Unexpected detours upset plans. Just as I was about to write about breast reconstructions, for some strange unknown reason to myself, my mind has just now been diverted to a vivid memory of one such road diversion on a Spring evening about ten years ago, shortly after Carlos and I got married.
We had just bought our first and only house at the height of the property boom in Ireland in 2005. We bought what we could afford at the time, which was a small three bedroomed mid-terraced townhouse in a new development between Swords and Malahide. We moved in straight after getting married in August of the same year to a dusty, concreted floor, with nothing to our names but 8% of that house (back in the day when the banks still threw money at people), some black sacks stuck to the windows for privacy, a sofa bed, fitted wardrobes, a fully kitted-out kitchen and our lives packed into a few suitcases.
At the time, apparently, that was all we needed in order to live our lives in the capital. I managed to make it in to my new teaching job in Bray, Co. Wicklow, clean (it was a struggle to keep the dust off my work clothes) and on time everyday. Before having children, the hour-long Dart ride from Malahide to Bray, was a most pleasant part of my day, in which I read, corrected students’ work, prepared classes and never tired of the coastal scenery. If I had to travel that trip again, I’m sure my breath would still be taken away by the surprise of the beauty emerging from the Vico Road tunnel, coming from Dalkey and approaching Killiney Dart station.
Carlos, not working close to a decent public transport route, had the luxury of the red Nissan Micra, our first set of wheels. So sometimes on a Friday evening, when neither of us fancied yet another weekend of laying floors, painting or some other house-related job, we would head for the southeast to visit Noel and Mary in Dungarvan for the weekend. On those occasions, I’d stay on in Bray and wait for Carlos to pick me up. We’d take the N11 coast road, instead of the, then N9, which according to Dad, the expert on these things in my family, is shorter in distance but longer in time, due to all things pertaining to bad driving conditions in Ireland.
The evening was pushing on and we were coming in to New Ross and instead of travelling straight onto the narrow streets, which take you down on to the quayside of the river Barrow before crossing it and driving for a very short spell along the border of County Kilkenny, a diversion pointed us in the opposite direction. It took us up on to long meandering roads, through countryside I’d never known before. The diversion kept going, skirting outside the town, at what seemed like very wide margins, no familiar landmark in sight. I was hungry, tired and impatient to get home home, as ones birthplace is often called in Ireland.
And then I saw a sign, pointing off to the south, for Tintern Abbey. Wasn’t that the name of a poem in the Leaving Certificate Soundings collection of poetry? I never had to study it but for some reason I thought that abbey was in England. Wasn’t it William Wordsworth who wrote that poem? What was he doing in County Wexford writing poems about an abbey? Even still before the era of smartphones and instant accessibility to all earthly knowledge, I filed away in my mind the desire to look up that poem and find out about Tintern Abbey, in County Wexford.
I still remember that Friday evening, being taken on a winding diversion, the unexpected signpost to a place belonging to a flashing memory (of studying poetry for my Leaving Certificate) suddenly opening up my eyes to the golden hues of the evening sun falling on the gently sloping hills that surrounded New Ross. I could see the River Barrow from higher ground and it was spectacular in its new perspective.
I soon got home and spent my quiet evening in number 26. And I forgot about Tintern Abbey and William Wordsworth. And just as I was sitting down to write this post on mastectomies and breast reconstruction, my original first sentence about detours, life and a mastectomy brought the memory of this unwelcome and unexpected detour around New Ross in County Wexford rushing back to the forefront of my mind, as if to bring some new significance to this instant of my life.
So Tintern Abbey had been filed away until now. I have read the poem: http://www.rc.umd.edu/sites/default/files/RCOldSite/www/rchs/reader/tabbey.html and how relevant to me are its sentiments of passing time and the change effected in ones interior by the maturing process. The mother abbey (Tintern Major) that inspired William Wordsworth to write this poem is in Wales.
Its smaller and far more modest daughter abbey is out on Hook Head in County Wexford. It is also known as Tintern of the Vow because of the noble promise, the patron of the Welsh abbey kept upon becoming marooned by a storm off that very same Irish coast.
So what have all these ramblings on diversions and Tintern Abbey got to do with mastectomies and reconstruction? Well everything and nothing really as far as I can make out. On writing this post, I was reminded of a detour, which has taken me on another detour. Whether or not it has been pleasant is a matter of taste and opinion but I’ve enjoyed taking a ramble, remembering a memory of a memory and seeing this diversion out to its conclusion in Tintern Abbey (albeit ten years later) in County Wexford and a poem by William Wordsworth.
It was certainly unexpected. I’m supposed to be writing about breast reconstruction but instead I’m left with a meandering blog post about everything to me and nothing and a feeling of inner contentment at sharing a sentiment with a bygone poet.
