An Irish girl’s relationship with her mother can sometimes be complicated, often lovely and almost certainly peppered with rows about white washing and the whereabouts of the good hairbrush. EMER McLYSAGHT shares a treasured memory of her own Irish Mammy
Will you PUT. IT. BACK? she’d hiss, swiping my greedy little hands out of the trolley. Poor Mam. The weekly torment of ‘Can we get this?’ or ‘Ah you never let us have anything nice!’ might just be her abiding memory of what I warmly recall as our most precious tradition: The Big Shop. We’d go every Saturday morning, the pair of us. It would take hours. We’d stop off at a few places around Naas – our closest big town – to get the best deals on fruit and veg, or to see who had the best-looking eggs. But Superquinn was always our main destination. A gleaming beacon of hot bakery smells and smiling checkout ladies smack bang in the middle of Main Street. It was unthinkable that I wouldn’t go with her. It was our thing. I was the youngest (still am) and the only girl, and my brothers were too old to bother, so it was usually just me and Mam. The two gals, on a mission for bread and sausages and toilet roll. Bravely going forth to forage for the family for the week.
Sure, they would have died of starvation without us, helplessly scrabbling around for potato waffle scraps. To me, Superquinn was enormous. Endless aisles stretching out to the back of the store. Towering mountains of honeydew melons and Kerr’s Pink spuds. Mam had her grocery list fine-tuned, so I would help her by darting off to get various items, knowing exactly where everything was. I was so helpful and grown-up, I thought, so full of my own self-importance at being Mam’s special aide. My attempts to sneak treats into the trolley – particularly salted peanuts and ice pops of any kind – probably tarnished my good name somewhat, but I’d like to think I was of some use. Plus, there was always the chance she might go rogue and allow something nice to slip in, with a wry ‘go on’, and a flick of her head.
A very important aspect of our weekly jaunt up and down the aisles was the Tastes. Tastes were what we called the little samples of food handed out by impossibly glam ladies at various corners of the store. You might get a cube of cheese, a little foil plate of yoghurt, an eighth of a burger. To me, these ladies were air hostess levels of glam. They were weathergirl levels of glam. Some of them were in the business for years, and Mam would strike up a friendship with them. In later years, when my lovely Dad would do The Big Shop with her instead, he’d joke that he’d nearly get fed for the week going around for the Tastes. When my lovely Dad passed away, the ladies missed him. They asked after him. What a special place it was.
I was so helpful and grown-up, I thought, so full of my own self-importance at being Mam’s special aide.
The Christmas Big Shop was truly our time to shine. In the days before lengthy opening hours and multiple store choices, the queues would snake from the checkout down those long aisles to the back of the shop. We’d go on Christmas Eve or maybe the day before, mindful of all the Very Special Things we had to purchase: sausage meat for the stuffing, Viennetta for dessert, trifle sponges, several different coloured pipes of Pringles. The excitement around the shop would be palpable. When we were about halfway done, she’d say, ‘get into a queue there, good girl’, and I’d hold fast in our place, inching slowly towards the checkouts as she tipped breadcrumbs and mince pies and a turkey the size of a house into the trolley. You had to order the turkey weeks in advance from the butcher, or else you could be left high and dry with only a bit of scabby ham come Christmas Day.
I didn’t realise at the time, but Superquinn was posh. It was the M&S of its day. We certainly were not posh, but I think as supermarkets in Naas went, there wasn’t much choice. There was a Quinnsworth, but once you got a sniff of Superquinn, you were hooked. The bread rolls! The smiling butchers who’d give you bones full of marrow for the dog! The acres of Pick n Mix! The jam doughnuts! Mother of God, the jam doughnuts! There were five of us, and six doughnuts in a bag. You can imagine the rows. Every Saturday, as a treat, Mam would purchase six doughnuts, two slabs of spare ribs from the hot counter, a bag of round crusty rolls, and two litres of Thrift Lemon and Lime. Thrift was Superquinn’s own value brand. I longed for 7Up, of course, but beggars can’t be choosers, and a mineral is a mineral.
Sometimes, when we returned from the shops, Dad would have taken the opportunity of a quiet house to mop the floors, and as we burst in through the front door laden with bags, we’d be hit with a blast of pine and a ‘MIND THE FLOORS!’ roar from him.
I don’t remember exactly when I stopped doing The Big Shop with Mam – Alice, her name is Alice – but I do remember mixed feelings of guilt and maturity. I was too grown-up to go with her, I had very important friends to gossip with and hangovers to nurse, but wasn’t I still her little girl? To this day, I still love the ritual of The Big Shop. I’m a sucker for a well-appointed supermarket, and while Superquinns the country over are with O’Leary in the grave, there is a phenomenal Tesco on the outskirts of Naas. They have an optician and a pharmacy. Will we go to Tesco?, I’ll suggest hopefully when I go down the N7 to visit Mam. And sometimes we go and we buy a smattering of things. We talk about what a shame it is that the centre of the town is so dead now. We acknowledge that we’re part of the problem. We have a small scuffle over who’s going to pay. I love it.
In Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen’s debut novel, Oh my God, What A Complete Aisling (from the popular Facebook group of the same name), the titular character’s relationship with her mother is a central theme. Aisling learns so much about the woman she thought she knew so well, and they become so much more than mother and daughter. They become friends.
Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen (Gill Books, €14.99) is out now.