The day I called to my uncle in the family home the wind blew in gusts from the Cliffs of Moher He met me at the gate , and the breeze blew his long grey hair giving him the
aspect of a mystic in the gale
He stood beside as I parked he inspected my second hand Jaguar and tapped it ‘s flanks with his stick , poked its undercarriage as if he were examining a beast at the fair.
- Nice to have the best trap in the parish.- My father always had the best ’’ - It had met with his approval .We made our way into the kitchen where a robin followed us in twitching furtive hops and perched jauntily on my uncle’s head as he sat down.
“ Take no notice of him’’ - he said dismissively
‘’He saw the car was gone this morning . Gertie’s gone to Dublin’’ he said by way of explanation and turned his head smartly to the right , but the birds perch was firm and he remained unperturbed , gazing at me with quirk spasmodicquivers of head as if sizing me up.
My uncle ignored him and he talked of things which had happened since he saw me last .
“-When you went away , you know “ he said. .“Well I often thought .... You never know it might be the last time I’d see him , Like when Jimmy and PJ went to the war . You just never know .’’ .
He had thought that many times. But never mentioned having said a prayer like so many of his with age who grew more pious with the fleeting years and their own mortality itself .He shook his hand in the manner of a conductor, well rehearsed, ; a graceful sweep , so reminiscent of my father and my deceased uncle , and my grandfather who all had this same exact mannerism .
He went to the cupboard , took something down and clasped it in his fist while he continued to talk of the ancient tribe we’d all come from. Then he threw crusts of bread on the flag stone floor and the robin studied these before nimbly popping down .
|”- now ‘’
And I asked him about the bird ; looked in amazement at the casual relationship between man and bird What wisdom did beat in its tiny heart . What urgings made him seek companionship in this gentle old man . What innocence beneath the red breast ,drew him to this room ,year after year ; faithful to his solitary companion ; fearlessdistrustful only of those he sensed antipathy somehow from his host .
“He’s very brave now “- my uncle said bending to the little bird.
“ Isn’t he the brave little fellow entirely , but wait till Gertie gets home - you’ll see his bravado then -’’ he talked in a slow , half mockingly to the little bird who seemed to look a little defiantly at once then with curiosity at the slow undulating ponderous pitch of people who talk beyond the guest or walls . And there was a a world , I was without. Never could I be in this hallowed place between bird and man .
My uncle was not a drinking man . None of them were except my father.
- you’ll have to have a drink he said. In honour of the occasion … it isn’t often ‘’ .. He said trailing out to the front room . I could hear him say ; ’’ there’s gin and whiskey and Port. Whiskey Is the mans drink he said returning to the kitchen and getting a glass from the cupboard
Your father drank whiskey - he said filling the pint glass half full.
He was not a drinking man . But he could be as hospitable as one taking no moral position on his abstinence .It never interested me ,He told me . I tried it once but I couldn’t stand the taste..
It was a July afternoon and the sun beat down with unusual intensity .With the back door and front door open a cool breeze flowed through the house and I could sense the smell of the Atlantic across the fields. Not a time for drinking whiskey but for open fields and wild skies and the slated walls of Clare which stood crookedly dividing fields
And I thought of the frowned land and the many hands which put the plough to this soil, through times of hardship through the cilvil war .
What histories of these people held here in this furrows. The history of all my clan , and I saw in the weathered lined on my uncle’s face an image of their toil ; fervent determined beyond prayer or sanctity ; without pride or piety . Men who struggled in quite patience of their ways. With gulls and other birds following the plough shears as the soil opened once more for growing in the Spring . When the clay was turned and some souls trembled in the clay in the graveyard above the village where my grandfather was buried , but not my grandmother. She was buried with her people some few miles away .
We walked out through the now yellowing meadows ; the high field where I once walked with my father and he felled a goose from a skeen rising like a clamorous cloud from the crisp stubble ; another winter many years ago.
We walked to the low field where my grandfather kept a bull and as a child I had wandered into the field ,and to their terror the bull began to charge .
‘’- And you stood there looking at him - By God Jimmy was petrified . He nearly got the gun. But if that bull had touched you , he’d have laid him with two barrels’’ - my uncle said ; a quick wry smile ; then a flicker of the head to shake the cobwebs of memory form blocking this one time now together .
But it was a memory too high for my then thoughts as a child ,whoseimagination saw no higher than the tall grass, and saw no fear among the frogs , and beetles and a the rapture of a haystack in the summer sun .
On my fourth birthday he made me a wheel barrow ; and I remember how to my eyes it was a thing of such beauty ; majestic in the way only a poet could fashion wood ; each dowel so precise ; a thing of such elegance that I would forever measure every piece of furniture against it for exactitude and artistic expression ; the pink-red grain of the pine sweeping in curves like waves on the shore ; the small wheel with a rim of steel .