I’m finding out a long and difficult way that life is full of unexpected detours, which seem to upset plans. But my excess of thinking time is leading me to a different conclusion. Perhaps, after all, my plans have been my life-long detour and this meandering path, cancer and all, are all part of the bumpy way. Maybe life isn’t meant to be planned into a smooth ride down-hill.
My repeated experience of meandering detours is showing me that the circumvention of the plan slows down the gallop to whatever finish line we care to see in the distance. My eyes become more widely opened to the reality that’s around me now. And when displayed from a new perspective a spectacular beauty is revealed, one that was always there but just took a diversion to view it in a different light.
I’ve no great talent when it comes to music. I came with a musical ear of reasonable quality, which allows me, if I’m not mistaken, to sing in tune to any song in the alto soprano voice range and to appreciate a good lyrical song or piece of music.
But I wasn’t blessed with the kind of musical genius associated with Johann S. Bach or Wolfgang A. Mozart for example. So no operas or even a simple song were penned by me at a tender age, or at any age for that matter. No, I, with my musical ear endured years of plugging through piano pieces, right hand, left hand and then hands together, line by line, page by page until I finally gave up at grade 8, realizing that it was a farcical waste of time. I’d never be a pianist and to this day I haven’t enjoyed the instrument in any shape or form.
Despite all this however, when I think back over the important stages of my life, there is always one song or two that stands out and defines my milestones in time.
Contrary to my own children who have all the music videos they desire at their disposal on YouTube, as a very young child, in my house, there was only one children’s music record that was played over and over on the old player sitting on the sideboard in the dining room as my siblings and I played. I can’t remember the name of the record but I do recall the song that never failed to make me laugh. Of course it’s “The Laughing Policeman” and I believe if anyone can listen to the entire song without at least smiling, they have no fun in their heart at all!
The first record that I could call my own marked an introduction to girlhood. Delivered by Santa Claus, it was a step into the musical world that only my babysitter Sharon knew about. I never really understood what she told us about The British Charts but it did sound cool and when I was at a loss as to what to ask for, I went along with the recommendations of my friend Carrie, and received Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album. It didn’t disappoint.
Abba’s “Dancing Queen” and “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush rocked me through adolescence and in university I buzzed to the entirely different sounds of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and The Smiths “Girlfriend in a Coma”.
I turned my ear to the European tones of French musique when I fell in amour pour la première fois. From those days I remember among others, George Brassens and “La Petite Marguerite”.
And then I met Carlos, my husband. He introduced me to Woody Allen and he still reminds me how I cried out in the English class, (in which I was his teacher), one day,
“I hate Woody Allen!”
Thanks to him, I discovered one of my favorite films, “Radiodays”, which plays great music classics of the forties and fifties. But the song that most stands out from that period of my life (meeting my husband to be) has to be, “When You’re Smiling”, which features in another Woody Allen classic, “Mighty Aphrodite”.
Then came our children. To contrast with my one-record-for-all exposure to music, when we take long road trips in Spain (six hours, Spain is a big country and the aunts, uncles and cousins live very far away), we all take turns requesting songs on the phone. Pablo, the rock fan, has always asked for “Cadillac Ranch” by Bruce Springsteen but his tastes are changing and now Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and ACDC’s “Thunder” feature more often. Ellen’s songs are constantly “Lavendar’s Blue” from the 2015 version of Cinderella and “Let it Go”, no reference needed. Well the girls’ turns are worth double really because they both benefit from each other’s similar tastes in music, for now at least. Ana Maeve invariably requests “Tomorrow” from Annie, and the version she prefers comes with the bonus of a clip from the film too.
The only era that’s left so far in my life is the Breast Cancer one. The era that I’m living patiently day by day now. It is the most challenging time of my life so far. Not because of the operation in itself, that was a piece of cake. But coming to terms with the loss of a body part and the consequent change in my image has taken its time. Enduring the suffering this needfully must cause and confronting disease and its overall significance has been a huge wake-up call for me. A call to assess and re-assess the meaning of my life, my purpose and my relationship with God.
My spiritual searchings have been exciting, fervent and I feel, in a way, lucky to have been woken up sooner rather than later.
And of course, there must be a musical piece that defines this all-important time of my life. Well I think there will be many more tunes as it’s a long road to recovery from cancer. But up to now there has been one piece that I listen to frequently and when it’s not actually playing I can hear it in my head.
I first heard it over a year ago. And even then it resonated deeply with me, like a not-so-subtle forewarning of what was to come. So, I wasn’t being melodramatic in deliberately searching out a tune, that was sad to the extreme. Simply, in the moments of profound realisation of what all this means, all I want to hear is this piece of music.
