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Northern Ireland writer Colin Sloan on saying goodbye to mother-in-law who was his confidante

Colin Sloan describes the poignant farewell he and wife Angela bade to his mother-in-law Mary - and how despite their very different backgrounds, he and the old lady had formed such a close bond


Family ties: Colin Sloan and his late mother-in-law Mary

Family ties: Colin Sloan and his late mother-in-law Mary

Family ties: Colin Sloan and his late mother-in-law Mary

I watched a short piece on the owner of the Ben Madigan pub featured on the local news one evening this week. He had reopened his kitchen and was supplying hot meals to the needy and the vulnerable within his reach in north Belfast. I think he had managed 92 servings each day.

The reaction of one local resident while she safely gathered up her evening meal from her doorstep would have melted the hardest heart.

We really are in uncharted territory. On Monday my wife drove to the undertakers to say a final goodbye to her mum who had passed away last Friday. Angela had to fight back the need to cry as she sat in the chapel of rest on the Upper Newtownards Road. Tears are dangerous now. Tears can let the virus in. When you need to let it all out the most, when you say your last goodbye, you cannot afford to let your guard down.

She is so strong, she has been through so much in this last couple of years and her mum would have been justly proud that she had kept it together: but probably never expressed it.

For Mary was like that. Mary was no wallflower, but she liked the solace to be gleaned from the deep cover of the foliage within so as to help her unravel the entanglements that life invariably threw in her face. Life in one of the less fortunate neighbourhoods in this city of wonder.

Mary first met me in 1986. I had been hiding in a wardrobe in the upstairs bedroom of Angela's sister's house in Harrogate Street. We had the run of the place while her sister was on honeymoon.

I felt like an extra from Harry's Game or Cal, a lapsed Protestant emigre on the run in the Wild West, just off the Springfield Road. I held the door of the wardrobe closed with an index finger, my legs akimbo, my head at an angle to avoid the hangers. What loose change I had in my pockets, my lighter and my 10 Regal all spilled out onto the floorboards as my future mother-in-law chain-smoked in the doorway of the kitchen/scullery below.

She heard the coins roll into the grooves above and looked at Angela inquisitively, instinctively, but without judgement.

She knew rightly.

I met her in person not long after. In the years that followed I would visit with her at the neutral venue of Harrogate Street, to help her make lunch and to do the dishes while asking her questions about the Falls Road in the old days.

I did this apprenticeship to garner some kind of time served understanding with her. I did it at first because her world was so different from my own.

I did it because I wanted to know more about her daughter. I soon learned not to ask too much as she would tire of it. I learned that she was one of life's listeners who had long since made up her mind about what was at fault with the world. She taught me how to love my shortcomings. She never saw the boat being pushed out, but she made a success of bringing up her family in times of hardship and Angela was proof of that on the day of her mother's funeral.

Reflecting on my relationship with Mary over the past few days, I have been struck by the sense of my awkwardness and her stoicism in those formative years when she could have wiped the floor with me. I had 'baggage' as we all do; we have all lost something.

But when I hurtled out of that wardrobe and into her life I didn't know that I was gaining a confidante as well as a future mum-in-law. The wardrobe was a kind of portal into this hard-bitten woman's world and the more time I spent in her company, the more I learned about the struggle people have just to make ends meet.

She was so different from my own mother, and I was close to her as well. My mum dispelled any awkward silences by keeping conversations going, disallowing pregnant pauses with her glass half full optimism. Mary was so different. She knew the value of silence. She would walk to Sandy Row to get shoes mended. Walk everywhere and get messages in and try to make the housekeeping last. She was a real fighter.

During the turmoil of the past week, I spent a little while looking at the supermoon. My wife pointed out Mars, which is tiny but visibly red when viewed with the naked eye and it gave everything a kind of perspective. Venus is nearby, a show-off, glaring like an Army helicopter would do back in the day.

This rich assortment fighting for our attention, this eternal backdrop to our lives of limitations.

