putting down roots

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Remembering summers past . . .


Lawn-mowers and leaf-blowers strike up their tune much earlier when summer arrives in the desert southwest. By the time I left for work on Monday, I noticed, with the same kind of resignation triple-digit temperatures bring every year, that the flower beds were empty, the freshly mown grass less green, and, where just weeks before long branches hung low and heavy with hot pink blooms, were almost-bare limbs exposed to the sky above our house.

I remember the uncharacteristically hot Spring day when our little family drove to a the Moon Valley nursery in search of a tree just like those which provided some shade during our weekend strolls through the Biltmore Fashion Park. At the time, this open-air mall boasted a row of what I finally learned were Hong Kong Orchids; my then three-year old loved to stand on the tips of her toes and stretch each of her piano-player fingers high into the sky, hoping to pluck one of the enticing pink blossoms that hung there, blooms I believe as worthy as lilies of Georgia O’Keefe’s attention.

So enchanted was Sophie, that she wanted such a tree for our yard. I had the perfect spot, right in front of her bedroom window, where there should be something magnificent to wake up to every morning. And, from a more practical perspective, it would fill the space previously occupied for over seven decades by a grapefruit tree that had finally given up the ghost.

Sophie was still at that tender age when she needed to and wanted to hold my hand everywhere we went – on a mission to find a stray cat in the oleanders that bordered our back yard, or a hummingbird drinking from a Mexican honeysuckle, or the pink tree that was proving to be more elusive than I had anticipated. The nursery was all out of mature orchid trees, and the saplings were wholly unimpressive. It was anti-climactic at best when at last we found, attached to a single green stalk, all of three feet tall and the width of my little finger, a price tag identifying it as the coveted Hong Kong orchid – nary a bloom just a couple of leaves drooping sadly from the top. The young man who sold it to me was very charming and assured me it would provide “all kinds of shade” for us in no time. Skeptical, we bought it anyway, and off we went.

More to appease a tired little girl and her mother, than to show off any horticultural prowess, my husband planted and staked this skinny little excuse for a tree in the vacant spot. We began tending it, and like the watched kettle, it was unresponsive to our vigilance. Then, almost magically, not unlike Sophie herself, it grew up – beautiful, independent, fragile, and alert, with a resilience that sometimes takes my breath away.

Bending and swaying just when it should, at all the right times over the past decade, her pink tree has survived scorching, record-breaking temperatures, frost, intense monsoons, and even a “haboob” that hit Phoenix when we had abandoned the heat for California’s central coast. Unfazed, it was waiting for us when we returned as if to remind us that we live and move in its shadow.

It has annually inspired a shock of petunias in the flower beds, geraniums, fragrant pink stock, freesias, and snapdragons. It even played a role in the color I chose for my front door – I had entirely too much fun mixing colors, one of which was “black raspberry” to create a complement to Sophie’s pink tree.

And as I remembered this week while reading through old scrapbooks, her Hong Kong orchid was also the inspiration behind my darling girl’s first foray into poetry for which she earned a blue ribbon and honorable mention in her grade school’s annual poetry contest.
Through all the beginnings and endings, the reminders of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the finality of death, the pink tree abides.

Transcendent. 

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When Mother’s Day Falls in Ireland – A Stratagem

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I have worked in education long enough that it is not uncommon for me to encounter former students, some of whom are now married with careers and children of their own. It is always surreal to meet these adults who, just a twinkling ago, were writing in composition books about who they would become when they were all grown up. Likewise, they are incredulous to discover that I am now the mother of a daughter who is older than they were when they were my students. And equally perturbed by this scenario and all its implications, is my daughter. A delicious juxtaposition, really – my former students confronting the truth that there really was more to me than being their teacher while my daughter faces the realty that once upon a time I was not her mother, when other people’s children took up most of my time and who thought I was hip with great taste in clothes, music, and hair.

And, long before that, there was another time when I was as young as she, sitting in my childhood kitchen, my mother at the ironing board telling me, “Daughter dear, the world is your oyster.”  And perhaps to charm me out of my ennui, she would add, “sure, don’t you have the heart of a lion?”

Non-plussed, I dismissed her as someone who had no life before I came along, someone who could never have been a hopeful teenager or somebody’s BFF or the one with the great sense of style. But ma was all of these . . .

She is far away this weekend, in the place that made her, South Derry, the distance between there and where I sit in my Phoenix kitchen, stretched taut on milestone moments like Mother’s Day. A phone call or a visit on Facebook will help close the distance between us, me falling easily into the comforting colloquialisms of home, but it will not be the same.

