Suzanne Power: Why ceremony matters in our lives and realism can’t rob Christmas of it’s magic
We mark our time on earth through ceremonies and the people that share them with us. Ceremonies define all we are, all we were and can be.
In her latest book, a memoir called Heart Lines about life, love and everything between, author and columnist Suzanne Power recalls her two marriages, both in rush purchase dresses, her turning her divorce into a celebration she shared with her ex husband, her West of Ireland grandmother’s funeral, her fear of engagements and finally Christmas and why she refuses to accept realism at this magical time of year.
An extract from Ceremonies and Life Between:
MY whole life is about the discovery of treasure: the treasure in other people, in life and in circumstance. My life is a patchwork quilt, a lifestyle with less financial recompense and more freedom, fewer package holidays but beautiful rural surroundings.
One of my failings until recently was how much I dismissed rituals. Now I see the huge importance of them, from the regular phoning of a distant relative to the time set aside for cappuccino with a friend.
Today one son came to me and said: ‘Am I a Catholic or a Protestant?’
‘You’re not either of them.’ ‘Why?’
‘You haven’t decided yet.’
‘So do I get to?’
‘Good. I want a Confirmation. I don’t care what religion it is.’ One of his friends had a celebration and there were sixty three cousins in a photo. The wind whistles around my children. I think this is why we decided on a wedding in 2010. They needed it as much as we did. Ritual is reborn through my children’s eyes. I see the eternal nature of it. The stones of megalithic cultures were placed out of a need for ritual. At a time when our culture was based neither on reading nor on writing, they were marking time and occasion. Life’s rituals and their importance came to me only later on. It was another of my failures not to notice that celebrations need to be attended and the dead need to be marked. I suppose because many of us who are in their forties and upwards grew up without big splashy parties. Our lives were peppered in ritual self regard only at Communion and Confirmation. I just didn’t get ceremony. This was painfully obvious on both my wedding days. I wore the happiness better than I wore the dresses, which were not as I would have liked them. I have a bad habit of leaving wedding dresses to the last minute.
I bought my first one out of bargain bucket in 1992 and the second one to be run up by a woman who was alarmed to hear I was only three weeks from kick off at the first fitting. I spent more time getting tickets for the Newcastle Derby than preparing for the wedding day itself. The first time I got married in shoes half a size too small. The second time the shoes lasted through the ceremony and were kicked off before the meal. I might marry someone but this does not mean I can handle conventions. In my quiet corner of the world I have let go of them. But ceremony is not conventional if it’s about the people involved rather than revolving around a meaningless set of gestures. In 2009 I was asking why people still got engaged:
I know it’s something to do with signalling they’re going to marry, to deepen their commitment to one another before finally aisle walking, I know that engagements are all about betrothal, they originated to let the bride sew a lot of armchair wing covers and the groom to do some more hunting and gathering. It let them save for a house and gave the parents a chance to get used to losing their little darlings. Most people moved out of home into their marital home.
Engagements were about preparation. Now, unless we’re very unusual, we know the person we’re going to marry backwards. We’ve got used to hanging out their stuff on a line and figured out that we can live with their personal habits. Often our offspring is in the wedding photo. In fact one of my friends who is a teacher has been employed more than once to mind her students while their mammies and daddies get married: ‘I think it’s because all their friends and relatives are at the weddings, so they need someone they can trust and who knows Ceremonies and Life Between 123 their children for the evening. But it would be pointless for them to have an engagement when they’re already well worn in together!’
If you have lived with someone, if you have purchased property with someone, if you have children with someone and if you have been with someone for donkey’s years, why do you need an engagement? Why do you need rings and rituals? You’ve already been through the realities and disillusions of a married existence. You’ve already proved the distance is one you can go. In fact, in the case of one couple I know in UK, they’ve gone more than five laps of a ten lap race! The only reason they got married was that their children wanted them to. This is a very romantic and loving reason. A close friend of mine gave me the answer to that. She’s going to be the second wife of her first husband. Because he’s divorced and has the wedding album still in the attic, she agreed to eschew the traditional route she always wanted and go for registry office and small party: ‘It would be embarrassing for him otherwise. He’d have to invite all the people who’d been at his first wedding and even his ex. That’s not the way to go. I wanted my big day. But got the man I wanted with a smaller day.’
