On the day of my Granny’s removal (the removal is when friends and family mill around the dead person in their coffin commenting on how well they look) there was a mild kerfuffle surrounding the arrival of my great-aunt Janey. Janey is my Granny’s youngest sister who emigrated to London back in the 1950’s. The last time I met her was a summer holiday at Granny’s homeplace in Leitrim thirty-odd years ago. I knew that she and Granny spoke often by phone and met every summer to visit the graves.
Janey was due to arrive into Dublin by Ferry with minutes to spare before the final prayers of the day would be said over the casket. Cousins were deployed to collect her and text messages flew about traffic at a standstill on the quays and the impossible task of getting Janey back in time. There was no-one else of Granny’s generation there. Everyone wanted Janey to make it.
As it turned out, the priest had gathered us around the coffin and begun the prayers when a shuffle at the back of the small crowd signalled Janey’s arrival. For an instant I thought that grief had cracked me. It was Granny. It was Granny ten years ago when she was old but not ancient. It was her face, her hair, her gestures. I held my breath as I watched this solid, self-contained woman press through and walk calmly to the side of the coffin. She was inches from me when she put her hands on Granny’s, just for a second. Not by breath or movement did she betray any emotion. She silently accepted the seat at the head of the coffin as hers by right. Burying siblings was not a new thing for Janey.
I didn’t speak to Janey until the following afternoon. The funeral mass and the burial were over. We had eaten a late lunch at a beige hotel chosen for its proximity to both the graveyard and the M50. There was no atmosphere of celebration or even cordiality, just relief at the end of the ordeal. Every last ounce of adrenalin had drained into the heels of my black patent shoes. There were no tears left, no thoughts and no words.
Tapping my shoulder, my cousin delivered a summons, ‘Aunt Janey wants to talk to you’. Oh Lord, what on Earth was I going to say?
I needn’t have worried. I hardly needed to speak at all.
I sat down knee to knee with Janey.
‘You’re Lynda’, she began. Her voice was Granny’s voice. Neither of them allowed sixty years in Dublin or London to adulterate their Leitrim accents.
‘I am’, I could manage that much.
‘Mary was always talking about you so I wanted to see you’, and that’s all it took. I blinked back tears and Janey took my hands in hers. I looked down at my hands in Granny’s hands and swallowed the ball of pain.
‘Your husband is an engineer’, a statement I was happy to confirm.
‘You have one son, isn’t that right?’, I agreed.
‘Mary says he plays the guitar’, I nodded.
This, truly, was a woman who could talk for Ireland. She carried on in the same vein, naming each of my children and listing their achievements, demonstrating her own prodigious memory and the degree to which the sisters had shared each others lives. I relaxed into it, drifted along half asleep, letting Janey take me on a stranger’s tour of my own life. The thought crossed my mind that this felt like bonus time with Granny. The gift of someone, who in that tear-blurred moment I could just believe was Granny, telling me, again, that I have done well.
There was a pause. Ashamed at myself, that I couldn’t recall a single fact about this woman’s life, I searched for something meaningful to say.
‘Are you happy?’, she fired at me. Sadder than I had ever felt in my whole life, I sensed my left eyebrow twitch involuntarily. The over-riding emotion of my life, bemusement, is etched deeply and asymmetrically above my eyebrows. Janey caught my expression and mirrored it. I laughed out loud.
‘Mary said that you were very happy’, she looked me right in the eyes, waiting for my response.
It was like watching a bag of marbles being up-ended into a glass jar. Big, old, hazy ones and small, bright, shiny ones. Memories of moments jostled for the prime positions. It could have gone either way.
I haven’t always been happy. You wouldn’t hold my childhood up to the world as a model of happiness. I could describe moments of anxiety and despair but why, when the most important woman in my life believed that I am happy, would I want to do that.
I can tell you exactly when I knew for certain what happy feels like.
I had given birth at 1.00 AM. The mid-wife had taken my baby, put him in an incubator and tucked me tightly into bed. I didn’t sleep a wink, just lay there waiting. At 6.00 AM, I heard the rattle of cribs being wheeled down the corridor and a nurse calling exhausted mothers to arms.
‘La Mamma di Marco?’, I heard called, ‘Dov’e la Mamma di Marco?’
I jumped out of that bed so fast I damn near burst my stitches. Realisation dawned that I was a Mamma. To be a mother is one thing, to be a Mamma is to be happy.
There is a photograph on my wall taken on the day we brought that baby boy home. It was snowing and the shutters were closed. In the photo I am lying on my side and my tiny boy is tucked under my arm facing the camera. We are both asleep and we are both smiling. There was just the three of us, a tiny family insulated from the world, in a bubble of pure joy.
A few days later I received a postcard, a picture of a polar bear sleeping with her cub, and addressed to The O’Sultanabun Family (ok, we do not actually go by the name O’Sultanabun, you know what I mean!). That card meant the world to me. It was like receiving an official certificate in the post. You have a family. You are a family. Holding that card, I knew that I knew what happy was.
I am not always happy. Anniversaries of one loss or another come and go and I struggle to remind myself that I am happy. Maybe I need someone else to tell me. Maybe I need someone else to believe that I am happy.
Over Janey’s shoulder I could see my family, the family that I made. They were dressed in best clothes and on best behaviour. All that week they had done everything that I asked and more. My daughter, despite her nerves, read a prayer at the funeral and my son, to my eternal pride, helped carry the coffin. They put me on a direct IV of care and love. They minded me.