The sea is wide, but it takes only a second to transport me back to our house on the Dublin road. My brother’s not home from school yet, and there’s ma, leaning over the ironing board, smoothing out with hot steam the wrinkles in my father’s shirts, pausing – for dramatic effect – to remind me to consider the lilies, to “mark her words” that there will be plenty of time for work and plenty of fish in the sea. Implicit in her explicit admonishment not to wish my life away, was the fact that she was not wishing my life away.

Mostly, she struck an artful balance between shielding me from the world while empowering me to find the voice to explore its realities. But not all the time, especially not when I was in the throes of adolescent boredom, my eyes rolling to the heavens in response to the kind of home-spun wisdom I never thought I would miss.

“Don’t you know not to be wasting your money on a card? And the price of them . . . ” she’ll say, even though I know she loves to hear the tell-tale flap of an envelope falling through the letter box.  And even though a cousin reminded me a week ago on Facebook with a smiley face and a wink, that I had a week to buy a card, and even though I marked it on my phone calendar, I ran out of time.

The inconvenient truth is that reminders of the American Mother’s Day won’t pop up in emails from Teleflora or showy Hallmark displays in the grocery store or at the carwash until after the Irish Mother’s Day has passed.  In Ireland, Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday in Lent thereby falling on a different date every year. In America, Mother’s Day arrives each year on the second Sunday in May – after St. Patrick’s Day, Passover, Easter, Administrative Professional’s Day, Cinco De Mayo, and Nurse’s Day. I once had a strategy to cope with this annual conundrum – outsmarting the calendar with the clever purchase of two Mother’s Day cards in May – one as a sort of consolation prize for possibly having forgotten the Irish Mother’s Day, the other for the subsequent March. It is a brilliant plan, except it rarely works, because I will put the card away for safe-keeping, in other words I will lose it amongst bills and all the other papers I need for the Tax Filing Deadline Day in April which, naturally, is sandwiched between the two Mother’s Days (but after my birthday which sometimes coincides with Easter)- along with all the aforementioned holidays that someone has kindly listed on the Greeting Card Universe website.

Having also missed the deadline for same-day delivery of flowers, I will instead take my mother back with me to an enduring childhood memory. Scrubbed clean and uncomfortable in our Sunday best and with all the other children, we are proceeding in a crooked line up the aisle of Antrim’s All Saints Parish Church, to collect from a beaming Reverend Thornton a single fresh flower to give to our watchful, waiting mother.

Happy Mother’s Day, ma.

And thank you. It all makes sense now. Just when you thought you didn’t need to watch over me anymore, you are right back where you started in 1963 – wishing only the best for your baby girl.

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on “the lovely uselessness of poetry”

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For World Poetry Day 2017.

The freedom and the lovely uselessness of poetry is its whole point.

~ Leontia Flynn


My parents were raised in rural County Derry, Seamus Heaney country, where they learned to be thrifty and resourceful, and when all else failed, to believe in the mystical powers of “folk healers,” those individuals uniquely gifted with “the cure” or “the charm” for all ailments. Consulted only after patients had flummoxed the medical doctor, the folk healer meted out charms in all forms – plasters, poultices, and potions in brown bottles. It was to such a man my father once turned after the local doctor told my mother there was nothing he could prescribe for her bout with jaundice.  Dissatisfied with this from someone with formal medical training and a string of letters after his name, my father went deep into the Derry countryside to visit the man with “the charm.”

Observant and curious, my father accompanied him into the fields but was of no help in discerning those wild herbs that held curative powers. Thus, he watched and then he waited in a tiny kitchen as the healer wordlessly concocted the charm. With a stone, he beat juices from unidentified herbs, added two bottles of Guinness stout, poured the mixture into a Cantrell and Cochrane lemonade bottle and sent da on his way with instructions for my mother to drink every last drop. No payment. Just faith that it would work a healing magic.

As an adolescent, I was skeptical of the faith healer but not of the faith at work in the transaction. In crisis, when all else fails, we might try anything. When conventional wisdom seems foolish, and the right words are in hiding, where can we go?

