Unsung heroes

Today was my granny’s birthday, and feeling sad she’s not here anymore, I got to thinking about how much I missed of her when she was still around.  When she was younger, fitter and more lucid, she was too busy asking me about me, (or, more importantly to her,  what my husband did and what exactly was a computer anyway!) than telling me much about her own past life.  Admittedly, she was quick to boast (quite justifiably) about being one of the first female doctors in Ireland, and married to a man who came from a small farm in Donegal to become the moderator of the Presbyterian church.  I remember her telling me about the Belfast blitz, and many funny tales about her work, like when she asked a lady how long her father had been ill when the patient lying in bed was actually her mother, or the time she taught herself to drive a car in a day so she could do the job as a locum GP (she had to ask a man at her patient’s house to reverse it for her though!)  There were so many laudible things about this little lady, and yet, painfully, she passed her last years sitting, mostly alone, in an old people’s home.  The visitors steadily tailed off, and my granny, previously sociable, ever admirable, was frequently forgotten.

ruths granny and Samuel

I wonder how many wonderful, praiseworthy older people sit by themselves, their many achievements overlooked, as they’re called ‘love’ and ‘pet’ a thousand times more than ‘hero’.  Because that is what they are:  they lived through turbulent times, they broke down previously unassailable boundaries, and now, they’re belittled, and unheard.  How many inspiring stories do they have, now silenced by neglect and loneliness?  How many lessons are we missing by not taking the time to listen?  As the third age extends in years and numbers, these questions need to be taken seriously.  And not just because this will be us as well one day.

The one thing I am sure about is, any time I have sat down with an elderly person, I have walked away feeling blessed, and humbled.  There is frailty of body, but rising above that, there is often unparalleled strength.

Pat feels he’s…

…not a very happy man.  He’s been doing this job: getting up at 4.30am, sorting letters, and then trailing around delivering them, for forty long years.  There was a time when he thought a lot about doing something else, but then it had become too late. Too late to fill out application forms, go back to college, or create a CV that was more than half a page.  In fact, you could fit his work experience onto a postage stamp.  Ha ha.

He doesn’t know why people expect him to be cheerful, when he’s up so early, and walking the same route, day in, day out.  When there’s a special needing signed, he takes pleasure in ringing the doorbell that wee bit too long, or banging the letterbox unnessarily loudly.  Especially in the well-to-do street.  He resents the polished cars, the immaculate lawns, the massive houses.  They tell a story of a life he’ll never know, and often the ones that do live it make it painfully clear that he’s only meant for one purpose: to be their postman.

Of course, he’s seen it all – sometimes more than he’d like.  But now, nothing is shocking.  It’s all much of a muchness to him after all these years.  He has stuck to the same route now for a long time:  not because he likes it, but because he could do it in his sleep, which is as good a reason as any.

The tower blocks are gruelling, as using the lifts takes too long, but at least he gets rid of half his load of post so early on.  Then it’s all level ground, with a lot of walking up and down long driveways.  Some of the front gardens are open, and a tempting short-cut is there.  But, after one transgression and a nit-picking resident, he has to walk on by, and dutifully stick to the path.  Then, at the very end, there’s a hill.  Recently, he’s been finding the climb more difficult, and the post-bag heavier.

It is at that point, every day, that he curses Postman Pat and the myth of the ‘very happy man’.

Although, maybe if he had a van to get around in, and a tiny pile of letters, maybe then he’d be more cheerful.

Maybe if he had a black and white cat…

The first holiday

He’d never been on a holiday before, which is funny, seeing as he lives in a caravan.  They moved about a lot, so nowhere was officially ‘home’, except for the two-roomed mobile house they always slept and ate in.  His mum and dad were good at some particular things, and they tried to make a living out of convincing people to buy their wares: cleaning driveways, altering dresses, and other odd-jobs.  People were sometimes won over, but only once, which is why they had to keep trying new towns.  Tim didn’t mind – he’d never known anything different, and neither had his parents, or their parents before them.  But now that they were on their first holiday, he began to wonder.

His younger brother and sisters were happy to mess around in the muddy play-park beside their caravan – not even as good as the ones they’d played on before, but it didn’t matter.  A swing is a swing, wherever you go.  But somehow, Tim was drawn further away.  Without telling anyone where he was off to, (not that they would have minded), he pulled on his battered green wellies, and tramped over the rough car-park, across the road, and down onto the beach.  It was a fairly dull day, and the sea was gray, but something about the whole place made Tim grin.  He kicked the gravelly sand, keeping his hands stuffed into his pockets, and started to whistle through his teeth.  Spotting a bigger stone, he hurled it into the water, and then, followed it.  Without taking off his boots, he waded in, letting the waves tease him with their advance and retreat.  After some time, one wave caught him out, and all of a sudden he felt the water rush over the top of his boots.  He didn’t look down, or step back.  He just kept on paddling, thinking to himself, this might be the best holiday ever.


