Not much blogging of late and I must apologise to any ‘regulars’ for that; truth is I have been preoccupied with two issues; firstly helping the Princess revise for her Finals and second, more sadly, watching and waiting as the Partner’s Mum slipped away, having suffered one or more strokes during the last couple of weeks.
For the last 12 months or so, Maureen, who I liked to refer to as my Common Mother-in-Law, had been living in a care home on the outskirts of Northampton. She was much diminished by her initial stroke of about 18 months ago and spoke little, but took a lively interest in the comings and goings of the home where she was living. Having lived on her own for many years, I think she rather enjoyed the steady hustle and bustle, with a constant flow of nurses, carers and visitors to keep her amused. The staff in the home were extraordinarily kind to her (and to all the residents) considering the pittance they get paid for the long hours and (sometimes) grim work they have to do. If there was any justice in this country, these would be the people who’d be honoured and feted for their labours. However this is the UK and Royal Weddings or the latest Celeb scandal are reckoned to have greater worth, which should tell you all you need to know about British society in 2011.
Maureen ( or Mary or Mary Ellen ) was born and raised in County Galway, the eldest of 9 children. She grew up on the family farm and intermittently attended school at a nearby and now-derelict building which I usually referred to as the Kilbegnet Academy for Young Ladies. The only classroom was dominated by a large pot-bellied stove and in the winter, the kids used to have to take it in turns to take in a bucket of turf to feed the thing. When I say she intermittently attended school, it wasn’t on account of any reluctance or desire to play truant on Maureen’s part – the reality was that her Mum always seemed to be pregnant and Maureen often had to stay home and look after ‘the little ones’ if her Mum was feeling under the weather. There was no running water at the farmhouse and the ‘well’ (in reality a spring in a wide ditch) was a good twenty minute round trip away. Food would have been pretty basic, too; quite often a piece of boiled bacon, with cabbage and potatoes cooked in the same pot on the range in the kitchen. The fact that her daughters came to regard this meal as a delicacy caused her a wry amusement in later life.
Deepest County Galway….
As she grew older, Maureen would be entrusted with farm chores such as cycling six miles into Roscommon to deliver or collect poultry to or from the station, but usually she got the job of looking after the tots whilst her Mum nursed the latest arrival. It could all have stayed that way until such time she got ‘snapped up’ by another local farmer but for the fact that when she reached the age of 15, war broke out between Nazi Germany and the Western Allies.
Two years later, British hospitals began actively recruiting in the West of Ireland for nurses to work in hospitals over here and Maureen signed up. She was allocated to what was then probably still called Berrywood Asylum on the outskirts of Northampton – later to become St Crispins Hospital – later still to be demolished to make way for a huge new housing estate. Maureen arrived by train in Northampton, late in 1941 and in the middle of an air-raid blackout. She walked the 4 miles out to Berrywood and would have been housed in the large nurse’s home there. It was here that she became Maureen – there were so many new Irish nurses and so many of them were called Mary that she was persuaded to abandon her given name in favour of the one I got to know her by.
After the war, she got together with Bob, who was a charge nurse at the same hospital and they married in the late 1940’s. Her younger sister, Nancy, followed in her footsteps from Ireland, whilst many of the other siblings headed for the USA, settling in The Bronx and in Queen’s. In the end only 3 brothers were left in Ireland and one of them died in his 20’s. Brother Sean stayed on the family farm, taking it over and looking after his parents as they slipped into old age. He still lives in the house today, having produced 9 kids of his own, all of whom have now grown up and moved away.
Back in Northampton, Bob and Maureen managed to rent a ‘hospital house’ on the fringes of the extensive ‘estate’ – there was a fully functioning farm, tennis courts and all kinds of other amenities in the grounds – and in time produced two daughters who were sent to the local village Junior School and then, at 11, to the Notre Dame Convent School in the centre of town.
This is where I, as a long-haired 16 year old, met up with the sisters at a disco in the local YMCA. Always at the cutting edge of things, Northampton. We were all just good buddies in those days; no complexities like ‘relationships’ – I ‘went out’ with some of their mates, they ‘went out’ with some of my mine, but we managed to avoid further entanglements until many years later.
Those were the days when summer holidays seemed to go on forever and it was during one of them that I first encountered Maureen. A friend and I made the journey out to the house in the hospital grounds to ‘hang out’ with the girls. There would be records played, some gossiping, some verbal jousting and probably a little harmless flirtation. It was a beautiful sunny day…why not?
No-one answered the front door when we arrived, so we went round to the side ‘garden’ gate in a high wall, which opened on to a brick-paved ‘yard’ adjacent to the kitchen. There was Maureen, stripped down to bra and underskirt, cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, busy behind an ironing board, pressing blouses and trousers and allsorts in the hot afternoon sun. Quite a memorable introduction. The Girls, of course, were sprawled on sun-loungers reading back issues of ‘Bunty’ or similar, but after a flurry of shrieking and barked instructions, Maureen re-appeared now fully attired, supervising the girls as they produced coffee and sandwiches.