Not Google, I wish I could say, but after being diagnosed with cancer, I spent as much time on the Internet tracking down all the worst case scenarios as I did staring down a cursor that blinked on a blank Word document.  A conspiracy began. Between us, the winking cursor and me, we would maybe find some words to help me adjust to this altered life. Everywhere else I found only no sense – nonsense. The words that fell from the lips of physicians and friends and people who love me, sent me scrambling into a frightening encounter with my mortality which began with a fast and furious flurry of euphemisms about my inner fortitude. At the same time, there was a silence from those who were frustrated by not having the “right” words and crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing. There were friends and family who, unafraid and angry on my behalf, jumped in, took charge, and said the “wrong” thing anyway, made all the worse because I lacked the right words to explain why. Around this time Van Morrison’s “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart” made most sense.

Clumsily, in the wee hours, I struggled to catch the best words to present my changed life, hoping to save them in a jam-jar with holes poked in the lid, knowing I would need them down the road. Cancer invaded my lexicon, and previously dependable words failed me. “Staging” would never again conjure only the theater and the cheap seats in the ‘gods’ at the Grand Opera House in Belfast; “fog” I would now attach to a state of cognitive loss rather than a misty morning in a Van Morrison song or the cloud that often obscures parts of Pacific Coast Highway on a trip north in the summertime; “cure” no more the idiomatic “hair of the dog that bit you” but a confounding and elusive thing all wrapped up in a pink ribbon; “Mets” was not just the other New York baseball team but a tragic abbreviation for metastatic breast cancer from which no one survives yet of all the millions of dollars raised for breast cancer research in this country, only a small percentage is directed to metastatic breast cancer. Even “sentinel,” which had been reserved, until cancer came calling, for a lonely cormorant perched on a post in the sleepy edges of Morro Bay – transformed, becoming instead the first node to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor.  “Infusion” had been something done to olive oil to transform it into a gourmet gift, but because I had turned left instead of right upon leaving my oncologist’s office one day, I found myself on the threshold of the infusion suite, a room I didn’t know was there. Feeling as though I had intruded, I fled. But not before I had registered a row of faces of people who were sicker than me. In one microscopic moment, I made eye contact with a woman and wondered if perhaps she was cold because, as I turned away, I noted a quilt on her lap. I turned away. 

Enter fleeing.

Inarticulate, stunned by what the cancer was doing to the efficacy of words, and in need of a charm, I rediscovered County Down poet Damian Gorman. Trapped in cancer land, I also found myself remembering the bombs, bullets, the “suspect incendiary devices” that were part of 1980s Northern Ireland as far less deadly than the devices of detachment” my people used to distance ourselves from it –

“I’ve come to point the finger

I’m rounding on my own

The decent cagey people

I count myself among …

We are like rows of idle hands

We are like lost or mislaid plans

We’re working under cover

We’re making in our homes

Devices of detachment

As dangerous as bombs.”

On a day like today, when the news back home is all about the death of Martin McGuinness, people will ask me what it was like growing up in  that place at that time – hoping to understand “The Troubles” and indeed McGuinness – I will direct them not to some digital archive that chronicles what has happened in Northern Ireland since August 1969, but to “Devices of Detachment.” And in October, when I am pummeled by pink, it will be to this charm I turn. And when people die, and I don’t know what to say to bring any comfort to their loved ones, my condolences will come wrapped up in a Seamus Heaney poem – the right words at the right time.

When Heaney died, I remember wondering if the living poets would have the right words. I imagine most of them thought that only Heaney himself would be capable of composing the condolences that would assuage Ireland’s collective sorrow over his passing.  I could not imagine the landscape of my my lovely, tragic homeland without him. Heaney had scored my life with poems about hanging clothes on the line and ironing, about biycyle riding or blackberry picking  and of potato-peeling at the kitchen sink with his mother when “all the others were away at Mass.” Sitting at my kitchen table, in Phoenix, Arizona, a lifetime away from Anahorish, my mother once recalled him as a young man with sandy hair, riding his bicycle around Castledawson. He would probably be pleased that her recollection of him is less as renowned Nobel Laureate and more “a son of Paddy Heaney’s.” 

In an unguarded moment, when I turn to a page in a picture book to see the complete and smiling family of which I once was a part, I turn again to Heaney until the remembered trauma subsides. I don’t know when my husband died, the moment my daughter lost her daddy. I know only that he was pronounced dead at 1:10PM on November 15th. Posing for a photograph with Barry Devlin at the forge on the other side of The Door into The Dark, on the other side of the world, holding in my hands the anvil that made the sweeter sound, then striking it, I imagine a shower of sparks and wonder if it was at that very moment that Ken died, alone in our Phoenix home. There is something soothing – and right-seeming – in believing I was maybe within Heaney’s spiritual field for just a moment and in knowing I would return to the desert with my daughter to do what we were fit for – to “take up the strain of the long tailed pull of grief” – to move forward.

