Category Archives: Ireland

Retrospective 12: 1974 — Beauty and despair

We settled into our lives in the new house, which was really old and cold and damp, which had rock walls two or three feet deep, and bedroom windows opening to the sound of the river. We had four acres, and next door, across our orchard and a ditch and a hay field, was the house my grandfather (Dad’s father) had grown up in. It wasn’t till years later that I understood the sense of history associated with the house next door, with the way Dad must have felt, walking into it to visit the neighbors, knowing that his father had spent his childhood there.

I would wrap my memories of our old house around me like a blanket. And now I wonder at the nostalgia that arises, when I think of it. I hated my childhood. I didn’t get on with Dad. Mum was sick for years back then, before she discovered that she was allergic to soy and anything associated with it, and we had to suffer her dark moods and her days in bed, the time she had small strokes and talked with a slur and ran into walls, as though she were drunk. By then she had given up hope on doctors, who told her her problems were all in her head, so when she stood up one day and canted sideways, then thrust out her arm and righted herself, but couldn’t quite dredge up words and shape them as she had always done, she didn’t go running to the hospital. She stayed home, and fought back alone. We children were witnesses, but children don’t know what they see — or at least I didn’t. We went to school in the morning, and came home in the evening. She made us our breakfasts, always the same thing: a glass of orange juice; two slices of brown soda bread, toasted on the Aga and spread with marmalade but no butter; a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup; a mug of Lyons tea with milk and no sugar. We carried the lunches she had made, sandwiches on brown bread, and some kind of fruit, and sometimes a yoghurt or a homemade flapjack. When we got home, the kettle was always on, and she’d make tea for us, which we drank with two McVities Digestives (chocolate covered on a good day), and then we’d do homework or go outside and play, or whatever seemed right, till supper at 8:00 or so.

She did our laundry, and hung it outside to dry under the corrugated roof that jutted out in front of the garage. My ponies and later my thoroughbred mare, who had to pass by the garage to get to the stables, never had a problem with flapping laundry. They were too used to walking through lines of sheets and towels and jeans, of feeling the clothes run across their backs, and being blinded for a minute if they had to thrust through a particularly big sheet. Flapping things of any sort never phased them.

We lived routine-driven and yet gloriously free lives, and I remember the bliss of playing outside on spring and summer and fall evenings, inventing games, making “houses” out of grass clippings on the expansive lawns. I remember paddling in the river, and swimming in the deeper pools upstream, crossing to the big hill opposite and wandering around in the acres of woods there, finding pools filled with frogs that we brought home. We liked to collect their eggs, too, floating in that translucent jelly, and we filled Ruth May’s aquarium and watched them hatch and transform from tadpoles to frogs before freeing them outside again.

Yet all these blissful memories compete with the memories of my mother in bed, or covered in bruises not because Dad beat her, but because her health was so poor that any touch raised dark blotches on her pale skin. When I reach back into the past, I feel schizophrenic, because I remember days of joy and sunshine and freedom, and I remember the darkness too. Neither memory is right; neither wrong. They simply mark the tenuous beauty and despair of childhood.

Retrospective 11: 1973 — God is Love

“Irish is easy,” I told Mum at dinner when I first began learning the language, soon after coming to Ireland. “Spoon is spunog, and God is love.” (Spunog is written here without the necessary fadas — accent marks — because I don’t know how to make them in WordPress, and it is pronounced something like spoon-ohwg, if I remember right.)

“Yes,” Mum said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. God is love.” She said nothing about the Irish. It was a mystery to her, and as was the case for so many Dublin families whose children were forced to learn Irish by legislators that insisted upon it, she resisted our need to learn a “dead language.” My father scoffed too, and far more than she did. We learned early on that it wasn’t worthwhile to try in Irish, because trying was a sign of submission to the authorities. So I gave up. Truth to tell, Irish isn’t easy at all: the spelling is bizarre for an English speaker, the pronunciation illogical for an English speaker, and the grammar complex and out of order. A literal translation of the grammatical construction for  “I am hungry” (which is, if my memory serves me, “Ta ocras orm”) is “There is hunger on me.” But I remember so little of the language, despite my decade of learning it, that I could be wrong on all counts. (So don’t sue me if you know Irish and I’ve represented it all wrong!)

