My Happy Place

“Just, I don’t know…kick it in.”
“I can’t just kick it in. What if I break it?”

My boyfriend and I are standing at the door of an abandoned cottage. I know the walls are whitewashed, but they now appear a sinister mossy green colour after years of neglect. The thatched roof is on the verge of collapse and as I look up, I spy a small tree sprouting up from behind the chimney.

Jack shoulder-charges into the door again. It doesn’t budge. Shoulder and ego bruised, he turns to me. “You know technically, we’re breaking and entering here.”

“Calm down Sipowicz,” I snap, “this is my grandparent’s house. I have every right to be here.”

As a child, this was my favourite home to visit. I use the word ‘home’ because it was a home in every sense of the word.

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Located miles away from a main road, down a tiny boreen (boreen is the anglicised version of the Irish word ‘bóithrín’, meaning ‘little road’), it could have been an illustration in a Grimm’s fairytale. Surrounded by lush greenery and colourful flowers, it was a simple whitewashed cottage with a beautiful straw thatched roof.
Down the garden, a swing hung from a large oak tree. A stream separated the pretty garden from my grandparent’s vegetable patch, where they grew all their own produce. Hens roamed freely out in the yard and the din of my grandfather’s beehive could be heard faintly from the front door.

Inside the house, there was three rooms. Three rooms in the entire house; the main room, which functioned as a kitchen and living room in one, and two bedrooms. That was it. When I was a very young child, my grandparents didn’t have electricity, so they heated their water in a large pot above the fire. The fire was the centre of their home; a beautiful open fire that seemed to be eternally lighting. There was a wheel beside it that you had to spin in order to stoke the flames and as kids, that was our favourite novelty activity in the house.

My grandmother was always baking. Her favourites were apple and rhubarb pies and different types of breads. Everyone’s absolute favourite was her soda bread and I can still smell the bread baking in the oven and wafting all around the cottage as we waiting impatiently at the table. She would always let me ‘help’ her, though I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter top and I always ended up with flour all over my face. She would construct a miniature version of whatever she was baking for me and then tell everyone proudly that I made it.

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When I cast my mind back to my childhood, this is the place that I felt happiest. Whether I was acting as my grandmother’s sous chef or evading cantankerous hens in the yard, I was carefree in this idyllic haven.

Then, suddenly, my father and my grandparents stopped speaking. I’m not going to explore the reasons behind their rift here, but it was a serious falling out. When you are a child, you are completely unaware of the complexities of adult relationships and I was no different. I had no idea why we had stopped visiting my grandparents; all I knew was that we had.

My grandmother died first. When we heard she was sick, we went to see her in hospital. Although she didn’t have the strength to speak, I will never forget how she squeezed my hand. I will also never forget the single tear that slid down her wrinkled face as she smiled weakly at me.

When she passed away, my father and his father still did not mend their rift. I never got to return to the cottage while anyone was living there. My grandfather died a few years later, and the house was abandoned. As the years passed, it seemed to exist solely in my memory. I could not bring myself to visit it.

One day, I visited my own father in the house I had grown up in. As I prepared coffee for us both, I spied something hanging on the wall. It was a commemorative plate, with a prayer and a picture of Pope John Paul II. One identical to this had hung above my grandparent’s fireplace.

“Dad, where did you get that?” I pointed to the wall. His eyes followed my finger and a sad smile settled on his face.

“I got it from your grandparent’s house,” he answered. There was a silence while I attempted to figure out how he could have done this. He must have registered the look of bewilderment on my face. “I went to the house a few weeks ago.”

I can’t describe how I felt on hearing this. You know that feeling you get when you’re not sure whether you’re ecstatically happy or heartbroken? I just shook my head when words evaded me. Dad looked sympathetically at me.

“The door is unlocked. It is abandoned and no one has been there for a long time. You should go and see it but…be careful.”

Be careful. I still remember him saying that, because it seemed an odd choice of words.

I asked Jack to come with me. I felt apprehensive and I didn’t quite know why. This was the place where all my happiest childhood memories lived.

The pathway to the house was completely overgrown, so we had to negotiate through briars and brambles. Several cuts and swear words later, we were standing in front of the cottage.

