Thursday, October 30, 2014


Being a grandparent allows you to behave like the worst parent ever. As we passed the local frozen yoghurt café, my two-year-old said, "Ithe kweme, please! Please, an ithe kweme!"
His winsome lisping for ice cream on a cold evening in the middle of October could only be ignored by the hardest of hearts (= his parents') but his grandparents - my visiting father and mother - are just suckers for his big, blue eyes.
"Ah, Lord above!" they cried, "Would you not get the child some ice cream?"
as though we'd been denying him life-saving medicine, rather than unseasonal frozen yoghurt.

The look of triumph on a dirty face.

Autumn is well and truly here, and some days it feels like we skipped ahead to winter already. Let me show you what we get up to on our daily walks ... but be warned: I'm going to show you some pictures of scary mushrooms, but they'll come at the end of the post and I'll warn you in advance.

Acorn collecting - and every acorn has to have a hat.

Earnest faces in unusual places.
What better way to advertise a wine merchant's than with a big bunch of golden grapes?

While father and son explore the playground...

... baby sleeps and mama knits.

"Hello, cat!" ("Get lost, boychild. I disdain to answer your grovelling for I am a FELINE!"
My poor child has a lot to learn about cats, I fear.)

 Now: the scary mushrooms. Click away if you have a fear of fungi.

Why am I so grimly fascinated by these?
I hope you're having sunny autumn days, wherever you are!

Monday, October 13, 2014

My Mother

At the tender age of nineteen, my mother fell pregnant. 'Fell' being the operative word: she kind of tripped over and by the end of that same year, was married and had a child (me). You might think she and my father had learned their lesson, vis à vis important, life-changing decisions regarding family planning, mightn't you? Well, no, they didn't. She fell pregnant again, then she slipped into pregnancy, careened into pregnancy, stumbled into pregnancy - okay, no need to get the thesaurus out to tell you she had eight more children after me. Why didn't she stop, I often wondered? Life as an only child often seemed like a beautiful dream, one where I had a bedroom of my own and a Barbie doll's house, instead of sharing a room with younger sisters, while Barbie lived in a shoebox. My mother maintains that, having attained perfection with their first child, she and my father felt compelled to try to recreate this miracle eight subsequent times. And failed.

Of course, she was cackling with laughter when she said that, so take it with a pinch of salt.

My mother turns A Certain Age today, a round birthday. I can't tell you her age, that would be rude, but you might be able to guess it. She's a tour de force, my mother. She's involved in various committees and boards and groups in our small town, and she claims she's giving them all up ... but I've long suspected that she just likes being in the middle of it all, bossing people around and chairing meetings. I wanted to write a moving tribute to her, but found it difficult to sum up her essence in a few paragraphs. Thus, I decided to tell you about her using some key words.

These are the things she loves:
1. Tea
Ma drinks a lot of tea. Like, a lot of tea. As in: somewhere around ten litres daily (three or four cups an hour ... yup, that's about right). I think her blood is a dun shade of brown, her liver pickled in tannins. When she enters the house, she shouts "That kettle had better be on!" before the door has a chance to fall shut behind her. If someone suffers a trauma, my mother alleviates the situation by shoving a mug under their nose, along with homoeopathic remedies. (But more about them anon.)

2. Tissues
Mother to so many children, a multitude of tissue paper was always needed to keep her and her offspring reasonably clean. She stashes them everywhere: in her pockets, up her sleeves, down her bra. When she removes her jumper due to The Heat (coming to that later as well), a shower of crumpled tissues is released into the atmosphere like snow. If you want to track her down through the house, just look for the tissues.

3. Cigarettes
She's fond of a cig, my mother. Yes, she's tried to give up but 'giving up' just meant that she smoked in the chicken coop instead of the sitting room. Watching my mother puffing under the pear tree in torrential rain throwing desultory scraps at bewildered hens became too much for the family to bear, so she gave up the pretence and smoked inside again.

4. Downton Abbey
I don't quite get this one. I know Downton has a massive appeal that transcends cultural borders, but it's not quite my cup of tea. It's just a soap opera, but with nicer frocks. My mother likes to watch it because of the nice frocks, of course, but also because everyone is jolly nice to each other in a sexless (sorry: s-e-x-less) way and difficult issues are resolved quickly and to everyone's satisfaction, usually by topping one of the characters. When a lead met his doom a couple of seasons ago, my mother - like millions of viewers all over the globe - was aghast. But why? I wondered. Downton Abbey is cursed: pose any kind of difficulty to Mrs and Mrs Downton and their lockjawed offspring, and you'll be killed off! Unwanted girlfriends, wayward daughters, drunken exes, unhappy sons-in-law: the Doomton Abbey will strike you a fatal blow and everyone's grief will be dealt with by the time the village fete takes place, two episodes on.

5. Homeopathy
My mother practises homoeopathy from the cupboard over the deep fat fryer. If anything ails you, she'll produce a small bottle and try to foist pills upon you. You might wave them away, you might point out that the expiry date was 2009, you might not know whether you feel better in hot or cold weather (upon which the success of the remedy hinges), it's often easier to take the pills and pretend they work, regardless of whether or not they do.

