At Christmas time each year, the layer of unhappiness lying over our childhood home in Ireland was more tangible with each year that passed.
After they got married, my mother went to live with my father and his widowed mother. My father was the only son in a family of six - all the girls were older than him and all these women he grew up with literally adored him. He never had to lift a finger. After about six months, when my mother was pregnant with me, she and her mother-in-law had a huge fight and my mother left, towing the beloved and forever worshipped son behind her.
From then on, she refused to have anything to do with her mother-in-law but parcels would arrive occasionally for me in the post, containing dolls or games.
On Christmas Day, the unspoken hovered around the turkey and the tree. Because my mother refused to have her mother-in-law in her home, her own mother was banned as well, thus absenting both grannies from our table.
On St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day), pre-car ownership, my father would pack up a few of the older children and take us by way of train but when that service was cancelled on a bus all the way down to his mother's house which was in a small town in east Cork. I remember it as always raining, with steaming windows and smelly wool coats on everyone.
My grandmother would be overjoyed to see us. I was always a little afraid of her, she was thin as a rail and wore her hair in a tight silver bun and called my father by his diminutive "Jimmy" which I found very amusing. Her table groaned with goodies, endless tins of biscuits, another turkey, fruit cakes, sweets in boxes, and extravagant presents for the children. We were on our best behaviour because we knew what was coming.
Her beloved Jimmy and herself would get caught up on all the news. Even then, I noticed a tightness to her lips when my mother's name was mentioned. I would study the odd British type pictures on her walls and she had the only chaise lounge I had ever seen in a house prior to then. It lay in glory by the front window, upholstered in red damask with a shawl draped carefully across the back of it. And I remember wondering if Granny ever fainted on it when we left and did she have smelling salts to revive herself.
She asked me about my "books". Books in those days were an old-fashioned term for the class (grade) you were in.
"What book are you in?"
"Ah," she'd say,nodding, "You'll be writing them soon enough. Now who does she look like Jimmy? Not like our side at all."
I never could take a conversation with her anywhere. I never could respond beyond her first question as with her next one she'd always involve my father who would always turn the question back on her.
"Mother," he'd say, "Sure I think she's got a great look of you, myself."
Which I knew to be a great white lie, as everyone said I looked like my other granny.
When we left, stuffed to the point where we all should have been mounted on her parlour wall, she'd catch the wrist of each child in a strong grip and lay on the coin. Huge amounts for those days. I would get a whole half-crown and the boys would get a shilling each. In farewell, she would never kiss us or hug us and she'd shake my father's hand and watch us all as we traipsed slowly down the hill from her house.
Daddy was always irritable on the endless, steamy bus-ride back to the city. We'd be complaining we'd missed the Wren Boys
, we always missed the Wren Boys every year because of the trek to Granny's.
But fondling the magical possibilities of the coins in our pockets made up for a lot.