There's a story in my family that goes like this. One time, before I was born, my parents went to America, leaving my sister Over Home in my grandparents’ house.
When they returned, my sister wept; she had begun calling my grandparents Mammy and Daddy and could not understand who these strangers were and why they had come to steal her away.
There’s another story in my family that goes like this.
One time, when my sister and I were both young, my parents went away for a week and left us with my aunt. When they returned, I proudly proclaimed I was a ‘big girl’, as Anne had decided to toilet train me. Too much hassle, she said, changing all those nappies.
That’s what it was like for us growing up. My parents were young but my mother was the oldest of her siblings, my sister and I were the only grandchildren on the Murphy side for fourteen years and doted upon as such.
I had grandparents who were an extra set of parents, an aunt who was a half-mother, a rake of uncles who felt more like brothers. It takes a village to raise a child, I suppose.
The road from Clonakilty to Ahearla was a well-worn one, the roads becoming narrow, tufts of grass pushing up through the concrete, blowing the car horn as we turned around a twisting corner to warn of our imminent arrival.
Over Home was the perfect place to be a child; my grandparents had clearly decided somewhere between Boy Three and Boy Four that resistance was futile and we were allowed to run wild about the place, using their bed as a trampoline, rummaging through my grandmother’s makeup collection to paint our faces, ‘helping’ her sift flour when she baked scones, insisting our grandfather brought us to the local shop to buy tonnes of Penny Sweets; ‘put that on Mick Murphy’s account,’, we would say grandly.
I am lucky, I think now, to have had that place, to have known such safety and love. It’s more than many children have.
It's the 16th of October, 1999. We are in Brown Thomas, my mother, my aunt, my sister and I, and we’re trying on bridesmaid dresses when the phone rings. “Just tell me,” I hear my mother say behind me. “Just tell me, is he dead?”
Turning around, quick quick, watching her face, grey now. “We have to go home,” she says. Stripping off the expensive dresses and running to the car park and I’m crying and she says not to cry, she has to think, stop it, Louise, please.
Turning the key in the ignition and Elton John’s A Candle in the Wind is on the radio and it would be funny if it wasn’t so scary. On the drive home, I pray silently and I make desperate bargains with God, promising eternal good behaviour if He somehow makes this all okay.
Turning in the lane and wheels skidding across the cattle grid, and it’s so familiar, this house, nothing bad could happen here surely. The door is opening and I can hear crying already but I tell myself that maybe it’s just a bad accident, maybe it’s just— ‘He’s dead,’ someone says.
Later, I will vomit, the fear forcing its way up my throat, but for now I just walk into the living room, looking for someone to take care of me. My grandfather is keening, like an animal with its leg caught in a trap, but my grandmother is sitting very still, her hands in her lap.
She looks up at us. “I’ll have to get my hair done,” she says.
My uncle Michael died twenty years ago last Wednesday. He was thirty years old, engaged to be married, making plans for the future he presumed he would have.
Today, I try and imagine what that future might have been like, the life that has been un-lived. Would he have had children? What would he look like now, this man who remains forever young, a grinning face enshrined in Mass cards and countless framed photos on walls?
That’s what happens when someone dies; they become a collection of stories, told and re-told, they become a handful of photos taken at christenings and birthday parties, a shadow in the background.
I hold tightly onto my own memories - a Boyzone t-shirt he bought me for Christmas, the time he told me I was an idiot because I thought to shift someone meant having sex, how he smelled of soap and cologne when he headed out the door on a Saturday night in a freshly ironed shirt, his 21st birthday and I sat on his right side, Michelle on his left, and he let us blow out the candles on the cake.
But they fade away too easily, like how the smell of him faded from the clothes left hanging in his wardrobe, slowly at first, and then it was gone.
A few jumpers were given to the charity shop at first and then everything was cleared out, because it was time, everyone agreed. The room repainted, a new bed bought. The guest room, now. No longer his. Maybe that was why I was frightened that day, twenty years ago, when I heard those words - he’s dead.
Maybe I knew then, that the end of Over Home was near. How the next generation are born and families dissipate, like blowing dandelion seeds and watching them scatter to the winds.
Siblings become cousins become names on your family tree from years ago, people who are strangers to you now but your ancestors once lived in the same house, they once held each other’s hands as they watched a coffin go into the ground, a brother taken too soon.
Every year on my uncle’s anniversary, my grandmother would put a memorial notice in the Examiner. The twentieth anniversary will the last one, she said each time. That will be the end.