Elizabeth Brennan, born Elizabeth Maher on the Eleventh of March 1924
To Bill and Johanna Maher in Ballydool – Kilkenny was the 6th of 11 children – 3 boys and 8 girls. She was the last of them.
She and her husband Jimmy met under the clock outside the jewellers in Kilkenny, they were married in 1947 and began a life there raising 4 children, before leaving it all behind and moving to Blantyre Scotland in 1961 and then on to Leeds in 1969 where she lived for over half her 99 years.
But of course, she was much more than just than just that bare biographical data.
A side effect of living to 99 is that she lived many lives, daughter, sister, wife, mother, grand mother – great grand mother, she went by different names too – Ma, Mammy, Grandma B, Grannie, Betty – Mrs Brennan.
Those roles and names all have their own history and meaning as individual to her as they are to the people who used them, and I will try to do justice to all of them by telling just a few small elements of those stories that we thought illustrated her life.
For example, she learned to drive in a way that seems taken directly from a comic novel or BBC comedy drama about life in old Ireland. – Mick Mullins the butcher gave her lessons in his van. It seems that was all she needed, though a close scrape with a bus and a direct hit on the wall of St Joseph’s church in Blantyre seem to imply that maybe she wasn’t always paying 100% attention to the road at all times.
A particularly memorable car journey for her and the children was a trip to the Wicklow Mountains. The purpose of which was to retrieve a potion to clear up Davy’s baby eczema, what today might be called a homeopathic remedy from a healer… and though the trip itself left scars of its own that still run deep to this day the eczema did clear up.
However, it turns out that on the way to obtain the healing cream of unclear origin a holy well was plundered for water and it may well have been the blessed contents from its depths that helped the infant Davy’s skin back to full health – it may even have been a passing nun who promised to pray for the baby.
She was always encouraging her children to live their true selves and in the case of Denis that included putting on bets at the local bookies for him when he was not only underage but also literally at school – though he recalls to much chagrin the Tanner bet she failed to place that naturally, came in.
Another memory less tangible but nonetheless shared across generations, she always looked cool, effortlessly cool – no matter what she was up to she glided and never looked particularly flustered.
I’ve been thinking a lot about some pithy tale I might tell, a personal story that skirts the line of melancholy and amusing and when I was a child we would play cards she would often look at my hopeless attempts to shuffle the deck and say “you’d get shot for less in Chicago” I never really questioned how she knew this or how much time she’d spent playing cards with gangsters in Chicago but it seemed to me at least like she could well have.
The abiding memories don’t really have sound though -they’re not funny moments, they are core memories – more foundational than a quip or funny line – mine include; baking in the kitchen at Harlech Road, the yellow bowl with the roll top on the small table with blue legs perched on a red chair and licking the beaters after. Being wrapped in a towel sat in front of the fire on the green footstool watching TV before bed. Going to mass in the chapel at the LGI or Catholic Cathedral in Leeds and just sitting quietly – together.
The well worm aphorism goes that your family should give you roots and wings and I think that is her legacy, her gift to me. I have never once thought to myself ‘I have nowhere to go’ and that, I have come to realise is an incredible privilege it has been a super-power for me – no matter where I have been in the world, no matter what situation I might find myself in, at all times day or night from my point A I had a permanent unchanging point B.
And at that point B would be a sandwich and a cup of tea, or at minimum a snack of some description.
I was asked recently if I could describe the physical sensation that occurred in my body when I thought of my childhood and specifically Grandma B and the word that kept coming back to me was ‘calm’ no drama, no outrageous highs or lows just a steady sense of calm and the idea that everything will be ok tomorrow and that someone should put the kettle on. And did I want a sandwich? some crisps? there might be a kitkat in the cupboard or a bit of cake, a bit of old cake but cake nonetheless.
Seems small I guess – there’s no grand story arch here that takes in the great and the good the rich and the famous. It’s just a tale of small things. Relatable reliable things. Quiet, unconditional. But of course, that’s not small, it’s elemental and runs to the core of what type of person she was and life she led the and impact she had – she wasn’t in the background of our lives she was the background of our lives.
I’m told that It’s a cliche to end with a quote, so I want to end with two. As we are in this holy place it seemed appropriate to use something from the bible. It is something a priest said to me when I was in primary school, and that for more years than I care to admit, I thought he’d made it up, there are a few translations but the one I think of, the one that gets me through darker times and I think for me epitomises the spirit of Ma, Mammy Grandma B, Granny, Betty, Mrs Brennan is the last two lines of Psalm 30
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
And the second quote is from a similarly worthy source, The Hollywood actor slash superstar Keanu Reeves. Who on a US talk show was asked: What happens to us when we die, Keanu Reeves?
And he paused for a second and answered
The ones who love us
will miss us.