Maureen’s ashes: Elegy in a country churchyard



The ominous cloud dissipates and the sun shines through, casting its summer light on the ancient, fractured gravestones in the rustic burial ground, long since not open to new residents, its church idle these decades.

We are gathered to scatter her ashes. Maureen Hopkins (nee Wright). A Glaswegian born to a single mother, in those days when such carried all its attendant stigmas. Placed into adoption in Dublin, and raised by the city’s Grand Canal, by the time she was 18 both her adopting parents were dead.

Alone then, until she met Paddy Hopkins, my father’s brother, not long back from the war. They fell in love, married and the first two of their four children, my cousins Mark and Hilary, were born. The late 1950s saw Maureen and Paddy and the kids emigrate to California. Work back then was thin on the ground, and the Fifties saw many leave Ireland for America and Australia in the quest for a better life.

My cousin Mark – a week older than me – was six when he left for America. He bequeathed me his battered old green tricycle with the reams of sticky plaster holding the handlebars together. It really was fit for the bin but I treasured it until I outgrew it.

Paddy Hopkins’ going broke my father’s heart. It was many the emigrant’s tale. They had been great pals, joined at the hip as it were. My father would regale me with tales of his and Paddy’s childhood days, those days of being joined at the hip. My father was a magnificent singer. Among his repertoire was Pal Of My Cradle Days.

In those years long before emails and WhatsApp, my father would spend most Sunday mornings, after Mass, writing long letters to his brother and then wait weeks on end for a reply, saying to no one in particular: “No word yet from Paddy. I hope everything is alright.”

Maureen and Paddy worked bloody hard to make a life for their young family in America.

Fifteen years after they emigrated my father and I made the long-haul flight to California – Dublin to Shannon to Boston to Los Angeles – to stay with Maureen and Paddy and their, by then, four children.

It was my first time on an aeroplane, a Boeing 747, the Jumbo Jet, the first wide-bodied plane. It, too, was my first time in America, in Californ-I-A with its palm-tree shaded boulevards of Sunset and Hollywood, its detached houses and parched, manicured lawns of Temple City and Burbank. The constant sunshine.

They had McDonalds, they had multi-channel TV and Johnny Carson; they had Toyota cars, compact and yellow in colour – to match the sunshine. Ireland in 1972 seemed dull by comparison. It was. Grey. Church-ridden. Boring, even. When the time came to come home, I did not want to leave. Maureen and Paddy made me feel their home was my home too. Their utter kindness still lingers to this day.

As the sun shines down on the old graveyard, there are 20 adults gathered – 16 from Los Angeles, four the Irish contingent – and Maureen’s six darling great grandchildren. We have come to scatter Maureen’s ashes on the old grave which is the resting place of Paddy, who died in 1997, and my grandfather, Old Ned Hopkins, who passed in 1959.

Maureen died in August 2019. She was 97. Covid put paid to bringing her ashes home earlier.

A retired priest speaks, touchingly, and remarks on emigration and loss and how all our spirits reside ultimately in one another. Mark speaks. Eloquently, about Maureen and Paddy. I say a few words on behalf of the Irish side of the family, recalling Maureen’s kindness.

I watch as Mark and his brother Eddie inter their mother’s ashes. I look to Mark’s and Heike’s three adult children, Brian, Peter and Annie, their partners too. Eddie’s son Eric and his girlfriend. In their moment of final, silent homage to Maureen. All wonderful, genial people, as I am to learn over dinner that evening.

And I look to Mark’s six adorable grandchildren, so well behaved if even the concept of death and loss is somewhat alien to their young minds.

I see my cousin, down on a dodgy bended knee, bury the ashes. Son, father, grandfather. A gentle man in his time of sorrow.

And the genetic whirlpool dances with delight in the sun-lit abandoned graveyard. Palpable. It runs through my blood. Through their blood.

And I think that this – this moment, right now – is what it all comes down to.

In the end.

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