The Great Pram Race

Author: Mari Maxwell

The following is from a memoir, a work in progress.

Raph and I are worried. Gaga is coming to visit. We know all about our Ma’s nonsmiling mother and her reputation for running a well organized household. At four-and-a-half and three we have quite the imaginations and take our Ma’s childhood stories to heart. We’ve heard all about the widowed midwife, biking around the village of Shercock,Co. Cavan to bring her only daughter home for dinner.
“Will she chase us on her bike like she did Ma?” we wonder.
“Do yeh think she’ll take the wooden spoon to us?” Raph asks me.
We just don’t know and for a week our nightmares come and go. Then one morning Gaga arrives in Dublin like Mary Poppins: with packed suitcase, olive tweed-coat and a huge handbag that we later discover holds endless packs of lemon drops.
I am shy. Ma has told me not to be a bother.
“Did yeh see her hair?” I whisper to Raph. He has, but the wound up mound on her head doesn’t fascinate him the way it does me. I am unused to such length. My own hair never, ever grows past my chin and my fringe seldom stretches to my eyebrows. I have a pudding bowl haircut, exactly like each of my brothers and sisters, courtesy of my Grandda on my Da’s side.
On her first night on Clonkeen Road I stand by the doorway as Gaga unclips her plaits. She spends a long time by the dressing table unpinning the braids from each side of her head. She runs her fingers through the milky, tea-coloured strands making the two sides one again. It runs down her back and swings a few inches short off the floor. My fingers itch to brush and braid the locks that I am sure must be as long as Rapunzil’s.
“Come in Marie-Therese,” she says gently. But I hang onto the doorpost for dear
life. Then I see her wrinkled smile in the dressing table mirror and go in. I can’t help
touching her hair as I pass. It coats the back of her nightie.
“Could I?” I start to ask and she hands me the brush before I’ve finished.
I take it and begin to brush from scalp to tailbone. “Ma’s hair was never this long,”
I say. “She’s never had it in plaits either.”
“Oh but she has,” Gaga says. “When your Ma was a little girlie I plaited it and
every Saturday night put ringlets in.”
“That’s what Ma puts in my hair for mass,” I say. “I don’t like the narrow ones.
They hurt.”
Gaga smiles as I chatter on. Her hair is all fluffy and the gray, a lighter shade than
when I started brushing. The loose hair isn’t as orderly either. She hands me a lemon drop
from the few scattered on the dressing table and I begin to suck on it. Tomorrow, she tells
me, we’ll go to morning mass and will do so every day while she’s here.
The next morning Raph and I are bundled up me in my oatmeal brown jumper
made of scratchy wool, striped jeans rolled up at the ankles, and Raph in a similar hand-
knitted jumper and jeans. Our coats are put on and the pram is rolled out. Its large chrome
spokes stand glinting in the sunshine, our own regal carriage at our beck and call. The
plush navy, canvas hood is quickly pushed down to fit Raph and I within the pram’s body.
A quick tuck of the blankets, and snapping of the fastners on the form-fitting bib and we’re
off. Mass is at 10 o’clock, allowing us a half-hour to walk up the two hills leading to
Foxrock church. As soon as we turn the corner into Clonkeen Drive, Gaga reaches into
her coat and pulls out a lemon drop for each of us. It seems it is time for us to hop out of
the pram. Gaga tells us a four-and-a-half and a three-year-old are much too cumbersome
to push up the hill. Besides, it’s a long, long walk.
After holy communion, mass, and the stations of the cross we head home for lunch. Perhaps it is Gaga’s daily devotions, or her half-hour at the confessional that helped uncover her wild streak. Our Ma certainly never mentioned it, but daily Raph and I are privy to Gaga’s alter ego. When we reach the top of the first hill, homeward bound, Gaga’s personality changes. Utterly.
“Are yeh ready?” she squeals, echoing Raph’s and my yells. We don’t know which
emotion to give into, the fear or the excitement. The excitement wins out as Gaga’s varicose-veined legs pump up and down, her sensible shoes slapping hard on the path.
“Whee. Whee,” she screeches holding onto the pram handle tightly, the whites of her knuckles bleaching whiter and whiter in the noon sun. Raph and I scream above the bouncing carriage, both excited and nervous as the breeze seems to push Gaga’s legs faster and faster. Gaga’s neatly plaited hair works its way from beneath her netting and streams behind her like a kite tail.
“Whee,” we all scream as faster and faster Gaga’s legs pump and the pram jounces up and down. Then she lets go of the handle. We are racing towards the end of the street. No-one guiding us. Just Gaga jogging, catching the handle and letting it go again. The semi-detached homes, dividing walls and gates pass by in a
blur. All too soon we reach the end of Clonkeen Drive and the huge oak tree that we somehow always miss hitting. Gaga’s schoolmarmish shoes skid, then stop. So too do our giggles. She quickly redoes her hair under the netting and we crunch the last of our lemon drops and head home. Funny how our Ma always thought the fresh air walks gave our cheeks a nice pink glow.