And what about engagement?
‘He’s already done that one too. It’s what you have to deal with when you meet someone with history. You’re not going to get the Eiffel Tower and a carrier pigeon dropping off a solitaire on the third floor. Not that he did that last time either. But he was engaged last time too. We’ll be saying we want to be together for the rest of our lives.’
I’d say yes to that particular proposal. If they’re going down on bended knees, producing solitaires, knowing what can happen in the light of previous experience, then they really love you.
I have had two really great ones but I still didn’t have a good word to say about weddings in between my 1992 and 2010 ceremonies. This piece comes out of that cynicism:
Weddings. I had one and I doubt if I’ll ever have another, which is not to say I won’t get married. I just won’t be announcing it this time, if I do at all. It’s not that I don’t enjoy weddings but they’re a killer on the back. It’s not for nothing they’re one letter away from weeding. You’re weighed down with the burden of responsibility that at least one hundred people have a good time and you have to make sure you look better than any of them as well. There’s a big difference, a world of it, between having a wedding and getting married. There’s a world of difference between couples who’ve got swallowed up in the details of a fabulous affair and then he’s gone off and had a fabulous affair. I’ve been at a wedding where the sugared almonds where flown in from Paris, along with the rest of the table decorations. Her dress cost the price of a new, if small, car. They didn’t last a year.
I think it was that fragility in the modern relationship that put me off public displays of commitment. My friends were all single, struggling or separated. I wrote a lot about this in the past decade.
My best friend rang me last night to say she did her first supermarket shop as a single woman.
‘I feel so sad,’ she sighed, ‘walking around with a half empty trolley. My meals for one –’ he was the chef in the relationship, ‘ – my tins of cat food and dog biscuits. The contents add up to a spinster who has only animals for company.
‘I had three bottles of wine and I got so paranoid I put two back, in case anyone thought I was a lonely lush too. But I couldn’t bear to put my celebrity magazine back. I mean the state of me. Looking at the pictures of the rich and famous while feeding my cat and dog, while eating my convenience food. The only thing missing from my trolley was a self help book.’ They sell those in supermarkets now, along with electrical appliances, crockery, clothing, stationery and even computers. You don’t need to go anywhere in life but the supermarket. It is the mother ship of shops and the trolley is the biggest indicator of your existence.
‘So, after I put the wine back I went to the fruit and vegetable rack,’ my friend continued, ‘and put in loads of healthy stuff. The fruit is grand but the vegetables will go off. I can’t cook. Maybe the next thing I’ll do is either move in with you or sign up for a class.’
My God I felt for her. We’ve often commented on the sadness of our being heterosexual. Our skills in life dovetail. She’s a compulsive cleaner and tidier. I am hideously the other way. She is practical and devoted to order and reason. I am impulsive and devoted to emotions and expressing them, right here, right now. Her reticence in such displays has reined me in more than once. She has saved me many moments of embarrassment. I help her to open up, which in turn makes her life a bit easier. She behaves like an ice maiden within range of any man she fancies. I take her to the Ladies, stick her under the warm air dryer and then send her back out there with colour in her cheeks and messy hair to make a play. We even love each other, for God’s sake. This should be a match made in heaven if one of us had a penis. I know it can be achieved surgically but that’s not quite the arrangement each of us is looking for.
So I nursed her through and I hoped she wouldn’t end up as cynical as my friend Daisy who has had a ritual date every second Saturday for the years she’s been single. I was single too, in that divorced way. Bruised and feeling loath to date. Daisy ritualised her ten year single stretch:
‘I take my men by the hour,’ Daisy pronounced, while we ate marshmallow biscuits and drank Earl Grey tea in front of her fire. It was 6.30 and we hadn’t shifted all that Saturday afternoon. The weather was wet and wild and her front room had a Christmas feel about it. Candles, chocolate and a roaring fire. The only thing missing was torn wrapping paper and a terrible programme on telly. Which is why I nearly died when at 6.30 she stretched and sighed and said, ‘I’d better make a move and wash up these cups. I hope when he arrives he doesn’t want tea. I couldn’t face another cup of Earl Grey.’ ‘Who doesn’t want tea?’ ‘My date. Noel. He’s coming at seven.’
