Life

Nuala McCann: I carry the gift of my mother's passion for books in my heart

My mother's gift to me was a love of books. She served up hot chocolate on winter evenings and read a Christmas Carol. So that I can cry: 'Marley was dead! Dead as a doornail' or sit down to Christmas dinner, raise a glass to those I love and, like Tiny Tim, toast: 'God bless us, every one!'

The Saturday trip to the library was part of the fabric of life in our house

BY A quirk of fate we end up in Holywood, Co Down. It’s not the draw of the cinnamon buns – they’re famous in these parts – but you get a better class of charity shop there.

The clothes are designer, the scarves are silk and the books are high brow, with the occasional drift into Nordic noir and a leaning towards Vinyasa yoga. Exit one happy customer, loaded down with second-hand books.

I swoop on a copy of Quicksand – Henning Mankell’s reflections on life in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

Mankell is famous for the Wallander series. His writing is spare, his gaze piercing.

“Having the possibility of deciding what to do with one’s life is a great privilege,” he writes, “as far as most people are concerned, life is simply about survival.”

Mankell gives a poignant account of the death of a little girl drowned beneath the ice on a lake. Her face reflects back a little of his anguish at his lung cancer diagnosis.

He tells of his wish to visit Onkalo in Finland where tunnels have been built to store nuclear waste for at least 100,000 years. He wrote to ask if he might visit. The directors were not keen... they certainly did not want any crime thrillers set in Onkalo and, ironically, they said they could not guarantee his safety in the tunnels.

Manning believes we all have a moral responsibility to fight poverty and fight for social justice. He also believes that you should never be robbed of your happiness.

My mother’s gift to me was a love of books. She read to us when we were small. She served up hot chocolate on winter evenings and read A Christmas Carol. So that I can cry: “Marley was dead! Dead as a doornail” or sit down to Christmas dinner, raise a glass to those I love and, like Tiny Tim, toast: “God bless us, every one!”

My mother’s books sang to her from the shelves. She used to put on Watch With Mother for us on the old black and white television, and bury her nose in George Elliot’s Mill on the Floss as Andy Pandy and Looby Lou danced on clearly visible strings across the screen.

One Christmas it snowed heavily and our visitors cancelled, so she stayed in bed all day – which was unheard of – and made her way through Walter Macken’s trilogy – Seek the Fair Land, The Silent People, The Scorching Wind – a large jar of Quality Street by her side.

“Leave your mother alone,” my father told us. She remembers how much she enjoyed it still.

Poetry was fun in our house, from The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God to Dylan Thomas and Fern Hill. The boxes of Reader’s Digest were piled in the corner, the shelves were bulging and the Saturday trip to the library was part of the fabric of life.

My father took three large books a week. He didn’t notice when I wandered into the adult section... perhaps he pretended not to.

The only down side was school where using my mother’s gilt-edged, leather-bound copy of Tess Of The d’Urbervilles proved a nightmare.

When the teacher said: “Turn to Page 96”, I flipped pages desperately – it was never page 96 in my version.

I married a man who shares the love of books. Ours is a house divided. He favours history and art and language. Just for the love of it, he is making his way through the pink and purple books, Approach to Latin, which I did in school.

We trade memories of Horatius holding the bridge, of Ovid’s lovers who grew into trees forever entwined and of my brilliant Latin teacher who scared the Bejaysus out of us.

I was once a strictly fiction woman. Marriage blurs the lines. Now I have stumbled on a love of art. When, in a quiz show, a certain painting flashes up on the television screen, I murmur: “Matisse” or “Titian” and he smiles. The love rubs off.

Back in my mother’s home, she urges me to take what I want now. Time runs like spilled water through her fingers. She feels the pull of quicksand.

“If you like that painting, take it! If you like that book it’s yours,” she says.

But I have all I need from my family home – I carry her love and her gift of a passion for books in my heart. I don’t need any more.

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