It is the Cantata number 106, also called “Actus Tragicus” by Johann Sebastian Bach. He wrote it when he was 22 years of age (true musical genius) for a funeral of an unknown entity, perhaps his uncle, perhaps a local politician in the town where he was on commission at the time. It is no accident that he was a devout Lutheran Christian and so the true meaning of death, according to his beliefs, was contained in the music, surely pouring out from the depths of his musically talented soul, and the words, borrowed from the Bible and Lutheran hymns.
I find the sadness of dying (or suffering through your own illness or alongside a loved one, or the loss of a partner or a mother, a daughter, or just feeling the pain of being lost in life) is fully contained within the crying recorders in the introduction. Hope is repeatedly expressed by the soprano singing, “Ja, ja, ja komm Herr Jesu komm” and utter humility in the final “Amen”.
Now I know why I studied German in secondary school. Singing this as part of a choir (my tuneful but too soft voice wouldn’t allow for any solo performances) has unfolded a new unticked box on my list of things I would like to accomplish in life.
It’s not a piece for every stage in life. If you’ve just had a baby or recently got married or engaged or have changed jobs, I doubt it will resonate with you but I think it will pluck the heart and soul strings of everyone at some time in life. It takes over 21 minutes to listen to the four movements of one of the versions I like but in my opinion it is worth every second. (Look beyond the seventies attire and hairstyles and watch the scrolling version with lyrics if preferred here).
And when you’re finished there’s always “The Laughing Policeman”. Enjoy!
Nicht der Fluß fließt,
sondern das Wasser,
nicht die Zeit vergeht,
(it’s not the River that flows, but the Water, it’s not Time that goes by, but us.)
During my fortnightly stays in Oviedo, in between chemotherapy sessions, I am sleeping in a room that is furnished floor to ceiling on every wall with books. There are books about physics and biology, history and art, religion and philosophy, mythology and civilizations, biographies and novels, classical and neo-classical, Spain and Asturias, the natural world and cooking, dictionaries and maps, to classify in some way.
But above all else, the subject which most occupies these shelves is mathematics. There are books here on the inside and outside, upside-down side and right side up side of all areas of mathematics. I, as a middle school teacher of maths in Madrid by chance, would neither have the imagination nor the inclination to open even one of those books as I fear I’d get lost in trying to understand just the introduction.
Collectively they make up the great depth of knowledge that my brother-in-law José has of the very broad subject of mathematics. They demonstrate, at least to me, a great passion that José has for the subject he imparts year-in, year-out at the University of Oviedo. It forms perhaps a complex and intricate scaffolding of understanding of the world, the kind of perspective I don’t think I’ll ever have in this lifetime.
I wonder about the simple beauty of numbers and the complexity with which they can be manipulated into patterns and series and curves and lines, (and I’ll stop right here with my descriptions of mathematics, lest I destroy it with flowery falsities) and ponder if their discovery, collectively called mathematics, could be a demonstration of the existence of a God, who is marvelous.
As a maths teacher, I am well aware that it is not a subject for everyone. Many students are not touched by the energy of mathematics. But lying here now surrounded by hundreds of titles and not just mathematical ones, I am aware of a spirit of great minds, of advancing minds, which over time must cause shifts in perspective a kind of societal evolution.
I call this spirit The Holy Spirit. (The admission of this here in a public place has caused me some anguish over the last few days and it has taken a few discussions and arguments and a lot of reading to come to terms with it). I thought by naming, what I believe is the spirit or breath or energy of God, the Christian way, I was isolating myself from over half the world but when I scratched the surface of some of the major world religions, I realized in fact I’m not.
The recognition of some other force that transcends the mere human energy is a phenomenon, named distinctly in all religions. For example, Buddhism calls it mindfulness, (https://mettarefuge.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/thich-nhat-hanh-on-buddhism-mindfulness-and-the-holy-spirit/), Hinduism calls it Shakti, though inherently different from the historical meaning of the Christian Holy Spirit apparently (http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/hinduism/articles/holy-spirit-is-not-the-same-as-shakti-or-kundalini.aspx) and Islam calls it in Arabic Ruh al Qudus, which translates into English as… the Holy Spirit, as quoted, not from The Bible but from The Quran,
“(The day) when God saith: ‘O Jesus the son of Mary! Recount My favour to thee and to thy mother. Behold! I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity.”
I was washed up onto a predominantly Catholic (at least at the time of my birth) Irish shore. My parents, perhaps due to a strong conviction or perhaps because it was still the accepted norm, initiated my journey with Catholicism by accepting on my behalf the first blessed sacrament of Baptism shortly after I was born. Educated in a school under the auspice of The Mercy Order of nuns (and which then still actually had nuns teaching), I continued to receive the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation, in theory strengthening my faith and union with God, but in practice I was part of a rote system where no other choice was available.
