In the name of St. Patrick

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, on my most recent visit in 2016

I was sixteen years old the first time I went to New York City—that’s the same age, according to his own writing, that St. Patrick was kidnapped in Britain and carried to slavery in Ireland.

I didn’t know this fact at the time. I arrived in the city that long-ago day with my high school drama club, excited that his cathedral was one of our designated destinations.

Raised in the Baptist church, I had only a rudimentary understanding of the canonization of saints. A shadowy working knowledge in which St. Patrick loomed very large, for a personal reason:

My grandfather, born in rural North Carolina in 1906, was named Columbus St. Patrick.

Why remains a mystery to this day.

Of course there were stories of Irish heritage. Granddaddy maintained that his paternal grandfather came to America from Ireland with his brothers, but the timeline is knotty, the facts obscure, the story too piecemeal to be reconstructed. He dimly remembered his grandfather talking about carving a dugout, a small boat made from a hollow log, in Dublin.

That’s the only tiny jewel of Irish family lore I have, besides my grandfather’s middle name.

Oh, and the surname of my other grandfather, whom I barely knew: Riley.

Just this year, my family took the DNA ancestry plunge. I learned that a good bit of my blood really does run green.

I like to think it was calling to me when I first entered the cathedral, tears inexplicably welling in my eyes. It had to be more than the curiosity of Granddaddy’s name being St. Patrick, although I was mindful of it at the moment.

Maybe my emotion rose in response to the breathtaking splendor, the deep hush, the sense of pure awe . . . and something utterly unnameable. I would later learn that this profound monument to God, named for His missionary saint, was built in part by contributions of poor Irish immigrants, thousands of them. Wealthy citizens donated, too. The cathedral website states:  “St. Patrick’s Cathedral proves the maxim that no generation builds a cathedral. It is, rather, a kind of ongoing conversation linking generations past, present and future.”

—An ongoing conversation linking generations past, present, and future.

A conversation of love. Of extreme sacrifice. Of perseverance. Of devotion. Of faith.

Of blessing. Now and for all time.

The pillars of my life, built on foundations laid by my grandfather.

Until we meet again, Columbus St. Patrick, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

*******

 

Previous posts about my grandfather:

Red rubber boots

A long time ago, in a Galaxie far, far away

My grandfather, St. Patrick with my favorite photo of him, circa 1924-25

First do no harm – on nature and wisdom

What is literacy – for reading isn’t always about words

Happy place

A slice of long ago – 1937 and plowing with mules

The horse

Secretariat

Secretariat. Charles LeBlancCC BY-SA

They’re gathered at the kitchen table—Daddy, Mama, Grannie, Earnie— as Mama shuffles the cards. With a riffling “flflflflflflflflflflt,” she makes the cards fall in a fancy bridge finish. I don’t know how she does it. They’re playing Canasta. Cigarette smoke hangs thicker than fog in the close kitchen; Grannie is the only one who doesn’t smoke. I sometimes think that the white cloud pouring like an upside-down waterfall from Earnie’s lips straight up to her nostrils looks kind of dragonish. I wonder again why she’s not married, being my mother’s older sister. My sister and I almost never call her Aunt. She’s just Earnie. 

I can’t stay in the kitchen for long. The smoke stings my eyes and makes me cough. I watch cartoons with my sister for a while on TV, then drift back to my room to look at my at rock and mineral sticker books, until I am thirsty and come back to the kitchen for Kool-Aid. The grown-ups pay me no mind; they’re into their game. I pay them no mind as I get my drink from a pitcher in the refrigerator.  

Until I hear them saying a strange name. One I’ve heard on TV.

A lot. 

It sounds like “secretary.”

Earnie is a secretary. For something called Sybil Service. For the Army, I think, but she doesn’t wear a uniform. She can write in shorthand. I have seen her notepads and her little squiggles look made up. How can those little curly marks mean anything at all?

But they’re not talking about a person. I can tell by the way they say the name that there’s something very important about it. 

“Who is Secretary It?” I ask. I gulp my Kool-Aid. 

Secretariat,” Daddy says, enunciating clearly, frowning at his cards. “He’s a racehorse that just made history. He won the Triple Crown—ran so fast that he left all the other horses behind like they were just standing still.” 

Secretariat. Secretariat.

The name is as strange as Earnie’s shorthand. It uncurls in my head like a wisp of smoke. The way Daddy says it is the way people speak in church before the preacher preaches. When the music is just beginning. 

Part of me suddenly envies this horse who can run so fast, who’s so strong. I can’t run. When I do, I can’t breathe; my asthma is as heavy as a horse sitting on my chest and all I can do is wheeze until it passes.

But another part of me tastes something sweeter than Kool-Aid when I whisper his name.

Which I do, over and over.

Secretariat.

*******

I don’t remember seeing him run or win the Triple Crown in 1973. I didn’t know he was the first such winner since 1948, that he broke records with his times, that he won the Belmont by 31 lengths—so much that when I look at the old footage now, the other horses aren’t even in the frame with him. I didn’t know anything about horse racing at all, nothing about the big money, or betting, or odds.

But I remember the awe, the utter reverence, with which his name was spoken. His image, a magnificent, glossy red horse with three white-stockinged legs, soon became familiar to me.

What I understood instantly, the day I learned of him, is that he was the stuff of legend. His name tasted of rare glory, of something almost otherworldly. It’s possible that Secretariat was the beginning of my love of things fantastic.

I celebrate Justify’s recent Triple Crown win. I pulled for him all the way, holding my breath, tears flooding my eyes when he crossed the finish line, another beautiful chestnut horse excelling at exactly what he was born to do.

