It was the notebook that did it. I had been doing fine until I came across it, at the back of a kitchen drawer. It seemed old, the sort of notebook people used to do their accounts in, or tot up sums, in the days when people with pencils behind their ears did sums.
I thought at first it might be an old account book of my mother’s. I expected to find tallies of ESB bills, VHI subscriptions, or records of payments for what, in her time, was called “hire purchase”.
My mother was a great believer in hire purchase. Not that she was profligate. It was more that she didn’t see the point of a pleasure deferred. Why save up for years until you could pay cash for that sofa, television or special toy for us boys, when you could have it now on the “never-never”?
I had left the kitchen until last, because I knew it was going to be difficult. The other rooms were nearly empty anyway, ready for the new owners. But the kitchen was the soul of the house, and clearing it out seemed a sacrilege.
The house itself – a modest semi-d on Dublin’s southside – had been our home since the early 1960s.
Somehow I never completely warmed to it. Perhaps I was influenced by my father, who resented having to move from his beloved Sandymount to darkest Blackrock.
For whatever reason, when I talked about the house, it was never with the depth of feeling that, say, country people convey when they talk about their “home place”.
Given that I had no great affection for the house, and hadn’t spent a night there for about 20 years, I was surprised that I was feeling so emotional as I prepared to leave it for the last time.
In the drawing room, I had come across a photograph of my parents standing proudly outside the porch in 1963. My mother wore a short skirt and a cloche hat, and my father was dressed in a sharp, narrow-legged suit, suede shoes and a skinny tie.
Now, both were dead, and the last vestiges of their connection to the house – the things they had touched, or worn, or eaten from were being cleared away.
It didn’t amount to much. Not much, at least, when calculated by today’s values. Who collects Hummel figures now, or brassware, or Lladro figurines? Who wears fur, or collects a particular pattern of china, or uses lace doilies?
I opened the notebook, and was surprised to find that it was empty. I flicked though the pristine pages. Perhaps, I thought, one of the recipes my mother used to cut out from Theodora Fitzgibbon’s column in the Irish Times would fall out.
Near the back of the notebook, a single page had been written on. I recognised the writing as my mother’s. It was spidery and weak, the way she wrote towards the end, as if the ebbing of her life was reflected in the trailing off of her signature.
My mother had been practising writing certain words. As the effects of a barrage of illnesses took their toll on her, her ability to remember certain words, and to write them, had begun to leave her.
“Speech therapy”, she had written, and “medicine”. Both were spelled out several times, as if she were trying to imprint the spellings on her mind.
At the end of the page were the names of her two sons. “Peter”, she had written, and “David”.