Who I Am: A Lesson in Identity

Kilfree, Gurteen, Ireland ~ March 7-9, 2008

“Remember the people from whom you came…”

I’m standing for the first time upon the ground of my ancestors… the earth that gave birth to all that I am, and the strangeness and yet familiarity of it is overwhelming: like finding a part of yourself in a place you’ve never yet been…

I stand alone, and yet surrounded: more solitary, perhaps, than I have ever been before; as if there is no one right now in the whole world except the wind and I. And yet, at the same time, I feel as if a door has been thrown open wide before me, and all of time is crowding up upon me, surrounding me with the memories of ages upon ages of joys and sorrows and thoughts and acts and emotions: the lives of the whole world. The ground here is saturated with time, with stories… it carries the memory of so many lives. I am encompassed by life, and overwhelmed with the realness of it all.

The sun is setting, so slowly, the last glowing rays touching the grass on this hilltop for the millionth time. Only, this time, I am standing here, witnessing it. And all the threads that have been weaving themselves through my mind and heart during this journey come together. I hear again the voice of a little girl, “Tell us about when you were little, Grammy,” and I can see myself and my three sisters snuggled close in one big bed, the little pig nightlight sending a pink glow into the room through the stained glass light shade. All of us are looking to her, expectantly. Our prayers have been said, and we all know what comes next. She always seems so surprised that we would be interested in her life: somehow, she doesn’t realize the novelty of running barefoot over hills to school, or washing your clothes in the river with rocks and soap. And so she smiles, and we watch her eyes fill with memories, as she carries us with her into that world: where a little piglet is her best friend and favorite pet, living in the house with the dirt floor; where your livelihood depends on the animals and the land, the weather and the support of your neighbors; where the most exciting thing is boxes from America during the war: with sugar, and oranges, and old clothes for everyone; where family is everything, and walking across the fields to visit grandma and grandpa isn’t a duty to perform, but life that you enjoyed… And then as the years rolled by, it was the things she didn’t say that I began to notice: like how hard it was to leave her mother, without knowing, after weeks on a boat, if she would ever make it back again; like how she still feels guilty for this, and unconsciously holds her own children close, as if to make up for it, somehow… and this realization only deepened my awe that if she hadn’t come, I would not be here…

I had always loved these stories, both from my grandmother, and from her sister: told in different voices, remembering, seeing different pieces, but of the same world. I loved them, I think, because I had known, instinctively, that they were not only stories: that they were a communication of other’s lives: the lives and experiences of the ones who made me. And now suddenly, what had been instinctual, is visible and tangible to me: these stories that I have heard so many times, they are imprinted on my heart, are taking on flesh before my eyes, in their native place.

And I see another young girl, standing where I stand now, looking around as if for the last time, while voices from the house are summoning her beyond them, and away from them to a whole new world. And I feel the throb of her heart at the awareness that she might not ever stand here again… And I see a woman, and a middle-aged man, walking beneath these pine trees, seeming so natural and carefree, and yet I feel the depth of her sorrow, and the piercing of the sword as she realizes somehow instinctively that this will be her last visit with her brother before he dies… the stories, the memories continue, springing up from the ground all around me…

A dirt floor, a one-room cottage. And no money to pay the bills—or to complicate life. The old woman sits in the corner, where the sun slants a shaft of it’s glory through the single window. She is alone, now: it is new and strange; she can’t remember every really being so before. The house is full of silence. It is a full silence, full of the sounds that once were, and still hang in the air: the sound of little running feet, and seven young voices all shouting together; the sound of youth, and joy, and fun, and reckless wonder, and innocent strength. She has brought seven sons into the world, and for many years, raised them alone, while her husband labored and sweated across the ocean, to send back to her the little money he could. And now they have all followed him, one by one, to make their own way, and build a life for themselves, while she is left alone. And all she can do is to send her prayers after them, where she cannot follow.  But it is not easy, this making a life, the mother knows, and she has before her always the difficulties they must face. And when she gets word of her husband’s death, and when she gets word of James’ accident, she will pray still. And one day, she knows, they will come straggling back to her, please God, back to continue the long thread of life, to start families of their own, and go on in the truth and strength that they have been taught, in the ways of their fathers. And until that day, and beyond that day, she will still pray: that they will be strong and good, and live long enough to offer lives worthy of the praise of God. That they will hand on to their children the basic lessons that daily experience teaches: about life, and love, and suffering.

And there is such a longing, such a heartfelt, deep, resonating strength to the prayer, as it goes out from her full mother’s heart, that pieces of it get caught among the tall, waving grasses; and the wind, as she blows through them, catches it up, and makes it her own, singing it through the tree tops, and all along the way of her path. Long after the old mother is gone, and long after her sons have grown old, the wind is still singing her prayer through the grasses, and across the bog… and I can hear it still, standing here.


