Wednesday 28 September 2016

Taking a festive trip down memory lane

Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30

Fond memories: Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a trip to Roches Stores for the finest culinary delights
Fond memories: Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a trip to Roches Stores for the finest culinary delights

A guy talking recently about why Europe has not produced a tech giant on a par with Google or Facebook observed that Europe is obsessed with the past whereas America is obsessed with the future. And I've decided to take it on as my motto.

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Who needs the past when you have the future? Christmas tends to be a time for obsessing about the past, and perhaps not coincidentally, it can also be a deeply depressing time. I don't have any huge memories of Christmas past. I remember that Santa, who has very similar handwriting to my mother, used to leave us notes telling us not to be fighting with each other. I remember we took it in the spirit in which it was intended. I remember too how aunts and uncles would come in the evening and there would be bottles of beer, and then it was gradually whittled down until there was just us. See what I mean? Slightly depressing.

But Christmas can be sad in a nice way too. For some reason, at this time of year, my late aunt Eileen becomes very vivid to me at Christmas. She lived down the road from us, and, having no children of her own in Cork, she became a second mother to us. And at various stages of our lives we all did our stint as a kind of surrogate only child at Wilton Road, not least because the grub was always good down there - as it was at home I hasten to add. Eileen would send you off over to Roches Stores in Wilton. It had to be Roches Stores. There was a slightly old-fashioned grandness to Roches Stores then, as there was to Eileen. You'd be dispatched over to get the best of everything, and then you'd come back, and manage to be pleasantly surprised every time that most of it was to be eaten there and then by you, after you'd been instructed in great detail in how to cook it, under supervision. Lamb chops, prawn cocktail, brie before anyone ate brie, and of course the Irish Times, a habit she brought with her from Dublin. (She spoke longingly of Clontarf. I always wondered why she ever left there. I suspect that she did too at times.)

She would tell me bits and pieces from the paper, and teach me what was what in politics, with a strong Fianna Fail slant. And she would tell me stories of her days working in the Hospital Sweepstakes.

There are a few pictures of her when she was young and she looked like a movie star. She was still terribly glamorous by the time I got to know her, and she still had the mink and pearls for special occasions.

As she got a bit older she taught me how to tap on the side of her chest to loosen up the phlegm. But there were always jobs to be done; chives to be snipped from the garden, fruit and vegetables to be collected from Mrs Waldron, various money to be handed out to various people. She wasn't rich, but she kept a whole mini-economy going with various handouts and transactions and jobs to be done by different people. There were always pills to be collected too, and she always got too many. She was an expert in diagnosing and treating all forms of cold and flu, and she dispensed the medicine as well.

Without her, and my late brother Brian, I wouldn't have read half the books I had done by 15. Indeed, without them, I wouldn't be who I am. She lived to see me start writing a bit and she got a great kick out of it. I suspect I was living out her own ambition in a way. I would have loved her to see a bit more of how it all turned out.

She would have disagreed with me violently about a lot of things but I think overall she would have been proud that she taught me a bit about hard work.

When I conjure her up now, she is always smiling, a delighted, encouraging smile she had. She was always delicate, fine-boned, but never frail really until the end. When I conjure her up now she is not frail. She is tough, with sparkling eyes that have both defiance and joy in them.

So here I am obsessing about the past. But maybe it's the time of year for it. Maybe, as Joyce wrote, the snow is general, and it falls on the living and the dead, and maybe they and the past they inhabited feel closer at Christmas. And maybe, rather than obsessing about the past, it's nice to have a time of year to reflect on how the past, and those who dwelt there, are the ones who gave us our future.

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