(Now and then it did occur to me, as I wrestled my tent in some windswept place, hanging on to it with one hand while hammering pegs into the stoney ground with the other or cycling my bicycle through the misty drizzle that sometimes hangs around for days, that I actually enjoyed it! Yes I will admit there was indeed an element of stoic endurance attached to my holidays.)
It was only when my divorce was finalized that my older sister lost her nerve.
She rang my mother in panic to inform her that I was about to have a nervous breakdown.
‘Nonsense’ my mother retorted ‘Peppard women don’t have nervous breakdowns.
She was right!
I may have been elated with the relief that it was over but I definitely wasn’t having or even contemplating having one.
Our sisterly friendships are strong and though often interspersed with squabbling, forming opposing groups, reconciling again, we support each other unconditionally when trouble occurs.
We are also hugely loyal and would certainly never speak ill of each other in public.
Therefore, when I attended a writers group and was told that, if I had to be careful of what I wrote for fear of offending my family I may as well not bother writing, I voiced my concern. Such concern, my teacher replied, Will only make you selfconcious and spoil your spontaneity. As long as you don’t say libless things about any of them you should just tap away. And if a family member disagrees with the happenings of an incident you have written about just remind them it was written from your memory of the incident.
So with bated breath and a nervous sense of permission I write the following piece.
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy, a school of thought which feels that if you push emotion to the side then you can deal with things in a more rational clear headed way.
The modern version of the word is used to describe people who endure without complaint, people who are forbearing, resigned, fortuitous and most importantly, people who do not have nervous breakdowns.
It would be a word that comes to mind if I was ever asked to describe the women of my family and I believe it stemmed from when we were little.
Every summer for as far back as I can remember, my parents took us what is popularly known now as, wild camping or even more recently, stealth camping.
They were not trying to be cool or different! It was just that they loved the wilds and camping and, as there was enough of us, we had no need to seek the company of others, so that’s what we did.
Mostly we camped along by the sea on pieces of common land where the beaches stretched for miles and where there wasn’t another sinner in sight.
But the odd time, if my dad felt that the look of a lake or a river showed promise of good fishing, we would set up camp in such a place.
Being respectful of ownership and never presuming his right to plonk himself (and us) down wherever he fancied, he would always get permission first from the nearest farm house and was never denied it.
In fact we made some lifelong friends this way and each Christmas we addressed cards to faraway places with names that sounded songlike.
Inishmicatreer, Inchigeelagh, Gougane barra, Creeslough.
Looking back I’m sure these farmers could never understand why a Dublin man (An architect with a grand car at that) would haul his wife and eight children across fields and set up camp beside the lake.
That while they, not by choice, were without car and had no indoor plumbing, this man would send his children with a bucket to get water from the pump and expect his wife to feed her family from a tiny stove in a caravan, when they suspected he had a perfectly well built house back in the suburbs complete with toilet and bathroom.
But they held their council and their wives sold my mother fresh milk and eggs, and buttermilk to bake brown bread in her tiny oven (my dad refused to eat shop bought bread). And the women, when they had a chance, would slip down across the fields, and have tea with my mother. Sitting out in the sun on camping stools they would chat and compare notes about children, and housework and the difference of their lifestyles and I know my mother welcomed these interludes as a break from preparing and cooking of endless meals for her energetic family. And while they talked and their husbands cut the meadows and my dad fished, we found adventure in everything even our most mundane of chores .
I remember the farm at lough Acalla, where we would be sent to collect the milk and eggs. It was one of our more exciting jobs as it contained an element of danger.
Peering over the gate we needed to check first and see if the pigs, a huge sow and boar were asleep. If they were then we would ‘run the gauntlet’ hoping to make it to the backdoor in one journey.
More often than not they would wake and come lumbering angrily towards us and we would have to scale the giant haystack in the barn (the halfway point) and sit there patiently till they fell asleep again before running the rest of the way.
It was the same on the return journey but miraculously we never lost an egg or spilled the milk and always arrived home unscathed.
