docken leaves, first day at school, gypsies, Medbh Mcguckian, Memoir, Moyola, nettles, Northern Ireland funeral, Remembering Grandparents, rural funeral County Derry, Seamus Heaney, sewing, turf cutting, uniform, wake, walking cortege, Wilfred Owen, Windsor knot, women in country funerals, World War 1
The little boy standing on O’Connell Street, is the image of his father, my brother, anticipating a cream bun treat at the nearby Arabica Coffee. He has just completed a milestone to remember, his first day at school, where he will be known by the Irish version of his surname, the very impressive Mac Uaitéir. Literally, this translates to “Son of Water,” a Celtic Warrior who quite possibly could have held his own with “Wind in his Hair” or “Dances with Wolves.” Thus, a first day at primary school with baked goods from Arabica Coffee, assumes the tone of an epic adventure.
The ready-made tie around the collar of my nephew’s new white shirt has prompted a rush of memories of attire once required for his father over four decades: uniforms for school in shades of utilitarian blue, black, or grey, and always a tie. Snapshots of my brother show a Windsor knot peeking out from under graduation regalia and covering neatly the top button of shirts pressed for job interviews, workdays, weddings, and funerals. His first suit was the one he wore to my grandfather’s funeral on a summer’s day in 1977. A three-piece, no less, my mother made it. She had been enrolled in a dress-making class at Antrim Tech and, under the tutelage of a kindly Mrs. McMinn, learned how to make clothes from Simplicity paper patterns which were anything but simple as far as I was concerned. As her repertoire expanded to include making collars, darts, and buttonholes, inserting linings in skirts and zippers on trousers, she found more complicated patterns from McCalls, Butterick, and Vogue. A quick study, she soon mastered them all. Accordingly, she became a critic. It didn’t matter if the new skirt came from Vivienne’s high-priced boutique or the Great Universal “club book,” she cast a cynical eye over every seam before declaring with a sigh that had she been able to get her hands on a pattern, she would have done a far better job herself. She would have made something of the caliber of my brother’s little suit, which was the culmination of a spate of fine tailoring that had produced flared trousers, A-line skirts, shirts, vests. and even a jacket with wide lapels for me to wear with my beloved bellbottoms.
Once a week, my mother went to Mrs. McMinn’s classroom at the Tech. On big rectangular tables, she rolled out cloth bought by the yard at Antrim’s aptly named Spinning Mill, pinned on the paper patterns, and, fearlessly, she cut it in all the right places. In the evenings before the next class meeting, those bits of cloth pinned to paper sleeves, cuffs, fronts, and backs were transformed by her handiwork and a Singer sewing machine. More than making things, I think my mother loved making them her own. I was a spectator, passive but envious, wondering if and when I would ever be able to make anything the way she did. Never, I know now. Mind you, she says my current obsession with Digital Photography which includes a weekly class at a local community college, is no different than the sewing phase that consumed so much of her time and energy. For its duration, my brother and I came home from school to the predictable, high-pitched whir of a Singer that had been purchased “on tick” at a shop in Ballymena. If it was raining on a Saturday, out came the Singer, and I took refuge in a book or a black and white film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Recalling those afternoons sends me looking for myself inside a poem by a woman about a woman who grew up in Northern Ireland, Medbh McGuckian:
In the evenings I used to study≠
at my mother’s old sewing-machine,
pressing my feet occasionally
Up and down on the treadle
as though I were going somewhere
I had never been.
Every year at exams, the pressure mounted –
the summer light bent across my pages
like a squinting eye. The children’s shouts
echoed the weather of the street,
a car was thunder,
the ticking of a clock was heavy rain…
In the dark I drew the curtains
on young couples stopping in the entry,
heading home. There were nights
I sent the disconnected wheel
spinning madly round and round
till the empty bobbin rattled in its case.”
Had I known the poem at the time, I would have sworn McGuckian had written it just for the girl I used to be. At almost fifty, I understand what she said about it conveying her “desire to be creative and somehow being very frustrated in that, because of having to be a woman and having to sit still and the lack of adventure in your life really, the lack of adventure in your head. And so it is a poem about wanting to write. And not really being able to ﬁnd a way of doing that.’
In those days, women did not attend funerals in rural County Derry. It was just not the done thing. The custom was for the men to walk behind the hearse from the house to the church and on to the graveside. The women stayed behind and stayed busy. They made sandwiches that were neatly cut into little triangles and placed with shortbread and buns on three-tiered china cake stands. After the burial, the men returned along with a steady stream of mourners who visited the house to pay their respects over cups of tea or a wee drop of something stronger, perhaps “a half-un” of Powers or Bushmills. Powers was always preferred for a hot whiskey with a slice of lemon stuck with cloves and sugar. For the want of just the right words, there were stoic, firm handshakes and deep condolences breathed with the simplest phrase, “sorry for your trouble.” Into the wee hours, mourners come and go, and eventually the house falls quiet, as it had been earlier in the morning when, as on the day of my grandfather’s funeral, all the women had gathered in the yard, their quiet, restrained crying a chorus of mourning my brother now likens to delicate birds. Only the men participated in the walking cortege, sons and brothers, grandsons, nephews, distant male relatives, and neighboring farmers, each taking turns with “the lifting” of the coffin. Looking back, I wonder if I would have liked to walk with the men behind my Granda’s coffin. I knew the road, and he had taught me its every curve. But this was a different time. The women, the girls, stayed behind. Apparently, I hid.
