Memories of Hallowe’en

Hallowe’en always brings back memories of when my daughter was a tiny tot. Her first outing was when we were living in the wilds of west Kerry. Off she went into the darkness with all the neighbours’ children and returned home stunned/shocked with all the sweets she had been given on her travels around the village. And then, she took something out of her swag bag, extended her small arm with an apple held in her hand – bewildered, disgusted, confused – as if it might poison her. She looked up at me with sad, tear-filled eyes, and said ‘But Mrs X gave me…’ and she stuttered out the dreaded word ‘f-r-u-i-t.’

I don’t think she ever darkened that lady’s door (ever, ever) again!

The Quinns Reunite

In October 2013, we Quinns gathered in a manner that would make Leo Varadkar and his “Gathering” project proud. Huddled in a basement room in The Gresham hotel, we were each given a name card with our parent/grandparent’s name on it. My dad’s preferred name was ‘Bill’ but the family still call him ‘Willie’. We delighted on how many times they could get ‘Willie’ on the same card. My daughter particularly liked the two side panels of ‘Willie’.

We mingled with our fellow Quinn folk, reading names off each other’s chests. When an elderly lady asked me if my father ‘was the big or the small Willie?’ I really didn’t know what to answer. I politely nodded agreement with this elderly cousin who informed me that ‘Our family certainly has an awful lot of Willies…’ Not smirking was made even more difficult while trying to ignore other family members emitting tipsy giggles. After all those ‘Willie’ comments, however, I can only surmise that the only way is up…!

 

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The Kitchen Table

That table, with its shabby chrome legs and scarred Formica top, was the centre of our kitchen. With knocks and kicks, enamel paint chipped off and rust settled in. The cover, with its once pretty flowers faded now through excessive scouring, held deep cuts from loaves sliced for hasty, tasty, sandwiches without board or care.

In its crevices lay remnants of our lives. While food was devoured there on a daily basis, it was also where big news was broken. Clustered around we learnt of many a relation’s passing. And it was here we were singled out for individual news. I must have been no more than three when I sat on a stool, elbows resting up on the table with legs, too short to reach the ground, swinging back and forth. In soft spoken voices, my parents performed a duet of scripted words of how they were not my real parents but minding me for another. And in turn, we all made this journey, sat at the table and tried desperately to absorb that same news which went way above our young heads.

When we saw the material, sewing box and our mother’s mouth full of pins, we’d balk and pray frantically it wasn’t our turn. Like so many women in the 1970s, she made most of our clothes and so often we endured the tedium of standing on the table as hems of dresses, skirts or trousers were pinned up for completion.

That table played host to family conferences where relations arrived and debates began. What would they do with the old house? The family grave? The old Retainer? Pots of tea plonked on the Formica surrounded by the good china with plates of cake and sandwiches presented frequently for consumption. And when the serious business was over, talk would turn to memory sharing and football rivalry. Squashed at the table were the sounds of chat, laughter and sometimes tears – of many people now no longer with us.

If the kitchen is the heart of a home then this table was its very soul.

Feeling loss

June 2011 –  I’m at the garage getting petrol and I meet one of my dearest pals. We hug. We laugh. We joke. She looks like she always does.

I know she was back at the Doctor.  I want to ask but I don’t want to know. It hangs between us. She stands there looking as if nothing is remotely wrong. She’s out and about. Everything is normal.

It’s not good news. There’s no way back. How long? “Soon,” she replies. My heart breaks. I hug her again. I tell her how much I love her. She pushes me back telling me not to leave red lipstick on her cheek – as she always do!

We’ll see each other soon. We do. A couple of weeks later. In the Hospice. ‘Soon’ is too soon. In a matter of weeks, she’s gone. My heart breaks.

Seven years later, it’s still broken. I miss her so. xx

2018

Missing Dad

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Christmas Eve always makes me feel lonely. This was our day – Dad’s and mine.

When I lived at home, I’d help him with his ‘shopping’. First off, he would stock up at Verlings Off Licence – always a generous man, the back of the car would be dragging when we left there. Then he’d take me somewhere lovely for lunch. I didn’t care where we went because it was always special – just the two of us.

When I was at college, he’d collect me from the flat. Bags of stuff and one hungover student put into the car. He’d take me for something to eat and we’d sink a few festive pints. He was always thrilled that at least one of his children drank Guinness, delighting in telling me that it would put hairs on my chest!

And after the chat and the laughs, we’d head home – into a flurry of last minute preparations,  present wrapping, brussel sprout peeling, mushy pea soaking, before the influx of relations and friends over the following days.

When Dad passed, that all changed. The house fell silent. The preparations ceased. No one called any more. It was all so different.

