Despite the mind-boggling advances in modern communications, sometimes traditional and old-fashioned wins the day…
Until about two years ago, I would have considered myself to be a fairly OK kind of mammy. I did the best I could to keep everyone’s body and soul together in a make-it-up-as-you-go kind of way.
I don’t know if there was ever a term for my style of parenting – I pre-date the yummy mummy label (and don’t think I’d have fitted it anyway), and I post-date the traditional Irish Mammy – the control freak who attempted to run everyone’s life and refused to believe the day would ever dawn when her children didn’t need her.
Definitely not me. (Well… I don’t think so anyway – maybe the offspring would disagree).
Sometimes, I’d even get a little bit smug and allow myself a glow of self-satisfaction that I’d steered well clear of that model. My ad hoc approach seemed to suit.
Then, something happened that threw a serious and unexpected spanner in the works. On a spring day in 2009, my eldest daughter told me she and her partner had the wheels of the emigration process in motion. We sat in my kitchen with gallons of tea and she told me the plan. They had the application forms filled, the various fees paid and, fingers crossed, they’d be away in about six months. They were heading for Canada.
She was a bit worried, I think, about my reaction as her younger sister lives in Scotland and, now, if she defected, myself and her daddy would be home alone.
I wasn’t in the least fazed. I was even happy for them. It seemed to make sense. With the SS Ireland taking on water and sinking fast, it seemed like the sensible thing to do. And anyway, whereas she lived nearby, she hadn’t actually lived at home for years. The nest had been technically empty for ages.
We sat with our tea and discussed it. Emigration is really no big deal anymore, right? Compared to the lot of the emigrant of yesteryear and the misery of those they left behind, the modern scenario is really no big deal, right? Sophisticated communications, cheap flights, can-do attitude. Easy. Thanks to all that, the world is a smaller place. No more American wakes. And besides, we’ve outgrown all this weeping and keening and clinging to our children. We’re not those awful, control-freak Irish mammies of bygone days. If fact, we hardly even get the ‘mammy’ label anymore – I’m occasionally ‘ma’; more often ‘mum’ and, thanks to the ubiquity of American television, I’ve even been ‘mommed’ on occasion.
And with that label change came a change of image – modern mum is out there working and playing and only makes wheaten bread as a therapeutic means of de-stressing. We’re a new generation who have encouraged our children to be brave, to believe in possibilities, to make it happen. We’ve shrugged off the plaid shawl. With the news of the impending emigration, I was supportive and encouraging. We’ll Skype and text and poke each other on Facebook. We’ll instant message and follow each other on Twitter. I’ll zoom down your street with Google street view. You’re emigrating? Bon Voyage. I’m fine with it.
When it actually came to pass in October of that year, my reaction floored me. There is obviously a dormant gene of some description that activates when your child crosses an ocean. There’s something deep in the psyche that triggers the Irish Mammy thing. And, whereas it’s really quite alarming, it’s also oddly fascinating. It’s as if something alien takes you over. I find myself speaking in the old-fashioned vernacular of my grandmother’s generation which is really quite bizarre. I find myself using old-fashioned words and phrases I’ve never used in my life before. ‘Wisha they’re all gone from me now’ and ‘Is this what we reared them for?’ Things like that. At times, I’m dangerously close to ochón agus ochón ó.
If I had a plaid shawl and a rocking chair, I think I’d know instinctively how to use them to great effect. I’m reverting to type. I think I’ve been possessed by Peig Sayers. Some sort of weird reincarnation-type thing is at work here.
And rather than alleviating the loneliness and sense of bereavement that hit me like a hammer, the sophisticated communications technology merely enables and feeds the awakening mammy monster. There’s just too much information really. The modern, up-to-date bit of me is googling Edmonton and finding out all about it; and the newly activated Irish mammy gene is making me react and speak like a hysterical old biddy. On the day she arrived in Edmonton, the temperature was -36C. Before I knew it, I was wringing my hands and wailing ‘Wisha God look down on her. She’ll die’. Something strange within me started clucking and fussing and had me reaching for my phone to text her and tell her to wear warm underwear. As if she wouldn’t figure it out for herself. What am I like?
And, peculiarly, neither do the sophisticated technologies fully satisfy the need to communicate. We Google chat almost every day and proper phone chat on Saturdays. We tweet with photos regularly and write on each other’s Facebook walls. Even with a 7-hour time difference, there is hardly a day that goes by but that we don’t connect in some way.
But, despite all of that sophistication, I don’t actually feel I’ve made a real connection until I do something more traditional; something totally personal; something that I know will make her smile.
That something has turned out to be the traditional ‘care’ package. Good old-fashioned post. I’m a familiar sight in my local post office as I stuff Barry’s teabags, ‘proper’ chocolate and Tayto into a shoebox, wrap it up and lug it to the counter.
The postmaster even helps me now and gives me practical tips for wrapping a secure package. He’s a legend. He lends me permanent markers to address it and keeps a roll of parcel tape at the ready in case I’ve missed a few critical corners. I write a traditional note to pop in with the bounty even though any news contained therein will be totally out-of-date by the time she gets it about a week later. We’ll have mulled it all over online well before then. But still. I like to write it and I think she likes to get it. It feels right. It feels like a proper connection. It feels ‘mammyish’. I like that.
Mind you, traditional though the care package may be, it too has its modern facet – I can track and trace its progress online. I even have an An Post app on my phone to make it all the more convenient.
I know when the expertly wrapped package leaves Stradbally, know when it clears the transport hub in Heathrow, and know when it’s under scrutiny in Canadian customs.
But despite any injection of modernity into the old-fashioned process of posting a parcel, that process too brings out the inner beast of mamminess and the vocabulary attaching thereto. ‘God be with the days when you could buy decent brown paper’; ‘there’s nothing beats a proper length of butchers’ string’. Wash my mouth out.
Almost two years on, the technology is advancing yet further. In addition to all the Facebook, Twitter and online chat malarkey, we’ve signed each other to Google+ and, with duelling iPhones, our Skype capabilities have increased and improved.
But the traditional communications tool wins the day. Hands down. The most recent care package arrived yesterday and the tweets and emails have been flying. Four thousand or so miles away, the Tayto have been attacked, the chocolate has been nyomped and the supplies of favourite toiletries that you can’t get in Canada have been restored.
But more than that, we’ve connected. Properly. It mightn’t be the most modern way but, for me, it’s the best way. I have come to accept that, despite the willingness to embrace all the new technology in the world, what’s in your heart, your soul and your psyche will out.
I’ve faced it. The cap has been deemed to fit so I’m wearing it.
I am an old, Irish biddy mammy lamenting the scourge of emigration – and the lack of a decent bit of brown paper. Wisha… ’tis what’s for a person.