No hugs or kisses

The words from the Joni Mitchell song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ were running through my head as I removed the children’s booster seats from the back of my car last week. ‘Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ Somehow their removal seemed symbolic of the shock and turmoil of the past couple of weeks.

I was giving the car a bit of a clean out. I’m sure most of us have been cleaning our houses to within an inch of their lives these days, as much from boredom as anything else. So I had moved on to cleaning the car. You’d swear a herd of mucky sheep lived in it – but it is really only one grubby small dog who, because she is so low to the ground picks up every bit of dust and mud going when we out walking.

And I took out the seats to give them a wipe and to hoover underneath them. And there they were sitting all forlorn on the driveway and I realised that there was no point in putting them back in for the foreseeable. I have to say I had a bit of ‘a moment’.

In the same way that you incorporate your children when they are born into your life, so us grandparents somehow expand our hearts, our homes and our days to accommodate the extra small people. Without our realising it, they become part of the fabric of our lives.

All of a sudden we have dodies appearing behind cushions, bits of Lego tripping us up on the floor, artworks hanging yet again on the walls. We become aware of Peppa Pig and LOL dolls, Thomas the Tank Engine and Paw Patrol. We find ourselves yet again having to tackle spellings and sums, reading about how Maria and Dermot are playing ball in the park and learning all about what are now called ‘tricky words’.

I now have small person wellies permanently at the kitchen door and for years had a travel cot tucked under the bed. I have a supply of art materials for rainy days in a press and two small wheelbarrows lined up in the garden. I have a set of swings, a football and a trampoline all ready and waiting for action whenever they are required.

Like thousands of grandparents all over the country I have taken on the task of regular childminding. My daughter’s generation are still feeling the effects of the last recession and so my generation have tried to take up some of the slack in whatever way we can. And so my weekly timetable – such as it is now that I am retired – is based around my babysitting days.

And now, almost overnight, it has all come to a halt.

And yes I know that I am inclined to be a bit of a drama queen at times, but I do think we are all entitled to shed a tear or two at what has come to pass. I cannot be the only one finding it a huge shock to go from all that involvement, all those hugs, hand holding and kisses to social distancing and isolation in the space of a week. And I haven’t even mentioned how much I miss their Mammy!

So I am going to allow myself a couple of days of tearfulness and whinging and bit of lying on the sofa to contemplate my misery before I pull myself together. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way, so that is some comfort.

In the meantime we are making lots of video calls to each other and sending virtual kisses. They’re not as good as the real thing, but at times like this you take what you can get.

Abe Lincoln & Me!

I have just discovered a link between Abraham Lincoln and myself. It’s tenuous, I’ll give you that, but a link it is nonetheless, sent to me in black and white.

For the last several years I have been determined to ferret out what family history I can. It started after the death of my mother, reading through old letters and postcards trying to piece together from fragments of correspondence a whole missing line of my family.

Perhaps it’s an age thing. The older you get the more important the past seems to become. I have become intrigued to see patterns emerging – patterns in occupations, health conditions, looks and personal characteristics.

For instance – and stop me if I’m boring you – but I discovered that my great grandfather was a policeman and served in the RIC. On the other side of the world and almost a hundred years later, I found a second cousin of whom I had no previous knowledge who had just retired from Los Angeles police department.

Coincidence, probably. But surely if doctors, lawyers and politicians can run in families – why not policemen?

But I digress. Back to Abraham Lincoln and me. As I said I have been researching my mother’s side of my family, since naturally, it was mostly to that side that the correspondence referred. My mother’s father had married a Catholic woman, to the seeming horror of his two Presbyterian brothers. While one of them eventually was reconciled, the elder brother broke all ties and I never even knew he existed before I found the store of letters.

Genealogy is a huge area of interest for people all over the world. There are people poring over documents, scanning micro-fiches in dusty rooms, searching on-line, off-line and between the lines trying to connect with people living and dead.

And while there is nothing like turning the pages of an ancient ledger of birth records – there is also a lot to be said for the internet and the wondrous speed and accessibility it affords to the part-time researcher like myself.

It was a combination of searching the newly available 1901 and 1911 Census along with placing messages on genealogical sites that have lead Abraham and me to the same page. And it’s not that I have presidential ambitions and hopefully it’s not that I’m in line for assassination.

