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Born and Bread

by Marie McGrath Davis about a month ago in parents · updated about a month ago

In the shadowy past

The view from the house my father built in Ireland, where my worlds forever connect

Had it been double-hinged, my jaw - quite literally – would have landed on the kitchen table.

We were having tea and some wheaten bread my mother had made, specifically for me, though she’d never have said. She and my father preferred plain white soda bread to the darker, nuttier wheaten in which she’d usually add (in addition to the three big spoons of white flour) three big spoons of whole wheat flour, then another four or five big spoons of whatever healthy was about the place. Oat bran, flax, wheat germ, maybe some raisins or currants were fairly regular additions to the scone bread I’ve always loved.

My mother was fierce when my father and I would grab the hot round, just-done bread off the griddle, hack into it with dull blades, then slather on butter (for him) and whatever vegetarian or vegan spread was in the fridge (for me) and have the whole thing as good as gone before the first mug of tea was finished. She contended it would do something horrid to our respective digestive systems, being barely cooked, but I don’t remember a single upset tum directly attributable to hot scone bread. And I had the privilege of enjoying it for five decades before dementia came around and snatched the recipe and the exact kneading ritual and timing from her memory.

On that particular day, it was just my mother and me. I imagine my father was off in Ireland, where he was inclined to go at least once a year. Or maybe he was just in bed, or out in the barn or doing his latter-years’ daily go-round of the thrift stores in town, where he’d get about 10 of everything and, I suspect, acquired the world’s largest collection of Blue Mountain Pottery. Both houses, the one in which my mother and I were then sitting, and the one in Ireland where he may have been, were full of the stuff. Every dust-able surface featured two or three pieces. (I say dust-able but, as you can imagine, the odd jab with a dust cloth around all of that could hardly be described as ‘dusting’.)

I have no quibble with Blue Mountain Pottery. It’s lovely and pays tribute to one of Ontario’s most popular tourist spots, north of Collingwood, where the Blue Mountains have begat pottery-making. But there was just SO much of it. Hundreds of pieces. When he died, I suddenly developed a great attachment to it, since it had so enthralled his later years, and had a hard time parting with the assemblage, in both countries. Everyone I knew in Ireland, where all my relatives – and many friends – are, each got an item from his Blue Mountain collection, whether they wanted it or not. I think they understood why I had to share that wee bit of him with them. I kept only one: a small, howling wolf. I’d always loved it, and it certainly stood out amid the collection of blue vases and ash trays and doo-dads and whatnots. It couldn’t be more symbolic of the pair of us, my father and me. Not only did we share a great love of dogs, but he had brought an Irish Wolfhound pup from Ireland back in the ‘70s and, after Roddy, there were two more. For me, they were the wolf dogs and this one, the pottery one I’d kept, was howling as if in grief and tribute. It sits at my bedside, to the right of my parents’ photo. To the left of the photo is a trophy my mother won for directing a high school play that took first place in a local competition back in the ‘60s. We all have our treasures. Those are mine.

At any rate, on that particular day, as my mother and I drank tea and ate something that went well with tea, my mother casually, by way of – you know – random conversation, announced that she almost hadn’t married my father.

Now, if you knew the story of how my parents met at 15 in the Gaeltacht (Irish language summer school) in Co. Donegal, Ireland back in the 1930s, and how my mother thought he was full of cheek, and of himself, and couldn’t be bothered with his overtures; then saw nothing of each other until he was a Captain in the British Army about to leave for Hong Kong (and the British Occupation thereof) - whereupon she decided he wasn’t half bad (dashing he assuredly was) - you may understand my shock.

This was the back story I’d always known, culminating with their getting married. It was near fairytale-like in the telling.

Now, to hear that he wasn’t her first love! I knew she had always been a wee social butterfly (she was 4’ 11” and did seem to flit about), and popular beyond anything to which I could ever aspire, but never had I ever heard a peep about another suitor. And, on the day she decided to drop this maternal bomb, I was well into my 30s, so she’d been mum (ironically) about it for more than three decades. Perhaps most people wouldn’t be as apoplectic as I immediately became on learning a parent had had a social life, but this was not a topic upon which my mother had ever opined. She still hadn’t told me a syllable related to the facts of life – and me a big lump of near 40 – and, here, she herself had been living a double life, as far as I was concerned.

Knowing that any outward evincing of my shock or, indeed, even more than a modicum of interest would cause her to clam up, I waited none too patiently for the other shoe to drop. And, when it did, I daresay ‘flabbergasted’ would be a good word to describe my reaction. But, still, I had to curb my enthusiasm which, as I was just then running through the chronology of Northern Irish history in my head, was probably not too difficult. I was, I suppose, some combination of bewildered and wild proud of this tiny titan whom I called “Mammy.”