‘He’s coming at what?’ I rose instantly, fired with the need to spring clean the place and Daisy and have her looking desirable and her home empty of debris, including me, all in thirty minutes. ‘You should have said! I would have left ages ago. What about hot water – have you enough to wash your hair and your house?’
She then patiently explained that there was no need for hysterics; it was just a casual thing. ‘That’s even worse!’ I cried. ‘Casual takes more work. You have to look like you’ve done nothing at all.’ I ran and promised to call her tomorrow and she shovelled coal on the fire and nodded resignedly.
‘There won’t be anything to say. It’s just casual. I take my men by the hour.’ In the car the cold sloughed off any comfort that might have built up in my bones over the afternoon and I drove home feeling curiously wistful. Daisy and I cannot get excited over dates publicly. I know as soon as I left her she tore around the place putting on nice things and spraying herself with discreet doses of something lovely. But she won’t have opened her door with a light in her eyes and flushed cheeks. She will have been adult and mannerly. And scared.
You can sum it up in one commandment: take your men by the hour.
I was recently divorced when I wrote that. The divorce was a ritual in 2004 that went a lot better than some of the dates I had after my marriage was over. It showed me that marriages ending need to be celebrated as much as their beginning.
So now I am a divorcee. The term implies to me someone carrying a pearlescent cigarette holder, with a sophisticated bias cut frock and a mysterious past that intrigues members of the opposite sex, as she wraps a chiffon scarf, edged with scandal, around their neck to draw them in. Something of a Lady Windermere, one who can lure and has suffered the consequences.
The term belongs to a time when it wasn’t really the done thing to be divorced. The fact that you were meant you were not quite accepted. Now calling yourself a divorcee seems almost quaint, as it’s as common as beans. In this Atlantic outpost it’s still a tortuous process to dissolve a marriage, whereas my UK partner got his through the post in six weeks for £80. Not that the quick fire method is the right one. My partner was left with a sense of emptiness that after eight years with his wife they didn’t even have to turn up at the same place to end their relationship. He would have liked to have some kind of ceremony, sense of event around it, rather than it being terminated intangibly.
Because we had to wait so long for our divorce my ex husband and I now have families of our own. Since neither of us has been able to marry again up until this point he has no legal rights to his children and neither does my partner. They have to apply for guardianship of their own flesh and blood. Nonsensical. Unfortunately it seems most people don’t know about this until it’s too late and their relationship is on the rocks. They end up in the Family Law Court, fighting for rights they thought they had automatically.
In Court 31 last week I saw the consequences of divorce with children involved and it is not pretty. A man representing himself was submitting papers to the judge who was clearly efficient and kind in her dealings. The solicitor representing his wife came to life only when documents were being handed over and said, ‘My Lord, I represent the wife of the respondent. We have received no such documentation.’ A date for hearing was set for next month. The man left the court in tears. Another woman sat shaking in a quiet corner. I whispered good luck to her and her eyes filled as she whispered, ‘Thank you’. A social worker or psychologist should be present to spot such people and guide them through.
Another barrister missed her client’s case being called, since they are referred to only by initials. The judge raised her eyes to heaven. Some person is parting with serious money to have this highly trained individual in court on their behalf. Such proceedings reminded me how lucky I am to have a friendship with the man I used to call my husband and with his new partner. We met in a café and walked up the quay together, drinking coffee, full of sadness.
Just because we did the right thing does not mean it can’t still hurt. When we first went to Sheila and Jane, matrimonial consultants who charge a fraction of what solicitors quoted us, they thought we were married. We have a familiarity and ease with each other which has not been discouraged by our new loves. It makes sense if you know us; it might seem too good to be true if you don’t.
The answer to it all is respect. Our partners have both seen long term relationships end and know what it’s like to lose a huge chunk of your history by not continuing to be a part of each other’s lives. My ex husband wore a suit that fitted him far better than the hired one he wore on our wedding day. He looked gorgeous as he stood in a witness box and told the judge, firmly, that there was no chance of reconciliation. It felt awful to hear that. I couldn’t stop thinking of our wedding vows, which I have not dissolved.
