Molly Furey lost her mom in her teens. Now ten years later, she pieces together a portrait of her mother through stories of those that knew her…
I’m always amazed at the proximity of the extraordinary to the ordinary. How one decision, one realisation, one mistake, can transform a regular day into a significant one. I often think of this in negative terms, the fatalist that I am (brakes failing in a car, that kind of thing). But there’s a positive inverse to these thoughts that I don’t always consider (the brakes working perfectly well in your car, for example).
I was thinking about this recently when a friend of my mum’s told me about a moment she had with my mother that, for her, encapsulated their friendship. “We had gone for our walk and were sitting outside Divino’s having a coffee”, she recalled. “The sun was shining on us and Moira turned to me and said, ‘aren’t we so lucky?” And I’ll never forget it. Because we were. And we knew it. We were so happy in that moment, everything was perfect.”
It’s not often that we stop to take stock of those moments of complete normality, routine, habit with our friends. And yet, it will be those moments – or the feeling associated with them – that we will wistfully look back on in time, not the big birthdays, the hen-dos, weddings, or any other grand gesture that we load so much importance on in the moment. When my mother’s friends try to describe her to me, the kind of person she was, the confidante she was, the fun she was, it is those more quiet, unassuming stories of her that they return to.
My mother passed away when I was 13, so I’ve spent the past ten years getting to know her only through other people. Losing her at the cusp of my adolescence meant that I never quite knew her beyond her simply being my mum, so I depend on her friends to build up details of her that I flattened out as a child. For what it’s worth, the process is not always the violin-backed, teary exchange you might expect. Instead, it’s a lot of laughing and a lot of “go away with that” because I usually end up hearing stories that she probably would never have told me if she was still around.
“Oh Jesus, she just loved to have a party”, her sister Joan told me recently. They lived together in a one bedroom flat on Leeson St during their twenties and, in Joan’s own words, “they just let the hair down” – judging by some of the stories to come out of that flat, this is a severe understatement. “I remember coming out to the living room one morning to find Moira asleep on the spare mattress on the floor, face down with her hand still on the bottle of champagne”, she screeches between gasps of laughter. “Pissed as a bard, and she still had her hand on the bloody bottle. She’d kill me for saying this to you.” I know I am supposed to paint a saintly image of her seeing as she’s not here to defend herself, but this seems too wonderful and scandalous an image of one’s own mother to omit in the name of keeping up appearances.
In a similar vein – and verifying Joan’s claim that they’d sooner “spend money on shoes, clothes and piña coladas than the central heating” – Jane, who my mum worked with in Smurfit Paribas Bank in the 1990s, often talks of the days when they shared a credit card. Yes, you read that correctly. Two twenty-something-year-old best friends shared a credit card. “We were up to every trick in the book”, she admits. “We made the most of it and shopped in Pia Bang which was just woefully expensive.”
She was, according to every friend from each of the five decades of her life, always looking for a good time and usually responsible for what I remember her calling “a good old belly laugh”. Her childhood friend Eilish always has sore cheeks talking about the pranks my mum played in school and the giggles they failed to stifle at the back of class. Sometimes they were simply too busy chatting to notice the world around them. “She had this yellow rally bike and I’d sit sideways behind her and we’d chat the whole way home”, she recalls. “But one day she ran into a parked car”, she bursts out laughing at the thought of it. “We were just talking so much, we didn’t even notice it and we fell off the bike. Oh, we laughed. We laughed so much.”
Her sister Joan tells me stories of the pair of them staying up late on Saturday nights with the latest edition of Bunty and spying on their housekeeper Mary who, to their shock and glee, had a boyfriend. “We used to sit up on the windowsill when she’d go out meeting the boyfriend across the road and watch her kissing him and everything, we couldn’t believe it”, she screeches.
“I miss that laughing. You know that really silly laughing, when you’re not supposed to laugh?”, asks Eilish. I reckon anyone who was lucky enough to experience a close and consistent friendship throughout their childhood knows exactly the kind of laughing she’s talking about. The memory of that kind of laughing is special not only for recalling that unbridled, at times unhinged, sense of joy, but also because of the knowingness it represents between two friends. The kind of giddy knowing that says: I know how to push you over the edge, I know how to get you in trouble. “We just knew each other. There was no explanation, there just wasn’t. It was the most natural thing to me in the whole world”, says Joan.
It’s amazing to hear these decades-old memories because they’re stories that neither my dad, nor my brothers, nor other close friends can attest to. It’s a version of my mum that none of us knew but one that was clearly beneath the surface of the woman she was to us.
In fact, the more I’ve spoken to my mum’s friends, the more I’ve come to appreciate the crucial role of “witness” that our friends play in our lives. They can confirm, deny, and even help to embellish the stories we carry from our past. They were there. They know. “She’d remember things and I now think how I’d love to ask her about this or that, did we do this, where were we when..”, Eilish explains.
A friend of mine refers to the women in her life as “little diaries” because, as she puts it, she entrusts a part of herself to each of them. Each friend draws out a different facet of her personality, a different area of her life and serves as a repository for it. Reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost recently, I was taken back to this idea. Solnit writes: “The people close to you become mirrors and journals in which you record your history, the instruments that help you know yourself and remember yourself, and you do the same for them.” Your friends are a record of who you are and who you have been. Talking to my mother’s friends is as close as I can get to reading her diary.
“When I knew she was so sick, I very selfishly thought, who’s going to love me the way that Moira loved me?”, Eilish says. “Who will ever know me the way she did? I feel very lucky to have had that love, I do, I really do.” These two piercing, heartbreaking questions carry within them just about everything I need to know about my mother. V.S. Naipaul wrote that “love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love”. In other words, loss is the inverse of love. The making of memories is the inverse of experiencing grief. All of these memories that I’ve been lucky enough to hear, attest to the abundance of love my mother shared in her lifetime.
When I first started asking for these stories of my mother, I was trying to find her. To find out some unexpected detail about her that I never knew and that maybe I could even see myself in. But it didn’t quite go that way. Her friends’ descriptions of her weren’t surprising. To be fair, they’d be terrible friends to suggest she was anything other than one in a million. But I didn’t find out anything I didn’t truly already know about her because she was as fun, loyal and generous as a mother as she seemingly was as a friend.
That’s not to say I didn’t find her in some other way. This was the surprise of it all. I found her in the laughs that her friends choked through in anticipation of a story’s punchline. I found her in the brows that furrowed trying to remember some school friend’s name (“Moira would remember this”, they all said). And of course, to be unashamedly sentimental, I found her in the eyes that teared up as they recalled these memories with so much love and, in turn, so much grief.
In the middle of writing this, I got a call to say that one of my closest friends had been in an accident. My mind immediately raced to the worst case scenario. This feeling that these women had been attempting to explain to me, I suddenly felt in all its ferocity and perplexity. Words could never do justice to that racing, anxious thrum of the heart, that prolonged panging which was for me, fortunately, calmed by the eventual news of my friend’s safety and recovery. But for these women, the pang endures, perhaps not with such a visceral, raw strength but with an ache all the same.
So I am going to hug my dear friend when I get to see her again and tell her I love her, and then we will discuss world domination or whatever it is that we usually talk about. And in time, the fear and dread of this week will pass into recollection and we’ll be able to make some more memories together. Some more plans, some more laughs. And should you be needing us, you will find us sitting somewhere, preferably in the sun, sipping some coffee, and talking about just how lucky we are.[/restrict]