Thanks to Dan Antion over at No Facilities I have been lured into a new to me blog challenge this weekend- Stream of Consciousness Saturday #SoCS which is kindly hosted by Linda G Hill. Please head over there to get the full rules for the challenges, but here are the details for this week’s prompt. I must say I really enjoyed it. It’s been a good 20-30 years since I’ve done a strict stream of consciousness piece and was quite pleased with the results, which have more than a grain of truth.
“Your Friday prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday is starts with ‘u.’ Find a word that starts with the letter ‘u’ and use it however you’d like. Bonus points if it’s the first word in your post. Enjoy!”
“Ultimately, it’s not your responsibility. You can walk away. It’s only a job. There are plenty of others,” Kate told her husband who was the sole network engineer at Parliament House since covid and the staff cutbacks. The Australian people had no idea that Australia’s political and economical stability all rested on Mike’s aching shoulders. That he was the very one person holding this country together like a wretched safety pin. Sure, he was reliable, but he wasn’t infallible.
“What if I get covid? What happens then?” he asked.
“They’ll replace you. Everyone’s replaceable. You know that.” She said, telling him what he wanted to hear, and what the CIO* wanted to believe. However, Mike knew that wasn’t true. No one else cared about the network or understood its intricate inner workings like he did, and nobody fought to maintain its integrity and reliability either. Management should’ve been called “mismanagement”. They didn’t care about people, and they had no mechanical empathy either.
“Why don’t you just walk away before it’s too late, Mike? Your blood pressure’s skyrocketing. You’ve got pre-diabetes and I don’t mean to sound judgmental but you’ve really stacked on the kilos. We could sell up. Move to the country without a mortgage and be free from it all.”
Mike loved his wife, but just for this instance she was sounding like the devil. That wretched serpent luring, enticing him into sin: “You don’t have to go to work tomorrow,” he could hear this enticing voice luring him away. “Walk away. Leave them to deal with the consequences. If the entire country falls into a screaming heap, it’s not your fault. You’re just a cog in the machine. You could actually be lying in a deck chair by the pool sipping piña coladas without a care in the world.”
It all sounded way to good to be true, but he knew it was possible. The house was paid off. They had money in the bank. They could be free. Yet, Mike couldn’t be the one. He couldn’t be the one who brought Australia to its knees – even if it wasn’t his fault he was the only man left standing.
“You know, Mike, it would be really nice if you could just forget about work even for one night and give me your 100% undivided attention. I know that data centre isn’t another woman, but I can’t help feeling you understand it better than me and care more about keep it happy than me.”
“Crikey!” That’s what Mike dreaded more than a total network outage right across Parliament House where all that vitriol usually reserved for their political opponents suddenly hurled itself at him. At least,he knew he stood a chance of fixing that. His wife was a different story and while he wasn’t just capable of understanding machines, he didn’t do well when the going got tough. Got stuck on the finer points of interpersonal communication. That’s when he usually resorted to flowers or chocolates. He didn’t know how they did the trick, but they worked. That’s all that mattered.
Right on cue, his mobile rang. It was work. Almost in synch with his wife, the server was down. Couldn’t be dealt with remotely. He had to go in.”
Kate didn’t even need to ask. She knew where she came in the pecking order, and she knew he’d be back with flowers, chocolates anything but himself.
“A dose of covid,” she wondered, “might not be a curse after all. Indeed, long covid could even be the answer.”
CIO = Chief Information Officer
Hope you enjoyed it, and I’d love to hear from you.
Yesterday, I visited my parents for the first time in a year. Geoff was going down to work, and so he dropped me off on the way, and I was expecting to be there for a good six hours. Well, I can assure you that even after not seeing me for a year, my Dad didn’t think he could talk for that long, although their was the possibility my mother could, but she sleeps irregular hours and so she was also a bit of an unknown quantity. The other thing I came to consider, is that they’ve had very little face-to-face contact with anyone since Sydney went into lockdown last June and so even having their dearest daughter land on their doorstep for the day might’ve been overwhelming, and my Dad recently had an operation as well and so isn’t in prime form either. I guess it suffices to say they’re in their late 70’s and have slowed down a bit.
I packed a book and my journal and looked forward to playing the piano. However, it was a glorious sunny day and they have a magnificent cottage style garden which is quite a camellia wonderland. Indeed, now in the depths of Winter, the camellias are in flower and were absolutely beautiful. As you walk down their driveway, there’s what I think is a Ted Craig Reticulata which is 15 centimetres in diameter and absolutely magnificent. To use a classic quote from Kath & Kim, it’s shouting out: “Look at me! Look at me!” it’s hard not to.
Their garden also has quite a few deciduous trees and there was some stunning yellow Autumn leavers out the front and the neighbours have a towering Liquid Amber which is now mostly a skeleton of branches and all those leaves have fallen somewhere and been swept or raked away. I dare say, many of them have dropped in my parents’ garden and while I was there, I found myself sweeping the front steps until I found myself down on the driveway. It was alright when I started out. I seemed to be making progress. However, a wind had come along and it was literally snowing leaves and they were almost falling faster than I could sweep them away. Of course, I started to see a sort of futility in all of this. Do I end up becoming a sweeper just to keep up with the never-ending tide of leaves or do I simply leave them be? Well, it’s easy for me to say, because I don’t live there and we don’t have any deciduous trees here, except our jacaranda but it rains purple flowers instead. That’s why I guess sweeping up all those Autumn leaves was such a thought-provoking novelty. It’s not something I usually think about.
Anyway, I wanted to share that going round and working on your parents’ garden can be a great way of spending time with or around them while not being underfoot or tiring them out too much. My uncle showed me the way here. He used to go round and work on my grandfather’s garden. This way you can have a chat and a cup of tea, do some gardening. Have another chat and maybe even talk about the garden or they could sit out their with you too.
By the way, I should also mention that I took over some Date and Apricot All Bran Muffins which they love. Home baked treats also keep to make a visit special.
Are you into gardening at all? Or perhaps you have elderly parents. What enhances your visits? It would be great to share some ideas and special memories.
Wow! I can’t believe I actually went somewhere. In fact, I’ve even been to somewheres. It’s been an exceptionally busy week, but so very rewarding.
I’m going to get the ball rolling, by sharing what I’ve been up to first.
Firstly, on Thursday and Friday last week, I attended a Suicide Intervention Course called ASIST, which is put together by a telephone crisis service called Lifeline. The course usually costs $600.00 but they were offering it free of charge to locals thanks to Rotary sponsorship. I know that doing two solid days of this must sound incredibly heavy. There were parts where my hand turned noticeably red, and I gathered I’d got a bit too worked out. However, my overall feeling was that doing the course was more uplifting than heavy going since the training helped me feel much more capable and empowered.
Yesterday, we drove down to Sydney for Miss to compete in a lyrical troupe dance at the Sydney Eisteddfod. Because we’ve seen the dance before and it was going to cost $50.00 to attend, we decided to go out for an early dinner at an adjacent Vietnamese restaurant instead. We had been there almost precisely a year ago when she competed in last year’s Eisteddfod and we hadn’t been able to get back due to covid lockdowns and being cautious. So, this felt like quite a treat and I was so excited to enjoy scrumptious crispy chicken and prawn pancake known as Bánh xèo. it was so good. We also managed to check out an exhibition of street art, and we also came across two of the massive inflatable gnomes which are in Chatswood at the moment, and we also found an exquisite bakery and bought a chocolate mouse cake shaped like a very cute puppy dog and a mango coconut mouse cup. Yum.
