Last Day at the Strand
“I didn’t know we were coming here,” my mother accused.
“Neither did I; I just decided as we drove along.”
I parked the car facing the Atlantic so that my mother, who was eighty-three, could sit and admire the view of Galway Bay if she didn’t feel up to much walking.
“Remember this morning, Mam? When I asked you if there was anywhere in particular you’d like to go, you said, ‘I’m easy, I don’t mind.’”
“I’d have said, no, if I’d known you meant here.”
“I thought you liked this strand.”
“I do, Jean, but…,” my mother replied, peering out to sea as if there was something she couldn’t fathom across on the Clare shore.
I switched off the engine.
“What’s wrong with it all of a sudden?” I queried with little interest as I rolled down the driver’s window. Aah… the rumble of surf; the tang of seaweed; cool, moist air on my cheeks; salt on my tongue.
“Oh, nothing,” my mother said, opening then shutting the clasp of her handbag. “It’s not that.”
The tide was half out. Up on the pier, two small boys tugged at their father’s hands as they looked down at the rusted trawler that had reinvented itself as a tourist attraction.
“You’ve never objected to coming here before.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“But it does matter, Mam. You have to learn to be assertive, state your needs.”
“I just said I…”
“Where do you want to go so?”
“Well…” she said, pulling a black kid glove from her bag. “If you want my opinion, reading the papers by the fire is a much more pleasant way to pass a dreary, possibly drizzly, Sunday afternoon.”
She was right: the church spire in the village behind us was like a magnet for dark clouds.
“Ok,” I said, placing my hand on the ignition key, “would you like to go up to the hotel for a drink instead?”
“Not really,” she said, nodding across at the Clare hills as if suddenly they were her confidantes. “We might as well make the most of it now that we’re here.”
I sighed, pulled the key from the ignition and sat back. I thought: I don’t want to be here either; I could be having a good time elsewhere, sans mother. The man I currently fancied, two-timing fiddle player, could be ringing my doorbell at this very minute – not likely. My romantic life would thrive – hardly – if only I wasn’t lumbered with mother’s fortnightly visits.
“Look at that,” I said, staring at the woman parking her red van much too close to my side of the car. “Loads of vacant car spaces and what do they do, park right on top of us. Ignoramuses.”
“They’re not thinking about us,” my mother said, quietly.
They did look animated, engaged with each other – happy even. How come a farmerish woman, fifty-five at least, with an alcohol-puffed face, and what looked like, a grubby, shapeless sweater, had a young man with her – even if he was a redhead. She probably had sex a few times a day. I was younger – forty five – better looking and certainly better dressed. Why couldn’t I acquire an attentive, amusing boyfriend?
“Odd looking couple.”
“We’ll walk the pier, hmm?” Mam said, as if she had decided it was best to be agreeable and humour me away from the enemy in the car next door.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Remember the last time? You got dizzy and had to keep looking down at your feet to make sure you didn’t trip on the buckled cobbles? We could just walk on the strand.”
“No, I’ll stick with the pier. The sand would ruin my new walking shoes – they’re real suede.”
My mouth opened: I couldn’t believe she hadn’t brought her runners.
“They make my weekend bag too heavy,” she said before I could scold her. “And anyway they wouldn’t fit in.”
“Why didn’t you wear them so?”
“Oh I wouldn’t walk to the station in those.”
She snapped her handbag shut, pulled on her other glove.
My mother preferred to walk to and from the train. Des or Linda – my brother and sister – were always willing to drive her. But Des (solicitor cum heavy drinker) was liable to drop her at the station a minute or two before her train left; that stress was just not worth it to my mother. And Linda would subject her to a rundown of all the duties – three kids, pharmacy and golf – she’d had to juggle to give mum the lift.
“Besides,” she said, “I didn’t think I’d need them, you never said.”
“But you always bring them and we always go for a walk – weather permitting.”
She pulled up her coat collar, draped her scarf across her hairdo, knotted it beneath her chin.
“We won’t be too long will we?” Her black fingers tapped her lips. “I don’t want to miss my train.”