I will love and honour him, as a friend, until the day I die. We were called at 10.15 am and divorced before 10.40. Jane said it was the quickest and smoothest she’d ever known. It was nice of her to congratulate us as we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Her knowledge and kindness helped us a lot. We left immediately and that’s when we both cried. Then we exchanged gifts and had lunch. My partner called and spoke to him; his partner sent me a card that thanked me for my kindnesses, not recognising that hers to me have been far greater. All the text messages that came were to wish us well and let us know that friends and family were thinking of us. At 3.00pm we went to the train station and, as fate would have it, caught trains going in opposite directions. They were both due in one minute. That one minute was the worst of the whole day for me. I got off at my station and my new life was waiting outside in a banger estate car – my children and my man. His was at home waiting for him.
We four friends all expressed the hope on the day of the divorce that things will not change and because we all hope this they are not likely to. By next year this fresh pain will be gone, eased by our communication with each other but not forgotten.
I’m not big on crowds so I tend to avoid Irish funerals. They’re a magnet for runners in who met the deceased at a bus stop. When my maternal grandmother died I was not able to be present, having just had the children. She never thought of divorce, or identity, as I do. She was brought up in the survival era. Her life was without complaint although it had hardship. I saw her love of ritual. All those grandchildren and she was there for every Communion and Confirmation. She was the family blacksmith, shoeing us like horses for the grand events. It was her chief expression of love. In her day some went unshod. That was not to happen to us. She saved on this account and presented the dockets a week before the big day. This was strenuous work when you had big feet like mine. The shoes for big feet girls were in short supply and there might be no pairs left by the time the dockets came. This was the worry. It never happened. At each ceremony our shoes were new, as were those of our cousins. In later years my mother bought her mother shoes, to thank her for what was. I wrote this piece to be read at her funeral:
My Grandmother’s Ireland
Nanny Cissie has gone and I’m not sad about that because she suffered greatly in her last few months and her quality of life was not what it once was. How a girl who used to walk miles to school across fields could bear to be incarcerated in a bed for such a long period of time is something only she can know. But, like all things, she bore it.
She was a lady. I never heard her raise her voice or use a swear word. Her gentleness was remarkable. It was not in her nature to remonstrate. She had her own way of going about things. When your last grandparent vanishes so does your childhood and that goes for all of us grandchildren today. We have lost the passageway to the past that involved long and happy hours under the great sycamore in the back garden of 61 St Patrick’s Crescent. And she presided over all of these. A common memory for us all from myself, the eldest, to Ciaran, the youngest. Another common memory for us all would be Clarks shoes – no Mason or Power grandchild went without them. Nanny’s dockets were presented on key occasions – birthdays, Christmas, Communions, Confirmations. We had new shoes. The Nanny dockets came with the promise that we would always be smart on our big days. Granddad gave us bars of chocolate. She gave us the dockets for Connolly’s, where the canary sang in its cage as you waited for your measurement and your size to be brought out.
My wait was long. I felt like Alice in Wonderland after the bun. So big.
A special memory of my own was when she gave me a box of magic during a holiday I spent with her. She took an empty box of Black Magic and filled it with old cards, letters, pens, coins – any bric à brac she could find. I carried it around with me, calling it my box of magic, and I have been carrying it around since.
She gave a girl who had a high imagination and a low boredom threshold hours of occupation and enjoyment. As I write her great grandson is lying beside me on a cushion looking out the window and laughing at the shadows and light. I am sure she is among them and will watch over both him and his brother, whom she never met in person.
She gave me her recipe once for a perfect day – of course it involved Sligo and her own childhood. These are her words – transcribed from a taped interview – I hope that in hearing them she will hear my own and the other grandchildren’s thanks for the perfect days she gave us:
‘Farnyharpy was very near the Ox mountains and about six miles from the Atlantic Ocean. On a good day in summer it was paradise and we had plenty of good summers when I was a child. I never climbed the mountains. We left that sort of thing to the sheep.
‘My father brought us swimming during the summer. He had a side car and a plough horse. My elder sister Bea always sat beside him, my brother Jim sat on one side of my mother, behind them, and I was on the other.