I quickly undid my ties with the Church when I realized I had a mind of my own and decided that it was scientifically impossible for a virgin birth to occur and that it was all a pile of fictitious codswallop. It was like a sacrament of Coming of Age. And I got a thrilling pleasure then out of first skipping mass and later deciding outright not to attend any more.
I remember well the day Jesus Christ was presented to me again. By then a university student, I was sitting in a café in Galway with my good friend Elaine. We were chatting, about what I don’t recall, but suddenly she said that there was always Jesus. That literally stopped me in my tracks,
Tell me more and she told me more. I bought a Bible and I devoured it, underlined it. It all made sense to me then and I felt at peace. It was, at the time, my opium.
I gave it up again the instant I began to feel uncomfortable with public worship. Something didn’t quite sit right with me. So I left my relationship with Jesus lapse again and I placed the The Holy Bible on an upper shelf.
But like a loyal friend, He has always shown his face and pulled on my heart and soul strings both in good and in bad times, most often when accompanied by that profound sense of emptiness and the missing entity which pervades over my mood. It is then when I realise I am craving for something more, a spiritual depth of understanding and being.
For me, an important definition of who you are and what you stand for comes when you have a child and the life of important decisions opens up before you. The first, and perhaps now the most important one for me I realise, is the decision to baptize or not to baptize.
I did not want to baptize or christen my first child, Pablo. My instincts told me that baptizing my son into a major world religion was conditioning him for the rest of his life according to the norms of the Catholic shores (Spain and Ireland) he was washed up onto. Who was I to hand down to him a less and less (at least in Europe) accepted way of thinking and living. My instincts said, “Let him decide for himself when he’s older”. So Carlos and I did nothing except play and bath and feed and enjoy our first born for a year and a half.
And then we succumbed to whatever perceived pressures we felt at the time and opened up the gates of the Catholic Church to Pablo. He walked up in his white and baby blue linen suit to the Baptismal font in Malahide and had the whole church in stitches at his eyes and reactions of wonder and curiosity at the pageantry of the whole event. Of course we followed suit with the two girls. The decision to christen or not to christen had already been made.
I would say so far in our children’s religious education we have taken a lazy approach. We go to church on Sundays sometimes, we say a prayer before going to sleep, Pablo reluctantly receives a Catechism lesson on Tuesdays in preparation for his “Communion with the saints” and we read stories from the Bible when I remember to or it takes my fancy.
But there’s nothing constant about my children’s spiritual guidance. I put it down to not making it a priority when it comes to time management, not being a well educated Christian myself and therefore not being entirely convinced by the religious path itself. There are always niggling doubts about other world religions, a good God who allows so much suffering, the perception of judging others by your own standards, the past and present crimes of Catholics, Muslims, Jews and all in the name of religion.
And yet here I am again, lying down with the fatigue and nausea of the third chemotherapeutic session, no longer surrounded by all the books in my brother-in-law’s house but back in the now unfamiliar quietness of my own home (some important and instructive time has lapsed since I first started writing this post). My heart swells with a certain presence, a certain glow and I, perhaps because of my Christian birth shores, or perhaps by constantly popping up unexpectedly throughout my life in a friend’s voice, in an aunt’s book, in a sister-in-law’s words and a brother-in-law’s book recommendations, detect a persistent and loyal friend named Jesus Christ and it is He that fills that pervasive void in my life.
Once again, He has shown His face in my illness. By reading my daily devotions, referring to the Bible, discovering how other people in history have lived their spiritual experiences with God and comparing my findings with other world religions, I have come closer to the face of Jesus Christ.
I do not compare the suffering I have endured because of this breast cancer (and I quote from My Morning Prayer, ” In this world I know this pain Is nothing, But it’s mine), to that of Jesus Christ, who was pursued, arrested, tortured on the streets of Jerusalem and crucified to death. But somehow it has made we want to get to know this person more and listen to what He has said. And in that spiritual journey I read The Word and it resounds in truth.
Praying – that constant conversation with the presence of God in my heart- listening to my thoughts, which I know are sometimes just mine and very much “this worldly”, but on other occasions and especially during my illness are coming from beyond me, letting my impressions form, reading, discussing and writing are all helping me to deepen my faith, understand and carve out my spiritual walk through life.
Putting my findings into action is the challenging part and I make it my goal for the rest of my life.
My human experience has been greatly enhanced so far by a persistently continuous awakening and re-awakening to the life beyond the “porcelain”. I have found Jesus Christ, thanks to that seed that was planted by Noel and Mary forty years ago, and I have no doubt that practitioners of other religions and even atheist and agnostic people of this world, have found their own means to spiritual awakening.
In these times of massive upheaval and wars in the name of God, when there seems to be a definite trend towards the meeting of Eastern and Western philosophies, religions, medicines, cultures, civilizations, I do believe that I personally must face the challenge of understanding the Other – all that is different to me – so that one day, as society evolves, a common understanding of good and evil, spirit, God and the Son, the prophets and the saints, may be reached. That we may live in Love and Forgiveness, as laid out in The Word.