But it turns out that a very distant relation was a famous detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. According to my source he was also an undercover agent in discovering the so-called Baltimore Plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

My son-in-law has already pointed out to me this evening the tangled nature of this link. This guy was my gran-uncle’s wife’s mother’s brother. Yes I can see that it’s a bit of a mouthful and hard to get your head around if you say it out loud. But written out like that … well, I can almost see me and Abe putting the finishing touches to his Gettysburg speech, or pondering the station of the nation over a couple of iced teas on his front porch!

Smashing concrete

Most people I know relax by sitting down having a nice cup of tea. Or maybe stretched out on the sofa with a good book or watching a bit of mindless telly. Exercise can be good too – a bit of fresh air in the lungs is always reviving. For me at the moment however, taking a break means trundling wheelbarrows full of earth around the garden.

As if I didn’t have enough to do I decided to create a new raised bed around at the back door. I know, I know – it’s not exactly a priority – it would be more in my line to spend what little free time I have doing a bit of dusting, or investigating what lies beneath the sofa. But honestly the outdoors seems a far more attractive option.

There are three aspects to the construction of this new raised bed. First of all I needed to break through the existing concrete. I have been contemplating this for some time but as I don’t own a pick-axe I kind of put it on the long finger. To be honest I was saving it up for some weekend when number one son might be in the mood for a bit of concrete smashing.

But as it happens a couple of weeks ago I had work done in another part of the garden and the chap who did it left behind this very heavy lump of metal. It was lurking around the back of the shed for a few days before I took note of it and realised its potential for smashing concrete.

I’ve learned since that it is a ‘half shaft’ of a tractor, but it’s much more useful to me as a yoke that you lift up and just let drop on the concrete. After a few bangs, hey presto, the concrete is broken into small enough bits to be shimmied out with a crow-bar.

The second stage in the process is the building of a small wall around my raised bed. Over the years here as I have dug my way around the garden I have released a lot of rocks back into the wild. I’ve used them in a rockery, to edge my vegetable and flower beds, and – having gone on a course to learn how to do so – to build small dry stone walls.

Building walls with field stones is like a 3 dimensional jigsaw puzzle for which you have no picture to work from. You have a sort of an idea how long you want the wall to be and how high, but after that it’s totally dependent on the rocks and stones you have to hand. And how it turns out is always a surprise.

And the final stage – the bit where I am up to now – is the filling of the bed with fresh earth. Good topsoil is like brown gold to me. So when about 2 months ago a chap with a digger came to create a new gravel path at the side of the house and wanted to know where would he ‘dump’ the soil, I told him to leave it right where it was and that I had great plans for it.

He gave me a bit of a funny look, but fair play to him he did just that. So now I have a lovely 3 foot high, 10 foot long mound of earth to play with. I’ve been using it to replenish the soil in the oldest flower beds and to add a bit of extra life to the vegetable beds. And the plants in the polytunnell don’t know what’s hit them with all this extra goodness they’re getting.

So when I am sitting at the computer for hours on end – sending emails, designing flyers, writing up class plans – and I need a break, I just stick on my wellies and reach for my wheelbarrow. There is something tremendously satisfying about digging into the earth, filling a barrow and seeing one pile of dirt diminish and another pile take shape.

And having moved a few barrow-loads I can come back to the computer refreshed and renewed and ready to tackle the world again.

Remembering Lennie

We’ve all been in situations where, when things are all going horribly wrong, someone is bound to say ‘Never mind, some day we’ll get a good laugh out of this’. I was in one of those situations last weekend – but I’m not laughing yet.

On a recent visit to Scotland so many things went haywire that its hard to believe that they all happened to the same person. For starters some weirdo got hold of my mobile phone number and sent me some very odd text messages. A friend’s car broke down on her way to pick me up and I was stranded in Perth for 6 hours with all my luggage and after everything that happened, my flight home was delayed till the wee small hours.

However all these mishaps pale into insignificance by comparison with losing my tickets to the Leonard Cohen concert. I discovered the loss while climbing up the steps of Edinburgh Castle. To say that I was distraught was an understatement – they’d either been stolen or fell out of my pocket between the short journey from hotel to venue. In any case they were gone. Luckily my friend was made of sterner stuff than me and taking matters in hand, she somehow got us both into the box office. Any attempt on my part to explain what had happened only resulted in strangulated incoherent sobs.

I had been guarding the tickets with my life since March, checking every now and again that they were still on the mantelpiece where I had put them. The night before I flew over to Scotland I remembered that I had packed them in my suitcase which was in the car. I got out of bed at 1am to retrieve them in case the car was stolen in the night! That’s how well I minded them. I simply couldn’t believe what had happened.

