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Open Features: An Outing With Great Aunt Mary - 1 – A Strange Expression

…Mary had arrived the previous week. For the first time she had crossed the Atlantic by air flying into Shannon, which was then in those early post war years commencing its role as a major transatlantic destination. She justified the additional expense of the flight when compared with sea travel by the fact that she would have ten additional days in Ireland.

Her journey from Shannon had been by way of Francie Meehan’s ramshackle taxi. Now when I think back to those days, I consider that what with the state of both the roads and Francie’s vehicle the journey must have seemed quite as long as that over the Atlantic and considerably less comfortable…

In telling of the visit of Great Aunt Mary Alan McConnell vividly evokes the rural Ireland of his boyhood.

Further episodes of this story will appear over the next six weeks.

“Well, I guess he was never able to shake up my soda.”

I heard this unusual expression uttered by Great Aunt Mary, as my sister Laura and I were about to enter our kitchen upon returning from school. It was enough to make us pause on the threshold and momentarily forget the cool drink to which we had been looking forward.

My mother and Aunt Mary were seated at one end of the kitchen table after having enjoyed some tea and obviously reminiscing about times gone by.

Mary had arrived the previous week. For the first time she had crossed the Atlantic by air flying into Shannon, which was then in those early post war years commencing its role as a major transatlantic destination. She justified the additional expense of the flight when compared with sea travel by the fact that she would have ten additional days in Ireland.

Her journey from Shannon had been by way of Francie Meehan’s ramshackle taxi. Now when I think back to those days, I consider that what with the state of both the roads and Francie’s vehicle the journey must have seemed quite as long as that over the Atlantic and considerably less comfortable.

Now here she was visiting my mother and talking about someone shaking up soda. The only soda that came to mind was baking soda but why this person would want to shake up soda belonging to Aunt Mary was a mystery to me. Perhaps in due course my mother would be able to tell us all about it.

That September we were basking in an Indian summer and the three-mile cycle home had left us in suds. The last couple of hundred yards had been pleasant enough as we were able to coast downhill from Meehan’s Height but not enough as to alleviate the body heat generated in the long push up the Line on bicycles bereft of three-speed gears.

The conversation between my mother and Mary ceased while they greeted us and resumed again as we made our way into the pantry, where we continued to listen while slaking our thirst from the crock containing drinking water. We carefully avoided that containing the buttermilk, a favourite beverage of my father. I never could acquire a taste for that distillation so changed was it from the way it had been delivered in good faith by our cows.

“Troth, Aunt Mary,” my mother was saying as we re-entered the kitchen, “but at the rear when he had given up hope of you wasn’t the boul’ Jimmy quick enough lepping at the chance to marry Lizzie McGranaghan and her with that good twenty acres marching on his own. The fistful of money her ’oul father left her didn’t do anything to hold him back either.”

“Ah well,” came back Mary’s reply, “sure I was more than pleased when you wrote and told me the news. I always felt bad about having to turn him down. And the way he waited until I came home on my first visit after five years. I can tell you it lay on my conscience having to give him the same answer. Anyway, it’s good to know that he’s feeling no pain now.

“When I saw him at the shop this morning he was looking in good shape. Do you know I don’t think he recognised me at first. I made no move to speak and watched him looking at me under his eyes before he made any move to recognise me. I must have changed more than I thought. Maybe he was thinking, ‘Well, maybe with Lizzie I got the best bargain in the long run!’”

At this stage in the conversation Aunt Mary turned her attention to Laura and myself still lingering on the threshold totally absorbed in the conversation. “And how are the scholars today”, she said. “On a good day like this I’m sure you’re glad to be out of the schoolroom. I passed the school yesterday on my way to visit your grandfather and grandmother and I must say it hasn’t changed in fifty years. But, maybe, it’s different inside. In my time old Master Moody ruled us with a rod of iron. He was truly Moody by name and moody by nature, or so we children used to think.”

Having said this she glanced at the clock over the dresser. “It’s time I was heading back up the road. I told Annabel that I’d be home after four because she’s expecting me to give her a hand to prepare for Maggie and Sammy McGonagle visiting this evening. They say Sammy’s about to give up the Station Master’s job. He thinks he’s been on the railway long enough. Annabel says that Maggie’s going up the walls wondering how she’ll keep him occupied in retirement. You know what he’s like. He can’t stay still for a minute. Maggie says he’s like a hen on a hot griddle sometimes!”

After delivering these remarks and saying goodbye to us children she made her way out, accompanied by our mother who walked with her as far as the turf shed.

Upon mother’s return we lost no time in quizzing her about Aunt Mary’s statement about shaking up soda.

Mother smiled, “It’s one of those American expressions. They call soft drinks, especially fizzy ones sodas. What she meant was that Jimmy McClure who was sweet on her before she went to America hadn’t the effect on her that shaking up a bottle of soda would have. In other words so far as she was concerned there was no fizz between them. Now I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on before your father comes home from the forge. Henry lost a shoe this morning and he set off for Brennan’s with him just before Aunt Mary arrived on her ceili.”

Laura and I considered this explanation for a moment or two. We had learned something of Aunt Mary’s past life as well as that of Jimmy and Lizzie McClure and there as far as we were concerned the matter could rest. Of more concern to me at that moment was learning a page of spelling for next day’s school while Laura gave her attention to fractions.

I was very careful with my spellings in those days. Our teacher, Mrs Harte, had a fondness for including in her lists pairs of words of which, while the pronunciation was the same, the meaning and spelling were different. I had fallen foul on a couple of occasions when stumbling over board and bored and pore and pour. While quite confidently dealing with my spellings when calling them out at the kitchen table to my mother or Laura, it was quite a different matter when forming part of a semi-circle around the blackboard with one eye on Mrs Harte’s intimidating cane!

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