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Mum raised seven of us when dad walked out... writer Joe Cushnan on 'the greatest woman I ever knew'

As mothers right across the country were showered with gifts yesterday, writer Joe Cushnan and his family took time to reflect on the impact his own mum, Rita, who died in 2011, had on their lives. In this heart-rending tribute, he explains why she was the greatest woman he’s ever known

Well, that’s another Mother’s Day gone. In commercial terms, with surges in sales of chocolates, flowers and restaurant lunches, it can be seen as just another business opportunity to exploit.

But, for a lot of people including me, it is always a day to reflect and even more so since my own mother’s passing a few years ago.

Yesterday was a chance to spend a little time with my other mother, or to be more precise, my mother-in-law, Margaret.

My wife, son Steven and my brother-in-law Phil got together for tea.

Margaret is 91 years old, sharp as a tack and a treasure trove of stories from the old days. Reminiscing is so valuable for young and old in weaving and developing the tapestry of family history.

Not that any of us really needs much reminding, but Mother’s Day is a marker in the calendar to underline who and what is important, to spend time in the company of those still with us and to cherish the memories of those who loved and shaped us.

Rita, my mother, was the greatest woman I have ever known and that is not just a soppy sentimental throwaway comment. Nor is it any kind of insult to my wife, my sisters or any other important female relations.

She was born in 1925 into a working-class family living in the New Lodge Road area in north Belfast, to Rachel and Thomas Millar.

Granny Rachel, always in my mind bedecked in an apron, snuff tin and ragged handkerchief close to hand, was the disciplinarian in the relationship and granda Tommy was the hard-working breadwinner, a small man with a big heart, and a sweet singer to boot. They were happy, grounded people.

There were two other children, Billy, who died some years ago, and Sheila, my lovely aunt who, thank goodness, is still with us.

Rita, like a lot of young Belfast girls, worked in the city’s textile factories, sewing and stitching for a living.

My aunt Sheila recalls that she was paid off from a company called Beltex on a Friday and was too scared tell her mother until the following Monday, by which time she managed to find work in a firm called Mayfair, which was located in Athol Street behind what used to be the ABC cinema and is now a Jury’s Inn.

As a teenager, Rita loved ceilidh dancing and went to, amongst other places, St Mary’s on the Hill, Glengormley, with a group of friends for regular Irish boogies.

One time she and her friends decided to stay a bit later than usual. The plan was to save the tram fare money by walking home, a distance of some seven miles. She told her mother a fib. But, Aunt Sheila remembers my mother talking about it in her sleep within the hearing of granny Rachel who went mad “and nearly killed her”.

Rita loved going to the pictures and could choose handy cinemas in her neighbourhood like the Capitol on the Antrim Road, The Lyceum on the New Lodge Road and the Duncairn in Duncairn Gardens. We’re talking late 1930s/early 1940s here, and admission prices ranged between 3d and 6d. She once told me her favourite film stars were John Payne and Robert Taylor.

Rita met John, my father, at a Catholic Young Men’s Society event and, gradually, they became an item. He too loved dancing and the movies, but they also had a hankering for long cycle journeys, not thinking twice about weekend jaunts, out and back on the same day, to Carnlough (round trip over 60 miles) or Cushendall (over 80 miles). Stamina!

My parents had a happy, carefree courtship and eventually married in 1947 at St Patrick’s Church, Donegall Street. After the service, they had a wedding breakfast nearby and then a one-night honeymoon in Dublin. At this time, they lived with Rachel and Tommy at 46 New Lodge Road. The first child was born in 1949. In 1950, a second arrived. By 1958, there were seven of us, that’s seven children in nine years. During 1952, a council flat opportunity came up in Bingnian Drive, Andersonstown, and that’s where we were all raised.

In 1960, my father, addicted to booze and betting, and hopeless with money, walked out on us and never came back.

This is the point when Rita became the greatest woman I have ever known.

She had two choices. Either she could cave in and declare she couldn’t cope with the situation, or she would do everything she possibly could as a single parent to keep her family intact.

Thankfully, she chose the second option and endured a period of time wrestling with this challenge and feeling degrees of shame and embarrassment. There were gossips, no doubt, but the love and support of her mum and dad and her sister Sheila, along with close friends and neighbours, not forgetting us kids, helped her through an awful, unsettling time. She stepped up instinctively, never once shirking her responsibilities.

Rita was raised a Catholic, and her faith became extremely important to her in some tough times, especially when money was tight.

I remember she asked me to take a note to a neighbour. I must have been seven or eight years old. As I sauntered along the street, I read the note. She was asking the neighbour for a loan.

As a kid, I refolded the note and didn’t think much more about it.

She took on part-time jobs house cleaning and had a stint as a school dinner lady to supplement the family allowance benefit. But, strangely enough, birthdays and Christmases were always special.

In the pre-gadget days of the early 1960s, young kids were happy with board games, annuals and selection boxes.

My mother was multi-skilled, as she had to be, a plate-spinner of a housewife, baking, cooking, sewing, knitting, a nurse when we were ill, up first thing in the morning to get us ready for school and so on.

Regarding the knitting, needles would click in every spare minute. We would be watching television to a background noise of click-click-click. But the result was a snazzy-looking family in Aran jumpers, woolly scarves and gloves and, to satisfy my craze for The Monkees, a Mike Nesmith bobble hat.

My brother Paul, the eldest child, was killed in a road accident in 1974. He was in his mid-20s, married with three young children.

His death devastated the family, but we got through it as best we could because my mother had the strength and resolve, with God on her side, to never give up or give in. The rest of us kept her busy, but what was going through her mind in the dark moments when she had a bit of thinking time to herself is something we can only imagine.

My father, revealed to have lived in London for his last two decades, died in 1982. To my mother, the news must have opened old wounds, but the leaving episode and this man were pretty much closed chapters in our lives by this time. We got on with it.

A couple of years before her death at 86 in 2011, Rita began suffering from senile dementia, and my sisters Mary, Geraldine and Sheila, with the support of their respective husbands Maurice, Donal and Patrick, cared for her at her home of nearly 60 years, the flat in Andersonstown. They took turns at staying with her night and day.

Like their mum, their loving, caring instincts took over. Geraldine said to me once: “She looked after us and now it’s our turn to look after her.”

On the bitterly cold January morning of her funeral, we all said our private goodbyes to her. As the coffin was manoeuvred out of the door and into the street, a huge crowd had gathered.

 It was an emotional sight then, and as I write this it still touches me. St Teresa’s Church, just across the road was, as they say, bunged to the rafters. She was well-known and well-loved was our Rita.

Mother’s Day comes around every year, but such has been the influence of Margaret Mary ‘Rita’ Cushnan in our lives that every day is Mother’s Day.

She is forever in our thoughts, a wonderful mum and indeed the greatest woman I have ever known.

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