Thursday 31 December 2015

Out of Africa

At the beginning of March this year, a strong woman died. As I wrote then, she had taught Dau.I and Dau.II a bit of French and a lot of kindness before she came to the end of a long and remarkable life. Her oldest daughter was their grandmother and her journey has been equally 'interesting' in the sense of the Chinese proverb "May you not live in interesting times". She was named Souad, because her father was Lebanese and that is the name of a Maronite saint; and also after Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, because her mother had been educated by French Catholic nuns. Souad was educated in Northern Nigeria, also by Catholic nuns, some of them Irish, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The Irish nuns told her of a land where the fields were green, the cows ate the lush grass and gave milk in abundance for butter and cheese and some of their relatives contributed a T-bone steak or two. Souad prayed every night to St Patrick to take her to this paradise far to the North. So when a young chap, more or less Irish, more or less called Pat, whom we've met before, came within her orbit she said “I’ll have him” and she did.  So like her daughter, the Girl who invented herself, Souad chose whom she wanted to be and became that person. Most of us don’t have the gumption or energy for that but meekly accept the plateful we’re born to and eat it with the spoon we get – some silver, some wooden. It’s been quite funny recently to hear Pat telling our girls about how he was calling the shots and making the moves on that long-ago-and-far-away courtship.  But that’s part of Woman's story: let the chaps believe they’re in charge – they’re easier managed that way.

Once married, every penny saved was put towards The Farm, an almost mythic entity that they would buy back home in Ireland to raise their family on butter and cheese and cabbage and spuds and the occasional steak. They did buy the farm but the reality wasn't as shiny as the imagining. In spite of their best efforts, Pat and Souad had to endure adversity and penury and have done so with remarkable dignity, absolute honesty and persistent good spirits. Yesterday, I reflected that Tu Youyou lived in 'interesting times' (in China, indeed) but had luck in her placement: with that and hard work she was able to make a difference. Wherever they’ve settled Pat and Souad  have made people happy in their presence. Maybe that's sufficient contribution: the other stuff is, after all, just stuff. I represent the many strays they adopted along the buckety path of their 65 years of marriage. I was a scruffy and unsuitable youth ‘from foreign’ and the wrong religion, who was making off with one of their daughters, yet they took me in, fed me up, taught me manners and indeed taught me how to live.

It’s true that Souad preferred the company of small-small children to grown-ups: I guess because she knew that too many children grow up to be disagreeable adults. It is usual in newspaper obits to count the number of children, gchildren and ggchildren. Souad was rare and remarkable in being able to take her place in a vertical line of five living generations of strong women: her mother, herself, and three subsequent generations shared our planet for 15 years. The three other great-grandchildren are all too young to have remembered her; the most recent being born 5 days before Souad died in her own home, in her own bed on the Saturday before Christmas. Given that we all have to pass through that gate, and that death is rarely either clean or dignified, such an exit is to be hoped for.

Along the way over my last 25 years living here, I’ve had to endure a certain parochial Catholic Little Ireland assessment of my antecedents. Living in Ireland long-and-long before it became a multicultural society as much at home with pizza as bacon-and-cabbage, Souad handled the inevitable “but where do you really come from” with good grace but not backing down a whit: "From Dunmore" she'd say, or Freshford, or Gladstone St, Clonmel, or Kilkee or wherever they were currently living. She said recently that she considered a good horse the most beautiful thing in the world . . . after a nicely tanned young woman. She was that tanned young woman: everyone has remarked on how elegant she was, how well she carried herself.  But you’d be wrong to call her a thoroughbred because she channelled a shockin’ wide number of bloodlines into her elegant, savvy, kind, generous and hard-working self. The full story was far too long to tell to people who weren't really interested in thinking (or eating) new stuff. And that was their loss because nobody could cook a ham like her. The ham opened the door to more exotic fare: mulukhiyah, kibbeh, groundnut stew, mujadara, tsire . . . acquired from the complex skein of cultural threads that entwined her early life: West African, Lebanese, French. The gallimaufry of food that you might meet coming out of her kitchen was a metaphor for her open-handed embrace of The Other in people. She knew what she stood for - a practicing Catholic with a well developed moral compass - but she wasn't quick to judge if your upbringing and values were different from hers. And she cared not a jot where your people were buried. She was notorious in her family for an inability to get their names right.  She called me Brian at least as much as she called me Bob. Now that she's gone I wonder if there wasn't something significant in this?  It wasn't that she was a little vague or forgetful; it was that, in her egalitarian mind, people were people - there was room in her heart for us all.
Subridens per lacrimas

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