Christmas changed again when I became a mum and marvelled at the excitement of my tiny tot waiting for Santa and delighting in all the presents she got. Having Christmas dinner with family is so wonderful.

And yet, there will always be a part of me that longs to be sat in ‘The Yacht’, sinking a few pints and spending precious time with that truly special man in my life – my Dad.

Cooking for the Unreasonable

“But you’re going on holiday the next day?” came the response when I said having people over to eat was simply impossible. I work full-time and yet, this couple insist on inviting themselves to dinner. I explain that I am simply too stressed and busy getting ready to leave but they are having none of it. “Ah sure, don’t you have to eat anyway…” There’s no arguing with that (even though we would ring for a take-away if simply left alone). In the end, I cave only to hear “Now you better impress us with this dinner.”

I have to admit that when I heard those words, I wanted to use my limited knife skills for something other than culinary pursuits. So, in between packing, cancelling the milk order, newspaper order, washing floors, emptying the fridge, dealing with bin juice, giving keys to neighbours, ironing…I pick a menu and buy food. I need something which takes little preparation, reduces washing up and the leftovers can be frozen. With that, I prepare a pot of chilli which can bubble away while I get on with other tasks at hand. I throw – and I mean t-h-r-o-w – together a Pavlova as I don’t have to watch it and there is rarely any leftovers from that.

And so, they arrive. I transfer chilli, rice, cheese, sour cream into bowls, plonk them down on the table and encourage everyone to dig in. Disappointed faces. “It’s a bit casual…” says she. “I’m not mad about chilli myself…” says he, lip curled as he pushes kidney beans out of the sauce and over to the side of his plate. “Oh and Pavlova…that will see my allergies flare up,” she adds. And then they laugh “Next time, we’ll order in advance” as they proceed to hoover up every morsel of food that is in their vicinity. They guzzle cold beers I offer on top of a couple of bottles of wine. Their contribution to the evening? Their charming wit and repartee… Despite subtle reminders that we need to finish packing and get to the airport by 6am, they won’t be budged. Eventually, as the witching hour approaches, the two waddle off down the drive, mumbling ‘thanks’ and whispering about how grumpy I am…

‘Never again’, I grumble as I finish the final preparations for our trip.

Until the next year. And bang on cue, we are heading off on holidays and the two pipe up to say they are coming to dinner. I repeatedly say ‘No’, ‘It’s not suitable’, ‘Not this year’ but they are heading in our direction. This year, I make even less effort. I roast a chicken, stuffed with lemon wedges, garlic with butter and sea salt spread on the top. I pop in a tray of vegetables to roast. And to make a point that time is precious, I buy a Viennetta ice cream and a container of cheap, commercial, chocolate sauce. The teen is horrified but I figure, if this doesn’t give the hint that time is limited, nothing will.

And so they plonk themselves down at the table and start to graze. The chicken arrives out, crispy and delicious. The vegetables the same and while they complain that there is no gravy, they work like termites through the fare. I take the ice cream block out of the box, in front of them for full affect, and instead of utter disgust, they gasp with childish delight, exclaiming ‘How retro!’ ‘How kitsch!’ They help themselves to big wedges, much to the teen’s annoyance who is left with only a sliver, and happily drown the dessert in chocolate sauce. I watch aghast as they shovel it in, piece after piece, without sparing a thought for anyone else at the table.

They leave at midnight, delighted with themselves. “Best dinner ever”, they declare before waving back a reminder that they’ll see us next year.

A year passes. Pointing out how unsuitable having people for dinner the evening before holidays has fallen on deaf ears. Time for a change of track. Slyly, I book holidays a week early and true to form, the phone rings – same date, same time. But this year an unexpected response. “No, we’re not going on holiday,” I tell them a whopper of a white lie. Stunned silence greets the news. I fumble through the idea of us coming over to them in a week or so and listen as she hastens her retreat from the conversation rather than issue an invitation.

Sigh of relief and a smile to the teen as I relax in the taxi on the way to the airport. I think God will forgive me that little fib…just this once!

[First published on http://www.teenintheattic.com: February 2015]

Standing for Truth

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On 25 August 2018, the Pope visited Ireland. He would stay 36 hours and his presence would console some while angering others. The couple of costly days would bring divisions in Irish society roaring to the fore.

I didn’t go to see the Pope in 1979 and I certainly wasn’t going to attend in 2018. Instead, I went to the Garden of Remembrance at 3pm on 26 August. I wanted to be there but as the day drew near, I was decidedly unsettled. I can’t put my finger on it. I wanted to be there and to be counted and yet, I was very shaky. Maybe it was due to the fact that I had never made myself visible as someone born in a Mother and Baby home before. I warned my daughter that I might change my mind.