Anyway, I soon learned to despise Irish, something I regret today, though I wouldn’t dare admit it to my father. And I learned that God wasn’t love. God didn’t exist, actually. God was despicable, a crutch for weaklings. Mum, despite her rigid Methodist upbringing and the desire to flee all religion that reminded her of home when she fled the world of her dying mother, at least dealt gently with the fact that Irish schools contained religion of some sort or another. My father, on the other hand, rolled his eyes and spoke with contempt of a system that was trying to brainwash people with the ideas of “the biggest cult of them all,” Catholicism.

After that one slip up, bringing home “God” and daring to present the word at dinner, I never made the mistake of mentioning religion again.

For a moment I wonder why I brought Irish and God home in the same sentence, why they were so entwined that I connected them the way I did — illogically but somehow correctly. Then I realize that I have only to look at the history of the country to know the answer.

Retrospective 10: 1972 — Fromage in Ireland

My father flew overhead in a plane to Ireland, and Ruth May looked up at the plane passing and drove her tricycle into the paddling pool and broke her arm. Was that the year my friend was hit by a car and taken away in an ambulance one day? I don’t remember her name, only that she lived in a cheaper apartment complex than we did, across the road, one with broken lights in the stairwells and the smell of urine permeating the dark walkways. We always walked home from school together, till a car hit her as she was crossing the road, and she was taken away in the ambulance. The EMTs bribed her with chocolate and after a while she went willingly, but I will not forget her tears, nor the smell of burning rubber in the air, which brings back — every time — the lonely wail of the siren and my own sense of complicity in her accident.

Ruth May, howling in the empty paddling pool, looks up to the sky. The plane is gone, carrying my father. My mother picks her up, and off we go to the hospital. Ruth May comes back from some mysterious room with a cast, and she is smiling.

We spend nights in the living rooms of friends who live in a commune. Do I imagine it? The smell of incense; the sound of a guitar playing; laughter and clinking glasses. My mother is touched by firelight, and her long hair glows golden in the shadows. She is far away, although I could touch her if I tried.

And then we are going to Ireland. We are still in school when we leave. No. We have just gone back after the summer, and my father has been gone for weeks, and suddenly Mum says, “It’s time. We’re going to Ireland.” Dad is back, and we pack up the van, and he drives the Volvo. We take the ferry, and he fills the little head with bottles of alcohol, and we have to stay quiet when we go through customs.

Before we left, my teacher gave me a book about a flower. It was called Marguerite, and it was in French, and everyone in my class signed it. I kept it for years, till my mother gave it away in a frenzy, the way she did sometimes. We were each given a new stuffed toy, too, and Ruth May got the biggest one, and Leah the next biggest, and Rachel the next biggest. And I got the smallest one. I loved that little bear, even after the dogs tore it apart years later, and my mother had to sew it together again, make a mouth and eyes for it, and a dress to cover its shredded belly.

Ireland was damp and gloomy after the sunshine of Switzerland. We lived in a temporary apartment, a townhouse in Dublin, and I remember a square outside the front door, a patch of grass, and metal railings. We could have walked to school, but we didn’t. On the first day, the teacher asked me to translate something in French. I remember fromage. Cheese. I could barely read, and everyone laughed, because they thought I couldn’t speak French. It wasn’t that. I was eight, and didn’t read well, and then I remembered that people thought I was slow in Switzerland, and that Mum spent hours helping me learn to read, and I remember that I was the odd one, the hyper one, the one who didn’t track conversations sometimes, because I was living in my own world where words didn’t matter — a place of sensation and yearning.

Years later I learned that Mum wanted to leave Switzerland because they track people vocationally there, and she was sure I would never get to follow an academic path. Not with my reading difficulties. Not with my inability to sit still in a classroom.

Still, in Switzerland I didn’t know I was stupid. It wasn’t till I got to Ireland that I figured it out.

Going home to the holly bush

I am home. My mother is trimming the holly bush, which I seek but don’t find right away. I find her only after the strange man on the ride-on lawnmower clim*xes on the side lawn. How did it happen, the four girls in my bedroom, in awe because nothing has changed since I left 26 years ago? The yellow curtains and inside shutters are closed. I open them, let in the light. There is the view of my youth, the concrete wall of the trench (say moat: it’s so much more romantic, but there is no water; there are no crocodiles), the little patch of lawn rising above it. Then sky. It is the nature of the view, looking up from the basement into the clouds: gray, green, gray.

