Musings – I hope the tea is good in heaven

On this day 10 years ago my beloved grandmother died. She was a good age as they say and she passed away after a short but very challenging battle with Esophageal/Stomach cancer.

Her name was Mary Elizabeth Drumm (nee Egan). She used to joke that she was called by one of the Queen’s names. She was also known as Babs by some of her family as she was the youngest. When we visited relatives with her in Athlone she went from being our ‘Mammy Drumm’ to Babs.

I think I was the one who first called her Mammy Drumm. When I was just short of two my younger sister arrived into the world. My mum was 25 but she had three girls under the age of 4. That was more than a handful so I was sent off to live with my grandmother Mammy Drumm (My Dad’s mum) and my other gran came down to be with my Mum, the new baby and my older sister. After a couple of weeks with my ‘Mammy Drumm’ my Dad arrived to collect me. I am told that I didn’t want to get into the car, that I wanted to stay with my Mammy Drumm. I believe my gran also asked my Dad to leave me with her for a little longer.

We were her only grandchildren. As a young married woman my gran had a number of miscarriages and a stillbirth. She had also lost her beloved eldest son Paddy when he was four and when my Dad was just nine month’s old.

They lived in Gort in Co Galway at the time. Paddy was known all around the village as he was feisty and full of character. He would call to some of the houses and speak to the housekeepers and he would say ‘I will say thank you if you give me bread and jam’. They would always comply and he would always say thank you. Paddy was hit by a car/truck when he was outside playing. He was taken off to the hospital where they kept him in and where initially they refused to let my gran see him. She was having none of it and demanded to see him. Her husband Mick was in the army at the time and they were part of a very close-knit community in the army and in the village.  They spent time with Paddy in the hospital over the days that followed. They had no car so they would get lifts and cycle 20 miles to be with him. Paddy had a broken leg and so it was covered in plaster. The medical team didn’t pay the attention they should have to the large cut which got infected and which eventually caused blood poisoning and the death of their beloved son Paddy. He was buried in the children’s graveyard in Gort and the people of the town never quite recovered from the tragedy. Neither did my grandparents.

I know that my gran held Paddy in her heart for her whole life and she spoke about him often. She lost her husband at a young age too. I sometimes wondered how she went on after all that tragedy.

But if you knew my gran you would know that she was quite simply THE most amazing woman. She was way ahead of her time in terms of thinking, fashion, opinion and all manner of things. She drew us to her like a magnet with her wit, kindness and her love. She would say that it was her purse which also drew us to her as she spoiled us – just enough, so as not to get into trouble with our parents.

She was my Godmother, my sponsor at Confirmation, the first person I told when I found out I was pregnant with Emma. She believed in tradition and legacy. She insisted on buying my wedding dress for me – I was her Godchild, her Grandchild and the first of her grand children to get married.

She used to say to me ‘When I am dead and gone, I can’t take it with me and you will look at that dress in years to come and remember me’. The dress is far down a long list of reasons I will remember her always.

She had a tremendous wit and a love of company and conversation. She was brilliant at games, cards and asking for a bargain. She would put on this air of being a poor old lady when she was in fact quite the opposite – and you would fool her and deceive her at your peril. She was firm with us when she needed to be but I will remember her as kind and funny and a hundred other ways, before I will remember her as a cross person.

She was teetotal but she loved tea. She was a pioneer but later on in her life she allowed herself a glass of bubbly at a wedding.

She was a woman of deep personal faith in God and she was always in the middle of a Novena when we went to stay with her. She would always have a candle lighting on the mantelpiece in the kitchen for some intention. I can’t begin to imagine how many candles she expended on our exams and on tests! She kept them lit!

She had five grandchildren and she loved each one of us. She never took sides. She had nieces and nephews too whom she loved like they were hers.

