As 2014 slipped away, carrying the memories of a thousand small things and lots of bigger events, I found that the year split into a Before and After in my mind. July pulsed quietly among the spool of months, and once I had written about our flights across the Atlantic, I shied away from putting any more memories to print. I often lay awake in the small hours of the morning, letting the July days roll past me like a movie reel, writing it all down in my head, and then woke to daylight and a reluctance to think about it all. I had a satisfyingly lengthy conversation with one of my most treasured friends this week, and she asked me whether I had stopped adding blog posts because it was too hard to write about our time in Ireland. We landed at Dublin Airport, and it all came to a halt; I suppose there was so much to say and so many pitfalls. The cliches of the emigrant, the trite observations about homecomings and leave-takings and reunions. It’s the same at so many levels for any of us returning after an absence, and yet every story is different, and everyone setting foot on Irish soil again will have their own experiences and realisations. I was anxious about many things; driving on the left-hand-side of the road again, seeing our house, clearing out some of our things, how the children were going to find being home, meeting up with friends and family and whether the old connections would still be there. I let the thought of the inevitable leave-taking overshadow the days sometimes; there was an inexorable countdown always present in the back of my mind, the knowledge that all this would pass and we would be standing back at the airport again.
I’ll start with a cliche – I had forgotten how green it is in Ireland. We live right beside the park in Saskatoon; trees line our parking lot and the South Saskatchewan river divides the city, with rolling parkland on either side. Lots of green. But not the green of home. The lushness of the countryside – patchworked fields in every shade of green and abundant trees. It’s odd, the things you forget. Travelling from the airport to my mother’s house on the left-hand side of the road again and holding my breath at every intersection. We arrived in Rathfarnham and I sat on my mother’s couch, as I have thousands of times before, and found it difficult to believe that it had been two years since that same sitting-room had been full of suitcases waiting to depart into the unknown. It was disconcerting, that feeling that the previous two years had never happened. Two years of building a new life from the foundations up, and it only took five minutes in my childhood home to make Saskatoon seem light-years away in distance and time. Our body clocks were shot, and I couldn’t get the hang of the time difference at all. “So, it’s 3 o’clock here, and therefore in Saskatoon, it’s …..3pm minus 7…no…. 3pm is 15:00, so 15 minus 7 is 8….8am…shit, missed Michael before he left for work….again”. From a mathematical point of view, it’s easier to be in Saskatoon and add the 7 hours. The kids were buzzing with excitement, while my mother and I were disintegrating slowly with jet-lag. My sisters scooped them off to play with their cousins, while I collapsed gratefully into bed and oblivion. I woke to the same weird feeling of detachment; everything was as it used to be and Canada seemed like a dream. Michael rang and asked me how it was all going. “It’s just….odd..” was all I could say. “Everything is odd. It’s so strange that you’re in the middle of the Canadian Prairies and I’m sitting in my mother’s kitchen.”
We spent some days in Dublin and then headed down the coast to Wicklow, where my sister Liz has a mobile home. The weather was astonishingly, consistently good; I grumbled about all the room that I’d taken up in our suitcases by packing for the normal Irish weather. I think it might have rained three times for the whole month that we were there. As soon as we left, August brought the usual deluge. When it is sunny in Ireland, there’s nowhere on earth quite like it. We spent hours on the beach, and fished for crabs in Wicklow Town.
The children leapt off the pier into the harbour and swam to the floating platform in the middle, huddling with the other kids against the cold of the sea and taking turns in pushing each other off. The little ones dipped the rasher-filled net bags off the pier, hauling up crabs of every shape, size and mood, squealing with horrified delight every time one of them scuttled towards bare toes. The holiday site had tennis courts, soccer pitches, pool tables and a shop that sold ice-creams and candy; what more could any child want? I used to stand on the deck of the mobile home, with the Irish Sea stretched out before me, sparkling in the sunshine, and watch the kids gallop and roll down the hill in front of us, humming the theme tune to “Little House on the Prairie” in my mind.
