The summer is officially over. The harvest is in, night is overtaking day and we are now inside more than we are outside. Hallowe’en marks the end of the summer and reminds us that we stand on a threshold between one half of the year and another. The old name for this time of year is Samhain (pronounced Sowhen) and is the traditional time to remember not only the ghosts and ghouls that roam our streets in the name of a chocolate fix (why are you looking at me?), but also those who have crossed over. The veil is thin at this time of the year and there are many traditions associated with remembering and celebrating our loved ones.
I find this duality very comforting. The revelry of Halloween with its costumes, decorations, mischief and excess is underpinned by something more significant but very human. Our desire to remember, to connect with those we love but cannot be with, reminds us to celebrate each moment that we have.
In that spirit I want to take the time to share some memories of my mum. Although she is never far from my thoughts, I have found that she is in my mind much more than usual. I’m aware that some people who will read this have known my mum from before I was even born, others never had the chance to meet her.
A vivid memory of mine goes back to when I was about 9 years old and in Girl Guides. We were performing a play for the local old folks home and had been rehearsing for some time. On the run up to this performance I had been worrying about my mum; more specifically I’d been worrying about her laugh. My mum had a big, loud, exuberant laugh that you could hear from quite a distance and I was getting to the age of being aware of difference. My mum’s laugh was louder than the other mum’s, she was more noticeable. She stood out. To my 9 year old self this was something akin to a crime.
I remember the moment when I stepped out onto the stage in the local village hall, I looked into the rows of people and didn’t see my mum. She wasn’t there. No worries now about hearing her laugh because I couldn’t see her at all, just rows of grumpy old people with an ‘entertain me’ air about them. We performed our sketch, just as we rehearsed and then we reached the first big laugh. There was a distinct emptiness in the air, a very noticeable lack of hilarity and my stomach sank.
That was when I heard her. She was at the back of the hall, standing up and taking in every moment. She’d seen the sketch a thousand times but laughed as if it was the best and funniest thing she’d ever seen. Unlike the grumpy old people I might add. My heart soared, I could feel the connection with my mum; through the sound of her laughter I knew she was with me holding my hand and willing me to succeed. I wasn’t embarrassed or worried again.
It wasn’t until some years later attending a play, when I noticed that I am always the first person to clap in the audience. In that moment, when the silence hangs heavy in the air and you can feel the tension as the players wait for the audience’s reaction and the audience waits for some kind of cue, I am always the first to clap. I also laugh loudly, much more so than anyone around me. I realised that this was partly due to enjoyment, I really don’t hold back much, but also because I had the desire to let the performers know how much I was enjoying their work. That was when I knew.
My mum didn’t laugh loudly for herself alone. Her joy was in our achievement. She took such pleasure in my sister and I, it was a game to see who could get her going, make her laugh and never stop. When she laughed all of her mischievousness shone through and she was completely open and alive. But those extra loud laughs that I had felt a twinge of embarrassment over were for me, to let me know she was there, to let me know that she was standing with me. Her laughter would guide everyone around her and throughout my school and university acting ‘career’ the best nights were always the ones where my family were in the audience.
On the way to mum’s funeral, just over a year ago now, I found myself worrying that I would have to explain how great she was to the people in attendance. She could be stern, she never backed down, she told people what she believed and always did what she thought was the right thing no matter what others thought. But I wanted them to know what I saw, the amazing, shining, laughing light she had been within our family.
But when I arrived at the church I saw that it was full; as we left I noticed it was actually packed. People had traveled from all over the country to pay their respects to my mum. For me the most special moment came when we took the casket from the church to the crem. All of the friends and family that had come from far and wide lined the street to see her on her way. They stood in silence, marking the passage of the hearse like sentinels, somber and monochrome despite the incongruous sunshine; I knew then that there was nothing to explain.
They all knew the shining heart that lived behind her big laugh. They had seen her clearly and, like us, they felt the loss of her. There is a silence where her voice and laughter should be and we all miss it. Every day we miss it.