And now playing patience with myself for the umpteenth time to allay the cancer tedium, I see my grandmother Ellen’s arthritic hands laying out the cards. She was born on the eve of the First World War, gave birth to seven children during the Second World War, became a young widow and lived until she was ninety nine. She never heard of the Internet and didn’t have access to the global and collective knowledge we have at out fingertips now. All that she had (and by that ‘all’ I mean everything not only) was her own heart, her own spirit, the shores onto which she was born and the passed on wisdom of the times. Like my paternal grandmother, Mary, she had the rosary beads and the bells of the Angelas, chimed out every day over the airs before the six o’ clock news on RTE Radio 1.
“Jesus the branch, Mary the flower, Jesus and Mary be with us this hour.”
That was the first and most simple way I learnt to call God’s presence into my heart. And I think it is beautiful.
I like to think that in the long tedious hours of aging my two grandmothers found immense comfort and strength and joy, which to me represent the enhancement of the human experience that I mentioned earlier, in the presence of God in their hearts. And I am grateful that Carlos and I made the decision to plant that seed in the hearts of our children. Now all that awaits us is its constant nourishment.
In the last school I taught in Ireland, before we packed up our lives and sent them off in a ship to Madrid, I always had the sense that the principal and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye. After a prolonged maternity leave with Ellen, and before returning to work, I decided to join the staff including the school principal, on a trip to Edinburgh.
To my surprise, upon my arrival, she was the first to greet me with a very genuine warm embrace. That night, perhaps with tongues loosened by a little alcohol, or perhaps not, she proceeded to tell me a little bit about her mother.
I was both touched and overwhelmed, firstly by her reaction to me and secondly, by what she told me. So much so, that I was moved to think out a poem, which unfortunately I never wrote down. It’s been long forgotten and lost somewhere to the Universe. But I do remember the first line:
“Even God has a mother.”
I don’t think I’m a feminist because I don’t really know what that really means any more. I am a woman though and I know what that means.
Essentially, for me at least, it’s my physiology (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_differences_in_human_physiology), which differentiates me from approximately half of the world’s human population (http://www.businessinsider.com/map-showing-ratio-of-women-and-men-2015-8).
I suppose sometimes it could mean I see dirty dishes and unfolded clothes and generally anything to be done around the house first; that my instincts are tuned into the humour of whoever is around me; that I love the bit of gossip shared with other women, preferably over a cup of tea or coffee; that I get a thrill, brief as it is, out of finding something to wear that really suits me; etcetera because this paragraph could turn into a very lengthy and politically incorrect soliloquy.
My double X sex chromosome, as opposed to the XY male sex chromosome, has lead to the expression of a host of physical differences, not least the greater expression in my body of the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone compared to the male equivalent, testosterone. (Heck, they’re what’s driving this damned BC).
I’m neither qualified nor well-read enough to know what exactly makes my connection to other women so special and my connection to the men in my life, equally special but different, but I have a strong suspicion that it’s hormone-based and as a result heart-felt, also in a different way.
In recent months, I have been up-lifted by my husband, father, mother, brothers sisters-and brothers-in-law with their physical presence, driving, child-minding, cooking, supporting words of kindness and solidarity and David’s comical face gestures, which in my nauseated state have just now cracked me up! My mother, aunts, sisters-in-law, female cousins and friends in unison have raised me up with their prayers, lighting of candles, gifts, whatsapping and facebooking.
And now my sister’s hug awaits me. Three months waiting and only two more sleeps remain to throw my arms around Catherine and embrace her tightly. She, with her interminable up-beat spirit and energy, that I so adore and admire, has just finished up her busy year teaching in a European school in Belgium, packed up her car with husband and three boys in tow, driven three long days down through France and Spain and offered her whole self for her entire summer holidays.
I have only one sister, like each of my two daughters. We are separated in age only by 13 months (I think I might have been a misconception, pardon the pun, of the anti-contraceptive benefits of breast-feeding). We share the same blood and the same up-bringing. My diagnosis of breast cancer – essentially a female dominated disease – must really have shaken the deepest fiber of my only sister, expressed by our cry in unison, one evening on the phone. With those tears, nothing more has to be said or talked about. Everything else is understood. That is the connection of two women’s hearts, which are very closely bound.
In recent years, I know my sister and I have not seen eye-to-eye on certain worldly issues, just like I intuited with my former boss in the school in Ireland. But that doesn’t matter. If I can look a person, my sister, my boss, or anyone else, male or female, eye-to-eye and read what’s really in those eyes, sadness, anger, joy, peace, love, and that somebody else can do the same with me, it could be the beginning of a heart-to-heart connection, the kind that I think really matters, and which unites us all in spirit around the world.