There is a roaring from outside. “She’s mowing the lawn,” I tell my sisters, and I look for the electric Flymo, which we used on the side lawns in the latter days. It was lighter and easier to move than the old gas Flymo, and we needed something light for the side lawns, which dipped steeply from the driveway towards the trench that allowed light into the lower rooms on two sides of the house. But a man drove by on a ride-on, bent over, grunting. And then he wasn’t grunting anymore, but making strange high noises, gasping in rhythm with the pulsating motor of the machine.

“What’s he doing?” Leah asked.

“Mowing the lawn,” I said. “I’m going to tell Mum.”

Nothing has changed anywhere in this house that lives only in my dreams, replaced by high-rise condos. The burnished wood floor upstairs, with the worn persian rugs all in a row, one for each section of hallway; the heavy front door with its frosted glass and security grill; the rooms on either side, filled with antiques and with heavy velvet curtains at the windows. It is as it was. But when I open the front door, a little dark woman with graying hair stands up from where she has been polishing the front steps. “Where is Mum?” I ask, as though I know her, as though she should know me, although we never had maids when I was young. Everywhere I look there are people, trimming hedges, cutting roses, raking the gravel, polishing the window. The garden is trim and orderly, not verging on wilderness as it so often was in the past.

And then I see Mum by what should have been the holly tree, but it is not. It is some carefully shaped evergreen, curled and curlicued. I cannot hear the river. I walk over to her, but it’s not a short walk anymore. The gravel driveway scrolls beneath my feet like a treadmill. Mum gets no closer. The gardeners and maids continue their work as though I do not exist.

And then, in one of those strange, jet-dream flickers of change, I am sitting on the lawn in front of Mum, and the poodle-tree is once again the old holly bush with its dark green, thickshiny leaves and red berries clustered in a way so pretty and Christmassy — although the sun is shining and roses bloom.

I tell my mother about the man on the ride-on mower, and she says, “Oh I know how he feels, I’m all boiling and roiling with hunger.” But she doesn’t use the word hunger. No. She is young and pale and pretty against the green and red holly tree, and I float away from her, away from the 200-year-old house that is long gone now into the river, nothing to mark it but the willow tree we planted. The holly bush is gone; my mother is gone; the front door lets in no light. My room is rubble. I wake.

Confessions

There is nothing to confess. Nothing of Jack Kerouac grandeur, that is. I was the good girl, hyper responsible, the baby-sitter whom everyone called. I read stories to the children, and gave them piggy-back rides. At Christmas parties at my parents’ friends’ houses, little kids surrounded me, begging for attention, while the other babysitters were ignored. It’s not that I liked them, or wanted a household of kids when I grew up. (Here it is: my confession, trickling out despite myself, I suppose.) I didn’t. I always said I hated kids, didn’t have the patience for them, would have to forgo them or else be rich enough to hire a nanny. I just needed money for my horse. My parents paid for hay, but that was it. Everything else was my responsibility. (It occurs to me that many parents pay for car insurance and no more, and my parents were right in line with other parents except that my “vehicle” was a horse.) I paid for grain, shoes, vet bills, show entries, tack and blankets for my horse, membership in the local pony club and drag hunt (no we did not kill any animals), and any other horse-related needs. During Christmas season, I baby-sat six or even nights a week. The rest of the year I averaged four nights a week. But I hated it, or told myself and everyone else I did. I did it only for the money that would grant me the freedom to gallop across country most Saturdays of the hunting season, that would allow me to enter any shows close enough for me to hack to, or to which I could hitch trailer rides with my friends. I rose at 5:30 in the mornings in the winter three school days a week so I could ride my horse in the dark before school just to keep him fit enough for the Saturday hunt. It’s quite demanding, galloping across country for two or three hours straight, over whatever gets in your way, ditch, wall, coop, brush. Hunts that pursue live animals are actually slower than drag hunts because they’re dependent on the cooperation of the beast being pursued. The story was that the Wicklow Hunt caught on average one fox a season, that most hunts consisted of standing around, waiting for the wily creature to show up. And mostly the fox was too smart for the humans. I don’t know for sure, since I didn’t fox hunt, but my avid foxhunter friends tried to convince me it was harmless, that the chances of actually chasing a fox, let alone catching one, were almost nil. (And it’s true that the two or three foxhunts I observed or half rode in — without intent but because it was part of my job — entailed a lot of standing around and false alarms. I never did see a fox).

