"May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life."
(From "Beannacht - For Josie", by John O'Donohue)
Josie Kelly: Gigi, family album
This Wednesday marked the second anniversary of my mother's death: she died on the morning of 10.10.2010. Although time appears to have flown by, I still seem to be slow at navigating the yawning void that has opened up in the very middle of my life. Until I moved to Brighton, I saw Mum everyday; once I had moved, I spoke to her everyday. I realise that losing my job around the same time that I lost my mother could only ever isolate me further: living on my own, I also find myself yearning for the camaraderie of my old colleagues. But more than anything, I can't deny that I miss my mum.
Mum was one of a family of six children: the eldest was a step-sister who would quickly emigrate to Australia, the youngest was her only brother William; Josie was the youngest of the four sisters in between. With varying shades of strawberry blonde hair and Irish blue eyes, they were feisty and pretty and were known as The Kelly Girls around Antrim and Derry. My Auntie Barbara told me that when they were growing up Mum was generally stubborn and often cantankerous but always cute. Her enchantment of my father is recounted elsewhere in this blog; for her part, Mum appeared to have countless suitors but maintained she had only loved once. Living in my father's native Belgium and then Switzerland and France during the first fifteen years of their marriage, she loved the French culture and language, but she learned to speak French her way, with an unshakable Northern Irish accent. Mum was eternally Irish. She would cheerfully say she was born in "the Black North", but being born just before the partitioning of the Irish counties, she refused to recognise the divide, with an indignity I uphold. Her Irishness seems to have been as infectious for my Dad: he surely had a greater knowledge of Irish political history and a more prolific collection of Irish folk and rebel songs than your average, conservatively raised Walloon. And so the Sundays of my childhood resonated with Gregorian chant, Edith Piaf, The Dubliners and various versions of "Kevin Barry" and "The Fields of Athenry".
Mum was always a bit of a conundrum. Just as she was a resolute vegetarian who didn't care for many vegetables, she was also a confirmed Catholic who believed in fairies, omens and ghosts. Superstition and ritual featured large in her Catholic upbringing. Her own beloved Scottish mother, who I never knew, was a devout woman who could apparently"see" the fate of others; the local parish priest often asked for advice and assured my granny that she was thus "gifted" because she was close to God. Mum would often mutter prayers in front of the red-lit picture of The Scared Heart (above the fridge), asking The Virgin Mary, St Rita or St Anthony to fix or find things, to keep people safe or show them the error of their ways.
When my Dad died suddenly and my big sister left to travel across the world with the man she would marry, I feel I formed an enviable bond with Mum. At times, certainly in later years, I admit that I could feel smothered and stuck. The memory of that resentment is painful for me now: sometimes contrarily argumentative and startlingly devoid of tact, Mum loved my sister and I unconditionally and fiercely. She could be generous to a fault: some folk could pop in for a cuppa and still be there through lunch and dinner, and maybe even a drop of whiskey to set them back en route. At other times, she might resolutely refuse to open the door to neighbours or friends if she was having a bad hair or even a "bad house" day. She could be endlessly kind but brutally honest, frequently advising other people's daughters in shop changing rooms that a skirt or dress made them look fat, thin, peaky or just plain dreadful!
She could appear judgemental, largely due to the narrowness of her geography and religion. Yet I remember her instinctive reaction when she came to visit a man I had been helping to care for, in his last, painful stages of AIDS. His condition and homosexuality had blinded his own Portuguese Catholic family; when Mum asked him where his mother was, he started to cry. Always phobic about hospitals and terrified by the media's HIV and AIDS fever, my own Mum held Paolo's hand and told him she would be his mother that afternoon. I've never forgotten that; it helps me remember how I came to be me.
She had an unspoken fearlessness about her, which must have been attractive to my just and outspoken father. Once settled in south London, she rarely felt the need to travel across the Thames; yet she traveled to Australia and the Far East with my sister when she was well into her seventies and dependent on a walking stick. When I was younger, she would sometimes come along to reggae and punk gigs; she could often be heard offering young men with towering Mohican hairdos cough sweets and tissues. She became a big fan of singer and gay rights activist Tom Robinson, who referred to her as "Mum" on more than one occasion.