A reporter once asked me if I thought you had to be Irish to appreciate Seamus Heaney’s poetry. The way she asked it suggested she was unfamiliar with his work, and I responded inadequately. I meant to tell her that in the crucible of Heaney’s poetry, she would no doubt find herself represented along with everyone else; she would find “the music of what happens” then and now; she would find not what it means to be Irish, but all that it means to be human and searching, always searching – digging – for the goodness that’s in us and still for us.  She would find the charm; she would understand why we turn to it, as  Carol Ann Duffy explains in her response to the devastation of the Haiti earthquake as it unfolded on television:

We turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives . . . when we lose people, or are bereaved, we look for a piece of music or poem to read at the funeral, or when we fall in love we turn to poetry, or when children are born. And I think that can happen at moments of public grief too, as well as personal. It is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is. It is the perfect art form for public or private grief.

P.S.

When we fall in love we turn to poetry . . . and on this World Poetry Day, I am in love, remembering a wintry day on The Flaggy Shore. Thank you.

Post Script by Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown, headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And find the heart unlatched and blow it open.

 

 

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By the Wayside on St. Patrick’s Day

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“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
― Elie Wiesel, Night


I am ambivalent about St. Patrick’s Day, still not sure what it is about March 17th that renders so many people Irish or some version of it that I do not recall from living the first twenty-seven years of my life in Northern Ireland. Everywhere I turn on Friday, there will be Americans proclaiming their Irishness, some in T-shirts emblazoned with a command to kiss them, others bearing warnings that they are falling-down drunk. Because they are Irish. Even elected officials whose nationality we never knew or cared about will become bona fide Irish. I wonder just how many frazzled interns there must be in these United States, tasked by politicians keen on maintaining a hold on “the Irish vote,” with finding some verifiable, however microscopic, proof of their Irish heritage.

Identity matters. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who am I? Am I Irish? Northern Irish? British? Ulster Irish? Well, it depends, and I know I’m entering dangerous territory here, especially this year as we grapple with Brexit and the outcome of the recent Assembly election in Northern Ireland. My brother, more eloquent than I, and still living and working in Ireland, broke it down for me one day, commenting on the “fractured and dissensual nature of our cultural background, where declarations of nationhood are open to contention (Northern Ireland versus the North of Ireland; Derry versus Londonderry) and can be dangerous, and potentially fatal.” Maybe this is why I traded in my homeland for America, falling in love with the very idea of it, an idea that I watched unravel at break-neck speed in the 2016 race for President of the United States.

I consider myself Irish – or as my favorite professor used to say of me, I “aspire to a united Ireland” – but my “documentation” suggests something of an identity crisis. I was born in Northern Ireland and own a British passport (just to be on the safe side) and I need to renew my Irish passport before we are booted out of the EU. My American permanent residency card states Ireland as my country of birth, but my birth certificate states my birthplace as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am one of her Royal Majesty’s subjects –  except when I’m not – like the time a waiter at Heathrow Airport refused to accept my money because, although Sterling, it was printed on a Bank of Ulster note. My money had identified me as something other than acceptable.

A more subtle subtext persists in America. Even in Arizona, a flashpoint for immigration issues, it seems everyone is at least fractionally Irish on March 17th. With green beer flowing and all those ringlets bouncing heavily on the heads of Irish dancers, and people pinching me if I’m not wearing green, I sometimes wonder if maybe I was always absent on St. Patrick’s Day. How could I have missed all these shenanigans even though I grew up down the road from Mount Slemish, where the Patron Saint tended his sheep?

Contemplating all of this, and for the record, I feel compelled to tell you that along with a bunch of girls from school, I attended Irish Dancing every week at the Protestant Hall on Railway Street in Antrim. Also for the record, none of us had either the ringlets or the straight backs and long legs of Flatley’s Riverdancers. Still, I loved it, and while I have long since forgotten the name of our lovely teacher, I remember that she was kind and made me feel like I was a dancer. Today, I couldn’t do a slip-jig to save my life, but I can prove that I once could – I could show you inside the red box that held my first Timex watch, where wrapped in tissue paper are all my medals.