Drag hunts, in contrast, are set in advance when a bag of some ripe stinky material (usually aniseed oil and meat, I believe) is dragged along a pre-arranged course. Then the hounds and hunters follow, often at great speed, till the end. Horses and riders must be fit as there is little enough time to catch one’s breath, except on stretches of road between fields, if such passage is necessary. It’s exhilarating. I’ve jumped things I can’t imagine jumping now: five foot forestry gates and gorse bushes as wide as a downed horse. I’ve slugged through bogland so deep my horse has been almost entirely covered (try cleaning tack after a hunt in which you and your horse and everything you’re both wearing has been submerged in bogmuck up to your waist). I’ve heard the music of the hounds, of the horn, and watched a retired hunter scream from the gate because he’s being left behind. For both horse and human there’s nothing more adrenaline-making than the bugle of the horn on a brisk fall day. Every pound I earned went into my horse. Every sleepless night was given over in honor of the time we could spend together. And I learned responsibility, discipline, compassion, even the patience I swore I didn’t have, from the animal I had loved since I first saw one at the age of three.

Nothing to confess? I don’t believe it. It’s there, hiding. I just don’t want to uncover it because it’s so mundane, so boring, because I’m the good girl. And yet that’s a cover too, because nobody is really good all the way through. If I unpeel enough, the confession must come. What dirt hides there, in the crevasses, but the skankiest bogmuck, stuck to me down the years since those days hunting? I shall uncover it in time.

Changing the dream two

Continued from here:

None of this, of course, is a complaint against my mother. She simply did what everyone did back then, made an association between maths and Latin and getting into vet school. It’s false, at least in this country, at least now. But back then, if you wanted to get into vet school in Ireland, you got high grades in everything, including (especially) maths and Latin. She was saving me grief, saving me from a dream I could never have realized.

But her not believing in me, and my dad’s view of me as not too bright, colored everything. When I told Mum I won the English prize, she told me not to lie. It was impossible, in her world, for someone to get C’s in both the exams (composition and literature), and win the English prize. She only believed me when the picture came out in the Irish Times, me holding the certificate and the check, with two of my friends flanking me. Why didn’t I show her the certificate? Because by the time I had evidence, she had denounced me as a liar. It didn’t seem worth it.

But it’s not that bad, really. A few years later, when I was in college in America and made effortless As in every class I took except English 101 (hah! What irony…), I realized that she was just operating under perfectly reasonable assumptions. No one in the U.S. who got C’s in a class would win an award for that class. C’s aren’t very good grades. A B is OK. A’s, well, even those are often barely deserved. So it made all the sense in the world for her to assume that I couldn’t possibly, ever, under any circumstances, win an award when I’d received C’s in my exams. And when I realized that fact, everything else fell into place too. No wonder I was never good enough. My perfectly reasonable Irish grades looked like failures to her. And because I couldn’t please her, I gave up.

Dad, on the other hand, knew better. Why did he never say anything to convince her differently? I suppose because he went to Trinity and Oxford and worked at CERN and found maths and science easy, because he truly believed “Anyone can do English. It’s a soft option.” Because he was scathing of what I loved. In the end, I gave up trying for him, too. Early on, oh so early on, I simply gave up dreaming.

It’s easy, looking back, to realize how own’s right-meaning and perfectly loving parents (and they were), were simply shaped by what they understood of the world. In Dad’s world, everyone knew that English was a soft option that any moron could do. There was no point being proud of getting a good grade on an English essay, of winning the prize for English. Anyone can do that. Splitting the atom. Probing the mystery of the nutrino. Those are worthy goals.

In Mum’s world, grades of C were tantamount to failure. It’s just the way things were. A “B” elicited, “Is that all?” She didn’t mean to be discouraging. It’s just what she knew of the world, in the same way that she knew me going to a little regional university for my MA in English was a waste of time because it wouldn’t “mean anything.” She had high expectations because she came from a world in which everyone overachieved. Just being normal wasn’t good enough. It didn’t mean she didn’t love me. In fact it was a mark of her love.

It’s easy to say, “Just change the dream.” It’s not easy to do it. Others have changed my dream for me all my life. When I did leave home at 17, and eventually came to the States and went to college, I pursued my own dream, such as it was. Now, in many ways, I have realized what is a perfectly reasonable dream. I have a job I like, my own place, a loving daughter. The dream I can’t change is my family. I love them. It’s true I want to be able to smash the walls down, to assert myself, to say, “Things will be different now.” Some days I make progress towards that vision. But some days I don’t. I can’t beat myself up for not changing the dream because part of the problem is that I’ve always beaten myself up for it. I just have to accept what happened, whatever failure I brought upon myself — once again — and try to move forward.

