Lil’s warm hands grasped mine in hers. “How are you?” she asked. “Struggling,” I answered. “Like myself. I’m praying for you Katherine.” She drifted off to sleep. The previous few days had not been kind, visiting a tummy upset and a possible cardiac arrest upon her. Yet, she was still lucid in her final hours and as always, her thoughts were with others.

Lil was born in 1928 to Michael (Pop) Coleman and his wife Bessie, making her 96 years old. She was born at home in the farmhouse. It was the 6th of January.

She was proud of her childhood, often speaking about going to school through the fields. Lil felt privileged because her parents could afford shoes while many of her classmates had none.

She helped out on the farm. She spent one year in secondary school in the South Convent in Cork. Then she trained to be a professional dress maker in the city. She lived through the war, often telling us stories about ration books and tough times. She married Denis O’Leary in April 1958. Tim was born the following January. He was followed by Mary, Colman, Laoise and Mairead. By now, Lil also had her mother and father-in-law living with her. She managed it all.

When I entered her life, she was still caring for her father-in-law Tim O’Leary, managing boisterous teenagers, ensuring that her family got a good education, laughing plenty and never idle.

Her ‘idle’ time was spent knitting or sewing. I remember watching in awe when she was making Laoise’s wedding dress. We had dress making in common but Lil was so much better than me. Yet, she never made me feel any less of a seamstress.

Ever the diplomat, she had no favourites except maybe for the firstborn Julie and the last one Stephen. That was ok because that was just fate

Never a cross word

I first met Lil 46 years ago. I know she loved me from the start. In all of that time, we never traded a cross word between us and we were proud of that. The men might argue but Lil and I had an unspoken resolve not to get involved. If the men were having a barney, Lil’s speed doubled around the kitchen – in and out to the washing line; hands into the mixing bowl making her beautiful scones that were distributed to our houses as needed; stirring stew on the cooker; out to Paddy the fish man or Donal the bread man. A bit of bustle fixed everything.

After school, there were always grandchildren for minding until the parents got home from work. She loved them with an unparalleled ferocity. Ever the diplomat, she had no favourites except maybe for the firstborn Julie and the last one Stephen. That was ok because that was just fate.

She was utterly devoted to her husband Denis who died 19 years ago. Since then, Lil had made her home the meeting place for all the family. It was a great place to go for news and you were sure to meet someone.

The grandchildren flocked to her with their stories, woes and triumphs. She kept their secrets and their dreams close to her heart. If she was ill, she’d recite their 17 names to check herself. In recent years, Lil’s five great-grandchildren were born.

Great conversationalist

Lil was a great conversationalist with a critical mind. She could indicate her disapproval of something without actually saying it. Her body language was exceptional. She couldn’t tell a lie and most definitely couldn’t use a swear word. Was it any wonder that the words “your mother was a lady” “Lil was a lady” were the words echoed over and over by the people who came to pay tribute to her.

To me, she was Mum who supported me without question, who babysat for me instantly and constantly. She was always there, always available and never said no.

On meeting Peter again last week, her fifth great grandchild, cuddling him close and chatting to him, she said: “Peter, I am a very, very old woman and you are a very, very young baby and we can’t do a bit about it.” That was Lil, sometimes philosophical but always practical. She had the ability to accept the things she couldn’t change, the courage to change the things she could and the wisdom to know the difference. My mother-in-law was the role model of all mother in laws welcoming, kind, gentle, intuitive and funny.

She will be fondly remembered by us all.

RIP Nana Lil.

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