Monday 26 September 2016

The ghosts of them live on inside of us

Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30

Brendan's maternal grandmother came to live in the west Cork area, above, but was originally from Kenmare in Kerry.
Brendan's maternal grandmother came to live in the west Cork area, above, but was originally from Kenmare in Kerry.

I only knew one of my grandparents and that was briefly. Nana lived with us when I was small. She was my mother's mother. As an older man I now understand how this might have been difficult for my dad. But apparently not. Dad and Nana were great pals. Indeed I gather he would be a bit put out when she went off on a skite to some other family member for a while.

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I only have a couple of memories of her and who knows if they are real memories? Apparently, I would come home from Mrs Denis's nursery school and throw myself into an old red chair in the kitchen and command her to put milk in my bottle and wash it. Some of my alleged memories of Mrs Denis's are disputed however. I'm fairly sure I used to walk home from there on my own some days. Let's face it, it wasn't far away and things were different back then. The rest of my family claim this couldn't have happened. Personally, I think they are guilty of applying the norms of now to 40 years ago.

I also think I remember the night Nana died. I was seven, playing in the garden with one of my cousins. There were lots of relations around so it was a festive time for us kids. And then my uncle came out and told us to keep it down because Nana was dead. She died there in the room in our house, her last days spent surrounded by family and in what was then her own home. And that's all I have. That's my grandparenting experience in full. The rest of them were dead before I was born and I've only found out about them in dribs and drabs since.

Nana's husband, my maternal grandfather, was John Moriarty of Glengarriff in West Cork. Sometimes when I go down there people who don't know me know who I am by the look of me and can tell I'm his grandson. Apparently, when I went through a brief few periods of bleaching my hair it was like seeing a ghost for some of them.

Nana was a blow-in to Glengarriff. She was from Kenmare and though they dragged her across the border, she remained a proud Kerrywoman all her life.

Before I knew her she was a dynamo. She was, I'm told, a great woman to turn a shilling. She ran a shop and tearooms in the village where you could get a fry or a salad for four and six. A salad back then was ham, boiled egg, lettuce, onions from the garden. Or you could just have tea, brown bread, white bread, brack from Cotters in Bantry or Bantry Bay cake, as much as you liked. My mother recalls that everyone got plenty to eat. If Nana was told in a concerned way that one of the tables was on their third plate of bread and cake, she'd say it was grand, that people could only eat enough.

In the shop they rented bikes and sold leather goods. My grandfather won prizes for his shoes and he had hand-made golf shoes, including for the rich English people who came to Glangarriff in those days.

Mum tells me these stories and others now and then. I've heard many of them before but I think there is a comfort for both of us in the repeating of them. And I guess Mum wants them to be remembered. She wants Nana's story to be told. And she wants me to remember that this person, of whom I only retain a few glimpses, was an extraordinary woman who had led an extraordinary life, and who had gone through all kinds of hardships to pass the baton on, to keep it all going so that me and my kids could live the cosseted lives we live today.

I don't remember Nana as a frail woman but a strong Kerrywoman who did plenty around the place. But I never knew the real her, the one who ruled the roost in Glengarriff. Mum says that even in those later years, when she would go back to Glengarriff, she was a different woman, back in charge, in her stomping ground, on her own turf, running the show again.

And even if I never knew that version of her, the woman she was before she became Nana, I suppose she must be in me somewhere, the way the ghost of her husband is in me when some people look at me. There will be fewer and fewer who see him in me, fewer and fewer who remember him first hand. But he is there in me too, and in the kids. And Nana lives on too, in those snatched. possibly half-imagined memories I have, in small impressions of her face looking down at me, and in the stories of who she was, and how she was a good woman to turn a shilling.

Sunday Independent

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