Tag Archives: history

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 forĀ  “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 5: 1967 — Impossible Memories

I have always wondered about the life of the unborn. Babies feel pain. My daughter howled when her heel was pricked for the PKU test when she was a few days old. The old wives’ tale says that a happy mother brings a happy baby. I was a happy baby, the product of blissful months on the beach. Rachel was not, the product of my father’s wanderings, my mother’s loneliness and uncertainty, her cowed return to a home she had fled and an “I told you so” mother who hated the man she had married. And then there is Leah.

In spring of 1967 we are in Nashville. I am not quite two and a half. Rachel is seven months old. And my mother is pregnant again, already.

She feels well, as she always did when pregnant. But my dad has been offered a job at CERN in Switzerland. Her mother is growing sicker with every passing day. My mother has two babies and no resources for another. At some point, she sits in the doctor’s office and asks for an abortion.

He plays an imaginary violin. “You don’t want that,” he says. “Really, you don’t.”

Whether she really didn’t want an abortion and his words awoke her, or whether she simply bowed to male wisdom, accepting her fate as a woman without a mind, she folded her hands in her lap and said OK.

Thus Leah was given her chance. But since childhood this almost-aborted sister of mine has lived in horror of death, of the dark, damp, clamminess of it. She grew up with nightmares, with a jittering terror of the world around her and its dangers lurking everywhere. Still, she is the biggest risk-taker of the four of us: She has backpacked alone in Brazil, worked the agricultural seasons all over Europe, parachuted out of an airplane, squatted in a condemned London house, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. She is both anal retentive and crazywild. She is empathetically generous and simultaneously grasping, always afraid of loss.

It was years after she was born that I found out about my mother’s visit to the doctor’s office. I don’t know if Leah knows about my mother’s moment of ambiguity towards her; I haven’t dared to ask.

One other memory: We are in Switzerland in November, in our sixth-floor apartment in Nyon. Leah has just been born. She has a shock of dark hair and an indignant expression. My mother names her after her mother, who died four months earlier. And I realize, now, that I don’t know whether my mother went home for her mother’s funeral. I realize that I know nothing at all about my mother, other than some facts, and a story I weave into a fabric of my own design out of my memories and those facts.