So I failed, on my birthday, to connect to dad. Norman is right. I’m sure he was thinking “Happy birthday.” He probably mumbled it. Even if he didn’t, we did celebrate my birthday the night before. He made me a chocolate cake using “Mum’s special recipe.” These things mean everything. It’s my own hopeless paralysis that kills me, time after time. But I shake free of it. I take another step. I commit to trying again. That’s what I’ve always done.

A’s in the U.S. don’t mean much to those raised in Ireland. But they mean a lot to me, because they got me here, to graduate school and beyond, to a tenure track job. OK, it’s “only” a community college, a real disappointment for my mother whose father was dean of the medical school at Vanderbilt, for my father who worked at CERN. But I love teaching community college students. I understand my students’ struggles, because they mirror mine — in some slantwise way.

Over the years, I’ve made my working life into my own dream, changed my parents’ dream to my own. It’s a start. Other dreams will follow, do follow, slow though the progress is.

Tapping the phone

In Ireland in the 70s and early 80s you could “tap” public phones if you knew how. I became an expert because I never seemed to have the 2p I needed to call home. (Tuppence. Was that all it was? Maybe by then it was 10p. Whatever it was, I never had it.)

The phones at my school in Dublin were in the lobby, two heavy rotary dial monstrosities on the wall. I’d tap out the eight, the six, the three, and the five of our phone number on the off-hook button, and then dial the 9 and the 1. If you kept the rhythm steady, with just the right time in between each tap of the off-hook button, you could dial any number free. Nines and ones rang through without having to be tapped, for some reason. I seem to remember 0s did too. I guess they’d have to, because it would be hard to tap a number that couldn’t be signified physically on the off-hook button. Since my phone number had a nine and a one at the end, I only had to tap four numbers, and getting through was fairly easy.

I remember tapping the phone the day I called my (step) dad by his given name for the first time. I called him just so that I could say, “Hello, Nathan. This is Adah.” I wanted to imagine his face, the hesitation in his response as he recognized the significance of my refusal to call him Dad. As I lifted the receiver and began tapping, my heart pounded so hard that I messed up the first tap and had to redo it. When he finally answered the phone and I said my piece, he didn’t hesitate. “Yes?” he said expectantly, waiting for me to explain to him why I had rung. I hadn’t thought through what I was going to say next, so I muttered something about a field trip and hung up.

I was 16 that day. I called him Nathan, his given name, for four or so years, until the night I got pallatic drunk the evening before I was supposed to fly back to the U.S. I’d been staying there for six months, having met my biological father, an American who was charming and cruel in equal measure. When I came back to Ireland for Christmas six months later, I didn’t want to go back to the U.S. I had to, though. Three months earlier, with the impetuousness of youth, and still enamored of the biological father who hadn’t at that time unleashed his venom, I had insisted that my mother ship my Jack Russell terrier dog, Betsy, to the U.S. I couldn’t bring her back to Ireland without a six-month quarantine, and I couldn’t force such a fate on her.

On my last night in Ireland, I got drunk unwittingly, desperate not to return to the States, helpless with the knowledge that I had to go because I couldn’t abandon my dog. That night, my dad came into my room, sat on my bed, told me about the first time he got drunk, and then said, with his usual reserve, “You always have a home here. If you don’t want to be there, you can always come back here.”

Somehow he knew the real reason why I’d drunk so much too much. I hadn’t said a word, but he knew.

I did go back to the States. I did stay, desperately homesick for years, but sustained by my little Jack Russel. And from that day on, I called my dad “Daddy” again. If I’d known how to tap American phones, I would have called home just to tell him that I loved him. Since I didn’t, I never did tell him. Maybe he knew anyway, just because I called him Dad.

