Last weekend we were in South Tipperary for my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday party. Our house next door to hers has not yet been rented, so we camped out there, sleeping in the bedroom we had left furnished.
In March, leaving Tipperary and our house had been wrenching. In the minutes before locking the empty house for the last time, I had walked from room to room, trying but failing not to cry. My footsteps echoed as the sun cut across walls painted in colours we had so carefully chosen. I closed the blinds and curtains over views I had watched in all lights and weather.
But in the weeks since I had settled comfortably in Salzburg. Our flat by the wood, with its walnut panelled walls and ceilings and its views over the wood is peaceful, calm. Blackbirds and tits sing in its garden, their sweet music filling the air, rising into the office where I work or the living room as I read. Only last week I came up the stair and into the flat feeling the serenity of being at home. The longing I had for the house in Tipperary faded more quickly than I had imagined possible. On our drive from the Cork airport Saturday, I briefly felt nostalgic on passing a road sign in both English and Irish.
‘I’m back in another country where I don’t understand the signs,’ I remarked to Himself. But, in truth, I was less emotional than I had expected.
I had been up late the night before, unable to sleep, so my eyes burned with exhaustion. Arriving at our house, I made up the bed in our cheerful yellow bedroom and pulled the blackout blinds to take a nap. Pressing myself into the familiar mattress in the dimness of the familiar room, I felt it good to be there. ‘This is home. This is my bed,’ I repeated to myself as I tried to relax and sleep.
Later, refreshed, it was good to sit in my mother-in-law’s well-worn sitting room visiting with nephews over from Edinburgh and down from Dublin. It was good to have Sally, the Border Collie, roll over onto her back, and press her breastbone forward, her sole trick, pleading for a belly rub. It was good to walk the rough weedy garden, to see the pear and apple trees now in bloom, to explore the humid depths of the polythene house with its earthy perfume. In summer, it will be hot inside, the air fragrant with loam and ripe fruit, as insects buzz and ping against its taut plastic walls.
And it was good that evening to move through the crowded birthday party seeing friends, cousins and nieces and nephews, catching up while apologising for leaving so quickly we hadn’t had time to say goodbye to most of them. Stefan, the blind musician who plays for the area’s seniors at the Cahir Day Centre, played his guitar and sang, accompanied by his friend on accordion, the entire evening. They played old standards and traditional songs, including my favourite, Slievenamon. And The Wild Rover, the wildly inappropriate appropriate song another band had given us as the waltz at our wedding. And A Nation Once Again, the rebel song. We stayed late and left laughing.
Sunday, we took Sally up the track in the Galtees as we have done so many Sundays. We noticed the furled tips of the ferns rising through the bronze of last summer’s bracken. Tightly folded like green foetuses, they will open and within weeks the roadsides and tracks will be lined with fresh young growth. Tiny violets were vivid in the pale green moss lining the path we walked.
It was good to visit with family, some I hadn’t seen for a very long time. It was good to meet friends and neighbours, to keep alive relationships. But it is hard work living in a small community where families have lived side by side with other families for untold generations. Roots go deep, and recall can be long. The memory of slights or perceived slights can be as long standing as the moss-covered stones in the hedgerows.
When I failed to recognise a long-time friend of my husband’s family, prompting her to re-introduce herself, I felt obliged to shift into high gear as I engaged with her, as though this would patch over the insult. I should have known who she was, but in the crowded room, my glance slid over her as I greeted the woman next to her.
There are my husband’s many cousins, men and women he grew up with, whose personalities and faces he knows nearly as well as he knows his brothers and sisters. After 24 years of marriage and not quite three years living among them, I still confuse the women, the family resemblance being remarkable. Of the men, I search for names, trying to place all but the five or six I have come to know better. Had we stayed in South Tipperary, I’m sure names and faces would be recalled with more fluency, but building these relationships has been interrupted again. Rather than relaxing, I found myself working hard, wanting to avoid giving offense.
Another day we had a meal at Kilcoran Lodge Hotel, the nearby country house that has hosted family parties over several generations. There we encountered family acquaintances my husband has known since childhood. I tried to gauge what I sensed was hesitancy in their greeting, the want of warmth, the pause before greeting us. They hadn’t failed to recognise us. I examined my conscience. Was it awareness of our slight, justified or not, of someone close to her? Was he remembering disagreements between his relations and ours? Conscious of the proximity of their table, we lowered our voices, muting the names we pronounce, hesitant of what may be overheard. In a community of 5,000, counting inhabitants of both town and countryside, one is always aware that there are no secrets and little anonymity.
There too are the entanglements of family, the decades-old hurts and jealousies always simmering that bubble to the surface under the pressure of special occasions. These require negotiating a landscape as treacherous as bog land lest one is forced to choose sides or listen again to accounts of past injustices. Also requiring effort are those personalities that rub uncomfortably, irritating like wool worn on a hot day, that must be borne with grace and compassion.
In Salzburg, for the first time in our marriage, we are living far from any family. Few know us here. I can slide into the crowd, invisible. Unlike in Ireland, the custom here is to ignore people you pass on the streets, to keep focussed on your own destination. People are friendly, but the community is less engulfing. Lacking, at least for now, the social and familial ties we have in Ireland, we have become less tethered, more able to focus on our own concerns.
Early Tuesday morning, the sky still dark, we emptied and unplugged the refrigerator, closed our luggage, and locked the house. As we drove the quiet road past the ruin of Whitechurch with its graves, past the big tree, past Millgrove and Tincurry, the headlamps of our hired car catching the gleam of the whitethorn blossoms in the hedge, I wasn’t emotional or teary. I was simply tired. I was ready to go home.