Tuesday 20 August 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'For those of us who still look up at the Moon...'

Since 1969 summer means the Moon and the Moon means my father, long dead now, writes Miriam O'Callaghan

Reach for the sky: Buzz Aldrin leaving footprints on the Moon, which are there to this day
Reach for the sky: Buzz Aldrin leaving footprints on the Moon, which are there to this day

Miriam O'Callaghan

One of these summers, reader, we will be dead. And when we are, someone else, another 'we' will stand on the balcony or in the garden or in the park and feel the nudge of the cock-step, watch for the threat of the buds that will, in time, burst and fill our functioning lungs with the growth of birch and oak, camellia and lilac, wisteria and clematis and early rose.

And soon 'our' memory will be replenished with nesting birds and fox cubs and truculent swans on their platforms by the river and baby ducks arriving and departing, gull swoop after gull swoop. And traffic will stop to allow the mother and father usher the survivors across the road. And grass will be cut on university quadrangles and exams will be sat and passed and failed. School uniforms will be ritually desecrated. Maths books burned.

And in the evenings of the long light, 'we' will drink beer and stout and Pinot Grigio and Rioja Reserva along the canals. And when on the water, the swans in their bevy, or fanfare, or herald, or bank, or ballet start their take-off, apparently, on the upbeat signalled by a single white head, 'we' will put down our drinks on the zinc-topped tables, 'our' world-weariness on the wooden trestles and 'we' will, collectively, in our own bevy or fanfare or herald or bank or ballet, stand and follow them with 'our' eyes, 'our' hearts, 'our' hopes, and in 'our' awe, smile, whoop, applaud their ascent into absence.

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As a child, beyond the longed-for fortnight in Youghal or Rosscarbery or Owenahincha, I wasn't too keen on the summer. It was unsettling: cousins heading off to Durrus or Ballyheigue, everyone on our road or from school, packing up for Rosslare or Tramore or Crosshaven. Some even went to Spain. Sitges - natural home of the sombrero, the flamenco doll and brandy bottled in glass matadors painted with primary colours - was popular.

In our house, the huge ancient suitcase with fiddly, laddery, metal catches was taken down from the attic, to be filled with mules and Bungees and Clarks sandals and flip-flops and 'plastics' before they were Jellies. Because it was Cork, there were the compulsory Rubber Dollies. To non-Corkonians these are the white canvas shoes, which for James Joyce and the pupils of St Clare's and Malory Towers were plimsolls.

Over them and a layer of brown paper, for us girls, were laid printed cotton frocks with puff sleeves and ruched bodices. "Refined." There were shorts and T-shirts to wear to the beach, silk floral skirts and crisp white blouses for mother, aunt and grandmother. There were cotton cardigans for nights at the Merries and for Mass that was always cold and endless. Home-made lumber jackets were added in case summer forgot us. To the side there were short-sleeved shirts and several pairs of slacks in desert shades for the only man - and for us he was The Only Man - my father.

As a child, his sandals were intriguing. Summer was the only time of the year I saw the long white toes, tufted with hair, that never became mahogany like the rest of him. And they were confusing: three straps, two over the instep, one around the ankle, meant I could imagine his mother kneeling down, taking his foot, lifting it on to her thigh to tie the buckles. In that way, every summer, my father's childhood invaded my own. My childhood with him invades every summer since, just as it will every summer I am allowed. Because since 1969, summer means the Moon and the Moon means my father.

I was six years old, a recent graduate of Miss Quill's High Babies, when, as for millions around the world, the Apollo 11 mission wrote itself indelibly across my memory, mind, heart: three astronauts waving down at us, while the two of us waved up to them, as we mowed the grass, clipped the hedge, thinned out the nasturtiums, cut the roses and late asters and sweet pea for the Waterford glass vase in the sitting room and for the altars to the Sacred Heart in the kitchen and to Mary on the turn of the stairs.

In our house then - just as they are in my house now - flowers from the garden were blessings in themselves. Fifty years ago, we placed them and wished them for the astronauts and their families, for the scientists at Cape Kennedy and for all the people in all the world, who, like us, were watching and waiting for three men to put Man on the Moon. I don't remember President Nixon talking to the crew, but I do remember what we had for our dinner - tinned salmon, fresh peas from Miss Allen's and buttered new potatoes. Above all, I remember my father, mother, grandmother and aunt in the kitchen, the four of them on their feet, silent tears on the faces, eight hands raised, two to a mouth, the other six as if they guiding Neil Armstrong out of the lunar module.

Afterwards, the neighbours were all out at their gates, everybody beaming and blessing themselves and saying Mother of God, or I'm not in the better if it, or how they thought they would get a heart attack while they were watching it, and how the men themselves had to have nerves of steel. Not to mention their poor families. God love them. But isn't that the Yanks for you? They're afraid of nothing.

This week, half a century ago, my father and I were two of the millions who looked to the sky in the faint hope of a fainter view of the rocket and its voyagers. I looked at a series of photos of 'our' Earth taken during the first walk by one of 'us' on 'our' Moon. Pope Paul VI looks on, arms folded, from the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo. In Cape Kennedy, Tokyo, Milan, Hong Kong, Paris, London, Ohio, Birmingham, New York, people are mesmerised by the ghostly Armstrong stepping out onto the lunar surface. One photo takes us to Texas where lunar module commander Michael Collins's wife Pat and his little girl Ann watch at home. The world is watching Ann watching her dad in her Siena-red dressing gown and Prussian Blue slippers.

I also saw a full-colour shot of the VIP stand at the launch in Florida. The photo beams across the 50 years, the glamour and promise of the 1960s: the sunglasses, suits, hats, lacquered hair, the twinsets and pearls, the perfume and the 'costumes'. In that shot, the Florida sunshine illuminates French's Villas and 'the Nights' we would have every summer when relatives and friends came home from America. A time it was, when I regarded gin-and-tonic as "after-shave" instead of rescue remedy.

The photos, like our lives, are full of the dead. Of the 1960s summer 'nights' in Cork, my mother is the last of her generation. My father with whom I tracked Apollo 11 died at 81. He is dead now 2,042 days. Yet, in that summer of summers he was 37, a strong, handsome father in pale-blue shirt, beige slacks, corduroy bungees, a daughter by his side, tanned as he was, another due any day.

In the lunar module, Buzz Aldrin took communion. And communion, too, is what we made as mankind landed on the Moon, only to find we were landing within ourselves, within each other. That Sunday in space, Aldrin made a request to the world: "…to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the last few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."

This week, we pause. We contemplate the events of those last few hours and the last 50 years. We give thanks.

Half a century ago, NASA ground control looked at their screens, told the crew "Hello Apollo 11. We can see your heart beating." For all who witnessed this event in human history, the heart of Apollo 11 is beating still. Even for those whose hearts beat only, now, within our own.

Sunday Independent

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