As an Irishwoman married to a Spaniard and living in Spain, I, on behalf of all my compatriots, have undergone on too many occasions denigration for the uninspirational and bland Irish cuisine. The usual culpable dishes to warrant this affectionate slagging are fish and chips served up in a paper bag, an Irish breakfast roll and tea and toast (the deep-fried Mars Bar has been relegated by my insistence to Scottish and English tastes mainly).
I usually retort to my adopted second nation, that they might have the upper hand with variety (octopus, pigs’ snout and trotters and lambs’ intestines, to name but a few of the many Spanish delicacies that would not show up on most Irish tables from one end of the year to the next), but if it weren’t for the oil (excellent in quality as it may be) and liters of it that all Spaniards insist on pouring into every dish and the kilos of salt used to heighten the flavor of all savory recipes, Spanish cooking would be as bland as anywhere else.
And what’s wrong with tea and toast anyway?
Bread propped up on a long fork and toasted by the hot coals of a dying fire in the sitting room. The butter melted on that charred piece of toast and washed down with a sweet milky cup of tea is hard to rival. That’s the way my mother and father used to drink and eat their tea and toast and it was also the beginnings of my interest in social history and development…”What! No such thing as toasters?”
Late nights or very early mornings, me walking home, usually alone, ahead of my younger brother David and older sister Catherine, waiting in the kitchen for them to arrive. David would shortly follow and Catherine, always the last, would stumble in the front door, kick off the heels or high boots, slouch back in the carver chair and mumble,
“Put on the kettle and a slice of toast.”
The best cure for any hangover!
The gossip about who danced with whom, who got off with whom, who was sick in the bathrooms and any other relevant business of teenage years would see us eat and drink our way through rounds of toast and a big pot of tea. (I dread my children’s adolescence).
Of course we all liked our tea and toast done in a different way. David and Michael preferred their bread more toasted, verging on the burnt (suspiciously carcinogenic). But the subtleties arose with the spreading of the Flora, mind, not butter, Michael preferring his toast to cool and to extend the spread to within a micrometer of the edges and David going for the melted in version of the same.
Catherine and I were more similar, liking our butter melted and the wars began when your slice of toast popped up too well done because one of your brothers forgot to lower the setting. And God forbid that the bread would run out before you’d had your fill.
The love of tea and toast and peculiarities of preparation have continued on into the next generation. On our annual summer holidays back home in Dungarvan with my three children, my mother and father have a path worn up to Mulcahy’s (Eurospar), and what seems like shares taken out with Baron’s bread, the round white and Baron’s brown sliced, if you please.
Ellen was the only one of my three children to be born in an Irish maternity hospital. She was due on my mother’s birthday at the end of April, but she decided to keep us all waiting until the 7th of May (a Taurus baby, just to keep her Taurus mother on her toes – the feisty interactions have already begun). But once she decided to come, she came at an almighty force and speed. Having labored for a short few hours and when my begging for an epidural were met with, “But darling you haven’t even begun dilating”, I succumbed on my bed to the pain and an hour later I screamed out (to the horror I’m sure of all the young labouring mothers cooped up in the same room as me),
“I HAVE TO PUSH!”
Rush, nurses, poking.
“Oh Jesus she’s crowning! Don’t push. Can you hang on till the delivery room?”
More rushing, wheelchair, running, Carlos, bright lights, cold delivery table, one little push and there she appeared. Mary and Noel’s first grand-daughter, the little beauty, who stole my heart away right at that very moment. It was the most painful and quickest of my three deliveries and the easiest one to recover from. And the best of all, at midnight, all showered down and resting on my bed, my little baby girl sleeping by my side, the night nurse comes in and asks,
“Would you like your tea and toast now, love?”
You don’t get that in Spanish hospitals and it was the most satisfying tea and toast I’ve ever had in my entire life.
So, I decided on a whim, with all this BC mullarkey and a fortifying diet, that I might meddle with the old remedy of tea and toast and try a substitute.
Well the tea was easy, green tea of course with thyme and artichoke leaves. It cleans the liver supposedly but it tastes very bitter so lots of honey is needed to make it any way palatable. But since it’s the good unrefined mountain brand of honey which has lots of natural anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, it can be justified when weighing up its high glycemic index.
The toast was going to be a little more difficult, or so I thought, until just the other day when my faithful friend Facebook, fed me a suggested recipe for bread. I’ll only mention a few of the important ingredients to give an idea of the degree of meddling I had to undertake: toasted sunflower seed meal (I won’t even go into the details but suffice it to say that between the sourcing of them, and organic at that, the roasting and crushing of them, on the hassle scale, it falls right off at the upper end), soaked chia seeds which looked gooey but not too bad, and arrowroot powder, which nobody has ever heard of here in Alcobendas, so I, in full experimental mode, decided to replace with organic cornflour, looking very yellow and very healthy.
