My grandmother died when I was just six years old. I have never forgotten her – maybe because this was my first experience with death or maybe because it was my first experience of feeling completely loved. To this day, the sunshine that spills into my front room every morning, reminds me of her urging her daughter – my mother – to “follow the sun.” Once upon a time, she did just that.
In the 1920s, when she was young and full of hope, Granny emigrated to America with my grandfather, and they settled in Connecticut. But a steady flow of letters from home, heavy with reminders of familial obligation, pulled them back to Broagh in 1932, with their American-born children – four little boys and a daughter.
She is not smiling in the picture that would be placed in the family passport and stamped as she boarded the boat to go back. She knew, I imagine, that she had no choice but to abandon forever the possibilities and the promise of America. Resigned, she and my grandfather resumed the known and expected ways of the townland, and within six years, the family was complete with two more daughters. My mother was the youngest.
There was no money. As a matter of economic necessity and from an early age, the family was “off the grid,” resigned to hard work – the compulsory craft – thatching and churning, divining and digging. There was an awareness of education as a way out and up, but it was not enforced beyond my grandmother’s mantra that “a pen was easier handled than a spade.” More accessible as the way up, she believed, was America – the dream of it – and she urged my parents to pursue it. Somehow, the message only got through to me.
In the early 1960s, my mother frequently took me “up home” to see my grandparents. We took the Route 110 bus from Antrim to the Hillhead, which made an adventure out of it. Walking from the Hillhead bus stop to granny’s house, I remember forcing my tiny self not to be afraid of whatever might be hiding in the dark spaces in the canopy of beech and alder that hung over us.
A silky fragrant world there, and for the first few hundred yards, you were safe enough . . .But scuffles in old leaves made you nervous.
~ Seamus Heaney.
Scared, but buoyed by bluebells and foxgloves that winked at me from the grassy edges of the road and the rustic rhythms of men cutting turf or digging potatoes, I kept going. There was comfort in the certainty that soon I would be in my grandmother’s arms breathing in time to her heartsome sighs as she carried buckets of water from the pump and then made milky tea for the turf-cutters. Almost fifty years later, I can still see her, wiping her elegant hands on a flowery apron, wearing a cardigan the color of buttercups and a big indulgent smile for me.
How she loved me.
If I could, I would thank her for the grace notes that have embellished the songs of my life. The Masons baking bowl; the flowers on her yellow apron; the good brown coat she wore on special outings; the embroidered “As I lay me down to sleep” sampler that hung on the bedroom wall; ice cream sliders from McGurk’s shop, and quarter-pound paper bags of Merry Maid caramels. Behind my mother’s back, she made sugar sandwiches for me – great door-steps of white bread filled with creamy, country butter made crunchy with caster sugar.
Once, I remember my parents left me with her while they took an excursion to Derry city with my uncle and his American wife. While I played outside, she made the mistake of leaving three lemon meringue tarts to cool on the window sill. In no time, there I was on my tiptoes, starting out by just picking gingerly at the edges of the mile-high meringue topping, thinking nobody would notice, but I couldn’t restrain myself and devoured every bit of it, rendering the tarts bald, shiny yellow circles atop rings of shortcrust pastry. Granny just thought it was funny, and encouraged me to do it again the next time.
I like to think I am living out her American dream. I can barely remember a time when I did not feel the lure of these United States, nor was I ever afraid to take what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk,” but now that I have spent more than half my life in America, there are still unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a crushing loneliness and a visceral longing for “back home,” for the very things that sent me away in the first place, the rain, the low-hanging clouds, the lack of anonymity, an uneasy peace – the very things to which my grandmother returned.
I am a blind woman finding her way home by a map of a tune.
When the song that is in me is the song I hear from the world
I’ll be home. It’s not written down and I don’t remember the words.
I know when I hear it, I’ll have made it myself. I’ll be home.
Happy Birthday, Granny. The sun is shining for you.