El Dia de Helena (The Day of Helen)


Last week I went to see a wonderful film with the kids.  I have sat through some god-awful movies since becoming a mother.  Peppa Pig the experience?  I sat in the dark with matchsticks in my eyes, whilst the Greek fell fast asleep, only waking when his own snoring disturbed him.  Postman Pat the movie?  A singing Ronan Keating lives inside everyone’s favourite postie.  Just when you thought, that guy could not be anymore irritating.  Every so often though we are as excited as the kids, when Pixar makes the movie of choice.  Wonderful movies that always carry a moral thread. The Greek never tires of telling our taxi driver on the way to the cinema, “they have something for the kids AND the adults”.  The taxi driver always drives off with a list of movies recommended by the Greek and a promise to visit the island of Kos.

The movie this visit was Coco.  A story set in Mexico, about the central character Miguel, his love for music, and the festival of El Dia de los Muertos.  A beautiful story that educates children (and adult) viewers about this tradition.  Families on this day honour their dead.  They erect alters or shrines in the home, filled with pictures of their loved and departed ones.  They also tend their gravesides and leave gifts for them or “ofrendas”.  Whilst watching this unfold it became clear, that great grandma Coco was actually the main character.  The last tangible reference between the past and the present.  The Greek and I shared a tissue as well as popcorn that day.  My own gran was in hospital and she was our Coco.

She died peacefully 2 days ago, and this is my ofrenda to her.

She was a woman, who loved a man.  That is the best statement I can think of to sum up my gran’s 87 years.  She outlived her Joe by 25 years, yet it could have been 25 minutes to her.  Each day she arose and spoke to him.  She spoke of their life together as if referring to the other week.  He was never gone to her, and she continued to love him.  He was the anchor that defined her life.  He made the rules, she tended to him.  With his sudden departure, she carved out an existence that gave her structure, motivation, and chosen isolation.  She liked to stick to her rituals, her program, and her set rota for the week.  Up until 6 months ago, when a wasp landed on her toastie, causing her to fall, she did her exercises every morning, read a chapter, said her prayers, ate breakfast…  She had a shopping day, a washing day, and of course her beloved TV schedule everyday.

My sister (the interpreter), has always been fascinated or perhaps obsessed with the topic of death.  One of her first of many enquiries to our mother was “where would we be if we weren’t alive?”  Having become a successful playwright and writer, she openly confesses that to have this written record of her existence soothes her.  Anonymity terrifies her.  As humans, it is possibly the biggest question that we ask ourselves and it is always rhetorical.  We will never find a definitive answer.  My gran had an unyielding Catholic faith that was her pacifier.  She was not afraid and she was certain of where she was heading, she would get her reward in heaven.

My coping mechanism is my own religion of love, family and history.  My gran mac will be alive with me forever.  There is a little piece of her nestled in my heart but also in my head.  The memories she spread across our family will always be there.  Cartwheels and “shows” in the back garden, there she is, sitting beside my mum, a plastic deckchair each, an adoring audience of two.  Playing records on a Saturday night and winking over at her Joe.  Slapping our hands as we stick our hungry noses into the sweetie jar before morning mass.  All of our family will hold our own unique piece of her, with different memories and associations.  My father and uncle will remember a Helen we never knew.  A mother, a wife, a homemaker, a worker at the bookies.  I was 11 when granddad Joe died.  Yet I can still smell his Old Spice, I can still feel his callously hands as I perched on his knee and played milk the coo with his thumbs.  He too is immortal to me.

To be remembered, we do not need to paint a Sistine Chapel, or do something extraordinary.  Family is our get out of anonymity free card.  We are merely the latest cast of characters in our family story.  Walking historians, we share our stories.  Passing down the carefully wrapped parcels our ancestors have gave us.  Living our lives to the fullest, remembering every moment that passes is now history.  Whilst taking care to pass all these little parcels on to the next chorus line.   The love that we have for one and other trickles down the branches of this timeline and that is how we truly, live forever.

Night Night Gran Mac.  Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite (yer bum off).

Love and Lemon Meringue Pies,

Your Duchess xxx






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