Reading Mary Lavin’s story ‘In the Middle of the Fields’ in the recent anthology of Irish Women Writers The Long Gaze Back, I was reminded of a visit to East Walpole on the outskirts of Boston several years ago. I had travelled along Washington Street which seemed to extend forever in straight lines south-east of the city. I remember the harsh-sweet smell of hot asphalt when I reached the sleepy town.
It was here that Mary Lavin, the only child of Irish parents, was born in 1912 and passed the first nine years of her life. At the brow of a hill on the town’s edge, I entered the Francis William Bird Park which slopes down to the Neponsett River across which was the mill where Tom Lavin worked. Here the the small black-haired child was thrilled by parkland, flowers and water, imaging that she flew over the place like a bird. In October 1921, Mary Lavin left East Walpole and crossed the Atlantic to Ireland with her mother for a new life.
The shadows were lengthening when I departed William Bird Park to a chorus of bird song, soon facing the long stretch of Washington Street back to Boston. Next day I crossed the Atlantic through turbulent skies.
In a nice piece of symmetry Kathleen MacMahon’s novel, So This Is How It Ends, recently signed by Little Brown (UK) and Grand Central (US), will be published in 2012, the centenary of the birth of Mary Lavin, the author’s grandmother.
‘My memory of grandmother as a writer,’ Kathleen MacMahon said, ‘is of her in bed with a wooden tray writing, with endless pots of tea. That must have lodged in my brain at some point as being quite a nice job.’
So This Is How It Ends is a love story about a man who crosses the Atlantic to Ireland, as the Celtic Tiger collapses, and falls in love with a distant cousin. It is 90 years since the nine-year old Mary Lavin left the place of her birth in East Walpole, outside Boston, and sailed the Atlantic to Ireland on the SS Winefriedian with her mother. Mary Lavin’s transition from America to Athenry, her mother’s birth-place, is wonderfully captured in her short story ‘Lemonade’.
I visited East Walpole last summer, travelling along Boston’s Washington Street that seemed to go on forever. I walked in the Francis William Bird Park, where Mary Lavin played as a child when her father was employed on the Bird estate.
Mary Lavin would, I imagine, have been thrilled by the writing success of her grand-daughter. The publication of So This Is How It Ends will be an appropriate event to mark the centenary of Kathleen MacMahon’s grandmother’s birth.