I have lived through a whole lifetime of emotions in the last seven days -joy, helplessness, gratitude, guilt, relief, loneliness, deep sadness, not necessarily in that order.
During those seven days my eight siblings and I sat by our mother’s bedside, taking turns to watch over her and hold her hand, as she gradually slipped in and out of consciousness and finally passed away gently in her sleep as dawn broke on April the 17th.
Mummy was in her early eighties and had been a widow for 45 years. She was a woman of strong faith and was so looking forward to being with Daddy once again. She consoled us all by whispering that she was not frightened of death. As she lapsed into a coma we longed for her to open her eyes just one more time, until my sister reminded us of how disappointed she was likely to be if she woke up to find us all peering anxiously at her, rather than meeting Daddy with his arms open wide. During the long week with my brothers and sisters, there were several other comic moments, and even some laughter interspersed with sadness and grief as we reminisced and swapped memories.
With hindsight those seven long days and nights were some of the most precious of my entire life. How fortunate were my brothers and sisters and I to be able to spend that time uninterrupted, with the extraordinary woman of courage and fortitude who brought us into the world, and whose wonderful cooking brought joy and solace to family and friends for over eighty years.
Our home was always full of the delicious smells of cooking. Among many things, Mummy taught each and every one of us how to bake and roast, braise and stew and the joy of sharing food and sitting around the kitchen table with family and friends.
Mum loved to cook and was determined to feed us all lots of nourishing, wholesome food. For many years she had a thriving kitchen garden ….she kept hens, fattened chickens for the table, we even had a house cow, an ill-tempered black Kerry who produced wonderful milk which we drank by the glassful. The cream that rose to the top was poured over tarts and pies and the sour milk used for soda bread. Mum had a wonderfully ‘light hand’ and baked brown soda bread virtually every day until recently. Even after she had a stroke about five years ago, she would still make bread with her ‘good hand’. One of my earliest childhood memories is of watching Mum baking bread, she tied on my little apron (which she had made for me), I’m sure I was much more of a hindrance than a help, but she always would give me a little piece of dough to make a little ‘cistín’ which I proudly baked beside her traditional loaf in the old Esse cooker. When my brothers and sisters and I ran up the hill from the village school, particularly on Winter days, we’d be trying to guess what Mum might have for lunch (we called it dinner then!) Would it be Scalloped potato with bits of kidney, a bubbly Beef or Lamb Stew, Bacon and Cabbage with Parsley Sauce, Stuffed Pork Steak with lots of Apple Sauce, or if it was Friday, a big bowl of Colcannon or Smoked Haddock. If the CIE bus from Dublin to Cork had dropped off ‘fresh fish’ at Nancy Freeman’s shop in the village, it might even be our favourite – a fillet of plaice. Roasts were a Sunday treat. No matter how modest the meal there was always ‘sweet’, stewed fruit from the garden, rhubarb, gooseberries, blackcurrants, apples …. With Birds Custard or cream, but would she have made a bubbly rice pudding with a golden skin on top, or a pie or most thrilling of all, a steamed sultana or jam pudding?. I only hope that we hugged her enough or at least stopped to stay thank you for the many long hours she spent making and baking and sewing and growing for us.She and my eldest brother William brought me down to Ballymaloe in June 1967, to start my first real job. She loved Ballymaloe and was so happy that I had found another mentor in Myrtle Allen, whose philosophy she so admired.I was 14 and at boarding school in Wicklow when my father Dick O’Connell passed away. My youngest sister Elizabeth was posthumous, born a month after my father died. One can but imagine what it must have been like to have been on one’s own with nine children at the age of 36. Mum who adored my father, was heartbroken, but eventually picked up the pieces and began to learn about the business, put all of us through school and university and when we had flown the nest, started to cook in our own family pub The Sportsman’s Inn in Cullohill, Co Laois. So many people looked forward to stopping off on the Cork to Dublin road, for her chicken pies, scones and crab apple jelly, apple or rhubarb tart with soft brown sugar and cream. On her 70th birthday she decided to ‘hang up her apron’ in the pub to do some things she hadn’t had time to do in her busy life. She took woodwork classes, joined a literature group and started to paint in oils and watercolours under the tutelage of Jock Nichols. She also got to play more golf and at 74 years of age won the Captain’s Prize in Abbeyleix, she also won Irish Independent golfer of the month in the Druid’s Glen, earning her the title of Tiger Lily in the Irish Independent.
Mum loved to picnic, there was always a picnic basket in the boot of the car, we picnicked for breakfast, lunch and tea, at home and abroad, and on one famous occasion we had Christmas dinner on top of Cullohill mountain. She loved that mountain and greatly enjoyed hill walking. At 70 years of age she climbed to Cnoc an Aifrinn, the highest peak of the Comeragh mountains, with the rest of us puffing and panting behind her.
Her spirit lives on in every picnic we share and every skill she taught us, and in the smell of Cullohill Apple Tart and Mummy’s Sweet Scones. Elizabeth O’Connell, nee Tynan, born October 18th 1925 – died April 17th 2008.