24 April 1920 – 8 October 2010
Fall was just beginning to soften the air and ripen the foliage when we moved to Ireland in 2007. In those early days, as I made the adjustment to a way of living very different from that I had known, often it was my mother-in-law, Peggy, who was by my side. She was with me when I entered the grocery market on our first shopping expedition. It was the Super Valu in Clonmel’s Poppy Fields Shopping Centre, a modern supermarket not a million miles different from the supermarket chains of America. Still, on entering the door, the juxtaposition of the familiar with the foreign coalesced in a wave of emotion that struck unexpectedly, and I burst into tears.
Though she had lived independently and on her own since the illness and death of my father-in-law a few years before, Peggy did not drive. So each week one of the family drove her to Clonmel to do her shopping, stopping on the way at the post office where she collected her pension. Because we were neighbours, and because I needed to do our marketing as well, frequently it was I who drove her. In those early days, as we drove the 20 kilometres or so to Clonmel, we shared with each other our pleasure in the beauty of the fall. The berries of the cotoneasters by her entrance were bright red, and she fretted as the blackbirds ate them, striping the bush of its colour. She tapped her chest discreetly in the sign of the cross as we passed the ruin of Whitechurch with its ancient and more recent graves. The beeches lining the road in Tincurry were golden; she remarked approvingly how Michael McCarthy had, as always, so reliably cut back the thick summer’s growth of the ditches dividing his fields. (In our part of Ireland, a hedge is a ditch.) Along the ‘top road’ – the old Cork road – into Cahir, she admired the dogwoods, their stems deep burgundy. Across from Cahir Castle, large hand-shaped leaves of the horse chestnuts drooped bronze over the bog-brown River Suir. Passing the square and leaving town, we rolled along through pastureland still green and fields rich brown-black with recent ploughing. Apples hung red in the trees; sumac blazed copper-crimson along the fields. At times, the sun caught the peaks of the Galtees, revealing the lavender-tinged brown heath on their smooth summits.
We enjoyed this beauty together, but we didn’t talk a lot. Peggy had a voice so low and faint – a whisper, the breath barely exhaled – that it was difficult to make out at times what she said. I can be expansive and voluble, but at other times I find conversation a strain. But even when we passed mile after mile in silence, it was a companionable one, and there was a sense of acceptance between us, no matter what our differences. For though we came from different cultures, and were weaned on different expectations of our paths in life, there were common bonds.
She loved reading and spent her quiet afternoon hours with good authors: D. H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Iris Murdoch, John McGahern, among them. She loved the garden, and even at 89 and 90 could be found pulling raspberries from the tangled canes behind the house. She filled vases and old jars with roses and shoots of flowering vines. Each spring, the pale yellow primroses appearing in the green along the ditches delighted her, taking her back to childhood. On May Day, she filled vases with flowers and set them before the blue-and-white statue of the Virgin Mary, recalling other childhood memories. Indeed, there remained always in her enthusiasm something childlike, visible in her spontaneous smile and the light suffusing her face, full of joy.
Most of my life has been spent in standardised suburban neighbourhoods California and Salt Lake City. Though I did live for 17 years in one house, there has been a transient quality about it. Though in the mid part of her life, Peggy did live in the Irish towns of Dundalk and Clonmel, for most of her 90 years, she lived in the very countryside where she was born. She knew its roads and houses, its birds and wild things, the flowers and trees, the mountains, rivers and streams.
Most of all, she knew its people. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of and memory for the families with whom she had grown up, their parents and grandparents, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The eldest of a family of eight, married to a man from a family of ten, and the mother of nine, she could call up out of memory a dizzying number of aunts, uncles, first and second cousins, the names of their children and their spouses, and the parents and siblings of the spouses, each with their own web of relations, an infinite chain of connections. Moreover, she knew the people we met on the streets of Clonmel, the town where for a few years the family lived when my husband was a school boy. And there were too the customers of my father-in-law’s once extensive rose business, the people they met in markets and fairs, where, even after the time of the rose business, she sold her garden produce. I could barely get a toehold of comprehension in this vast community of friends and relations. She remembered them all.
In early weeks of my life in Ireland, during those first two and a half months until our shipment arrived, we had enough furniture to live in the house – a dining room table and a bed, a working kitchen with borrowed pans and a cheap set of dishes bought in Dunnes – but little else. There was no reliable phone service, no internet connection, and my computer and books steamed in a hold somewhere on the Atlantic. Many days I drove the five kilometres to Cahir and wandered or sat in the square watching people, and checked email at the internet café or in the library. But the hours after dinner I found hard. Evening after evening I remained at the bedroom window, drink in hand, staring into the descending darkness. Himself, away at work all day, worried aloud to his mother about my inability to settle.
He tells me she asked, quite sensibly, ‘Does she have a comfortable place to sit?’
She shared with me her home-made soups, mysterious, thick, dark soups, carefully carried through the always-open gate and across the rough patch of ground between our houses. Smiling half apologetically, she entered the house and our kitchen through the back door, holding out the cling-film-covered Pyrex pint measuring jug.
‘I made some soup. I hope you don’t mind.’
It was always delicious soup, welcomed for its warmth, its ingredients drawn from frugality borne of desperately hard times in her youth, rich with flavour discovered over the course of a long life of diverse experience, dense with vegetables, meats and spices I would not have thought to combine. Her adventurous approach taught me to disregard the recipes I had sought and plunge ahead with whatever was at hand or in the cupboard. Before long, I was carrying my soup offerings into her kitchen, proud of my efforts and conscious of just a soupçon of competitiveness.
She bore with equanimity my driving as I discovered how to negotiate the narrow roads, drivers impatient to overtake my cautiousness or, myself impatient, my own overtaking of tractors with their loads of straw and jeeps towing horse boxes. She complimented me on my bravado as I timidly steered through the narrow streets of Clonmel’s Irishtown, looking for a place to park in the crowded streets near the post office so she could collect her pension. Earning my Irish driving license was a long, difficult process, yet she never flinched as the habits acquired on California’s wide even streets and freeways gave way to the requisites of driving through roundabouts and medieval town centres. Instead, she recalled her own driving lessons of years ago, suspended abruptly after a mishap, and praised me for my courage.
As with all in-laws, of course, the relationship had its complexities. The gulf between our values and expectations was sometimes laid bare. Too frequently, I tried with incomplete success to hold my tongue over the handling of her lively but undisciplined border collie, Sally. She said nothing about my infrequent attendance at mass, my irreverence and my too-often profane tongue. I writhed at the necessity of returning home before midnight on New Year’s Eve so she could receive phone calls at the stroke of twelve from her sister and daughters abroad; she politely ignored my rude irritability on the occasion. But more often, we found within ourselves the capacity to reach across the divide and welcome our shared experience. Most especially, that included our joy in the beauty of nature.
So on this fall day in Salzburg, surrounded by trees glowing gold and crimson, I watch as leaves drift down in flurries thick as snow, and I recall those first weeks in Ireland three years ago. I think of driving through another gold-and-crimson burnished landscape with her beside me in the passenger seat remarking on the line of colour against the grey horizon. In my imagination we speed along the Clonmel bypass and delight in the yellow birch trees that line its gentle curves. Or we admire the amber beech leaves as we approach the Western road, bright against the old grey limestone school. It is still an adventure to me, strange and wonderful after California, and she is in those days my companion and guide. Tears cloud my vision again as I realise that for the first time in three years, I am homesick. And it is Ireland in the fall, and Peggy, the fulcrum of the family’s life, the centre of gravity for our experience of home, that I miss.