You’d need to know a bit about Irish history to understand that the struggle by Irish nationalists and republicans against British conquest, tyranny and rule is the thread woven through the bitter fabric of rebellion and repression over many centuries. The Easter Rising in 1916 set the scene for the Irish Republic that was established – free from British rule – in 1921. This Republic consists of 26 counties inhabiting three (and a bit) provinces. Ireland, in toto, comprises 32 counties divided among four provinces.

Ireland was, thus, divided and enough about that other than to explain that the minority in the North, forced to remain under British rule, was generally none too pleased about their circumstances and nominal allegiance to the Crown. As they had rebelled continually against British rule throughout the centuries, those who sought freedom continued the fight. You may have heard of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in your lifetime, or you may not, but the lads (and quite a few women, some of my own among them, two generations ago) continued the fight as paramilitaries in guerilla-style warfare. That’s neither here nor there, and my opinions about the ‘RA and the history and ‘the Troubles’ are irrelevant to the tale, other than to indicate that I had never heard my mother mention any position on the reality of war against Britain, despite all of us – my parents and me – being born in the midst of it. We moved to Canada when I was very young. That, too, is an aside.

For whatever reason the memories had come upon her that particular day, and why she suddenly rambled into the topic, I don’t know. When a parent only ever talks about the happy and fun times of his or her life, a child gets the impression that it was ever thus. My mother’s tales of her youth were always hysterically funny and, even now, a decade after she’s been dead and at least two since she could speak coherently, I find myself laughing out loud remembering some of the ‘yarns’ she’d tell. I’m sure I heard them all hundreds of times (or thereabouts) and never tired of the repetition.

That part of her life, now that I’ve had time to reflect on it since her passing, seems to have been wholly detached from the one that followed her marriage and emigration to Canada. For some reason, this bifurcation in her life story had never really dawned on me and, now it finally has, it “comes dropping slow”, as my favorite poet, W.B. Yeats wrote in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, a spot I’ve often visited.

Our small family had more sadness, truth be told, than seemed necessary, but my parents as a couple was a thing that just ‘was’. My mother loved talking about her time in Teacher’s College in Belfast, when my father was off in Hong Kong and Singapore – him the heartthrob I’ve heard about from others who knew him in those days. She was the envy of all, receiving gift packages containing silks and all manner of embroidery and alabaster. The other females swooned over him and the photos he’d send her of himself in uniform, looking for all the world like a more handsome version of Errol Flynn, down to the very moustache. And he’d chosen her from among them all. That was as I understood it, only later realizing that it was him who was chosen by her. And, on this particular day, for whatever particular reason, she gave me my first insight into how life had unfurled itself about this fortuitous coupling, intent on fashioning the pair of them into my parents.

She was a fabulous dancer, my mother, and I’ve heard from relatives and friends unequivocally that no one could jitterbug like my wee mammy. So, it’s not at all surprising that the man who didn’t go on to become my father was one she met at a dance at some point during the 1940s. Whether it was during or after WWII, I don’t know. And, given the backdrop of the Irish nationalist struggle, the war that engulfed the entire world was, actually, rather irrelevant.

But it was against this backdrop that my mother and the man – whose name I was never told, deliberately on her part – were brought together, at a dance in Belfast. She wasn’t big on the details, the day she decided to talk about this hitherto secret relationship but, no matter, the bit she did relate was the stuff of epic and cinematic gold.

I’ll take back a bit of what I indicated earlier about where I’ve long stood politically and nationally regarding Ireland’s relationship with Mother England. I’m a diehard republican. My Master’s thesis in History, completed a lifetime ago, bears witness to this. My father, despite his tenure in the British Army (which does and doesn’t make sense, once the undercoat of history is applied), was equally steeped in Irish nationalism and supportive of the ongoing struggle. Not a word about any of this, however, did I ever hear from my mother. She played plenty of Irish rebel songs superbly on the piano and the pair of us knew the lyrics to literally hundreds of them, but never had she evinced a clue to her own political leaning vis-à-vis the ongoing nationalist struggle. I would imagine she agreed with my father and me but, truly, can only surmise.

Knowing this, perhaps you can understand the ‘holy shit’ nature of my reaction to this once-in-a-lifetime revelation that still takes me by surprise when I remember it, even now.