Today, we ended up pointing the car in the opposite direction and driving to Newcastle for Miss to compete in the School Aerobics Championships where she competed in cheer and aerobics. Everybody did really well and they all made it through to the State competition which will be held in St Ives, Sydney in a month’s time. If they get through that, it’s off to the Gold Coast for Nationals.
Afterwards, we drove down to The Junction, a popular part of Newcastle where Mum’s cousin’s family owns a wonderful restaurant, Tallulah, but it had just close when we turned up, and so we headed across the road to the Grumpy Baker. Well, the baker might be grumpy, but we can assure you, none of the patrons were grumpy indulging in their scrumptious sensations. Even their sausage rolls had been elevated to highly delicious heights and we were most disappointed that we missed out on seconds after someone else bought the last two from under our noses. Golly, it all made a very strong argument for heading back North up the freeway.
Things had never been easy. However, bushfires, covid, and now the floods had all but wiped out Jim and Sally’s small-time pineapple farm. While the tourists were back, they drove straight past heading for the Big Pineapple. Now, down to their last gold coins, hope was almost gone. Yet, despite being rabid atheists, they fell to their knees in prayer.
Miraculously, Bill responded, proposing they could sell his dope crop via their roadside stall.
Finally, they’d seen the light!
It was only meant to be temporary, and apparently the cops were turning a blind eye.
Thought I’d better share a photo of Queensland’s iconic Big Pineapple with you. It is 16 metres (52 ft) high and was originally opened on 15 August 1971. It is situated on a 165-hectare (410-acre) site.
I wonder how many Australian families have had their photos taken in front of the iconic Big Pineapple. I know Geoff went with his family and here’s a photo with my family including my grandmother. I think my grandfather took the photo, and clearly we didn’t have a great camera.
What you can’t see in that photo, is that I was probably wearing my Mickey Mouse thongs. So, I decided to include this photo and thought you might appreciate the photo of my brother and I patting the kangaroo. I was very proud of my Mickey Mouse thongs, and would still be wearing them now if I had my way.
Anyway, this has been another contribution to Friday Fictioneers hosted by our intrepid leader, Rochelle Wishoff-Fields at https://rochellewisoff.com/
Don’t know whether it’s Mother’s Day in your neck of the woods, but it has been here and I have a large bunch of flowers on the kitchen bench, and we had various delicious snacks, German Bee Sting Cake and white chocolate rocky road. We had a low key Mother’s Day, because I slept through half of it, and my parents are keeping a low profile still avoiding covid, although we did have some lengthy conversations on the phone. Of course, it’s not the same, but hopefully we’ll get down there soon.
I had a bit of a Mother’s Day tribute in my previous post.
Well, I have to tell you it’s getting chilly around here now. The weather isn’t always the best judge of the seasons around here, but the end of daylight savings is usually the death knell to Summer. Just to put you in the picture, the weather is expected to range from 11-18 degrees Celsius today. That’s cold. Anything below ten is FREEZING!!
This weekend, Geoff and I drove over to Hardys Bay to watch the sunset. As you can see, it’s a truly magnificent spot. While we love and appreciate our own beach, it’s always good to mix it us and this little patch is emerging as a really special place for us. It is so incredibly tranquil there. I don’t know whether that’s a function of it being on still water rather than the surf, but I can easily lose track of hours sitting there watching and photographing the sunset talking with Geoff. Indeed, it felt totally timeless. Indeed, I’d have to say we’d finally managed to relax into human beings instead of human doings (or in my case it’s often a “gunna do”.) We went over there yesterday and went on quite a long walk (at least for me), and we went back today to drive further round to Pretty Beach but we loved Hardys Bay so much we headed back and parked ourselves at the end of the jetty feasting on spiced nuts. The sunset seemed to last forever and more and more colour somehow managed to leak out. I was a very happy snapper.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my future lately. It’s a future I didn’t think I’d have a few years ago, and I didn’t really give a lot of thought to going back to work because time was short and my family mattered most, and my writing and research interests were intellectually stimulating and probably even more so than most jobs. My kids have also needed me around, but that didn’t prevent me from working part-time. However, then covid hit and my health situation has meant I’ve spent much of the last 2.5 years in isolation and trying to stay alive on that front has been very draining too. It’s been a war zone for vulnerable people like myself, especially when you’re living with family who are out and about and could bring it home. However, the extra income would be good and I’m think work might give me a bit more grounding and direction. I’ve been feeling a bit lost lately. Then again, there have been so many changes, it’s not surprising. Our daughter s now halfway through her second last year at school, and I’m also wondering if I should just wait until she’s done. She’s got her school work, heavy dance commitments and working at McDonalds. I could continue on with my WWI research and get that polished off in the meantime. I’m going to pray about it. That’s not another way of saying I’m going to sit on the fence, procrastinate or do nothing. I don’t really have strong views either way. Have you had to go through this process and how did you go about it?
Well, I think I might head off.
How has your week been? I hope you’ve had a good one.
“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”
-Vincent Van Gogh
Since our son returned from his voyage onboard STS Young Endeavour, we’ve had so many chats, and I’ve literally been squeezing out every last detail. Strangely, I haven’t even needed to coerce. He’s been surprisingly chatty and responsive to my endless questions. I have an insatiable curiosity, and after being in lockdown or isolation for so long, he was a marked man.
Despite all these stories and conversations, this is how he summed the trip up in a nutshell: “no words can describe the rollercoaster it was”.
Meanwhile, what I would like to say at the outset, is how proud I am of him and all the other Youthies onboard. That’s not just proud Mumma speak. While they had a lot of fun, they had some tough life lessons onboard, particularly when three of their number tested positive to covid three days before they were due to disembark, and had to leave the ship early. It must’ve been devastating for those who left, but the camaraderie among the group meant that it deeply affected them all. They were “one for all, and all for one”, and I was really touched by their empathy and compassion.
So here’s a bit of an overview of some of the challenges our intrepid youthies faced during their voyage.
Probably, the most obvious challenge when you first see the Young Endeavour, is height. It’s a very long way to the top of the mast. While I doubt anyone with a serious fear of heights would do the trip in the first place, that’s not to say these daredevils didn’t face some trepidation. While they were up there, they were balanced on nothing more than a wire tightrope, while they furled and unfurled the sails and they were heavy. However, this crew was apparently pretty good, and they had all been up before leaving Port Phillip Bay. Well done!
“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Another big challenge was also clearly identified before he left. That was no mobile phone, WIFI, Internet…the works! All of these were banned onboard. Surviving without social media probably wasn’t going to be his battle. However, as a gamer, we thought going cold turkey on this front was going to be tough. Yet, he hasn’t mentioned that at all.
“You can never cross the ocean until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Christopher Columbus
Physical fitness was also a serious concern. I’d watched the promotional video and it looked very physical furling and unfurling the sails. It would be too late once they were onboard and had raised the anchor to have second thoughts: “Let me off. I’ve changed my mind!!” They were committed. However, they were not alone. They were going through this very steep learning curve together and they had the “staffies” onboard. They were headed by inspirational Captain Adam “Charlie” Farley who might’ve had his official whites on for boarding and disembarking, but the rest of the time he was wearing the blue shirt like the rest of them and was inspiring alongside rather than from above. (By the way, he was the only one who managed to do a backflip off the boat while they were in Jervis Bay, and apparently he was as smooth as a “swan”.) He also stuck a motivational quote on the fridge every day.
“Seasickness: at first you are so sick you are afraid you will die, and then you are so sick you are afraid you won’t die.”