On top of a hill, the youngest of seven sons sits silently looking across the small cottage at the youth in the bed, and the old, worn figure sitting beside him. One by one, the boys returned, and married, and settled down, on land of their own. But for Patrick, it was not to be. The two youngest, with no family of their own yet, had returned to their mother: the one, to take care of her, the other, because he is dying of tuberculosis. And there is nothing they can do. The doctor told them, if they could send him to the hospital in Dublin—but they cannot send him to the hospital in Dublin. And so his younger brother sits, watching his brother die, because they do not have the money to make him well, and watching all of his mother die with him, as she sits, day and night, beside his bed. And his heart is crying within him, because it seems so wrong! It seems so wrong that money should be as powerful as life and death: that pieces of metal should be necessary to give health back to someone: to give him the fullness that he ought rightfully to have! And he sits there knowing that there is nothing he can do.

It is a pain too deep for words. It presses itself down into the depths of him, and it leaves an immovable mark: a mark that will remain, and that his daughter will come to recognize, in the silence behind his eyes, when you know he is thinking about the past he will not talk about. A sorrow she will remember forever, and one day tell to me… And he will never sit with his wife before the hearth without his love and pride being mingled with a passing shadow of sorrow, as he thinks of the brother that ought to have had a cottage and a wife to return to. And he will never come home from a long day’s work in the fields to his five children greeting him with joy and excitement, without his gratitude being shadowed by the deep pain of his brother who ought to have seen his children run out to greet him. He stores it all within, and it becomes a way with him… the shadow that follows him through life. And yet, also, perhaps, the sorrow that carries him: that allows him to truly see, and love, and value this wife, these children, the fire on this hearth, in a way he might not have before. This too, was seen, and remembered, and given to me.


A young girl is sitting on the hill where she and her sisters have spent every day of their lives. The years have passed, and she has grown up, and watched her two sisters and her older brother all leave for America, one by one. And every time, she is the one left behind. Left behind to sit in the doorway of their cottage, beside the river at the bottom of the hill. Or to wander up to the little house on top the hill, where her father had lived with his mother when he was young, to have tea with old Tom and his wife, who live there now. Her whole world evolves around the two houses, and the school house over the hill. She has come to love this place: every creek washed stone, every fence post, every pine tree lining the road that her father planted with his own hands… There is so much, though, beyond this: so much that she has never known. Every time her sisters visit from America, she gets a glimpse, like a crack in the door, of how much more there is: so many exciting, amazing things! She hears stories of Mary’s work in the great American houses: so big they would have taken up Dad’s whole cow field! Of the big buses that Kathleen rides to work and back. And the huge department stores downtown, where you can walk for miles through coats and sweaters and dresses and shoes.

In the morning, her two sisters will return to America, and the house will be empty and sad again. For three glorious months, all has been the way it always was, only twice as exciting, now with two grown sisters back from America. When they come now, They take her to parties, and on excursions to town, and let her get away with skipping school, and being a part of sneaking schemes behind Dad’s back, that make her feel all grown up, and a part of their lives.

Somehow, though, she’s always the one left behind: left alone, to watch the quiet sparkle of laughter die from her father’s face, and his solemn mood set in again; to watch the sorrow and heartache and loneliness in her mother’s, as she says goodbye again not knowing when she’d see them again. And as she stands by, silently, watching mother and father, the dreams of glamor in America die away. She knows that she can never go that far… because she knows what it means to be left behind.


Every rock, every tree seems to speak my name. Everything is saying, “This is your own place, this is where you came from,” and I look in wonder at the place that gave me life. The land that was worked by my great grandfather’s hands, the trees that were planted by him, the ground where my ancestors worked out their salvation, where they lived out the little corner of life entrusted to them. And these shoulders of mine that are carrying today the burdens of the many people who have gone before me were hollowed out and shaped, designed and fitted by shoulders bent beneath a plow over stubborn, soggy Irish soil, and shoulders worn with the familiarity of young weight upon them, or bent over the rising steam of freshly baked bread in the open fire place…

And here I am: come back here, so many years after all of this, so many worlds away from their suffering, and their simple, deep, real life… and yet it still remains a part of me. These are the joys and sorrows that built for me this life, this day: that have given me the shape that I am. And in the face of this, there is no response but gratitude and wonder.

I realize too, seeing these stories lived out before me, that I have received more than just life from these people, from my grandmother, from her sister. I have also been given the eyes to see it: the eyes and the ears and the heart to see, and hear and recognize the depth of a life lived, and given away. As I turn away in the dusk, and go back down the hill, I know in a way I did not before that I am walking into eternity… into the continuation of a story begun long before me.  I know I am carrying with me a whole world that needs, in turn, to be shared, that needs to be given, preserved, handed on. Just as these stories of lives lived have been given to me, by my grandmother, by her sister, I know they too do not belong to me alone. Because after all, our lives do not belong to us, made by the love and work and sacrifice of other hearts and hands. And this understanding, perhaps, is the greatest gift I have received.


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