I wallowed in the age-old ritual of swimming in the sea; the inching in, gasping as every wave hit, until eventually I stood on tiptoes, trying to avoid the waves rising up my midriff. “Just dive in!” – the only way to get it over with and the last thing you want to do. With a shriek I dived through an oncoming wave, and the kids rose to the challenge behind me, swept in by the lure of catching up, of being brave, of ducking and splashing and short, choppy races – “Swim PARALLEL to the shore, NOT OUT TO SEA!”. I bobbed in the waves, trying to imprint it all indelibly on my mind. Remember this. Their slicked-back hair and spiky eyelashes; the debris of buckets, spades, body boards lining the edge of the waves; the colourful swimsuits and the cliffs rising above us; Christopher’s glee when he tore past us in the race. The feel of the sand shifting underneath my feet, the long slog back to the mobile home. The chaos of whirling the nine children through the two showers, with little hills of sand accumulating on the shower floors and piles of scratchy, wet towels and togs waiting on the deck to be shaken out and washed. That tiredness that comes with sea-swimming, the way your skin feels all glowy and scrubbed clean.
We travelled down the N11 to Bree, and it was this part that held the feeling of coming home. The familiar landmarks flashed by, and the children started to notice everything as we came into Enniscorthy. The car filled up with memories as they pointed out their childhoods to each other – “there’s the swimming-pool, the bridge, the geese, our supermarket, that green house, the ruined mill”. Rebecca strove desperately to keep up, insisting she remembered it all, inventing her own memories. I ached listening to her, realising that her three-year-old self couldn’t muster up much common ground with her siblings. We arrived at my brother’s house, bringing our kid total back to nine, and settled in for warm and fun-filled days of catching up and re-forging bonds. My sister brought me into Wexford Town to collect a rental car; I was almost catatonic with terror by the time I got to drive it. The woman in the hire company was full of the joys of the newness of the vehicle. “It’s pristine!”, she assured me cheerfully. “Only 5000km on it – it’s practically brand-new!”. “Oh God”, I thought, horrified “I just want an old banger with plenty of dints and scrapes, not something that I can wreck while re-learning how to drive on Irish country roads”. I took the keys, and walked out to the car, doom in every step. I sat in, looked at all the controls, turned on the ignition, and found that I couldn’t take the handbrake off. I struggled with it for a few minutes, using one hand, both hands, different angles, but to no avail. I rested my head gently on the steering wheel, and wondered whether this was a sign. Out I climbed, and went back into the shop, clearing my throat and smiling apologetically at the woman. “I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong, but I can’t get the handbrake off”, feeling like the stupidest returning emigrant ever. She bustled out with me, folding herself behind the wheel and starting up the engine. I prayed silently that it wasn’t going to be something embarrassingly simple. God is good. She wrestled with it for a while, and eventually managed to loosen it, red-faced and breathing hard. “Hmmmm, that’s an awkward one”, she agreed, and I slid back behind the wheel, pride restored. I drove gingerly out the gate, and realised that every junction was going to pose the terror of stalling while trying to pull out into traffic. I sat at the gate for an interminable length, waiting for the road to be clear in both directions, and praying that the woman wouldn’t come out to see if there was another problem. A break appeared eventually, and I steered out, chanting under my breath. “Stay left, stay left, go into fourth gear, that’s grand, what about fifth? no, too scary, stay left, Jesus these roads are so f%^$ing narrow! stay left on this corner” I think I aged about ten years on that trip back into Bree. I couldn’t believe how narrow the roads were; roads that I used to fling my car around without hesitation. The newness of the damn car sat like lead in my stomach, and every junction caused a momentary panic as I tried to work which side of the road I was supposed to end up on when I turned. I had anticipated that driving a gear-shift car would be the biggest problem, but it was like riding a bicycle, easy as pie. I drove through the village, and stopped outside our house, wanting to have a moment alone without dealing with the kids’ reactions to it. I don’t know how I expected to feel, but I found myself rooted to the seat, unable to get out and walk up the stony driveway. I felt like I could put my hands through the stone walls and melt back into our lives here. I could be back in my big kitchen, with the forest behind and the forest in front, the children playing in the field and the crunch of the car on gravel as Michael arrived home from work. The trampoline and climbing frame were gone, and the house showed signs of a different inhabitant, but seeing it all up close was a task for the following day.
