For longer than memory allows, the month of February has been the falling-through into the New Year and March its true beginning. As I sit in the kitchen of the farmhouse sipping on early morning coffee, dipping dry toast into its chocolate depths, a piece for me, a dunk’n treat for Bodhi Dog, My eyes stare past the pale yellow walls, through the white trim of the pane windows, beyond and out onto the snow fields of white. For some reason that particular long stretch of dazzling blue white, now running out flat from the side porch, has no animal tracks, its frozen top crusty as wedding cake frosting.
Yesterday after building a sexy snow floozy , Bodhi Dog, Trace and I stepped out unto that unmarked clean slate and experienced the cords of hidden music. When the wind comes up and the air is frozen, pan pipes sing in various tones. Auntie G says that’s the Green Mountains singing. As those tones swirled around us, we stepped through the crusty surface of the covered lawn and a ‘whoosh’ fanned out like a pebble thrown in a pond. It reminded me of the moment of death when the ghost of life leaves the corporal, up from the feet, up and up and out through the sweet last breath and gone, leaving a stunned silence.
I think of my Dad. He died in February some years ago. With him the last story died, for me at least. He was the vibrant link that lead from Winter to Spring, from past to present and then to future. He was wonderful continuity, a hero, a strength, an artist of life for whom no evil could destroy those miraculous moments of pure simple pleasure found in a sunny flower garden riot in color, the taste of a superb wine, a crusty French bread, a triple-cream Brie, the depths of Mozart, the melancholy elegance of Faure, a Sung Dynasty landscape, a Giotto fresco, or an Easter high mass.
I always associate my Dad with Easter and the resurrection of life, of joy and the unfolding richness of wisdom in all its practical and patient transformations. And so, I developed very early in life the ability to see the transformations as they emerged from the Winter depths and unfolded like a Mandelbrot into the bloom of Spring and its following seasons. Trace’s mother used to play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on her violin with a passion for life as only a divine human could accomplish. When we listen to it together, we think of our loss and know our future. There is a place where death cannot corrupt, and that is the will of grace where our two parents led us by example and life.
This year, the moment happened at the beginning of March when walking Bodhi at night to sniff out the nocturnal creatures so busy to and fro over the moon-white snow to sip water here, forage there and leave a ghostly ballet of tracks deep or shallow, tiny or large over the vast stage of the south lawn. The Winter damp had gone and the air was wet instead. The early Spring has a smell to it that is unmistakable. One can see even on a cloudy day that the forest is turning slightly yellow at its tips, or a gray mauve, the color of Cardinal hens tinged with scarlet. It is a joyous time for those who see that the outlines of plant energies are excited and if you hear carefully, life crackles humming to growth again.
Spring was my Dad’s time. An hour after he died, he appeared in my studio as I finished painting the surface of a Tuscan table with a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables and flowers. For a crystal clear moment he embraced me and then vanished. The call came an hour later. He never made it to Saint Pat’s Day. But I did for him, and every one since. That Spring was one of the most magnificent in the little Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma in which we lived tucked away in the sanctuary of a tiny cottage left behind from the nineteenth century when the valley grew orchards and some cattle, before wealthy retired executives became gentleman farmers, built faux Palladian villas and grew exquisite designer wines from one end of the old paradise to the other, before the grandchildren of old rural families returned from Ivy League Colleges with marketing schemes and business models. Our last Spring there was mile after mile, acre after acre of bright yellow field mustard between rows of newly budding red/chartreuse vine leaves. The hills burst forth with yellow California trillium, creeping purple iris, painted brush, scotch broom, and a rainbow palette of wild flowers such as no birth, wedding or wake could conceive. It was essentially an Irish vision for this storyteller (Seanchaidh), who had just inherited the art from his father in the tradition of his origins.