When I was arranging Mum's wake, I wrote the poem "Josie Kelly", which tumbled out in a rush of recognition of all that's Mum that I now see in me. I wanted to share it here, along with some of the (very many) things she would often tell me. She shared some of my taste in music, if not the full diversity which I inherited from Dad. She never tired of traditional Celtic music, including the pipes and the marching bands of the Orangemen, but I managed to introduce her to the likes of Springsteen, Van Morrison, Kings of Leon, Eddi Reader, Brian Kennedy, Damien Rice... I literally introduced her to Norn Ireland's own Snow Patrol, which is a whole other story. She grew to be especially fond of the band; her favourite Snow Patrol song, which reminded her of The Troubles, is included here. Mum felt that frontman Gary Lightbody would have made a fine Catholic priest, which would certainly be news to his lovely Protestant family back in Bangor. Mum frequently asserted that various people would've made fine Catholic priests. Apart from Blessed Pope John Paul: she thought he was wonderful of course, but felt he would've made a great rock star.
And people wonder where I get it from.
Things My Mother Told Me
Never let the sun set on an argument.
Never take your health for granted.
What's meant for you will surely not go past you.
That her marriage to my Dad was made in Heaven; or at the very least, the wedding license was filed there.
That I would never have much money, but that needn't mean I would ever be poor.
Money puts a price on happiness but still can't buy it.
Always accept an apology. It makes it easier to offer one.
God does indeed move in mysterious ways: why wouldn't He; He's God?
Irish people know how to laugh at themselves, which has encouraged the English to make Irish jokes because they haven't yet learned to laugh at themselves.
If you believe you're right, stand up and fight for your opinion, until you're knocked down; then, sit down and carry on shouting.
Men who mock women for being virgins, or chaste or celibate, are not fit for love-making.
You should marry for love and work for money, not the other way round.
That her lack of culinary skills hadn't affected her raising a family: she simply married a man who loved cooking and had one daughter who loved the preparing and eating of food and another who liked to eat out.
You can wear tartan with floral, polka dots with stripes; as long as none of it is wearing you.
You can paint your face but not a smile on it.
Real class has nothing to do with where you are on any social scale.
That talking to my plants would help me as much as them.
Irish people are born to laugh and cry; sometimes, both at the same time.
That I should've married Bruce Springsteen.
Always keep a clean house: you don't want burglars thinking you're slovenly.
Always wear good underwear, in case you get knocked down or have to climb up something.
That I had her mother's gift of "knowing" things for others but would always be shortsighted about my own life.
Anyone with a semblance of decency surely has an Irish or Scottish grandmother tucked away somewhere.
Don't worry if people talk about you: at least you've been noticed.
That all the Christian denominations quite like the idea of being Catholic.
That I would grow more like her and my Dad as I grow older; that it would become my greatest comfort.
That she would die on a Sunday morning.
That I would miss her every day of my life.
Where have you gone Mum?
Not at the end of the 'phone,
nor waiting in my sister's car
or scowling in the hated chair.
My mirror reflects a pale ache of you,
but you are there at the corners of my mouth,
stretching my shy smile to a farm-girl grin.
You are in the cussedness of my fringe,
in my eagerness to laugh and in the easiness of my tears.
You are in the rising of my temper and the dropping
of all wrongs before bedtime.
You are in the tapping of my feet,
from Springsteen to Sean South of Garryowen.
You are in my green fingers,
my need to nurture seeds and pips, twigs and stones.
You are the way of grace in me,
and in my knack for falling off kerbs while standing still
and eyeing up a mountain.
You are in my constant boiling of the kettle, my cake kept for strangers,
my sweeping of the stairs for critical burglars.
You are in my lust for red shoes and handbags,
in the miraculous medals in my purse;
in my calling on the saints
for lost rings, people and battles.
You are in my recollections of an Ireland I never knew;
you are in my love for my father and his faith,
and for your own mother's telling of the unknown.
You are the gossamer that binds me and my sister
beyond all differences of time, place or opinion.
You and my father are in my veins like whiskey and syrup:
more than any DNA,
you are at the core of me.
You are the skip in the heartbeat of all those who may come to love me;
and you are in the echo of me,
as I am in your footsteps.
Where have you gone Mum?
Wherever I am going.
"The Fields of Athenry" Brian Kennedy
"Open Your Eyes" Snow Patrol