Big Bad Wolves and outsized monsters stayed away from my childhood nightmares. Instead, the gold streaked waters I played in by day transmuted into a murderous tidal wave and the ginger puppy from the house next store behaved as a sharp toothed executioner. Still, a few deep breaths, re-orientation and peaceful slumber could be attained.
The fear and dread that lingered I encountered in the light of day. Just briefly, the hateful screed of Ian Paisley accosted, until my parents, too late aware, ruffled, banished me to some safe spot. There the demon’s words, so sinister and malign, fertilized the seed of fear already in the Philadelphia air for those of color. Hate: dangerous new form of speech, tactile, palpable in those times. Mephistopheles had spoken.
To grow, to hope, to change. A narrative available to the most undeserving.
And so, Paisley died a man saluted for a change of heart. Cameras captured images: his hands outstretched and grasping the hands of those he had zealously christened “vermin”- their hands now undistinguishable from his own.
So long as his was the titular “First” seat in government, above the “bloodthirsty monsters,” his colossal ego was soothed, his vanity sated. In the waning years of his turbulent public pursuits, he fashioned a more seemly costume. Though who can judge his “madness, his mission?”
And a big, venomous voice . So many hearts long ago stopped beating in the conflagration of petrol bombs. More pump blood still through weary veins of bodies mutilated by the Troubles. And watch those impassive, static hearts maimed with the words bellowed long ago to a believing mind, passed down to child, then to the grandchild, growing in the quartered streets still looking for the halcyon days long promised…
True, better that the thunder of his voice ceased its eternal shaming, vicious speech. True, that voice awakened the righteous that those condemned at dawn for faith or color or choice of loving partner could be freed from hate and vitriol come sundown should the zealots by mere happenstance decree some new prey more worthy of pursuit. True, a hand stretched out in peace, however late, no longer fells or wounds those in its path.
But Never, Never, Never call that man a peacemaker.
My father had lived half his life before emigrating permanently, making the United States his home. Almost forty, though no longer adorned with whatever resilience and sang-froid youth had bestowed, he engaged life in America with a spirit of hope which mystifies still, these decades after he has gone.
My mind summons our first house, brick, box-like, postage-stamp cubicle play yard, neighbor atop neighbor. Though he would, in time, acquire grander, this first house, just outside the city limits, announced achievement, proclaimed him resident in that new land.
Sun shivering on sliver buttons and badges as men, red-faced and scowling in hot blue uniforms access the glass front door. Sneering voices forbid Sunday radio music the neighbors will not allow. The child is unseen, sweltering shame.
Sadness in the sun-aged face, wary as the local journalist photographs his shining Chevrolet sedan. Pride, too true, it seems, a deadly sin. Thick blue bruise of paint spewed on the hood, bled down the side. No witnesses, no crime, the police had said.
The sharp shock and sting of the stone that struck the head of the little girl walking home alone. Hateful slur followed but not the boys who propel the now familiar call: “Go back where you came from, Go back there! We don’t want your kind here!”
I will never forget, near ecstasy on my father’s face the night a man, exuding youth and hope, was elected President of the United States: that man who looked like him and spoke like him, who was not afraid to say he actually was like him, he worshiped like my father. At times, it seemed to me, my father worshiped him.
Not much later, my father renounced the citizenship of the beloved land of his birth; he identified as a full American along with my older sister, who also had been born abroad. The house he shared with my mother was filled with the young president’s photograph; his recorded speeches were played instead of the radio on Sunday afternoon, and when he was assassinated, a huge full-color bust portrait hung in their home, displacing the Pope, for the rest of their joint lives.
My parents were Irish immigrants.
The taunt was “Shanty Irish.”
The President was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
It is painful to contemplate children in oven-like buses, confused and frightened, as adults, sometimes with costumes, sometimes with signs, sometimes with weapons, hurl insults and slurs and even rocks or glass and froth with rage.
