Requiem for an Irish mother

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One night last week, I tried to figure out how many matches my mother saw me play as a child. I know it was less than ten. It may even have been fewer than five. There were a couple of street league finals I forced her to turn up to. There was definitely a county juvenile hurling final with St. Finbarr’s where I was, rather embarrassingly, called ashore 20 minutes into the first half (“It just wasn’t your day, love”). There was also an FAI Youths Cup semi-final defeat with Casement Celtic at a drenched Turners Cross (“How did they expect ye to play in that?”)

Beyond those, I struggled to recall any other appearances by her on the sidelines. As might anybody of mine or older generations. Those were different times in the Cork where I grew up. A lot of parents didn’t attend the games their kids played. Most who did were fathers. That was the way of it. Nobody thought it odd. Nobody complained. It only seems strange now that we live in a more involved era, where moms and dads seem to be present for every training session and scrimmage.

Of course, that’s not to say the mothers we had were not supportive of our putative careers. Oh they were.

I don’t think I ever once opened a gear bag in a dressing-room, be it hurling, Gaelic football or soccer, that didn’t have everything I needed perfectly packed inside. I don’t mean that the required socks and shorts and shirt were tucked in there. I mean every item of clothing had not only been washed but ironed and folded and made ready with great care. Not by me. For me. By my mother.

Team-mates might unfurl jerseys that reeked of battle and unleashed sweat clouds of toxic ammonia. My mam’s devotion ensured I never took the field appearing anything less than pristine and smelling fresh. Indeed, if looking the part had been any measure of true athletic ability, I would have hurled for Cork and played soccer for Ireland. The problem was I could never play as well as I togged out.

In Heathrow Airport last month, I ate porridge for the first time in decades. The texture, the taste, the burning on my tongue, it transported me back to my childhood, to my mother shoveling steaming bowls of Flahavan’s Progress Oatlets into me on weekend mornings before sending me out the gate with a gear bag in my hand, and sporting dreams in my head. A smile on her face as she waved me off, a smile and a comforting word if we lost when I came back.

Everybody tells you that you only appreciate your parents, the work they did, the sacrifices they made, when you become a parent yourself. So, so true. We buried my mother in Cork last week and on the soul-destroying plane journeys over and back (a trip you make in a kind of slow-motion that truly is the emigrant’s curse), there was a lot of time to recall all she did for me. Again and again, it hit home how much of her work was unseen and often, to my shame, under-appreciated.

See, my father brought me to nearly every game I ever played. My mother was scarcely present in those fields at all. Yet, when I look back I see now she contributed just as much. If not more. She emptied every gear bag the moment it came in the door (Yes I was as spoiled as the youngest child always is!), placing the mucky boots on the back step – those were a bridge too far even for her.

In the admittedly unreliable highlight reel of my memory, we seemed to be constantly playing matches in driving rain. Each one of those savage Saturday mornings culminated in me returning to a toasty kitchen where scalding oxtail soup and ramparts of buttered Cuthbert’s bread were waiting to, as she described it, “get a bit of heat back into you”.

If the timing of a game meant I missed Sunday dinner with the family, an overburdened plate was heated up and handed to me, to be eaten on my lap. In front of the telly. In front of a coal fire blazing. A flagrant relaxation of the dining rules. A special treat. It says much about the quality of my athletic exploits that some of my fondest memories revolve around watching matches on the television while belatedly wolfing down a roast and wondering whether mam had kept some of the trifle for me too. She did. Of course she did.

My mother was part of a resourceful generation of working-class women who grew up with so little that they were magnificent at making something out of nothing. The older I get, the older my kids get, the more I marvel at how she kept the show on the road. Despite rearing four children on a bank porter’s wage, she always found money for new soccer boots when they were needed. Not just any boots either but the ones you wanted. Hansi Muller’s. Beckenbauer’s. Littbarski’s. Even once, a Patrick pair endorsed by Kevin Keegan during his sojourn at Southampton.

My mother was not unique. She was, like tens of thousands of other remarkable Irish mothers of that time, simply doing what she perceived to be her job. And she was magnificent at it. Raising kids. Fostering their dreams. Filling their bellies. Our fathers may have basked in whatever slivers of reflected glory were available on the sidelines when things went well. It was our unsung mothers who underpinned the whole operation by keeping the home fires burning regardless of the results.

For my mam, there was no sulking in defeat and, even more adamantly, no boasting in victory. Always, there was a simple post-match interrogation to remind you of what sport was supposed to be about.

“Did you try your best and did you enjoy it?” she asked every time.

“I did,” I replied.

“And that’s all that matters really.”

If I close my eyes, I can see her standing in the hallway of a house in Togher saying those words.