Skip forward a few years and I was back in town on a college vacation but no-one was around in my regular town centre haunts. So, I hopped on a bus and headed out to see the girls, but found Maureen on her own and apparently delighted to see me. It was another glorious day and we sat out in the garden where she plied me with bottles of beer and sandwiches and we caught up with one another’s news. As I left about 3 hours later, it occurred to me that I would have difficulty in spending a fraction of that time with the parents of most of my other friends – there was just something about Maureen that made it easy.
Our paths crossed only intermittently over the next 15 years; she lost her husband to cancer, I was working away in Scandinavia a lot and living up north when I was in the UK. The girls and I stayed in touch, but once the Partner and I got together as ‘an item’ in the late 1980’s, our lives began to converge again. When I first went to call after this cataclysmic event, she looked somewhat askance at me but generally seemed to take the news fairly well. I’m not sure that she was ever convinced we were right for one another, but then, neither am I to this day. By now Maureen the nurse had become Maureen the Pharmacy technician, still at the same hospital, but she was coming up for retirement and the Girls organised a white Rolls Royce to pick her up on her final day and drive her the three or four minutes to work.
Once she retired, she spent a lot more time up here performing Granny duties for the Girls. She managed to introduce a little Irish folk wisdom into proceedings and the three grandchildren – the Princess and her two cousins – found her by turns terrifying and hilarious but loved her anyway. I recall that when the Princess was being particularly difficult in effecting the transition from breast to bottle – she just wasn’t having it – Maureen solved the problem by dipping her finger in a glass of sherry and then in the sugar bowl and sticking it in the Princess’ mouth. That went down OK, so she repeated it with the teat on the feeding bottle and the Princess never looked back.
She made a couple of trips to visit her siblings in the States, where she was revered as the Matriarch, eldest of nine. We were also over in Ireland a few times – for her Mum’s funeral and for a giant family reunion incorporating the Irish, English and American branches of the family where 106 people sat down to dinner, most of them family members. Coming from a small and fractured family, as I do, this kind of large-scale coming together was a revelation.
Above everything else, she was an extraordinary character; far better at dealing with strangers or those she knew slightly than she was with her closest family. She could blow her top at times and the Girls handled her with kid gloves, telling her only what they felt she needed to know. She had always been an independent soul and was happiest pursuing her own agenda – visiting the sick, going to Mass, going to Bingo, listening to local radio, a’ drop of something’ in her mid-morning coffee and a glass of sherry before dinner. She largely positioned herself as a fount of wisdom who could barely believe the delusions and pretensions of her daughters, who she clearly regarded as lacking in much common sense, even though both of them were mothers with seriously responsible jobs. When their elaborate plans sometimes went pear-shaped, she would raise her eyebrows to the heavens in a ‘you couldn’t make it up’ manner. “I was right, I knew I was right, I wished I wasn’t, but I knew I was” was her mantra at such moments. My own relationship with her was largely based on a teasing humour, and by and large we got along OK. She also got along well with my Dad and after my Mum died, he became one of her regular ‘gentleman callers’ as I used to refer to them. Actually, she was a widow for the final 30 or so years of her life, but there was never any serious suggestion that she would take on another man. She liked her freedom too much.
Maureen and my Dad, early 2000’s
Her decline began innocuously enough with what appeared to be a trapped nerve at the base of her spine. In the end, that became a hip problem and resulted in a hip replacement. After that, her balance was never too good and she sometimes complained of ‘vertigo’ attacks. Declining mobility led to a less active lifestyle and even something as prosaic as getting on the bus to go down to the Bingo (which she loved) became too onerous for her. She complained about her garden which had suddenly become too big for her to deal with and despite help with hedge-cutting and lawn-mowing by her many callers (gentlemen and otherwise) she clearly felt frustrated by her reduced capabilities and constrained by her troublesome hip. In the end, she had a fall at home and broke her right leg just above the knee. We then entered into an era of carers and Zimmer frames and meals on wheels which satisfied nobody and despite the proximity of the healed fracture, it was decided that a replacement knee was the answer. The operation was a success, despite being tricky, but she had little chance to enjoy it. Two days after the operation, a piece of clotted blood broke away from the wound and journeyed up into her brain causing a severe cerebral haemorrhage that left her unable to stand or walk, incontinent and with severely reduced speech.
At least for the last year of her life she was happy with her care home. She expressed no desire to go ‘home’ and was happy to watch the comings and goings around her. A lot of the spikiness that had characterised her behaviour towards her daughters in earlier years seemed to ebb away in those last months; she gradually acquired a kind of serenity that she never had when in the main stream of her life.
The funeral is on Tuesday at a church almost equidistant between the hospital where she worked and her former house. The Duston Irish will turn out in force, of course and there will be visitors from Ireland and all over the UK. The church will undoubtedly be jammed. She was a grand character and she deserves a proper send-off. As they say, ‘we shall not see her like again’.