When I tell my immigration story, today, the reaction, largely, is to question: how did my parents find such a bizarre pocket of anti-Irish feeling to settle? We no longer recognize ourselves in that tale. We have forgotten the vitriol of the 1960 presidential campaign, the genuine anti-Catholic prejudice Kennedy faced down. The lingering bigotry the Irish confronted in 1960 seems impossible: “No Irish Need Apply ” signs not yet quaint antiques for sale in the United States as ” No Irish, No Coloured, No Dogs” in Britain.
But the accommodation of forgetting cannot erase the dark reality of history.
Immigration policy is complex and important.It has become a throw away truism to state “we are a nation of immigrants.”
We serve ourselves well to recall that the children we revile today we may describe as “the bedrock of our society” tomorrow: as integrated and indispensable as though they always “belonged.”
Just after midsummer, a new baby will be born.
Love penetrates the heart before the eye discovers. Already,unknowing, I have selected a fine, wide cloth, now waiting adornments. The tapestry as yet unknown.
Joy, anticipating him….
I cherish his velvet skin, delicious, pure for so brief a time. The tiny fist so tightly clenched inspires the effort of living. His baby smell, effervesced, but still sublimely sweet, exhilarates.
Hair matted against his face, heat of day too much; his sweat, as all his little life, extreme.
Whispers of wind, (or call of birds? ) rattle giggles from him. His busy, boundless journey remains singular, for a time.
He and I do not share blood, or cells or chromosomes.
But he is kindred, still.
Will the unspawned babes of my own young grow up with him, grasping vibrant mantle of childhood in accord? Will attic rooms reverberate each season once again, snickers, shrieks recalling silly scenes of the holiday table? Will summer tents contain their giggles and their shouts when scary stories are unleashed in the darkened wood? Will they join with him, the oldest one, when they denounce the demons of the life they find themselves confronting?
Or will this baby merely be, first, the infant,then, the child, and finally, the man I love dearly from afar, whom I know not well enough to fill my life?
Time holds the answer and it will be one way or other other.
Now I apprehend his weight, his warmth, the soft pattern of his breathing.
The reminder, once again, that we can be our best selves, sometimes, when we allow ourselves to simply live.
I am diminutive in the chill, May sunshine outside the mushroom colored tower which surges towards the morning sky. Wedged among stiff perfumed dresses, shadowed by white-gloved hands reaching out for the flowers, I shiver as though in a slow motion film and watch my mother receive a white carnation: Her mother is dead. Some day she will die too. The dilatory notes of the reluctant organ no longer sound cheerful. Sights appear as through fine ivory gauze which wraps a wound. There only remains the smell of roses, the scratchy feel of a freshly starched cotton dress, a flutter inside my belly like an itch I cannot reach.
Bodies gathered closely like a patchwork quilt: young, old, mostly white and strong. Intermittent raindrops bleed colors from homemade signs punctuating blocks of denim draped frames. Children perched on shoulders whimper or laugh as orators’ calls to disarm echo, linger, then settle on the crowd. Under the elegant shade tree, an infant suckles, undisturbed by disapproving glances of strangers on the street dressed in Sunday finery to absorb the urban experience. Off-key singing stirs the close air, words inspire, we believe we all aspire to a universal dream.
Three small heads, one white, one gold, and one a saffron color, bodies close, faces deep inside the down. Dawn just announced, sleep not yet fully departed from me, but the energy of these children already unbounded by the hour. Giggles high, so confident, so self-conscious, as if they know already that they must treasure moments which will not stay. Skin so soft, unblemished, and richly colored, each one a different tone in the morning light. One begins a song, the others join and it’s a choir. They all jump, we shriek together and he comes rushing. Coffee hot, bed covers tousled, attention fading. Cuddles, kisses, small arms clinging. A camera clicks, time cannot be packaged nor moments frozen. Too soon it’s evening, the bed is empty of children once again.
Los Angeles, Paris, Philadelphia. White carnations now for nine years or more. Still a child stands out in a sunday churchyard. Women march as ever to forge a peace. Children laugh inside the heart each day, all rough, all tumbles. Not a festival, a sentiment nor a static instant, mothering is a process of awakening to life.