Nuala McCann: My mum was a pioneer of 'reduce, re-use, recycle'

Don't bin your broken washing machine – upcycle it

THERE'S a feature in the Irish Times about Ger Whyte who went out into the woods during the first lockdown and came upon a 20-year-old washing machine.

He brought it home, broke it down with a sledgehammer and re-invented the drum as a glamorous firepit, with sparks and flames licking through the holes where the suds once rinsed through.

Ger is a social worker by day but he has found many old washing machines dumped in remote locations. Turning them into something new and beautiful and useful is a "nice little mind switcher-offer" he tells the Times.

I'm thinking that my mother was ahead of her time when she refused to wave off our old washing machine to the municipal dump and got her nearest and dearest to take it apart.

We didn't have a sledgehammer, but would have needed it.

The end result, after much hard labour, was a sparkling drum that made an unusual garden pot. It became mini incinerator. Ma liked a good old fire.

She was ahead of her time when it came to reduce, re-use, recycle. She'd have cheered Ger and his washing machines all the way.

The old iron frame of a Singer treadle with the word 'SINGER' etched out in the iron work was just right for the base of a garden table. So, here again, there was the task of stripping it back and painting it up.

She recycled well before her time, she hated to see waste.

When a certain coffee shop chain started offering used coffee grounds for the garden, she was first in the queue and, by default, so were all of us. She also recycled lots of dried cow pats from Donegal beaches, seaweed that was laid out to dry, trampled and put into the soil and boasted a compost heap that was the pride of the neighbourhood.

Mum was recycling food in the days when the rest of us were chucking it into the black bin. I'm ashamed to confess that a huge pile of takeaway foil dishes went into our bin and we had our own nickname at the local takeaway. "Ah yes, the door around the corner," they'd say, after taking our order on the phone.

She put her passion for recycling down to the war years. "I was a war baby," she'd say, pointing out that she never tasted an orange until she was about 10-years-old.

It was another world – one where the mirrors on old wardrobe doors were beautiful in their own right, so off they came; one where she recovered an old piano stool and gave it back its music.

She sewed and better-sewed when we were young. She was gifted that way. But her audience was not always appreciative. We wanted the shop-bought, not the hand-sewn goods.

But I always remember the pink and cream smock dress she sewed for my sister for the Ceili Mor at the Gaeltacht. It had small gold beaded buttons down the front that took forever to sew on. It was dream beautiful.

Beautiful too was the pink towelling swimsuit she made her for that same three weeks in Rannafast. It looked the part, but when you jumped in the pool the towelling went see-through. We're all not over that yet.

Last week, back at our old home, the small birds flitted out and about in the garden. They're addicted to the tea bags she threw under the front camellia bush for them. "They love a good drink," she'd say.

Once, she thought they might like the end of a bag of flour – there was a wild squawking and they all flew out from under the bush – white ghosts of themselves. We laughed.

Last week, I went back into the small bedroom and found her old sewing table and boxes of threads and bobbins and scissors. Above the table is a shelf of her favourite books, on the chair beside are piles of linen pillowcases and sheets, damask tablecloths and white napkins, all boiled and ironed and folded. They are embroidered from the days when people spent love on that.

Here in my home, up in my attic, my mother's first sewing machine sings softly down the stairs. It sings of childhood days, sitting on the floor by the pedal as she whizzed through seams, holding the pins between pursed lips.

My friend gave her mother's machine to a charity that refurbishes them and sends them out to Africa. Perhaps it's time for my mother's to go too. Recycle it – give it a whole new life.

Ma would approve.

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