23/09/2020

Helen O’Rahilly: Buying my first Dublin home won’t be the same without the domestic goddess of the family casting her verdict

Im buying my first Dublin home. Im waiting for an exchange date and hope to move in next month. After 30 years in London, itll be my third house purchase. Its a renovated, extended old redbrick in turnkey condition: immaculate, everything top spec.
But therell be something missing when I step over the threshold: my Ma – Emer, wont be with me. She died last summer, so I wont have the pleasure of her casting a beady eye over every surface, pulling open each drawer to check if its tongue-in groove (the mark of real furniture). Yet I fully expect to hear her in my ear, saying I wouldnt have put that, there. . .
Emer, you see, was my original domestic goddess. She would have been classified as a Homemaker in the census. That word doesnt come close to what she was, what she did. A woman who could reset a fusebox, put out a chimney fire, design and grow a 60ft (18m) garden, complete with ornamental pool and Koi carp (she didnt reckon on the circling herons of north Dublin who had them for dinner in the first week). She was a powerhouse of design and creativity.
In the 1970s, she wanted my dad Paddys chemist shop to be repainted in Kapp & Peterson Green, after the flat dark green front of the famous pipe shop then on the corner of OConnell Street. When a painter instead delivered a dayglo shade of Vibrant Leprechaun, Ma cried. Dads customers were in stitches, sending him a massive card addressed to Paddys Green Shamrock Shop. It was her first and last design faux-pas.
Ma and her sister moved to the coast of north Co Dublin after Dad died. She designed the layout of the new house and designed its interior: muted greens and hand-made Spanish tiles for the kitchen splashbacks; their late sister Imeldas Connemara landscapes were hung on the plain, pale green walls of the living room. Then in her mid-60s, this house was Mas experiment, the first house that was hers alone. The sandy soil, too, was a chance to grow new plants and shrubs.
In the years since, weve had Mas stencilling period: if it didnt move it was stencilled. I was tempted to lock the bedroom door at night lest I woke up with a recurring Greek motif over parts of my exposed body.
What didnt change was her absolute distrust of all objects designed to make life easier. The brother and I bought the sisters every time-saving device going:
Microwave – Im not using that. Who knows where those waves are going!
Dishwasher – Why would I want that? Using up all the electricity.
Dryer – Are ye trying to bankrupt me? The wind here is grand and pure.
Even in 2019, Mas 1970s Ercol oak trolley still had pride of place in the kitchen: a Brother sewing machine sat on top. Unused since the mid-90s, if I even dared suggest we could donate it I would be met with a matriarchal death stare. Shed remind me curtly that that machine made my debs dress, my Trinity Ball dress, every set of curtains in the house. It was her ancient mechanical pet.
She grudgingly allowed me to replace the gas hob. Id seen too many swaying dressing gown sleeves inches from roaring flames. I installed fire alarms, carbon dioxide monitors. Home for a weekend Id do a safety check: Ma, where are the batteries for this alarm? I put them in weeks ago.
Ah, it was beeping so I pulled them out.
How immolation or suffocation didnt happen is a miracle.
Then there was the new, senior citizen friendly bathroom. I brought Ma to a showroom so she could take her pick: a high-level loo, paddle handle taps, an ergonomic shower. She regarded all options with disdain.
When work began, I flew back to oversee it. She dispatched me to Woodies for earplugs: Theres never been such an intrusion in this house!. Feisty as ever at 91.
After a week, up she came on her stairlift. A beautiful modern bathroom lay before her. Itll do, she said.
Did she use it? No.Its too cold in here she protested.Its July, Ma! David Attenborough would be stalking gorillas in this heat!. She never used it, preferring her slow, daily ritual of sink and soap.
Ma died last June. A life well lived, stroppy and self-assured to the end.
I know Ill run my fingers along the drawers in my new home, tongue-in-groove. Shed approve.