— Mark Twain
Meanwhile, seasickness wasn’t something we’ve given any consideration until we watched the informational videos. Our son has sailed for many years, and has never shown any sign of seasickness before. However, this trip was much more challenging what with crossing Bass Strait and being out at sea. Given that their website had dedicated an entire video to the subject, it wasn’t something to ignore. https://www.facebook.com/YoungEndeavour/videos/1018219102114384
Fortunately, he was only sick once after eating too much breakfast. However, things weren’t pretty for some of the others on Day Two while they were crossing notorious Bass Strait, and the sea was rolling like a Bucking Bronco. Naturally, this wasn’t pretty, and I’ll spare you most of the details. However, he did mention there was a “Red Sea” flowing through the ship, which reminded me of that famous scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life featuring Mr Creosote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aczPDGC3f8U (watch at your own risk).
Yet, despite their ordeal, the Captain’s Log reported that the youthies still performed their duties, which sounds incredibly commendable. Yet, while it would be easy to feel sorry for them, all of this struggle was what they’d signed up for… throwing themselves against the elements to develop that much desired trait…resilience. Of course, resilience has never been served up on a silver platter, and only comes once you’ve stretched yourself well beyond breaking point. My dad used to call this “putting hair on your chest”. So, all these youthies must be woolly mammoths by now!
However, as bad as the seasickness was for some, there was a popular antidote…the humble Sao biscuit. Our son described them as “the wonder food of seasickness”. Indeed, written underneath the bunk above him were the words: “Saos are king”. In case you’ve never encountered a Sao biscuit, it’s very plain, and would be kind to a troubled tummy. The fact that something as plain and ordinary as a Sao biscuit could save the day, goes to show that a big problem doesn’t necessarily require a big solution.
Another consideration I had, was how roughly 20 young strangers aged 16 to 23 were going to coexist for nine days in a very confined space without erupting. Being stuck on the same boat for so long could be rather fractious, and I did address this with him before he left. However, it was actually quite the reverse. As I explained earlier, they all got on incredibly well and really looked out for each other. It’s also worth mentioning that they didn’t stay onboard the ship for the full nine days and they broke it up a bit with some activities on land.
Homesickness was another possibility. Our son has been away on Scout camps and Jamboree before, so I wasn’t expecting him to get terribly homesick. However, some of the others were younger and especially with covid around, haven’t been away from home all that much. You don’t have to be a sook to get a bit homesick, especially given the physical challenges of the journey.
In addition to the challenges, our son also shared details of the voyage.
They did a bit of singing onboard. Singing was also a bit of a thing onboard and the Captain’s Log mentioned them singing John Lennon’s Imagine, which must’ve been so moving out there at sea. J. also told me that when they were waking someone up to go on a watch, they sang a variation of The Wiggles’ song: “Toot Toot Chugga Chugga Big Red Car”: “toot toot chugga chugga big blue boat”, and by the end of the voyage, they’d call out: “Wake up Charlie” (the name of the Captain and a reference to Wake up, Jeff also from the Wiggles).
He also made a reference to them being told to “use your Navy voice”, and that they had to raise their voices to be heard. That made me laugh. When he was younger, he was always being told to “use his inside voice”, and bring the volume down. How times have changed!
“When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
Meanwhile, although I thought the storytelling driving home in the car was amazing, it was nothing compared to having him bring up my good old friend Google Earth and for a virtual experience. He took me from Geelong out through the Heads of Port Melbourne and across the notorious Rip all with a click of the mouse. From there, they’d sailed across Bass Strait where they saw quite a few islands, dolphins and fed a lot of fish. Then, they anchored in Refuge Bay, which was a welcome relief from the rough seas and seasickness. They sailed up along the continental shelf reaching Jervis Bay and then onto Sydney’s Watson’s Bay where I think they spent a few days. They spent their final night moored near Taronga Park Zoo being serenaded by the elephants. I recorded the whole experience, and wished I could’ve been there. Somehow, being a couch sailor isn’t the same.
“To me, the sea is a continual miracle; The fishes that swim–the rocks–the motion of the waves–the ships, with men in them, What stranger miracles are there?”
– Walt Whitman
These were apparently the Captain’s parting words:
“You leave with new skills, improved persistence, resilience and adaptability, as well as generally knowing you are more capable than what you probably thought. And of course, having made great new friends – most probably, friends for life”
-Captain Adam “Charlie” Farley
There is so much more that could be said, and perhaps I’ve focused a bit too heavily on the hurdles they’ve overcome rather than the fun, especially since one of my motivations is to encourage other young people to sign up. Yet, despite or perhaps because of these hardships, our son has emerged a much more confident and optimistic version of himself with a pile of gripping stories, and a swag of new friends. Indeed, even a week down the track, he still remains exhilarated.
Lastly, I would like to thank everyone who made this trip not only possible, but also such a success. No doubt so much has gone on behind the scenes, and we are incredibly grateful.
Before I head off, here are a couple of videos you might enjoy and if you or someone you know has been onboard STS Young Endeavour, I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
– Jacques Yves Cousteau
Last Wednesday, Geoff and I drove down to Sydney Harbour to welcome back our No. 1 son, who’d been away for ten days sailing on the tall ship STS Young Endeavour from Geelong to Sydney. Indeed, we were waiting at the Coal Loader Wharf near HMAS Waterhen with our eyes peeling looking for the much anticipated ship, when a massive rainbow appeared. I couldn’t believe my luck. I have been in lockdown at home for the best part of six months and right on my release, a rainbow appears, I have my camera, and better still, the Young Endeavour appearing right on cue and I managed to capture it sailing across the rainbow. Better still, our son was perched right at the very top like an oversized crow as they came in. Oh! Be still my beating heart!
Just to recap on the journey, he’d been away on a nine day trip from Geelong to Sydney which, as he said, was pretty much the “Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race in reverse minus Tasmanian.” They sailed out of Geelong on Monday the 20th March. On Day two, they sailed out of Port Phillip Bay, across the notorious Rip and soon they were taking on the even more notorious Bass Strait before heading up the East Coast. They stopped off at Refuge Bay, Jervis Bay and Watson’s Bay along the way before spending their final night anchored near Taronga Park Zoo listening to the elephants.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
I can’t tell you how excited I was to see him, the boat, and to finally be a physical part of his experience after being unable to see him off in Geelong. The ship was due in at 10.00am and knowing the Navy, it would be 10.00am sharp, and they certainly wouldn’t be running on Byron Bay time (which is little better than a hair past a freckle). However, my watch hit 10.00am and there was still no sign of the Young Endeavour. The anticipation was absolutely killing me. Thank goodness the rainbow was there to distract me, and we were just hoping the rain would hold off long enough for us to see them come in.
Then, apparently just a minute or two after ten, the ship’s canon sounded, and STS Young Endeavour finally came into view. There he was – one of those large black birds perched right at the very top of the mast with the daring of a movie stunt double. I couldn’t wait to see him. Give him a hug. Have him back.
However, there was a spanner in the works. An unfortunately all too familiar spanner, which I’d naively thought had been wrestled and dealt with before they’d climbed on board. Three of the “youthies” (as the young people were called) had tested positive to covid despite having had a PCR test and a RAT before leaving (covid seems to be more effective than the devil at sneaking into unwanted places and wreaking havoc). Apparently, the news went up to the Navy “higher-ups”, and after being isolated on the bridge for four hours they were given a “VIP” escort to the big navy base at Woolloomooloo. While it was tough for those whose voyages were cut short, it also hit the remaining youthies really hard. In only seven days, they’d all grown incredibly close. There was no “us and them”, or being focused on No. 1. They’d become a unit and they were welded together like an unbroken chain.
Of course, I wasn’t there, and it’s an interesting experience writing about someone else’s journey as though it was your own. However, even as a parent of a now 18 year old where the umbilical cord was cut years ago, we’re still Mum and Dad. We’re still interested in what he’s up to, especially when he’s been on such a privileged adventure, and as the Captain mentioned in his first Captain’s Log, we had all become “armchair sailors” back home.