Bryan and I gave Mammy Drumm her first grandchild. When Emma was two weeks old I surprised my gran by driving from Newbridge to Longford so as she could meet her. She was besotted and so began another wonderful relationship between Mammy Drumm and her first great grandchild. She was blessed to get to see three more great grandchildren before she closed her eyes.

My gran was an Egan from Clonmacnoise where she grew up in a farming family. While she lived in the West of Ireland, in Dublin,Athlone and Longford, her heart was always in Clonmacnoise. She never missed the pattern there and we were regular pilgrims to Saint Ciaran there and grew to love that sacred place as much as she did. It’s in our blood.

Mammy Drumm was a regular visitor to us in Newbridge and Emma loved her. She spent time with Bryan and me when we were newly weds after a serious accident left her in traction for 7 weeks.

The last Summer she came to stay with us was the Summer of 2005. I knew she wasn’t well when I heard her being sick in the middle of the night. She brushed it off and said it was just an upset tummy. I accepted her explanation. She was devious at times and hid how bad she was feeling. Weeks later when she was back at home we realised it was something more serious. It all went downhill after that.

A few weeks before she died I was in work and I suddenly felt anxious about her and about the lack of a firm diagnosis. My brother was in Cavan with her and was trying to get answers about treatment. I left work and drove to Cavan and myself and my brother received the news that she was not going to get better. The doctors said she was not going to survive the cancer, that she would eventually succumb to it. I went back to see her on the ward and I was terrified of having to talk to her about death. She knew before I said anything. She had been afraid of cancer her whole life and when saying the word she would whisper it or spell it! As she lay in her hospital bed looking frail and pale she reached over and beckoned for me to lean in and she whispered to me ‘I am ready to go. I am not afraid’. I asked her if she wanted to see the Chaplain and she said she did. I had him paged and he spent time with her. When he came out, he looked at me and said she is happy and at peace. She is ready to go.

None of us who loved her were ready to let her go. She was the Matriarch, the head of the family, the glue that kept us all together. My mother deserves the credit for being a living angel to my gran when she was sick. She nursed her at home when she was in and out of hospital for the months before her final diagnosis. She sat with her at night and cleaned up the mess that this type of a disease brings. No one did more for my gran in her final weeks and days than my mum did.

My Mum, Dad and brother were with my gran when she died in the early hours of the morning of 10 May 2006. I wasn’t there and it is something I will always regret. I got the call just moments after she had passed. It was the saddest moment and there is a gap in our lives that nothing and no one can ever fill.

We knew what we had to do. I was asked by her to phone a priest friend of hers in Longford with the news. When I called him to tell him the news he said ‘I know what I have to do’. I am not quite sure what he meant but suddenly all sorts of things swung into action. We followed her wishes to the letter – She was waked near our house in a funeral home. She wanted a removal to the Church and a requiem Mass and she wanted to be buried beside her beloved husband in Longford.

We all had our part to play.

When we received her remains to the nursing home from the hospital, there was work to be done. She had the most wonderful silver grey hair and my Mum always set it for her. It would have been important for her to be well presented so my Mum and I worked on her. My Mum set her hair. I did her make up. I had never done anything like that before and I was shaking as I did it. I cried and cried until my tear ducts were dry – we all did – but we all played our part.

She had a beautiful wake with prayers and then we had family time with her until late into the night. Her removal and funeral Mass were beautiful. As we brought her remains into the church there was a ferocious rumble of thunder – she always hated thunder and it was as if she was having a last joke.

She would have loved the idea that two bishops officiated at her funeral Mass and burial in the cemetery in the Longford. Her old friend Bishop Colm O’Reilly was there waiting for us in the graveyard when we arrived as was her lifelong friend – the priest I had to call. It suddenly made sense.

We said goodbye to her at the graveyard in Longford. My brothers stayed to fill in the grave. We all played our part.

Ten years on she is still missed, still talked about, still loved.

I miss you Mammy Drumm. I hope the tea is good in heaven.



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