"I never met a train conductor
I didn't like," said my mother when he moved on. The train drove into a gentle landscape,
and we responded with silence. Mom nodded sleepily, while I read intermittently
from a guide to Galway, or stared at the landscape through the window.
Yellow furze formed golden ribbons across the green, and when the train
slowed, I saw that the furze was so thick with brambles that it deterred
even wary bees. We drove on, into the low-lying hills and mountains
of the Galway plains, into the outskirts of Galway.The train pulled into the station.
The conductor walked through the train, announcing "Galway"
over and over. When he reached our seats, he stopped, and tipped his
hat to my mother. "Yank," he said, "git out, and walk
the streets yer mither walked."
We had sped through Dublin, but
we sank into Galway. Memory lived here and memory can't be trapped with
speed. We had chosen a guest house apart from the city proper. Galway
was once an Anglo Norman town, loyal to the British crown, and we felt
we needed to show our loyalty to the O's and the Mc's by being close
to the area once known as the Claddagh. The center of Galway was but
a five minute walk away, and every day we would cross the Wolfe Tone
Bridge, pause and stare at the ducks and swans swimming in the Corrib
River. After the discovery of feathered friends, Mom took extra slices
of bread from the breakfast table to toss in the river below. Sometimes
I would watch her. Her head tilted slightly at an angle, and if she
had been wearing a high-collared blouse she would have been my Irish
Although Mom's hair was white, and she had wrinkles that
she despised, I saw the face of my young Irish grandmother, the dreamy
expression, the gentleness.Something happened to my mother when we reached
Galway. She grew quiet. Her rambunctious brogue became as shy as a child
hiding behind its mother's skirts, only showing its face in bashful
peeks. Not only that, her stories changed. Mom no longer talked of her
family and the famine, but instead told everyone to "look at that
daughter of mine, with that light hair from her father you'd think she's
not Irish, though the eyes give her away, the eyes always do, and if
you heard her running all over Dublin with her mouth full of Irish writers,
you'd know for sure." At first I was startled, but then I realized
that she was mythologizing me and that when we got home, she'd tell
my children that they should have seen their mother. My children would
look at each other and roll their eyes, for they already knew their
mother, but this would be a legend they would tell their own children.
We liked our stories, because they put magic in our memories.
Almost in compensation for the missing brogue
and the energy it brought with it, I became clownish. Accustomed to
travel by now, we strolled under the newly sandblasted edifices of medieval
Galway, through its narrow streets, alive with a gaiety we didn't expect,
while I made jokes and enacted imaginary dramas. Instead of allowing
Mom to have the space of her own memories, I pressed on her, doing whatever
I could to make her laugh. We went to Eyre Square, once the 'greene'
of Galway -now named John F. Kennedy Park- and I enacted the moment
that Mom had announced at the dinner table that there was going to be
an Irishman in the White House. We went the Spanish Parade, once the
section where Spanish merchants came into port to sell wines and spices,
and the women of the Claddagh came to sell fish.
I reached back through
the centuries, enacting both parts of the seduction that left behind
the genetic code that gave my grandmother her lustrous dark hair. I
was both the Spanish sailor strutting and swaggering in front of a blushing
Galway colleen, and the fair colleen herself, falling for the promise
in dark eyes and a flashing smile.We walked to St. Nicholas Church and laughed
at the fanciful gargoyles, more amusing than frightening, that looked
down from the church, keeping mischievous watch over the square. I told
Mom that they were grimacing because they were watching the impoverished
O's and Mc's as they swept up the manure left by pigs roaming in the
street. Who wouldn't grimace, listening to the poor Irish shouting "Where
there's muck, there's luck."
We found a small farmer's market, this one
selling vegetables and home made chutney, even greeting cards with designs
made from the seaweed that blankets Ireland's western shores, and I
suggested that Mom's grandfather, who came from Galway, might have stood
on that very spot haggling over the price of a sack of potatoes. Mom
smiled, indulging me. This was memory at a safe distance.
This was travel
at its best, genealogy made human, not pasted on a paper tree..In Galway, past and present interlace like
the intricate edging of fine Irish linen, and I knew that the best way
to find the intricate pattern in the lace would be to get lost in its
fine stitching. When we had formally seen the tourist spots, I suggested
to Mom that we lose ourselves in the labyrinth of streets. I told her
that once I had followed two Roman women as they shopped and discovered
the real life of Rome. "We won't know where we are," Mom said
anxiously. "Good," I replied. To be lost in a small city,
is to give in to delight. Isn't getting lost the best part of travel?
Without a guidebook, we hesitated at street
corners, wondering whether to turn left or right. We wandered, got lost
and listened to stories. We followed prosperous young Irish women, dressed
as elegantly as Parisians, and went into the stores where they shopped
and heard the story of each store. We followed students, identifiable
by their pierced ears or noses, into pubs where they sang to the tune
of fiddles and tin whistles.
We found a clothing store whose owner told
us the story of outfitting John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara for The Quiet
Man, an exciting story for Mom. We went into a book store where the
owner told us the story of a recent visit from Ireland's Nobel Laureate,
Neither of us remembers where we were when
we decided to have a mid-afternoon cup of tea. It was somewhere in Galway,
somewhere near the Corrib River. We found a small tea shop, one that
was weary, but genteel in its exhaustion. The lace curtains were old
and tired of staring at the grey Irish sky, the veneer on the wood wainscoting
had worn thin, the silver plating on the cutlery showed bald spots.
We looked briefly at menus and ordered a simple Irish Tea Cake, made
with lemon and vanilla.When the cake arrived, a silence fell over
Though the outline of my mother's face grew hazy, I saw her
mouth drop in surprise, watched the lines of her face disappear into
memory when she looked at the plate in front of her. One half of the
cake was silver with vanilla, the other had flecks of lemon sprinkled
like gold dust through the batter."Gold and silver cake," I said,
then fell silent.
We sat with heads bent, neither of us looking
at each other, each of us lost in thought, looking into our private
worlds. Mom was the first to speak - quietly, quietly
for her breath had been stolen away and the words could hardly come
out. "Mama always let me separate the eggs."
"Do you remember the first time you
made this with me, Mom?"
"Of course.""Do you remember . . . you let me separate
the eggs? I was so proud. Then you winked at me, and it was the happiest
day of my life."Mom looked at me, startled. "Then you
went running off, down to the neighbor's. I thought that you liked her
better than me. You were always running off."It took a minute before I spoke. "But
I always came back."Mom took a small bite of the golden side
of the cake.
* * * * * *