Colette Sheridan: Memories of long ago come flooding back during house clearance

Colette Sheridan is full of memories as she clears out her family home.
Colette Sheridan: Memories of long ago come flooding back during house clearance

ON THE MOVE: If you had to clear out your house, what would you find? Picture: Stock

CLEARING out a house that has accommodated the lives of six people on and off over six decades is a hard task.

We are trying to balance a certain ruthlessness with respect for our history, our treasured possessions and the items that remind us of our late parents. It’s a tall order.

I find myself deciding to keep a simple picture, painted onto a tile, of a figure in a currach pulling up at a shore with two thatched cottages in the background. It conjures up family holidays in the west of Ireland. I find it comforting. It is not fine art but as souvenirs go, it’s pretty and evocative of times past.

On the other hand, I throw away a story book on Thumbelina. Really, none of us is likely to read it again and we don’t have small children. Fairy tales are two a penny. No point in being sentimental about such books.

That’s not to say that we’re only keeping stuff that is useful. There are some things you just can’t dump, like my mother’s dog-eared copy of Full and Plenty: The Complete Guide to Good Cooking by Maura Laverty published by The Irish Flour Millers Association in 1960. A classic, it must be in many Irish households.

It’s not just a pile of recipes. The yellow and blue covered book starts off with a Ballad of an Irish Wheatfield. The second stanza reads: ‘Breathe gently, O breeze, on the grain-heavy ears,/That drank long and deep of spring rain./O breeze, ripple gently the yellow-tipped spears./Our little ones, caught in the rush of the years,/Need growth that is stored in the wheat’s golden ears/All mother-ripe now with smooth grain.’(Put that in your pipe Nigella!)

This is a book that, I imagine, newly married women acquired from the 1960s on, as they embarked on the thankless task of keeping house, feeding children and husbands with attention paid to nutrition and information on good cuts of meat.

There weren’t too many vegans ‘long ago’ (as my mother referred to any time before the 1970s). Nor were housewives baking gluten free bread. Dietary needs were simpler in the old days. Who knew back then that we’d become a people ordering soya milk skinny lattes in coffee shops — EVERY morning? Who knew that single use plastic wrapping on food would contribute to environmental destruction?

Stuck in the pages of Full and Plenty is a recipe from a newspaper that my mother cut out. (She was great for newspaper clippings, posting off snippets to family members containing tips on everything, including how to remove red wine stains on carpets). Anyway, this cutting is a recipe for an apricot and almond flan which the author recommends for a holiday weekend.

While the recipe includes instructions on how to make short crust pastry, it also, thankfully, suggests taking the easy option and buying a packet of frozen short crust pastry. (Not that our mothers were inclined to take things easy, opting to prepare everything from scratch.)

On the back of this recipe page is an ad for John Player cigarettes complete with a picture of a sailor with the word ‘hero’ emblazoned on his cap. Such naive times! Heroic smokers — can you believe it?

While clearing out one of the many bookshelves in the house, I came across a modest publication entitled Humble Beginnings — a selection of poetry from 21 Cork poets under 21. It was published in 1985, celebrating the 800 years since Cork city was granted a charter by Prince John in 1185.

Scanning the index of authors reveals the anthology includes poetry by Pat Cotter, now an award-winning poet and the director of the Munster Literature Centre. In the biographical notes in the book, Pat is described as an arts student at UCC. At that point in his young life, he had been published in The Irish Press, Cyphers and Poetry Ireland Review.

In a poem published in that 1985 book, entitled Blue Petals, Green Peppers, Pat writes: ‘Sometimes I think all that we share/is our dreams and our memories./But even in the darkest of cells there are/memories worth breathing for./And I breathe on/in your company though you trap me here, in/the bosom of your diffidence, in the cradle of my need.’

I’m full of memories as I excavate the house. It slows down the process of clearing it. It also underscores the need to live more frugally, acquiring less possessions — and getting rid of defunct items.

I have come across at least three different record players, long past use even if you had vinyl to play on them.

It’s a good idea to travel lightly through life. We could all do with being a bit more Buddhist about the pitfalls of acquisition. The skip is now full.

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