Category Archives: Memoir

BIRTH DAY for Milo

Monet's Magpie

The Magpie by Claude Monet, 1869

Your birth, I remember it well,
Born on the cusp of spring,
The essence of it stamped on my memory:
Unexpected April heat, my heavy, restless body pushing through thick air
Walking the loop—up the hill, down by the graveyard, alongside the woods,
Anticipation mounting with each contraction,
Rattling my teeth with nervous energy.

And all around, a building storm,
Earth barely containing the rising tide of sap,
A river of new life surging along branch tips, swelling the buds.

Third child and well attended, I had the rhythm of things down,
The cyclical understanding that roots into the fabric.
An understanding of the flow of things,
The current that would drive me along.
The midwife could see that and left me to labor in peace.

Peace in pain, a strange eye of the storm,
When you push the walls away from you,
Allowing the breath to come; release.

The walls of the room dissolved,
The energy of the womb focused
On that postcard-sized snow-settled landscape,
The magpie seated on the farmyard gate,
Illuminated by soft winter sunlight,
Patiently waiting for spring.

And when I stepped out into the world again
Carrying you, my new born, in a soft swaddling of blankets,
The pear trees were wreathed in white blossom.

ROCKING CHAIR, for Asher

DSCF1844
I rocked
for the first time
in an age.
I’d quite forgotten
the soothing
undulating
movement,
the province
of the young
and old;
that tender time
when comforts come
in repetition
accompanied by
a primal thrum
starting deep
in the throat—
a crooning bee
of sound.
The chair rocked me
back to that moment,
pillow mounded
on pregnancy softened belly
and you, pink-faced
and belligerent,
mouth caterwauling
up at me
with all the lust
of your young lungs.
The up, the down
the foot pushing off
the wooden floor,
The creak of floorboards,
the hum, the rock,
The calm.

A HISTORY OF TEA

DSCF6075The thread of sense memory runs deep.
My mother scoops dry black shrivelings
Of Lyons tea
Out of the red and black tea caddy.
The rippling rope of amber
Pours from the spout of the
Battered aluminum pot.
A ghost of steam
Rises above the rim of bone china.
She would not think to start the day
Without her cup of tea—
Milk, two sugars.

Mimicking the grownups,
Three little girls sit in three little chairs,
Teddies perched on laps,
Around the low wooden table,
Sipping sweet milky tea from miniature cups.

Granny wreathed in
Roses and fat bumbling bees,
Labrador dozing in the shade.
Teapot resting under the knitted cosy
Beside a plate of warm shortbread.
Sugar lumps in the silver bowl.
Milk in first, one sugar.

Grandfather’s breakfast ritual:
Small gold teapot for one
And a half.
If you were lucky and early to the table
He’d save those soupy black dregs for your cup.
A fond gesture from a man at a loss for words.
Splash of milk, no sugar.

Banging in the door at four o’clock,
Schoolbags dumped,
Tongues hanging out
For McVitie’s and afternoon tea
Strong enough to trot a mouse across it,
As my aunt would say.
Dreaming in the firelight,
Staving off homework,
The pet rabbit munching on Gingernut biscuits,
Between the paws of the great yellow dog.

The interior hush of the car
After a rain-lashed buffeting down the beach.
Hot tea poured into tannin stained mugs.
A stew of dogs and tea and humans,
Steaming up the windows.
The wind keening and rocking,
Trying to get inside and share the family picnic.

Waking to dull yellow light filtering through the wall of the tent
And the hiss of the gas burner boiling the kettle.
The milk bottle resting in the dew of the morning grass.
Or the sip of wood-smoke from a fire blackened pot.

The taste of tea at once so familiar
Became strange and exotic
With the sharp bite of Greek lemons,
Or a handful of crushed mint and orange blossom
Sweetness swirled in small glass cups
In a Tangier souk.

Bewleys of Grafton Street,
Cathedral of stained glass windows and dark wood,
The place to take the pulse of Dublin
While sipping tea and eating gobfulls of sticky bun.
Thought too, the site of betrayal
Of my college coffee drinking years.

But the tonic effects
Could not be banished beyond the realms of coolness.
In the wee dawn hours,
After a late gig and too many pints,
Bleary-eyed under the buzzing strip lights of the all-night caf,
The table strewn with plates,
Fag butts put out in the runny remains of fried eggs,
Life saving pots of scalding tea to ward off the inevitable.

In my new homeland
That anemic thing dangling on a string
Was no substitute for the stuff that would
Put hair on your chest and fur on your tongue.

But old habits and all that—
If not the tea, then the age-old ritual
Of sipping and sharing
Passed on to my husband—black, two sugars.
My daughter’s first phrase—will you have a cup of tea?
Getting straight to the heart of the matter.

