published in Motherland, edited by Caledonia Kearns, William Morrow, 1997
HELENA: I had a dream of matriarchs. The cottage was small and dark, and in one corner, an elderly woman with mischievous eyes sat beside a fire, on which rested a small, bright copper kettle. She was indistinct in the shadows, but the steam off the kettle rose steady, and the whole room reflected rosily in the round copper surface.
In the center of the room, a woman, in her mid-thirties, with a gentle face and capable manner, was working at a wooden table. Several other women were bustling around another fireplace to her right. There was a sideboard on her left that had upon it, among other things, a dead rabbit and a laptop computer.
When the woman at the table looked up at me, I realized it was my grandmother, Ellen D’Arcy Quinn. The other women were my mother and aunts: Dolores, Eve, Ursula, Helen, and Madeleine. The elderly lady was, most likely, my great-great-grandmother Eliza, born in 184o.
My grandmother didn’t speak, but she looked at me quite directly, with striking dark eyes. As I woke up, in my gray New York studio, I realized that her eyes had been communicating a very distinct imperative, that I should talk to my mother, Helen.
I remember E-mailing Mam about this dream, and noting that we should get together for a real chat, but it wasn’t until Caledonia called me up requesting a piece for her new anthology that I actually had the perfect opportunity to do this.
I called my cousin Jackie Quinn, in Birmingham, England, who, for the last twelve years, has been researching the maternal side of the family. She sent me a thick pile of collated information detailing the family back as far as 1789. My second cousin, Gerardine Loughman in San Francisco, sent me a beautiful photo of our great-grandmother’s gravestone, which I forwarded by E-mail to Helen, mentioning that Motherland had room for the story of a daughter who left and a mother who stayed – the experience of several generations of women in the family already.
Jackie’s research revealed a fascinating mosaic of lives, both tragic and joyous. Take Ellen Delaney, born in 1848 and who, at around age nineteen, fell deeply in love with one John Armstrong, a young Protestant student from the North of England, over on vacation in Kildare. When the two announced their engagement (a Catholic Irishwoman and a Protestant Englishman), both families disowned them. They ran away to Dublin to live together until she was twenty-one and no longer needed her father’s consent to be married. Four months after the wedding, our great-grandmother Mary Jane was born.
Then there was Eliza McGrath, our other great-great-grandmother, who married John D’Arcy on September 28, 1818. They had a baby which died at birth, while in the nearby manor house, Lord Carew’s wife had also had a baby the same day, but the mother herself had not survived the birth. Lord Carew asked if Eliza would wet-nurse the motherless baby, and although she refused at first, she realized the baby would die otherwise, twice a day, she would travel in the lord’s carriage up to the manor house. As the child grew up, he looked upon her family as his own, until Lord Carew sent him away to boarding school. Eliza used to like’ a little drop of whiskey or poteen in later years and owned a small copper kettle in which she distilled the latter. It is now in New York City, the only “family heirloom” in my possession.
I left home for the first time when I was sixteen, to go and teach English in Spain. Since then, I have been “away” more than at home. At first, you don’t stop to analyze your situation, because everything is so exciting and new. The sense that you may be missing the world that you uprooted yourself from doesn’t develop for some time.
Communication with “home” can be deceiving. You try to be positive, so do those at home, dealing with the immediate, keeping up with the local gossip. No one likes to send bad news, and bringing up old ghosts can always be left until the next time. The visit home at Christmas becomes the annual, obligatory “catching up” stint, reserved for fa1nily and old friends. It’s usually spent rushing around, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and not spending enough time with anybody, least of all family.
When you then head back to Australia, London, New York, Munich, or Tokyo on one of those subdued, packed flights around the eighth or ninth of January, you’re left regretting all the things you didn’t say, all the questions unasked, the dreams unexpressed. You’ll be lucky if you just about had time to meet everybody and “say hello.”
Gradually, as the years go by, you become increasingly distanced, more emotionally than geographically. Home is just a plane ride away, but a million miles in terms of the reality of what you’ve missed out on “at home,” whether it be important changes in your parents’ and friends’ lives or just the very necessary bond that makes a loved one real to you.
My mother, Helen, did not emigrate, choosing to stay in Ireland when it was experiencing an upturn in its economic fortunes in the sixties. She has remained there, with my father, and we have communicated down the years by letter, phone, and more recently via E-mail. I think I know her, and try to spend as much time with her as possible when I go home, but then again, when I leave, I always feel that it hasn’t been enough.
I’ve always wanted to ask her what it was like for her, growing up in Ireland through the war and the fifties, experiencing the sixties (which she once described to me, late one night after one of her openings, as “the high point of the universe”). Occasional memories and half-forgotten stories are often not enough. We ended up having extended interviews, where I learned a lot about both her and where I come from, an exercise both enjoyable and fascinating.
My earliest memory of Helen is of her on a bright summer afternoon, in a turquoise dress, with her blond hair up in a funny chignon and smiling. Another involves a waft of Chanel No. 5, with her wearing a pale pink, embossed satin ball gown, leaning over my crib to kiss me good-bye when leaving to go out one night. I still hate the smell of that perfume, presumably since it meant “Mother leaving.”
I went through a period of rejecting my mother in my teens, so perfectly described in Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia that I gave her a copy of it to read, in a belated attempt at explanation. But since my late twenties, she has really become my best friend, and certainly the person with whom I’m in most regular contact, despite the distance.
Still, that funny look from my grandmother in the dream voiced what I “kept meaning to do” – that is, get a chance to sit down and speak with her. I know my mother, and yet I don’t. She has always been a very kind and compassionate person but at the same time seemed to me to be often quite reserved, and conservative. As I’ve (or we’ve) grown older, however, I see her increasingly as tolerant and open-minded, with a certain innate charm that touches most people and an understated lust for life that keeps her spirit much younger than her age in chronological years. She has always encouraged anything I chose to do and never turned against me for mistakes I have made.
She refuses to acknowledge herself as a “feminist,” which disappoints me, but then, all things considered, including our interview, I realize that she has basically lived her life, albeit in her own quiet, private way, as a feminist. She has gone against the grain in a number of ways and is now achieving one of her early aspirations, working as an artist, in watercolors and oils. We are in frequent contact on the Internet.
Absence: does the term sound less desolate as the world becomes smaller with our ever information-drenched, communication complex society? Or is its vocabulary still, by default, a forced repartee, stemming from the fact that we often try to deny the distance is even there? We carry on regardless, as if the ache of missing someone is just not an issue.
I’ve been absent for a long time and have only recently begun to reflect on this. Somewhere between my grandmother’s dream look and Helen and me sitting down to talk in spring 1998 in New York and Connecticut, it occurred to me that this was a chance to decode our tenuous vocabulary of absence-or at least make a beginning at doing so.
For the full text of this piece, you can purchase the book online from various sellers, or contact me directly.