Michael and I had made a list in Canada of what was left in our sheds and what he wanted to do with it all. I’m sure distance and rose-coloured spectacles helped to conjure up the image I had of a neat and tidy space, with labels on anything mysterious and absolutely no spiders whatsoever. I arrived over at the house at 10am, and was joined by Michael’s two brothers, my sister-in-law and my uncle and aunt. I unlocked all the padlocks and re-entered Michael’s home from home, his infamous shed, where my granny used to think he had a woman stashed because of the amount of time he spent in it. “Ring me when you get there”, he had urged me the previous evening. “But it’ll be the middle of the night for you!”, I protested. “Doesn’t matter, just ring me”. The men started pulling out the contents of the shed and spreading them out on the grass. Motorbikes, strimmers, ladders, boxes and boxes of tools, paint-cans and dust-sheets, mysterious boxes and random items that were destined to be forever homeless. My vision of a simple clear-out vanished instantly, and so I rang the perpetrator. “Morning!” he bellowed, “how’s it all going?” (distance = increased volume) “I’m divorcing you”, I announced sweetly. “Have you any accurate memories of this f&%ing shed??” “Ah, it can’t be that bad”, he said cheerfully, “sure I know everything that’s in it”. And so we spent the next hour passing the phone from brother to brother to uncle, as they passed into that unintelligible world of tools and implements. “Have you found the long-nosed carburetor something-or-other?” “Yes, it’s in the Michael pile” We had numerous piles. For Michael, for storage, for any of the men present that could use the item, for my sister’s partner who had bravely expressed an interest in tools for the home and who ended up having everything thrown at him. “Anyone want a router? Ah sure, give it to Keith, he can take up woodworking”. My sister-in-law, who had arrived in white trousers and therefore had an immediate excuse for not entering the manky, spidery shed, corralled all the paint supplies, much to my brother-in-law’s horror. More rooms to be repainted. I left the men to it, and let myself into the house. There were some paintings that I wanted to store in my mother’s house, and a particular mirror that we had bought at the lighthouse in Hook Head that I loved. I walked from room to room, my footsteps and memories echoing, and felt like I had stepped outside myself. Our tenant looks after the place very well, thank God, and all was as it should be, but it was odd to see other furnishings, other belongings, different furniture arrangements. It was home, but not home. I stood at the door of the children’s bedrooms, and remembered the nights where I would move from bed to bed, checking and tucking and feeling grateful for the sleeping peace of our household. I unhooked the paintings and the mirror, trying to focus on the practicalities, and stepped back outside to the tool-strewn sunshine, where Michael was demonstrating the veracity of his statement that he knew exactly what was in his shed. Vans were being filled and order restored, until the only thing left was our ride-on lawnmower, which sat fatly in the shed, with flat tires and a forlorn air of disuse. It will sitting here for all eternity, I think.
Our next stop as house guests was with Nuala and her family, who welcomed us with open arms and pretended that an invasion of six was no bother whatsoever. Our friends soon enlightened me, however, and I heard of panic-stricken phone calls about bedding and inflatable mattresses, of punctured offerings and a dearth of pumps. We had a gathering of friends in their kitchen that evening, and the threads that had woven us together in the first place re-tightened and shone golden. I felt very lucky as I sat at that table, among the debris of food and drink, looking at them all in turn. Those ageless, openhearted women, who move through all of life’s joys and hardships with grace and love and humour. I made the best friends of my life while I lived in Bree; perhaps it was the age and stage of our lives that brought us all together. We were women, wives, mothers of small children – nothing was too minor to be discussed and laughed about and we supported each other through the bigger heartaches and problems. It was wonderful to see them all again, and hear of new adventures and changes. My friend Angela had managed to keep the news of her pregnancy secret from me, and so there was a joyful unveiling of the bump. Her fourth, who appeared just before Christmas; a beautiful son, and a little brother to three delighted big sisters. We made a day trip to Johnstown Castle – gangs of children haring around while we sat on picnic rugs and dispensed food, napkins, drinks and admonishments. Our eldest children, on the cusp of puberty, had all changed so much in two years; they weaved in and out of familiarity and self-consciousness, Christopher covertly eyeing up the heights of the boys and finding himself falling short. “It’s because you’re a nightmare to feed”, I said smugly, having weathered many dinnertime battles and waited many years to finally say that sentence.
