A feature of our household, when I was growing up in the late fifties, was a very large Black Magic chocolate box, crammed with what my mother and father referred to as “The Snaps”.
‘The Snaps’ were an assortment of old black and white photographs that my parents had accumulated over the years. Tossed into the old Black Magic chocolate box for safekeeping they represented a haphazard and chaotic collage of my parents’ past. Some were slightly cracked and curled at the corners, others were tawny brown with age while a few had barely legible dates scribbled on their backs.
On wet boring afternoons when games and toys had exhausted us – it was not unusual for one or other of our family of five to fetch the big Black Magic chocolate box and dip into its overflowing glossy interior. That’s when the questions would start. ‘Who’s this, mam?’ ‘Who’s who, boy?’ ‘The man in the uniform, smoking a cigarette.’ ‘That’s you father when he was a young man in the army.’ ‘And who’s that man with his arm around you…….it’s…. it’s not dad?’ ‘Oh, that’s an old boyfriend I nearly married…but he died young from TB.’ And the questions came fast and furious then: ‘What’s TB?’ ‘Did you love him more than you loved dad?’ ‘Was he rich?’ ‘Would we be different if you’d married him instead of dad?’ And so, over an hour or so, on boring afternoons, from a box of crinkled old photographs, a fragmented image of our parents’ past formed in our minds.
As we grew older and learned to cope with acne and adolescence the Black Magic chocolate box of snaps retreated into the nether regions of some cupboard or other, seldom if ever opened. As we grew older still, left home, went to college, got married and settled down the Black Magic chocolate box of snaps acquired a new and unprecedented interest. Now it was not uncommon to find one or other of my three sisters riffling through it and slyly making off with a fistful of its contents. Rows frequently ensued. Who took what and who gave who the right to such and such a photo. Slowly but surely the best of the snaps vanished, mysteriously reappearing in fancy frames on mantle pieces and china cabinets in my sisters’ homes.
My sister Eadie, the only one of our family to emigrate, took many of the photographs and in those lonely nights in her apartment in Rome, at the tender age of nineteen, she created a wonderful family album with them. Later she made a present of that album to my mother on her seventieth birthday. As for myself, being the youngest of the family I was late coming to the Black Magic box of snaps and later still in appreciating its treasures. But I don’t complain. I have in my possession a priceless, scowling me on my First Holy Communion Day; a few of my mam and dad in the heyday of their romance, and love, and a very tattered one of my grandparents’ wedding. One of the most precious of my snaps, however, is that of a very beautiful, fair-haired, smiling young woman who looks, for all the world, like the American actress Faye Dunaway. My Aunt Mary, who, as our parents told it, died of ‘stomach complications’, at the cruel age of twenty-two. But that, as they say, is another story.
An elegant, elderly lady arrives at mass every Sunday wearing a very eye-catching, very flamboyant hat, along with equally eye-catching scarf and gloves. However, every Sunday, the parish priest refuses her admission. This goes on for several Sundays until the lady, utterly frustrated, rings the bishop to complain. The bishop, very much puzzled and taken aback by the complaint, says he will make a call to the parish priest and get back to her immediately. Which he does. ‘My dear’, intones the bishop in his most caring, Christian tone, ‘I have spoken to Father Gregory and we both very much regret that you cannot get to hear Sunday mass, however, it would help enormously if you remembered to put on the rest of your clothes when attending church.’