Nuala McCann: My mother's no paragon, I tell her. Neither are you, she says
Once when my brother hit those sensitive teenage years, he begged her to keep her Worzel Gummidge look to the back of the house – a mother in that get-up was an embarrassment
WE TAKE the walking stick, the heavy coat, the dark glasses, the slow road to the front gate. Once she would have cleared the distance in five seconds, petite, fleet of foot. She flew through life in a flurry and five-inch stilettos.
It was a big overflowing laundry basket of a life, just like mine is now. But time has the last laugh. We take the path to the gate slowly. Frost throws lace across the tarmac and puts an icy finger on my heart.
At the gate, the first snowdrops are hiding like shy children clutching at their mothers’ skirts, white petals luminous against the dark soil.
“There,” I say, “Look down there,” and she who planted them, who took pleasure in seeing them appear as if by magic every spring, stands a little straighter, picks them out with a smile.
Was it yesterday that I whirled the car in through the driveway, heaved a toddler from his car seat and banged hard on the front door. There was no reply.
We knew where we’d find her... round the back, on her knees in the garden, digging. It was ever so.
She’d put on an old straw hat, a pair of men’s trousers and big thick gloves and disappear with a spade into the back garden for hours... coming back a new woman.
Once when my brother hit those sensitive teenage years, he begged her to keep her Worzel Gummidge look to the back of the house – a mother in that get-up was an embarrassment.
Her garden grew and at the worst of times, she’d hide out there, rake the compost, invite anyone who fancied to pee on it to get it going and revel as new life stirred.
There was a little rose called Smile that was true to its name.
“Yes, that rose smiles up at you,” said her best friend as they sat out one summer’s day in her garden in the long ago.
But time is cruel and steals your love and your friends. And now, the walk must be a short one.
We are far from the empty Donegal beaches when she and my father would head off for long walks leaving us building castles and speedboats in the sand.
Now her garden is a wilderness. The hedges that she liked to cut by hand – yes really, mother, buy the electric clippers please – have grown Sleeping Beauty high.
When my father died, she was younger than I am now. He used to send Valentine cards every year – one for her and one for each of his daughters. I still have his card for a wanna-be journalist.
“Shall I ever catch you... from the city desk!” he wrote.
After he died, I’d send her a card too... a reminder of times past to make her smile.
“Did your mother never meet anyone new?” my Aussie friend would ask. But ma would roll her eyes at the very idea.
Hers was a mother’s love that sat up all night sewing our party dresses. So what if she never quite got to the buttons – she’d grab a needle and sew us in for the day... it did the trick.
One year, she baked us each an individual Christmas cake – we were picking the crumbs from the carpet in June.
Here was a woman who watched each of us getting married without poking her neb in... except to pick up the bill.
Here was a mother who came and looked after babies, watched us consult the latest manuals – What to Expect when you’re Expecting; What to Expect in the First Year – and buttoned her mouth when we gave her directions on how to heat a bottle. She’d only had six of her own.
Ah, she is a true genius at getting wind up on the most stubborn of infants. Enough of all that.
“You’re no paragon,” I tell her.
“Neither are you,” she says.
We rub off each other, ruffle each other’s feathers, shout at each other and have a laugh. She shall not go gentle into that good night.
And yes, mother, we all know that you bought a big double grave 30 years ago.
“There’s plenty of room. You know you’re all welcome,” she says. And yes, it’s kind but it’s not like it’s an invitation to a slap-up meal at the Ritz.
Old age is not for softies, she sighs.
And I – at times faithless and godless – whisper a prayer because it’s not.