I opened my door making sure it tipped the shiny red van. I pushed my shoulder against their wing mirror too but the woman simply continued laughing with her young man.
“I’m sorry I was abrupt earlier,” I said as Mum swung her legs out of the car.
“Oh that,” she said and tucked her arm through mine.
That morning, in my kitchen, my mother was having difficulty squeezing herself onto the bench behind my gargantuan, second hand, oak table. She’d remarked: it’s as well you live alone – there’s no room for anyone else. I‘d retorted that I’d dump the lot – table, plants, urns, books – for an hour with someone who didn’t bore me. Her face had crumpled. Perhaps it was then I determined on a walk by the seashore where the slap of waves, the wind rouging our cheeks and the wraparound horizon would blow away our irritation. We’d forgive each other: I – her – for insinuating I was incomplete without a family; she – me – for depriving her of the peace of knowing I was set–up in life, that’s to say, married.
I gripped the railing at the head of the pier. I was intent on blocking out images of my mother waiting for me in the car – she’d had her stroll, now I was having my time communing with nature. The wind was from Aran. A dark shower stalked the Atlantic beyond Black Head, but the Burren shone stark white in a whim of sunshine. I breathed deeply. This was a perfect spot to collect moments of full awareness. I’d harness these later – through visualisation – to help me or my assertiveness students, relax. I swayed with the syrupy, cocktail of seaweeds slapping the granite far below my feet. I breathed slowly. Suddenly, those two small boys were standing alongside me, splashing stones they’d collected somewhere, into the sea.
“I won! I won!”
I thought: bugger it, no moment of transcendence today. I turned and began strolling back towards the car. I’d tried, that was positive. There was no mistaking it: my mother was not in the car. For a split second, her shawl thrown over the passenger headrest confused me. The couple were in their red van but looked as if they were dozing. My mother was not on the beach either; nor was there any sign of her over by the sleek, new, limestone seats. Where was she? Where was my phone? In my backpack, in the car! A ramrod woman in blue, all-weather gear, swish-swashed towards me. She blew a whistle and a red setter bounded across the beach towards her. A high achiever on a Sunday stroll, I guessed, and looked away. That’s when I spotted Mam crouched at the bottom of the steps down to the beach. She was doubled-over, her forehead almost touching her knees.
“Mam, are you all right?” I called, running, struggling with the strain up the backs of my calves where the sand was deep and sugary.
She raised one palm like a traffic cop. In her other hand, she held a man’s handkerchief and with firm, slow strokes she wiped her eyes the way a nurse might clean a difficult wound.
“He was sitting over there,” she said, her hand shaking the hanky as she pointed behind me. I looked around, saw only wind-drifted, humps of sand hugging the old wall.
“He had his shoes and socks off, his trouser legs rolled up.”
“There’s no one there.”
“Supporting his back against that wall.”
“But it wasn’t his back at all, was it? His poor lungs, Lord love him.”
I knew then that she was talking about my father who had died of lung cancer when we were still kids. I thought, is she losing it?
“I heard a newspaper rattling in the wind and I looked up and saw his hand slapping the pages. I heard him curse, ‘shite’, clear as day.”
I knelt in front of her. She was snug inside her mohair coat and silk scarf but her grey eyes were forlorn, yet agitated like the sea.
“I never minded him swearing on his holidays.’’
“You’re ok, Mam. Sand plastered against the wall is all you saw.” I rubbed her shoulders. What was going on for her?
She clutched my hand.
“I was so happy back then. I didn’t know how lucky I was. Calling you all out of the water, pulling knickers and vests over sticky skin, smearing calamine onto burnt backs, dividing the sandwiches, hardly a moment to chat to the other mothers or read a magazine; so busy, every year, the first two weeks in August.”
I tried to wriggle my hand from her leather grip but she held on, so I stroked the mottled, papery skin on her forehead with our joined hands. I thought of her hand on the window of the train tonight as she scanned the hurtling midlands; carrying her bag through the streets; placing the key in the front door, plugging in the kettle. I felt false, uncomfortable with my paltry gestures of concern.