Besides, we’d also gone through the last two years alongside them. I don’t need to explain what this has been like to any of you. We’ve all been living through it. We also had the worst bushfires in living memory just before covid along with it’s choking haze of smoke which travelled the globe several times over before finally breaking up. We haven’t been able to plan, hope, leave the house although many of us tried to make a positive out of a negative and had our “Covid Projects”. On a much more serious note, people have died. Now, places are recovering from devastating floods and there’s the invasion of Ukraine.
So, without going into all our son and these other young people have been through over the last two years, let’s just say that their arrival home, especially surrounded by that massive rainbow, just screamed positivity. Indeed, you can see, I’ve doctored the photo of the ship surrounded by the rainbow, and added the words: “There Is Always Hope”. I’ve come a very long way to reach that point. Indeed, with our son perched high up on the mast, me being there to greet him after more than six months in lockdown, and capturing the photo of a lifetime, it was an incredible triumph.
“My soul is full of longing for the secret of the sea, and the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I was pleasantly surprised by how chatty he was, and his incredibly enthusiastic and visually graphic storytelling abilities. After all, teenagers aren’t renowned for sharing all the lurid details with Mum and Dad and perhaps there was still a lot he left out. Usually, we’ve ecstatic to get a grunt.
In my next post, I’ll share a few points from his trip, and you never know perhaps he or one of his fellow youthies might share their experiences directly on Beyond the Flow. I live in hope.
Never thought I’d be posting a photo of the front door of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. However, last night I jumped on Google Earth, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t a case of: “Hey presto, watch me pull the Leaning Tower of Pisa out of a hat”. However, I did get there eventually and as John Lennon famously said: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I must remind Geoff to get that inscribed on my grave. That is my life.
Anyway, if you have ever travelled anywhere via Google Earth, you might’ve had this experience. You type in where you want to go, and instead of landing straight there, you wake up in some random back street, and unless you cheat and re-do your search like I did after wandering around Pisa for an hour, you need to somehow get your bearings and head off. My usual modus operandi is to look up, which you’d think would work when you’re looking for a tower, and when you see the LTOP , there isn’t anything in the background ie it’s not crammed into a suburban block dwarfed by office blocks like special landmarks in Sydney. No, it has it’s own space. It’s own expansive patch of green under the sun, which it doesn’t seem to share with anyone.
Well, that is until you get there, and find the most exquisite church next door, and ponder how it is that this one patch of ground under this sun has been blessed with such exceptionally amazing architecture, especially when your own little patch is let’s just say: “left wanting”. Of course, it helps to be in Italy. However, as Trent so kindly told me, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is actually the bell tower for the Cattedralle di Pisa. By the way, it, too, is on a slight angle.
I’m not going to repeat what can be so easily sourced on the web about the history of these buildings. However, I thought I’d let you know how I randomly came to be wandering around Pisa. After all, when you last heard from me on my Google Earth travels, I was travelling from Cloyne to Middleton, County Cork, Ireland. Since then, I’ve been hanging around the very picturesque village of Overton in Hampshire where my 4 x Great Grandfather, Geoff Merritt was born. He married Bridget Donovan the Irish Famine Orphan from Midleton in Sydney in 1853 so there is some logic to these seemingly random travel destinations of mine. However, it wasn’t family history research that took me to Pisa. Rather, the photograph posted for Friday Fictioneers yesterday was of the LTOP and I thought I might as well head over and have a look because no inspiration was coming at me straight away.
So, there I was roaming through the streets of Pisa and the markets with no tower in sight. I returned to sender, and this time, I was right at the base of the tower and almost had my nose up against the wall. Wow! It was sensational. Who would have thought you could have such a sense of really being there simply by using Google Earth while you’re still sitting in your chair here in Australia. It’s incredible. It’s really opening my eyes.
Anyway, the highlight of the trip was actually switching over to Youtube and climbing up the tower. I was researching the Statue of Liberty about a year ago and had no idea that you could actually climb up inside her (which I must say felt rather weird and creepy to be honest, and then exciting). This was much the same experience. Didn’t know you could climb up the LTOP either and as I climbed the stairs, I thought of my seriously reduced lung capacity, claustrophobia but on the other hand my sheer determination and iron will. Yes, I could see myself getting halfway up and major trouble setting in on so many different levels. It was just was just as well I was safely back home sitting in my lounge chair back home with Zac the dog on my lap. (If you’d like to climb the tower, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNbpbn9E2dc
By the way, I don’t want to leave you with the false impression that there’s no ordinary among the extraordinary in Pisa. So, I thought I’d share the Via Delle Sette Volte with you, which reminds me of a tunnel we had back at Sydney University. While it’s not as exquisite as the better known Pisa landmarks, I’m sure it’s walls have told many stories throughout the centuries. Pisa is that sort of place. Only it’s history isn’t all confined to the past. It’s ongoing, and still being made today. After all, does history ever truly die?
Have you been to Pisa and climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Or, perhaps you’ve visited the Cattedralle of Pisa. I love to hear from you. BTW this is also a contribution to Thursday Doors hosted by Dan Antion at No facilities https://nofacilities.com/category/thursday-doors/
Best wishes and thank you for reading!
PS I was intrigued by the inconsistent quality of the photos on this trip. Some of them were really good, and others barely passed muster and certainly would’ve been deleted if I’d taken them in person on my Nikon SLR. However, when you consider they were taken on my phone from my computer screen and I’m all the way over in Australia, they’re all pretty exceptional.
“Idiot! You absolute idiot! Most people climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa to appreciate its exquisite, historic architectural beauty and mind-blowing views.
Instead, you go there to deal with all your phobias at once…claustrophobia, acrophobia, agoraphobia, and heaven help you if you come across a spider, because your arachnophobia will be the death of you.
However, the book said you could do anything. Carpe diem seize the day. Keep breathing. Yet, you know you’re going to die in that tower, and nothing can save you.
“How many stairs to the top?”
Once again, living with myself was my toughest battle.
This has been another contribution to Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wishoff-Fields https://rochellewisoff.com/ Every week, we write 100 words or less to a photo prompt and the results always astound me. I’ve found it incredibly worthwhile.
I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to respond to this week’s prompt. In some ways, being confronted by such a well-known public landmark made it harder.
Lately, I have been going on little trips via Google Earth. It was been absolutely mind-blowing particularly as I’m still largely in lockdown avoiding covid for medical reasons. So, I decided to head to Pisa, and have a look around the tower. Well, despite clicking on the tower itself, I didn’t land there, and spent quite a time poking around all sort of alleyways and still not finding what I’d assumed would be unmissable. I went back to my search and really tried to be more specific, and this time when I came to, I was standing right in front of the tower and tilting my head right back to get a look at the top. Wow! I turned around and there was an another possibly more exquisite site – the Cattedrale di Pisa. How could one place be blessed with such incredible architecture on one spot? I guess it helps being in Italy!
I had a bit of a wander around Google, and came across a video of climbing up the tower. Aha! Now, I had my angle. However, where I started out was a bit different to where I ended up, and that was with those famous words of “The Little Engine That Could”: “I think I can! I think I can” as it tried to climb of the mountain. I thought of trying to climb up all those stairs with my dodgy lungs with 50% capacity and I was locked in this battle between “I think I can” and “No I can’t!!” That got left out as well, and as often happens, the story took on a life of it’s own.
Two years ago, our son was booked to go on a European history tour with his school, which included visiting the battlefields of WWI, and spending ANZAC Day at Villers-Bretonneaux. Wanting him to know what our family members had gone through, I started researching my Great Great Uncle, Jack Quealey, and my husband’s Great Uncle Ralph French who was Killed in Action at the Battle of Mont St Quentin.
