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2013 -04 We'll be a long time dead

James Column for the Sligo Weekender

 
In one of my favourite books of all time  "To kill a mocking-bird"  Harper Lee states that "you can choose your friends, but you sho' can't choose your family"& Since then, of course, countless people have claimed that timeless truism as their own. Now those of you who know me well know why the above adage forever strikes a clanging resonant dissonant chord deep within my being, and yet truthfully it's only a small select section of my family I have had serious grievances with. And the rest of you, well you'll just have to wait patiently for the autobiography! Thankfully, for my own well-being, I learned over time that in such situations `indifference' is stronger and healthier than hatred.

A few years ago I read and digested all of Mitch Albom's thought-provoking books, several of which affected me deeply. Perhaps his most celebrated is "Tuesdays with Morrie", which recounts the true story of the author's weekly visits and conversations with his elderly ex-college-Professor Morrie Schwartz. Recently the book transferred to the stage, and I had the privilege of seeing the play at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre last year. On stage, Morrie's wise home truths and witticisms seemed somehow more pronounced and heartfelt. As I laughed and sobbed my way through that evening, I began to focus on the regrets I will carry with me to my grave (or at least to the crematorium). Yes I regret not having spent more time with my elderly relatives, and those who have played a part in shaping my life and who I am.

On several occasions I stood by a graveside, or penned a sympathy card, and blamed myself for not having spent more time with these special people who had passed on. During my years as a full-time operatic tenor, I managed to briefly squeeze in an afternoon with my Auntie Ethel in Bangor (my late Mum's last surviving sister), and we conversed for hours about her family, and about the roles I was performing at the time. As Auntie Ethel shed light on La Traviata's lover Alfredo, the cad Pinkerton, and Tchaikovsky's silly Lensky, her eyes twinkled with musical and mind stimulation. When Ethel passed on, anger and regret set in as I imagined all the missing endless conversations I could have had about music and opera and life, but now never would.

I have very happy memories of my Grand-Uncle Allan (Stevenson) holding court in Ballincar, as he recounted tales of his days at Blackwoods in Grattan Street and O'Connell Street, and tall tales of his horse-racing successes, and of many other family anecdotes which I am pretty sure had got exaggerated beyond the realms of truth during the intervening years. I loved and respected his younger sister (Auntie) Edna, and loved the quality times we had together. But I didn't spend enough time with her. These are the people who have at their finger-tips first-hand knowledge of family history, as well as life-experience, and they take that knowledge with them to the grave. Many of my fondest lasting memories stem from my time with my elderly relatives. Don't let your family's pasts be resigned to history.

This was a different time, a time without Internet, without the distractions of mobile phones, and less time spent watching TV. We need to rediscover the art of communication, and conversation, and also to relearn the virtue of `patience'. For the elderly person mind stimulation, mental activity and conversation is even more important.

Of course if my faith was stronger, I would believe I was going to meet them all again in the after-life, and have a drink and a chin-wag, but sadly my faith is built on quick-sand. For me nothing is certain except the present, and the past, so don't waste time.

A huge percentage of my most enduring and loving memories are of my endless conversations and times spent with my Grannie - May Nelson. And as I have just passed the eleventh anniversary of my beautiful "Mum" Frieda, I realise how privileged and blessed I was to have known her for more than thirty years. Yet I still have regrets.

So I beg you all, don't have regrets by the graveside. Go spend time with your elderly relatives : we'll be a long time dead.