It’s the 1970s and these women sequestered, secluded in their kitchens, are known to us solely as Mothers. Proper noun, capital M.
In their kingdoms of white stone-sinks, blue-tiled floors, they toil under the gimlet eye of the Sacred Heart in His red robes and His Roman emissary in his white.
When we visit, there’s always mahogany tea in the pot, custard or Bourbon creams in the press (or the hot-press if they’ve been planked away), washing in the twin tub, Levis in various states of fade and drying on the line outside. On the Mothers’ sideboards sit wedding photos, all stiff smiles, stiff veils, stiff hair; their bouquet ferns, black arrows against white lace or brocade, proof of our Mothers’ sad existence before life as we know it: which is us.
We show the thin brides in their thick frames no mercy. They’d thought nothing of turning us out in hen bonnets, ‘costumes’, Al Capone hats, dog-warden rig-outs and riding habits for our Confirmation.
To the syncopated rhythm of sandwich biscuits on virgin molars we take older brothers’ albums; The Doors, Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac – for our own safety remembering, precisely, their placement – stack them beside stereos the size of Belgium.
And as we sing along with Stevie Nicks, we find that we now are the Mothers, in our own kingdoms, the floors wood, the sinks still stone, the walls bereft of holy men and their scrutiny, new teenage visitors holding us in our old Daughter-gaze, mildly fascinated, mostly repelled.
“Jesus, woman, there’s no need for that. It’s frightening. All of ye should be banned from real music. Is there coffee?”
Among my schoolfriends, many of our biscuit-planking, Levis-drying mothers are dead.
In their bullet-proof tights in shades of fortified wine, their Camels and desserts, as girls we had reduced them to helmet-haired cake-makers, sandwich-makers, peace-makers, watchers, naggers from whom everything, even breath itself, was to be hidden.
Because they were Mothers. Because they were confined, strictly, to our present and presence. For all we knew, once we left for school, they collapsed, lifeless in their kingdoms, resurrecting themselves only at the sound of our return.
As a Mother myself, I remember their carefully wrapped squares; thick-sliced corned-beef or spiced-tongue, candy-pink pork-and-onion, inside freshly-cut Skull or Basket from Donnelly’s bakers or Ormond & Aherne’s, readied for Small Lunches in the North Mon or St Vincent’s.
I wonder what they thought of, as they picked up the breadknife day after day, year after year, singing along to whoever was their own Stevie Nicks, until they found their kingdom suddenly deserted, save for the random adult-child visitor, the biscuits still planked, this time in thighs, arms, tummies.
My own mother was an enigma among Mothers. It wasn’t until I went to UCC and we’d meet on her lunch-break from work on Fridays and have plaice and gratin potatoes and Lemon Meringue Pie, at Café Mary Rose in the Savoy, I realised she was an actual person, an actual woman, with an actual interest in Beowulf, Thomas Malory and Piers Plowman; one who had, as she put it, “followed Samuel Beckett all my life”.
The Danger signs had always been there: her avid reading, the commandeering of Soundings for Hopkins and Donne, the short-stories of Maupassant for the kiss-of-life to her school French.
But if a Mother with a lavishly furnished interior life was a mortifying prospect for a teenage daughter in the early 1980s it was terrifying that we would share, and intimately, a taste in décor.
As a Mother, she could wallpaper cupboards and fridges, grow her asters, paint floors before floor-paint was heard of, sprinkle resentment into vile mutton-stews alongside the thyme and pearl barley, but maternal ‘eccentricity’ connected to Monsieur Beckett or Madame Bovary? No. We were as bad as learner nuns in demanding, expecting a defeat of the ego.
Now, our 1970s Mothers have a new classification: the over-80s. An amorphous mass holding the rest of us to ransom with their neediness to live. If there was love in the time of cholera, there’s pique in the time of Covid-19.
The self-appointed Wise and Edgy want them shot. With the vaccine that is. ‘Their’ shot being ‘our’ freedom. It seems in our Lift-the-Lockdown sophistication we don’t eat ‘our’ young. We have a lip on us for ‘our’ old instead.
“It’s mainly the old who’ll become seriously ill or die, anyhow,” say the Wise, who have nothing on the Roux Brothers when it comes to reduction.
My small-M mother is 88 now. Shot by Pfizer, she’s delighted for herself and who she calls ‘old people’.
Among them, the Mothers of the 1960s and 1970s who, like her, behind frosted glass, set hair, Ponds Cream and Mary Quant lipstick, placed their gloved hands around the necks of their dreams so we, their daughters and sons, could fulfil our own.
President Higgins says we need an ethical remembering of British empire. I believe we need an equally ethical remembering of our Irish elderly and especially tomorrow, of the mothers who died alone and were buried, almost in secret, in Covid-19. This being the First Mother’s Day of every Mother’s Day to come, without them.
Tomorrow, I’ll thank my son and daughter for my transforming, defining life experiences. To carry and give birth to a child. To see the generations in them. To love them as, and be called, their mother.