'Why aren't ye coming home, Mammy?' I asked, wiping my eyes and my nose on the sleeve of my coat.
Published 19/02/2014 | 05:22
Marie Fleming remembers the moment 'Mammy' walked out, leaving her to look after a brother and sister as well as her distraught father:
I wish I could say that my childhood in Donegal was a happy one and that my parents loved each other, but I don't ever remember seeing them hug or kiss.
From my earliest years the house was full of tension. My mother had married young; she was just sixteen to my father's thirty-two. I learned later that she was pregnant with me at the time of their marriage. She went on to have four more children: Noeleen, Shaun, Brian and Don.
When I was 14, Noeleen 12, and my youngest brother Don was barely two, my mother walked out of our lives. This was a Friday in May, 1969.
Mammy had a job at the Inter County Hotel in Lifford. She worked there most nights and I joined her at weekends. The hotel was owned by one Senator Paddy McGowan. McGowan was well enough liked and was respected for the work he had done for the area since his election to Seanad Éireann in 1965.
I was setting the tables for breakfast when Mary, the head waitress, told me I was needed at the door. I found Daddy there, looking distraught.
'Marie, your Mammy's gone,' he said.
'What? She can't have.' I ran to the cloakroom expecting to see her charming all the customers as usual, but she wasn't there. And it turned out she had indeed fled, clearing the wardrobe of all her clothes. How could she have left my father and all of us children? How could any mother?
It spelt the end of my childhood. I had to leave school at the end of term. That hurt. I loved books and learning, and did really well in my Inter Certificate. When I was told that I had passed my exams with flying colours and that my name was up on the board at school, my father didn't seem particularly pleased. 'It doesn't matter, Marie,' he said. 'All that does matter is that you stay home and look after things while I work. Someone has to.'
And that's exactly what happened. I missed working at the hotel. It had been fun, as there had been a good gang of us up there. I had recently started going out with one of the part-time barmen, Johnny McNally, or Jumbo as he was known. He lived across the border in Strabane and I couldn't meet him now that I was needed at home day and night.
As the weeks went on I dreaded Mondays more and more. It was wash day and I didn't have a washing machine or a twin tub. And with all the upset, Shaun had a bed-wetting problem. I used to fill the bath with water. It would be full of sheets, of Daddy's shirts and socks, and of the boys' underwear.
Shaun was the most affected of all of us. There he was, with adolescence knocking at the door. Somebody should have seen what he was going through and tried to help him. It's only now I realise how deep the effect of Mammy's departure must have been for him. He had already suffered a terrible trauma: his best friend had recently drowned swimming in the river at the bottom of our road. Shaun possibly carried that hurt to his death, from suicide by drowning, years later.
As the days of Mammy's disappearance turned into weeks, Daddy began to confide in me. He said he thought Mammy had run off with the senator.
'I'm sorry she ever started to work for the wee baldy bastard,' Daddy said. For solace, Daddy turned to his religion. The locals would gather in our kitchen for the rosary to pray for Mammy's safe return. And he got the parish priest, Father Flanagan, to say a Mass 'for the safe return of Nett, the only woman I have ever loved'.
Looking back today, after all the recent scandals in the Catholic Church, it's easy to forget quite how powerful priests were back then. A big man with grey hair and a fierce expression, Father Flanagan was someone to reckon with. He mixed in the same circles as the doctor and the lawyer. If he went to the pub, he could be sure someone would buy him a pint. The town held him in awe.
After a few weeks, by which time we thought we would never see Mammy again, she came back. Pleased as I was to see her, it was a shock. She had changed towards us, and had lost any warmth she had felt. I had never found her easy, but now she was impossible. She was there, and yet she wasn't. We did everything we could to make her happy. We cleaned and cooked and did the messages, but nothing pleased her, and she would often scream at us or hit out. She stayed for a while, but just as we were getting used to having her back, she left again. It was heartbreaking.
Life had settled into some kind of routine, when Mammy appeared again. This time she was with Father Flanagan, who was contriving to act as a peacemaker.
'You need to stop thinking about yourselves for a moment,' he said, looking from Mammy to Daddy. 'Your children's welfare comes first.'
The weans were overjoyed to see her back, but all signs of life left our home that Saturday.
There was no more laughing or crying, just explosive silence.
We children didn't argue anymore.
We just hung around the house, guarding Mammy in case she skedaddled again. When Mammy left for the third time, I felt more alone than ever.
The strain started to get to me. I was tired all the time and I had desperate pains in my head, but when I went to see our family doctor all he wanted to talk about was Daddy.
'Your father is going through a rough time now, Marie,' he said.
'He needs all the support you can give him.'
He explained that Daddy was depressed.
So I was to be his nurse now, on top of everything else. I left the surgery feeling more burdened than when I'd arrived.
By this time, Daddy knew that Mammy had left to be with Senator Paddy McGowan. Everybody knew it. Yet there he was, a respected member of the community, married, with eight children.
The worst of it was that he didn't give Mammy a good life. He left her in various bed and breakfast places around Dublin and saw her for a night or two a week when he visited the capital on Senate duty.
However, unhappy her marriage had seemed to her, she could surely not have been happy spending days on her own.
Mammy came back five times in all, and you can imagine all the pain that caused. We were up and then down; up when she first arrived, yet afraid to leave her even for a minute in case she was going to disappear again.
We hung around doors. We sat on the steps inside the house. We played in the street outside the house, constantly running inside to check that she was still there.
Father Flanagan made one last desperate attempt to persuade her to come home. He took Noeleen and me to Donegal town to meet her. It was snowing, and the priest's grey Volkswagen slithered at a crawl over Barnesmore Gap.
We were to meet her at the Central Hotel. Noeleen couldn't wait to see Mammy and she ran in ahead of us, but there was a message at reception telling Father Flanagan to go to room 12 alone. He ordered us some tea and ham sandwiches, but we were both too het up to eat. We waited anxiously. And waited. An hour or so had passed before Father Flanagan returned.
'Where's Mammy?' Noeleen asked, jumping to her feet. 'I'm sorry,' he said. 'She won't be coming home with us.' 'Why not?' He didn't answer our question. He just kept repeating, 'I'm sorry. I can't do any more. I've done my best. I've done all I can.' Noeleen asked if she could see Mammy.
Father Flanagan looked agitated. 'Five minutes... no more,' he said. 'We have a hazardous journey in front of us.' Mammy looked wonderful when we entered her room. She was so gracious, so ladylike. It was as if she was meeting royalty, not two daughters whom she hadn't seen for nearly three months.
Holding Noeleen to her, she told us not to cry. 'Why aren't ye coming home, Mammy?' I asked, wiping my eyes and my nose on the sleeve of my coat.
'Father Flanagan will tell yez later,' she said, and her eyes were soft with emotion. 'First he'll speak to yer father.'
The truth shook us all, but Daddy most of all.
Mammy was pregnant. She was having the senator's baby.
'That's it,' said Daddy. 'We've lost her for good now.' And we had.