I did attend and I am happy I attended. It was very special in many unexpected ways. The first thing which struck me was how cross-generational the event was – from teen to pension, we stood side by side. And the second thing was the different groups represented. The sheer number showed how the Roman Catholic Church had splintered Irish society in the adverse effect it had on so many. We stood and remembered them all.

Walking arm in arm, and in overwhelming silence, we made our way to the site of the last Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street. To see so many people in front, beside and behind made it a fitting remembrance day and impacted on all those present. I was annoyed when I bumped into someone who dismissed it all as an anti-Catholic rally because that’s not what this was about. I was there to remember and to be counted. I wasn’t there to rally against any church, let alone one I am not even a member of. I was there as someone born in a Mother and Baby Home and in respect for all those who had passed through similar institutions.

I wrote two posts on Facebook – one before the event:

“Today, my daughter and I will stand with others in the Garden of Remembrance. We will remember my birth mother, Kathleen, and will think about all the women and crib mates that passed through St Patrick’s, Navan Road, Dublin and the other facilities that blighted our beautiful country. We will hope that, some day and in some way, we will reconnect with our families and reverse that decision to sever that precious bond before it ever had a real chance of forming.”

And one after the event:

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt alone. Unconnected. Disconnected. Separate.

Having been adopted, it doesn’t matter how many times people compare you to others they know or assume adoptees are all identical in origins and experience, I was still alone. I don’t think about it on a daily basis but when it rears its head, in reaction to such questions as who do you most resemble or if there is a history of some illness in your family, I feel alone again.

Today, I stood with my daughter and I no longer felt alone. I felt a part of something. And that felt nice.”

*****

I walked back to catch the bus home. I had listened to the speeches and contributions and we’d chatted amongst ourselves. I thought nothing else could impact. Walking down Marlborough Street, I suddenly stopped. All along the railings of the Pro Cathedral hung tiny, baby shoes – representing those small children whose remains were dumped in a septic tank at Tuam. The sight of those shoes took my breath away.

 

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Define “lucky”?

In April 1965, I was born in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on the Navan Road in Dublin. Since then, I have always been astounded by the ‘knowledgeable’ opinions people espouse on my beginnings. As a fellow adoptee says, “The minute you see the head tilt, you brace yourself for what is to come.”

There is a spectrum of opinions that adoptees are used to. At one end, there are the kind and caring views, the ones who listen. Then there are those who think that if you were adopted, your beginnings and life are identical to all those who were adopted and try to convince you otherwise if you object. And then there is the other end of the spectrum, the ones which are judgemental and often, cruel. Surprise is constant as you can never predict who in your life will say what.

Being adopted is always public. Efforts to keep it private are futile. It is the inevitable response to questions like “Who in your family do you look like?”, “You’re the image of your mother/father/brother/sister/cousin/family pet,” “Is there a history of heart disease/diabetes/rabies in your family?”

And with origins so visible come comments, quips and judgements. Here is an example of such:

A friend told me recently that my birth mother and others like her were so “lucky” to have the nuns to take them in when their parents threw them out.

Seriously?!?

The Catholic Church condemns these girls for committing a sin. Family throws them out. Church (which created the problem by judging these girls) now takes them in and, in many cases, brutalises many physically and mentally before, in many cases, capitalising on their unpaid labour. They seek to temporarily or permanently separate child from parent with no care for the long-term impact on the psychological health of either person.

“Lucky” is therefore not a word I’d use to describe such a situation.

And where were the unmarried fathers’ homes if sex before marriage and pre-marital pregnancy were such grave sins?!?

Another slant on the Tuam Babies…

3 March 2017

The new revelations about the find of babies’ remains in Tuam, County Galway is beyond vile. While I’ve read a lot of well-meaning comments today, they seem to imply this is at a distance; that it’s history from a by-gone age.

But for me and for so many others, it is so much closer. We were born in Tuam and in places like Tuam. Hearing such news again and again, touches deep into our souls to know our crib mates were treated in such appalling, and often fatal, ways. Some have to deal with news about places they were born. Others wait, wondering will they wake to find their place of birth front page news and have to deal with similar horrors. Many of us remain unaware if we had other siblings and if we did, might they be among those found in Tuam and similar ‘resting places’?

And then there’s ‘survivor’s guilt’ to contend with. I know I’ve felt that from the outset of matters like this beginning to become public in the 1990s. When I watched ‘Dear Daughter’ and saw what happened to girls who were born in the same Home but weren’t adopted or reclaimed, a strange sense of guilt for escaping hit hard.

