I’ve written about my childhood home a few times over the course of the year. It’s a place that looms large in my memories, and I visit it every time I return to Ireland. I have seen it change over the years as no family has lived in it since ours moved out.
While I was writing about it in this blog, another blogger took note of it here in a different way: as a “derelict” site . The pictures at this blog may be striking to someone not intimately familiar with the house as I am; I have many such photographs taken inside and outside the house over the years.
The house may in fact be a dying symbol of lost community potential as presented in this blog, but to me, it is so much more. For today’s post, I decided to jump on the end-of-year-review bandwagon to re-visit excerpts about the house as it was lived in, when it was a home with its history as a school still hanging it its shadows.
I am from green quilted fields, and coiling roads, and ashen skies.
I am a patchwork of the quiet moments that reared me,
where I watched the cows amble home
and the sun dip behind the heavy hills.
I am that schoolhouse in Ireland, decaying yet dignified still,
where my childhood footsteps first registered,
and still reverberate—in rural rememberings—
I am story after story after story.
I grew up in a rural community in Ireland, four miles away from the small village where I attended convent school. My family lived in a house that had been converted from a school house that had been shut down because there were not enough children to attend it; it served our family of nine well. I remember knowing that our house was bigger than most–that having 3 toilets in the house was a luxury unknown to anyone else (my best friend had none; I used the field out back when I played at her house). We were remote enough from our tiny local village that on days when the bus took too long to climb the hilly backroads to get to us, my mother would sometimes let us stay home for the day, and we would roam the fields for hours, picking our way through brambles and old ruins, seeking out mushrooms, rabbit traps, and foxholes.
We were sitting around the stove, not the Stanley range in the kitchen where Mom does the cooking, but the French stove in the living room. It’s not our real living room, where we eat and play cards at the long table that is really two tables nailed together, and where we hang out all of us together, sometimes watching TV or trying to distract Dad from his magazines or dancing to Michael Jackson songs on the threadbare rug. No, we were in the other living room, the one where Mom takes guests when they come to visit—unless they’ve come to eat, like the Hogan family who has seven kids like us or Fr. Manning who drives up from Limerick and always asks Mom to make her special fried chicken.
The other living room, where we do not eat, has the French stove, which is quite fancy, I suppose, because we are not allowed to touch it, and not just because it’s hot. We can’t go near it when it’s cold either; I suppose it’s delicate with its pretty little legs at the end and the metal that isn’t as hard as the metal on the Stanley that makes a heavy clang sound when Mom is opening it or putting pots on it. In the Stanley, the turf goes in beneath and the potatoes boil on top. We use coal in the French stove; it burns longer and is cleaner and more tightly packed, but my brother says it’s made of the same stuff as turf. Turf breaks if you bang it on something or throw it, but Dad yells at us not to do that—except when we have to once a year to move it from the big pile the truck dumps onto the driveway into the shed with three walls. The shed is right next to the driveway, and I don’t know why they can’t dump it in directly, but they can’t, so we have to move the pile in, brick of turf by brick of turf. It’s fun for a while, getting the turf in, tossing it over and making a game of it, before it becomes hard work and we’re tired and we have to keep doing it anyway until it’s all in. But before it’s work, it’s fun, especially when we’re all there doing it together.
I remember hitting tennis balls against the big wall on the end of the house. That wall was huge, massive, like a cruise ship must seem if you were swimming toward it. We would use tennis rackets sometimes, but more often I would just fling those balls as hard as I could against that wall and try to catch it when it bounced back. The rackets were heavy to hold and use well, but you could throw the balls forever, it seemed. When I go back to visit the old house now, the wall doesn’t seem that big, of course. Standard wall, but the standard has changed, I guess.
