I had to smile this morning as I heard my wife, A, shouting up the stairs to K, as our daughter thumped around her bedroom shoving the last bits and bobs into her already bulging schoolbag.
“Do you want rocket or iceberg lettuce with the ham in your sandwich?”
‘What would Auntie Nancy have thought?’ I wondered.
We buried my Auntie Nancy yesterday.
At the age of 104 — yes, 104 — Nancy Reidy, nee Sheppard, had finally stooped to fate and rejoined the two great Jims in her life, husband and eldest son, in the family grave in Templemore, Co Tipperary.
Leaving behind her a dynasty and a legacy of fortitude and spirit.
Her remaining son and daughter, Sean and Mary (her other daughter Alicia died a few years ago), and sprawl of nephews, nieces, son and daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great grandchildren, including the latest, a red-cheeked toddler girl in a buggy, strained to see as the priest said the last words at graveside.
Soon, myself and the other coffin carriers worked those straps to ease the handsome polished wooden casket down, down gently into that inevitable tight rectangular vault.
This generation finds it harder and harder, it seems, to be properly impressed by anything. Outside of YouTube anyway. But the detail that finally nailed it for my son O, as he sat beside me on our Catholic church pew earlier was when the priest noted that Nancy was born in 1913.
He turned to me and worked his lips in silent, exaggerated intensity around that date:
And him born in June, 2005.
Inside the pine casket raised in front of the altar of my youth was a white-haired, always fastidiously and beautifully turned out woman small in stature but large in presence. Finally stilled.
In her bustling lifetime Nancy had not quite experienced the apocalyptical death, famine, pestilence and war — but it was not far off it.
Nancy Reidy lived through the best of times and the worst of times as modern Ireland was born and came of age on this revolving and ever-evolving planet.
And she has left behind her a nation with notions now, one still growing up and still arguing with its tricky neighbours, and with itself.
Affluent, though not affluent enough for some, and a place without privilege or status for others.
Iceberg or rocket?
Like many of her generation, Auntie Nancy was rarely impressed but constantly astonished by the foibles, follies and fascinations of the global village she had lately inhabited.
Nancy Sheppard predated the Great War and lived the deprivations of rationing, repression and frugality, and was impacted by rural electrification, free secondary education, the European union and social revolutions at home and abroad she did not always welcome.
And now, at the pinnacle of our evolution, Nancy Reidy’s Ireland could have a meltdown choosing between either iceberg or rocket with their wholegrain school sandwich.
Not that K did this morning — she went with the iceberg.
Yes it was for this that Nancy’s forefathers had endured, and even fought and died.
But what a life Nancy lived. It was long, it was full and it was eventful.
Sean’s fantastic tribute to the assembly after the funeral mass in Templemore church went a long way to capturing the character and life of his formidable mother.
Born into a house of necessary thrift and forbearance, she lived through history, revolution, upheaval and bewildering shift and change well into these times of plenty for most.
Born before one great war, she married in 1937 before the next one.
We did not meet that often in latter years, so it was fantastic to sit back in the hushed church and listen after her white-haired son Sean walked up with his tightly-types pages to the lectern to deliver the Eulogy.
The word Sean settled on to capture the essence of his mother was “indomitable”. And that for me, her nephew, captured her perfectly. It came even before the love, the admiration and the sadness.
My Aunt Nancy seemed to me to always get on with things, taking everything that happened in her busy, no nonsense stride.
Her husband had a stroke maybe 40 years ago, and she did all that was necessary to look after the large, generous, previously gregarious but now physically compromised Jim senior, until he died in 1985.
They had moved to where the best facilities were and Nancy soon became central to the local stroke club, learned to drive at 64 and kept on keeping on.
Had her first drink even later, and loved a glass of wine (or two) with her dinner.
Asked whether she preferred red or white one once, she looked at her interlocutor and calmly explained to him that the one she drank was actually yellow.
She started to not reveal her age because she often felt patronised when she told some people.
She stopped driving in her late 90s, but only after the doctor who vouched for her road worthiness retired. The game was up.
It was around that time that Nancy had laser surgery on her eyes, and the glasses I had never seen her without were discarded
Nancy was fiercely independent, of course, but had a special bond with her eldest boy Jim, and lived her final years in Wexford town, where he had retired to from his bank job.
She was devastated when Jim junior died quite suddenly last year after a sepsis developed following a routine knee operation.
At 103, Nancy didn’t come back easily from that one. But she did, slowly.
Sean informed us now that Jim junior’s widow Sinead had gallantly offered to have his ashes go into the grave in Nancy’s coffin.
“He will be there to adjudicate between mum and dad for eternity — good luck with that,” Sean deadpanned now.
Even as kids we had learned it was pointless to argue with Auntie Nancy — she was right and you were wrong, black was never white and she cared less for foolish young opinions. Not always easy to take, but by golly, you took her seriously.
She grew herbs and vegetables organically long before that became de riguer, and supplemented her husband’s meagre financial broker’s income in the early days of their marriage with an egg and chicken business.
When the time came to expand and invest in electric chicken incubators, Nancy was in there, and her four children received the best in education, food and practical love. Until the business was no longer needed and she felt the time was right to pull the plug on the incubators.
The graveyard chat after her funeral and the sit-down meal in the local hotel for family and friends were, as usual in Ireland, marked more by gossip, family news catch-ups and scurrilous anecdote than by mournful wails or whining.
My Aunt Maura, the last of my dad’s sibling tribe now, the baby, at 90, had comforted Mary, her niece and Nancy’s sole remaining daughter at the graveside just as much as Mary had comforted her.
Before the meal, I paid my respects at Maura’s table and enjoyed a wonderful exchange with her and her childhood friend Josie. The same Josie I remembered always in brown quilted jacket whizzing around the town and out the Thurles road with her basket of messages on her black High Nelly bike.
Perhaps the memory above them all of the day I will carry with me is of the gathering shushed for the indomitable Josie, low and bent in her comfortable chair, the back of her white-haired head turned to me, to regale the gathering with a song for Nancy, her clear, sweet old lady’s voice ringing out strong and touching us all, even the fidgety YouTubers.
I later googled the song, an old Jim Reeves gospel number Where We’ll Never Grow
I have always loved how the older generations of Irish people seem to save the moans and the lamenting for their favourite poems and songs, and this one is no different, with observations like:
When our work here is done and the life’s crown is won
And our troubles and trials are o’er
All our sorrow will end and our voices will blend
With the loved ones who’ve gone on before
Never grow old …
And as Josie sang all the indomitable white heads present bowed and sang into their memories and their futures with all their hearts. Singing to Nancy and the great beyond.