A number of those in attendance at last night’s “AWoW Rocks the Living Room” event asked me to reprint Martha Pinson’s beautiful and evocative story of her grandmother. The story is put to the music of “Ashokan Farewell,” another beautiful and evocative work, which was written by Jay Ungar for the Ken Burns Civil War documentary film. You can listen to Ashokan while you read by going to the bottom of the page and clicking on the youtube link.
RHYMES WITH TIME
Someone who loved order must have spared the twin maples twenty paces in front of the old, clapboard farmhouse. They lent a symmetry otherwise lacking and graciously shaded the lawn. The bank dropped sharply to a dirt road and a swampy pasture where weeping willows concealed the Dead River but not the fields rising beyond. All this, common birds and butterflies, a rusty cultivator, and whatever else was carelessly left, formed my Grandma’s view from the long, weathered porch where she worked on summer days. “How can a river be dead?” I wondered.
It was all tangles of green and, like they say in wordy books, “dazzling sunny patches interwoven with deep shades.” The atmosphere was languid, though alive with peepers. High winds and high tensions passed over the tops of surrounding hills.
She sat rather still, did Ellen Marie Kilaren Deeny. (Right, age 16) Tired, I guess, with 77 years behind her by 1951. A hungry child in Dublin, at thirteen she’d crossed the Atlantic where she said, “many brave hearts are asleep in the deep.” Here in New Jersey, she became a dairy farmer’s wife. I later learned of 13 pregnancies in 20 years, two miscarriages, three dead in their first year, seven raised, one dead at 37 from a heart infection. Now, her oldest daughter, also Ellen Marie, my mother, (Below with author) who moved back home after college to help her parents, was ill and (no one dared to think) dying from the same disease.
Grandpa was dead. The only person he could stand was my father, and vice versa. Daddy was good with him, gave him a shave every morning. His father had died some 20 years prior and I guess he thought a crazy old man was better than none. Old Hughie wasn’t suited to his fate. A skilled cabinetmaker, he remembered dancers and teachers among the Deeny’s in Donegal. He was a pretty good farmer anyway, but not good enough against the Farm Depression of the late 20’s and 30’s. Nevertheless, he sent his brilliant children to college, Radcliffe and such.
But somehow, Grandma Deeny accepted all things in life. She loved her children, did what she could, and left the rest to Providence. Daddy said she was the only good Catholic he knew (he loved to exaggerate) and drove her to Mass every Sunday. I watched her, comfortably stooped in a straight chair, wearing an old cotton dress, shelling peas. The soft wind just lifted her wisps of hair. She split the pods, gave me that melancholy smile, and said nothing. I said nothing, too. A child respects a reverie sometimes, I’ve discovered.
Swiped peas are the sweetest, warm as the day as they rolled off her thumb and dropped in the kettle ather feet. I don’t think she minded, though they were to be cooked for supper and many people were entitled. They were mine after all. My mother and father had planted and picked them and so on, and on and on spun my simple universe.
What was she thinking? Did I remind her of herself as a girl of three and make her long for her most green home? Did she wonder where the hungry tow-headed elf with her eyes would find her strength in adversity? Was she recalling her life in the light of the Immortality of the Soul and the Forgiveness of Sins? I don’t know. She was lost to me in the secret ecstasy of woman’s work so rhythmic and expert the mind is free to exult or pine, the eye to be caught by a butterfly. And she stays with me that way.
Still I strain to hear her voice, to find her words. “I’m sorry, Miss, it’s impossible. No records were kept.”
“But I want to know and there’s nowhere else to look.”
“Well, that’s not very good, is it?” says the complacent bureaucrat with finality. Furious, I walk away, but soon silently singing of Ellen Marie.
–Martha Pinson, summer 1982, edited 2011
New York City
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