Another long-distance phone call and the miles between my mother and me fall away. With the phone wedged between her shoulder and her ear, she is rescuing sheets from the clothes-line just before another downpour. Next will come a bit of ironing and then the folding, a precise ritual, my father her partner in a dance handed down from one generation to the next.
This transports me back to the kitchen of my childhood home. 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 long for these days.
“Daughter dear, the world is your oyster,” she would tell me, and perhaps to charm me out of my ennui, she’d add, “sure 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 my mother was all of these . . .
She is far away, in the place that made her, South Derry, the distance between there and where I sit in the Arizona desert, stretched taut on milestone moments like her upcoming 78th birthday. 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 as dancing with her.
My daughter learned that same dance not by the ironing board in my mother’s kitchen, but on the sandy edges of California before the fog rolled in on an August evening.
Facing each other, a blue blanket stretched between us, she stepped towards me, intent on matching her corners to mine, my edge to hers. In the middle we met to make the final fold, while unbeknownst to us, her father took our pictures and wrote our names in the sand, knowing the tide would wash them away. Forever.
Yet still we dance.
Happy birthday, ma. I love you.
From Clearances V by Seamus Heaney
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984I
“The cool that came off the sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.”