I got the call at work. My grandmother, Sarah, was dying and she hadn’t long to go, so I left and drove to my parents’ house for a day I had always dreaded.
Sarah was my maternal grandmother, and the only grandparent I had ever known. When I was born in 1953 Sarah was still grieving for her husband who had died months earlier from lung cancer. Days later she suffered a second blow when her mother died from pneumonia. My father’s mother also died before my birth, while I can’t remember my other grandfather who died in 1961 when I was seven. That may be because I was in hospital so much.
In any case, Sarah, now a widow, lived with us from then on. I was in awe of this grey-haired woman who always spoke about her husband in the present tense. But he died, I used to think. Yes, silly boy, but she loved him always. I would grow to understand that.
To her acquaintances she was known as Mrs Mul (she was a Mulcahy), and to relatives, Sally. To me she was gran, although as I got older I called her Sarah. I never thought of her as a grandmother, more a second mum. She was a great cook, serving up trays of apple tarts and iced buns on a Saturday, delicacies always welcome to myself, my brother John, and sister Lorraine.
Sarah hadn’t much money but she had love in abundance. She had a great sense of humour and loved a joke, and she was generous to a fault. She would give you her last penny if you needed it.
She always talked about going on a diet, but never made a serious attempt to lose weight. Not that she was overweight. Ok, just a little.
She used to smoke the occasional cigarette, especially when she shared an attic room in the Lough Road with Lorraine, but her only treat was bingo. I can still picture her cousin Breeda and herself heading out to the various bingo halls during the week to try their luck. Occasionally Sarah would hit the jackpot, and the next day she would arrive home with bags of chocolate and cakes for us youngsters.
She worked hard in the School of Art, before her final job in Lennox’s Laundrette which by a happy coincidence was next door to one of Cork’s best chippers, Lennox’s.
She never forgot your present at Christmas or your birthday, and a lovely Easter Egg at Easter. The funniest thing was the way she would constantly remind you of her birthday. From Christmas to the big day in July she would pepper her conversation with hints. As if we were ever going to forget. She loved giving gifts, but also liked to receive them.
Sarah was a staunch Catholic and a daily massgoer. I can still see her sitting on her chair saying her prayers while clutching rosary beads. In time she would travel to Lourdes, the Holy Land, Oberammergau for the famous Passion Play, and even Spain. We were delighted to see her enjoy herself, but what we really wanted was that happy moment when she opened her suitcase so we could see what she had brought us!
She upped and left us one time to stay for months with her son John and his family in England, and the emptiness she left behind felt like a bereavement, the house was so quiet.
Another time, when I was older, I took her and my Auntie Marie to stay for Christmas with John. The laughs never stopped during our time there. Sadly Marie would die not long after.
I was working in the Cork Examiner then and was able (just like my brother John) to give something back to Sarah, enough for a couple of bingo sessions, or whatever else she cared to spend it on. It was my way of showing that I loved her.
It was one of our little jokes that every Christmas she would say, “this might be my last Christmas,” and each time we would reply, “you said that last year.”
That final night I sat by her bedside as I listened to her heavy breathing. She was asleep and unaware of my presence, but I kissed her and held her hand. By 3am she was still there and I could barely keep my eyes open, so I kissed her goodnight and retired to the room next door to sleep.
I awoke a few hours later and she was still asleep, so I went downstairs and had breakfast. I spoke to mum about Sarah and we agreed that there seemed no point in me waiting around, so I decided to head home, but only after one more check on Sarah. I looked at the bed and knew instantly she was dead.
How lucky I was to have had a second mother, someone who had always been there for me, who shared my jokes and my pain, and loved me unconditionally. Thanks for some amazing memories Sarah.
Footnote: The picture above is of Sarah with my son Daire.