It was different. Of course it was, it was years later. Still, I felt a profound sadness looking at it. The clean whitewashed walls were now covered with years of fungal growth. The roof was beginning to cave in. I imagined the house like a soldier returning from war; damaged, ravaged, broken and changed forever.

Tears streamed down my face as I took in the nettles, the briars and the green moss that seemed to have infested every beautiful inch of the house. Jack squeezed my hand and planted a soft kiss on my head.

“Are you okay?” he asked tentatively, as I dried my eyes.

“Yes. I’m okay. There’s just such a profound sadness in knowing that this is what that beautiful, magical place has become. This house was the most beautiful part of my life and now it barely even exists.”

We stood looking at it, until I felt ready to go inside. When Jack finally got the door to open, the smell of dampness and neglect welcomed us. I stepped in gingerly to the main room. Dampness crept up the walls. The whole place was shrouded in darkness.

As dreary as the place looked, it wasn’t what affected me the most. The mouldy surrounding moved out of focus. Everything was exactly as I had remembered it; perfectly preserved like it had just jumped from straight from my memory. My grandmother’s Blue Willow China adorned the large oak cabinet, my grandfather’s patchwork blanket still rested on the back of his rocking chair, cutlery lay in the drawer by the sink just as it always had. The beds were still made. Pictures of relatives hung on the walls. I could almost hear the squabbling of all of us children over the wheel by the fire. I could almost feel my grandmothers gnarled and warm hand on mine as we baked together. The stories that a neighbour used to tell of the púca and the banshee when he visited echoed around the room.

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I stood still, taking it all in with a find smile. Jack slid his arm around me.

“It’s beautiful,” he whispered. I nodded. It was no longer confined to the deepest recesses of my memory, but instead was here in front of me; a house filled with stories.

“I’m ready to go. At least this time, I can say goodbye.” I felt a strong sense of comfort leaving and I feel it now. Knowing that the house is preserved like that, with all the utensils that my grandmother lovingly used still hanging up over the cooker, gives me a warm feeling that I will hold onto for a long time.

As we drove back to our own home that summer’s evening, I considered my dad’s words- “be careful”. I now knew what he meant. Revisiting old memories can be a painful business. It can leave you weary and unfulfilled. This wasn’t like that for me though. I left that house that day knowing that it was just as perfect as I had always remembered. I realised that it belonged in my past, and it was a part of my life that I would never forget. It’s time for me to make some new memories.

Do you have a cherished childhood memory? A place you go to (even in your mind) when you need comfort?

My First Poem

I have never written a poem on my own before and I don’t know how this happened. I wrote this, on my phone (which is very unpoetic of me) and in less than ten minutes. It just poured out (probably because it’s not very good, but I suppose you should never ignore what your mind sends you). It is dark and personal but I felt like posting it. I teach poetry comprehension on a daily basis, but I have always struggled with writing it. So here you go guys, my first poem:

Mother

I couldn’t have known when in your arms
That you were longing for something else, somewhere else
Away from my cries and outstretched arms

I couldn’t have known why the tears in my blue eyes
Mirrored the tears in your blue eyes
I couldn’t have known how my screams echoed around an empty room
Bare
The pictures of faraway places ripped from the walls
You would never go there

When I laughed it broke your heart
I didn’t understand, you thought
I didn’t yet know pain, yet I saw it everyday
In your white knuckles and your strained smile
Assuring visitors of my placidity

Now, a woman, I see you smile
Sometimes you laugh
But she knows the pain you harbour
She remembers the tears
She remembers studying your face, searching for comfort and hope

The baby
The girl
The child

Don’t worry guys, I’ll be back to my weirdly humourous self soon.

14 lies my older siblings told me

Many people propagate the myth that being the youngest in a family has many benefits. Well, I am here to dispel that particular fallacy.
I love my older brother and sister, but man did they fill my head with a lot of crap. Here are some of the best things they convinced me were most definitely true and should never be questioned:

1. That there were pirates living in a hole in my back garden.

2. That you could get very very drunk on apple juice.

3. That riding on a roller coaster would bring me to another dimension (thanks a lot, ‘Dungeons and Dragons’).

4. That I was adopted from two criminals who were now in jail but would no doubt want me back when they were released.

5. That Tom Jones is black.

6. That inside every apple was a worm.

7. That Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ was a true story and I would inevitably be turned in to a mouse at some point in my life.