It was all supposed to be fairly quick, and nothing more than an overview. However, it was me doing the research, and after covid hit and his trip was cancelled, unravelling and understanding their WWI experiences dramatically expanded to become “My Covid Project”, especially as lockdowns and self-isolation continue. Once again, my passionate curiosity had led me astray.
As it turned out, there were some interesting twists to their stories. Uncle Jack’s parents were Irish, and the “Bill” Uncle Ralph mentioned in his diary might’ve been born in Tasmania, but his parents and siblings were German-born. While the Irish initially supported the Empire and got behind the war effort, the 1916 Uprising and the brutal English response, reignited longstanding animosity and called for independence. I’m Australian and we weren’t taught any Irish history at school or university and I just grew up with some scant reference to the potato famine. I had no idea parts of the family had come out more recently, and what had gone on. Ireland was simply the land of green grass and Guinness. Clearly, I’ve been on a steep upward curve trying to make sense of it all, and it’s no wonder I’ve ended up in an Irish mist so much of the time.
Anyway, this brings me to this short story I wanted to share with you. Of course, it will mean a lot more to people with Irish heritage, but I really enjoyed it as a story and was also intrigued by the grandmother who can’t see, but has incredible vision- very much like a close friend of mine.
My Grandmother And Myself
By Mary Synon
ILLUSTRATIONS BY BOARDMAN ROBINSON
My grandmother was at the basement window, peering into the street as if she were watching for someone, when I came home from school. “Is that you, John?” she asked me as I stood in the hall stamping the snow from my boots. “Sure,” I called to her. “Who’d you think I was? A spirit?”
She laughed a little as I went into the room and flung down my books. My grandmother hasn’t seen any one in ten years, though she sits day after day looking out on the street as if a parade were passing; but she knows the thump of my books on the table as well as she knows the turning of my father’s key in the lock of the door. “‘Tis a lively spirit you’d make, Shauneen,” she said with that chuckle she saves for me. “No, ’twas your father I thought was coming.”
“What’d he be doing home at this time?”
“These are queer days,” she said, “and there are queer doings in them.”
“There’s nothing queer that I can see,” I told her.
“I’m an old, blind woman,” she said, “but sometimes I see more than do they who have the sight of their two eyes.”
She said it so solemnly, folding her hands one over the other as she drew herself up in her chair, that I felt a little thrill creeping up my spine. ”What do you mean?” I asked her.
“Time’ll tell you,” she said.
My mother came in from the kitchen then. “Norah forgot to order bacon for the morning,” she said. “Will you go to the market, John, before you do anything else?”
“Oh, I’m going skating,” I protested.
“It won’t take you five minutes,” said my mother. She seemed tired and worried. The look in her eyes made me feel that there was trouble hanging over the house. My mother isn’t like my grandmother. When things go wrong, my grandmother stands up straight, and throws back her shoulders, and fronts ahead as if she were a general giving orders for attack; but my mother wilts like a hurt flower. She was drooping then while she stood in the room, so I said: “All right, I’ll go,” though I’d promised the fellows to come to the park before four o’clock.
“And look in at the shop as you go by,” my grandmother said, “and see if your father’s there now.”
“Why shouldn’t he be?” my mother asked.
There was a queer sound in her voice that urged me around past my father’s shop. My father was there in the little office, going over blue-prints with Joe Krebs’s uncle and Mattie Kleiner’s father and a big man I’d never seen before. I told my grandmother when I went home. “I knew it,” she said. “I knew it. And I dreamed last night of my cousin Michael who died trying to escape from Van Diemen’s Land.”
“You knew what?” I asked her, for again that strange way of hers sent shivery cold over me.
“Go to your skating,” she bade me.
There wasn’t much skating at Tompkins Square, though, when I found the crowd. The sun had come out strong in the afternoon and the ice was melting. “Ground-hog must have seen his shadow last week,” Bennie Curtis said. All the fellows—Joe Carey and Jim Dean and Frank Belden and Joe Krebs and Mattie Kleiner and Fred Wendell and the rest of them—had taken off their skates and were starting a tug of war in the slush. Mattie Kleiner was the captain on one side and Frank Belden the captain on the other. Mattie had chosen Joe Krebs and Jim Dean and Joe Carey on his side. Just as I came along he shouted that he chose me. Frank Belden yelled that it was his choice and that he’d take me.
“He don’t want to be on your side!” Mattie cried. “He’s with the Germans!”
“Well, I guess not,” I said, “any more than I’m with the English. I’m an American.”
“You can’t be just an American in this battle,” Frank Belden said.
“Then I’ll stay out of it,” I told him.
They all started to yell ” Neutral!” and “‘Fraid cat!” and “Oh, you dove of peace!” at me. I got tired of it after a while, and I went after Mattie hard. When I’d finished with him he bawled at me: “Wait till your father knows, he’ll fix you!”
“What for?” I jeered.
“For going against his principles, that’s what,” Mattie Kleiner roared.
“I’d like to know what you know about my father’s principles,” I laughed at him.
“Well, I ought to know,” he cried. “I heard him take the oath.”
“What oath?” we all demanded, but Mattie went off in surly silence. Joe Krebs and Joe Carey trailed after him. I stayed with the other fellows until it was dark. Then I started for home.
Joe Carey was waiting for me at the corner. “Do you believe him, John?” he asked me. “Do you believe Mattie about the oath?”
“How’s that?” I parried. I seemed to remember having heard a man who’d been at the house a fortnight before whispering something about an oath, and I knew that I’d heard my mother say to my grandmother: “I pray to God he’ll get in no trouble with any oaths or promises.” I kept wondering if Mattie Kleiner’s father and Joe Krebs’s uncle and the big man with the blue-prints who’d been in my father’s shop had anything to do with it.
“Oh, Mattie’s talking in his sleep,” I said.
“Well, maybe,” said Joe Carey; “but he wasn’t sleeping the night they had the meeting in his house. He was on the stairs going up to the top floor, and he kept the door open a little way and he heard everything they said, and nobody at all knew he was there.”
Joe Carey’s eyes were almost popping out of his head, and so I knew that Mattie had been telling him a long story.
“I guess he didn’t hear very much,” I said.
“You bet he did,” Joe declared. “He heard them reading the letters telling people not to go on the ships because they were going to be sunk, and he heard them talking about bombs and munition factories. He says that he heard your father say that he’d gladly lay down his life for the sake of Ireland.”
“But Ireland’s not in this war!”
“Sure it is! Mattie says the Germans are going to free Ireland if they beat England. That’s why the Irish ought to be with the Germans. Mattie says your father’ll be awful ashamed that you wouldn’t go on his side. Mattie says your father…”
“I don’t give a whoop what Mattie says about my father,” I told him. “I guess I can take my own part.”
“I guess you’ll have to,” said Joe.
As I went up the street toward our house I had that queer feeling that comes sometimes after I’ve been away for a while, a fear that something terrible has happened while I’ve been gone and that I’ll be blamed for it. It was dark on the street, for people hadn’t lighted the lamps in the basement dining-rooms, and I was hurrying along when suddenly a man’s voice came over my shoulder. I hadn’t heard his step behind me at all, and I jumped when he spoke.
“Where does Mr. John Sutton live?” he asked me.
“Right there.” I pointed to our house.
“Do you know him?” he asked. Through the dark I could see that he was a tall man with sharp eyes. I knew that I had never seen him before, and that he didn’t look like any of the men who came to my father’s machine-shop. “Don’t you know Mr. Sutton?” he repeated.
“Know him well, sonny?”
“He’s my father.”