Recycling

We never had to recycle in Ireland. We lived a life of relatively little waste. Our four acres supported a huge garden of potatoes and tomatoes, beans and peas, squash and vegetable spaghetti, raspberries, strawberries, brussel sprouts and courgettes, bushes bursting with gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants, and trees filled with apples and plums. My mother canned and froze produce, and our hens lay eggs which I gathered daily. For several years we got milk from a cow down the road. I’d carry a bucket down to the farm, and my friends would milk Polly straight into the bucket. My mum made butter and cheese and ice cream from the cream that she skimmed from the top of the bucket. We’d dip ladles into the fragrant white liquid in the bucket and drink it at dinner. The “milk” I buy here in the U.S. has never come close to tasting like Polly’s milk, which was subtly flavored with the sweetness of buttercups and clover, or sometimes the taste of wild garlic.

Even after Polly was gone, our milk generated little waste, only the tiny foil caps that topped the glass milk bottles the milkman brought daily. If we didn’t get them inside right away, the birds would peck through them and drink the cream at the top. Mum always poured the cream off and collected it for ice cream and my dad’s coffee. I remember now that Zeke has never seen the way milk and cream separate naturally, the way the cream rises to the top, a creamy yellow, while the milk below is white.

We got meat from the butcher, chopped right there on the block before us off the hanging carcasses of the animals. He wrapped the cuts in butcher paper. No styrofoam and plastic packaging for us. Afterwards we burned the bloodied paper, along with the cereal boxes and other paper products our lives created.

It’s different in Ireland now, of course. Individually packed packages of fruit, “homemade” soup in plastic containers, meat from the supermarket and milk in cartons. The difference is that food is not over-packaged there, and that you pay for every kilo of garbage the garbage truck hauls away. Paying by the kilo for one’s garbage is an incentive to reduce waste, to recycle, as is the fundamental world view that seems to be lacking in general over here, that the earth is precious and that we must protect it. In Ireland, if you were to step into a grocery store without your own sack, you’d be laughed out of it — or at least looked at as if you’d stepped off another planet. And you’d be charged for every flimsy plastic bag needed to pack home your groceries.

Here in my town, recycling is difficult and limited. I haul much of my recyclable waste to my father’s house in the big city three hours away.  My hallway is cluttered with boxes of it, aesthetically hideous, but better than tossing it.

I write this because today is Blog Action Day, and I want to contribute. Maybe, in the not-so-distant future, I won’t feel like an alien when I walk into the grocery store with my canvas bags. Maybe the real objects of disdain will be those who expect free plastic bags with their groceries, with never a thought for landfills filling up and filling up, spreading their poisons into the earth and the water, destroying what we and multiple other species need for life.

Maybe.

Irish School-revisioned

The man in the motorized wheelchair had a devastatingly handsome face, a clear English complexion, a sudden easy smile, serious blue eyes.

“Well,” he asked. “Why are you here?”

“I’m showing my friend where I went to school.”

He nodded. He had spoken after I pointed out a small square spot of concrete on the ground and said, “The headmistress used to live there. I wonder why they knocked her house down?” It must have been obvious, with the guts of a towering steel-and-concrete structure right behind me, its shadow darkening what had been a sunny spot years ago. But I ignored the new building and looked instead for familiarities.

We were in a throng pushing down from the main school building to the road where we would catch the bus. Between the shorn steel pillars of the new building I could see the curve of the old driveway, the grass lawn sweeping up to the wall between my school and the one next door. Trees, yes. But no daffodils. It seemed supremely wrong to be here in a season without daffodils. All my dreams have been of running down the driveway past a blur of yellow on my way to freedom.

We had been in the school till the bell rang and we were flooded by all those escaping students, accept that they were old, or in wheelchairs, or male. They weren’t wearing uniforms. The man in the wheelchair wore a soft green suit, the color of shadowed moss, and a shirt as white as his teeth. “There’s the bus,” he said. I strained to see if it was the 44, my favorite bus, which would take us from Milltown to Enniskerry. It was, but it went the wrong way, up a new road, where the river should have been.

“Oh yes,” I tell Nada. “Everything’s moved now.”

The main building was being remodeled. American girls were giving away candy in the lobby. I grabbed some chocolate and a handful of papers which turned out to be pictures one of them had drawn. They were crude but pretty. When I walked over to thank her, she turned her back on me, and I saw that the doors, which had been all-glass when I was there, were now steel, with only a tiny glass pane at the top, bisected by thick bars. “One of my friends ran through the glass,” I told Nada. “That’s why they changed it. But I don’t know why they put on the bars.”

The concourse was huge, way bigger than I remembered. The stage area, where the teachers had stood for prayers and announcements, was gone. The balcony above was dim and plush. I walked past classrooms filled with velvet and gold. The windows let in no light.

