My inspirational Ma Ma

Picture of Kate Moriarty

Kate Moriarty

Kate is a writer, author and mother of six

When I was in primary school, it was a regular activity at the start of Term One to draw a picture of your family. My illustrations (texta outline filled with pencil shading) always showed an extra adult. And they always had a baby in them, though the identity of said baby varied over the years. By the time I finished primary school, my family had reached its full shape. Three boys, three girls, three grown-ups.

We called my grandmother – my mum’s mum – ‘Ma Ma’. I’m not sure why. I think it was my older brother’s nickname for her when he was learning to talk and it just kind of stuck. Ma Ma’s bedroom was downstairs in a different part of the house to the other bedrooms. Sometimes it felt like Ma Ma’s room was a different territory. A tiny nation where the rules and customs were slightly different. Ma Ma had her own en-suite bathroom with small, pretty soaps, a drinking cup with a rose on it and a glass bowl of pot-pourri. She trained us to say that word correctly. The trick is to think ‘pope’ not ‘pot’.


Next to the bathroom was a walk-in wardrobe. That wardrobe had everything in it. Blocks of Milka swiss chocolate and packets of shortbread, a pair of leather knee-high boots, a battered, underlined copy of THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING by Norman Vincent Peale, several floral letter-writing sets with matching envelopes. And just about every certificate, well-written assignment and high-scoring maths test we kids ever produced was hidden away in the wire basket drawers of that wardrobe.


If you were missing that glowing school report, you wouldn’t need to wait long. As soon as the parish priest came to our house for a visit, this report, certificate, or sticker-emblazoned merit award would mysteriously re-appear as Ma Ma presented it for Father’s inspection.


Ma Ma was not a cook and she had no time for hand crafts. A young widow, my grandmother never had a chance to polish her homemaking skills. Instead she went out to work as a senior private secretary while her father kept house and looked after my mum and Ma Ma’s unwell sister. Later, when I was growing up, Ma Ma would bring her private secretary skills to the family. Every family appointment or event was carefully entered into her diary.


Any note needed for school was written by my grandmother and signed by Mum. Ma Ma managed our weekly lunch orders and pocket money. She would keep track of our friends’ phone numbers and contact details, make appointments on our behalf and remind us of upcoming birthdays and events. It’s only now, when I face the sheer mental load of juggling a family, that I fully appreciate what a gift this was.


If I was sick and home from school, Ma Ma would tuck me into her bed, which was nicer than mine, and had its own TV. I would plait the edges of the red tartan blanket and Ma Ma would sail in with a mug of tomato soup and soldiers or perhaps a fried egg on toast, with extra half-slices of toast arranged on either side. Together we would watch The Midday Show and Ma Ma would explain the latest plot lines of The Young and the Restless, even though she “didn’t really watch it.”


When we were small, Ma Ma would take us over our readers. As we grew older, she would patiently listen to and read all of our essays and assignments. She had an eagle-eye for spelling and punctuation mistakes. She would coach us in our speeches ‘Slower! With enthusiasm! Again!’


When I wrote a short story for school, Ma Ma nagged me to enter it into the local council short-story competition. “Why not? You’re cleverer than those other children.” I didn’t think it was good enough, but it soon became clear that it would be easier to submit the story into the competition than to submit to Ma Ma’s constant reminders and questions about it. I won first prize. Every parish priest in the deanery would hear about this fact for years to come.

It’s been ten years now since Ma Ma passed away. My first novel was published at the beginning of this year. While I no longer have my grandmother with me to look over my shoulder and pick out the spelling mistakes, Ma Ma still has a lot to do with the novel. Parts of my grandmother’s personality can be seen in one of my characters – the vibrant and irrepressible Lottie. And it was Ma Ma’s voice in my head urging me to submit the manuscript to publishers in the first place.


The dedication on the book reads: 


For my grandmother Aileen Patricia Moriarty


Ma Ma, you believed in me long before I ever did. I am grateful for all of the years you were part of my life.


I haven’t got around to telling my parish priest about the book yet. I don’t mind going out and meeting strangers and doing publicity, but I get a little shy when it comes to telling people I actually know about my novel. I miss having a grandmother who was my constant cheerleader, fiercest advocate, and number one PR rep.


I wish she could still be here with me, but I am so grateful that she lived at home with us when I was a child. I am pretty sure about one thing. All of the saints in heaven are probably bored to death hearing about the achievements of me and my siblings!


Footnote: Kate’s first novel, Tuesday Evenings with the Copeton Craft Resistance (Kate Solly) is available in bookstores.

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