This is a short tail of innocence, generosity, failure and misplaced trust. It isn’t unusual at all. She was my grandmother, my father’s mother and her parent’s child who dreamed big dreams; the kind so many do. She told me stories about them; about another world where was kindness and woe in turn. I listen to them now from time to time, remembering the little girl running home from school, laughing at the cows and the clouds, singing her songs and saying her prayers.
I remember a day not so long ago, different than this dark morning after Mass in the almost empty church across the river. There my mind, which wanders I guess in the same way old minds will wander, filling every quiet minute with memories, I was taken to another recent morning. This one was ever so slightly different; a memory of memories:
It’s cold again, somewhere in the twenties, and the ice has returned to the river; rushing down past the house like a stampede of cattle. It is the kind of cold that covered everything in an ice blanket on the day we buried Katie.
The day was bright, the air still. Now, on the same kind of day here at home one small woodpecker feeds at the newly installed squirrel proof suet feeder which hangs above the last few piles of fallen snow just outside our big living room window; the one that sold me on the place when we first walked in. And, our two heavy metal chimes near the feeder keep it company with the music they make courtesy of some mischievous little currents in the air.
It’s Saturday morning, but it might as well be any day for all the difference inside the house another day will make. I can hear myself breathe As birds fly by, ice flows by and chimes ring softly in the slight breeze.
Just a while ago, reading some book or other…it makes no difference which…I put it down to think about something that had bubbled up from deep storage somewhere in my head. I had read a few short messages on Face Book, a thing I still haven’t decided is a good thing, not too long ago. Someone had brought up the subject of “An Gorta Mor”; the Great Hunger, The Irish Famine nearly two centuries ago, and what a devastating thing it was. Who cannot agree!?
My mind dwelt on that, and my grandmother, my father’s mother, Catherine Ann Fanning, who was born a generation after the famine ended, one of six children who lived on a little farm, whose parents were tenants, in Leighlinbridge, Cty. Carlow, Ireland.
The town is on the River Barrow, a stream just about the same size as the river I can see from the window now with its panes of ice, some almost large enough to scrape both banks as they cruise by like crystal aircraft carriers. The first time I saw the Barrow I didn’t realize I was looking at it since from what I heard of it from my grandmother I had pictured it as a raging monster. Swans swam quietly in a placid little stream between well groomed banks. Mothers walked with their little children along a tree lined path while old folks sat reading the Irish Times or some other sheet. I was, frankly disappointed, and thought it merely another Irish Fiction; something I was more than used to, and something I have often made use of myself. What harm can it do, a little embellishment, a playful grace note or two, some improvisation, some tampering with the facts, I hear them all saying.
I didn’t see it again until another, more recent, trip where I met a cousin from Dublin. I remember looking at the same tranquil stream from a hilltop on the other side as he pointed out to me fields and pastures now owned by Irish farmers which were once the property of Lord Bagenal, the English “nobleman” whose lands they were when he allowed my grandmother’s family to live there and work for him.
For all of my youth, and in all of her stories, my Grandmother referred to her home, the part of Ireland where she lived and from which she left at the age of sixteen to come to America and pick gold up from the streets, as Bagenalstown, or Leighlinbridge, two names for two close but separate places, owned by one family, the Bagenals, who had lived there for a few centuries, and had become Protestants to keep holding on.
I suspect that changed after the Irish became their own again, but, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a Bagenal lad or lass, tyke or dam, who ate grass, or picked through the cattle’s crap for a stray seed, during those four long years.
As my cousin and I stood on the rise across the river and looked at the fields between the two little towns, the square bell tower of the Church of Ireland rising behind us, he pointed out where his grandmother, and mine, her sister would have lived, in some ramshackle grass thatched smoke filled hovel, and taken care of another man’s land and livestock, and fortunate to do so. He pointed out the whole lovely expanse and said, his voice a mixture of sadness and anger, “It’s ours now, that was ours long ago.” He drove a nice Mercedes, so I am not too sure what he meant by the remark. But, I do know that the family is in real estate; his side.
The gold my grandmother believed she would pick off the streets once she got off the ship, was a fiction. And, she spent the rest of her life working in one laundry or another, before she died, having gone quite mad, in a home far away from the home she never saw again.
I loved her, and love her still, and it’s more than almost all the years she was alive since she died alone among strangers. Died, no doubt, thinking she was home again; Catherine Ann Fanning of Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, Ireland.
Now, she is. Now, she is.
And, I am with her, running those fields, laughing at slow clouds, slower cows, and the sparkling river flowing to the sea.