Our Mum went to the bother of having all these children and now that she has a big birthday – one that is divisible by twenty – most of us aren’t able to go and celebrate it with her, and that doesn’t seem fair.
She’s great, our mum; her legs don’t bend at the knees – at least when we were young that’s what we believed. She never sat down and could achieve more in a day than I can now in a week.
She’s a fixer and a finder. A stain getter-outer. She a best-tights-darner. A look-afterer when you are lying in bed being sick into a plastic mixing bowl at 3am. She’s a stroke-your-header when you have a temperature. She is a problem-solver. An emergency lift-giver. She’s a crisis manager and de-escalater. She’s a stay-up-till-midnight looking for daughter’s lost passport so she can catch her flighter. She’s a give-that-here-to-me-er, and a I’ll-show-you-how-to-do-it-righter.
She’s a grafter, our mum. I’m convinced she has an army of invisible elves hidden under the sink, because when we were small she worked, she cooked all our meals, she made our Christmas presents, she knitted us jumpers, and she’d stay up until 2am to paint the house when we had all gone to bed. (She painted around the pictures on the wall, and the piano, mind you!)
She is a multi-tasker extraordinaire, which sometimes backfired – she once left my sister at school four hours after it closed.
She is a one-woman jam-making machine. She can turn out more boiled cakes and apple tarts in a day than the Ormo bakery. She is the magic porridge pot of vegetable soup making, which is just as well, given how much her grandchildren love it. She is a devout believer in the old adage, ‘divide small, feed all’ – although never has she been known to serve a small portion. Her freezers are always full, and her cupboards are never bare.
She loves a wee drop of whiskey, is less partial to kale salad, and she loves peaches. She cannot function in the morning with a bowl of porridge. She likes liquorice. She can peel an apple with a wee sharp knife in one take: top to bottom, in a single, fine, unbroken ribbon of skin.
She’s a night owl. You can never ring her too late, but you can ring her too early.
She’s great at making friends with wee old men who live up Kerry hills, down Antrim laneways, over Donegal boreens; men with old stories to tell and magic in their mouths that they entrust to her. She is a secret-keeper. She is a hoarder but sharer of wisdom.
She’s not madly keen on an asymmetric hemline, but otherwise she is so elegant and trendy that all three daughters wear her clothes. She’s really good looking and had (has!) many admirers, but no man would ever flirt with her because she’s too quietly and gently intimidating for them. (Our father had excessive confidence).
Our mother’s a lady. She shows the same amount of respect to the homeless alcoholic on the steps of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Boston as she does to the Archbishop himself.
She’s wild kind. And generous. She’d give you the coat off her back. She once literally did give me the coat off her back. (Which makes up for the horrible confirmation outfit she made me wear in 1983.)
She always has a book in her hand, though too many adverbs make her raise one eyebrow archly and clench her jaw gratingly.
She’s terrified of spiders but has no problem in sleeping with a room that has mice. She has pet blackbirds who bounce in the back door for trails of raisins and she secretly feeds stray cats.
She is an artist, a storyteller, a writer, a painter. She can craft and tell and transfix and silence a room. She loves chalk paint and, if you sit still for long enough when the mood takes her, she might chalk paint you! She has green fingers, is really good at growing roses, can coax wilting plants back to life, but she gets mad when you cut the hedges too low.
Technology that doesn’t work makes her head explode. (Thank God for JB!)
She is the recipient of mystery doorstep-gifts: cakes and free-range eggs, obscure works of literature and brown paper bags filled with homegrown tomatoes, blackberry wine and geraniums, home-made nut-roast and empty jam jars waiting to be filled. But remember, receivers are givers.
She loves Hallowe’en and tells terrifying ghost stories to young and old. She is the witch, as she told the police that Hallowe’en night when she drove home in full witch costume with no car lights on. She is very good at talking her way out of getting points on her licence.
She is radically hospitable. Her door is always open, kettle on the boil, and she’s entirely unperturbed by whoever arrives in, no matter the time of day or night. She’s a mother to more than her children; she has extra daughters from Spain and Peru and has taken in waifs and strays from Columbia to California, France to The Netherlands, China to Uganda. She is a maker of beds, a finder of sleeping bags, a puller-outer of mattresses. There is always room at her inn. She’ll make you a nest in a quiet corner, bed you down under a surfboard, snug you up at the foot of a bed.
She never judges people and doesn’t see situations in black and white. Once, Ian Paisley did a nice thing for our elderly neighbours, and everyone bitched because it was Paisley, but she said, “that was a nice thing he did there.” She is true to her principles and won’t base her support on a person or party, but only on an ideology or policy. She judges the action not the person.
She was radical for 1960s/70s Ireland; held no prejudices against minorities or any other groups. She’s a feminist, a socialist but without the marches and badges (apart from the CND badge).
She can time travel. She loves piles of old rocks, gets palpitations when she touches a dolmen, cairn, or passage grave, and she shivers with excitement when she stands in stone circle.
When we all left home, all our friends became her friends and they keep calling, not out of duty, but because they like her and she is their friend now.
She was great at tennis and she used to play badminton over the clothesline with her dear neighbour, Elizabeth.
I never heard her swear until 2009, and I’ve not heard her swear since – believe me, this makes it impactful! She can be fierce. She can give the scariest, most threatening wait-till-I-get-you-home looks (like me and sister talking during Christmas midnight mass this year).
She loves trees and missed them when she was sent to boarding school in Portstewart in 1952, leaving the leafy vales of Antrim town for the bare, spare north coast.
She’s intrepid and fearless. She had her first baby in Nigeria and fled the Biafra War on one of the last planes out, seven months pregnant with baby number two.
She’s fun, and can party… she did party, back in the late 1970s in the Eglinton Hotel, leaving the ‘responsible’ eldest to babysit the rest of us (there was no such thing as child endangerment back then).
She has nine gorgeous grandchildren whom she has raised on love and Celtic lore and she doesn’t have a favourite – seriously, she doesn’t have a favourite!
She has gathered people to her all her life, and she minds her friendships carefully, never dropping a stitch, never letting them go.
She’s not very good at taking compliments, she hates attention, and will die with embarrassment when she reads this.
She is all of our strength and shield. She is eternally there for us, solid as the rocks below and constant as the stars above. She holds everything together like invisible thread.
Happy birthday Mum, love from Cormac, Eamon, Áine, Eimear, Mairead and Eóin.