He whistled softly, then laughed, turned on his heel, and strode down the street. I watched him to see if he’d take the turn toward the shop, but he turned the other way at the corner. I thought that I’d tell my grandmother about him, but my mother was with her in the dark when I went in. They were talking very low, as if someone were dead in the house, but I heard my mother say, “If I only knew how far he’s gone in this!” and my grandmother mutter: “Sure, the farther he goes in, the farther back he’ll have to come.” I stumbled over a chair as I went into the room with them, and they both stopped talking.
I could hear the little hissing whisper my grandmother always makes while she says the rosary, but I could hear no sound from my mother at all until she rose with a sigh and lighted the gas-lamp. She looked at me as if she hadn’t known I’d been there. “Have you any homework to do to-night, John?” she asked me.
“No, ma’am,” I said. “It’s Friday.”
“Then I want you to come to church with me after your dinner,” she said.
“Oh, I don’t want to go to church,” I’d said before my grandmother spoke.
“‘Twill be a queer thing to me as long as I live,” she said, “that those who have don’t want what they have and that those who haven’t keep wanting.”
The telephone bell rang just then up in the room that my father uses for an office, and I raced up to answer it. A man’s voice, younger than that of the man who’d spoken to me, came over the wire. “Say, is this John Sutton’s residence?” it asked. “And is he home? And, if he isn’t, who are you?”
“What do you want?” I called.
“Information. This is The World. We hear that there’s to be a meeting of the clans to-night, and we want to know where it’s to be held.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Can you find out?”
“No,” I lied. “There’s nobody home.”
“Won’t your father be home for dinner?”
Even then I could hear his key turning in the lock, could hear him passing on his way up to his bedroom, but a queer kind of caution was being born in me. “No, sir,” I said. (pg227)
“Who was that?” my grandmother asked me when I went down.
I told her of the call, told her, too, of the man who had stopped me on the street. Her rosary slipped through her fingers. “I feared it,” she said. Then the whisper of her praying began again.
At dinner my father was strangely silent. Usually he talks a great deal, all about politics, and the newspapers, and the trouble with the schools, and woman-suffrage, and war. But he said nothing at all except to ask me if the skating were good. My mother was just as quiet as he, and I would have been afraid to open my mouth if my grandmother hadn’t started in to tell about New York in the days she’d come here, more than sixty-five years ago. She talked and talked about how different everything had been then, with no tall buildings and no big bridges and no subways and no elevateds. “Faith, you can be proud of your native town, John,” she said to my father.
“I wish I’d been born in Ireland,” he said.
She laughed. “And if I’d stayed in Ireland, I’d have starved,” she said, “and little chance you’d have had of being born anywhere.”
“It might have been just as well,” he said bitterly.
“Oh, no,” she said; “there’s Shauneen.”
He rose from the table, flinging down his napkin. “I won’t be home till very late,” he said to my mother.
She stood up beside him. “Do you have to go, John?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said.
“Oh, John,” she said, “I’m afraid.”
“Of what may happen you.”
“Nothing’ll happen me,” he said.
I wanted to tell him of the strange man who had halted me on the street, and of the telephone call, but my father’s anger was rising and I feared to fan it to flame. My grandmother said nothing until after my father had gone. Then she spoke to my mother.
“Don’t you know better,” she asked her, “and you eighteen years married to him, than to ask John not to do something you don’t want him to do?”
My mother began to cry as we heard the banging of the outer door after my father. “Well, if you can do nothing else,” my grandmother said, “you’d better be off to church. Keep your eyes open, Shauneen,” she warned me, while my mother was getting her hat and coat.
It was a grand night, with the evening star low in the sky, like a lamp, and the big yellow moon just rising in the east. The wind blew sharp and salt off the water, but there was a promise of spring in the air, saying that it must be almost baseball time. We went over to the Jesuit church, walking slowly all the way. There we knelt in the dark until I was stiff. As we came out my mother stopped at the holy-water font. “John,” she said, “will you promise me that if you ever marry you’ll never set any cause but God’s above your wife?”
“No, ma’am, I won’t,” I said, vaguely understanding that my father had hurt my mother by his refusal to stay at home, and wondering what cause he had set above her. As we walked toward the car line I remembered what Joe Carey had told me of Mattie Kleiner’s speech about my father. “Do you have to go to Ireland to die for Ireland?” I asked her. She clutched my hand. “My grandfather died for Ireland,” she said, “and he wasn’t the first of his line to die for her. But I pray God that he may have been the last.” She said no more till we came into our own house.
My grandmother was still at the window of the dining-room. There was no light, and my mother did not make one. “There was another telephone call,” my grandmother said. “Norah answered it. ‘Twas the newspaper calling again for John to ask about the meeting. She said she knew nothing about it and that no one was here to answer.”
“Do you suppose,” I said, “it was detectives?”
They said nothing, and I could feel a big lump coming up my throat. I thought they might not have heard me until my grandmother said: “Do you know, Kate, where the meeting is?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know,” my mother cried. She turned to me sharply. “Go to bed, John,” she said.
“I know where the meetings are,” (pg 228) I blurted out, eager enough for any excuse to put off the hateful order. “They’re at Mattie Kleiner’s house, because he hides on the stairs when they come, and he heard them take the oath.”
“Is that Matthew Kleiner’s boy?” my grandmother asked, so quietly that I thought she had not realized the importance of my news.
“Go to bed, Shauneen.” She repeated my mother’s order.
I went up-stairs, leaving the two of them silent in the dark. I whistled while I undressed, but I shivered after I had turned out the light and jumped between the sheets. I was going to lie awake waiting for my father’s return, but I must have dozed, for I thought that it was in the middle of the night that something woke me. I knew, as soon as I woke, that someone was in my room. I could feel him groping. I tried to speak, but my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Then I heard a faint whisper. “Shauneen,” it said.
So far away it seemed that I thought it might be a ghost until my grandmother spoke again. “Your mother’s in bed now,” she said. “Put on your clothes as quick as you can.”
“What is it?” I whispered.
“We’re going to Matthew Kleiner’s, you and I,” she said. “I’d go alone if I could see.”
“What time is it?”
“Between ten and eleven.”
I pulled my clothes on as fast as I could. Then stealthily as thieves we crept out from my room and down the stairs. I held my grandmother’s hand and wondered at its steadiness. When we had come outside the basement-door she halted me. “Look down the street for the tall man,” she bade me. There was no one in sight, however, and we walked along sturdily, turning corners until we came to Kleiner’s.
It was a red-brick house in a row, not a basement house like ours, but with a cellar below and an attic above its two main floors. There was no light on the first floor, but I thought that I saw a stream behind the drawn curtains upstairs. I found the bell and pushed on it hard. No one came for a long time. I rang again. I could see shadows back of the shades before Mattie Kleiner’s mother came.
“What is it?” she demanded before she opened the door.
“Tell her that your mother’s sick, and that you’ve come for your father,” my grandmother ordered me.
I repeated what she’d said.
Mrs. Kleiner opened the door. “Oh,” she cried, “it is Mrs. Sutton and little John. Oh, you did frighten me. Is the mother very sick? I shall call the father.”
“Let me go to him,” my grandmother said. We were inside the hall then, and I put her hand on the railing of the stairway. She had started up before Mrs. Kleiner tried to stop her. “I’ve a message for him,” said my grandmother. Mrs. Kleiner and I followed her. At the top of the stairs I turned her toward the front room, for I could hear the murmur of voices. I passed a door and wondered if Mattie Kleiner were hiding behind it. “Oh, we must not go in,” Mrs. Kleiner pleaded. “The men will not want us to go in.” She tried to stop us, but my grandmother turned, looking at her as if she could see her. “I’ve always followed my own conscience, ma’am,” she said, “not my husband’s, nor my son’s, nor any other man’s.”