There is usually one in an Irish family that only the Seanchaidh can recognize among his or her children as the fey one. The one who in crib obviously marches to a different drummer, and in life becomes the wandering orchestra for which all the family history becomes an intricate tapestry of melody passionately played and too often thought by its more material members to be ‘out-of-touch’ with reality. While the unimaginative assess the dangers of risk with micromanagement, the Seanchaidh lives it. The real shaman/storytellers in Irish families are not bean-counting amateur historians who collect tidbits of this and that as if they were stock options of value, hoard family photos, and desire above all, an imagined obscure aristocracy.
It is far more passionate than that—more a cross between keening, Dancing at Lugnasa, and gypsy enchantment. Above all, it stimulates the sap of joy to rise above the freeze of oppression and grief, of suffering, disappointment and a life pattern of loss. The Seanchaidh knows that with each jewel of narrative lies the piled debris of ruin in life and the grace that frees us from it. My Dad was no “Big Fish” storyteller. There was no vulgar bravado or distortion. The few stories he told me were elegant, clear, real and true, hung like rainbow glass on strong steel scaffolding. Such is the passion of life and personality of the Irish character that on one day a year, Saint Patrick’s Day, every one with even the tiniest spunk of spark, assumes “éirinn go brách”and the more power it is on that good day. Being the fey Seanchaidh of the lot, I cannot help be but Irish/Scot’s, even though it is I, the first son, who by right of the maternal side am allowed the Old Anderson Tartan. But I digress, this is the story of my father’s family, the ancient nest of collapse and diversity that is consistent even to this very day. There are Green Irish, Orange Irish, North and South Eire, Black Irish and of course the Norse and the Normans (which are the genetic dragons in the room we choose to ignore except for the stories).
We are descended from warrior brigands under the command of Crossbow, which lie claim to the notorious Le Brun seed, planted among the Greens and Norse during the thirteenth century. The good news was the complete assimilation into chieftain Eire; the bad news—-the first major incursion of English oppression in the form of Henry Plantagenet II and the Statutes of Kailkenny, which stole vast tracts from Irish landholders great and small alike. It was the beginning of English cultural genocide in the Emerald Isle that echoes down even to the present day with the separation of the usurper Protestant Orange North from the true Catholic Green South. As for the Black Irish—-well, it’s still whispered that the Armada covered that nicely, when in every other generation a handsome black haired Spanish looking lad is born. My one brother pretends it isn’t so.
It’s hard to imagine a civil war lasting over five hundred years, but that is the nature of Ireland. The English are the bad guys, always were, always will be. That makes it very difficult for families like mine who enjoy intense spiritual life, dislike papist Rome, love exquisite food, passionate causes, and a just rational governance. If we thought the Plantagenet’s were bad, the Tutors were the Devil Itself. With Henry the VIII and his glorious illegitimate spawn, Elizabeth, came the genocidal imposition of the Penal Laws denying the legitimate souls of Eire land, language, education and religion. There was no Renaissance in Ireland to match the brocaded luster of Elizabeth’s court, it was a slave state of misery and oppression except for the collaborating traitor family or wily warrior exceptions like my ancestor, Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Connaught.
For over forty years, she was the stay of all rebellions against the English from Mayo in the North West, to west Galway and County Clare. At one point, she made history by meeting Queen Elizabeth to work out a deal disabling the evil, English Bingham ‘s, who harassed family interests. Very rarely in life has this writer ever met an individual who, at first glance, engendered a willful antipathy. Such was my experience as a young graduate student meeting a professor Hiram W. Bingham. Must have been the memory of long feud in the genes.
With booty from seized ships, Grace equipped a major militia and guerrilla navy, which afforded the wealth to build several castles, the most famous being the present site of Westport House, built by Colonel John Browne, whose wife Maud was Grace’s great granddaughter. The least well known is the piled remnants of a Norman tower known down in the family as “Sarah’s Rocks”. The family is connected with the peerage of Sligo, successful manipulators of English condescension. Jacobitism in all its forms, from poetry to prison, arms to mysticism, is the patina of Irish soul—- certainly our family soul. It is a pleasure to call Grace the mother of this Seanchaidh’s inspiration.
