Today is the sixteenth anniversary of my mother's death. The year 2001 looms large in my memory. Of course, the 9/11 attacks are an important memory for everybody. But it was also the year my mother died, the year I did a training course in the Allen Library archive (now defunct), and the year I began to work in UCD.
It's hard for me to remember my mother, because I feel so guilty for taking her so much for granted. It's hard to think of all the meals made, all the clothes washed, all the limitless work that goes into raising a child for which I never really showed appreciation. I think if she had lived a few years longer I would have shown appreciation. We lost her at the time I was most aimless and lost.
Because I was very withdrawn at this time, I was terrified of being considered a mammy's boy. I wasn't as close to her as I should have been for this reason. (The healthy response to that would have to become more outgoing and extroverted.)
A strange distance and embarrassment had grown up between us in her last years-- on my side, at least-- and I sometimes feel 'stuck' on this. Even when I speak to her in my prayers now, I feel this. I never really spoke to her as an adult, because even though I was in my early twenties when she died, I was more like a teenager-- and a particularly immature one at that.
She died of an extremely rare disease (in its fatal form, at least) called amyloidosis. She was in an out of hospital for years before she died. I also feel intensely guilty for not being as loving as I should have been in those years.
My mother was from Limerick. She had a rather strange childhood. Her father died young, and her mother remarried, but, although my uncle and aunt lived with their stepfather and my grandmother, my mother didn't. She went to live with an aunt in Blackrock, a well-heeled area of Dublin. I understand that my aunt was quite genteel.
When I was a child, I had an excellent book called How to Hold a Crocodile, full of miscellaneous information. One article explained the different glasses to be used for different alcoholic drinks, and how far each should be filled. "I had to know all that stuff when I was a girl, when we had visitors", she told me. "Did you know how much to fill them?", I asked. "Oh, you always filled them all the way up", she said, laughing. Maybe they weren't that genteel.
I like to think of my mother's rural background. I have never been a very convicted Dubliner. I think the soul of a nation is in its countryside.
Recently, I saw a video clip of her that had been unearthed from a television archive. (She was in various community organisations in Ballymun and was being interviewed by a current affairs programme.) As we have no recordings of her I hadn't heard her voice for over a decade. I was amazed at the difference between the voice on the clip and the voice I remembered. It was much more cultured and much more rural than I remember.
My mother was by no means a snob but she did carry an air of distinction with her in the very working class atmosphere of Ballymun. As Ballymun was full of high-rise apartments at that time, it was common for people to stand at the bottom of the apartment and shout up to someone living in it. I won't say my sister's name, but it's a single-syllable name-- not so easy to shout, so her friends broke it into a diphthong when they shouted for her. "There's only one syllable in that name", my mother called back from our window, on one immortal occasion.
When my mother died, a big crowd gathered for the funeral and I heard her described as a saint over and over. You never think of someone as a saint when they are living in the same home as you.
It was my mother who brought me and my brother to Mass, spasmodically. I hated it, not out of any dislike of Mass or religion itself, but because it meant the end of the weekend. (I liked Christmas Mass, though.) She wasn't ostentatiously pious. The only religious remark I can remember her making was: "Judas was damned for despairing, not for betraying." She may have made others, but I don't remember them.
My father never brought us to Mass that I can remember, but he would take us into the pro-Cathedral when we were in town. On birthdays, we would go into the city centre to buy a present, have fizzy orange and crisps in the Flowing Tide pub, and then light a candle in the Pro-Cathedral. (The Catholic cathedral in Dublin is popularly known as the Pro-Cathedral, short for Provisional Cathedral, because the Protestants commandeered the existing Catholic cathedral at the Reformation, and the Cathedral that was built to replace it was regarded as provisional.)
Other than big ceremonial events like funerals, the only time I can remember my parents and myself in a place of worship together was during one of my mother's many stays in Beaumount Hospital. We went into the oratory to say a prayer. It's one of my oustanding memories-- a "purple notebook" moment. I remember the oratory as being quite modern and strange-looking, and, although I was at least an agnostic and more an atheist at this time, I felt a very strong sense of God's otherness and presence.
One of the reasons I felt distant from her in the last years was because I thought she must have been disappointed in me. After she died, I heard she slept with my poems under her pillow in hospital, which astounded me. I never would have guessed this.
I have no digital pictures of her. Her name was Mary Patricia but she used the name Patricia or Pat-- she told me that every second girl of her generation was called Mary, so most of them used their middle names.
There is a rowan tree planted to her outside the Irish language school, Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch, in Ballymun, in the small sloped field between the back gate and the carpark. It is planted in the name of her brother and sister, who are now both deceased as well, and it has a plaque beside it. Every time I pass it, unless I am in a particular hurry, I stop to say a prayer. Even now I feel remorseful and strangely embarrassed, but I ask her to pray for me.