Updated: Jun 26, 2020

Dear Nan,

I called you today.

“The dead arose and appeared to many,” you would have said, if you’d answered.

And you’d be right, as usual.

This morning, I had toast and marmalade for breakfast. Do you remember how I used to pick the peel out, and you’d say, “I have to pay for that too,” and I’ be like, “Well you eat it then.” You never minded enough to make me eat it. Your fingers never held my mouth open.

Today, I ate the rind peels, and as I did, I thought to call you. I had just said goodbye to a dear friend, flying back to where we come from. Her roots are Irish, her father went to England to look for work, like yours did. But your father came back when the IRA killed his brother, didn’t he? Was that it? It’s hard to remember sometimes. You only ever spoke about it when we were so small, everything mattered so much, there wasn’t enough memory to condense it all into a layer of conscious thought. It got buried.

And later, you wouldn’t talk about it at all. “Your Mother,” you used to call Deirdre, your own little child, your firstborn. I never thought about it before, but I was probably jealous of the love you had for her. Jealous and perplexed. Didn’t you see? Couldn’t you tell? What about me? I wanted to scream, Help me.

Anyway, I wanted to tell you about 2020. Grandad Jack, from Dad’s side, would have been 100 this year, Milo asked last week, and we worked it out, died in 1967 aged 47, Dad said. I thought about that as the sharp scent of citrus dragged me back through southern Spain, when I still laughed on holiday. The butter, half melted onto the whole wheat bread, wholly the same as the one you buy in Superquinn, overpriced but it has the taste of bread, the taste of something. I chewed and the steam, the pots with their lids hopping, the steamer for the spuds that I could never manage to peel properly, all these things crowded into my mind through my mouth, through my nose. Marmalade, what was the brand? I can’t remember, though the green lid and yellow label, thick cut, is bright in my mind. Homestead maybe? Sevillian oranges. I went to Seville, but I didn’t see any oranges. A gypsy threatened to cast the evil eye on me because I refused her bunch of overpriced rosemary. And maybe waved a Lonely Planet at her. Meet crazy with extra crazy. Last summer, I cried to her tribal sister on the stone streets of Pontevedra, and she hushed me. “Be quiet, they’ll think I did this to you.” Maybe I should have bought the rosemary.

The marmalade I ate this morning came in a plastic tublet, with a peel off foil cover. In Shanghai, the rain sheeted down the window. The coffee was fresh ground, but the orange juice was concentrate, and sweet enough that even you would have liked it. We only traveled twice together, to England, my first time on a plane, when I was 11 and the second, 14. We were neither of us the same person on the second trip, me a shabby substitute for your real daughter. When we got lost on the redbrick streets of London, you did not surprise me by recalling the foreign phone number from memory. Your mental arithmetic was almost as quick as your wit. Almost. We drank real orange juice, fresh squeezed and tart. It made you grimace, but you never added sugar. I always liked it better bitter.

2020 has been a shitshow, Nan, and I’m sorry for swearing. But really. We started with my birthday, which, God Forgive Me, has always been a bit underwhelming, coming in January, in the darkness, in the cold, in the middle of the New Year’s climb out of Christmas debt. This year, the last of my thirties, came with Covid 19. It shut the school and sent us off to Thailand to escape its effects. The whole world spun out with us. The height of stupidity, I know. In our hearts, we all knew, but still we went, dervishing. My own little daughter, named after you and Nanny Kitty, told me it wouldn’t work. She said she would rather die than be there with us.

Three weeks on the beach was the final nail in the coffin of the relationship I was trying to hold in my hand, a running stream of water flowing through my fingers like the sweat that ate away my school cardigan cuffs and made you scold me for not rolling them up, like you told me to. But sure, when did I ever do what you told me to? What good did it ever do anyone either?

Then, the lump came back. This time, the pain was worse. I stopped wearing a bra. But this time, I knew the reason. It was the same reason I didn’t laugh on holidays anymore. Nan. You’d be so ashamed of me if I told you. So, I wont. I’ll just tell you it’s better now, the lump. I had to take weeks and weeks of antibiotics, one stronger than the next, so that by the time the abscess had acquiesced to modern medicine, a hole the size of a wormhole in an apple had appeared on my right palm. All the good bionics died with the bad, and the worst bacteria had a party on my palm while I drowned under wave upon wave of online learning formative assessments, badly belated feedback and Mom guilt; what we now call being a disgrace of a mother. A disaster. A holy show. Watching the ninjas struggle with their home learning while I badly administered to my online students, the hole in my hand grew. The doctors couldn’t diagnose it. None of the meds worked.

A stigmata, I joked. But I remembered Mam’s book on Padre Pio. I remembered the pamphlets on St. Terese and her tears of blood. God cursed me with a memory that can’t recall why your father returned from England when Lisa’s didn’t, but I remember too much of everything else. The wounds of Christ, his bleeding heart over the fridge in the kitchen where I ate my toast with melting butter and marmalade, the nails in his hands and feet, dying on the cross on Calvary for my sins, all our sins. My hands and feet sweated, but not blood. Pints of water. Wash them in cabbage water, you said. Put talc on them. Pray. Not even all that sweat washed the sins away. Only blood washes them out. A Jesus hole in my hand, his crucifixion on my mind, and a frozen shoulder on the way, and it still only May.

After the hole in my hand, and the end of online hell came the end of the school year. A closed mouth catches no flies, you said. A closed heart catches no grief either, but every now and then we forget, and let someone in. Summer holidays come, and some years that means leaving time, farewells. Partings.

And it rips the scab off all the other leavings, and I am riven. I am rent. I am revealed in all my inadequacy against life.