For some in the family, interest lies in the achievements of gentlemen, who acquired considerable success over the centuries by reading the writing on the walls and shifting to Protestantism so quickly under Henry the VIII that catechism turned to cash like a reign from heaven. The Westerlies, born of Grace’s will, prospered to become Jesuit provocateurs, princes of the Church, or like Le Brun, reborn brigands of the Irish Republican Army. The Sligo/Le Brun/Browne’s are too upstairs, ambitious and predatory for my tastes. However, the spirit of rebellion even held this lot as some embraced Quaker purity and prosecuted fled, adding their value of integrity to the founding of the American republic.
I’ve always tended toward soulful, land lost Browne’s, whose thousands died on the sides of Ireland’s country lanes as their lands were confiscated by English carpetbaggers, their Gaelic spirits silenced in language, their religion made a death curse, and their occasional rebellions crushed like insects under English boots. My father’s immediate family were these types of Browne’s. They started leaving Ireland in the 1600’s, seeking new starts in the plantation economies of the Caribbean and the rich farming lands of the American south. Other’s from the mid-nineteenth century fled the collapse of agricultural failure during the Irish potato famine. Stories of those days paint a picture of millions dying along the road to nowhere, starving while England came to the rescue of its predatory classes . Some Browne’s ate while other Browne’s starved. For a generation, some Browne’s survived on lands not touched by blight. They leased farms by the acreage from the south west to the east in Cork, from absent lords such as the Earl of Huntingdon. They intermarried as habit into families like the Condon’s, the Connlee’s, the Moonies and of course the O’Mally’s.
This was my grandfather’s world, when he was born into a tough primitive rural Irish farm family around 1860 or so. So little remains of Irish records in a blood land, but his stories to a small boy in the early nineteen fifties, when he was in his nineties, recall a world without electricity, without plumbing beyond a hand pump, unpaved roads, no automobiles, no planes, no typewriters, no computers or malls. It was a world of raw survival chorused by the banshee and the keening of old women in the back of a wake parlor. The horse was the primary energy source and his means of leaving a dying people to strike out for America with his bride Eliza and a new life. They didn’t arrive penniless and destitute, or settle into the Irish slums of New York or Boston. Instead, fortune and luck found them in New Rochelle and Mount Vernon where he established a string of liveries, stables, and supply horses for trade.
Eliza died after nine children and Grandfather Patrick married his house keeper Maria to keep it simple, and produced another seven children— Catholic, of course. My Dad, the youngest of the lot, remembers it being an old-world family in which children didn’t even sit at table until at least thirteen years old, and then remained silent during an opulent meal of abundant splendor. It was an Edwardian family. The women ruled, creating a sister-care system for the youngest children, so that parents were rarely visible to their children except on formal occasions. A year before he died, my Dad told me some intimate stories, saving them for just such a time. My two favorites were: me being conceived in a suite at The Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, and a story about his father, Patrick.
Patrick was never home in that large prosperous family of twenty or so, including indentured help and new house keeper. He had his own private life in the world of men and local politics, somewhat typical of his generation. My Dad remembers a day catching a glimpse of Patrick leaving one early crack of dawn grabbing his leg and imploring him to “take me with you.” Patrick just booted him off like an importunate puppy and sauntered out the door. I was well over fifty when I heard this story for the first time, but knew the truth of it even before my Dad explained that moment in his boyhood found him vowing to love fully and individually his own children. That he would never leave them. That he would always be there for them. I take after my Dad. I am his first born, and the one he chose to tell the truth of stories. I have no first born, and so tell the stories to you. The Seanchaidh among you will know, and the rest I pray to the spirits of Old Eire, will not leave disappointed or take too seriously the poetry of blarney.