Life

Nuala McCann: 'That's a fine big double grave and all of you are welcome to join us'

There are sepia photos, stone angels, plastic wreaths... Da's is an easy grave to spot – it's a blue Connemara slate affair put up at the time of apartheid when we knew that he'd never rest easy under South African marble

'I walked among all the new graves that seemed to have sprung up when I wasn’t looking'

I RING my sister who is spending time at our old family home with my mother.

“Where are you?” I ask.

“Walking the graveyard,” she tells me. “The worrying thing is there are a lot of people in their 50s in here.”

Sundays could be bleak in Ballymena in the 1960s. The swings in the park were chained up for the Sabbath and the swimming pool only opened for full-immersion baptisms.

So when my mother had had enough of six children pulling at her skirt, our father would take us by the hand and walk us up to the chapel and on round by the graveyard.

It is a quiet place. And although he was never a morbid man – how can a man who used to speed up the motorway with his false teeth sticking out of his mouth to rest his gums be morbid? – it was a lesson in life.

He was fond of walking with us and telling us the stories from the gravestones – he’d sigh at the thought of friends who had gone before, shake his head at the small boys who drowned in the pond.

In later years he’d say: “I know more people under the ground now than I do above it.”

Back in childhood days, we’d nod in sympathy, then beg for ice cream at the wee shop on the way home. He was a big softie.

So after that phone call to my sister, the following week, for old times’ sake, I followed in her footsteps up past the chapel, and round past the Waveney hospital where I once spent a summer as a domestic scrubbing down the wards and in mortal fear of a fierce domestic called Doris who did not stand for any “quick swipe of the brush” nonsense.

I used to waltz with my mop to amuse an old lady in the geriatric ward called Minnie.

“Nurse, nurse, shall we break out of here?” she’d cry. But she was going nowhere.

Last Sunday I walked on and ended up in said graveyard and visited the double grave where my father now reposes.

“I’ll be lying up in that Cushendall Road and none of you will visit me,” he’d joke.

“So here I am, Da!” I told him.

His is an easy grave to spot – it’s a blue Connemara slate affair put up at the time of apartheid when we knew that he’d never rest easy under South African marble.

It was a very quiet Sunday – not a sinner in sight. And, true to my sister’s word, I walked among all the new graves that seemed to have sprung up when I wasn’t looking and spotted my old dinner lady and our health visitor who worked out that I was deaf in one ear and several teachers as well as many of my parents’ friends down the years.

There were sepia photos, stone angels, plastic wreaths. There were graves packed with crosses and teddies and roses; graves that were mossy with time.

And my sister was right – there were far too many folk in their 50s.

The goal posts change as you age – I thought those people had had a reasonable innings, now it feels like they were snatched by the jaws of death way too soon.

And although I appreciate my mother’s kind gesture – “That’s a fine big double grave and all of you are welcome to join us,” – I hope I won’t be going there any time soon.

She is a practical woman and has made one specific request – that we bury her beside my father in the double grave and certainly not on top of him. I have written that down.

Back in my own house, I tell my husband that I was shocked at the number of people I knew in their 50s lying in that cemetery.

“Lots of teachers,” I said.

“Is that meant to cheer me up?” said my newly retired teacher.

Carpe diem, seize the carp, I tell him. But it’s difficult to seize any carp in the jaws of a pandemic.

I tell a friend that I had meandered about the graveyard and found it vaguely soothing. She reminds me of an old Brendan Behan story The Confirmation Suit about the woman who sewed shrouds for a living.

It was a steady enough income and none of your customers ever complained, she’d say.

We laughed. You have to laugh. Here’s looking at you, Da.

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