Maybe two hours of preparation time later and a quick 40 minute bake in the oven, out came a delicious smelling bread, which I fully intended eating with my honey-sweetened cup of green tea.
Until I cut it.
The inside of the loaf was as green as grass. I spread it with my home-made tahini and a scrape of honey. I braved a nibble from the corner and quickly reached for the honey jar. More honey please, less green bread.
It’s been sitting in the bread bin ever since, I can’t bear to put in the rubbish bin where it really belongs because of all the energy I put into it.
Now with acute nausea, after my second session of chemotherapy, one look at the green bread and I can feel its colour reflected in my face and my stomach turns even more. I turn to Carlos, serving me hand and foot these days, and my request is simple,
“Tea and toast, please…Irish style!”
Mc Cambridge’s might be interested in the recipe for St. Patrick’s Day. Serving suggestion: lashings of anything that tastes good on bread!
Baking with my mother is one of my earliest childhood memories. My mother didn’t work outside the home when we were little and of school-going age. I have many fond memories of her mending and sewing clothes, knitting school jumpers and dollies clothes, shining up silverware and mahogany, and …baking. (To name but a few).
Small enough to sit on the high kitchen windowsill, I remember peering into the big baking bowl: the creaming of the sugar and butter, the mixing of the eggs (and mind they don’t curdle), the sifting of the flour and the lining of the tins. It was forbidden to touch the bowl, to avoid accidents with the electric mixer, but the prize for being patient was the scraping out of the bowl and the licking of the spoon.
Apple tart, apple cakes, apple and rhubarb crumble, chocolate cake, lemon cake, coffee cake, fruit cake, Dundee cake, Madeira cake, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies, meringues, buns, scones, pavlova, Swiss roll, roulade, soda bread.
One afternoon in sixth year, a classmate, who came to school from Ring by bus and therefore “stayed in for lunch” with sandwiches and a cup of packet soup everyday, asked me what I had for lunch.
“Roast chicken.” I replied
“With what?”, she continued.
“Eh, carrots and roast potatoes”
“And gravy?” She was licking her lips by now.
“And dessert. Don’t tell me you had dessert.”
“Apple tart and custard.”
“You lucky b****!”
From then on, every afternoon she used to quiz me on my daily menu and I was beginning to get a small inkling about the kind of privileged upbringing I had.
The baking utensils were dropped in college but I was reminded once again when a French Erasmus student asked me for the recipe for scones to keep in her diary of baking recipes. (Now why hadn’t I thought of that?). That was the start of countless frantic calls back home,
“Mum, what was that recipe for…?”
As a working Mum, I have kept my baking minimalistic, sticking to the simplest and favored in my household: buns, scones, the staple chocolate cake for all the birthdays, traditional Christmas cake and a Spanish-influenced version of the plain Madeira cake.
It is called familiarly by my in-laws the 1-2-3 cake, by virtue of the fact that all the measurements are either 1, 2 or 3 yogurt-cartonfuls of any particular ingredient in the cake. So, it’s 1 carton of natural yogurt, 1 of light olive oil, 2 of sugar, 3 of self-raising flour sifted, 3 eggs, the rind of 1 lemon, a spoon of baking powder, all mixed up in a bowl, poured into a ring tin and baked at 180 degrees until it’s done. It couldn’t be easier and even my children can almost do it with their eyes closed. And it’s delicious with a glass of milk or a cup of tea.
I haven’t baked since this whole BC saga! And I’m beginning to miss it. You know you’re healing a little when you start thinking about other things. So thank God for baking.
Ever since I started chemotherapy, I’m on a quest to keep the body healthy, the inner tissues alkaline, the liver detoxified and the immune system strengthened. So I’m believing what I’m reading about food being your best ally. Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, organic and in season, sugar and salt to a minimum, very little meat, legumes and lots of whole grain everything.
So where does that leave my baking?
This afternoon, I’ve decided to adapt my 1-2-3 cake and I’ll cheekily call it Aunty C’s Madeira Cake and it goes like this:
1 carton of organic natural yogurt (if I had been hippy enough, I’d already be living on a farm and of course it would be home-made but I wasn’t and so shop-bought will have to do)
1/2 carton honey, 1/2 carton agave syrup (very in vogue natural sweetener with low glycemic index. Incredibly expensive and hence the half carton).
1 carton of light olive oil (not first cold-pressed extra virgin which is of course the best in salads but since this is not an olive oil cake, the light refined version will have to do.)
3 eggs, the luminescent yellow kind you get from neighbour’s chickens (I did from my sister-in-law’s in Galicia) or the free-range organic ones from the shop.