Offer it up, you’d tell me.

If you’d answered.

I would tell you all this. I would ask you to tell me the truth. And I wouldn't have liked it, but it would still be true, nonetheless.

Instead, I dug out the eulogy I wrote for your funeral. It was the tears dripping off my chin that reminded me of it, buried in an email attachment from two years, three months and 21 days ago. You would have enjoyed it, though you’d fake annoyance at the praise, at the sloppy attempts at eloquent expression of love, of admiration, of emotion in public.

I wrote this for you when you died. Of course, AD read his, and of course, it was better. He had done the lion’s share of the caring in later years. He hit the right tone, a hint of humor to ease the way. You would have done the same. People forget, they forget fast, the earlier the faster. And maybe they don’t even know, but I do. I remember us; the women. Your real daughter. The sound you made when she died.

You’re only ever judged on the most recent behavior. Which can be a blessing, or a curse. Not everyone has the longevity of memory you had. But even if you had answered, you wouldn’t have loved me any less. You too, could hold love and other troublesome emotions in your heart at the same time.

I miss you. I miss you so much, I forget you are dead. Trauma erases memory.

I miss you and I miss you all, all lined up, one behind the other, like so many dominos, waiting to fall. I miss the taste of eating things I don't like, but that are good for me. .

Eulogy: A Grand Mother

Strength, courage, grit. My Nan was a trailblazer, a tiger mom, a warrior woman, waging war each day on life. Similar to Lao Tzu’s Art of War, Nan’s tactics were based around an ethos of discipline and hard work. From an early age, I learned that the dishes must be washed before we relax, homework must be finished before we watch TV and it’s always worth taking the time to look in the back of the shelves in the supermarket to find the freshest cartons of milk. Her wisdom, wit and sense of mischief made her an entertaining educator, if not the most conventional. She taught me that knowledge is a thing of beauty, and was my most patient teacher, learning to spell the word ‘together’ together, while she cleaned and set the fire in the living room- probably well past the age to be doing so. To-get-her. But Nan never let a little thing like not being the right age, or gender, or anything get in her way.

These are the things that stay with me.

Nan was never quiet. Most conversations of ours were doing things; looking back, it seems that each day was a checklist of t-do’s that never got done. And yet she toiled endlessly, pausing only to listen to the doctor on the radio, or Gerry Daley, or watch the hurling on a summer Sunday. The Queen would get a look in on her yearly address for Nan’s birthday, Christmas Day.

Nan dedicated her life to helping others, and so today, we come together to celebrate her life from far and near. Nan was the original expat, moving to Clonmel in the fifties and raising a family of three with her husband, Nico, far away from her own family and any support. Together, they raised Deirdre, Francis and Colm. She fought herself to get through each day, and confessed rarely, if never, the days that she doubted the Lord, and his infinite wisdom. He never sends us more than we can bear, she would say, cryptically. Some secrets inevitably get taken to the grave. But the resounding truth of Nan is her tremendous vibrancy, her determination to laugh at life, and the unselfconscious gusto with which she did so. "You don't know Chrissie," said your brother, and he was right. How can you know a force fo nature?

She was my nanny in more ways than one, taking care of AD and I until we were of school age, and after school, once we started. My fondest childhood memories are out in the back garden with the tall pine trees that seemed to go on forever, and the apple trees where you had to take care that an earwig didn’t crawl into your ear and eat your brain. She harangued vegetables into us and made sure our hair was clean. She was the one who noticed that I am blind as a bat and brought me to get my first pair of glasses. She was the first one I called for any major life event. She was a seer and a doer. A woman of action.

We were not coddled. As childcare goes, it was eclectic, playing records to pass the time and reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica for shits and giggles with the odd game of Scrabble which Nan adored- because she was a master; she did not believe in losing for the sake of bolstering childish self-esteem. Respect was gained in my grandmother’s house and I have her to Thank for the person I am today.

She survived the loss of her husband, and the loss of two children- my mother suddenly and Colm slowly. She survived my brothers and I during the second coming, and she threw herself into raising us too. She plied us with advice and hot dinners and apple pie and home truths. She was never one to shy away from calling a spade a spade. 42 years of caring for Colm, I don't know how she did it. I was nearly committed after three years of toddler tyranny. Nan did 42 years and walked down the aisle behind his coffin, arthritis bedamned.

Every act of hers was an act of love. It was this defiant love in the face of her war with life that gained her the admiration and respect of all who knew her. I’m not even sure God rightly knew what he was doing when he made Nanny Egan, he added in an extra dash of gumption and tenacity and heart that could withstand storms that would crush a lesser person. And as big as an ocean and twice as deep. And he broke the mould when he did so. She was unique. She was wonderful.

Her legacy is here today. She lives on in our hearts, and there, she will never die. I can still hear her peals of laughter, she had the most delicious sense of humour and I will miss that laugh. If NASA had gotten hold of her, we could have landed on the sun by now, her mind was a hotbed of activity and she has been my role model my whole life.

Looking out of her bedroom window at jetlag-o-clock this morning, my eyes fell on an evergreen shrub growing in the place where a giant apple tree stood, many years ago. It reminded me that change is part of life, but life always continues, though perhaps not in the same guise.

I am a shrub to her apple tree.

Nan, I feel you inside me. My heart is broken saying goodbye to you today, but I will follow your example in grief and not let it shape my tomorrow. I will celebrate this force of nature that you were, and live each day forward as a manifestation of your strength and bravery and resilience. Every act of yours was an act of love. I celebrate these acts. I celebrate your long life. I celebrate you.

I miss you.

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