It had been made from a tree that he’d felled from the front of the house , the only habitat in the valley to have trees around it .
I remember the sound of its steel rimmed wheel rattle on the flags of the cattle barn , the statement of purpose in the subtlety of its handles which my hands could hold with such ease ; it was like an animal ; alive , waiting to be led to its place of purpose in the yard . When we took it home my father said we’d have to creosote it against rot. And I saw the tar seep into the elegant waves , and thought it a violation of some kind . Did it have to endure this ? Like an ointment on an open wound ? . But it was further violated when he painted it a vivid red ; every part now powdered like a mask , the grain hidden under this false façade .
The last time I saw him he’d been taken suddenly ill and was in hospital. He’d had a heart attack and had spent 2 days in coronary care , and now he was in a ward . He’d lost his ‘’spirit ‘’ they said vaguely ; A sinister thing to suggest
And the last movement was the slow laconic enfeebled sweep of the arm ; the gesture he inherited and was buried in his genes ; so like his brothers. A gesture of half benediction part valediction , a blessing and farewell , but this time with a finality . He’d changed Lost his spirit was neither a clinical nor a layman’s description . He had not so much lost but was resigning. His fight back would be too overwhelming ; too high a hill to climb.
He went peacefully they said and was dead by the time we got back home .
That last day we spent walking the land I remembered all these things ; the vivid fury on the squalling turkeys neck ; why she had such hatred like some old people who cant abide children ; and a goose which frightened everything before it ; hunches ; wings aflare with a hiss of such vicious aggression I‘d never seen before and terrified me to the bone .
When he died he was laid out in his Sunday tweed suit . He used to carry a letter I’d written to him from the Middle East on UN notepaper and an official envelope .I knew he’d like that signature of officialdom. He told me once he would take it to mass and in the conversations of the world affairs outside the church door he would take it out slowly and read an extract making sure they saw the emblems on the envelope and note paper . He said it terminated many discussions on world affairs .he’d settled many things with that finality . He’d got the inside story . ‘’And that was that ‘’ another expression so fondly used by his deceased brothers .
When his grave was closed my cousin told me they’d left the letter in his pocket , and hoped I didn’t mind .
I think of him now with that last wave ; digging the fresh furrows ; cutting open the ground in spring ; the robin perched on his head , in the tangle of his long wind blown hair ; and the wheel barrow ; the articulate gesture he’d made so devotedly to a four year old boy .
I take back the layers of paint and creosote and see the artistry of a man left on the farm . Who should have been making Chippendale chairs , delicate tables , which seem to have grown from the very soil itself .and I see the depth of his sense of family ; his filial loyalty his sense of clan of an ancient tribe of Clare
I see the layers of
I too come from the seeds of this opened soil , where I and we all shall return .and as I too grow older I feel the sense of tide and stream ; of wind and crash of wave ; ocean beating relentlessly on the Cliffs of Moher . Times of exuberance and misery side by side ,or one following on the heels of the other .Timesof strife , rebellion , war and eventual Republic .Of times of parting and of coming together ; the joy of a newborn child and the waking of the deceased .
In the deep valley of that homestead of my forebears I am frail against their demands . But I feel the heart pulse through the ground , the still slabs , the flagstones which ground me ; the slanted watchful eyes of the stone walls of Clare ;the whisper of the wind through its tilted slits like a flute as yet unplayed .
I see the little pretences of the letter of officialdom from the UN ; the Jaguar in the paddock , my uncle returning from the UK walking up the avenue , wind blowing his fawn Crombie overcoat ; his Jaguar parked in the front yard , his taking a pale of milk from his father and pouring it down the drain ; As a doctor he could do nothing ;;Nothing ‘’ for his father - my grandfather unless he prepared himself for the operation on his prostate which he had organised in Harley Street . ‘’a half pail at a time ‘’ - he insisted , and his father went inside and I followed him , just to see him light his pipe so slowly , ruminating and when the first puffs of magnificent blue and grey came from the corner of his mouth filling the air with an aroma I adored …then he would give me a half crown and say
‘’don’t say anything to your father ‘’ - He would wink . It was our secret . Then we would walk ouut the back door , and crossing a little stream he would take the pipe from his mouth and point
‘’ that where JoJo Nono fell .!!.’’ Right there ..’’
And when I asked my father who Jojo nono was he looked at in a wild surprise and asked me who told you about him’’
‘’Pappa told me where he fell ..did he die there ??
I never got the answer .
Now , and for some time I am shackled to that child’s wheelbarrow , which I got on my fourth birthday . It is always with me to remind me of the burden ; it carries the compass of all morality and laws of my imposed nature , soil and kin and race and tribe , which are determined by the invigilators of my race . But now I can only try to pull much more and push much less , for as I age I acquiesce to the things that simply are , and the road which has hurry and neither has it turning .
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