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2004-12-21 Let's spare a thought for those on their own this Christmas season

Margaret awoke to seven tuneful chimes from the old Grandmother Clock in the hall below. It was Christmas morning.

The little girl tumbled out of bed, slid down the bannisters, skipped into the parlour, and sure enough under the tree lay all the evidence Margaret needed.

Santy had been for sure, and had left behind exactly what Margaret had specifically requested in her Advent letter - a large, fully-fitted Doll's House, with all the furnishings.

 

She squealed with excitement as she looked around to see her loving, smiling parents in the doorway behind her. Her two older brothers , John and Thady, had presented Margaret with a beautifully-illustrated 'Compendium of Bedtime Stories'.

Margaret, or 'Peggy' as she was affectionately known, was the baby of the family, and whatever Peggy wanted, within reason, she could have. Yes, she was spoiled, but never cheeky; polite and courteous to all.

 

For weeks, the little mid-terraced house in John Street had been busily preparing for Christmas. Brightly coloured hand-made decorations, and Christmas cards from far and near danced on strings in each of the downstairs rooms.

 

The pantry was bursting at the seams with Christmas fare, and a lovingly hand-crafted crib adorned the parlour window, subtly illuminated for those who passed by.

 

When the excitement of the present-opening had subsided a little, the whole family walked across the street to Christmas morning mass in the Cathedral. Peggy was sporting her beautiful new 'Princess party-dress', sent by her godmother in London.

 

As Peggy intoned the first verse of "Once in Royal", a capella from the altar steps, everyone in the Cathedral adjusted their gaze to see just who the possessor of this pure and expressive girl soprano voice was.

 

No expense was spared for the family Christmas dinner in John Street - turkey with all the trimmings, fizzy white lemonade, plum pudding, cherry cake, mince pies, Christmas cake, marzipan biscuits, and a big box of Lemons Sweets.

 

After dinner, someone suggested Peggy played some Christmas carols on the old piano. The gifted little nine-year-old loved being centre-stage and was only too happy to oblige.

 

She performed the entire Christmas carol repertory, as well as her Grade 3 piano pieces by way of an encore. No-one was the least bit surprised at Peggy's talent as she had several Junior Feiseanna awards under her belt from earlier in the year.

 

Music was Peggy's first love, and when she eventually finished her schooling, she began to teach piano and singing to some of the town's children, as well as setting up a local children's choir.

 

By now, her brother John had left for London, and Thady had emigrated to Australia some time ago, but Peggy remained with her loving parents in the wee house in John Street.

 

Peggy's second love was Peter, who worked in the Post Office. Peggy and Peter grew inseparable, and courted for years, before Peter finally made an honest woman of the popular local music teacher.

 

In December 1959, the two were married in Sligo Cathedral. Peggy's best friend from the age of three - Lily - was 'Matron of Honour'. The singing bride sang Schubert's "Ave Maria" during the Offeratory; her little children's choir sang a flawless two-part version of the "Panis" during Communion.

 

After Peggy's perfect day, the newlyweds spent their honeymoon and first Christmas together in Australia. Christmas dinner was on a beach just outside Sydney, with Thady and his new family. It was certainly unique. The lovebirds were together and that was all that mattered.

 

Every other Christmas in their perfect marriage was spent in the traditional way in that cosy little terraced-house in John Street. Every Christmas Eve Peggy took her children's choir to sing carols in the hospitals and homes around the town. It was always an emotional experience for Peggy to see the effect music had on those aging faces, just like when she watched the faces of her own elderly parents light up when she sang to them.

 

As Peggy and Peter had married late in life, they never had children, and after Peggy's parents passed away, the devoted couple grew even closer. "I love you" were words seldom uttered in those days, but Peggy's childhood and marriage were clearly built on a foundation of love and trust. In 1999, days before their Ruby Anniversary, Peggy's beloved Peter left this life for the next. For the first time in her life, Peggy was truly alone.

 

Unable to face her first Christmas alone, she persuaded her life-long friend and soul-mate, Lily, to join her on a Caribbean Christmas cruise. The ship was the height of comfort. Peggy won first prize in an on-board talent show for her self-accompanied rendition of "O Holy Night". There was really no competition - Peggy could still hold a crowd in the palm of her hand.

 

The spectacularly colourful Christmas dinner was a piece of theatre, and had to be seen to be believed. And yet, this wasn't Christmas for Peggy - Christmas was meant to be in John Street.

 

When Peggy and Lily got back to Sligo on New Year's Eve, everyone was preparing for Millenium Night, but Peggy was shattered and just wanted an early night. And so, Millenium Night was spent alone. At the stroke of the Millenium midnight, as a party unfolded on the portable TV in front of her, Peggy spoke aloud to her late husband: "I miss you Peter, beyond words, and I love you," she sighed, as a tear rolled down her tanned cheek.

 

Peggy still had a few piano pupils, and a handful of good friends, but because of her advancing years, she was losing some of them too. Peggy got herself a Fox Terrier. She called him Patch, and doted on him like the child she never had. But because of Peggy's own failing health, the wee house had become too big for her, and quite unsafe.

 

The time had come for Peggy to sell the house she had been reared, married and retired in, and get rid of almost all of it's sentimentally-valued contents. Peggy was heartbroken when she was left with no choice but to give Patch to a neighbour's child, and devastated when she saw her old piano being wheeled out to the removal truck.

 

The care staff in the home could hardly have been more kind. The Chaplain took a real shine to Peggy, who he had known and admired for years through her music. But Peggy had few visitors in the home, and only had her memories, her dreams and a few precious keepsakes to keep her company.

 

As Christmas approached she wondered how on earth she would survive her first Christmas truly alone. John's only child - Eddie - called her sometimes from England, but "he had his own life and shouldn't have to be bothering with his old Auntie Peggy".

 

On Christmas Eve, as Peggy turned out her light to go to sleep she glanced around the room. Three Christmas cards - one from Australia, one from an ex-student who had gone on to study music in Dublin, and a personal one from the Chaplain. A piece of green tinsel was twirled around her call-bell.

 

On Christmas morning, the old silver-haired music teacher awoke to the sound of piped Christmas carols resounding throughout the home Ã- the very carols she was repeatedly requested to perform at the old piano as a little girl in John Street. After Christmas morning mass in the Chapel all the residents sat down to Christmas dinner. The dinner had all the usual ingredients, complete with crackers and party hats. After the plum pudding, Peggy smiled at the other residents and returned alone to her room.

 

It was not even 2pm on Christmas Day, and yet, Peggy's Christmas Day was over. She lifted an old chocolate box out from the wardrobe, containing the few personal keepsakes she had hung onto when she sold her house - a family portrait, a photo of her and her dear Peter on their Australian honeymoon, a pink ribbon from her 'Princess party-dress', her wedding, engagement and eternity rings, a charm bracelet, the wooden Baby Jesus from the crib, and a little hand-painted Santy Christmas tree decoration.

 

Peggy sat back in the armchair by her bed, and focussed on happier times. She closed her eyes. Before her, in a doorway stood her loving parents, as clear as day smiling at their little girl as she unwrapped her Doll's House on Christmas morning.

 

Then Peggy saw her beloved Peter on a beach, arms outstretched towards her, and that first Christmas together as a devoted married couple. Peggy's full and contented life was unfolding before her very eyes.

 

The old lady smiled, clutched the tiny wooden Santy, and fell asleep.

- Spare a thought for those on their own this Christmas.

- Visit someone elderly.

- Support the Society of St.Vincent de Paul.