And I marvel at my weepiness, at my need to go back and watch the clips of Secretariat, to read about him one more time. It’s a longing born of wonder, of the crystallized moment that this big red horse with the strange name seeped into my heart like the red Kool-Aid stain above my lip, sparking something magical in the little girl that I was.

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Roses in the smoke

Red rosebud

Rosebud. Jan SoloCC BY-SA

By the chain link fence of our backyard, a rosebush grows. 

It’s really growing in our neighbors’ backyard, but, according to my mother, there’s an agreement that the roses hanging over into our yard are ours, and the roses on the neighbors’ side are theirs. 

So, early one Sunday morning, my mother ushers my sister and me out to the fence. In one hand my mother holds pair of shears. In her other hand is a cigarette. Salem. Menthol Fresh.

“Pick out the rose you want to wear,” she says. “From the ones on our side.”

The roses are vivid red with a hot pink tint. Some are wilting. Some are big and full. Velvety. Their fragrance is heavy in the air. 

“This one!” says my sister, pointing to a large bloom.

That one might fall apart while you’re wearing it. Find one that’s not all the way open yet.”

Why did she tell us to choose?

We finally select tight rosebuds that my mother thinks are acceptable. She puts her cigarette in her mouth and clips the two buds. Then she clips a third one that’s partially open.

“Why are you cutting three roses?” I want to know.

My mother blows a cloud of smoke into the air. Menthol and tobacco mingle with the scent of roses. “One’s for me. Grannie is living, so I’ll wear a red rose to church for Mother’s Day, too.” 

She has three straight pins in her sleeve. She removes one to pin my sister’s rose to the front of her dress. 

I am thinking about Grannie. Her mother is not living. “What color rose will Grannie wear, then?”

White,” says my mother, pinning my red rosebud to my dress.

I am sorry for Grannie, her mother being dead, having to wear a white rose. One day my mother will wear a white rose on Mother’s Day. The thought floods me with sadness. The colors make me wonder—why?  Why red for living mothers and why white for dead mothers?

Is red for the blood?” I ask.

My mother, in the midst of pinning her own rose, leans in. She can’t hear well. Sometimes she doesn’t catch everything other people are saying. “What?”

Do people wear red for living mothers because they still have blood in them and white for dead mothers because when they die there’s no more blood?”

My mother frowns. An upside-down V appears between her eyebrows as she looks at me. I can tell she heard me and that she doesn’t understand the question. Before I can try again, she says, “All right, we’re ready. The bus should be here any minute. Let’s go wait out front.”

We ride the bus to church because my mother doesn’t drive. She never learned how. And Daddy is asleep because he’ll be getting up to go to work while we’re at church.

We stand out front, my mother, my sister, and me, wearing matching dresses that my mother made, with our three red roses pinned on, waiting for the church bus. It’s really an old school bus, now painted navy blue and white. My mother lights another cigarette. My sister plays with her necklace—a tan-and-white rabbit’s foot on a piece of yellow yarn around her neck—and I think about colors. Red and white. Living and dead. Blood and no blood.

Good thing we have our own red rosebush for Mother’s Day, or what would we do?

It would be many years before I wondered what color rose a person might wear for a mother in an altered state. As in the case of, say, addiction. As in, if the relationship had disintegrated because of it, because the mother is consumed. Because it happens, somewhere, to somebody, every day. What is the color of dysfunction? Of existing, but not really living? Surely not a blend of red and white, for pink is too cheery. Gray? Does a gray rose even exist in nature? If it did, why would anyone wear it as homage to a mother?

One would just not wear any rose at all, rather than wearing one the color of ghosts, of shadows, of clouded memories, of the mists of time, even if the sun occasionally breaks through to shine on what was good, as on a rosebush blooming along a chain link fence and a bud like a drop of blood on a little girl’s dress, even as swirling smoke envelops it, before the ashes fall.

Memory box

Memory box

Memory Box. AntaraCC BY

This weekend I caught a bit of an interview with Jon O. Newman, a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Newman has written a memoir entitled Benched. The subtitle is rather epic, something you should experience on your own . . .

What caught my attention, however, was the Judge’s statement that “everyone should write memoir, for your children, your grandchildren.” He went onto say how valuable a person’s memories are to the successive generations, especially for the unique knowledge they impart.

These statements were both invigorating and validating to me for a number of reasons.

First: I’ve been writing a good bit of memoir here on Lit Bits & Pieces. It may well be my favorite thing to write. When I am composing a piece, it’s almost like I have “street view” of moments and people as they were long ago; I can see it all from so many angles, from within and beyond my childhood self.  Judge Newman said, “The more you write, the more detail you will remember.” It’s astonishing, really, the little things I begin to recall, one after the other, once I start writing. The images return in startling clarity. I write in scenes, small moments. I tell writing teachers that memoir is really small moments on steroids, all pumped up and full of meaning.

Secondly: I write these pieces of memory because they hover so vividly, begging a landing place, and because I truly love the time-travel. They’re meaningful to me, so I try to preserve them as best I can. What’s astonishing is the response I sometimes get from a  reader; I never anticipated such deep chords would be struck. It leaves me, every time, in wordless awe at the power, the “magic,” of writing.

Lastly, having watched my mother-in-law and grandmother suffer the ravages of dementia — and the loss of their dignity — I write to celebrate the human brain at its most glorious, the triumph of the human heart over its darkest moments, the joy and the story of lives well-lived.

In this way, my blog serves as a memory box for me, homage to those who’ve gone before, and perhaps a gift to those who come after. As the photographer of the beautiful image at the top of this post wrote: We should save part of our memories in a box . . . we may need it later . . . 

Tonight I celebrate memory. My own and the bright fragments given to me by those I loved — those I still love, for in truth, when I write, they are ever so near.