LOUISE O'NEILL: Unlike today, my sister and I were allowed to become bored

It was my Granny Murphy’s birthday recently. She probably wouldn’t be too pleased with me if I revealed her exact age in De Paper but let’s just say that it was a considerable milestone, one that many of us would be delighted to reach, writes Louise O’Neill. 

Most of the Murphy clan descended on Fernhill House hotel for an incredible afternoon tea, where Granny was presented with an extensive array of food designed to meet her dietary requirements as she is currently caffeine and gluten free which, let’s face it, is peak 2018. She was in wonderful form, still in very good health, and she continues to be the linchpin of our entire family; the matriarch to whom we all gravitate.

As a good Catholic woman, she wouldn’t like to admit to being too proud of any of her children or grandchildren (blasphemy!), but she did buy multiple copies of Almost Love for her day care centre, prompting my desperate pleas to my mother that I be allowed to rip out all the sex scenes contained within, and was almost beside herself with glee when I appeared on The Late Late Show, that pinnacle of achievement for any Irish person.

Looking at her on her birthday, surrounded by her loved ones, I was struck by how she seems to represent both my future — the inevitability of genes and nature, of how my own face might look as time marches on — but also my past. My sister and I spent a great deal of time on my grandparents’ farm as children, pretty much every weekend and what seemed like most of our summer holidays.

I wasn’t a particularly ‘country’ girl, taking such pride in my brand new yellow overalls and matching wellies that I refused to go outside in them lest they get dirty. But still, I loved it there and I cherish my childhood memories. Open fields and doe-eyed cows, the smell of lamb chops and overcooked vegetables, the soupy darkness that would envelop the farm at night, turning everything black. The stars which were so bright.

We went to Mass every Sunday, faces wiped clean with a damp cloth until we were shining, watching my grandad shave over a basin of hot water in the kitchen sink, a mirror with a plastic frame propped up against the window. Waiting in the Church car park afterwards, the rain beating against the glass, until he came back from the shop carrying wafers and Neapolitan ice-cream, the Sunday papers propped under his elbow. Going down the yard to collect eggs from the hens for breakfast, still warm in our hands as we raced back to the house. 

Sitting with my grandmother in her spectacular rose garden, finding shade under the towering monkey trees while she lifted her face to the sky, feeling the sun on her face, able to relax for once. Bedtime prayers and rounds of the rosary, healthy sprinkles of holy water and whispered ‘good nights’ as she tucked us into the twin beds that my mother and her sister had slept in when they had been children. 

During the day, we frequently fought with my four uncles over possession of the remote control, more often than not losing the battle. There were only two TVs and two channels, so I spent a lot of my childhood watching repeat bulletins of the RTÉ News, Angelus, Gay Byrne on a Friday, Pat Kenny on a Saturday, and most excitingly of all — Winning Streak. (Still a life ambition to be a contestant on that show. Show me all the free, ridiculously easy to win, money.)

Unlike what seems to happen today, with adults and children alike, my sister and I were allowed to become bored, finding ways to fill in the gaps in between — books, flights of fancy, making up wild stories, daydreaming for hours and hours. We would jump on my grandparents’ bed, so violently that the light fixtures in the parlour below would shake in a rather precarious fashion, try on Granny’s lipstick and shoes, dragging quilts and pillows outside and draping them over the apple trees to fashion a tree house. 

Going to the nearest village with Grandad for the Cork Examiner, of course, buying vast quantities of penny sweets and telling the lady to ‘charge that to Mick Murphy’s account’ with a wave of a hand. In our generosity, we would bring our grandmother home a single bar of chocolate, a Fry’s chocolate cream. We were, in short, intolerable, but I never remember my grandmother raising her voice to us. She seemed to have endless reserves of patience and kindness, and I felt so safe in that house. I felt as if nothing bad could ever happen there.

I don’t remember when it stopped. All the boys, as we called my uncles, moved out and met partners, and had children of their own. My grandad died, a series of strokes eroding his sense of self, one day at a time. I presume adolescence also got in the way, discos and friends and boys and illicit sips from naggins of vodka. I can’t remember when I last spent the night ‘over home’. I didn’t know then that it would be the last time, perhaps forever.

Maybe I would have paid more attention if I had known. Maybe I would have stood still and said to myself: “Remember this. Remember all of this.”

Louise says...

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