Anne Marie is our first born, fourteen months older than Joseph and five years older than Pauline.
She looked so like her dad when she was born I referred to her as a ‘him’ from the moment I first saw him/her.
She was a quiet child, never at ease in the company of strangers but with a mind of her own. She was bright and intelligent and we, as proud parents, had no concerns about her readiness for school and her capacity to learn but we were also aware of her reluctance to throw herself socially into the fray.
So it was with no little confidence that I took Anne Marie for her Pre-School Assessment. All went well until we came to the Picture Recognition Test.Everyday objects were easily identified, but soberly, with no hint of a smile. Then came the picture of a teapot. Granted it was a slightly elongated teapot but a teapot nonetheless.
Anne showed no reaction.Wheedling and coaxing by the doctor was to no avail.Interfering mother even attempted to elicit a response but our little angel had obviously taken the Fifth Amendment on this one.
Meaningful looks were exchanged between doctor and nurse and I could tell what they were thinking:
‘Tut, tut, both the mother and father teachers and not a teapot in the house!’
As we left the room under a small ‘teapot – shaped’ cloud, I asked Anne, who was more composed than I, if she had forgotten the name of the object in the last picture.
‘Oh no, mummy,’she replied unhesitatingly. ‘I wasn’t sure whether it was a teapot or a percolator and I didn’t want to be wrong.’
Professionally, this taught me a great deal about children and formal assessment and no little amount about our firstborn .
Thirty three years on, Anne remains bright, intelligent, uneasy in the company of strangers and with a mind of her own. She chose to journey into adulthood by a much more tortuous route than her two siblings.That journey in itself is another story which sounds highly improbable, stranger than fiction even, but true. As I think of it now, I realise how desperately hard we prayed for that miracle to happen.
When our grand-daughter Sarah Marie was five, she did a painting which depicts a house within a garden. A bright, yellow sun shines down from a blue sky showering large chunks of sunshine onto the house. This is a picture full of a child’s joy at the happy events which were unfolding in her young life. That was ten years ago.
Now they have recently moved to their second home. The large chunks of sunshine are supplied by Sarah Marie, twins Rebecca and Caitlin and the irrepressible Ciara.
During the past year walls have been painted and repainted, flooring nailed down and carpets laid. Curtains and covers and bits and pieces have been lovingly chosen to decorate colour themed rooms enough to satisfy the most discerning of little clients .
Thomas is now nearer to his place of work, the children have put down tentative roots in their respective schools earning themselves many plaudits into the bargain and only Anne remains unsettled because she is in a new neighbourhood and consequently in the company of strangers. And now this .
She is, thankfully a driver and distance to her is no object. Before my retirement, Anne and baby Ciara would see the others off to school then head down the motorway to Papa’s to take him on his various errands .
One day was supermarket shopping (Hugh having studied all the bargains and ‘Bogofs’ beforehand) Another day was Pension Day at the Post Office taking in a visit to Johnnie the Butcher’s for some choice cuts and chit-chat. If it was Friday, then it had to be Hamilton and Marks and Spencer and indeed ‘Marks and Spencer’ were easily three of the earliest words spoken by Ciara.
Of course many of these trips invariably culminated in some market research (involving soup, scones and plants) being conducted up the Clydeside.
Any alterations to the arrangements involved lengthy phone calls between Anne and her dad in order to reorganise shopping days and as a consequence, re-think dinner menus. These were high powered talks, for Hugh did not take too kindly to any change in his weekly routine.If only these changes were still our great and only concern.How could we have made such mountains out of molehills. It affronts me now to think that we did.
It was never a problem for Anne to reschedule her own routine to collect her dad’s prescriptions or take him to or from his hospital appointments. In fact it was Anne who brought him home from the last clinic he attended just nine days before his heart attack and cardiac arrest. As Anne remembers it, her dad was quite elated when he left the hospital for he had told his consultant about the intermittent breathlessness and tiredness that he had been experiencing of late and like a relieved penitent, he felt much the better for his ‘confession’. He was told that the routine clinic tests would show if there was anything that required further investigation and he would be recalled. He wasn’t. One week later, at our insistence, Hugh made an appointment with his own G.P.,taking the earliest suitable appointment. It was for the following Tuesday – five days after his attack. How ironic that this dear man who so conscientiously kept appointments and was fastidiously punctual, should be the victim of such bad timing .
Even in our distress we remembered to inform the surgery that Hugh was unable to keep his appointment – a cancelled time slot that could be given to someone else – that’s what Hugh would have said. Isn’t that only common courtesy? And wouldn’t it have been more than common courtesy by a Medical Practice, to acknowledge the death of a faithful and punctual client by making a brief call or by sending a letter or card of sympathy to a grieving family? Should this not be standard practice? I must make an appointment (if I can get one in time) to ask the doctor.
Since her dad died, Anne has continued to make her almost daily journey to be here with me and to be all , and more, that anyone could ever expect a daughter to be. She is my driver and driving force, my comfort and my comforter and, I am happy to say, a willing companion on the ‘Nursery Trail’. I know that when she returns home with even more plants and shrubs from yet another field trip, Thomas’ heart sinks to his well worn gardening boots. I know that you recognise that this is Anne’s therapy too, Thomas but look how you are both making your garden grow. God and Hugh will be pleased.
Anne is late. She is her mother’s daughter in this respect and in so many other ways, her late father’s.
Anne arrives and despite the rain falling outside she brings four chunks of sunshine indoors with her.The house comes to life with simultaneous greetings of ‘Hiya, Nana !’ The explosion of noise signals that my space has been well and truly invaded, my private grief intruded upon, my self – pity and my pitiful thoughts disturbed. I am being hijacked, thank God.
