Tag Archives: Ireland

Retrospective 15: 1977 — Bastard child

I was 12 when I finally asked Mum why Dad hated me so much. I remember every moment of that conversation. We were in the drawing room of our Georgian home, a room with heavy red velvet curtains, a marble mantelpiece over the fireplace, dark leather sofas. The wooden floor gleamed, and the area rug that is now at the beach was still somewhat plush back then. My mother’s desk graced the bowed window at the end of the room. The other window, the one that looked out to the front, let in the green light of sunshine filtered through a dense curtain of wisteria.

I was polishing the mantelpiece. Mum was paying bills. I hesitated, then dived in, taking a risk. We weren’t allowed to interrupt her when she paid bills.

“Why does Daddy hate me?” I asked.

“He doesn’t hate you.” Her voice was absent-minded. She flipped over a piece of paper.

“He treats me differently than the others.”

“What makes you say that?”

“People notice. People from school.” In fact, I had stopped trying to invite friends over. It was just too embarrassing. But I remembered the comments from the few aborted overnighters friends would attempt.

She stopped. She put down her pen, a fountain pen, very carefully. She turned in her chair, red leather, with a high, scrolled back. She sighed.

“He’s not your real father,” she said.

I don’t remember being shocked. I don’t remember anything much emotionally, except perhaps a small, trickle of relief. Something settled in me, like sand shifting.

“Not my father?”

“No. You and Rachel have an American father. His name is JD. Daddy treats you differently because you’re not his child.”

“But he doesn’t treat Rachel like he treats me.”

She sighed again, a soft exasperated sound.

“Rachel was sick when she was a baby. Do you remember? She had diarrhea and exzema. He’s always liked underdogs. I would get impatient, and he wanted to champion her.”

I remembered Rachel’s explosive diarrhea. I remembered helping Mum change Rachel’s nappies in the apartment in Switzerland. It didn’t quite line up, but I accepted it.

“What did he look like?”

She stood up, drew a box out from underneath the desk, and pulled out a small album. A handful of thick black pages held glossy photographs. My mother, arms around a stranger, a dark-haired man. A baby on his shoulders. Me.

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know. We lost touch.”

“Why did you leave him?”

“We just weren’t made for each other.”

She was careful in her answers, guarded, kind. In the end I knew nothing more than that he was not right for her. He had vanished. She had simply taken up life with Dad as though we had always been together. By the time we came to Ireland, we had become one family, with no subversive, difficult, damning history.

Did she warn me not to tell anyone that Dad was not my father? Or did I just know, because I was living in Ireland in the 70s, that my state was sinful in some way? That I was a bastard child? That if anyone knew, we’d never be accepted? It’s hard for me to imagine, from this angle here in the U.S. where I’m divorced and most of Zeke’s friends’ parents are divorced, how I just knew, at the age of 12, that I couldn’t tell anyone. I understood why Mum had kept it a secret.

That night, when I went to bed, I didn’t cry for the sense of family I had lost, or rail against injustice. I just breathed a little deeper, relieved that there was a reason for my Dad’s treatment of me. He didn’t just hate me because I was unlovable. He hated me because I wasn’t his.

Somehow, that made it better.

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 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.

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.


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 dreams

“I’ve figured it out,” I told Mum that day 27 or so years ago. “I want to be a vet.”

I was the one who looked after the goats and the donkeys, who took the cats to the vet, nurtured the puppies, nursed the geese when they were sick. The vet knew me well. I’d show up with dying birds and sick abandoned dogs, and he would fix them or put them down or whatever he needed to do. Once I found a rabbit with myxomatosis when I was out riding my pony. I saw a piece of tattered fluff deep in a tussock of grass, then saw the ragged ears, the swollen face with puss-seeping blind eyes. I slid off my pony, looped his reins over my arm, and looked for a rock, a big one. I found it and stood over the rabbit, who lay so deep in his suffering that he didn’t realize I was there, or didn’t care. I swung the rock down hard, fast, and pulled out at the last minute. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t bear the crackling of the skull breaking, the blood, my own role in violent killing, even though I knew the rabbit was dying, and worse, suffering terribly in the process. In the end I wrapped him in my sweater and rode three miles to the vet, as fast as I could, where the vet slipped in the needle and the rabbit’s life slid away without a sound.

One day, a donkey was hit on the road outside our house. I sat with his head on my lap while someone called the vet. When he came, I held the donkey as the vet did his thing. Once again, the life force slipped quietly away, leaving behind the dead weight of a lifeless head in my lap.

Eventually, I began hanging out at the vet office, not to participate in bringing about death, but to give shots (lift the scruff and make a little tent, push in the needle quickly, no hesitation, and then it’s over, vaccinations given, illness averted). I helped at surgeries, held equipment, caressed the foreheads of deeply sleeping dogs as they lay with tongues out on the stainless steel table. I wasn’t afraid of blood. When my friend’s horse needed twice-daily penicillin shots, I rode my bike to her house and jabbed. You rub the area with rubbing alcohol, thump three times hard with your fist, then drive in the needle. Pull back to make sure you haven’t hit a vein. If there’s no blood, you push it in slowly and steadily. It’s thick stuff, a big needle. Horses are usually pretty good if you don’t hesitate, if you are matter-of-fact about it, and you talk to them. You change sides, places, every time, and after a while you don’t think about it. You just do it.

So the vet asked if I wanted to be a vet, and I said yes, and then I told my mother. She said, “You can’t be a vet. You’re no good at maths and Latin.”

That was it. Dream over. I guess it was just a little, hard idea in my brain, something self-contained, a cancer that hadn’t gone invasive. It wasn’t spread through the fibres of my being, hadn’t metasticized till excizing it would mean killing me. She cut my dream out neatly with her words, left nothing behind, barely a scar. I just gave up.

Loren suggested I change my dream after I wrote about my visit to my dad. It’s something I’ve been mulling over, something that has haunted me for years. In a sense, every day, every moment, is an attempt to change the dream. Most of the time I succeed….

To be continued…