I tried to tell Nada what it was like here, being a heathen in a non-denominational but strictly religious school. My dad always got us to prayers late on purpose. Day after day we were humiliated, having to stand in the glassed-in lobby on show. Time after time we got black marks for missing prayers, and the headmistress glared at us. She called in my dad, too, to talk to him. “You girls are missing prayers, Mr. P,” she said. “It will not be good for their souls.”

“And…?” my dad responded.

“You must make sure they are on time for prayers,” the headmistress responded.

“Why would I do that?” my atheist father replied.

In the end the headmistress gave up on my father. Instead she called me in.

“You are disturbed psychologically,” she said. “You need a psychiatrist.” I didn’t know what I’d done, other than stand with my sisters in the glass lobby every day, stared at by 500 or so girls. Perhaps my face had flashed my father’s resistance at her when she mentioned my responsibility in converting my father to one who would ensure his children’s spiritual health by getting them to prayers on time. Finally she allowed us to stand on the balcony with the others who didn’t pray, the Jews, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the four Heathen girls.

But now, in my dream of this morning, the concourse stood vast and empty, the balcony unlit, the stage gone. When the bell rang, Nada and I found ourselves outside in a through being drawn down to the street, past the brick walls and onto the road. But the 44 went the wrong way and the river was gone.

“I used to mitch,” I told him. “I’d walk to the penny shop up the road and buy sweets for people who didn’t dare mitch themselves. All the teachers knew. I never got in trouble.” I didn’t need to tell him why. Once only my father had given me a black eye. I ran away from home and went to a friend’s birthday party, walking two miles in the pouring rain to Enniskerry and then taking the smokey 44 bus to Dundrum. When my friend’s mother asked about my eye, I told her I’d walked into a door. The universal excuse. She was the gym teacher. After that, everyone at school was kind to me. My parents were never notified when I went missing or got bad grades. Even the headmistress gave up her resolution to convert me.

I didn’t like to be touched. I didn’t like crowds. I’d had a black eye and had run away from home. None of these things told a story about me that was true. Still, people invented what wasn’t there.

I was friends with a girl who was regularly beaten by her big sister, and perhaps even her father. We mitched together. She smoked pot in the tiny flat owned our Malaysian schoolmate, who mitched also. As they smoked, I looked out the window onto the brick wall three feet away. The light filtered through smog and rain, slid across the window sill, and pressed through into the dim room, thick with pot smoke. It touched me. Maybe that’s why I never forgot God.

In my dream, the wall to the river is high and when I lean over it I see only houses. Everything has moved. My school is obscured by an unfinished skyscraper. The 44 bus goes down a road that doesn’t exist. The man in the wheelchair, in his mossy suit, smiles, GQ on wheels. And then I walk down the road a little, disconsolate, and lean over the wall again, and there is the river, falling over a series of carefully placed stones, trickling into a pool. The water is clear over the mossy growth on the stones. Everything is very still.

Good Enough Mother

“Good enough,” my sister said. “Over there, I could be a good enough mother.”

We sat in a resteraunt that it has become a tradition to visit together when I go to see my dad. She was six months pregnant, and had just returned from a two-week trip to Ireland. She was finally showing a little, her baby curled into a tight round ball in front, the rest of her still tiny and thin.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“My friends, they don’t have much money, but they have all these kids, and the kids run around in old stained clothes, sometimes with snotty noses. Cait will just lean over and use some rag to swipe at Aisling’s nose when she’s running by, and Aisling will duck and keep running, and they’re all outside, milling around in the muck, playing in cardboard boxes. They don’t have iPod and playstations and their own rooms. And you know, if they were over here they’d be judged and Cait would be judged, and she’d probably spend all her time worrying because Brendan didn’t have the right rugby clothes or Maura wasn’t pretty or whatever. And now, she just hangs out and lets them play and they’re all out there having a good time with the neighbors’ kids, and she knows she’s a good-enough mother. She’s not always trying to be the best.”

“You don’t have to get kids brandname clothes over here,” I said. “They can run around in the muck and get dirty.”

