Family Found: A Night With Dolly Parton and my Gran

Motley Columnist Alana Daly Mulligan gives us an insightful look into her relationship with her late grandmother, and how this this was reflected to her during a recent opportunity to meet country music star Dolly Parton

Christmas is a time of year where we can all feel just a little lonelier than usual.
Every advertisement boasts families celebrating, people falling in love, even just
some smiley eejit on an M&S ad can set us off a little bit. Being away has certainly
given me a new appreciation for what I have in Ireland, and dare I say, rose-tinted
glasses for people I’ve left behind. Even though I’m not the biggest for
commemorating, I’m missing my Grandmother’s year anniversary by a day because
of flights – something that I am upset about to say the least. Going on a year abroad
and embarking on this year of my life without her, I’ve been living to do her proud.
To give you an idea of my Gran, she was 4 feet 11 inches of mischievous fun,
like me. She loved travel and always told me of her adventures abroad, especially
her love of the USA. Like many in her generation, she held America up as a beacon
of hope lit with dreams whispered in film reels and sealed in Christmas card stamp
kisses. But the last few years were difficult. Her once-hushed Alzheimer’s started
shrieking, and suddenly there were things we couldn’t talk about.

I came out very publicly and was constantly writing about controversial topics
to do with both our lives. What I wanted to be most proud of I had to keep hidden
from the person I loved most in the world. Before she died, I got word that I’d been
one of thirty young people selected to go to New York for my activism work. I was so
excited, I couldn’t wait to tell her, but never got the chance. She passed in the middle
of Christmas exams; the final kick to one of the most personally challenging years of
my life. I didn’t know how to deal, how to talk about it, who to talk to about it, so I
found Dolly.

Dolly Parton is the most successful female country artist of all-time. I could
spend the rest of this article talking about what Dolly has done for humanity. From
her brutally-honest songwriting, to her fight for gender equality, and her incredible
philanthropy surrounding youth literacy (something I myself am unbelievably
passionate about); she is the definition of the American Dream. The organisation that
I worked with in New York, We Are Family Foundation (WAFF), co-founded and
chaired by music-guru Nile Rodgers (who has written so many hits it’d make your
head spin) honours two extraordinary people every year for their work to bring the
global family closer together. When I heard that Dolly Parton and Jean Paul Gaultier
were the two honourees, I thought someone was messing with me. Two icons who
crossed so many social, political and cultural barricades using their art to change the
world. I knew I was meant to be at the event. Every part of me was saying this was
important for some reason or other.

It became something to look forward to as I settled into the strange new
loneliness of Maine-life. A few weeks after I had RSVP’d and booked my Greyhound,
I got a text from WAFF asking if I would be up for helping to present Ms. Parton with
the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Peacemaker Award. I legitimately squealed in the cafeteria,
replying “YES” instantly. I knew the minute I was asked, it had to be my Gran taking
hold of the puppet strings and bringing me some good fortune.
As I travelled down through New England, I thought about the power of family
and, how it had felt hard to be part of such a structure since starting college. My
award speech to Dolly Parton encapsulated this message: feeling alone with my
thoughts and wanting to create community spaces where what we said and how we
felt was valued. It appeared that unintentionally I wanted to find family, and spoiler
alert, I did.

The night before the big event, I tucked up on a college couch in Allentown,
Pennsylvania with a friend watching 9 to 5 and thinking about how Dolly’s films and
music influenced the way the world views women and the monumental strides she
took to create spaces for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, nationality
or socio-economic status to name just a few things.
I found myself in a Hollywood-esque tuxedo on the red carpet of the
Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City with people who had adopted me into their
world of activism just a little under a year ago. They made me feel loved and valued
when I felt most alone and unlovable. Family. It felt good to say on my tongue. But
friendship, that felt even better.

Along with three other girls, we spoke about our projects and presented Dolly
with a bouquet of yellow roses: a symbol of friendship, and also her favourite
flower. It was surreal being on stage with this woman whose life I felt I knew
so well, who had contributed so much to balancing the gender scales in the
world we live in today and had played such a big part in my life through my
Grandmother. I felt so grateful and humbled to spend my time with such an
incredible cohort of folks, and my Gran, who I fully believe was jiving onstage
beside me, Nile and Jean Paul at the end of the night.

There are too many Dolly songs that have healed my heart in the last twelve
months to list here but I want to finish with family. I was sad to leave the bright lights
of New York but felt hope in my chest knowing there was another place in the world
where I belonged. It makes the next few months bearable, reminding me of all the
wonderful people who have my back on both sides of the pond and beyond.
Because that’s what family is, looking after people as Christmas comes around, and
remembering the arms you have to wrap yourself in and, the people who love you,

Whether they are Two Doors Down, working 9 to 5, or two counties away, the good
things you are doing by just getting through and doing your best, and in the words of
Dolly herself “here you come again”.