There wasn’t a huge amount of space for one-on-one time when I was a child. That’s how it is in big families, there are always plenty of people around. But for a few years I had an hour or more of undivided one-on-one time with Joan every day. I’d walk to her house off the school bus each afternoon and she’d have a snack ready for me. We’d sit together watching Countdown and have a debrief about my day before my mother and brothers would arrive to give me a lift home.
To all intents and purposes Joan was my grandmother, although technically she was my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister. She was born in the Irish Free State and moved across the border to Derry with my granny when she and my grandfather married in the forties. Joan was only 17 at the time and saw moving in with her sister as her chance to trade rural Donegal for the relative big smoke.
Joan never married. She lived with Granny and Granda her whole life, helping to raise my mother and her siblings and working in Granda’s shop. After Granny died it was just Granda and Joan in the house, and after he died, there was just Joan.
I spent a lot of time in that house. We had free run of the place. I remember making towers out of cassette tapes in the kitchen and setting up forts in the spare bedroom. One day in Joan’s room I found a little wooden jewellery box that she let me keep. It was made from ice pop (popsicle) sticks that had been glued together and varnished. It slid open and closed and had a cross shape on the front. On the base there was an inscription that began, “Joan, Thanks for tea and paraffin heater…” I asked my dad what ‘gaol’ meant. That’s when he explained it was a gift from a political prisoner, a local guy. Evidently, Joan had sent him a care package.
Of all the people in my life growing up, Joan was possibly the one who knew the most about the goings on of the community and the republican movement in Derry. From the late sixties, through the seventies and into the early eighties, she worked full time in Granda’s shop in Creggan. For a time during the Troubles Creggan was a no-go area for the British army and state police and was controlled by the IRA. The shops were at the heart of the community. Joan would have seen all the comings and goings and known a lot of people.
But Joan was also the person who said the least when I was growing up. When I was around 14 I had a school assignment to interview an elderly person and record their life story. Joan was the only ‘grandparent’ I had left who was of sound mind so I asked to interview her. She stalled for a week or so and then as my deadline approached she reluctantly asked, “What do you want to know?” Blood from a stone doesn’t even come close. The facts I collected went no further than she was 17 when she came to Derry and worked in the shirt factories as a smoother, and after that she worked in Granda’s shop for years.
I remember being frustrated because her caginess made my job of doing the write up unnecessarily difficult. But it wasn’t until I was much older and she was dead and buried that I realised how little I actually knew about her. Most of the information I have about Joan, her opinions and activities, I got from other people.
We were very close. She washed me, fed me and shared a bed with me. She taught me how to knit and play cards. She gave me snacks and let me stay up late to watch Prisoner: Cell Block H with her even though it was wildly inappropriate viewing for an 8-year-old. She was my favourite. But she, more than anyone else, personified the cultural belief that it’s dangerous to talk openly.
A lot of cultures live by that code of silence for all kinds of reasons. It bleeds into our family systems and shapes how we move through the world. I’ve come to realise my work is about undoing some of that legacy and learning how to speak and how to let myself be known.