The nice man in the box office was asking for my name which I managed to retrieve from what was left of my brain. But it transpired that what he was looking for was the name of the person who had booked the tickets. This necessitated a call to my daughter – she had organised them for me. And needless to say once I had her on the phone, the whole drama went up a notch.

As I tried to listen in to what was happening in front of me between the nice man, the security people and a woman with a big folder of stuff, I could also hear the crisis unfolding back in Ireland. Instructions were being shrieked to boyfriend who was booting up the computer. Back and forth it went between them, each trying frantically to remember which name and email address would have the confirmation details.

Meanwhile I was all but giving my daughters date of birth, height, weight and distinguishing features in an effort to convince the nice man, the security people and the woman with the big folder, that I was indeed my daughter’s mother. I showed them my drivers licence which seemed to help. I overheard someone say that perhaps they could put us in the disabled section. I’d have sat on the Portaloos if they just let me in!

They were still scrambling to find receipts in Ireland when the nice man smiled. “It’s OK,” he said, “I’m going to issue you with new tickets.” I still don’t know whether it was my tears and panic or my friend’s calm explanations of our predicament that won the day. All I know is that had he not been well protected by good strong security glass, I’d have been arrested for indecent hugging.

And Lennie? Unbelieveably amazingly wonderfully upliftingly fantastic. A legend. RIP

Other women’s husbands!

For reasons which I won’t elucidate, but are probably obvious, I’ve become better acquainted with the workings of my septic tank lately than I ever wanted to or thought I would be. Although I thoroughly enjoy the delights of living in the country, dealing with septic tanks is not one of those delights.

And while I often pride myself on being a bit of a DIY handywoman, plumbing and electrics are two areas which I leave to the experts. The latter because I fear blowing myself up or setting fire to the house, and the former because, well in truth it always seems to involve something unpleasant and smelly.

So what is a single woman, who is not independently wealthy or a lottery winner, to do in these circumstances. My answer over the years has been to choose my women friends with care. No, I’m only joking! But as it turns out, most of my women friends have managed to marry useful men. Some who have actual qualifications as builders and such, but mostly who are the kind interested in pottering about under the floorboards, or in the attic or under the sink.

So my tactic is to make as much use of other women’s husbands as I can. Take the septic tank incident. I casually dropped it into conversation with Therese that I was concerned that it wasn’t working properly. Since they only live on the other side of the mountain and would be out and about that afternoon, she offered her husband to drop in and take a look. They are in the throes of building their own house, so drains and plumbing, septic tanks and percolation are part of their – well his anyway – vocabulary just now.

So as we finished up the last of the apple tart, I turned casually to him and said ‘So Larry, did you hear I’m having a bit of a problem with my percolation’ – and that was all the invitation he needed. Off we headed down the garden to have a look see.

The quid pro quo in all this is that I have to be interested in the subject too. When you pay a plumber or an electrician or whatever to do a job, you just let them get on with it. You don’t have to be interested in the ins and outs of the problem and how to fix it. But when it’s someone doing you a favour, you feel that you have to show a bit of interest.

So the favour I do for my friends in return is to listen to their husbands rabbiting on about wood pellet boilers versus solar panels, halogen versus LED lighting, external versus internal insulation. I’ve had endless conversations about things I know nothing about – valleys in the roof, looping the wiring, floating the floor. I can throw bits of terminology and jargon in that I have gleaned from talking with other husbands. Enough at least to keep the conversation going until I feel I have given them value for their efforts.

 I then return them to their wives happier men – satisfied with their prowess at having assisted a damsel in distress and content that someone understands and has listened to their dilemmas. It’s a small price to pay for satisfactory percolation!

Born to shop …

I was thinking about my mother on a recent trip to Ikea. It’s not surprising in one way, because it was the 10th anniversary of her death in August, so she has been on my mind. But also because, in that Disneyland for shoppers, my mother would have thrived.

She was a woman born to shop. She understood intuitively what anthropologists have told us – that shopping is part of the communicative process of our age. We shop, not just to buy life’s necessities, but also to take part in the customer/seller relationship, to identify ourselves as practicing and productive members of the society in which we live, sometimes to single ourselves out from the crowd and other times to blend right in.

On a given day, mother would go in to town for the afternoon and come home with an item of clothing. The said item would be modelled for the approval of husband and friends and the relative merits discussed. Other similar items left behind on the rails would be talked about – would it have been better in the blue? a size bigger? will it be warm enough? match anything else in the wardrobe? You get the picture.

