Day the clocks stopped: Why a calendar reminds me of Mam

Twenty-two years later a 1996 calendar is till in situ in John Arnold's milking parlour. Here he explains why.
Day the clocks stopped: Why a calendar reminds me of Mam
The calendar scene from September, 1996, which John Arnold has kept in his milking parlour since his mother died.

THE 21st of September is a date embedded and implanted on my mind.

You know the way you’d sometimes look at a calendar on the wall and, looking at a particular date, you’re reminded of something that happened on that date maybe a year ago, or ten, or maybe 22?

We’re milking cows in our ‘new’ milking parlour since 1980. Before that the job was done in the old stall built by my grandfather over a hundred years ago.

Back in 1847, a National School was built in this parish in the townland of Monananig. This served the educational needs of the area until a new school was built in Hightown in 1904.

My grandfather Batt Arnold purchased the old school building for the sum of £20. He then dismantled the building, taking the slates off first. He transported stone, slate and timber down to the farm here and built the cow-hose, or stall as we called it. For three quarters of a century it was the nerve centre of the haggard and the farming operations, winter and summer.

In 1980, when the new parlour was constructed, it was built up near the road, which made it easier for the bulk tanker lorries to collect the milk. There were few mobile phones or electric clocks in 1980. In the dairy we always had a calendar — the type that had a page for every month.

That time at Christmas you might get ten calendars — as they used to say, ‘from the banker, the baker and the candle-stick maker’. All the electric cables in the dairy are covered with white conduit ducting for safety. Behind one of these to the right of the door we always stuck the calendar.

The calendar in the milking parlour for 1996 was a Bank of Ireland production. Every page has a beautiful colour picture, kinda changing to reflect the month it represents. Twenty-two years later that 1996 calendar is till in situ.

Mam died unexpectedly on Saturday the 21st of September of that year and we never changed the calendar since.

I suppose we’ve milked the cows twice a day for around 300 days every year, so that’s at least 6,600 times I’ve looked at that calendar. Each time I do so many thoughts come to mind but always one verse of a poem:

Stop all the clocks,

cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

That’s the first few lines of William Auden’s famous poem on death and memory.

Mam’s funeral was in Rathcormac the following Monday— a very wet day — and I remember back in her house later in the afternoon. The place was thronged. I was crying and my feelings were:

The stars are not wanted now:

put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

The late Chris Walsh, nee O’Sullivan, a dear cousin, was there and she hugged me, saying: “John, John, you’re crying now but in time you’ll think of Mam and smile and laugh too.”

Those words weren’t much comfort on that dark, dreary September day 22 years ago, but when I was at Chris’s own wake a few years later I recalled them and cried and laughed — that’s what they’d both have wanted.

The picture I have looked at since September 1996 is titled ‘End of the Summer near Drumgoft, Co Wicklow’. It’s an image of a rustic timber bridge crossing a small stream with, I presume, some of the famous Wicklow Hills in the background.

The colours are shades of autumn as summer tries to linger longer but knows it must yield to the coming October.

Looking at that image, as I have done so many times, I think how apt are the words ‘End of Summer’. Elizabeth Bowen wrote a famous book The Last September reflecting the end of an era in Ireland, the demise of the ‘Big House’ and associated gentry.

Yes, I thought that September of 1996 was like a ‘last September’ for the family. My father died when I was four so we grew up in a one-parent family and when Mam died everything seemed rent apart. She was just 71, which seems young in today’s terms, but she went through a lot in those decades. She lived life to the full though, made the most of it and enjoyed it.

With the last 18 months or so, a group of us have been tracing our Twomey lineage. Oh, we’ve had some great gatherings as we try and build up a better picture of our ancestors.

Mam was born a Twomey and proud of that fact. From the only Twomey aunt she knew, Lizzie O’Keeffe, she got a great grá for tracing and knew cousins thrice removed and their seed, breed and generation. I’d say ’twas from Mam I got that yearning for stories, people’s stories and family stories.

Oh, she’d love to be part of our group now as we try and work out if ‘Long’ Jerome’s grandfather was a brother or an uncle of Jack Heaphy’s grandmother, or were the Twomeys West Cork ancestors from Macroom or Ballyvourney? She’d be in her element on these long nights of talk and tales and tea and then more talk!

Life moves on and in those intervening years we’ve had christenings, weddings and funerals. A new generation of her great-grandchildren have arrived and, thankfully, we still have four of Mam’s Twomey siblings hale and hearty.

I took down the cobweb-covered calendar in the milking parlour for the first time recently. I turned the pages to the autumn months of 1996. For October it was autumn sunshine in Dublin’s Herbert Park. Calmness and stillness on Sligo’s Lough Gill was featured for November and, for December, it was a snow-covered scene at Roundwood in Wicklow.

Maybe later on this year, when the cows are dry, I’ll journey to all these places as a kind of pilgrimage, in memory of my mother who’ll be gone from us 22 years tomorrow. Gone but not forgotten.

Every time I hear Big Tom sing Gentle Mother or Bridie Gallagher’s A Mother’s Love’s A Blessing I think of Mam. Yes, I do often shed a tear or two but then I recall good times also and smile. Like when we were all small going off to Youghal for a Sunday, or watching her above in the Hall producing a Children’s Christmas Pantomime.

She educated us from growing potatoes and many’s the winter evening and night she spent ‘choosing’ the spuds below in the Poultry House.

At hay and silage time the house would be full — the neighbours were great but she was a good neighbour too.

When some cousin like Chris O’Sullivan or Kitty Barry would call, well, all work would cease and the fun and jollity and merry-making was only mighty.

I’ve put the calendar with September, 1996, showing back in its place in the milking parlour this morning.

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