From within the front room came the sound of the voices, growing louder and louder as we stood there, my grandmother alert, Mrs. Kleiner appalled, I myself a thrill. I could hear my father’s voice, short, sharp. “It’s our great opportunity,” he was saying. “We have only to strike the blow at England’s empire, and the empire itself will arise to aid us. Twenty thousand men flung into Canada will turn the trick. French Quebec is disaffected. What if soldiers are there? We can fight them! We may die, but what if we do? We will have started the avalanche that will destroy Carthage!”
There were cries of “Right!” to him. Then a man began to talk in German. His voice rang out harshly. From the murmurs that came out to us we knew that the men were applauding his words, but we had no idea of what the words were. Mrs. Kleiner stood wringing her hands. “Who’s in there?” my grandmother asked her.
“I do not know,” she insisted.
“Joe Krebs’s uncle is there,” I said. “I know his cough. And Mr. Winngart who keeps the delicatessen shop. And Frank Benner’s father; and that’s Mr. Carey’s voice.”
“They just meet for fun,” groaned Mrs. Kleiner.
“Sure, I saw that kind of fun before,” said my grandmother, “when the Fenians went after the Queen’s Own.”
My father’s voice rose again. “We are ready to fire the torch? We are ready to send out the word tonight for the mobilization of our sympathizers? We are ready to stand together to the bitter end?”
“We are ready!” came the shout. Then my grandmother opened the door.
Through the haze of their tobacco smoke they looked up, the dozen men crowded into the Kleiners’ front bedroom, to see my grandmother standing before them, a bent old woman in her black dress and shawl, her little jet bonnet nodding valiantly from its perch on her thin white hair. She looked around as if she could see every one of them. My father had sprung forward at her coming, and, as if to hold him off, she put up one hand.
“Is it yourself, John Sutton, who’s talking here of plots, and plans, and war?” she said. Her voice went up to a sharp edge. She flung back her head as if she defied them to answer her. All of them, my father and Joe Krebs’s uncle and Mattie Kleiner’s father and Mr. Carey and Mr. Winngart and the big man who’d had the blue-prints in the shop, and the others, stared at her as if she were a ghost. No one of them moved as she spoke.
“‘Tis a fine lot you are to be sitting here thinking ways to bring trouble on yourselves, and your wives, and your children, and your country. Who are there here of you? Is it yourself, Benedict Krebs, who’s going out to fight for Germany when your own father came to this very street to get away from Prussia? Is it you, Matthew Kleiner, who gives roof to them who plot against America, you, who came here to earn a living that you couldn’t earn at home? Is it you, Michael Carey, who’s helping them hurt the land that’s making you a rich man? Shame on you; shame on you all!”
“Why shouldn’t we fight England?” Joe Carey’s father said with a growl. “You’d be the last one, Mrs. Sutton, that I’d think’d set yourself against that.”
“‘Tis not England,” said my grandmother, “that you fight with your plots. ‘Tis America you strike when you strike here. And, as long as you stay here, be Americans and not traitors!”
They began to murmur at that, and my father said: “You don’t know what you’re talking about, mother. You’d better take John home. This is no place for either of you.”
“No more than it’s a place for you,” she said. “Will you be coming home with me now?”
“I will not,” my father said.
“Faith, and you’ll all be wishing you had,” she told them, “when the jails’ll be holding you in the morning.”
“The jails!” The big man who had held the blue-prints came closer to us. “What is it you say of jails? You have told the police, then?”
“I didn’t need to,” my grandmother said. “The government men have been watching this long time. ‘Twill be at midnight that they’ll come here. But ’tis not myself they’ll be finding.”
I saw the men’s glances flash around the room through the smoky haze before she called: “Come, Shauneen.”
I took her hand again and led her out of the room. Just before the door closed after us I saw that my father’s face had grown very white and that Mattie Kleiner’s father had dropped his pipe on the floor.
Outside the house I spoke to my grandmother tremblingly. “Do the police really know?” I asked her.
She gave her dry little chuckle. “If they don’t, they should,” she answered; “but I was born an O’Brien, and I’ve never known one of them yet that ever told the police anything. No, Shauneen,” she laughed, “’twas the high hill I shot at, but I’m thinking that the shot struck. We’ll watch.”
We crossed the street and waited in the shadow of the house at the corner. For a little while all was quiet at Kleiner’s. Then I saw the tall man come out with Joe Krebs’s uncle. After a time my father came out with Mr. Winngart and Mr. Carey. They walked to the other (Pg 230) corner and stood there a moment before they separated.
“Shall we go home now?” I asked my grandmother after I had told her what I had seen.
“Not yet,” she said. “I’ve one more errand to do this night.”
I thought it might have something to do with the tall man who’d spoken to me or with the telephone call, and I wondered when she sighed. “I’m a very old woman,” she seemed to be saying to herself. “I’ll be ninety-one years come Michaelmas Day. Some of the world I’ve seen, and much of life. Out of it all I’ve brought but a few things. I’d thought to give these to my son. But—” She paused. “How old are you, Shauneen?” she asked me.
“Fourteen,” I said.
“Old enough,” she nodded. She turned her head as if she were looking for something or someone. Then: “Do you know your way to the Battery?” she asked me.
“Sure,” I told her. “Are you going there?”
It had been quiet enough in our part of town. It was quieter yet when we came to Bowling Green and walked across to the Battery. Down there, past the high buildings and the warehouses, we seemed to have come into the heart of a hush. To the north of us the sky was afire with the golden glow from the uptown lights. In front of us ran the East River and the North River. Out on Bedloe’s Island I could see the shining of the Goddess of Liberty’s torch. Every little while a ferry-boat, all yellow with lights, would shoot out on the water. A sailing-vessel moved slowly after its puffing tug. The little oyster-boats were coming in from the bay. A steamer glided along past it as I walked with my grandmother out toward the old Castle Garden.
On the Saturday before Joe Carey and I had come down to the piers, prowling all afternoon on the docks, watching the men bringing in the queer crates and boxes and bags while we told each other of the places from where the fruits and spices and coffee and wines had come. There were thousands and thousands of ships out there in the dark, I knew, and I began to tell my grandmother what some of the sailors had told us of how the trade of the world was crowding into New York, with the ships all pressing the docks for room.
“If you could only see it!” I said to her.
“I can see more than that,” she said. Then: “Take me to the edge of the waters,” she bade me.
Wondering and a little frightened, obeyed her, trying to solve the while the mystery of her whim to bring me to the deserted park in the middle of the night.
“Is Castle Garden over there?” she pointed. “Then, I’ve my bearings now.”
She stood alone, a little way off from me, staring seaward as if she counted the shadowy ships. The wind blew her thin white hair from under her bonnet and raised the folds of her shawl. There in the lateness of the night, alone at the edge of the Battery, she didn’t seem to be my grandmother at all, but some stranger. I remembered the story I’d read somewhere of an old woman who’d brought a pile of books to a King of Rome, books that she threw away, one by one, as he refused them, until there was but one book left. When he’d bought that one from her he’d found that it was the book of the future of the empire and that he’d lost all the rest through his folly. As I looked at my grandmother I thought she must be like the old woman of the story. Even her voice sounded strange and deep when she turned to me.
“It was sixty-five years ago the seventh of November that I first stood on this soil,” she said. “‘Tis a long lifetime, and, thank God, a useful one I’ve had. Burdens I’ve had, but never did I lack the strength to bear them. Looking back, I’m sorry for many a word and many a deed, but I’ve never sorrowed that I came here.”