Hugs and kisses all round – well not quite – Ciara exercises her right as a ‘terrible – twos’ tot to be totally trying! This upsets Anne who desperately wants Ciara to really appreciate how her Nana feels. Anne, darling, it’s alright. Rebecca and Caitlin are anxious to know if we are going to the cemetery again. A pang of guilt makes me catch my breath. What am I doing to these children dragging them off at every opportunity to a graveyard! Ciara is already excited by the prospect. She starts to chatter about going to water papa’s flowers and how we wont see papa because he’s in heaven with his two angels. The twins think that we should go to the nursery first so that we can buy more flowers for papa then go to the cemetery and ‘can we please, please walk round the old part of the cemetery this time. We’d really love to.’
Oh God ! I’ve turned them into The Adams Family!
Sarah Marie likes the idea of going to the nursery first – she’s starving and wants her toast – oh and of course ‘we could get more flowers.’
Right up until the time of Hugh’s burial, I fought the image of myself as a regular visitor to his grave. After all, I had taken very much to heart the Gardener’s greeting to Mary Magdalene on her visit to the tomb: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ I’ve often wondered if it really stopped Mary going back again and again – in the hope of hearing her name being lovingly spoken just one time more ……. if only…………..
On Ciara’s first visit to the cemetery she said, totally unprompted, ‘Oh, look, Nana. It’s wonderful!’
Yes precious, it is – and when I am there, I wonder about a great many things.
I look at Rebecca and Caitlin, their pretty faces earnest with pleading. You would never guess to look at them that they are twins. They are not the same size, they do not have the same colouring but they are both nine and both very clever indeed. School reports are inevitably glowing and each week brings a new accolade to one or both of them. The fact is they love school and school loves them not just because they are clever but because of the children they are. Lest I paint a picture of two little angels I am happy to acknowledge that they can be both mischievous and downright naughty which exclusive behaviour is reserved entirely for their parents and big sister.
‘Is this fair?’ ask Thomas and Anne in exasperation. Seems fair to me………
We head off to our favourite nursery. I sit in the front of the car while the four children arrange themselves safely in the back .There is no complaining or fighting for space. Sarah Marie sits next to Ciara who controls operations from her ‘rear – gunner’ baby seat. When she feels her power slipping she simply wallops Sarah Marie gently with her feeding cup or delivers her an affectionate nip. Sarah Marie takes it all on the chin, sometimes literally, and uses the wisdom gained from experience to re-establish calm. So we all agree to play our recently learned rhyming game which pleases Ciara and puts her back in the driving seat .
On arriving at the nursery we head straight for the coffee shop where everyone is satisfactorily watered and fed. This has set us up nicely for the leisurely stroll among the trees and bushes, the heathers and the ferns, the grasses and the wonderful greenery that has become our obsession. The profusion of blooms tumbling from the overflowing baskets and the assorted colours and sizes of the pots and planters are indeed a sight for my sore eyes. Now what will we buy today, Hugh?
‘The bird’s here again, Nana !’ The children are delighted and Anne cannot contain her glee . I catch her meaningful look and I smile a little smile.
‘Oh, look, Nana, there’s an amphora!’
I scan the vast array of plants .
‘No, Nana, it’s not a plant, it’s a Roman pitcher.’
Time for a lesson here but not for the children – for the teacher. The girls have lots to tell and I am happy to be told, no pressure, no talking, just listening. And so we wander up and down the leafy lanes at our leisure chatting and choosing, deliberating and deciding and pretending that everything in the garden is rosy.
Time passes and purchases are made: another pot or two, more evergreens for the border and some flowers for Papa’s grave, which is our next stop.
I like it here. (But why do you persist in coming? Why do you look for the living among the dead?) I like it here because it is another kind of garden. There is grass and there are trees and flowers. And birds. There are always other people here tending their own little plot. I walk among the graves reading the poignant inscriptions and scanning the stones for names familiar to me. I picture their faces – some so young – and mostly I see them smiling. (Is this how they are or how they were? And where are they now?) I try to imagine them in a ‘place’ and I always see a garden …...Eden perhaps ……
The flowers are looking splendid. We remove one or two faded blooms and our cargo of bottled water is sprinkled over the little rose tree and the various potted plants from the nursery. The cut flowers from Giovanna, from Jimmy and Bernadette and from Patsy and Kenny seem to be everlasting. We find that another little plant has been placed beside them. There is no card. The children arrange their latest purchases carefully so as not to obscure the small crucifix which bears Hugh’s name. So many willing gardeners for such a tiny plot.
We stand back and admire our work. A singing bird sits just a little way off.
Hugh, we still have a stone to choose for you. Now what would you like? I allow myself a little smile as I hear, in my head, my dear friend Marie’s sharp tone :
‘Maureen, stop it now! You are talking to the grass !’
We take a different path and the children lighten my mood.
‘Why has that grave got a candle sticking out of a Christmas pudding, Nana?’ Why indeed.
‘Why would anyone want to have flowers in the shape of a toilet seat, Nana?’ Why indeed.
The children continue to be openly curious and delightfully candid as we proceed with our tour.
I suppose it is a kind of ‘History cum Mystery Tour’…..
‘Oh, look, Nana, there’s another amphora. Are there Romans buried here too?’
‘I’ll need to do a bit of digging to come up with the answer to that one!’
‘Oh Nana !’
And I can picture Hugh smiling.
..to be continued…