‘We always had a horse. I never learned to ride because I was a kind of nervous girl. But one time I got it in mind to learn and I asked my father for so long to put me on the horse that he got fed up listening to me and did it. I got on to bring him to the river for a drink. That horse walked himself to the river, drank, turned around himself and walked back to the house. He stood directly in front of the door and didn’t shift until my father appeared to take me off. The horse’s name was Sam and there wasn’t a gentler horse in Ireland.
‘During the ploughing season the neighbours teamed up their horses in pairs to till the fields. My father would go to them one day and they would come to us another. You needed neighbours. You couldn’t live in the country without their help. In the evening they would come to play cards, my father taught us ‘Twenty five’ and a game called ‘Neighbours’. My mother, Margaret Boland, played the accordion and we would hold parties and have a dance to her accompaniment. ‘My father was known in the area as “the historian”. He had so many stories about real events and fairytales. He told us ghost stories that frightened the life out of us. Then himself and my mother used to play act and refuse to put us to bed in case one of the ghosts was waiting for us. We never knew whether they were true or not, the stories he told us. He used to tell us of haunted places in the area. There was a huge house and grounds owned by big shots in the next parish. Templeboy. A young man was shot dead on their land and his ghost was seen walking around there ever since.
‘I never thought that I would miss those awful stories – but they were part of what I would say would be my perfect day.’
If I had not recorded Nanny I would never have had the story to pass on. Her death and my children’s first Christmas brought home to me that I would milk every moment, for the moments made a life more than the plans. I love Christmas now, for the magic the boys bring, I murder myself preparing and I am happy to. I refuse realism at this magical time of year. In 2007 I wrote this piece:
I’ve got a present for you. I hope you like it. This week, while I was with friends, one of them said. ‘We should have a Christmas list for ourselves.’ I thought about it over the next few days. While the children were doing theirs I listened to them. They were writing down the usual suspects: Action Men, some sort of weaponry, fart putty, something to do with Dr Who. Then it got interesting.
‘I’d like a time machine like the one he’s got. But I just want it programmed to go back and see a dinosaur and not get out of it.
Just look at it. Really.’
‘Yes,’ the other lad chimed. ‘I think I would like a rocket but I just want to see Neptune, because that’s my favourite planet and then it’s going to be a submarine as well because Neptune is all water and so I want to go underwater.’ ‘To do what?’ I asked, bearing in my adult mind that this was a boy who one year ago was scared of the sight of water. ‘To meet a whale and have a drive around in its belly and then it belches me up. So that’s what I want.’ ‘What if these things aren’t available?’ I asked them, trying to prepare them for the disappointment. Silence, a bit of scribbling and the two of them looking at each other and then out the window. ‘It doesn’t matter, because I’ll use my imagination. I’ll do it all anyway.’ ‘Yeah,’ the other one said.
In the light of that, I decided to knock the whole New Year Resolution thing on the head and do my Christmas list instead. The difference between a New Year resolve and a Christmas wish is one is about depriving yourself of pleasure and the other is about giving it to yourself.
My Christmas list involves things that I most likely will never get but still am expecting them to happen. This makes me more cheerful. My list involves this being the first year where I will make a piece of pottery and glaze it and not hide it in a drawer, to be thrown out when I die. It’ll be a clay fart with paint on it but it’ll take pride of place.
This coming year I will do exactly what I want on my birthday even if that involves spending a day in a golden wheelie bin. I am going to have exactly the kind of celebration I want, even if that does involve making all my friends and family come to a beach with me for a picnic. I am also going to visit Venus before I die in a bright yellow spacecraft, wearing a turquoise feather boa and drinking Italian fizzy water I can’t remember the name of. I just like the bottle.
Because we have twins every birthday is double the celebration. We mark each one. On one birthday our son said: ‘I hope you two will get married. We can have a family wedding.’ His brother agreed: ‘You know you both love each other, so get married.’ We have a cartoon framed in our home that one of my sons did, of the family tube, which is the four of us connected. The boys’ push and this drawing gave us the impetus and realisation that it was high time. That was August 2010. By 28 October we were husband and wife. We wanted a day in which the boys were included and we had to have a honeymoon that involved them too. We got it.
