playschool, and a cardboard Santa with impossibly long legs and cotton wool for a beard. I remember feeling the weight of the presents on the end of my bed before daylight on Christmas morning and the almost comforting thrill of knowing they were there to wake up to in a few hours. (How restrained I was.) I remember almost busting Santa the year we stayed at my cousins’ house in London – I heard someone moving in the room, but I kept my eyes tightly shut and was all the more excited in the morning because I had heard him. I’m sure all the adults heaved a sigh of relief.
I remember the unshakeable ritual of Christmas dinner at my aunt’s, from consomme to trifle with all the requisite things in between. Turkey, ham, sausagemeat stuffing, sage and onion stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, carrots, celery and sprouts. Roast potatoes of course. Lighting the plum pudding. Brandy butter and cream. A walk in Marley Park to digest, and home for the big film on the telly and some post-prandial port for the grown-ups.
I remember getting new clothes for Christmas, when times were lean and I was dressed in my school uniform or hand-me-downs from my five older girl cousins for the rest of the year. The thrill of those cobalt-blue trousers-not-jeans that matched the green and purple and blue wavy striped sweater and the (oh joy) grey pixie boots to make a real outfit of it; even if it was all from Dunnes I didn’t care, they were new clothes and they were in fashion. I wore that outfit to Sunday mass all year, I think.
I remember clinging to the traditions as they started to crumble; the first year my aunt didn’t host dinner, and how I was bereft, feeling that it wasn’t Christmas at all if we didn’t drive over the winding road past Lamb Doyle’s to Rathfarnham, seeing the lights of the city spread out below us from the heights of Stepaside. I remember the way I established traditions where there had been none, insisting that we take turns opening and admiring our presents, making little piles for each person beside their allotted seat, ensuring that no moment of delight was missed, watching my father slice open the wrapping paper at the join of the tape with a craft knife, surgeon-like, careful to keep every re-usable scrap for next year, taking careful note of who had given what to whom.
(I remember the shock when I first attended the apparent free-for-all of another family’s Christmas, where paper was ripped with abandon and nobody took time to admire each other’s gains until the frenzy was over.)
Traditions are memories that you can re-create over and over. And when they’re finally done with, it’s time to forge some new ones out of folded paper and fruitcake and gingerbread and fairy lights and wrapping paper and carols and friends and family and laughter and maybe even a few tears.
This post is part of the Christmas Memories linky hosted by Naomi at Dr How’s Science Wows. Head on over there and read some more.