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The Olive Tree and the River

by Jacqueline Shea 5 months ago in family
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A farewell between long-lost family and a promise of peace.

The Olive Tree and the River
Photo by Florian GIORGIO on Unsplash

The soft sound of rushing water fills my ears as I take one last look toward the River Erne. I see a man in overalls and a long-sleeved red shirt standing knee-deep in the water with a fishing hook in hand, but other than that, she is empty and at peace. A small part of me yearns to run across the street and through the bushes to lay flat upon the river surface one more time, but I am already bundled up in my fleece sweater and the wool jacket Gráinne gifted me as a good-bye present.

My vision shifts to her figure standing directly in front of me as her calloused hands rub up and down my arms. I shiver in the cold.

“Three months here and ye still aren’t used to the founder.”

Having been influenced by Gaelic (and, surprisingly, Scots), the English spoken in County Donegal is very different from my Californian variety. The vocabulary in particular has been a challenge to remember, but if there’s one word I remembered quickly from sheer necessity of repetition, it’s founder.

“It is cold here,” I slide my palms up to grasp Gráinne’s. “But, my heart is warm here, too.”

A small tear slips out of Gráinne’s left eye, her sun-ringed irises brimming with a melancholic joy that I recognize from when I’ve decided to go to sleep after a long night of tea and prayer by the fireplace. I feel a cool drop of water slide down my cheek.

“It’s been a real gift for a carlin’ like me to have ye here.”

“I don’t want to go back.”

“Ye always have a home here.”

“But I have to go back.”

I can’t explain it. I love the greens and blues that color the island, the smell of meat and potatoes from Gráinne’s wood-fired stove, the days spent barefoot wandering in nature, the sparse and silent population. I love the community I've found with Gráinne and her circle of family and friends, the Pagan-Catholic blend of spirituality they´ve allowed me to taste, ecstatic dancing to Celtic Women´s rendition of ¨Mo Ghile Mar¨ and cathartic keening by the river. I have never felt such a deep sense of peace in my life.

But my gut is telling me it´s time to go back—back to sunny Palm Desert University, one of the largest public universities in the United States, an urban center located in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable Californian suburb. I left my friends and colleagues behind to take a leap of faith and find Gráinne’s Ballyshannon abode at the beginning of May, but the first semester of my junior year is starting next week. I’m not sure I’m even passionate about pursuing a degree in philosophy anymore.

Yet, as easy as it is to rationalize why I should stay, there is a deep, guttural feeling inside my soul that is urging me to return. Not to mention that the timing aligns with Agata’s instructions, and that I have forty freshmen awaiting to meet their resident assistant in Coral Hall on Tuesday.

“I’m proud of ye for listenin’ to yer calling,” Gráinne says after a while.

“I just feel like I’ve found peace here, Gráinne,” I bite my lip. “What happens when I go back?”

We stand together in silence for a moment, and I tune in once again to the sound of water rushing gently through the river. The sun starts to peek out from behind the grey clouds in the sky, and I brush a stray piece of honey blond hair away from my face so the light can reach both of my cheeks.

“Somethin’ yer great-great-grandmother once told me, I’m feelin’ called to tell ye now,” Gráinne gestures to the river. “If we looked down at that river, we’d see our own reflections, among other things. Earth is mostly water by nature, and ye will find that within everywhere is a reflection of everything else around it. We are all descendants of the trees, children of the Holy Spirit, and that seed, that spark, lives in us all. Do ye understand?”

I do understand that feeling of being intimately connected to the trees and to the Holy Spirit; it’s one that I’ve become closely acquainted with during my time here in Ballyshannon. But while I see myself reflected here, by the River Erne in community with Gráinne and her friends, I don’t know if I’ll find that same reflection where I’m headed.

“I don’t want to lose it.”

“Ye can never lose it, a leanbh.”

The sound of her Gaelic tongue sends me over the edge of calm, and I leap forward to engulf her in a bear hug. Her fuzzy auburn-grey curls are warm against my face and neck as she squeezes me tight. After a few treasured moments, I release her embrace and wipe my tears with my sleeve.

“Now, when yer tellin’ stories about me to all yer friends at the hooleys, be sure to tell them the name’s pronounced grawn-ya.”

She smiles coyly, her skin crinkling around her eyes as her eyes glisten in the sunlight.

“In my defense, I only said grain-ey the first time.”

I laugh softly at the memory that feels so far away, even though objectively, it isn’t.

“It was the most charmin’ thing.”

“I’m really gonna miss you.”

The sound of an engine driving down the barren road briefly captures my attention, and my sight confirms that the vehicle approaching is the taxi Gráinne ordered me. The roar reduces to a steady rumble as the driver pulls over near the wild bushes in front of her infamous baby blue house.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye,” I press my lips together, pausing for a moment. “We’ll video call soon?”

“We will, Olive,” Gráinne takes my hands again. “Now, let me send ye off with an Irish blessing.”

I nod earnestly, my spirit filled with hope that these next few words will quench my thirst for Ballyshannon soul water.

“May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

My heart fills with love at the sincerity in her words, and I wrap my arms around her narrow shoulders for one last hug. I intentionally inhale her salt and cinnamon scent, committing it to memory before leaving for good. We are eventually drawn apart by the sound of the taxi’s honk.

“Just a wee bit before we meet again.”

“I love you, Gráinne.”

“I love you, too, a leanbh.”

I know that if I stand there any longer the taxi will drive away, and then I’ll have to muster the willpower to call another one to take me from this place a part of me doesn’t want to leave. So, I pick up my two duffel bags, and with one long last glance back, I make my way toward the taxi.


As we drive away from the baby blue house, I steal one last glance at the River Erne. The pace of her water appears quicker in the speed of the taxi, but the fisherman wearing the overalls remains still.

It is this stillness, this peace, that I vow to carry with me on the journey ahead.


About the author

Jacqueline Shea

I'm an ambiverted, highly sensitive writer who loves to learn about psychology, sustainability, culture, and healthy living. When I'm not writing, I'm teaching Spanish, reading a non-fiction book, practicing yoga, or researching :D

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