Rita had a special drawer. She told my father about it when he took her home for a quick visit the day they let her out of hospital. She pointed to it, almost apologetically, as though it was self-indulgent for her to bother him with it. “Just in case”, she said, with feigned lightness. Dad told her not to be ridiculous, and they watered the plants and collected the post and he took her back to his house in Waterfall. She stayed there with him, out in the quiet countryside, soaking up the sun by the sliding glass doors in the living room during the day, and watching TV by the fire at night, her chair piled high with cushions to help alleviate the pain in her back.
It didn’t suit Rita to be sick. Even at 82, she was doggedly independent. She lived alone, maintained a half acre of garden, and often took off on solo jaunts around West Cork and Kerry. When she did take a travelling companion with her, the stories were legendary. Rita not only stopped to smell the roses, she cut slips off them, arranged them and brought them into the nearest pub for a drink. My cousin Orla once recounted a drive to Ballinskelligs with Rita that took nine hours instead of the usual two; no place of interest along the way was left unvisited and a speed of 60 km per hour was never exceeded.
Rita was not only an adventurer, but she was a rascal. She had a highly developed sense of fun. She had the spirit of a child and this drew all my cousins and I to her when we were children. She never married, despite two reported proposals, but she engaged her nieces and nephews with a love at least as deep as a mother’s. When other adults shoo’d us away, Rita sought us out. She lavished us with tales of the fairies, she conducted countryside tours that filled us with wonder, she sat with us, and listened. Visits to her house in Rathpeacon were magical. She amassed a huge collection of records on her travels around the world. Her preference was for jazz, Flamenco and belly dancing music. She had drawers full of scarves and hats and necklaces which we’d adapt into fanciful costumes and dance around her living room, falling over in fits of breathless laughter.
Rita was ageless, as she was timeless. We thought she was eternal. But Rita’s back pain was the result of ovarian cancer. She’d had the pain for a couple of years, but by the time her doctor realized that it wasn’t related to a past car accident, it was too late for Rita. She went into Cork University Hospital for tests at the beginning of February 2015, and they kept her there. She walked out of her house that morning expecting to be back later that afternoon, and she only ever returned once more, with my father that day when she shyly pointed out “the drawer”. Two weeks after diagnosis, Rita was dead. My sister and I rushed across the Atlantic to try to get to see her in time to say goodbye, but we were a few hours short. We were devastated, but our cousins told us that the day before Rita told them that she didn’t want Audrey and I to see her in pain. She made her exit, stage right, before we had to. The wonderful staff at CUH, who had fallen in love with the never complaining, always smiling Rita Walsh, allowed her to lie in her hospital bed until we got there to say our good byes. I sat next to her bed and tearfully read aloud the letters my three children in Florida had given me for her. Her magic had seeped through and touched the next generation as surely as it had touched ours.
I’m not sure how we could have truly believed that it could have been contained, but in a way my brother, sisters, cousins and I always felt that Rita’s magic was reserved solely for us. Not only did it spill through the Walsh generations, but it clearly impacted everyone around her. So, as it played out, my father did have call to access the special drawer that Rita had reluctantly pointed to when they visited her house. Inside were the memories of a lifetime. Many of the countless documents demonstrated the impact of Rita, but one in particular stood out. When she retired after decades of service at Ernst and Young in Cork city, one of her co-workers composed an newspaper style announcement declaring her departure. Dad found it in that drawer. Its headline shouted, “Green-fingered Belly Dancer to Quit”. The announcement cited Rita’s “excellent rendition of an Eastern Belly Dancer” at various work functions and also her Folies Bergeres quality performance of “Patricia the Stripper”. Ah, Patricia the Stripper! It was Rita’s party piece. While others of her generation might fall to a version of Danny Boy or The Banks, when called upon for a song, Rita would spring to her feet and launch into Patricia. If there was a long curtain in the vicinity, all the better. She would utilize it as a dramatic prop, arm peeking out, leg extended, hips wiggling. She gave it gusto and even in her late seventies, Rita’s version of Patricia brought everyone to their feet.
Rita’s funeral services were bound to be a celebration of her life more than a mourning of her death. It was standing room only at her removal at O’Connors on Shandon Street. People who didn’t know her in life, but who had come out of respect for one relation or another, marveled how an unmarried and childless woman of 82 could pack a house like that. My brother revealed that in one uncharacteristically fatalistic conversation with Rita during her initial stay at CUH, she had asked him to a favor. He complied and opened her funeral services in Blackpool church with a soulful version of Abba’s, “I Believe in Angels”. The priest, concerned about the secular nature of the song, had him sing it before the services officially began. I had the honor of writing her eulogy, and delivering it, again before the religious part of the funeral began, because though it focused on Rita’s spirit it wasn’t specifically related to her soul. It seems that separating the secular from the non-secular has become a bit of a thing. But, in its entirety, the service was beautiful. Well known Irish soprano, Cara O’Sullivan, soulfully and reverently sang through the mass, giving Rita a heart rendering final serenade.
Later, at St. Finbarr’s cemetery, on a cold, wet and gray Thursday afternoon, Rita was laid to rest with her mother and father. Her coffin was put in with her head where her feet should go, and though most of us noticed, in true Cork style, no one thought to question it. As the mourners started to drift away, my sister, brother and brother in law lingered at the grave, not anxious to speak that final goodbye. It was a bleak and heavy moment. Suddenly, spontaneously these words slipped out of my mouth; Denis is a menace, with his, “Anyone for tennis?”. My sister took up the tune and then my brother, and the three of us stood there, ankle deep in the same earth that our Rita had just been planted in, our voices gaining momentum. Hips shook, arms gestured, feet stomped. We gave it gusto and when we were finished we looked at each other, smiled and knew that we had just stepped out of a moment that we would remember forever. Though anyone passing by would have thought our performance extremely odd (and likely highly inappropriate), but we knew that the Green-fingered Belly Dancer had just been given the most fitting final tribute possible.