My husband’s mother was one of ten children, and the last remaining brother was in a care home in Ireland aged 89, memory gently failing and growing increasingly frail. We decided to visit him while he would still know who we were. The last time Brian had seen him was in 2005 at the funeral of Brian’s cousin’s son who had been killed in the 7th July terrorist bombing in London. A number of Brian’s cousins still lived in the area and we could call in on them, as well as visiting the house where Brian’s mother lived as a child, and doing a little sightseeing.
Brian’s uncle had lived in the family home after his mother, stepmother and father had died. He had inherited the house and extended it from two rooms to four. He had tried a variety of work including managing a travelling showband, had married late and had two children. When I met him in the early 1980s he and his wife ran a sub-post office and shop, and also ran a greengrocer business and van. They had sold the old family home and lived in a flat above the shop. They had a plot of land where they dreamed of building their own home, a dream that was finally realised some 30 years later after a life struggling to make ends meet.
We picked up Brian’s aunt from the dream house. It was a sunny day and the house and garden were perfect, with sun trap areas and a spacious feel. Uncle had only left a few months ago, when his wife could not lift him if he fell on his shaky legs, so a room was still set up for him. Brian’s aunt missed her husband dreadfully, but visited him every day, having passed her driving test seven years ago aged 65. She also was thankful that he had been able to live a few years in the home they had worked for. Both children are in their forties and live nearby, and there are two grandchildren by the son’s marriage. The daughter had travelled and worked away but had returned and married a local man in June. Uncle had attended the ceremony in a wheelchair.
I was struck at how uncomplaining Brian’s aunt was. She had taken up oil painting and the home had a number of canvases framed and unframed. The care home cost more than €1200 a week but they had managed to get the sum reduced and had applied for another subsidy. After a lifetime of financial struggle, here was more. However, I learned that self-pity does not run in Brian’s family, and that they are all thankful for the things they have and do not hanker after what they cannot afford. Auntie was just glad her husband was close by, well cared for and comfortable. Her relationships with her children and grandchildren were strong, and Brian’s cousins provided additional support. She was sure they would manage somehow.
We visited Uncle and spent two hours in the care home. He knew who we were and was lucid for most of the time. He mentioned how younger relatives were frequently visiting to talk to him about the past, before the family history dies with him. It was a beautiful sunny day and the home has extensive grounds and plenty of light. I was pleased to see an ethnic diversity of staff as well as wall displays pointing out how proud they were of this diversity. It was a lovely visit but I was sad to think that Uncle and the other people there would never return home to live. Auntie knew that too, and a step towards adjusting to loneliness was to get a dog, that was arriving at the weekend.
We then visited one of Brian’s cousins of a similar age to him, whom we had not seen since 1993. Her and her husband have three children in their thirties, all now married and living close by and two with their own children. Brian’s cousin had not gone to university, but all her children had, and they all had successful jobs or careers. This social mobility over generations is fascinating, but we were also struck by how content members of the family were to attend university locally (they lived within commuting distance of Dublin) and to then return to live close to their family homes. Brian and I had wanted to study away from home, and so had our daughter. None of us had considered working close to our parents’ homes. My parents were migrants and so was Brian’s mum. Had that got us used to living apart? We had both grown up in small nuclear and not extended families.
We spent a lot of time with this cousin and her husband over two days. We ate with them at home, went out for a meal and she accompanied us on a day out to visit her old family home and to see the house where Brian’s mother had been born and raised. With the help of old photos we pieced together parts of the family history new to us, and shared their experiences.
On our last evening we were joined by one of Brian’s male cousins who had been a school teacher all his working life and had recently retired. He was well thought of in the family for having gone to university and becoming a teacher – still a respected profession in some countries. They seemed happy with their lives and the choices they had made. They had survived Ireland’s boom and subsequent bust. Brian’s female cousin had worked as a childminder and had retired; her husband had worked in the construction industry. They owned their own home which they had bought as a shell and fitted out to their superb standards. It was nothing flashy but comfortable and full of gleaming wood.
The retired teacher cousin owned a flat in Dublin. It seemed like property and a car was as far as materialism went. Having family nearby was an essential element of happiness. Travel and holidays abroad did take place but just for one week a year, unlike for Brian and I where it is the way we live our lives. There was no envy, no desire, just genuine satisfaction.
When Brian’s mum made her home in England, there was always a sense that she had ‘made it’ and was more prosperous. This happens to migrants all the time and many feel embarrassed to tell their families how difficult life is and families often expect to be sent or given cash and gifts. His mother had maybe felt the obligation more than was expected and we were a little nervous that the cousins would find us remote or patronising.
However, the relationships were easy and we found the visit stimulating and thought-provoking. Without romanticising their lives, limiting choices can be liberating and allow a deeper connection with a few things rather than superficial engagement with many.