Friday 26 April 2019

'I'm getting over the idea of Christmas without my mum'

Aisli Madden struggled through the festive season without her mum by her side. But a revival of her late mother's home economics book and a mindfulness session made festivities fun again

Aisli Madden with her mother Deirdre
Aisli Madden with her mother Deirdre
Aisli Madden
Deirdre Madden's book

Aisli Madden

Christmas brings up a mixed bag of emotions for me.

On one hand it's all about mince pies, mulled wine and meeting old friends.

On the other it brings up bittersweet memories of those loved and lost.

I was 23 when mum died in 1999; she had just turned 56. What I remember most about that first Christmas after she passed was her absence. It was surreal. Nothing else seemed significant.

It didn't seem fitting to celebrate in familiar surroundings so my sister Kate and I went to Dublin's Killiney Court Hotel and ate the obligatory feast with family. We raised a glass in mum's honour and coped as best we could.

We weren't the only grieving family at the hotel that year. I remember taking comfort in this extraordinary collection of pale, brave faces peering out from under party hats.

Aisli Madden
Aisli Madden

All of us struggling yet determined to get through the day in one piece, unified by our collective loss.

Read more: Top tips for avoiding a Christmas meltdown

My mum, Deirdre Madden, was the quintessential domestic goddess. A home-economics teacher, author and feminist, she took pride in everything that she did. Christmas was always a special time in our home.

Every Christmas morning my sister and I would wake early and race to check out our loot under the tree. There was always a mandarin at the bottom of our stockings, a tradition passed on by my grandmother. We would receive a selection box, one indulgent treat and as many books as would fit in the oversized sock.

The gifts Mum gave were as practical and thoughtful as she was.

One year I asked Santa for a Dream Glow Barbie, which wore a dress that glowed in the dark. Instead I received a plain doll, dressed in a tweed two-piece suit, wearing flat rubber shoes on her large, flat feet.

She was bigger than standard and too ungainly for Barbie accessories. There was no branded box and she had no name. I was incredibly disappointed.

Mum tried to explain that unlike Barbie, this doll was not pre-destined to be a princess, disco or camping doll. She told me I could give her any life I wanted. Who she ultimately became was my choice.

Read more: 26 things to do with your kids this Christmas

It is only in recent years that I can appreciate the true gift that Mum gave me that Christmas - the seed of independence.

Deirdre Madden's book
Deirdre Madden's book

That was classic Mum; her ability to save money, teach a life lesson and stand up for her beliefs all wrapped up in a tweed-dressed doll.

She urged us to believe in the power of our own abilities. Every feature of that unbranded doll is etched in my mind forever.

Christmas lunch at ours was organised by Mum with military precision. Timing and preparation were the keys to success. Dishes and chores were divided and each of us was held accountable for our own mission. Every year, I was in charge of spicy red cabbage, pavlova and laying the table.

My sister Kate and I took such pride in our tasks and we relished the ensuing praise, as Mum urged our guests, to "ooh" and "ahh" at our achievements.

A steamy kitchen filled with the aroma of roast turkey, baked ham and all the trimmings always brings me back to those days.

After lunch the Christmas cabaret would commence. Granddad would clear his throat and regale us with six verses of his annual Percy French classic, Drumcolliher.

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Granny would follow with I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. My cousins, my sister and I were always reluctant at first but, after considerable egging on, the festive spirit would take over and we would become enthusiastic Billie Barry wannabees.

Mum would have us all in stitches by impersonating Elvis and then the evening would draw to a close with Auntie Mary mesmerising us with a Christmas carol or two.

Those were grand days. Since then I have had many a sumptuous Christmas meal, but they've never tasted quite as delicious without the magic ingredient that was Mum.

This year I will celebrate Christmas surrounded by family in my cousin Patrick's home in Kilmacanogue, where I'll be well fed and I'll bring my legendary spicy red cabbage.

My aunties Mary and Madeline will also be there, I feel closer to Mum in their presence as they remind me so much of her.

My mother was an extraordinary woman, a teacher born and bred. In her mind, hard work and self-belief were the cornerstones of success. She taught me that life is a tapestry of moments, woven together with very fragile thread and that we, as individuals, are masters of its overall design.

Sometimes, when she wasn't looking I would study her intently. I remember how her fingers clicked the keyboard as her words spilled out onto a glowing screen; how her floured yet manicured hands kneaded dough or how she would shrug her shoulders and curl her lip in an Elvis impression, just to get a laugh.

My father and my grandfather passed within a few years of mum. Each loss was completely different to the last. Grief changes on each occurrence. You can mourn a physical absence, or grieve over memories never made.

No two experiences can ever be the same. Every loss is unique, and this singularity of experience is beautiful in its own poignant way.

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It is difficult not to become overcome by grief, especially at Christmas. But we owe it to our loved ones and ourselves to make our own lives memorable.

Three years ago, I self-published and reprinted my Mum's textbook All about Home Economics. The demand for her 'Homemakers Bible' was phenomenal and, 12 years after her death, All about Home Economics became a Christmas best-seller.

When someone you love passes away, it ignites a desperate need to keep their memory alive by any means possible. Publishing Mum's book gave me a rare opportunity to continue the legacy of a home-making legend and rekindle her spirit in thousands of homes nationwide.

When she died, I lost my mum, my role model and my best friend. I also lost my sense of self. However, she had taught me that no problem was insurmountable, so I went searching for solutions and discovered mindfulness.

Derived from ancient Buddhist teachings, mindfulness is achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while accepting and acknowledging your feelings and thoughts, calmly and without judgement.

Mindfulness helped me come to terms with bereavement and gave me hope.

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Its effects were so profound it inspired me to take the practice mainstream, introducing the concept to children through my Buddabugzz books.

I hope my stories will encourage children to believe in themselves and their abilities, by giving them the tools to live calmer, more focused and happier lives

The festive season can be chaotic and if you are struggling with loss this Christmas, you are not alone. Every story is different and everyone has different ways of coping.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but it is not healthy to immerse ourselves in sadness. Get out of the house, go for a walk or a drive, and keep your mind active.

Most of all don't beat yourself up. Experiencing a happy moment doesn't mean you love them any less. They want you to be happy.

Every year at Christmas, I light a candle in memory of those that are no longer with me. In a sense, I see grief as a motivating force. I remember Mum's fight; her strength and optimism. This spurs me on. Her passing taught me to live life with passion. To truly experience every moment as it occurs. I live my life for me, but I also live it for her.

'All about Home Economics' is available to buy on deirdremadden.ie.

Irish Independent

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