The Archaeology of Mammies

Sitting in a high chair in the kitchen as a raw infant. My mother trying to get me to focus so she could gently spoon some mashed potato into me. Trying to distract me by pointing up at a high shelf where the fancy crockery was. To a larger-than-life garishly-coloured monstrosity of a milk-jug in the shape of an Olde English Town Crier. White rolled wig. Big crooked nose. Mouth open wide and and in mid roar.

Maybe there was someone else there, or maybe she had the radio on – but for some reason she let out a large loud belly laugh, right in the middle of a mouthful. Startled and not knowing or expecting this, I thought it was coming from the Milk-Jug Monster and promptly burst into tears.

That was the end of the Milk Jug. Except its still at the back of the ‘good cabinet’.

A thick heavy tupperware container with a round hole and flip top lid. Sludgy 70s brown. My mother used to make ‘special drinks’ for my sister and I with it. A frothy diluted blackcurrent milkshake of sorts. She would spend ages shaking mine vigorously, like a cocktail, just ‘to get it right’, before pouring it into a plastic beaker. She held competitions to see how fast we could swallow the whole lot. One day, my sister beat me to the kitchen and grabbed my ‘special drink’ instead of hers. She took a few gulps and then spit it out in disgust. My mother, worried that I wasn’t eating enough, had been putting a raw egg into mine.

That was the end of the ‘special drinks’. Though I found the tupperware container at the back of a press a while ago.

Her, walking me to playschool around the corner from my house, past gateposts and garden hedges. Teaching me my numbers by reading the front doors. 15 doors from my house to playschool. After a while, me – insistent on being a big boy now – started to go by myself. Years later she told me that she had always followed. Crouching furtively behind 15 gateposts and garden hedges until she saw me get there safely.

My first year in primary school. A light green plastic lunchbox packed with plain sandwiches and always a small treat tucked in beside them. Me, swapping lunch bits with my best friend John who lived in one of the 15 doors. After a while, there was two treats in my light green plastic lunchbox, every day – one for me and one for John. Purple foiled chocolate swirly things.

John stopped coming to school after a while. I brought his treats home, uneaten. She put them in the giant cream mixing bowl in the corner press under the kettle, the one she used to make Christmas cakes with, and said we could save them up for him until he came back. One day I woke up to the street filled with cars parked every which way, on paths and grass verges. Outside in the front garden, I watched lots of people streaming into Johns house. She brought me out one of his purple foiled chocolate swirly treats and taught me a new word. Leukemia.

I haven’t seen the giant cream mixing bowl for years. But its probably somewhere in a cupboard.

Scrunched up, loose-leafed, dog-eared memories, folded back on one another and shuffled out of sequence. Yellow plates of Mammy dinners piled high with mince and onions. Fresh sliced pans and sticky jars of marmalade with a black cauldron and cat on the label. Flour covered tables and left over apple tart trimmings. Green plastic bottles of warm 7-Up and bowls of yellow goopy custard when I was sick.

Falling asleep, face down into my dinner, with chicken pox. Her, half-dragging me back up to a dark bedroom make blacker by spare blankets over the curtains. Her black and white portable telly in my room for background noise. Too weak to get up and change to one of two channels, I had to watch Wimbledon for days. I can’t stand Tennis as a result.

Her despair at a bare unlit hearth on an icy cold Christmas Eve because I was afraid and insistent that Santa wouldn’t be able to come down the chimney if a fire was lit. Later, sweeping out the hearth every morning as one of my chores. Setting the next fire to be ready, with old newspapers spread across the fire guard to encourage combustion. I’d catch her sometimes, stooped over the hearth, head crooked, reading a bit of the paper on the fire guard that had caught her eye.

White plastic bag handles that cut off circulation to stinging hands in winter. Her bringing me to the local shops so I could help carry back the messages. Me carrying more and more as I got older, until she was left with nothing. Her protesting, so I’d give her the one with the lightest items. Jumbo toilet rolls. The look of outraged approval on her face.

Her telling me to put a finger on a battered heavy metal industrial iron, as a child, to see how hot it was, and me never doing it again with the pain. Later, me, aged 11, standing over the giant ironing board in clouds of starchy steam, still barely able to lift the iron. Her teaching me how to press clothes. ‘A man is not a man if he can’t look after his own shirts’.

I still have the burn scar on my finger. And I still iron all my own shirts.

Sunday drives and trips to historical sites throughout the country. Taking in monasteries and mottes. Gingerly scaling fences to investigate overgrown graveyards, so as to show me where her people lay. Feeling her way through half-forgotton childhood memories and weeds until we came upon faded headstones half-washed clean of family names and dates. Her filling in the blanks from memory.

Coming to meet me on research trips out west. Her brown rain jacket and floral green wellies. Ambling into the pages of the Book of Armagh with me. Traipsing across seventh century patrician landscapes with an archaeological lens. Up Ferta’s and down Holy Wells. Around Ringforts and Barrows and into open air chambers of stone age tombs. Her obscure fascination with ‘put log’ holes in medieval walls and detailed engineering questions I couldn’t ever answer.

A field in Mayo. Her examining a prehistoric standing stone with an ogam inscription. Cows in the next field starting to take energetic interest at our presence at their scratching post. Her wariness at the prospect of bulls. Me, telling her not to worry, that I had been there before and that the next field was completely enclosed by hedgerow. A bullish cow leading the rest of them through a hidden hole in the hedge and heading our way. Turning to warn her, she already gone and halfway to the field wall. Catching up with her as she skimmied up and over by herself.

‘Son, I didn’t get to be my age hanging out in fields with fucking bulls’.

—–

Flicking through the TV in her room looking for background noise. Trying to get her to focus so I could gently feed her. Measuring out her last days in spoonfuls of shepherds pie and raspberry ripple. Trying in vain to get her to drink from a plastic beaker. Worrying I wasn’t getting enough into her. Until it didn’t matter any more.

Excavating her room in the middle of the night before the undertakers brought her back in the morning. Before the street filled with cars parked every which way and lots of people would be streaming into the house. Discarded hankies and secreted sweets that had fallen down. Redeposited layers of tissues and stray pills. Books and remote controls. Twisted headphones. Assorted bed socks. Scrunched up lottery slips. A mechanical monstrosity of a hospital bed that wouldn’t fit out the door on its side until I screwed the wheels off in frustrated exhaustion.

Stopped at the door of a church, a priest swinging a thurible. Helping to carry the coffin of the woman who carried me. My own early medieval funeral procession halted at an ecclesiastical boundary. She never did like the smell of incense.

Standing at her grave. A deep clean trench that I hadn’t dug and wouldn’t backfill. The look of horror on the face of the funeral directors when I said I was handy with a shovel and wanted to bury her myself. They made sure to take away the spoil-heap as a precaution in case I brought my own. Health and safety.

I never fully appreciated votive deposition in prehistoric and early medieval homes. The sealing off of the hearth and heart of a household. Of old warm stones gone cold and dark.

I do now.

The archaeology of mammies. Of my mammy.

Still teaching me, terminus ante quem.

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