Today is both International Women’s Day and Pancake Tuesday, which has prompted me to write about a very special lady who made me the very best pancakes, my aunty Ba.
My aunty got her nickname from one or other of my siblings who tried to say her name in baby talk and it came out Ba, and stuck. It was an appropriate name for us as babies though, as my aunty lived with us, so ma, da, and ba will have been our first words.
We all shared a room with Ba when we were little, and she would tell us stories every night, ‘true’ stories of fairies in Tipperary where she spent a lot of her youth, of banshees and will o’the wisps, which kept us in rapt attention for hours. She read to us in the day too, lots of illustrated books of poems and stories. My favourite was a poem about a lost doll ‘I once had a sweet little doll, dears, The prettiest doll in the world …’ and the book of ‘Little Black Sambo’, now of course not considered politically correct. My favourite story was at the back of the Little Black Sambo book and was about ‘Kettlehead’ – a little girl who played with fire and got her head burnt off and replaced with a tin kettle until Santa left her a broken doll’s head which she stuck on with glue from her mother’s writing table. Bizarre! I have never seen a copy of the story in print since, but have found it online here.
But on to pancakes. For a while every Tuesday was Pancake Tuesday. Ba worked a half-day Tuesday and in the afternoon would make me pancakes as I only was the only one not at school. Unlike now, I didn’t eat a huge variety of foods when I was little, so if there was something I liked that was relatively healthy I was encouraged to eat lots of it – mashed potatoes and pancakes were my staple diet! Ba made the best pancakes, thick and wholesome, with never a lump, and served with caster sugar and squeezy Jif lemon juice! Ba taught me how to make pancakes, how to beat the batter to incorporate lots of air, and to leave the mixture stand, overnight preferably, but at least for a few hours before using.
Ba moved out when I was about seven, to live with her uncle, my grand-uncle Neddy, who had had a series of heart-attacks and needed a live-in companion. I was heart broken, and wrote every day. I would look forward to my holidays when I would go down and stay with Ba and Neddy, in Neddy’s little cottage by Loch Derg on the River Shannon, and the first thing Ba would do would be to make some pancakes. Heaven.
After Uncle Neddy died, Ba kept on the cottage and still lives there today with the amazing garden she planted from scratch. I continued to visit every holiday, and I remember those times as some of the happiest in my life. Ba taught me (as she did all my siblings) to swim in the very depths of Loch Derg, while she rowed away slowly alongside. On my solo visits to Ba, she continued to tell me stories, less fantastical but more true stories of our ancestors, the lives of the saints, social and political history. Ba taught me to garden, starting off with a little corner of my own that I could landscape how I liked, and giving me jobs around the garden – I remember hours spent deadheading hebe’s and picking nasturtium seeds, but never remember being bored. We fished in the lake most days, and sat by the fire of an evening with chocolate and books and television or radio, or with Ba sewing outfits for my Mary Quant Daisy doll. Happy days.
I never remember a cross word from Ba, who always seemed to love me just as I was, even when I would rock up as a teenager all in black with nose pierced and boyfriend-she-had-never-met in tow (and probably a bad attitude too – me, not the boyfriend, who was lovely). Moving to England was the start of me becoming a terrible niece, never visiting or writing as often as I should, for which I am very ashamed. But I wanted to get this down in words as a small tribute to my aunty Ba, who very much shaped me as a person. I think of Ba all the time, but especially on Pancake Tuesday.
I make my pancakes slightly thinner now, but do not forget to incorporate lots of air and let the batter stand. I have passed the love of pancakes on to my daughter Pearl, who is now the Pancake Princess, but as long as Ba is alive, she will always be the Pancake Queen.