Sharon Quigley is a graduate of NUIG and GMIT, living in Galway. She studied History & Archaeology and Hotel Management and has worked in the Hospitality Industry in Ireland and Europe, and also set-up her own business. She has managed to combine her work and love of culture with her love of travelling, believing ‘travel is the best education’.
The Gift of Appreciation
By Sharon Quigley
She gently lifted the covers, trying not to disturb her husband, and crept into the bathroom. It was still very early, but she wanted to get a head start on the day’s proceedings and had alot to accomplish before she would be sitting down to her much awaited Christmas dinner.
Two bleary eyes stared back at her, and unapologetically so.
‘Oh, Gawd, I should have had an early night as planned’ she thought as she splashed her face with lukewarm water in an effort to awaken her senses. John had invited some neighbours over for a Christmas Eve drink which had (fortunately or unfortunately) stretched into a Christmas Eve ‘seisuin’.
She threw on her dressing gown, abandoning the shower until later, and quietly made her way downstairs. She needed her morning caffeine fix, and with trepidation and a deep sigh, she peeked around the kitchen door.
‘Why is it everyone always migrates to the kitchen at parties?’ she pondered, as she took in the array of glasses, cans and bottles strewn across the worktop. As she waited for the kettle to boil, she quickly binned what she could and loaded the dishwasher with the rest. She eventually sat down to savour her morning coffee and toast.
‘Gawd, Mary would have a field day if she saw all this!’ and was glad that her mother-in-law would not be making an appearance until late that afternoon.
As she sipped her coffee and relished her toast, she reflected on that first Christmas that John had invited her to spend with his family. They had only been ‘going out’ for five months or so but things had been going very well, and on reflection, they probably both knew that they would be eventually settling down to-gether.
She had spoken briefly to Mary a couple of times over the phone before, when John would thrust the receiver at her and insist she ‘talk to Mam’. She was the polite, reserved girl that of course any ‘prospective Mother-in-law’ would expect to have at the other end of the line. Conversations were brief and mostly about John, or the weather of course!
So, when John first proffered the idea of Christmas with the Keane family in Rathdowney, she tried to come up with a viable excuse but she could think of none.
‘Rathdowney is sooooo far away’ (John and her both lived in Galway, well within acceptable commuting distance to Rathdowney); ‘My family will be upset’ (even though she knew they had booked a Christmas holiday in the Canaries); ‘But, I’ve nothing to wear’ (a useful excuse for any occasion, except this one).
And so, it was off to Laois for a Christmas adventure!
They were to arrive for Christmas Eve lunch time and stay until St Stephens day, which didn’t seem too bad. The most difficult thing of course was choosing the appropriate gift for Mary. John’s father, Pat, was easy as with most fathers’ Christmas/Birthday/Occasional gifts; Socks, hankies, whisky, a book about wildlife/gardening/similar – take your pick. She chose Alan Titchmarsh’s latest book, on recommendation from John, and some Pringle socks.
But Mary, What about Mary? John didn’t know if his mother wore perfume or even liked makeup, or what books she read or what colours she liked, and so was of no help whatsoever. She decided not to buy anything until she got there, had sussed out the situation, made her excuses and she could then dash out to pick up something in Rathdowney on Christmas eve. She knew this was a huge risk but was willing to take the chance in order to get the ‘perfect gift’ in an effort to impress Mary.
All started out well that day and they arrived in good time at the Keane household. Mary and Pat were already waiting at the door, and she wondered if they had stood there waiting for some time or perhaps it was that special sense a Mother has when she knows her child is coming home? Although she had seen some family photos of John’s parents at different occasions, they seemed more approachable and jovial in ‘real life’.
‘Probably because they were formal occasions and so they maintained formal poses’ thought Ann.
‘Well Hello Ann, you’re very welcome, I’m glad to meet you, at long last’ said Mary with her hand extended to Ann, whilst throwing a wink at John. ‘Come on in, out of that cold. Pat, help John with the bags’. Pat smiled at Ann and generously shook her hand before hurrying over to do as he was told.
Ann was led down the bright narrow hallway, which was adorned with family momentos and pictures, and was brought into the warm and cosy open plan kitchen which opened up into a lovely sitting area. She was offered a comfortable seat, as Mary hurried about getting some lunch ready.
Ann thought Mary should have had a career with Interpol as she somehow managed to glean a lot of information from Ann in a very short time, and was relieved when she recognised John’s footsteps in the hallway.
‘Now Mam, you’re not interrogating the poor girl, are ya? ‘laughed John as he threw a wink at Ann.
‘Gosh John, sure aren’t we only getting to know each other!’ retorted his Mother with slight indignation at being rumbled!
Mary called everyone to the table once Lunch was ready. She had prepared a variety of sandwiches and a heart warming pot of vegetable soup. This was followed by homemade trifle and a Victoria sponge, washed down with steaming mugs of tea. Whilst John caught up with the latest Rathdowney gossip, Ann took in her surroundings. She noted Mary kept a very clean and tidy house but was not adverse to a little bit of clutter, like most Irish households. There was a vast collection of family photographs, some Belleek, some Tara (and some unrecognisable ceramic figurines) sitting nicely amongst the normal kitchen equipment and furniture.
