She looked up from her chair by the window, as though she’d just awoken from a pleasant dreamless nap when I walked into her room overlooking the lake. She was fully dressed, her hair washed, looking radiant. At 91, she still cut a dash. ‘Happy New Year’ she beamed, drawing me into a warm, heart-felt hug, surprising me by her strength and her awareness of the date.
‘I brought you a little present Mum’, I said. Her eyes twinkled, a little girl smile. I opened my bag, carefully setting out two, too-dainty Waterford crystal glasses that I’d picked up from her house a little earlier. They sparkled in the pale winter sunlight that reflected off the frantic little waves dancing endlessly across the lake outside.
She edged a little closer, my co-conspirator, as I reached into the bag again, rummaging for the little bottle of Baileys I’d bought in McInerneys on the way to the nursing home. ‘Ooh, that looks nice’ she cooed, eyeing the festive bottle, anticipating the molten delight inside, ‘I don’t know when I last tasted Baileys, must be years. Dad used love a glass when he was in the nursing home, do you remember, how he’d lick his lips afterwards, he really looked forward to his night-cap and a chat before bedtime, he’d love to be here with us now, listening to all the news.’
I poured a measure into each glass, the scent of coffee and chocolate and whiskey immediately filled the room, banishing the other smells that mark a long-term stay home, conjuring up a party atmosphere, excitement in the whiff. ‘Slainte’ I said, ‘Happy New Year’ she replied, ‘To absent friends’, I toasted, as we both raised the glass to our lips, sipping the café-crème delight, a burst of delicious flavours and memories suddenly all conjured up together in the delicate glasses. She took a tiny sip, delighting in the taste, savouring the Baileys in her sore mouth, loving the salve and the change, smacking her lips and her eyes together, all smiling. She sat back against her pillow, replacing the glass carefully on her day-table. She’d hardly drank a drop, I noticed.
‘I haven’t seen you since your trip to New York. Tell me all about it, what did you do, who did you meet?’ Though it was almost two months ago, and I’d told her a half-dozen times already, I proceeded to tell her again of the weekend I’d spent visiting friends in Manhattan, the business function I went to, the chilly weather, the Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings.
‘Sweet Potato, they must be nice,’ she said, drying her lips with a tissue, ‘I cannot imagine what a sweet potato tastes like, must be odd putting butter and salt on something sweet, you wouldn’t do that to a strawberry, or a bowl of trifle.’ She took another tiny sip, delighting again at the treat. ‘Did you have a nice Christmas?’ she asked, ‘were the girls home? Is everyone ok, at home, in your house?’ Her face changed, as a tiredness came over her. ‘Yes, we were all home for the holidays Mum. We had a lovely Christmas. The girls really enjoyed meeting you on Christmas day at Mary’s house, after the Christmas swim at Blackrock, they thought you looked great.’ She pressed her head back against the pillow, concentrating, as though waiting for a small pain to pass.
‘I don’t remember Christmas. I don’t remember meeting your lovely girls. Isn’t that terrible? How are her children? Is everyone ok?’ She looked so vulnerable, so innocent and fragile, needlessly worried. ‘Yes Mum, everyone is fine, thank God.’ She relaxed, tried another sip, again, hardly a drop, but nonetheless delicious.
‘Swimming on Christmas day! Did you do that? The water must have been terribly cold, brr! ! love my room here, its so warm and cosy, you don’t even hear the wind here and look’, she pointed out the window at the aurora of pastels the sunset was creating, ‘look at the gorgeous colours, purple, pink, silver, the blues, the reds, all changing and matching, like a fashion parade. I love this time of day, I love this view, the colours are so striking, every evening is different, it is so nice here.’
She gazed out the window, lost in her reverie, in her thoughts. I looked at her face, so soft and beautiful. She was silent, lost in the moment, content, as she drifted away to another place, hypnotised by the kaleidoscope the sunset on the lake was creating. Inside her gaze, I imagined her remembering her life, as a young girl, a beautiful woman, a nurturing mother, a businesswoman, a wife, a mum, a grandmother, a great-grandmother.
We sat together, silently, comfortable, my hand on hers, surrounded by the scent of the Baileys and the fresh flowers my sisters had brought. I wanted that moment to last forever, to remember this peace forever, our shared happiness, imprinted in my mind, soothing my heartache. It struck me it could possibly be one of my last shared sunsets with Mum. For a moment, I was incredibly, profoundly sad. We sat, and looked and listened. A flight of crows passed by the window, silhouetted in the sunset, heading for the nights roost. A few cars passed, their lights replacing the sinking sunset’s glow.
It seemed like an age before she looked up again, strong again, gazing intently at my face, wordlessly reassuring me, startling me. ‘What day is it?’ she asked, breaking the silence. ‘Today is the 5th of January, mother, and tomorrow is Little Christmas.’ ‘Little Christmas’ she repeated. I raised my glass, motioning her to do the same. ‘Lets have a toast Mum, a special toast for today, for you.’ She raised her tiny, almost-full glass. We clinked. ‘Cheers’ she said. ‘Cheers Mum. Here’s to Nollaig Na mBan’. She looked at me, quizzically, ‘Nollaig na mBan?’ ‘Yes mum, you know, Nollaig na mBan. Women’s Christmas, remember, the day the women of the house get to put their feet up and their men get to wait on them, hand and foot, for the entire day, doing all the house work, making the dinner, a day off for the women, just for them, a big thank you for all their hard work over Christmas.’
She looked back down at her glass and raised it up, excited now. ‘Imagine that? Women’s Christmas, a day off, just for us? Whoever would have thought of that? What a smart idea. I’ll certainly drink to that! Slainte! To tomorrow! To Nollaig Na mBan!’
I went to leave. ‘You’ll come again tomorrow, won’t you? We have so much to talk about and I want to hear all about that swim and tell your girls to be careful out there, in Dublin, in London. Tell them to enjoy the present moment, who knows what tomorrow may bring.’ ‘I will Mum, I will, love you Mum, till tomorrow then, love you.’