By Maureen Lowndes.
This is a fictional short story. I read that in Ireland female suicide is highest in the 45 to 74 age group. I also read that there is a high rate of alcoholism among older women. This information inspired me to write the story.
Older working-class women with very little education usually stayed home when they got married. They were housewives and often looking after elderly parents and other needy people in their circle, and they were economic dependents. Many neglected their own needs and their own health to look after others because that used to be the culture, especially in Rural Ireland. And women were trained to put themselves last. Now many of these working-class women are either separated, divorced or widowed living alone with no education and very little money.
This is very sad. This must never happen again. Girls need to be raised up to be strong educated women who are economically independent and good strong role models for their own children.
Nan smiles as she looks at her three little ones who are after coming in from school. She sees little Cathal with his lovely wavy hair and little Shane with his lovely smile and little Bridget with the red hair and lovely freckles, a real Celtic beauty she is, just like her Nanny on her father’s side. “She will break a young man’s heart someday” whispers Nan to herself.
Nan sobs as she thinks of poor Jim “God love him, he gets up early in the morning and he works hard as a labourer to support us all and has nothing left for himself after a hard week of slogging on low pay. The work is boring, back-breaking and the dust gets in on his lungs, the poor man” and she wipes away a tear. “Gosh” she says “time is running fast. I better make dinner for Jim and the kids”. She sends the kids out to play and she roots in the cupboard to see what she can make for dinner. It will be two days until Jim brings home the wages. She finds a few potatoes and a few carrots in the press and a few free-range eggs that she got yesterday from Jim’s mother. She is dreaming about nice juicy steak as she peels the vegetables and puts them into saucepans and hops them on to the old gas cooker which is on its last legs.
Suddenly she jumps up from the armchair, wipes her eyes and shakes herself. God she was in cuckoo land again, she is forever in the land of cuckoo. She looks around her at the empty sitting room. In tears, she wishes that she was not dreaming. She wishes it was real and that they were all with her again. She longs for Jim as he shouts at the door “I’m home Mammy thanks be to the good God and his Blessed Mother”. She longs to hear little red-haired Bridget skipping around singing, a lovely little singer she is. She longs to pick up clothes from the floor and wipe snotty noses. She longs to hear little Shane and little Cathal kicking the football around the back yard. She can see Jim kicking the ball with them and showing them how to kick with the left foot. She sees his face beaming with pride and he said “sure they might kick a ball for Laois someday and wear the blue and white with pride”. Poor Jim made a vow that his children would have a better life and would not have to beg for the scraps from the rich man’s table like he had to do. Little he thought that his shining stars would have to emigrate because there was nothing for them at home.
She still hears Jim talking about his own daddy God rest him and how he fought to put the black and tans out of our country. It would break Jim’s daddy’s heart to think that the Ireland he fought for was full of high up gangsters who made their wealth by taking advantage of the poor, the disadvantaged and the downtrodden in the Island of Saints and Scholars where the poor counted for nothing. But the only scholars that mattered were the scholars belonging to the wealthy houses. It was one thing to be oppressed by the British but it was totally evil to be kept down and oppressed by one’s own.
Nan longs to hear her Jim talk about his love for his family, Ireland and the G.A.A. but that can never be because poor Jim went to Heaven fifteen years ago, and hardship caused the lung disease that took the life out of him. Shane and Cathal and their two modern wives are six years in Australia now and beautiful Bridget with the red hair is nursing in Manchester and married to an Englishman. In a way Nan is glad that Jim didn’t live long enough to see the Celtic Tiger brought down and murdered by rogues and swindlers and the up ya boya, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch your kind of gangsters, the brown envelope boys. Jim was a fierce honest man and always ready to help people in trouble. But his honesty and helpfulness made him vulnerable and a target for the exploiters and the tricksters. Sure poor Jim thought 50 Euro a day was great money and if he heard about bankers earning millions a year he would die from the shock. And if poor Jim knew that his children were forced to find a living in another land his heart would be shattered. Poor Jim.
It is a long time since she was called by her real name of Margaret Mary. Her parents called her Margaret Mary after St. Margaret Mary Alacoque who was very fond of the Sacred Heart just like her own mother was. When she became a housewife back in the day she stayed at home as a stay at home wife. Housewife means married to the house, wife of the house. All poor and working class women stayed home back then when they married and became wives of the house. Some of them got by on valium and more begged the Sacred Heart for some bit of relief from drudgery and poverty. After the births of her children she lost her name of Margaret Mary and she became Mammy to her children, her husband, her parents, her in laws, her extended family and all the neighbours in her little rural parish. “It’s a grand day Mammy” old Bill would say when he met her cycling to mass on a bad bike wearing her going to mass clothes, her one and only good costume and her one and only pair of high heel shoes. When her children married and became parents Margaret Mary was no longer Mammy and Nan became her new name.
