The summer is over, winter is almost here again, with its long dark and sometimes lonely days. We get the text message; the Access 2000 Centre in Wexford town is open again. This centre is where women go, a place lost in a row of town houses. On the outside it looks like all the others, but on the inside, so different. Women have access to so much here, sitting around a long table, the room filled with the noise of chat and laughter. The kettle boiling, biscuits and cake ready. Sitting with our knitting and crochet pieces in our hands, we hold them carefully, as a shield, a protection, hiding the real reason we are here.
On my first day, unsure what to expect, the lovely gentle lady, who facilitates activities here, with her soft voice said to me “You are so welcome” as we chatted, she said “What we do here is God’s work.” How do they do that? I wondered, now I know.
Young women, come here from poor and war torn countries which most of us older ones never heard of until a few years ago, some with no English, or no words to speak of what they left behind. For the first while they sit silent among us. They are welcomed, mothered, loved and given cups of Irish tea. We learn from them as they do from us, they show us new crafts and talk of their home countries. Sometimes I envy them, they are strong brave young women not afraid to fight for a better life in Ireland.
Older women, come to fill in the time, now retired, jobs gone, no more work to do, children gone, no more mothering to do, some husbands gone too, no more loving to do. What do we do now? How to use these precious years, before old age or sickness claims us, to find the little girls we once were, also gone. What would those little girls like to do? Horticulture, flower arranging, knitting, crochet, use computers, tai chi, meditate, all these things and more are possible here. The freedom of it, the joy of it, but for us older girls, is it too late?
As older women we still hear the voices we heard as little girls and young women. Voices that every day said things like “know your place.” “you have too much talk” “don’t be making yourself important” “don’t answer back” “a job behind a counter will be grand, sure won’t you be standing in front of a sink in a few years” “accept the children God sends you, you don’t decide how many” “I see you are working, would you not be better at home minding your children?” We were girls and young women then, who fought against those voices. We fight against the same voices now when they say “Sure why would you be bothered learning new things at your age, it would be easier to stay at home.” No! It is not too late, this is our time to shine.
Old women come, some sick and in pain, in and out of hospital, some leaving sick loved ones at home. Those lovely, kind, brave women who get up, dress up to come to this place to laugh, talk, and learn, to inspire and teach us how to live.
We talk of what we did in the past, how we played, went to school, worked, danced, courted, married, made our homes, had our babies and reared them in different times. We also talk of what to do now; knit blankets for alzheimer’s and cancer patients, hats and scarfs for the homeless centre and women’s refuge. Will we enter a garden in the Bloom Festival again this year, or just go there for a day out? We talk of serious issues affecting all women today and draw attention to them in a gentle but powerful way. Dressing in pink on Breast Cancer Awareness Day, fundraising for cancer research, bring petitions to government calling for mandatory inquests in cases of maternal deaths and taking part in art projects highlighting the cervical check smear scandal.
The stories of some of our lives emerge one by one, sometimes unknowingly in the middle of the chat. Many different women come here, but we connect, make new friends and learn from each other. We find the little girls we once were, but stronger, braver now, lessons learned over many years of joys, hurts, struggles, triumphs, happiness, sorrow, laughter and tears. We have all survived well and as women together in this place, we have purpose, friendship, learning, fun, laughter and we continue to thrive.