It is Christmas morning, 1967, in a modest house on Antrim’s Dublin Road, and I am the happiest girl in the world. I’m wrapped up in an outfit my mother knit with a big Christmas bow in my hair. Santa has left a new bicycle – my first. It has stabilizers. Stabilizers. My first big word. Even now, I like saying it and conjuring all it connotes – stability, steadfastness, balance, a firm hold. I’m glad Santa hadn’t read MIT engineering professor David Gordon Wilson’s Bicycling Science. The professor wholly dismisses training wheels, pointing out, obviously, that they do not teach you how to balance; they teach you how to pedal. Given that bicycling is the quintessential balancing act, Wilson advises to “adjust the bicycle’s seat low enough for children to plant their feet on the ground and practice by coasting down the grassy slopes.” No wonder we are so afraid when we push off that first time without training wheels. We have to learn how to balance, much like the way we are expected to swim if we are thrown in the deep end.
But this recollection isn’t about the bicycle or the little girl on it. It’s about the green crib in the corner of the picture – made for my first doll, Gloria – and the man who made it, my father. He could be Eric Dawson on Christmas Eve in “An Ulster Twilight.” They share the same name, and each of them belongs in a Heaney poem, adept in their respecting balancing acts.
Good with his hands and frugal, da’s artisinal handiwork is the kind that imbues the Derry townlands he crossed on his motorbike in the early 1960s. He tells me it began as a matter of economic necessity – the farming and the gardening, the turf-cutting and roof-thatching, the craft and the carpentry all shaped by and shaping the place where they lived.
Older – and presumably wiser – I have a greater appreciation for his frugality and the way he crafted a thing that would last. I can see him now, doing the mental arithmetic, sizing up the situation, cutting no corners. If you’re going to do it, do it right. I know he often wishes he lived just down the road,to make things and make things right again for his grand-daughter and me. There’s the mantlepiece I’ve wanted since 1993, and the laundry room needs a paint job. I don’t remember to wind the Regulator clock, he bought me three Christmases ago, and I just couldn’t be bothered making the windows sparkle with wads of newspaper and vinegar. It would be no bother for him to mix cement to repair the red brick mailbox again, or to show Sophie how to put windshield washer fluid in her car. Once upon a time I didn’t understand his obsessiveness, his sense of urgency over why all these things need fixing. Now I understand.
I understand that each of us wants to fix the unfixable, to live forever so our children will never experience something as minor as a flat tire or as heart-wrenching as the loss of those we love. We want to make the magic last, to stop time, close distance, and find the right words right when we need them.
With so many minutes and miles between da and me, it sometimes breaks my heart to realize all I have missed out on – all the bits and pieces of homespun wisdom from the heart of rural Derry, the gardening tips and home improvement projects that would have colored our lives had we lived just up the road. Indeed it is from too far away, relying heavily on photographs and phone calls, brown paper packages and greeting cards, texts and Facebook and Skype, that da has transformed into the grandfather he was so obviously always meant to be, eager for news of his granddaughter’s accomplishments that will be broadcast over hill and dale. He doesn’t like to admit that he likes the “new-fangled” social media – but secretly he loves it. He can read his favorite passages from the Bible on my mother’s iPad or Google the answers to questions about the Japanese Maple trees he tends in his garden. Our virtual connection softens the blow of time and distance for him.
He’s sentimental, my da. Seeing the photo of me on my first bicycle will bring a smile. I can imagine him standing over my mother’s shoulder, curiosity and anticipation twinkling behind his reading glasses. He will wonder aloud where in the name of God the past fifty odd years have gone then, under his breath, a “Boys a dear,” before he falls silent, remembering the night he made a special Christmas for his wee girl.
An Ulster Twilight by Seamus Heaney
The bare bulb, a scatter of nails, Shelved timber, glinting chisels: In a shed of corrugated iron Eric Dawson stoops to his plane At five o'clock on a Christmas Eve. Carpenter's pencil next, the spoke-shave, Fretsaw, auger, rasp and awl, A rub with a rag of linseed oil. A mile away it was taking shape, The hulk of a toy battleship, As waterbuckets iced and frost Hardened the quiet on roof and post. Where is he now? There were fifteen years between us two That night I strained to hear the bells Of a sleigh of the mind and heard him pedal Into our lane, get off at the gable, Steady his Raleigh bicycle Against the whitewash, stand to make sure The house was quiet, knock at the door And hand his parcel to a peering woman: `I suppose you thought I was never coming.' Eric, tonight I saw it all Like shadows on your workshop wall, Smelled wood shavings under the bench, Weighed the cold steel monkey-wrench In my soft hand, then stood at the road To watch your wavering tail-light fade And knew that if we met again In an Ulster twilight we would begin And end whatever we might say In a speech all toys and carpentry, A doorstep courtesy to shun Your father's uniform and gun, But -- now that I have said it out -- Maybe none the worse for that.