There is a big clan of us and so there is always some drama or another in what is an extensive system of related people. By way of illustration, a number of my cousins came for dinner here on Saturday. There were nine people here for a pot-luck supper and, later, we were joined by a tenth. Around the table, we began to count the grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of our Grandmother – she is a feisty old dame we love. She is over a 100 years old and lives at home in her own house with the support of an extended network of family and paid care, led by four of her own surviving children. We concluded there are ninety of us who collectively make up the first, second and third generation of grandchildren – the extended family of her own seven children. That’s one hell of a gene pool.
We speculated about what she would have done with her life, had our grandmother been born into another generation. She is amongst the brightest and most intelligent people we know. She left school after primary education and often says how it broke her heart to do so. She has told us how she and her sisters made jotters from old packaging and how from an early age, her job was to read aloud the news from the papers, while some of her other sisters and her aunts made lace for the market in Clones. Her job was to apprise them of the news and politics of the day.
She has devoured news from the papers, from television and radio over the years. She has an opinion on everything and as she says herself, ‘I only argue when I know I’m right.’ She has been, as you might imagine, ‘right’ a lot over the years. She has a strong sense of social justice and she seems to be the source of that argumentative streak many of us in the family have. She has showed how to put that to work.
Just now as I write I am remembering how when her only brother, who died when he was 19, was ill and dying of cancer, she defied the church and medics and took him home to die, because he wanted that, and because she didn’t see why he shouldn’t have what he wanted and needed to embrace life and to live it fully. She was a radical, an activist and a humanist from the get go. She was at most only in her 20’s then. That was eighty years ago, back in 1930 or so. Hospices were not even dreamt of then.
She is also a humorist; at her one hundredth birthday she remarked that she was glad she didn’t have to carry her godson over the threshold of the chapel again; ‘Ned of the Rock’ is not exactly a spring chicken either as he is eighty now.
Some years ago, at the christening of one of those 90 grandchildren, she reduced my cousin and I to tears of laughter, and nearly to incontinence, by whispering to us,
“I have a wrinkle in my knickers that’s cutting into my arse like a razor blade.”
As usual, her comic timing was immaculate. It was a turgid, interminable ceremony. The chapel was packed and there must have been a dozen babies to be baptised. She intended to cut through it, to give us levity and the physical but joyous pain of suppressed laughter, compounded by breaking the rules of decorum. She is a subversive. She is earthy and she is bold.
She can also be quite the performer and game for anything when the notion takes her. She made her stage debut aged 88, when she joined the local pantomime to join in singing…….. ‘when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore….’.
When I was newly published in an anthology of five new writers, she trailed across the country to come to a reading. As I stood there gathering myself I told the people how lucky I was that my grandmother had come to be there and that, while she didn’t write, I thought that maybe I got it from her, perhaps. I’d said, when you grow up round someone who says things like,
‘May the curse of the forty beardy goats of Africa be upon you… maybe that’s where the gene lies’.
She wasn’t for settling to have her presence remarked upon by proxy. No. It is simply not her style. Instead she piped up, from the front row, to correct me.
‘Marie’, she said ( please note she is the only person to call me Marie), ‘Marie. It was only the Protestants said that.’
I was stunned to silence. I was bumbling. Any sense of composure or poise I had, crumpled. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself or where to put myself. Suddenly, I wondered what it was this phrase meant. I was panicking and flummoxed. Who had I offended, I wondered. What had I just said and what were the sensitivities of it?
My aunt rescued me. She simply leant over onto my grandmother, poking her in the lap with an elbow and said,
“Whischt now Mammy; let her get on with it.’
It seems it was just fun on her behalf – ‘divilment’ – it seems it means nothing at all – a nonsense phrase of annoyance or a tender but meaningless rebuke trotted out over the years by her – an original invention. She chose her moment and, playing for risqué comic effect, she played a blinder; she pulled a total flanker on me……. and stole the show. Comedy has to be about timing, brevity and context. Surely. It worked, though I nearly had a coronary.
She is competitive. Years ago, with total indignation, she told my uncle when he contested the validity of her using the word ‘fug’ in a game of Scrabble that,
“Indeed it is a proper word. Indeed, I was using the word ‘fug’ when your arse was the size of a shirt button.”
When she tells the story herself, she says that she had no idea if it was a real word or not, but she was determined to brazen it out. In the outturn of the story, the OED agreed with her and snuck it in there. She revelled in the fun of it and revelled in competing.
She has an opinion on everything. She eats well and as my aunt tells us, ‘Mam’s a good grubber as you know. She loves her food, so she does.’
I think we are all a bit like that too. The noun for a gathering of the cousins has now become known as a ‘fug’, amongst us. On Saturday, the pot-luck supper ‘fug’ was a good feast. We all made something to contribute and shared the food, stories and the laughs around the table. We updated the head count. We squabbled about a few things and we reminisced. We speculated.
What would she have done with her life and her education if she were in our generation? Around the table we were teachers and managers, a nurse, a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, a writer. Further out in the family, there are musicians and child care workers, electricians, linguists and scientists, pharmacists and all manner of able people.
As for Nanny……… humanist, politician, opinionist, leader, comic, entertainer, radical, free-thinker. She cannot be defined nor limited by any label. She is a star.