On a hot August evening in 1974, I hauled my case up a cobbled street of uneven red brick in Pittsburgh, USA. Exhausted after my trip by greyhound bus from New York via Philadelphia, it was a relief to finally reach the neat three-storey house with its covered porch and white rocking chair on the veranda. I still remember the look on the woman’s face at the door: an open-eyed, slightly startled gaze, a hazy faraway look that I came to learn was her normal expression. My aunt and I hadn’t met before and there was lots to talk about.
That 1974 summer was packed with new experiences as I visited the US for the first time armed with my J1 visa and a student loan of £100. The country I left was scarred and scared by the deaths of 33 people in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in May, the largest number of causalities in a single day since the start of The Troubles. We were glad to get away. A crowd of us students piled into an apartment in Manhattan for a few days before word reached us that there was work to be had at Mullins’ Resort at East Durham in the Catskills, upstate New York. There we headed and soon I was doing the chamber maid rounds of bed-making and cleaning for the droves of Irish and Irish-Americans who swayed to traditional music into the early hours in the resort pub. The tips were good and with the favourable exchange rate we returned home with enough savings to cover our expenses well into the following year.
Maria ran her house like clockwork, trained in the grind of years of service in the homes of the Pittsburgh wealthy. Her hot press was packed with starched table cloths and neatly folded bed linen; the silver cutlery gleamed on the dinner table. Both of us understood that this was a far cry from the place she had left over half a century earlier – the thatched house that was home to her parents and seven children in the village of Gurteen, outside Ballyhaunis in east Mayo. She was born in 1904 and her life would span almost the entire twentieth-century. She left the country in 1922 in what should have been a new beginning of hope and promise with the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty. Instead, the country started to tear itself apart through the Irish Civil War. Her clearest memory of leaving was of bending down to kiss the sleeping form of her baby sister, seventeen years her junior.
She spoke about President Nixon in a thick Irish accent. A couple of weeks earlier I had stood in front of a TV screen in upstate New York and listened as Richard Nixon announced, ‘I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon to-morrow.’ Brought down by Watergate. The images were dramatic and tragic as he and his wife boarded a helicopter on the south side of the White House, waved goodbye and then disappeared into the summer skies. Aunt Maria had little time for Nixon, her hero still the late President John F Kennedy, her sorrow still palpable a decade after his assassination. She basked in the glow of the glamour of the emigrant son who made it to the very top echelons of American life from ancestor beginnings similar to her own. President Kennedy’s picture adorned the walls of her Pittsburgh home.
We talked about Gurteen, the townland of her birth. Yes, I said, the old house was demolished but her only brother, John, had preserved one gable wall as requested by his sisters. What did she miss most? It was the surrounding fields, the hilly ones like a necklace of small drumlins. These were the places where they ran and played as children and jumped the streams, laughing as they crossed to the other side. She would like to walk those fields again. It might soothe her soul, for she had known tragedy having lost her husband and one of two sons in recent years. She appeared worn down by loss and loneliness.
We looked together at the old sepia photo, the only one she had of her entire Irish family taken in the early 1920s before she left for America. Parents, six daughters and one son, the baby Lizzie in her mother’s arms. Big ribbons tied the hair of the older girls at odd angles. ‘It was hard, never seeing my mother and father and the younger ones again,’ she said. ‘Mother died so young, she was only in her 50’s. She used to go to Enniscrone, you know, to the sea baths looking for a cure for her ailments. But it didn’t work.’
‘You must come back,’ I said.
She did return to a few years later. I drove out from my home in Limerick to collect her at Shannon Airport and then traveled via Gort and Galway to the places of her childhood. My mother welcomed her and, for the first time in half a century, the flesh of the sisters touched. They all gathered, and talked, and reminisced. Maria stood by her parents’ graves and wept. Her brother took her out to the hilly fields, where they slowly walked. My memory of that visit is of her slightly startled and dazed expression which I first observed in the Pittsburgh doorway.
When I left her out to Shannon Airport to catch her flight back to the US, I turned away, unable to watch an old woman move slowly through the airport departures lounge. By then, Richard Nixon was in quiet, reclusive retirement.
It is a century since my mother’s birth – she would have been as old as the nation. Over the decade since her death, I have jotted down these vignettes / memories of a life well lived.
