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.