It’s always cold here. It rains almost all the time, and everything is damp. The wet hangs in the air like sheets on the clothesline, limp and stretched at the same time, a long barrier threatening to swallow me, to wrap me up in its cold, wet fingers. The moss grows all over walls and trees and the cement; my mother tells me it’s from the wet everywhere, and we take shovels and scrape, scrape, scrape the puffy green growth from the concrete steps and paths around our schoolhouse home. If we don’t drag it away, it will take over and make everything slippery when it rains, and I have already fallen on these steps too often.
We are cold when we get into our beds, and we are cold when we get out of them. My mother puts woolen blankets on top of us and tucks us in, but it takes a long time for the radiators to work, and we use our water bottles and each other to stay warm until then. The floors are cold tiles, and the long schoolhouse windows make our rooms hard to heat. The Stanley stove in the kitchen keeps it warm, and the French stove keeps the fancy room warm when it’s on, but the radiators aren’t turned on until we make our way to bed, with just our socks and Mom’s stories to cosy us to sleep.
In the morning we know it will be cold again because our noses are cold outside the covers. Mom makes hot chocolate sometimes, but I don’t like the slimy threads of milk that form on the top of the glass cups and snake their way down the side of the glass. I stay close to the gas heater Mom brings out on the coldest mornings, and I slide my legs into long woolen tights before slipping on my blue school uniform. We always wear tights; when it’s warmer, we wear the thinner kind, even when we start putting on the bright orange ankle socks our American relatives sent us. We like the way it looks, the neon against the brown of our tights, “pantyhose” as the Yanks call them, and the girls at school like it too. My sister’s friends at the secondary school copy her, and we like the way it feels to start a trend. In the winter when snow comes, Mom makes us put plastic bags around our feet before our wellies go on our feet and our duffels go on over our jumpers. We know all about layers and know, too, that if your feet get wet, you might as well be naked as you’ll never get warm.
It’s always cold outside, and the damp hangs in the corners of the house. Dad puts Damp Away tubs in the closet he built in his and Mom’s bedroom and in the closet where we keep the coats and baseball gloves and golf-clubs from the States. It’s to absorb the wetness and keep things from getting moldy, but the tubs fill with water too quickly. What keeps us warm is our motion, our roller skating on the marble floor where schoolchildren used to gather before going to classrooms where we now sleep and eat. We tumble and kick and run and roam, bumping into each other and gathering close to where the grownups are, sitting at our father’s feet as he reads his magazine or trooping into the kitchen to see what Mom’s making at the stove. We dance and sway on the threadbare carpet, laughing and picking at each other until someone falls onto the gray flannel covered couch, and then there is a fight to claim couch space. We fill our bellies with spaghetti sauce on bread and fill ourselves with stories and songs. When we are not moving and making spaces for ourselves, we curl and cuddle and comb ourselves into each other, finding our way to warm through the frayed edges of a worn blanket and the weathered welcome of our mother’s embrace.
The first big snowstorm came this weekend, and while all I want to do is cozy up inside, all Free sees is a playground. I pick her up from her father on Saturday as the storm is getting underway. By the time we get home, snowflakes are fluttering and felting the layer of ice already covering the grass. She wants to play. The dim sunlight is fading, so I hurry her to her snowpants, pushing her boots on, snuggling and snapping her up tight and warm. Outside she goes to tease tiny heaps of snow together as I pick up kindling and keep an eye on her. Newman arrives with our tree, and I turn my attention toward helping him. As I hold the door open for him to bring it in, I see Free in the waning light of the dusk, lying against her pile of snow, head up toward the night sky, feet spread out wide as the snow falls gently around her. I go to her; her eyes are closed, and she is sleepy. “I’m so comfortable, mom,” she tells me, and I laugh, nuzzling my face close to hers.
Here is my child, finding her joy in the snowfall of a wintry evening, finding home outside, under a darkening sky. She is not growing up as I did, but it is here and now that I know she too will find what I found in and around my Irish home. She can close her eyes and melt into nature’s embrace; when she looks outside, she hears it calling her. I know when I do take her to Ireland sometime soon, she won’t be far from home.