She cycled into the village in 1947 with her new husband by the light of a flash-lamp in the darkness of a September night. They left behind the wedding celebrations, the barrels of stout and the wild dancing three miles away in the townland of her birth. For the next 60 years, this village would be her place, centred on the soon- to-be constructed yellow pebble-dashed bungalow. She came to know every inch of the village road: walking with a basket of eggs to the local shop; cycling in the opposite direction to Mass and sodality in the parish of Bekan; waiting for the bus to take her and her neighbours on their weekly Bingo outings; watching out for cars to come into view around the corner; seeing grandchildren tumble indoors for treats of floury chips and apple tart. My mother would be in her 100th year if she still lived. In the final months of her life, she retreated little by little indoors, her only movements outside to place food morsels for the birds on the feeder at the front window. I stayed with her the night before she died. Drinking strong tea and eating brown bread, I looked out into the night and watched the lights in the village extinguish one by one. In a few days, we walked behind the hearse carrying her coffin, over the village road, around the corner until the yellow house was lost to view. She took her leave of the village.
There were seven of them – six girls and one boy – in my mother’s family. The 1922 sepia photo the only one we have of them all together. Lizzie, the baby of eighteen months, in her mother’s in America. Big ribbons tying back their hair at odd angles. 1922. Ireland, a new nation. A new beginning for the country. A new beginning for Maria, the eldest of the clan, about to set out for the States. A half-century later, in 1974, while working on a J1 visa in the US, I visited my aunt. I remember hauling my case up Pittsburgh’s Bessemer Street, a cobbled street of uneven red brick. A covered porch, white rocking chair on the veranda. The woman in the doorway wore an open-eyed, slightly startled gaze, a hazy impression of trauma in the features that I came to learn was her normal appearance. She ran her home like clockwork, trained in the grind of years of service in the homes of the Pittsburgh wealthy. A hot press packed with starched table cloths and impeccably folded bed linen. ‘You must come back’, I said, ‘to see them all.’ She did return, just once, in her 80th year. I collected her at the airport and drove west. Was I imagining it or did her expression relax as we neared our destination? My mother waited in the doorway. For the first time in 60 years, the flesh of sisters touched.
I cannot resist a cookery book. I have rows of them, seldom opened these days as, more often than not, I grab menu suggestions from the internet on my iPad. Now, a lifetime of my mother’s recipes rest on my kitchen table, gathered inside a sheet of folded cardboard held together by a thick elastic band. Her finger prints on every page. Selotaped notes on the cardboard covers. Odd pieces of paper hold jotted down recipes. A used Christmas card has instructions for beetroot with apple and red jelly. The back of a bank letter gives step-by-step instructions for a lemon cheesecake. A note on vivid green paper suggests adding pineapple juice when making marmalade. Then there are the cookery leaflets she collected over the years: Woman’s Own Guide to Success with Cakes and Pastries; Supervalu’s Pancake Sensations; McDonnell’s Good Food leaflet, I bake it better with Stork. Jam-making took my mother’s fancy and I thumb through advice for folding bramble apple, blackberry, gooseberry and a medley of autumn fruit into sweet delicious sustenance. Then I find what I am looking for. The hand-written notes for Nine Flighty Butterflies from One Easy Recipe. I am back in the kitchen of the yellow bungalow. Slicing the tops off buns freshly baked in the Stanley range. Spooning thick cream whipped from separated milk taken from our cows that morning. Licking fingers. Cutting pieces of sponge and placing them on top of the syrupy cream. Watching, open-mouthed, as butterflies spread their wings, ready for flight.
My latest notebook, a gift, is fancy. It has a green ribbon page-marker and a document pocket tucked snugly inside the back cover. I love the pristine feel of its fresh clean pages. It joins my numerous notebooks and journals on the shelf: strong, indestructible spiral-bound ones; another with a stylish Orla Kiely design; an elegant, china-blue notebook with leather covers made in Italy. Then there’s my collection of tiny pocket moleskins in vivid hues – cerise, navy blue, turquoise – that hold my travel jottings from journeys to Cape Cod, Camino de Santiago, Tehran, Berlin and Achill Island. But the book I now hold is tattered and discoloured, the black leather cover rumpled into grey streaks. The diary cover, dated 1950, is embossed with the name of an insurance company from Clinton Street, New Jersey. There was once a blank cream page to be filled in for each day of that year. For my mother, however, this would have been an entirely wasteful use of paper. And so, in sparse, precise language, she packed that diary year after year for over half a century with the ritual details of a rural life in an east Mayo village. Notes of crops sown and harvested; calves born, cattle sold at market; turf saved; village births and deaths. No inner musings. No stream of consciousness meanderings. No statements of emotion. I look for her words on the death of her husband of 55 years – my father. She wrote, unusually in red biro: ‘Pake died 8th November, a Saturday. Buried on the 11th.’