Irish in This Way

the farm in granville062I am Irish in this way and not in that way:

I am Irish in the way that I know the story of the first of us to come here, a woman in her 50s in the 1850s, fed up with the injustice of it all, the hunger and the dying and finally, last straw, the death of her only son in the Crimean war, his blood spilled for England, in England’s war.

I know how she got here and I know where she lived.

I know what she took for a drink, nights, along with her pipe, and what she said to the children when they came spilling in the door of that farmhouse so poor the tree that grew outside it couldn’t afford branches.

I am Irish in that way. 

I am not Irish in the way of saying all the time what a great fine thing it is to be Irish.

Of the four bloodlines that went toward making me, I know about only two. I never learned a single thing about the family on my father’s mother side or the family on my father’s side because then I would have had to know about my father and I don’t.

I am Irish on all sides, as I have been told again and again, listening to all the jolly talk about how there were two kinds of people in the world the Irish and the ones who wish they were. Also I have heard the less jolly talk about the One True Church and the pagan babies and the non-elect, marooned outside forever, like smokers, the non-Catholics into whose houses of worship we never could go under pain of… what? Excommunication was it?

No wonder then that as a girl of 19 I fell for a boy of 21 (still wearing the suit from his ninth grade graduation because it was the only one he owned) and he wasn’t Catholic and he wasn’t Irish and didn’t I just sleep with him after all those years of saving myself and go right home and march into my mother’s bedroom to tell her I would marry him, and I did. (Poor lady! I can still see her trembling hands that night as she lit one cigarette and put it to her mouth, then immediately lit a second one and tried to get it in her mouth too.)

I guess I was just sick of all that Only-Us-ness by then and so  set sail in a life that kept on opening before me as I, who had never tasted lasagna, or wontons or hummus, or naan, tasted all of those and found out about what I’d been missing.

Still, all day yesterday I thought about our ways as Irish people: All the remembering, and weeping we did. All the songs.

That long-ago woman, born in 1800 and dead of the dropsy in 1891: I know about her because I knew her youngest grandson, who was my grandfather. My sister Nan and I lived in his house, together with our abandoned mom, and two ancient great aunties born in the 1860s. He would pass me playing on the floor and lay his hand on my dark  curls and call me Blackberry Top. “Little Blackberry Top” he would say.

So yesterday I went to the attic and read all of his papers. He really did get the Boston teachers their first-ever pay raise, exploited women that they were. I have the public talk from 1919 in which he vows to do that. He really did run for Mayor of Boston against the ‘rascal king’ James Michael Curley, in such a quixotic bid that a full 40 years later we were still making grocery lists on the unused letterhead from that campaign. 

He was an idealist and maybe I am too, on account of him.

I know he fell hard for a blue-eyed girl in the early 1890s. She married him when he got done law school and bore four babies in five years, and, scarce out of her 20s, saw her fifth baby die inside her only hours before she died herself.

His world went black then, as he wrote in his diary of that day.

In time he fell in love again with the younger sister of that blue-eyed girl  and tried all over again like Job and here sure enough came a new fifth child… But then that wife died too, at only 40, and he found a snatch of verse in the newspapers and cut it out and hung it by the mantle where I saw it every day walking past that hearth. Here is what it says:

Good night! good night! as we so oft have said
  Beneath this roof at midnight in the days
  That are no more, and shall no more return.
Thou hast but taken thy lamp and gone to bed;
  I stay a little longer, as one stays
To cover up the embers that still burn.

When he died and we sold the house he had built with such joy, we took the yellowed piece of newsprint and tucked it away, where, these 50 years later, I have again come upon it. 

I am Irish in the way that my heart contracts to read it again as I have done just this morning But no more than the heart of anyone would contract at the thought of the lost, in whatever breast  that heart beats, and from whatever land.

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Not What I Expected

the violin and the pianoI thought Sunday was all about St. Patrick’s Day so when I got to church and saw a fiddle on the cushioned pew seat up front I thought,  “Wow, we’re going to have reels! Maybe even some step-dancing!”

But I was wrong in several ways that day.

First, in my attempt to wear green and still be warm on a mighty frosty morning, I wore a green wool scarf along with my fake-emerald pendant. I felt so good about the green AND the fact that I would actually be getting to church on time that I asked David to take my picture, which he very nicely did. The only problem was, I had put on one green earring and one purple one, which I didn’t realize ’til I looked closely at the photo.

But that wasn’t my only wrong assumption, as I say. I was wrong as well about the fiddle music. The violin that lay on that first pew seat at the front of the church was there because this was to be a Healing service, something that I had forgotten had been scheduled for this third Sunday in March.

I hadn’t expected when I arrived that I would soon see people filing quietly toward three healing stations in the sanctuary while a woman played that violin, accompanied by the organist/fill-in choir director who sat at the piano beside her. I had been to a healing service 20 years before at the height of the AIDS crisis and remembered the way people had come from all over Metropolitan area to be at it, some of them very visibly sick with the scourge that AIDS was in the early 90s.

I hadn’t expected to feel so moved as I watched the folks seeking healing sit in the designated chair as two people on either side and the person directly in front leaned in to hear what each had to say. Some spoke of what they needed healing for and some just bowed their heads to indicate they sought general prayers and the blessing that would follow.

In both cases, for me in the fifth pew, the sound of their whispers was as the sound of water over stones in a springtime brook.

So there were several surprises for me on that day. Sure I’m always sorry to miss a chance to hear an Irish reel but the sweet sobbing of the violin more than made up for any sense of loss on that score.

Here now is Greg Scott playing Jay Ungar’s Ashokan Farewell, a tune we associate with the dim past because Ken Burns used as it the theme song for his documentary The Civil War. In fact it was written just 30 years ago. Listen to it now and think how for all the old beauty Creation shows us there is also much new beauty. Then think how, as my church teaches, revelation abounds, and God surely IS still speaking in this world.