3 cartons of organic whole grain spelt wheat flour (a more nutritious version of wheat flour, which you can read about here: http://www.veg-world.com/articles/spelt.htm)
The rind of 1 unwaxed organic lemon
1- 2 Heaped teaspoons of baking powder (depending on the results of my experiment with spelt flour, which by The Internet’s account, can require more raising agent than if using normal wheat flour).
I haven’t made it yet but I’m looking forward to experimenting. I hope it will be differently delicious but still familiar enough to enjoy with a cup of tea and good company.
I have a family history of (not BC thankfully), strong, thick hair! At least on my mother’s side anyway. I was brought up with the idea that your hair is your “crowning glory” and the importance of finding a good hairdresser, no matter where you lived. My mother often relayed how as soon as she went into labour with me and my three other siblings, the first thing her own mother, Gran Ellen, would tell her to do was to go and wash her hair!
I never had as much mass on my own hair. I was of the mentality that it will always grow back. When I stop to think about it, I realize I have often used my hair as an expression of great change in my life.
Straight after my Leaving Certificate I took off to England to help out my cousin, Paul and his wife Anne, upon the arrival of their second born child, Niamh. It was my first long-term stay away from home and I have fond memories of minding Eoin, their then two year old son and lazy sunny afternoons in Himley chatting to my Auntie Eileen.
As the weeks passed by, the date for my Leaving Certificate results approached and the ensuing first and second round offers for university courses. My nerves were building up, not only for the results but also for the thought of beginning a new life as a university student. Towards the end of that summer, I went to Cornwall, accompanying Paul and Anne on their family holiday. On a whim one day, I bought a wax jacket (which served me very well in rainy Galway, where I later studied at the university), a new pair of runners and I cut my hair!
And not just a tickling at the ends. The young hairdresser pulled out a catalogue of heads and I chose the bob-above-the-top-of-your-ears-type style, with the back all cut up tightly. I went from the sweet never-been-cut-long-down-to-the-middle-of-your-back-type style to short. And I have lots of hair so the girl was a while chopping and sweeping.
My university days were happy and not so happy at times. The kind of personality I have means that any sort of a major life change takes me a while to adapt to the new reality that particular change inevitably brings with it. Once I got over the freshness of being away from home, long nights of drinking and card-playing in the college bar, the dust began to settle on long, quiet Sunday afternoons and lunch hours eating sandwiches on a park bench. I felt really alone for the first time.
I dealt with my loneliness at the time by throwing myself into my studies. I amazed even myself with my straight 1.1s at the of second year. In third year I couldn’t be bothered with all that as I ventured out to get to know a different set of people. I found my way (after long afternoons of queuing up outside “The Galway Advertiser” waiting for the published list of student rental accommodation) to a beautiful house in Nun’s Island with a big downstairs sitting room converted to a bedroom and looking out onto the road. When the landlady liked the look of me, contrary to her own son, who had the previous year with his friends wrecked the place, she accepted my deposit and I was brought into the back kitchen. There I met my house mates for the year, two German girls and a Dutch guy, all on an Erasmus scholarship for the year.
A whole new world, beyond drinking and the usual college antics was opened up to me. My long lecture-skipping sojourns with David Bowie and life philosophising began. It saw me just barely scrape my way through third year and hang-on by the skin of my teeth to graduate at the end of fourth year. Thats’s when the real change was to take place…
Life, living, sorry…earning a living…reality. And how did I react? I shaved my hair off! Real-blade-zero-Sinead O’Connor style.
Luckily my hair did grow back to its chestnut thickness and I trained to become a teacher and have always had a job. I did source a good hairdresser in Dublin, one who could manage the wild bush and bring it around to some sort of glory on a bi-yearly basis. I had it beautifully styled with pearls and rose buds for my wedding and I always had it washed and groomed for my brief stays in the maternity hospitals.
But the short style has come back to haunt me! It has chosen me this time though. I hadn’t planned on the pixie look any time soon. But the pixie style I have. With the movement of my right arm restricted since the mastectomy, I can neither properly wash nor style my hair. So the practical thing to do was to cut it. Another big chopping and cleaning morning at the hairdressers. My brother David said he wouldn’t have minded a bit of it!
It didn’t dawn on my to forewarn my children about my impending new look, although I had discussed some of the effects of chemotherapy with them. Ana-Maeve wept inconsolably in my lap the day she arrived in from nursery and couldn’t find the usual image of her mother. But she’s used to it now and keeps asking me when it will be long again.
“After your birthday,” I tell her and she’s satisfied with that.
Part II of the Hair Saga will be the falling out, the bald-cancer-badge style. It’s not really a big deal but it’s a bigger deal for me than I thought it would be.
I am beginning to notice a curious twenty year cycle to my life, which leads me to wonder how I’ll look when I’m sixty. My hair will probably be pink and spiky.