Nan lives on a small miserable pension now. And she thinking to herself “all the women who worked as teachers and civil servants have great pensions now and poor poor me who got up early in the morning and baked and cooked and washed and scrubbed and scalded all the days of my life has nothing now only a miserable little pension”. She is looking at the old clock ticking on the wall. Her life is a lonely one, her parents and parents in law went to their maker years ago. She has no family left in her little rural parish except a few cousins who never call.
She rarely hears from her boys, her babies, since they emigrated. It is ages since she got a letter and she longs for a letter. With tears in her eyes she thinks about her grandchildren in Australia. She has not seen them since they went to Australia. And she never met the last little boy at all because he was born in Australia. She has not seen her beautiful red haired daughter and her family for four years. “They must be too busy to write” she thinks to herself.
She used to leave on the yard light for a couple of hours every night in the hope that some kind person would call to see was she dead or alive but that never happened. But the local Garda did call once to warn her about crime and that rural crime is getting worse and worse every day. She would never answer her door to anyone now. She doesn’t want to be strangled by some thug looking for her money even though she has no money. She doesn’t bother with phones, she never did like gadgets. The rural transport bus brings her to town on Fridays and she gets her miserable pension, buys her few bits and bobs and her bottles of whiskey. And that is her only contact with the outside world.
Every day Nan waits for the postman and cries when she sees him driving past. She never pours her whiskey until after postman time because she wouldn’t want the postman, if he did call, to see her with drink in her. It’s nearly postman time now and after that she can have a drink. She can’t eat very well because the whiskey takes up a good bit of her pension but she has made a promise to God that if one of them writes to her soon she will quit the drink. “I rared them well on very little” she whispers to herself “and all I want is just one letter, just one letter please God”.
Brian the postman is driving up to her house with the electric bill which comes every two months. He hates coming to her house because he knows she will ask him has he a letter and he will have to say no. The only post she ever gets is the electric bill and the bill for the household charge. And she gets the odd card at Christmas and the odd letter from the pension people and the medical card people but nothing from the precious babies that she rared so well. And she is only a number to the pension and medical card people. She thinks she hears a car at the gate. She looks out and is so excited to see the postman. “Maybe this time please God” she whispers to herself.
Brian pulls in and Nan runs to meet him. “Brian, Brian have you a letter” she screams with hope in her eyes. Brian explains that he only has the electric bill but he tries to reassure her that a letter will come soon even though he doubts it. She walks back into the house with tears in her eyes and locks her doors. She pours a large glass of whiskey on the rocks. She sits down and slowly sips. She continues to fill her glass until the bottle is empty. She opens another bottle. Suddenly her eyes light up and she has a beaming smile. She sees a glorious light and Jim is in the light. “Jim, Jim” she cries “oh my God it is you that’s in it Jim and you look so well”. She thinks she hears Jim say “come to me now, the pain is all over, all over, come come, it’s all over now, and you will be at peace now”. Smiling she stretches out her hand to her beloved Jim.
Two months later the postman has another electric bill. Nan did not run out to meet him this time which was strange. The postman contacted the man who drives the Friday rural transport bus. He said that Nan stopped using the bus about two months ago and she didn’t bother to come out when he blew the horn outside her gate. The bus driver said it was none of his business and he assumed that she had made other arrangements about her shopping. Brian the postman decided to call the Gardai. The police had to break in and they were not prepared for what hit them. The stench was awful and they found poor Nan and she as dead as could be in the sitting room with the electric light on. It turned out that alcohol poisoning killed her. Alcoholism caused by the pain of loneliness, abandonment and feeling worthless after all the years of baking, cooking, washing, scrubbing, scalding and getting up early in the morning.
Her funeral was delayed because of the post mortem and waiting for her babies to come home. The two sons and the daughter sat shocked and white faced in the front of the church. Fr. James gave a sermon about loneliness and how it was important to keep in touch with people living alone. He said that Margaret Mary had a beautiful soul and was a brilliant wife and mother back in the day and she helped everyone. He called her by her name and not Mammy or Nan or a number. She was Margaret Mary a person, a human being with feelings.
Fr James said that our modern society has no time now for the woman who dedicated her life to caring for her parents, her husband, her children, bachelor farmers and everyone who needed help. She was not involved in the economic world and her unpaid labour in the home means nothing now. “May the Lord have mercy on the soul of poor Margaret Mary who at the end of her life became an invisible women living in poverty. May she finally know love and companionship in the mansion he has prepared for her” said Fr. James.
Her shocked and embarrassed children arranged soup and sandwiches in the local hall for the mourners. “She was a good poor soul, pity her children didn’t give a damn about her” said old Bill. “May the Lord have mercy on her” said old Tim “she gave her all for her husband and family, a great woman, a wonderful woman who got up early in the morning and baked and cooked and washed and scrubbed and scalded all the days of her life”.