Commenting on all the news articles is great but in so doing, please be sensitive when posting. It may be at a distance – physically and mentally – for you but for far too many of us, it is very close indeed.

For us, it’s not history. For us, it’s our story.

Married Women and Short Hair – infinite mystery or new beginnings?

 

My daughter once asked: “Do women have to cut their hair when they get married?”

Honestly? I didn’t know what she was talking about. I knew some Jewish women cut their hair when married but, as for the average Irish woman, I simply had no idea. Over the years, I’d often heard derogatory remarks about women sporting long hair, how they should know better at their age “and they a married woman.” I dismissed such remarks, thinking little more about the subject.

It was my daughter’s question which got me thinking. I became increasingly aware of the hairstyle preferences of the married gal. I was surprised when I realised how many had indeed shortened their hair after marriage to the point of absolute horror when I learnt one lady cut her luscious locks a day into her honeymoon. And all this made me wonder where the ‘trend’ came from?

Many Jewish women cut their hair very soon after they marry so I wondered if, in Ireland, cutting married hair was some remnant of Judeo-Christianity? It’s common for women to shave off, or cut short, their hair and then cover their head – with a wig, scarf or shawl. It’s difficult to say where this custom actually comes from in the Jewish faith. The Talmud, for example, suggests that women’s hair exudes some form of sexual energy and to be modest is to remove it from view; doing so will save men from ‘unholy thoughts’. Others believe covering a woman’s head is a sign of a woman’s shame and guilt for the sin Eve committed; that her hair contributed to her temptation and seduction of man. And for Leila Leah Bonner, another explanation is that the Bible indicates that cutting off a woman’s hair often rendered her unattractive. In today’s world, however, it’s often seen simply as a symbol of transition from maidenhood to womanhood, from solitary life to married unity.

But this refers to women cutting their hair with the intention of covering it. Only the timeline for the act has any connection to Irish women today and their desire for shrinking hair length. It’s true, however, that long, luxurious, hair is often seen as symbolising strength, sensuality and passion. Relationship expert, Anjula Mutanda, believes it’s a ‘powerful symbol of femininity.’ Men are instinctively drawn to it, preferring it over the cropped alternative. According to Mutanda, if a man is given pictures of a woman with short hair and then with long hair, he opts for the latter; ‘his reaction is primeval.’ Shampoo ads use models with long hair, showing long locks oozing with sensuality. Depictions of washing short hair simply don’t have the same visual impact or consumer appeal.

If long hair contains all these wonderful properties and appeals more to men, why then do women continue to shorten their hair? Surely, it can’t be a case of “Now that I’m married, I can let myself go?” For Writer and Broadcaster, Fiona Looney, it seems that, once a woman had her man, there was no need for such frivolities. In a television programme for RTE, she said it was as if women were allowed to marry with long hair but then mysteriously returned from honeymoon without it. Not an attractive pixie cut but simply blunted short hair. “To me”, Looney continued, “it suggested an end of sexuality. It was like you’re now married. You need to get out of the high heels, put the flat shoes on…and crucially, cut your hair ‘cause it’s Samson and Delilah, your strength. Your attraction is in your long hair. You’re now married. You’re off the market…Game over.”

More reasons are given to explain this act of chopping. Some see short hair as symbolising a loss of interest in sex but this is rather an individual thing. Far too many beautiful and sensual women have sported short hair through the years for this to be taken as applying to all. Others believe that, like many Jews, it symbolises moving from single to married life, from girl to woman. Cutting hair can be for convenience or practicality. Or quite simply because a woman just feels like it.

Time to turn to the experts – the hairdressers. Many accept there is indeed a common pattern. On becoming engaged, women invariably start growing their hair for the wedding day. The more hair the better and keeping hair long prevents all possibility of a pre-wedding disastrous haircut which can never be reversed in time. They simply want to avoid mistakes in precious photographs but once the flashes are gone, many can’t wait to hear snip, snip, snip.

New York stylist, Tyson Kennedy thinks cutting hair so soon after the wedding is very understandable. Months, maybe even years of hair growing, is tedious and when the event is over, the desire to chop and change is at its greatest. “Plus”, as Kennedy says, “big life changes tend to call for extreme hair switch-ups too.” Lydia Sheaks’ experience mirrors this. Thinking about this very question ‘why do married women cut their hair?’ she responds: “Who knows? I wouldn’t speak for all womankind but for me it feels like a New Beginning is in order, to go along with my new responsibilities as Best Wife Ever.”

So, in answer to my daughter’s question, there is no rule, custom or tradition. It simply seems to be something women do when they get married. No great mystery then, no religious throwback and highly unlikely to be a demand from a husband. It does make you wonder though why so many keep it short thereafter…?

Published online: 2014