The children wanted to go and see our house; I dithered and fretted and finally decided that it would be unfair not to bring them over to revisit the place. They were so full of the magic of being among friends and family again; there were tears about the fact that we had left and pleas to come back home. Visiting the house was only going to add to that, and still they needed to see it again and re-earth their memories. We crunched in the driveway, and stood for a few minutes looking up the hill, and across the road at the forest. “Let’s go inside!” demanded Rebecca, and in we went, the children oddly nervous and me trying to damp it all down and keep it together, unsure of what their reactions might be. We moved from room to room, remembering and remembering and remembering. I thought I might drown in what they remembered, in their tears and their immediate re-connection to the house. We went outside, and they all ran up the hill as they had a thousand times before. Benjamin lagged behind, cross and miserable. “Why can’t we come home? Why not?” He trailed up after them, his words flaming the air, and I felt myself panic about the enormity of it all, about the fact that we lived so far away now, in such a different country and culture. We’ll come home, I thought wildly. I’ll fly back and pack up and we’ll come back to our hill and our house and our bloody sheds. The kids tumbled down the hill, shrieking, and the rational part of my mind stood to the side, waiting for the knowledge of nothing to come home to yet to be allowed creep back in and push the emotional waves back. We huddled together in the driveway, disarrayed and discombobulated, before getting back into the car and heading back to the busy comfort of Nuala’s house. There were goodbyes with friends to be got through and another journey south to my sister Louise’s house. We had tickets to a hurling match in Wexford town that we were looking forward to, and more crab-fishing in Rosslare Harbour.
The match in Wexford was something that I think the boys will remember for the rest of their lives. We sat in the stands and roared with the crowd, willing on the men in the purple and gold, as the boys clutched their hurls and waited to take to the field at half-time. The whistle blew and down they spilled, armies of children wielding the ash and dreaming of all-Ireland glory. The second half began, and scores tied at full-time, the match moved into extra time. I couldn’t hear a thing at this stage; my ears were ringing and my sides were bruised from the kids banging into me every time they jumped to their feet, yelling with delight or groaning with horror. It was end-to-end stuff, but Wexford triumphed in the end, beating Clare 2-25 to 2-22. The spectators streamed uproariously onto the pitch, the kids clamoring for autographs. “Sure that was the best value for a fiver ever”, said my brother, nodding at our five sons tapping the ball around in the middle of the pitch. The match tickets are still upstairs in their bedroom, tucked away in their boxes of keepsakes.
We divided the rest of our time between Dublin and Wicklow, visiting aunts and uncles, and spending a day with Michael’s family on the other side of Dublin city. It was so good to see them all again, to watch the cousins re-connect and sit in a sunny garden, eating gorgeous food and swopping stories. A friend of Michael’s brother, Denny, drove us home in his taxi, chatting kindly about our time in Ireland while discreetly ignoring the sobs issuing from the children and the fact that I kept bursting into tears every five minutes. “Ah sure, yiz’ll be grand”, he said reassuringly. Halfway home, there was a squawk of horror from the seat beside me. “I left my retainer in the kitchen”, said Benjamin, knowing that misplacing his retainer came under the heading of Worst Crime Ever. I swore, and dialed Denny’s mobile. “It’s here”, he announced, “we’ll get it to you some way tomorrow”. I was looking out the front window the following day when an Army truck pulled up, and out jumped a soldier, much to my mother’s bewilderment. She was out in the garden, watching him stride up the path, when I noticed the red retainer case in his hand. “It’s Denny, Mam!”, I called out, mentally awarding him the award for Best-Brother-in-Law-in-the-Known-Universe. More hugs, more tears, before he sped back to work, duty done. I super-glued the retainer into Benjamin’s mouth.
We spent our final weekend in Brittas Bay, eight adults and thirteen children in the Tardis-like mobile home. The older kids vanished into the wilds of the park, while the little ones played in a paddling pool on the deck and the adults talked relentlessly through the pressure of encroaching goodbyes. We lit the outdoor fire and toasted marshmallows; played music and laughed at the kids murdering the latest chart hits. We shooed them eventually into bed, tops and tails and tucked onto sofas. They snuggled in, all thirteen, and the messing and talking dwindled away until the mobile was silent and the adults sat outside the sliding doors, playing cards and picking songs until the Night before the Last Night had to end and we crept in amongst the kids, re-tucking and re-positioning and finally falling asleep ourselves, bracing ourselves for an early start with them all.