Because our dad was one of the men doing “the lifting,” my little brother was chaperoned in the walking cortege, by Ben, a favorite uncle. Understanding how strange the solemnity of it all might be for a 7-year old, Ben slipped my brother a five-pound note, which would later be spent on sweets. Ben was a young man then, a talented and versatile musician who sometimes in the middle of a conversation would begin playing Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross on the guitar that was always close by. Only those who are from this part of the world would understand the incongruity of this at a time when an unfortunate Northern Irish version of “County and Western” dominated local radio, sung by people like Philomena Begley and Big Toma and the Mainliners. Ben was cool. He had a shock of black hair, with a genuine, eclectic interest in people and music. Unlike most of the men who were in dark-colored suits for granda’s funeral – without their overcoats because it was a dry day – my brother’s suit was a light tan, and Ben was resplendent in maroon cord, a suit that would have also have worked for him had he been auditioning for Bob Dylan’s Touring Band or Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. This spectacular ensemble, as surprising as the gold tooth that flashed when he smiled, belonged perfectly as he led my little brother along the country road. With scores of men who knew my grandfather and the family, my brother remembers following that cortège up to the Hillhead, a rare sun spilling through the dense natural green canopy of the trees. He remembers in minute detail much about the day, and I was unprepared for the details that have stayed with him:
I remember never walking so slowly in my life, and sinking my hands into the trousers of my pockets, sending the bottom part of the jacket out behind me, to compensate for what was to my young limbs an unbearably slow rate of progress. It somehow made me feel more grown up too. That funeral was also one my earliest memories of a smoking custom seemingly unique to Ireland – the ‘cupped cigarette,’ with the offending item concealed by the palm, a procedure seemingly invented by nicotine addicts unable to resist the urge at solemn social occasions. I can also remember the grieving chorus of female relatives gathered outside the house for the departure of the cortège. Staccato yet soft whimpering, it began a soundtrack of grief that still haunts my quietest moment; the mauve cover on the coffin; the sound of earth scattered on the coffin during the burial service; the shock of seeing Granda’s name engraved on the shiny plaque on the coffin lid, and watching as it was steadily obscured by earth. I think it was big Willie Evans, with his face a grief-swollen red mask, who did that duty. Too, I recall the swiftness with which a group of men in shirtsleeves moved in to fill the grave. In all, it instilled in me a lifelong fear of burial.
To this day, hearing the “ashes to ashes” recitation at funerals triggers in him the fear he felt as a little boy in his first suit, when he heard for the first time, the sound of soil gently dropped on wood. On the first day of school that autumn, in response to the standard “what I did on summer vacation” he wrote an essay, complete with a pencil and crayon rendition of the cortège and the hearse on my grandfather’s front yard. Too young to be sad, he says, but forever altered by the experience.
Unlike my brother, I have no recollection of the day my grandfather was buried. I know I must have been distressed, perhaps so much that I am unable to recover the memory. Yet, with absolute clarity, I remember how Granda liked his tea, with only a drop of milk and two spoonfuls of sugar. Increasing the odds that it would be strong, his was always the last cup poured from the pot. Often with two Rich Tea biscuits impossibly balanced upon a saucer, the delicate china cup somehow belonged in his elegant hand. To cool his tea, and to my great amusement, Granda sometimes poured it into the saucer from which he subsequently drank with a little slurp. He wore cable-pattern vests my aunt had knit for him pulled over his signature checked shirts. His favorite was a red and white checked shirt. My mother is convinced those checked shirts were his way of remembering what he wore, how we was, as a young immigrant in America. The timing seems right, given the rise to popularity of Pendleton plaid shirts before World War II. My mother also tells me that the plain blue shirt he wore to my grandmother’s funeral seemed as out-of-place as he must have felt in a world without her.
Before that world changed, Granda and I spent part of our Sundays going for long walks down the Moss Road. At the top of the lane, we stopped and very emphatically we looked right, looked left, looked right again, and then we turned left and set towards the Moss Road, along which gypsies were occasionally encamped. Sometimes, as a treat for me, he carried barley sugar sweets deep in his pockets. He also taught me to look out for nettles and the big broad docken leaves that were supposed to soothe their sting. As a girl, my mother had been sent by my grandmother, down this same road, to deliver sandwiches and flasks of tea to her father and the other turf cutters. I often wonder what they would have made of young Seamus Heaney who lived just down the road and often sped by on his bicycle, red hair blowing in the wind. Could they ever have imagined the smallness of their world enlarged for global audiences through “Digging” and other poems that pulled taut the stuff of life and those who lived it within and beyond the banks of the Moyola River:
“My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf.”
In an instant, Heaney’s poetry scoops me up and into the rhythms of this countryside and its people. My grandfather belonged there, and it saddens me to picture him plucked from that place to go off to war, far away from the bluebells and foxgloves that once lined the Moss Road. For O-level English, I had to learn by heart much of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est.” By that time I had already committed to memory my grandfather’s own story of “war and the pity of war,” of an afternoon that found him alone, afraid, parched with thirst, and crawling on his belly through a field somewhere in France. I imagine he felt something close to euphoria when he came upon the stream, followed by a horror that would haunt him into old age. I shudder to think of him cupping the water in his hands, bringing it up to his face, then noticing it was tinged with red. Flowing in the foreign water was also the blood of a young soldier who had died not too far away. Phlegmatic, my grandfather recounted those details in a voice I can still hear. I can see his eyes, the same blue as mine, his checked shirt, and the tweed cap he habitually twirled in the fingers of his left hand.
But no matter how I try, I cannot summon up a single memory of the day of his my grandfather’s funeral. I can only imagine my little brother, “Son of Water,” in his first suit.