Life

Nuala McCann: What to get Ma for Mother's Day – cow dung from Donegal?

She made the garden from scratch. She grew leeks and potatoes and onions and raspberries. Her raspberry sauce was legendary. In summer, the garden stole her from us. Sunny days found her out the back creating paradise

So often, I have turned the corner home and found ma on her hands and knees digging the soil... never happier

THERE’S still time. It’s Mother’s Day soon and, as my father used to say with a theatrical sigh: “There’s nobody loves you like your mother.”

Ours is a strange relationship – I’m Ma’s make-up artist and treat her to a little slap – not physically. We’ve had a few occasions when we’d have liked to give each other one of those or even a quiet nip. She speaks her mind and so do I. Cue fireworks.

Now, when I arrive home, I’m the before-and-after artist beloved of TV shows. I get out my make-up brush and do her face up: “Feels like you’re slapping paint on the wall,” she’ll mutter, but she looks good.

My ma enjoys two scoops of home-made ice cream from the local shop – even when the north wind doth blow. They look at you funny when you ask for ice cream in winter.

Ma is motoring along the highway of life but damned if she’ll allow her foot to ease off on the accelerator. No rails and handles for her – perhaps, a little furniture-walking, but what do you expect?

She cocks a snoot at the doctors.

Maybe you should have had those operations when they suggested, I say.

Well I didn’t think I’d live this long, she hits back.

What to get her for Mother’s Day?

Time was when she’d have fancied a drive to Donegal to a heap of cow dung of which she was particularly fond.

Our family is divided between those who love the garden and those who love their cars.

God help you if you love your motor and your mother. Then you just might have to stomach the pong of a bag of rotting manure for 100 miles.

“Think of the roses,” she might say as my brother hauled the sack into the boot, pegged his nose and commiserated with the motor over the indignity of it.

There was a time when a stray cow used to gallivant on a certain beach near home... she might not thank you for a bunch of flowers but oh, the joy of a dried cow pat for her compost heap.

It was always the garden. The cherry blossom tree over our gate features in photographs so old that they are faded to grey and white. Here is my father, under the tree, holding my baby brother in his arms – all chubby and bundled up in a knitted cardigan, buttons bursting.

Every spring that tree treats us to a confetti of pink blossom, whispers of young brides who stepped out the door 20 years earlier and babies swaddled in turquoise cotton blankets carried lovingly about the garden by ma, their adoring grandmother.

With a few gusts of wind, the blossom disappears. But we remember.

She made the garden from scratch. She grew leeks and potatoes and onions and raspberries. Her raspberry sauce was legendary. You might still find the recipe in one of the old books. All our mothers had those handwritten notebooks splodged with flour and eggs and a drip of black treacle.

And here she has faithfully recorded her recipes and those of her close friends: Peggy’s Rum Truffles, Greta’s Chocolate Cake and Chris’s Honey Bees.

In summer, the garden stole her from us. Sunny days found her out the back creating paradise. She loves yellow and golden leaved plants. She loves the little rose 'Smile' because of how it looks up at you and she loves the peony 'Bowl of Beauty' for its deep pink petals and pure cream heart.

She does not love dogs. She used to bribe us to lift the dog dirt from the garden. We got wise – not even for a silver sixpence.

Gardening gets harder as you age – you end up instructing others on the correct way to prune a large Philadelphus.

This Mother’s Day, she might have to forego the dung and settle for cake. Her garden birds still love her. They cackle and chatter and flock for her pickings and the promise of a good drink of tea from a sodden tea bag – they like the local brew.

So often, I have turned the corner home and found ma on her hands and knees digging the soil... never happier. Now, I chance upon her beside the fire leafing through old photographs – my father, young and dapper; her gentle-eyed mother; the sister she adored.

The ghosts of those she loved best whisper at her shoulder.

And I want to hug her close.

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