It didn’t occur to us to mention the cross pigs to our mother and therefore she was probably unaware of the risk it involved. We presumed, seeing as we were allowed to row boats around the lake without wearing life jackets and never had to say where we were going when we went exploring, such incidences wouldn’t concern her.
And Just as, when my dad whistled and we dropped what we were doing and came running to do his bidding, we assumed this is how it was in every family (Mostly it was for something to do with fishing! Fetch his waders or to hold the boat steady while he filled the engine with petrol, a job that only took one child but the rule was, when dad whistled we ALL came running.)
Once a fisherman placing oars in the rowlocks of his boat watched us arrive and set up camp.
He gave an account of it later, describing it as an exercise run with military precision.
He told of how, when the entourage pulled up, children of all sizes and ages tumbled higgledy piggeldy out of the car, righted themselves and with no apparent orders got to work.
The tallest tugged two large containers from the car boot (out of which clambered two more children) and set off in search of water.
The second tallest proceeded to unhitch the caravan from the towbar and with her father swung it into a suitable position. She then jumped in through the caravan door before reappearing with a winder and proceeded to wind down the four legs.
The third tallest (me) gathered the remaining children and herded them down to the lakeshore where she kept them out of the way, passing the time by examining small beetles and water skaters. The father unloaded his fishing gear, (Hardy rod, fishing creel, waders) and carried them down to the boat.
Meanwhile glimpses of the mother could be seen through the curtains organizing the interior.
At this stage, and with no sign of being called, the children, herded back from the shore, were lined up in a row and as various pieces of camping equipment, chairs, basins buckets and spades were passed out through the door by the mother, they stowed them neatly under the caravan.
A few minutes later the tallest girl reappeared, this time walking slowly with her burden.
Stopping now and again she carefully placed the two heavy cans on the ground and rested her arms. The second tallest seeing her struggle ran to help her.
A short while later the air was filled with the glorious smell of fried meat and onions at which point the father, having bailed out the boat, fitted the rowlocks and slotted in the oars, came back up to have his dinner before heading off again for the four o clock rise.
Sometimes the menagerie contained not only children but dogs, cats and even once my pet black mice.
(The mice didn’t come home with us. They had multiplied with abundance and my father decided the hay fields they were a far happier place for them than the cage. Having nothing but school and shoes and concrete pavements to look forward to once we got home how we envied them.)
Back at school I would compare notes with my friends and as they recounted apartment holidays in sunny spain I would feel so sorry for them. Where was the fun in that I wondered but I kept my thoughts to myself.
Last summer once again I found myself hanging onto the guy ropes of someone’s tent. This time it was my youngest sisters (she was belting the storm pegs into the ground). We carried on a normal conversation, the rain and wind whipping our hair about our faces. Now and then she would stop hammering and lift her head to check that the three small figures running in and out of the waves were not being washed out to sea. I had been here a week before her and the weather had been glorious, but high winds and rain were promised for the weekend. Yet here she was unpacking bedding, unloading boxes of food, crouching to fill a saucepan with water, placing it on all the small stove as the wind dipped the tent inwards, emptying a packet of pasta into the boiling water. The children could now be seen running back up across the sand. Their heads low as they struggled against the elements, their childish voices snatched away in the storm. Their trousers wet to their knees.
I looked at her bent head as she grated parmesan onto the cooked pasta.
‘Did you check the weather forecast before you set out? ‘ I asked her.
‘what?’ she looked up at me puzzled ‘No! why?’
I knew the answer
When we were children, before he set out on a day’s fishing, my dad would lift the phone and dial the number of met eireann. Listening intently to the recorded message he would frown crossly and slamming the receiver back into the cradle would announce ‘Nonsense, load of rubbish’ before storming towards the door with his waders looped over his arm, his fishing creel across his shoulder and his hardy rods in his other hand.
‘If you were to worry about the weather forecast in this country’ he would call back to us ‘you would never go anywhere’.