It’s bin day on Tuesdays, but if you weren’t used to the ways of our street, or if you hadn’t watched Harry every week, you’d think it was on a Monday.  On Monday mornings, out the blue or green bins trundle, at least eight of them, pulled along by Harry.  He does his own house first, then Mrs Geary’s, then numbers six, eight and sometimes ten.  They’re all lined up like soldiers, not one out of place.  It’s quite satisfying to see, if a little disturbing.  Sometimes, I’m shamed into taking mine out early too, and make sure it’s straight with the pavement, perpendicular to the hedge, handle facing out, just like Harry’s are.

There was nearly a crisis one day, when the brown bin lorry passed by on a Monday.  Perhaps fooled into doubting it themselves, the men lifted Harry’s bin, and emptied it, the only one already out.  Oh the consternation that followed.  Harry came out of his house, took in the passing bin lorry, his now empty bin, and scratched his head.  Back into the house he went, still looking up and down the street.  A moment later, he emerged again with his indulgent wife.  Soon both of them were peering into the bin and looking up the road.  I still don’t know who was more puzzled: Harry, his wife, or the bin men.  Even I had a moment’s self-doubt, despite being the omniscient observer.

I have to confess, there is a temptation to beat Harry to it, and see his face when he realises he’s not the first.  But then, I remember:  this is his life now – all paid jobs have passed, all his children have flown the nest, and all he has to carve meaning into his life now are the regular things he does, like driving out to get the paper  at 10.30, or raking up the leaves on his tiny square of grass in the autumn, or walking in to visit his older neighbour, or taking out and bringing in the bins.  This is what makes him Harry now.  It is all that I see of him, and I love him for it.


It was the end of the holiday. Wasn’t planned to be, but she had had enough, and that was that.

Apparently, he was exasperatingly obtuse for not realising that it was the end until she’d actually told him. It had been a trying week; the weather had been unchangeable, on the wet end of the spectrum, and determined to stay that way. They’d thought that the pair of them could stay in the caravan, with the kids in the tent.

The first day, Peter had put the tent up, thankfully one of those ones that don’t need poles or pegs, but just magically appear. His son and daughter tried it the first rainy night. For an hour. So, for the next four nights, there had been four people in a cramped, damp space, that really only sleeps half that amount.

At first, they’d looked hopefully for the clouds to blow past, and reveal some blue. Then, they’d played Scrabble, Old Maid, Boggle and even charades (once). All out of plans for further entertainment, they’d started to squabble. At that point, Peter had dragged everyone out for a squelching march up the nearest hill. It was at its summit that Bess had had enough. Or so she told him the next day. He had no idea at the time, but he should have had, or so she told him the next day. These unspoken, unclarified thoughts and feelings still baffled Peter, ten years in.

Somehow, he just never picked up on the signals: did a sigh really mean she was at the end of her tether, or was she just tired? Was a tut just a second of disapproval, or was it years of it compounded? Why did she blame him for not doing some task immediately she thought of it, when she had never asked him to? Was virtually spring-cleaning the entire house before going on holiday for a week really necessary? And why was she so furious with him for not getting that?

These were the questions running round Peter’s head as he walked along the road, hauling the undismantled pop-up tent behind him. He had forgotten it in the rush of packing earlier, and instead of driving the five minutes back down the road, Bess had tutted and sighed him out of the car, to make the puzzled walk alone.

No doubt, he’d get another row about not folding it down, but for some reason, he wanted to get her back, show her he wished she could be as straightforward, and predictable, as a pop-up tent.

Pink shoe, pygmy shrew

My first memory of it was when I was 7 or 8.  Some time before the conversation, I had discovered a little pink shoe washed up on the shore, and thought it was something worth telling people about.  One evening, I was listening to my cousins chatting about their discovery of what I thought was a ‘pink shoe’.  “Oh!” I cried “I found a pink shoe too!”  Everyone rolled about laughing, as they explained they had seen a ‘pygmy shrew’, not a ‘pink shoe’.  Not a good moment, and one I still cringe over, 26 years on.

You would have thought that, by now, I would have learnt to catch myself, and consider before making an error like that again.  But oh no, the experience of one obtuse moment has taught me nothing.  Travelling in the car with my nieces a few months ago, we were playing ‘I spy’.  Thinking I could easily outwit an 8 year old and a 10 year old, I spotted a yellow cloth on the dashboard.  ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with s.’  As the minutes ticked past, my smugness changed into confusion and then, seeing my sister smirking, dread.  “Are you talking about this – the chamois?” she asked, “Sure that begins with ‘c’, not ‘s’.  More laughter, even worse because I had a degree in French.