I was brought up in Drumbeg, son of a white collar dad and an auxiliary nurse. I was comfortable and untouched by the Troubles but I knew grief well as I lost a brother in a car crash in 1984 when I was 17 and he was 28, a father-of-three. He was a TV producer and destined for good things, we supposed, but fate intervened. My family dealt with that loss by internalising it. I chose to try and seek comfort from the people my brother had circulated among. My education suffered as I skived off school to spend an increasing amount of time with people much older than me who I looked up to. I think I was looking for some kind of vestige of my brother to fill in the gap.

In 1986, I was living in a haunted flat around the corner from my old school. It was bleak. I used to wake up early to steal milk deliveries, regularly changing my modus operandi so as not to get caught. Unlike everyone else living in the flat I wasn't in higher education. I went to every party I heard about and would 'minesweep' discarded drinks and cigarettes. At one such gathering in Camden Street I saw Angela. I followed her into every room in the house and finally plucked up the courage to try and engage her in small talk, until after some persuasion I managed to get her to write down her phone number.

Angela gave me stability, she gave me some kind of structure and allowed me to open up about my insecurities. She came from Beechmount. Her father was a gardener at Clonard Monastery and her mum, Mary, was a housewife.

They were as far away from my world as that tiny red planet I viewed last week. In no way could she stay the night with me at my flat in Eglantine Avenue. Harrogate Street became the focus, our chance to be together. It gave me a real frisson every time I went up the Grosvenor Road and on to the Springfield Road in that era. I was in territory that was alien to me but it was worth it to be with her.

I came from a comfortable background and Angela's mum Mary gave me a free pass.

She teased me about my religion, but our labels didn't matter as we rose above religion somehow.

I often think of myself as the harlequin character walking along the beach with the old lady in the Ashes to Ashes video by David Bowie. That's what me and Mary looked like as we walked around the tight streets off the Falls Road as I helped her gather up messages on a Saturday. The old lady was Bowie's mum, but I'm sure you knew that.

I had Mary as a shield in this alien place where everyone knew her. There were real characters back then; one old lady used to sit outside her house with a tame rook on her shoulder. If I am rambling now, forgive me but I am trying through the prism of time and grief and shared experiences to encapsulate my circumstances, unremarkable, but building up to the relationship with my future wife and mum-in-law.

They really helped me get back on track in the most phlegmatic and strong way. I say strong because these women knew hardship and how to live without and that is what gave them real character. Mary gave us the full measure of love without spilling a drop.

We have Mary's wedding album. I think their marriage was solemnised in 1959. She was 10 years younger than her husband, Barney. She was quite a catch. The timeline nestles just beyond our grasp, the light from the event still travelling far off into space in the direction of the red planet I saw the other evening. We look for things within the photograph that we can associate with our own era and struggle. We are so acquainted with the technicolour airbrushing and styling of the modern wedding shoot. Beauty is timeless and she had that in spades and she gave it to her children.


Blushing bride: Mary on her wedding day

Blushing bride: Mary on her wedding day

Blushing bride: Mary on her wedding day

The image is staged of course, the mood is formal, sombre even, I liken it to Mary's Prayer, a song by the group Danny Wilson which was in the charts in February 1987 after I first met her.

Black and white lends the image a rich patina, an old time resonance that delivers an honest longevity. Her expression looks real and almost unconscious of the lens. This is her at the threshold of everything that would come next into her new life and shape her outlook, her dreams and her features.

She never showed me this album. It never occurred to her to recall that a record of the event existed somewhere.

It fell into our laps by chance. This was her stock-in-trade, don't volunteer unless asked and wear a poker smile in the face of adversity. Mary was careworn and time proven, she never rocked the boat because she never left the harbour.

Her life experience was written large on her brow, her exasperation with the world never got in the way of a smile.

Mary had been in a care home on the Antrim Road for nearly four years and Angela would visit her every Wednesday. We followed Mary's hearse to the gates of Roselawn just after 1.30pm last Wednesday. The crematorium is closed to the public so we had to double back and observe the hearse as it went ahead up the hill. It was all we could do to follow her on her last dignified journey while the Castlereagh hills undulated and the Mournes nodded their own appreciation.

It was not long before another hearse took its place at the entrance gates.

Belfast Telegraph