Nanny changed when her husband died. A woman who’d never walked when she could run suddenly seemed different, though at twelve I didn’t really understand how. It was as though Pop’s death had surprised her into noticing her life, and looking around what she saw was busyness and work.
She began to watch more television. Sometimes I’d stay with her on a school night. We’d watch a soap opera and she’d chat about what was happening. As the credits rolled she’d read out the names; a melancholy litany. “Mc Carthy. That’s an Irish name. Gallagher. That’s an Irish name”. Then she’d turn to me and say in her little voice, “what did we do before television? We visited. Nobody visits anymore”.
Nanny kept fruit at the bottom of her wardrobe, in a plastic bag behind her shoes. Secret fruit. It was a luxury, and she gifted us oranges or apples. She made soup and sent it home with us in big coffee jars. She kissed me on the top of my head; tiny, fast kisses like bird pecks.
“I should have joined the nuns”, she’d say, eyes rolling at something Pop had said or not said. And before bed sometimes she’d get us to kneel in the sitting room to say a decade of the rosary. I used to pray to God not to give me a vocation, but I didn’t tell her. I felt bad, like I was cheating.
She was witty and didn’t hide it. I don’t know, maybe she showed it more to us than she did to the grown ups. She minded us ferociously, protecting us equally from the dangers of going out with wet hair, the bogeyman in the wardrobe and the devil’s horns coming through the open window.
When I first saw her after our lovely Pop died she was sitting in the kitchen, surrounded by people doing things for her. I’d never seen her sitting down before without at least a child to comfort on her bony lap. My throat felt hot and sore and I didn’t know what to do. She turned and reached out and we held on to each other as we fell into a strange, new world.
Later, when she was forgetting things, when it was bad, my mother asked her one Christmas Day if she knew me. Nanny didn’t reply. Mam said, “Síle’s in Trinity College now, Frances, she’s in Dublin studying to be an actor”. And Nanny turned a beady eye to me and said “you always had notions”. But admiringly, as though Trinity was as good as the nuns, really.
Her skin was soft. The inside of her handbag smelled like face powder, like a version of her that rarely came out. Somewhere I have a Christmas card she gave me. Pop wrote it to her before they got married, around 1937 I think. She’d kept it for all that time. So much for joining the nuns.
After she died I found a pink ticket stub in an old handbag. It said London Zoological Gardens, and the date was the late ‘fifties. I like to think she went there with Pop. She wore gloves with the patent handbag, smoked and wore lipstick. They drank something heady from beautiful, delicate glasses and laughed a lot.
I remember her minding me as though there was no one more precious. I remember the hundreds of little kisses on the top of my head. Nanny’s uncomplicated love was a blanket I’ve always been able to wrap around me.
I do miss the oranges though; hidden, like scented jewels, behind her good Sunday shoes.