Sunday dawned, and reality crushed the kids. “Tomorrow?! We’re leaving tomorrow??”, as if time shouldn’t be allowed its inexorable march, as if July should have stretched out ad infinitum. I think they hated me at that moment. We said our goodbyes to my brother, his wife, the four kids. Mel got into his car, stoical amid his sobbing kids, while Suzanne and I held on and cried, and the rest of them methodically packed, cleared up, cleaned and succumbed to the knowledge of the last 24 hours ticking away. My head was already bound up in the practicalities; the packing, the weighing, the journey to the airport, the anxiety of the short layover in Toronto, the management of five children on my own. We drove back to Dublin and time speeded up, spiralling away until I was standing in the check-in line with my mother, two trolleys of suitcases balanced precariously in front of us. “You’ll be paying a lot for extra baggage with that lot”, said the man behind us, nodding sagely and smiling. “I have a child per suitcase”, I admitted, as they reluctantly left their cousins to come and be identified by their passports. He looked at me with pity, and made sure to be sitting at the opposite end of the plane. Denny and June and their children came out to the airport as well, and we sat around over coffee and cakes, making desultory conversation and watching the clock slow down to a crawl. “It’s time”, I announced eventually, desperate now to get it all over with, for the worst to happen and then be dealt with.
We assembled them all and started the long trek to the Departure Gates, wondering how this could be worse than the first time around. And oh God, but it was. I don’t think I will forget holding my mother until the day I die. The children were crying uncontrollably, as I moved from person to person and choked out meaningless platitudes and gripped on tightly. I rounded them up and we moved through the barrier, weaving through the endless steel lines to the gate itself until we got to the last corner. We turned and waved at them all standing against the glass, crying and holding their hands against the glass, and stepped left. The children were completely hysterical at this stage, and a security guard came over to help us. I stood there, holding onto them all and hushing and hushing. “It’s ok, it’s fine, we need to calm down, it’s ok, it’s ok…..”. “Come on now, love”, said the guard, and start shepherding us along to where an apprehensive-looking couple of staff waited for us. I pushed them through the metal detector, one by one, and the guard at the other end cajoled them and patted them repeatedly. “Ah sure now, you’ll be grand, you’ll be grand”, he murmured, while another woman handed them back their jumpers and tried to establish some normality. “And where are ye headed then?” she asked me. “Back to Canada”, I said, eyes throbbing and my throat sore from crying. “Were ye back for long?” “A month”, I said, and all the kids burst into tears again. It was all getting completely out of hand. I swept them all to one side, and switched into firm-and-calm mode. “Ok, that’s enough now, everyone. We need to get some snacks, find our boarding gate and get it together”. The sobbing gradually dissipated, with the odd dramatic shriek thrown in by Rebecca for good measure. On we marched, into a shop to buy treats and ignore the sidelong glances of the other customers. The kids’ faces were all red and blotchy, and I was fairly sure that I looked like I’d been hit by a baseball bat. But, we were departure-side now, and practicalities held sway.
We boarded late and settled into our seats, three behind three. I rented them an iPad each, and tried not to think about the fact that I was going to be airborne shortly. The safety routine started, and I found myself completely mesmerised by it. I stuck my head under the seat to check for life-jackets and then leaned over Nicholas and Rebecca to get the French version in the other aisle. Our month home had been filled with air incidents, some of them tragic beyond belief, and others involving drama but no crashes. I was the best pupil on the plane that day, firmly avoiding the fact that if the plane went down, the safety talk would be of no help whatsoever. Rebecca had discovered the laminated safety sheet in her seat pocket, and was completely entranced by it. “Mom!”, she hissed, pointing at the sheet. “We need to take off our high heels if we’re going down the slide!” I promised that we would make that our priority in the event of a sea landing. We took off, late, and started back towards our other life, which was becoming more immediate all the time. Upcoming camps, dental appointments, hockey try-outs. Announcements were made about impending missed connections, alternative flights, new arrangements. We landed and I was instantly overwhelmed by it all. We moved along in the crowd, with no idea of what came next – security? baggage? Immigration? I still can’t remember the order in which it all happened. We stopped again and again, fishing out all our passports, Permanent Residence cards, customs declaration forms. We made it eventually to the vast cavern of the Baggage Hall, and stood with the other passengers, getting increasingly desperate as the luggage and the hands of the clock rolled by. Three out of six appeared and were hauled onto trolleys. I rang Michael to tell we were back on Canadian soil. “Will you make the connection?” he asked. “I don’t think so. But I have to. I can’t stay here for hours and I can’t take all this luggage to a hotel for the night. I. Just. Can’t“. All my resolutions to accept whatever happened regarding the next flight went out the window. The crowd started to dwindle and the kids started to get antsy. Rebecca was tired and cranky, insisting on trying to pull the luggage off the carousel herself. It didn’t matter that it was twice the size of her and twice as heavy. I sat her on top of the cases and stationed the kids at strategic intervals, ready to pounce. A new batch rolled out, and their eyes were peeled; our cases were gratefully seized and flung onto the trolleys.