And I suppose because I appreciated the craft that went into it, and I wanted to hold on to it when I came to America, I even brought with me – in my rucksack– the dancing costume that last fit me when I was 12. It hangs in the back of a closet, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. I don’t think I could part with it.

Then there’s the corned beef and cabbage.  I have never had corned beef and cabbage. Not even once. We always had the best of sirloin from Stewart’s Butchers – a place with saffron colored sawdust on the floor in which I traced figures of eight with the toes of my brogues. An imaginative child, I pretended I was cutting through ice on the blades of Harriet’s skates as she spun around a frozen pond in Tom’s Midnight Garden.  I remember being a bit afraid of the young butchers. Even though they weren’t that much older than me, they were mildly menacing in their blue and white striped aprons all smeared with blood and bits of raw beef, sharpening their knives while I stood on the other side of the counter ordering a pound of minced beef for mammy.

As for cabbage, I still associate it with the overcooked vegetables, lumpy custard, and tapioca served for lunch at Antrim Primary School. Mind you, as my mother will no doubt remind me, when fried up with a bit of good bacon from Golden’s – the wee shop – cabbage is hard to beat, although not as good as turnip. But it had nothing to do with St. Patrick. Corned beef and cabbage would have been no more than a n unfortunate coincidence on St. Patrick’s Day four decades ago.

Then there are the shamrocks and the snakes. I don’t remember Pat the barman in The Crown Bar in Belfast ever taking the time to trace a shamrock on the head of a pint of Guinness for my friend Ruth or me, and as much time as we spent in there – and as much as we flirted with him – it was the least he could have done. Nor do I remember shamrocks or Celtic knots tattooed on young shoulders; rather, they were carved into headstones in old graveyards or embellished around stained glass windows at church. I never paid much attention to that bit of the story when St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, although it has come back to me when I have sidestepped the odd snake slithering across my path on a hike through the Phoenix mountains. Real talk – they have been much less poisonous than the human variety.

Now wasn’t St. Patrick very clever to have found in nature a perfect symbol for Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to help him spread The Word? This was how I learned about the Holy Trinity in Sunday School, and I always think about it when I recall those delicate shamrocks wilting in the buttonholes of suits worn by Catholic neighbors who went to mass on St. Patrick’s Day. Back then, it seemed that most Protestants either “took no notice” of the holiday or characterized it as something reserved for those “on the other side.” There’s a bit of irony there, given the young saint’s passion for spreading Christianity.

All that being said, by the time I was living and studying in Belfast, St. Patrick’s Day had evolved into a good excuse for an extended pub crawl with a motley crew of art students, engineers, and teachers.  My last St. Patrick’s Day back home was in 1987. It was a cold Tuesday night, and we were on the hunt for craic and pints, so we piled in a taxi and headed for The Wayside Halt, a nondescript country pub on the edge of the dual carriageway between Antrim and Ballymena. It’s the kind of place that wouldn’t merit a second look. Walking into it, I sobered, the events of May 24, 1974, rushing at me like scenes from a black and white documentary. My father had told me about how on that May evening, one of his friends had suggested stopping at the pub for a quick pint on the way home. Back home, the “quick pint” is something of a paradox, and because da was in a rush to complete his bread deliveries before dark that Friday night, he declined. As he tells it, before he reached Randalstown, the harrowing word had arrived that within the previous hour, Loyalist paramilitaries had barged into the Wayside Halt, and shot at point-blank range, the Catholic publican, Shaun Byrne, and his brother, Brendan. Other pub owners in the Ballymena area had been attacked as well, their places of business vandalized because they had decided to remain open during the United Workers Council Strike of 1974.

Shaun and Brendan Byrne were murdered, while the children were in the sitting room upstairs. And in the picture sent to me by one of the Byrne family, the only child not home that evening is the little girl standing at her father’s right shoulder.


Somehow – I know not how – Mrs. Byrne kept going, and on that St. Patrick’s Day in 1987, she outdid herself, with a giant pot of Irish stew, the likes of which I defy you to find in America. Bland to the American taste-buds, I’m sure, but when combined with an aromatic turf fire, a half-un of Jamesons or a hot Powers whiskey, and someone like Big Mickey playing “The Lonesome Boatman” on a tin whistle in the back bar, it was big and bold in flavor. It was unforgettable. On such a night, we basked in our Irish identity.

We knew who we were.

And every St. Patrick’s Day since, I am drawn back to The Wayside Halt. For the craic. For a pint with good friends. For Mrs. Byrne. And to bear witness.

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