Still.

Charlie and the football factory

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I’m writing this at 8 o’clock on a balmy June evening. The sun is drifting down over Long Island, casting long tree shadows across the road in front of our house. When I look out the window, I can see my 8 year old Charlie moving from the light into the dark. He’s wearing the famous Blaugrana shirt of Barcelona, the name Messi emblazoned above the number 10 on his back, and he has a ball at his feet. He will remain out there until the gloaming turns to dusk and I call him in. It’s a sight that lifts my spirts mostly because it’s something I never thought I’d see.

Eight months ago, that same child was out in the garden lying with a rifle in his hand playing war and disturbing the young couple who just moved in across the road. He was obsessed with military matters. His Santa letter last Christmas was like a terrorist’s to-do list. And when it wasn’t guns and ammo that tickled his fancy it was cars and trucks and all types of motorized vehicles. One frigid Saturday a couple of Januarys ago, I spent an afternoon at a Monster Truck rally in Nassau Coliseum, watching oversized pick-ups mercilessly crushing sedans and saloons, and I wondered where it all went wrong.

And, like a good Irish Catholic, I blamed myself. See, when Charlie was a baby, I coached his older brother’s soccer team, and he spent his formative years being dragged to every match and training session. He sat on the bench. He listened to his father shout a little more than he should have. Very, very occasionally, he’d participate in a pre-game kickabout. All along I figured this was only going to cause him to fall in love with the sport.

Imagine my shock then when it finally came time for him to play and he expressed no interest in the beautiful game or any other code. Until last winter. He spent a few weeks playing basketball and somewhere in the middle of that failed experiment, he started kicking a soccer ball out on the street.

At first I said nothing, almost afraid to jinx it. But, it went on and on. What started as a flirtation became a full-blown love affair. The kid who was only interested in things that went vroom-vroom or bang-bang was suddenly raiding his older brother’s wardrobe and wearing vintage (six years old) soccer shirts to school. One day, he was Cork City, the next Liverpool. Every afternoon, he suddenly was outside firing goal after goal into his big brother’s net while commentating in a faux English accent he picked up playing FIFA.

The morning after his first communion last month I drove halfway across Long Island to Upper 90 soccer shop so he could blow a good portion of his money on a Portugal shirt with Ronaldo and the number 7 on it. It went immediately into the rotation of jerseys that he wears to school, a fashion choice he takes so seriously that he devotes way too much time to picking from his selection each morning.

It’s not just that he’s fallen in love with playing the game. He’s become besotted with the entire culture. All he does is watch soccer on television. It can be month-old games on DVR or old World Cup matches or Mexican League encounters en Espanol. He’s not fussy. He will sit glued to it for hours. If the television is not available, he’ll go on the computer and trawl YouTube. If that’s taken he’ll borrow his older brother’s iPhone and find the footage there. Witness this sample conversation from the other morning.

“Why are you laughing so hard?” I asked.

“I’m watching this thing called ‘Ten Angry Goalkeepers’,” he replied. “Did you ever know of this guy called Oliver Kahn?”

This is how he spends his days. When he’s not outside kicking a ball, he’s watching people kicking a ball or reading about them doing so. It’s the most wonderful voyage of discovery, a boy finding his way through a sport, absorbing the history, a history that is oh so magnificently accessible due to the technology of the age. A kid whose entire sporting interest to this point revolved around cars and rifles is now badgering me with questions like, “Maradona or Pele?” and “Zidane or Messi?”

It’s fantastic because it’s so belated, so unexpected and so very, very different. When I opened the google page on my cell phone at work last week, “Pictures of Neymar haircuts” was the last item searched. Not what you’d expect to find a bald, middle-aged man to be looking up. The hair like the shirts and the cleats, they are all part of the new obsession.

A couple of Sundays back, Charlie’s U-9 intramural team were getting a bit of a tonking from another outfit. At one point, the coach signaled for him to go back and take the kick-out because he has, already, quite the shot off a ball. I could see by his face he was delighted with this responsibility. He placed the ball down with great care, embarked on what must have been a 15 yard run-up, and then tried the most audacious Rabona.

It didn’t quite come off but the idea told me more about Charlie than the execution. The other players were so stunned they didn’t notice the ball trickling past. The coach had his head in his hands. And as for the child himself, well, after the danger had eventually been averted, he looked over to where I was standing and smiled. The kind of smile that reminds us all that children’s sport should be about fun and trying outrageous tricks in the white heat of battle.

Later that night, when I was tucking him into bed, he called me close and whispered in the most perfect English accent; “The gaffer’s going to be well-chuffed with that Rabona.”

He was spot-on. The gaffer is well-chuffed with that and a whole lot more.