She had a clear view of the patio and garden areas, which housed an eclectic blend of foliage and flower pots, with an ornate bird bath taking centre stage on the patio. A tall corner glass cabinet stood next to the patio doors, and it’s contents seemed to mirror the garden with a flowery collection of china mugs and some crystal cut glassware. She smiled as she surveyed the garden and the colourful blend of bedding plants and flowers.
‘Thank you John’ she thought.’ At least I’ve Pat sorted’. Pat (ever the astute observationist as she would later find out) tapped her lightly on the arm and asked ‘Do you do a spot of gardening yourself Ann?’ eager to find a comrade in horticultural pursuits. ‘Sorry, no’ she apologised and quickly added (as she saw some disappointment creep over his face) ‘but you have a wonderful garden’, and this seemed to please Pat immensely.
‘Pat loves his garden’ Mary remarked ‘and would live out there if he could!’ but threw a smile at Pat.
Ann asked to use the bathroom, to allow some time to think as well as perhaps get some more ‘clues’ as to what would be an ideal gift for Mary. As she made her way back from the bathroom along the hallway, she noticed photographs that crossed generations and were probably part of both Mary and Pat’s family histories. There was also a copy of an old newspaper article dating from the 1920’s about a Patrick Burke who had spent some time with Lord Carnarvon in Egypt.
‘That was Mam’s Grandfather’ John whispered in her ear. ‘John! You startled me’ she hadn’t heard him come up behind her. ‘Sorry, I thought you got lost, and you did, in my family history’ he laughed.
Ann enjoyed another slice of Victoria sponge and a third cup of tea which she now noticed had been presented to her in one of the flowery china mugs from the cabinet. She noticed Mary drank from a mug emblazoned with ‘World’s Best Mother’, Pat’s mug displayed the Keane family crest and John’s drank from a Manchester united mug , ‘Figures’ she thought. She was beginning to unwind and enjoy the company but was increasingly anxious about Mary’s gift. John notice Ann had begun to gnaw at her bottom lip which was always an indication of anxiety. ‘Mam, I’m going to take Ann up the town and give her the grand tour. We won’t be long’ he said rising from the table and pulled Ann out the door before Mary could verbalise any protestations.
Town was only a short stroll away and they were there in ten minutes. There were obviously many people in the same situation as Ann she observed, as shoppers briskly criss-crossed the streets scouring the shops for last minute gifts. Ann was still contemplating if she should forget ‘the perfect gift’ and should play safe and stick to something generic when she spied her inspiration in the window display of a small gift shop. The window held an impressive collection of history and travel books, ceramics, pictures, jewellery, toys and souvenirs. She pushed the door open to the chime of a bell which was heavily disguised with the chatter of shoppers’ voices. John busied himself with the Manchester United merchandise whilst Ann asked the shop assistant for help and was delighted when she found not one but two ‘perfect gifts’, which the assistant kindly gift wrapped for her. John took her to Moran’s for a celebratory drink.
She recalled how she waited ‘forever’ to present Mary with her gifts. She had always loved gift giving and the element of surprise as the recipient unwrapped their special gift. Christmas day couldn’t come quick enough. Pat received his graciously and was thrilled with the gardening book, and decided to keep the socks for ‘good wear’. Mary seemed to take forever to unwrap her gift and was not one of those ‘rip it open’ kind of people, preferring rather to peel back the tape and carefully unwrap the paper, which was then duly recycled for future gift giving. This of course only served to encourage the anticipation and slight anxiety washing over Ann.
Ann remembered the sheer joy and blush of pleasure that washed over Mary’s face. Mary was even momentarily lost for words. ‘Why Ann, these are wonderful’. She tentatively stroked the covers of both books, and was lost in her own thoughts for a bit. ‘Pat, look what Ann gave me, a book about the Burke family AND a book about Tutankhamun’. ‘Oh My, do you think Patrick Burke is in it?’ she laughed lightly. ‘Ann, thank you so very much, this is so thoughtful and so appreciated’
Yesterday, Ann had appreciated how important family and heritage were to Mary.
‘You are more than welcome Mary’. She smiled warmly at Mary and both women reached a special understanding and appreciation that day that would remain with them throughout their relationship, and that was a highly valued and most precious gift treasured by both women.
That had been two year’s ago and the following year, John had proposed. Their wedding day was only six months away now. Mary, and her own mother Joan, were the self-appointed wedding planners with very similar tastes, only not always to Ann or John’s taste. But, Ann allowed them the distraction of organising smaller tasks and duties, whilst she and John made the bigger decisions. She was amazed at how quickly the families had connected and now almost blended into one. She had always loved the fact she came from a large family, and relished the fact that it was now even bigger.
As Ann reminisced, she was pulled back from her reverie by John, who had slipped into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around her shoulders.
‘Morning sunshine’ he whispered as he gently nuzzled her hair. ‘Happy Christmas my darling’.
‘Happy Christmas to you too Love, now have a cuppa before you tackle the hoovering’, she teased, blissfully happy and appreciative of the life she had blessed with.