Because of their straight forward customer returns policy, Dunnes Stores was one of her favourite shops. Having discussed and mulled over the pros and cons of any outfit – she could go back into town, exchange the goods and do the whole thing over again. So two days shopping value out of the one purchase. Ikea would have blown her mind for scale, choice and value!

As I made the trip with my own daughter, I reflected that even though the outward trappings and mechanics of consumerism are very different nowadays, we are still just mother and daughter on a shopping trip. We know that shopping is not for the faint-hearted. We had studied the catalogue assiduously and had long shopping lists.

We made our way to the city in a 3 tonne van borrowed from a neighbour. It had been a while since I’d driven anything that big and daughter was a bit nervous, but was smart enough to know not to criticise mother. (Mothers are allowed – expected even – to criticise daughters, but it seldom works the other way around!)

We’ve also both inherited the ‘yes I like that, I’ll put it in my trolley, oh no I’ve changed my mind I want the other one’ gene. So there’s no conflict on that front. But it does take a little more time to get around, given the opportunities for changes of mind in a shop the size of Ikea.

As mother and daughter we are also aware of each others foibles and weaknesses. Mine for harking back to my dodgy flower power days, hers for the endless accumulation of picture frames and lime green cushion covers. So we are able to keep an eye on each other and offer tactful interventions like ‘for god’s sake mother, you have enough tacky things on the walls’, or ‘ yes dear it’s very nice, but isn’t it very like the six other frames you have in the trolley?’.

As we lay in a collapsed but satisfied heap in the kitchen many, many hours later with all our goods and chattels around us, I like to think that the spirit of my mother was with us. She’d have been fussing and flapping around, delighting in her prowess as shopper par excellence. She’d be busily creating piles of things to keep and others to return – already planning another foray. Oh Mam we miss you, but you trained us well!

A day at ‘The Show’

One of the things that used to really throw me off when I first moved to the country was the way you would run into, for example, your plumber in the supermarket, or the chap who had just installed your satellite system in the post office.

The first time it happened I was completely flummoxed. I was on my way into the local agricultural show that first summer. As I was absentmindedly handing over my few euro entrance money, a voice enquired as to how were things ‘out in Ballydown’. Taken aback, I looked at the man. He seemed vaguely familiar, but not familiar enough I thought, to know me or where I lived. After a few very pointed hints, I eventually figured out that he was, in fact, my postman! It just goes to show that when you take someone out of their normal milieu – when the postman steps away from his green van, the butcher takes off his apron – it can be hard to place the face. In all my years living in the city, I’d never met my postman anywhere else except on the doorstep.

I was at the agricultural show again this year, but I wasn’t caught out a second time. This time around I recognised the local auctioneer who was directing traffic and the man who owns the menswear shop taking the money. I had a couple of city friends in tow who were well impressed with how well connected I seemed to be with all and sundry!

They were also well impressed, if a little bemused by the goings-on at the show itself. I have to confess that the first time I attended an agricultural show, that I too was somewhat bemused. For one thing, my acquaintance of cattle and sheep at that point was mainly on my dinner plate and not on the hoof. I’ll never forget my first sight of a grown man blow-drying and back-combing a cows ‘hair’. (There may be a more technical term for a ‘hair’ in this context, but I confess I haven’t a notion what it is!)

I still can’t figure out either what the judges are looking for when they walk round and round an animal, shaking and nodding their heads, and giving the poor sheep or cow the odd poke. We watched hoping to learn something as four huge beasts were lined up for the final inspection. My own favourite was a lovely brown and cream cow with a mop of curls running from the top of its head to its pink nose. Catherine fancied the one with the twinkling eyes and broken horn and kind-hearted Viv thought they looked a bit sad and wanted to take them all home.

None the wiser, we moved on to the ‘produce’ section where competition was, if anything, even more fierce. In a celebration of traditional skills, prizes are awarded for baking and preserving, knitting and crochet, as well as outstanding specimens of flowers and vegetables. The precision of the categorisation is a wonder to behold – ‘five tomatoes on a plate’, ‘four sweet pea – one variety’, ‘best handcraft item’. We stopped for a bit of a giggle at the ‘four boiled potatoes’ category, again puzzling as to the judging criteria – taste? appearance? size? In all fairness a plate of cold boiled potatoes isn’t exactly a pretty sight.

And in case anyone’s wondering, we were the three women stood around the four bales of hay in the corner trying to work out what the difference between the bale marked ‘Highly commended’ and ‘1st Prize’ was. Sometimes I despair that I’ll every really get to grips with country living!

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