And now?
I sit in the green chair, cradling the yellow mug,
Warmth seeping into my palms,
Thinking and not thinking,
Each honeyed sip of green tea
Bringing flesh to my bones.
My own ritual.

Three thousand miles away my father
Shuffles from the bedroom
In the predawn hours,
His head a cushiony place
Familiar with rote patterns—
Set the kettle murmuring on the stove
Scald the battered aluminum pot,
Reach for the red and black caddy,
Pour the boiling water over the tea bags,
Shuffle back to bed
Carrying my mother’s first cup of the day
And his own—milk, one small sugar.

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HALLOWE’EN

DSCF1527Hallowe’en is the holiday that most reminds me of my Irish upbringing. I well remember trailing costumes, cobbled together from grown-up cast offs, down muddy country lanes, only seeing the puddles through the cardboard slits of our homemade masks when it was too late. And for all our effort we might get a handful of nuts, some windfall apples, or an orange. Mrs. Topping was the last stop, and if we were lucky she might have a few pennies or a chocolate bar for us to savor on the way home. Flickering light from bonfires and the smell of woodsmoke, intensified by the sharp frosty air, added to the mystery of the night. There was a always the possibility that something unearthly might grab you from behind before you made it home.DSCF8638

I’ve spent many an evening trick-or-treating with my kids in our hometown in New York’s Hudson valley—my daughter even has a Hallowe’en birthday. But none come close to capturing the spooky feelings of my childhood. The reason, I think, is simple. The tradition of Oiche Shamhna, or ‘the vigil of Saman,’ the Lord of Death, is so deep-rooted in Ireland that you can sense it palpably.

Throughout Ireland . . . lesser feast days pale in comparison with the culminating festival which marks the end of the dying year on All-Hallows Eve. An astonishing amount of lore still clings to Hallowe’en . . . The crops should now be all gathered in and no fruit should be picked after this date, for the púca, a supernatural being, is busy befouling unpicked fruit . . . we notice superstition acting as a stimulus towards the completion of routine tasks. The return of the livestock from their summer grazings, once accompanied by their herders, made the occasion one of family reunion, and this is a strong element in the present festival. But it was also a reunion with the ancestral spirits of the family: for Hallowe’en was preeminently a commemoration of the dead, a time when ghosts and fairies were unusually active, the whole of the world of the supernatural astir and the dead returned to their earthly homes. On that night the grass-grown homesteads—the fairy raths—were wide open and the fairies were on the move to winter quarters, surely a folk memory of a former transhumance. It used to be thought unlucky not to make preparations for the return of the dead by leaving the door of the house open, putting out tobacco and traditional dishes such as sowans—a kind of porridge—and setting seats around the fire. The games and amusements which alone survive have commonly degenerated into pranks and horseplay, but one can detect in them echoes of magical observances. The many divination customs may well have begun as rites to avert evil or to secure the benefits which they now pretend to forecast. Among the things involved in these games and divination customs are apples nuts, oatcakes, cabbages, a ball of yarn, articles made of straw and rushes, and herbs such as yarrow . . . The breaking of pots is one of the elements in Hallowe’en pranks—one might almost say rites—and again we notice the association with the dead, for All-Hallows is the time when the dead are believed to return to their homes.
                                                   Evans, E. Estyn, Irish Folk Ways, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. © 1957DSCF8684Colcannon is one of the foods traditionally eaten at Hallowe’en. Often a dish of this would be left out for visitors from the other world. This recipe comes from Theodora FitzGibbon’s A Taste of Ireland.DSCF8717

1lb each of kale or cabbage, and potatoes, cooked separately
2 small leeks or green onion tops
1 cup of milk or cream
4 oz. (½ cup) butter
salt, pepper, and a pinch of mace

Have the kale or cabbage cooked, warm and well chopped up while the potatoes are cooking. Chop up the leeks or onion tops, green as well as white, and simmer them in milk or cream to just cover, until they are soft. Drain the potatoes, season and beat them well: then add the cooked leeks and milk.
Finally blend in the kale, beating until it is a pale green fluff. Do this over a low flame and pile it into a deep warmed dish. Make a well in the centre and pour in enough melted butter to fill up the cavity. The vegetables can be served with the melted butter. Any leftovers can be friend in hot bacon fat until crisp and brown on both sides.