Gretna Green is a bit like Brigadoon, a village, just over the border from England where eloping couples have gone to be 134 Heart Lines married by a single witness for three centuries. They turned up in the local blacksmith’s shop first in the mid 1700s and he witnessed their unions over his anvil. The blacksmith’s shop is a wonderful place to be married. The boys wrote and read out a speech. When the hotel manager announced our sons’ speech he said, ‘Well everything about this marriage so far has been different and in keeping with that, the important people in the room are going to say some important things.’
It was the best wedding I was ever at and it was mine. I had learned from my first, which was also great, not to put myself or my family under pressure so severe we were numb on the day. The thing about getting married and having your children present is that the celebration is even more meaningful. My children kept saying on the day: ‘Imagine if you’d done it before we were born. We wouldn’t be here.’ I made a huge effort to include them in all the plans so it went according to plan. They both chose to wear ties and suits but with trainers. They had their favourite dinner and dessert on the day. And they sat on either side of their mother and father as chief celebrants. Theirs was the only formal speech. We then let anyone who wanted to say anything stand up and the only person who wanted to was eleven year old, Adem, who was our video cameraman for the day. ‘We’re part of a select few,’ he said. ‘This is a great day.’ The informality and the intimacy meant no one’s head was in a noose and while the drink flowed it didn’t serve as a panacea for pent up emotions. Getting married second time around I prioritised the real things, rather than the seating plan. I made sure that rather than race through the day I took my time and kept my cool. It felt so right because two minutes after the ceremony was over I was out of the high heels and in my bare feet walking around talking to my closest friends and immediate family.
Getting married is worth it. The ritual makes you realise how important it is to express your love and your togetherness openly to those you care about and who care about you. Dresses, suits, shoes, pressies, food, decorations, cars. it’s all a nonsense Ceremonies and Life Between 135 compared to a few well chosen words in the right company. The man who married us does about seven ceremonies a week in Gretna Green. The photographer does a wedding a day. Both of them behaved as if they’d never done it before – and they never had.
When you get married for a second time you release yourself from expectation and enjoy yourself. When you get married with your children in your bridal party it feels like all the happiness you could ever expect from life. Be true to yourself. No wedding should be without that honesty. Second time around I did. I ignored suggestions in favour of instinct, I got the day of my dreams and so did my family. It might not have been to everyone’s taste. But those present soon acquired it. My dad tells me it was the best he was ever at. He’s given me away twice now. He won’t have to do it ever again. We wanted something personal. Not Vegas, we wanted veritas. What we got was something we’ll never forget. That’s why I booked Julie Winspear, an award winning photographer, to do the pictures. She doesn’t know how to make them static. They spoke and sang for a day to remember. Julie’s style is to give you the formal shots but to be among the guests and capture them in a documentary style as the main body of your album. I have a hundred and twenty high quality images of sincerity and beauty. Julie Winspear kept snapping pix and smiling. She got me dressing up and meeting the boys’ godmother, Claudia, whom I hadn’t seen in three years. She got the boys running through autumn leaves with excitement. She got the boys walking their mother and father into the blacksmith’s shop, all of us in tears, to Reverend Sandy Jameson, who gave us a ceremony full of the spirituality we feel and live our lives by. He read an Indian prayer. We lit candles. We sang our hymn and our children signed the register with us.
The photographer cried along with every guest. You could feel the history of the blacksmith’s shop as we read our vows. You could feel the love and history between us. In front of everyone there was a wish card with a line of poetry, written by 136 Heart Lines one of us four at the top table. Each line the guests got meant something to them, it was astonishing to hear them read out. Instead of wedding favours two artists who are my lifelong friends made pieces for each guest. ‘Hello People.’ One son read out the other’s words. ‘Thank you all for coming to our special day in Scotland. It’s a pleasure for us to have you here. It means a lot for Suzanne and Albie to get married. Just going to tell you that this is only the ceremony, for as soon as they looked into each other’s eyes the marriage was in their souls. They were going to get married before but we were not ready then. So I’m glad it’s happening now.’
Heart Lines by Suzanne Power is puiblished by Londubh Books, €12.99.