But I couldn’t help remembering a couple of less well off acquiantances I’d had whose children were Zeke’s friends. One of them specialized in having garage sales where she sold off mounds of expensive, barely used children’s clothes because she wouldn’t let her kids be seen in “rags.” She could barely afford food, and I remember more than once paying to take her kids to the local fair and on the rides, but they sure did always have better clothes than my Zeke. The other friend stopped letting her children visit after the third time she arrived to find her twins and their older sister covered from head to toe in mud. They’d been playing in the sprinkler and then rolling in the ditch, pretending to be pigs. They were all having a blast. A little mud never hurt anyone. I’ve been known to hose off my daughter outside, fully dressed, when she was younger. Before she turned into the quintessential American girl, with her perfect hair and her perfect nails and her horror of anything that might harbor a germ. Sigh. Everything I did to raise her like a little hellion, the way I grew up, was subsumed under American commercialism.

I’ll never forget the day after her seventh birthday. We had bought her a pair of dance pants that she’d been begging for. She came home with a huge grin on her face. “I have friends now,” she said. “They liked my pants.”

I should have taken her out of that school right then and there. But what school over here is different? The pressures on girls to look a certain way, act a certain way, be pretty in a certain way are unrelenting. Zeke held out for a long time. In the most important ways she still holds out, an incredibly strong kid with a willingness to befriend everybody. Really she’s the only kid in her school I know who has friends amongst the skatboarders, the preps, the jocks and the stoners. But still, she likes her Hollister.

We’ve come to an agreement. She allows me to be dowdy Adah, with the well-patched and worn (and not purchased for $60 that way!) jeans, with the “crazy” hair and the ragged fingernails. And I allow her to be Zeke, always groomed, with the always -painted nails and the straightened hair. She wears makeup (not much, and tastefully applied), and I don’t. She buys brandname clothes, and I don’t. I marvel at how different we are on the surface, but I marvel even more because deep inside we’re really the same.

Back in the sandwich shop near my dad’s house, my sister sighed. “I wish I could move home,” she said. I felt the usual prick of resentment, and pushed it down. At least moving home could be an option for her. It isn’t, for me, the one sister who wants access to Ireland and who doesn’t have citizenship.

“Why can’t you?” I ask.

“Remember Cait and Ian’s house?”

“I do.” I have memories of an older council house on a corner lot on the outskirts of Dublin. Nice enough on the outside, but cracked walls and leaking ceiling and dry rot and fungus on the walls on the inside.

“Well,” Ruth May said. “You know what it’s worth?”

I shook my head.

“1.3 million Euros.”

I know house prices in Ireland, especially Dublin, are high. But that… that is ridiculous. Cait and Ian bought in before the housing boom. Their three-bedroom council house could buy more than 10 of my little condo. Well, I guess Ruth May really can’t move back. She’s as trapped here as I am.

I’ve been trying to convince her that raising a child over here isn’t that bad. “Look at Zeke,” I say. She looks at me and turns away. The truth is, in my family, Zeke isn’t that well regarded — except for my dad, who since my mother died has turned out to be the most tolerant and quietly loving grandfather imaginable. By Irish standards she’s totally obnoxious, though as Dad reminds my sisters, by American standards she’s absolutely normal. (I say she’s better than normal, but she is my daughter!). But the fact is, it’s hard. Hard to hold to the standards of my era, my country, my own upbringing. The only way I can face it is to let go of those expectations and just love her, even if, in Ireland, she might be misjudged. I tell Ruth May that. She looks at me suspiciously.

“Try not to let other parents judge you,” I said. “The baby won’t know the difference until it’s older, and by then maybe it’ll have learned something from you about not giving in to social pressure. And at some point it’s going to assert its own, individual self. Remember that plaque you gave Zeke when she was a baby? The one that says ‘children are not clay to be molded, but plants to be unfolded,’ or something like that? Well, it’s true. Your child will take his or her own path. But if you just hold firm to what matters to you, fight the big battles and let the little ones go, then it’ll be OK.”

I hope I’m not setting myself up for failure. Zeke is only 14, and could go astray yet. But I somehow don’t think so. She’s as strong-willed as I am about the things that matter to her. And she has a strong compass and a sense of what’s the right path for her. She has no problem withstanding social pressure either, despite — or perhaps because of — her constant association with older kids, some of whom have made questionable choices. But she rubs off on them, not the other way around.

As I sit with my sister it occurs to me that maybe I have been a good-enough mother — even though I’ve had, and will continue to have, many doubts about it. And I hope that Ruth May can get to a point when she can look at her child and say the same thing, and that in the meantime, she can just take a deep breath, stop doubting herself, and love.