They had met at a dance at some point during or after WWII (‘the big one’, to quote Archie Bunker), where he’d been impressed by her prowess on the dance floor. How often after that they’d met, or dated, or how serious and potentially matrimonial the relationship appeared to onlookers, I don’t know. I do know that I’m still shocked at the knowledge my mother considered marrying this other fellow. How I didn’t register this shock when she told me, casually, that day, I don’t know. Perhaps if I had shown more of the stupefaction that was inching its way through my nervous system at the news, she may have offered more by way of description.

But I didn’t. Instead, I listened, likely dumbstruck. In honesty, in retrospect, I must have been stunned into silence because there is just so much I would have liked to know. It’s also likely that, having never discussed romance or relationships with my mother – EVER – I was genetically predisposed to know what was taboo in subject matter.

He, this strange man whose name she refused to tell, had asked her to marry him and she wanted desperately to accept. But – and here the history tramples all over things – he was an active IRA member, even then waging sectarian war against the British presence in Northern Ireland. In fact, she divulged to me, he was a commander, fully committed to the struggle for all-Ireland independence.

How I wish I’d prevailed upon her for more information about this – as I now believe it to be – clandestine romance. This woman, my mother, who had taken only a maternal interest in my fevered quest for knowledge about Irish independence, had always seemed to me apolitical. Yes, indeed, she was Irish through and through by birth and upbringing, but she had never articulated any actual interest in the politics or history. That was my father’s preserve. And, yet, she had been in love with – and very nearly married – a bona fide soldier of the Irish Republic, someone entrenched in a war whose history spanned centuries. And, someone who, if captured by the British forces in Northern Ireland, would face lifelong imprisonment at best. More likely, however, the punishment would be execution.

On the last night she saw him, she told me, she had given him her answer to his proposal. Her answer was “no” and, I inferred, the refusal had more to do with her strict Catholic upbringing than her repudiation of Ireland’s struggle against Imperialism. Murder, no matter the reason for it, would be anathema and condemnable, to her. The contradiction inherent in such a belief – given the wars fought in the name of freedom and, too many times, Christianity and Catholicism – is fully evident to me, regarding it from afar, in the third person. But, knowing her as I did, I understood this was beyond her scope. As much as she loved him – and of that she assured me – it was not a life she could enjoin or embrace.

And so they parted.

Months later, she was surprised at ‘the pictures’ (as she referred to the movie theatre) by a friend of my anonymous near-dad who took her arm, as she was leaving with her group, and drew her away from the others. She was told that he, the man she’d rejected, had been nabbed by His Majesty’s constabulary on a tip from someone who knew his whereabouts at the time. At this time, however, when she was told, his whereabouts were no longer known. In fact, the friend had no idea whether her ex-paramour was even alive.

She didn’t dwell on this part of the story, but the inference that I drew – and that will forever stupefy me – is that she, my absolutely apolitical, then happy-go-lucky, mother was suspected as a possible informer, who had tipped the security forces as to where her beau could be found and taken. This she vehemently denied, of course and, while I’m sure there was much more to the story (if only to describe how terrified she must have been), that was where her tale ended.

At least that’s where it WAS ended, as I remember my father’s suddenly appearing in the kitchen from wherever he had been (in retrospect, I realize he wasn’t in Ireland) and the trail grew cold then and there. Never was another word spoken about this revelation. In fact, I think it disappeared into my subconscious, so seemingly improbable it was. It reared its head from time to time, taking me unawares and leaving me surprised anew; however I suspect that, because the information was so antithetical to what I’d always known of my parents’ early days, courtship and union, I would dash it back into the dark and raggedy recesses of my memory. I have only written about it now as a sort of exercise, by way of exorcising this hazy interloper from what is the comfortably familiar.

I still sit in the kitchen, at the table where we sat, my mother and I. I drink tea that tastes as it did when she made it. I sometimes eat wheaten bread that I’ve made for myself, but it tastes nothing like the indescribably delicious scones with which she would ply my father and me. And, sometimes – like now – I wonder what would have happened to her had she accepted that proposal of marriage. I know there would have been no me, and no them – my parents – but those are things I would trade, if offered, to have got to know that other woman, the one who had been in love with an IRA man she ultimately rejected, only to marry the handsome, dashing and ambition-driven man who was my father.

Better yet, I’d love to be with the pair of them – my parents - as a Gaeltacht summer student, in the 1930s, in the back and beyond of Co. Donegal. The craic would have been massive.


Marie McGrath Davis

Old vegan, animal-rescuing, ex-corporate communicator with lifelong crippling shyness that made expressing myself verbally near impossible.So I took my weirdness to paper, then to typewriter and, now, to computer screen. I write all wrong.

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