I get words mixed up sometimes too – it has taken me a long time to remember that the series with Enoch Thompson is ‘Boardwalk Empire’ not ‘Boulevard something’.  My husband still has to clearly say ‘Olbas Oil’ to me when I’m mumbling ‘all-bas-all’ or something similar.  This too, he finds hilarious.  The funniest thing of all is that for three of the words I cited here, I checked them on Google to make sure I was right this time.  It is amusing, and yet, there is still a seven year old in me who hates being seen as obtuse, and wishes I’d never opened my mouth.  I do still think it’s cooler to have seen a single pink sandal than a pygmy shrew.  So there.

Digging in heaven

Twice this week, I have had an extraordinarily happy time doing something very ordinary.  During those two times, I have remembered people who aren’t here any more, and felt closer to them.  What was I doing that created this magic?  I was gardening.

Earlier this week, my mum, my daughter and I dug in potatoes.  As we did it, mum told me how her father had showed her how to do it, and she passed on his tips to me.  I was only 11 when he died, and had very few vivid pictures of him.  But as I watched mum digging, I remembered seeing my papa pushing a wheelbarrow round to his vegetable patch in Donegal, and walking with his tall staff round the lane to supervise a bonfire.  Somehow, doing what he loved made him alive to me again.

Yesterday, we came home from my husband’s granny’s with a tray of tiny pansies.  They had been sown in pots by his granda, who died last November, and were sitting waiting for someone to plant them out.  As I put them in our flower bed today, I felt deeply sad that he wasn’t here to do it himself, but so privileged to be able to do it for him.  Every time I pushed the soil around a little flower, it felt like such a joyful, right thing to do.  And he too, felt closer.

We’ll never know, on this earth, how near we are to heaven and to those who are already there, but somehow, this week, in the garden, it came close.

Fields, Vienetta and moon bases

How can there possibly be a link, I hear you ask.  Well, the thing they have in common is a lack of vision.  Mine, that is.

So, we’re having people round for a Chinese.  What to make for dessert, I wonder.  Why not Vienetta, my husband asks.  First, I shoot the suggestion down in flames, then, not coming up with anything else, I give in, assuring him that it’s a terrible idea.  Turns out, everyone else thought it was a great option for post-take-away dessert.  1-0 to him.

Our son arrives home with a letter from school.  His P2 class have been given the project of designing and making a house.  So I’m thinking shoe-boxes, cardboard tables and chairs.  Husband says, let’s make a moon-base.  Shaking my head, I quickly cut out windows and doors in a shoe-box for my daughter (but really as an emergency back-up when the moon thing goes belly-up).  Meanwhile, the boys cover things in tin-foil and draw aliens.  Slowly, I came to accept that it was a done deal, but every time I looked at it, I fretted.  It was just too risky.  I was still in doubt when I carried it into school, meeting other mums with mansions, garden swings and even a house of sticks for the three little pigs!  Oh dear.  Wrong again, Ruth.  Samuel came out, still proud, telling me that even the headmistress loved it.  2-0.

And finally, the field.  The most outrageous, daring suggestion of all.  Musing over how to invest (or spend – it’s debatable) his redundancy money, Ryan begins to seriously consider buying a field.  For what?  First it was to put a shed in, then to plant trees.  What about the children’s education I shriek.  Apparently this may well be a better investment.  I’m in disbelief.  Then, the thought is shared with at least five different sets of people.  Did they agree with me, as I expected them to?  Oh no, the vote was unanimous: they wished they’d thought of it first.  An out and out victory: vision 3, caution nil.

Clearly, it’s time for me to take my Vienetta and eat it.

The taco’s getting cold.

Which means:  stand up, turn the oven on again and put the taco back in, because I don’t have the energy to do it myself, but really don’t want to be accused of nagging.  Under some self-scrutiny, it seems that, most of the time, there is an unspoken current of discourse running through my life.  A current that is presenting my husband with continual dilemmas, my family with ignorance, my friends with alienation and myself with frustrated loneliness.

It is an inherited trait – which is funny, because you would think if I have been on the other side of it, I would realise how completely futile and irritating it is.  But no.  The problem is that the times I have abandoned the sub-text it has been a terrifying, guilt-ridden experience and hasn’t generated the outcomes I had hoped for.  The only occasion that I can recall feeling satisfied with my honest communication was when I wrote it down and read it out without any spontaneous qualifications or apologies.  But that was to a neutral observer, and not actually the real perpetrator.

So is unassertiveness a form of cowardice dressed up as consideration?  I’ve always prided myself on my sensitivity towards others, but I’m beginning to think that perhaps I am actually under-estimating them, and cheating them out of ways to know me and love me.  Maybe, my sensitivity needs to go one level deeper, and I need to begin tuning in to the goodness of those around me, and the things they long to offer to me.  Maybe, that way, the relationships in my life will never be cold again.