Some of the things she dislikes:
1. The Heat
My parents' house is freezing. It's an old stone farmhouse and it's draughty and cold. When you tell my parents this, they are deeply offended.
"This house is perfectly warm!" thunders my father. Not that he's bad-tempered or anything, but he has to thunder so you can hear him through his thermal vest, three t-shirts, woolly jumper and fleece-lined waistcoat. If - God forbid!!!!! - the temperatures in a room should creep towards 17°C or 18°C, panic sets in and my mother goes about flinging windows open
"We'll die of The Heat!" she says, wiping her brow with a tissue she's dug out of her bra.
She has a morbid fear of The Heat. One of her worst nightmares is being at someone's home where they might have - clutch your pearls, readers - central heating on and double-glazed windows. The Heat! Think of The Heat!

Luckily, though, there is something that combats The Heat, namely A Healthy Draught. This is the icy wind that blows down the stair case and whistles under the door, ensuring that the sitting room never gets properly warm. This, my dears, is The Healthy Draught that stops us all from ending up with all kinds of Fevers, Agues, the Humours and all kinds of other Dickensian illnesses that could only be cured by a trip to the cupboard over the deep fat fryer.

2. Strange Food
Strange Food is any kind of food that was not available in Ireland in the 1950s. This covers about 90% of the foodstuff available in Ireland in the 2010s. But this is not just my mother - all of her sisters are the same. When forced to eat anything Foreign - say, pizza or curry - they smile their rigid smiles and raise the fork to their face ... but don't actually put it in. At the last moment, disgust causes them to reflexively turn their faces away. And I'm not joking: I've actually sat at tables and watched my mother and my aunts jab their faces with the silverware, rather than put a spoon of chilli con carne in their mouths.
Oh, go on, then: I'll admit it. It's a funny sight. It's worth dishing up a chicken korma at a family occasion, just to see them struggle with their compulsive politeness and genteel repulsion. Basically my mother would never survive any kind of torture: if someone wanted to get some state secrets out of her, all they'd need to do is force-feed her spaghetti alla carbonara.

3. Alcohol
She doesn't drink. And never has. My mother never touches a drop. She's occasionally been put in a position where taking a sip might be required of her (handed a champagne flute at someone's wedding, for example) but she simply jabs her cheek with it or jams it into her forehead, before hiding it on a table and shedding a layer of outer clothing to combat The Heat.

4. Books with s-e-x
My ma is an avid reader, but a choosy one. Nothing ruins A Nice Book like a steamy scene. Given a choice, she'd like a nice historical novel, where bosoms are encased firmly behind a corset and throbbing members never see the light of day. She has never quite understood the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey: reading a book about people prancing around in the nip, spanking each other and having s-e-x would be enough to have her go through several tissues at once.

5. Marilyn Monroe
We're going to leave aside the scurrilous rumour that The Blond One had shenanigans with John F. Kennedy - no, we're not even going to go there - and focus on the fact that she is, in the words of my mother, a terrible twit. She can't understand how any man with a screed of sense could possibly fancy her.
(My father thinks she's gorgeous.)

Is that my mother? I think that might give you a sense of her essence. But in actual fact, I can't sum up what she means to me or to my family.
She's the heart that beats at our centre, that's all.
And that's all there is to say.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Owls and Penguins On Their Way

Ah, charity.
Don't get me wrong. Big charities are the ones with the clout, the ones that can make changes, lobby governments, make a significant difference. But I live in the centre of a small city and I am accosted daily by toothily attractive young people out collecting direct debit details (no, they don't shake a can under your nose any more, they want a permanent recurring donation direct from your bank account), handing out shiny literature and unwanted compliments. So while I could never say a bad word about UNICEF or the Red Cross, I sometimes also like to make a donation to a charity with the feeling that I am directly contributing to something, that my money or my effort goes directly to someone in need, and does not get used in part to pay an hourly wage to collectors, printing costs, advertising, directors' salaries ... or anything else the big charities need to continue to function and make their difference.

One of my friends runs a Christmas bazaar to collect money for our local children's clinic. Helped by an army of elderly ladies, they spend the year knitting and crocheting and jam-making for their stall during the holiday season. The money they make is used to buy equipment for the local clinic or to fly children in from crisis areas for needed operations. The medical staff at the clinic will operate for free if the ladies can fly the patients and their parents to Germany. So this is what they do: a handful of pensioners spend the Advent Saturdays in the freezing cold, selling chutneys and scarves and candles, and euro by euro they make enough money to make a small difference in a global sense, but a huge difference to a small group of individuals. That's good, too.

Last year I made a stack of owl key rings and they sold out within an hour. This year, I've started again. I plan to make thirty of them - and more if my fingers don't fall off. And I'm finally going to post the pattern for you! (just give me a day or two...) While some people feel a bit odd about the results of their patterns being sold (which, by the way, is apparently not illegal under US copyright law, so there you go - you learn something new every day), I have no problem with you using this pattern to make gifts for the holiday season, to give to or sell for charity - and if you make a few bob for yourself as a result of making them ... well, good for you. Be warned, though, the little blighters have a mind of their own. When I set up this photo, they were all facing upwards, I swear. But the one in the bottom lefthand corner is trying to escape and the pink one in the second row is pulling his neighbour's feathers. Spooky!

Caught in the act. Can't leave them alone for a second.