I would have thought that she had forgotten me if she hadn’t touched my arm. “You’ve heard tell of the famine, Shauneen,” she went on, “the great famine that fell on Ireland, blighting even the potatoes in the ground? We’d a little place in Connaught then, a bit of land my father was tilling. We hadn’t much, even for the place, but we were happy enough, God knows, with our singing and dancing and the fairs and the patterns. Then, little by little, we grew poorer and poorer. I was the oldest of the seven of us. My (pg 231) Mother and myself’d be planning and scraping to find food for the rest of them. Everyday we’d see them growing thinner and thinner. Oh, mavrone, the pity of it! And they looking at us betimes as if we were cheating them of their bit of a sup! Sometimes now in the dark I see them come to my bed, with their soft eyes begging for bread, and we having naught to give them. Brigid—she was the youngest of them all—died. Then my father went.
“I used to go down to the sea and hunt the wrack for bits of food. There by the shore I would look over here to America and pray, day after day, that the Lord would send to us some help before my mother should go. You don’t know what it is to pray, Shauneen. Your father cannot teach you and your mother hopes you’ll never learn. For prayer is born in agony, avick (my son), and grief and loss and sorrow. But because you are the son of my soul I pray for you that life may teach you prayer. For when you come to the end of the road, Shauneen, you’ll know that ’tis not the smoothness of the way, but the height of it and the depth of it, that measures your travelling. Far, far down in the depths I went when I prayed over there on the bleak coast of Connaught.
“God answered my prayer. There came from America food to us. There came, too, the chance for me to come here with the promise of work to do. ‘Twas a drear day when I left home. How I cursed England as I looked back on the hills of Cork harbor, all green and smiling as if never a blight had cast its shadow behind them!
“‘Twas a long, dreary sailing. Nine weeks we were in the crossing. A lifetime I thought it was between the day I looked on the western sea from the Connaught mountains and the day when I stood here looking back toward home. Sure life is full of lifetimes like those.”
She paused a moment, but I felt as if I were under a spell that I must not break by word of mine. A cloud came over the moon and all around us grew shadowy. The big throb that the city always beats at night kept sounding like the thrumming of an orchestra waiting for the violin solo to start.
“I’d plenty of them before many years.” My grandmother’s voice came like the sound for which the thrumming had waited. “Did you ever think what it means to the poor souls who come here alone for their living? When you’ve a house of your own, Shauneen, with men servants and maid servants, don’t forget that your father’s mother worked out for someone. They were kind people, too, who took me to their homes. Don’t forget that either. For ’tis my first memory of America. Kind they were, and just. They helped me save what I earned and they showed me ways of helping my folks at home. I’d brought out Danny and James and Ellen and Mary before the war. I met each one of them right here at Castle Garden. That’s why I always think of this place as the gateway through which the Irish have come to America. Sure Ellis Island’s been for the Italians and the Jews and the Greeks. We didn’t wait outside the door. We came straight in,” she chuckled.
“My mother wouldn’t come from the old place. Long I grieved over her there in the little house where my father and Brigid had died, but after a while I knew she was happier so. Sometimes, Shauneen, I think of Ireland as an old woman, like my mother, sitting home alone in the old places, grieving, mourning, with her children out over the world, living the dreams of her nights by the fire. ‘Twas here we found the freedom the Irish had been fighting for. ‘Twas here, away from landlords and landholding, away from famine and persecution, that we found that life need not be a thing of sorrow. ‘Twas here I met your grandfather.
“I’d nothing of my own, and your grandfather had but a trifle more when we married. I suppose ’tis brave that people would call us now. We didn’t think that we were. We were young and strong and we loved each other. And we were getting along fairly well—we’d started the payments on a bit of a house of our own after your father was born— when the war came down on us.
“Your grandfather went with the brigade. Not twice did we think whether or not he should go. We knew that he owed his first duty to the country that (pg 232)had called him, and sheltered him, and given him work and hope and freedom. For he was a boy from home as I was a girl from home. I stood on the curbstone the day he marched by, with your father in my arms, and I cheered for the flag. ‘Sure he’ll be walking to meet you when you come back!’ I called, lifting up the child. Your grandfather never came back. He fell at Marye’s Heights.”
When she spoke again her voice had changed more to her every-day tone. “Well, I raised your father,” she said, “and I thought I was raising him well. My arms were strong. I worked at the wash-tub morning, noon, and night. It wasn’t long till I had a laundry of my own. I thought to give my son all that I’d ever wanted for myself. Perhaps that was where I made my mistake. I thought too much of the things that money can buy in those years when money was so hard to earn. Perhaps ’twas myself and no other who taught your father the cold, hard things of life, though, God knows, I’d no thought to do it. He’s a good man in many ways, but he’s not the man I want you to be. He’s a good hater but he’s not a good lover. And, faith, what’s there in life but love?”
I moved a little then, and my grandmother swung me around, with her two hands on my shoulders, and, blind as she is, stared at me as if she were looking right down into my heart. “Shauneen,” she said, “I have prayed, day and night, that your father might be to America the good citizen his father was. I have prayed that if America should ever need him he would stand ready for her call. I have prayed that he’d love America as I have loved America. I love Ireland, mavrone. Always in my heart do I see her hills as they looked on the morning I looked back on them from the sea. But I love America, too, and I wanted my son to love her even more than I do. I’ve wanted him to love this land as my fathers and their fathers loved Ireland. ‘Twas not that I wanted him to forget my land; when he was a lad like you, I’d tell him tales of Ireland’s glory and of Ireland’s woe. How was I to know that all it would do for him was to rouse the black hate for England? I taught him love for Ireland, but never did I teach him to set my land above his own.
“For ’twas America gave us our chance, Shauneen, when we’d no other place on earth to seek. Hard days we’ve known here, too, days when even the children jeered at us, but we’ve never felt the hand of the oppressor upon us since we touched our feet on these shores. We’ve been free and we’ve prospered. Fine houses we have and fine clothes; and ’tis a long day since I knew the pinch of hunger. This is our debt. Tell me again, Shauneen, what you see out there?”
I told her of the shining lights, of the funnels of the steamers, of the piled piers, of the little oyster-boats, of the great liners waiting the word for their sailing.
“‘Twould be a fine sight,” she sighed. “Do you think me a madwoman to bring you here?” she went on, as if she had read my thought. “Perhaps I am that. Perhaps I’m not. For you’ll remember this night when you’ve forgotten many another time, just as I remember the day when my mother took me to the shrine at Knock. For this is the shrine of your country, Shauneen, this old Castle Garden, where your people set foot in the land that’s given them liberty. Here it was that I told my brothers and my sisters of the future before them. Here it is that I’m telling you that your country will be the greatest nation of all the world if only you lads stay true to her. That’s why I’ve brought you here to-night, Shauneen. I’m an old, old woman. I’ve not long for this earth. But I’ve this message for you; it’s yours; this duty that your father shirks when he plots with black traitors who’d drag us into wars that are not of our choosing. Raise your hand, Shauneen. Say after me: ‘As long as I live, God helping me, I shall keep my country first in my heart and, after God, first in my soul!”
Through the misty moonlight there came to me the memory of my mother’s plea at the door of the church, my mother’s cry: “Promise me that you’ll set no cause but God’s before your wife!” Some battle of spirit struggled within me. For an instant I was silent. Then, suddenly, as if the moon had ridden above the cloud, I saw the right. “Since all (pg 233) true causes come from God, it is right to set my own country above anything else that may ever come. I said the words after my grandmother. She took my face between her hands and kissed me. “God keep you, Shauneen, for the woman who’ll love you, and the children you’ll teach, come.” Then through a sleeping city my grandmother and I went home.
There’s a lot to absorb and process in this story, but I wanted to share it with you first.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you and get a bit of discussion going.