“I heard the three of you; your voices clear as bells, running into the sea. It was as if you children were here, still out there splashing, laughing, paddling.” She dabbed her eyes again. “Gone, my lovely children, gone.”
“I’m here. Des and Linda are at home in their houses.”
“No. My little children are gone.” Her lips trembled miserably.
“You’ve had a memory squall, Mam,” I said. “Perfectly normal at your age. The past bursts through your sense of time, seems as real as the present.”
My mother looked baffled. I was nothing if not a child of my times, demanding that pivotal, even excruciating, experiences were named, explained, owned.
“He’d have been eighty six today,” she whispered.
Oh my God! I always forgot my father’s birthday. I hugged her. A single tear fell from her eye and sat on her cheek. I was mesmerised by this rare opening where I could wade, help, meet her woman to woman. I wanted to say my usual stuff: it’s good to wail, cry out loud, let it all out; that way you’ll receive relief, closure, be at peace. But her mouth was gaping horribly; it was too fleshy, too pink, too wet; her breath too warm. All my life, I’d wanted her to show me her true feelings. But now that her sorrow for her young family splashed all over me, I hadn’t the taste for it. All her life, my mother had taught me that my feelings were difficult, demanding creatures best silenced or at least disciplined. She’d stolen something from me. It was too late. I was still the resentful orphan of a disgruntled widow. But I didn’t want to be. I got to my feet.
“I remember Daddy diving off the end of the pier out there.” I spoke brightly, cheerfully.
“He was a fine swimmer as a young man.”
“And the tyre tubes we used for swimming.”
“We had those see-through plastic ones with ducks on them by the time you came along. Must be a snap you saw, or someone told you. ”
“I loved my blue, tin bucket,” I said, undeterred.
“I… you did dear?”
“Yes. It had yellow dolphins on it.” I insisted though I only had hazy glimpses of those times. “Des was always taking ‘a lend’ of it. He used to bang it with his spade, singing, My name is Desmond Daly, I’m the leader of the band.”
“I’m the leader of the band,” my mother sang, off-key, and way too loudly. She extended her arms as if to embrace me in a waltz.
“Mother!” She was breaking one of her own rules: thou shalt not make a show of yourself in public. She would be mortified. I grabbed her upper arms.
“I’m the Leader of the Band,” she sang defiantly.
“Shut up!” I snapped and stepped towards the sea. I watched the wavelets lick the toes of my boots; I thought about how I was addicted to dipping my toes in the froth of intimacy; how that very evening, I’d be on the phone to a friend to dissect why he hadn’t called, whether should I call him, etcetera. Plus, I’d had the cheek to assume that my insights, feelings, experiences were more deeply felt, more authentic than hers just because I was of a younger, more open generation. All I’d been doing was loud mouthing experiences she’d faced discreetly. My mother had loved my father more than I’d ever loved anyone. She’d loved him through the ordinary, daily, intimacies, chores and decisions. As for being with a partner through sickness and death, I’d simply no idea. I returned to where she was seated.
“I’ll brush the sand off these as soon as I get home,” she said, swiping at the toes of her shoes with her gloves.
I put out my hand to help her to her feet.
“I’m able to get up myself, thanks”
We walked towards the car. I wanted to tell her how mistaken I’d been to believe that every daughter was entitled to hear the deepest feelings of her mother’s life; that I’d been wrong to blame her for the tact and stoicism of her times; that the power of those moments with her today had surpassed all of my solitary, contrived ones. But I kept silent; I knew by her stiff smile that she was still very upset. I inserted the key into my old Corolla, unlocked it, leaned in and opened the passenger door for her.
There was no sign now of the couple in the van.
As I reversed and turned the car, I noticed the two little boys furiously digging a hole in the sand. I couldn’t help giggling at them and memories of myself building sandcastles, at this very strand, long ago; I felt buoyed up by this lighter, fresh sense of who I was. Surely I could do ordinary, daily, loving stuff with someone, next time I got the chance.
I glanced over at my mother and grinned. She looked at her watch, smiled softly at me and the sea.