If all that butter and cream weren’t fun enough—
A plain gold ring, a sixpence, a thimble, or a button are often put into the mixture. The ring means you will be married within a year; the sixpence denotes wealth, the thimble a spinster and the button a bachelor, to whoever gets them. DSCF1610

CHILDHOOD WALK

melissa with flowersEarly sunlight seeping around the curtains.
Blackbird singing. Day beckoning.
Slip out of sleeping house.
Shimmering jewels of dew on the grass.
Wet ankles.
Air fragrant with spring.
Pass the Hawthorn tree dropping damp blossoms on the lawn.
Discover pale yellow primroses on the bank by the river.
Inhale sweet, honey scent.
Inspect the hollow in the willow—cushions of moss for fairies to dance on.
Watch small brown trout in the shallows.IMG_8292
Climb up through the woods.
Soft pine needles underfoot.
Breeze sowing in the tops of the trees.
Tip-toe into the wild garden.
Peonies buried in a tangle of long grass.
Irises blooming through clumps of stinging nettles.
Startle a heron at the overgrown pond.
Poke amongst the duckweed for fat, black tadpoles.
Jump and jump to snatch a branch off the cherry tree,
Laden with heavy pink flowers.
Add it to the posy of violets and primroses.
Home in time for breakfast.IMG_7955

THE ROLE OF MEMORY IN STORYTELLING

melissa with poppy - Version 2My youngest son just turned seven. Watching him play with his birthday Lego, it dawned on me that he has reached my memory lifetime, that is, the age from which I have distinct memories. It was also the age I vividly remember writing my first story.

It was about a little girl who wished for a pair of red shoes. She pestered her mother until her wish came true. Against all her mother’s warnings, she wore the red shoes to go exploring. One shoe got stuck in a muddy puddle and was lost. Slowly, the shoe disintegrated, becoming part of the soil, where it nurtured a lush patch of grass . Along came a cow that ate the grass, and was subsequently killed and her hide turned into a pair of red leather shoes. Strange story for a seven-year-old, but with a satisfyingly circular pattern, and, most importantly, based in fact. Yes, I was the naughty child who’d lost her red shoe.

A baby learns that if you smile at your parent just so, you elicit an instant response, or if you pull the cat’s whiskers, chance are you’ll get scratched. From birth, we build a narrative to make sense of the world around us, based on our interpretation of previous experience.

For a writer, consciously tapping into this memory bank is essential. Storytelling, at its heart, is a thing of memory. When I create a story, I delve into a scrap bag and pull out fragments of places I’ve been, weather I’ve experienced, and characters I’ve met. I stitch together a plot and blend it with sense memories to make it come alive—perhaps the salt and dead fish-laced air of a harbor, the heat shimmering off a city sidewalk, ripe with the scents of hotdogs and car fumes and drains, or the solo chorus of a lark rising high above a peat bog.

When my first grade son writes a story his default mode is a graphic novel: elaborately drawn settings and multiple characters with cryptic little speech bubbles. When prodded he will tell me the complicated and action packed plot. These stories are nothing like the ones I wrote at his age, mostly involving princesses and furry animals, but firmly based in recalled events.Milo Pic 1

I know that all children, given the right encouragement, will express themselves through art. As soon as my older children could hold a crayon, they spent many hours drawing—dragons, knights, princesses, superheroes. As a toddler, my seven-year-old who is more than a decade younger than his brother and sister, seemed reluctant to pick up art supplies. I didn’t push him. Then, at the age of four, the drawings started to trickle in from preschool—small, lavishly detailed scenes that required much explanation from him before I could grasp what they were about.

Observing him draw at home, I noticed an interesting thing. His drawings were “live action.” He was animating his fantasy world on the page. No wonder it had taken him a while to conceptualize how to do this. He is a 21st century storyteller.Milo Pic speak 1

Today, in our screen-centric era, kids move easily between the real world and game worlds, often, at least partially of their own making. These worlds can be so enticing that kids (and adults) feel as though you are present in that fantasy world.

I can’t help wondering what kind of storytellers this makes them? Many of their “memories” are constructed from these fantasy experiences, blended with reality. No doubt the next generation will write extraordinary works of fiction. They will create worlds that we would be hard pushed to conceive of. Storytellers of the mid 21st century will break old molds.

And yet, I believe that nothing can replace the scent of wood smoke on the air that instantly transports me to the moment of arrival at my grandmother’s house. Or the feel of slick pebbles underfoot and ice-cold water stinging my knees as I wade into a lake. Or the shame of facing my mother wearing one red shoe, and one muddy sock.muddy red shoe

DREAM OF DROWNING (Trust)

IMG_7439I dreamed so vividly                                                                                                                                         I felt it in every fiber of my body when I awoke.

To say that dream haunts me                                                                                                              Would be an overstatement.

But it lives in a safe, quiet spot in my mind—                                                                                             A dream of drowning.

The preambles have receded with time,                                                                                                But the moment of letting go,                                                                                                                     Of relinquishing my hold, of opening my fists                                                                                     And allowing seawater                                                                                                                                To flow through my fingers,                                                                                                                       Of sinking softly                                                                                                                                             Was sweet.

The ultimate letting go.