“Let’s go!” I howled, and we set off at a run, me pushing three cases and a Rebecca, and one of the boys careening through the crowd with the other. We queued for Connections, impatiently jigging the trolleys; finally the next carousel appeared and we cast the suitcases on, trusting their fate to the Airport Gods. On we sprinted, corridor after corridor, getting directions from everyone in a uniform, until we skidded to a halt at the end of a gigantic snake of people. A massive electronic board announced that it was a 15 minute wait from where we were to the Security Gates. We hadn’t a hope. We inched forward, doom-laden, and an angel of light appeared in front of us. He was small and portly, sporting the Air Canada logo and a busy air. “5pm to Vancouver? Any passengers for the 5pm flight to Vancouver?” I leapt in front of him, gazelle-like, and squeaked out our destination. “We’re on the 5.10pm to Saskatoon!” He eyed me thoughtfully, swept a glance over the kids, and glanced back at his clipboard. “Welll…..”, he said, tapping his pen. I held my breath. The kids adopted their best Oliver expressions. “I suppose you better come with me”, he said, still reluctant. He twirled and headed back to Security, a Pied Piper dispensing hope in his wake. We scurried along after him, ignoring the glowering looks from those less fortunate, and arrived at the gates. “How many of you are there?” called out the guy at the lower gate doubtfully. “Six”, I called back, batting my eyelashes. Resigned, he beckoned us on. I whirled the jumpers off the kids’ waists, threw on my handbag and backpack and shoved them through the detector. I hurried over to collect it all, and saw the backpack stashed to one side. For f$&*s sake, what now???? “Excuse me, Ma’am, but do you have a bottle of water in your bag?” asked the official. Officiously. “We’re going to miss our plane!”, said Nicholas crossly. “Yes, yes, sorry, keep it…” I gabbled, as the kids grabbed their jumpers and we started to run again. Next obstacle, the moving escalators; I gave up hope. Miles and miles they stretched ahead of us. “Stay on the left and MOVE IT!”, I commanded, and they took off, Usain Bolt-like. I was counting out the gate numbers, hauling Rebecca along by the hand, when I realised that we were only two gates away. “Stop!” I shrieked at the sprinters ahead. We veered off the moving hell, and landed at our gate, sweating, dishevelled, hungry, triumphant. “We will start boarding now”, announced the woman calmly. “Can anyone with small children come forward now please?” I appeared before her in .01 of a second, grinning manically and lining the kids up as proof of my entitlement. “Oh!” she said, taken aback. I handed over all the passports for 6,694th time since we’d left Saskatoon at the end of June, and strolled on board, texting Michael the news that we would be landing as planned. I tucked them all into their seats, switched on their screens, ordered snacks and breathed again. The flight was smooth, uneventful, quiet. Rebecca descended into oblivion halfway through. We started our descent into Saskatoon, and I watched the Prairies pass beneath me. I hadn’t noticed the first time around how incredible they look from the air. The fields set out in uniform grids, the die-straight roads and tiny trucks. The sloughs winking in the sun and the approaching outskirts of the city, appearing randomly in the vast expanse of prairie. We came in low over the North End of the city, and the red roof of the children’s school blinked by. We left the plane last, Rebecca still asleep in my arms, and walked down the corridor and stairs to Arrivals. None of the mayhem of Toronto Airport here. No need to stop at all, until we walked through the sliding doors and I deposited Rebecca into the waiting arms of her Daddy. The luggage trundled out and we walked out into the balmy heat of a July evening in Saskatoon. Home? Not really, but the nearest thing right now,