8. That my toys came alive when I left the room.

9. That wrestling was real and that The Undertaker was coming for me.

10. That having £100 made you a millionaire. Maths was not my strong-suit.

11. That the next door neighbour was a practicing witch with a giant cauldron who liked to cook children.

12. That the other next door neighbour was a convicted child-killer. Her weapon of choice was a ten inch serrated knife apparently.

13. That before I was born my parents used to bring my siblings on a biannual trip to Disneyland.

14. That the tooth fairy actually knocked more teeth out of your mouth when it visited because it’s greedy like that.

Picture: weheartit.com

Poem: A Christmas Childhood

This is a beautiful poem that I learned when I was in school that will punch you square in the feelings. It’s by poet Patrick Kavanagh and it’s called ‘A Christmas Childhood’.

My father played the melodion

Outside at our gate;

There were stars in the morning east;

And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called

To Lennons and Callans.

As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry

I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother

Made the music of milking;

The light of her stable-lamp was a star

And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,

Mass-going feet

Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,

Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters

On the grey stone,

In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,

The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over

Cassidy’s hanging hill,

I looked and three whin bushes rode across

The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:

“Can’t he make it talk” –

The melodion, I hid in the doorway

And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post

With my penknife’s big blade –

There was a little one for cutting tobacco.

And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,

My mother milked the cows,

And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned

On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

When you find out that your dad is Santa Claus

When I was a child, Santa Claus used to come to my local village hall complete with reindeer (whose coats are apparently made of felt, who knew?)
Anyway, the year was 1993. I stood in the long queue, excitedly hopping from one foot to the other, anticipating the conversation I would have with Santa. I had so many questions. Does Rudolph’s nose turn off or is it constantly on? And if so, is there a way to dim it for oncoming traffic? You know, all the questions a normal six year old would want to ask Santa.

When I finally reached the top of the queue, I was ushered over to ole St. Nicholas himself by an elf that was suspiciously tall and looked a lot like the lady who worked in our post office. I was perched on Santa’s knee.
‘And what’s your name?’ he asked jovially. Hmm, I thought, that voice is familiar. As I turned my face to his (in what is now a slow-motion cinematic memory) I clapped eyes on…..
MY FATHER.

Yes, Santa was my father. Or my father was Santa. In those seconds that felt like a lifetime of betrayal, I matured more than any six year old ever should. I realised it all: This is why I was never allowed in his shed. It was probably full of disgruntled elves. This is why he always refused to diet and why he had an aversion to sun-holidays. I sat in a stony silence. Any other six year old would have been jubilant to realise the she was the daughter of the world’s most popular fat guy, but the cold sting of betrayal hit me hard.

He repeated ‘and what’s your name?’ albeit a little more awkwardly this time.
Oh I’ll play along, I thought scornfully, but you won’t get away with this.
As I played the part of oblivious child and took my yoyo with grace, my friend came rushing up to me.
‘DID YOU SEE-‘ she began, so excited she was positively giddy.
‘Yes. I know. My Dad is Santa Claus.’
‘You are so lucky. I can’t believe it. I would give anything for my dad to be Santa.’
I thought about this. Maybe it would have its benefits. I mean, surely I didn’t have to spend three hours negotiating my Santa letter anymore. I had a direct line. And maybe, just maybe, his union might order a ‘bring your daughter to work day’ which would be, let’s face it, AMAZING. I mean, sure, I’d have to behave my self a lot more, as it would now be much easier to find my self on the naughty list, but I was sure that the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks.

Years later, I still haven’t told him I know. When he tells me that he’s going to the pub on Christmas Eve, I know better. And when he stocks up on mince pies, I know it’s just fuel for a very long journey. And when he says that he doesn’t know what the capital of Denmark is when we watch quiz shows, I often murmur ‘sure you don’t know, it’s not like you’ve never been there before. Pfft.’

So, even though my childhood was built on lies, it’s pretty cool that I’m a member of the Santa dynasty. You could say we’re one of the most powerful families in the world but I don’t wanna brag. I just want to be normal. Although if I ever get access to one of his flying reindeer, I’m taking that SOB to Hawaii for sure.