Wednesday, August 19, 2009

John's Place

We drove up to the garage in the early afternoon. My sisters and I had arrived in Castlebar, a small town in County Mayo, and thought we’d find our second cousin John. He wasn’t there but the non-English speaking Polish man that worked for him tried to relay a message in sign language. It wasn’t coming through. We walked around for a few minutes noticing all the cars in various positions of need. A nice looking woman drove up and got out of her car so we asked her about John. “Oh, he’s always late.” she replied in her lovely Irish accent. “I can call him. He’ll want to see three pretty American women. He wouldn’t miss that, that much I know.” We look at each other as she seemed to have his cell phone number, the one we didn’t have. We guess, being a life long bachelor, he must enjoy the ladies. We know he’s sixty-one and owns this garage. He’s lived in this town, where he was born, all his life. The same town my grandmother was born in. In fact he lives on the land where my grandmother's house was, the same one she was born in back in 1900. He doesn’t travel and has never been on an airplane or traveled far from home.

She gets off the phone and tells us he’ll be here in a few minutes. We chat with her and receive further indications, from her remarks, he’s a bit of a ladies man. She is entertaining in the most natural way, as we find many of the Irish seem to have this innate ability. John arrives saying he thought from my letter that we’d be in the following week. He gives us all a big hug. He is a big guy with a bright smile and a familiar quality. He says he’s available for dinner the next night so we make a plan to meet him at the restaurant. He recommends we drive over to the house to see the land. It’s only five minutes away and there we stand on the land my grandmother grew up on. It hits me as I look around what it must have been like for her to leave and come to America as a twenty year old. It looked remote now, what was it like when she was here? Maybe not much different although we know John took the old house down to build the modest one he now lives in.

We meet the next night at the restaurant. It’s a lovely place, by a harbor. It’s a perfect evening with great seafood, which two of us have been eating since we arrived, one of us being a vegetarian. The conversation flows easily and he is a sweet and thoughtful host. He tells us stories of Irish relatives we’ve never known. He remarks he is only eleven years older than me. He finds that surprising, as he is my mother’s cousin, their fathers being brothers. He tells us a story of someone he knows who just married at age eighty-four. By those standards he figures he is young, and remarks “Maybe there is still hope for me, still time for the right one.” We try to convince him why he should visit us and his sister in the states, but I can see under the agreeable face, he’ll never leave. We will have to travel to see him again.

I loved so many things about being in Ireland. Not the least of which was how familiar it all felt. The land called to me in its stone faces, tucked away wells and dramatic coast line. But meeting our relatives was the biggest surprise and by far the highlight of my trip. The warmth and love that stretched across generations and time and the sea all rested in me.


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