The night I turned 31 years of age I broke in my mother’s arms. It was January 31st, 1996.
I had been a Catholic high school teacher for six years. It was two years since my divorce after which I picked myself up and carried on as though nothing were different. Then without warning, one of my students took his own life. He hung himself in the basement of his mother’s home with a computer cord. The immediate crisis was handled by myself and the other members of staff, and always in my mind it was to be business as usual. I would be strong as always, I decided. Yet I was not strong, not anymore.
I cried to God each evening asking that He carry me. “If it is true that You never give anyone any more than they can handle, then carry me now. I’m too weak to stand on my own any longer.”
For months I prayed in this manner. One evening as I lay in bed, a figure appeared in my doorway. I could not move my arms and legs, yet I did not feel fear, only peace. I said to him with a drowsy tongue inside a lazy mouth, “You’re here now.”
He had dew-kissed, translucent, white skin and sea blue eyes, and resembled a man with whom I taught and had dated briefly. He moved fluidly into my room and sat at the end of my bed, his back to me. He was dressed in a light-blue, short-sleeve shirt and tan slacks. He didn’t have wings or a halo, but I felt that the figure before me was an angel. He didn’t smile but merely turned his head to the side so that I could see his beautiful profile and said simply, “You must go home.”
The following morning, I awoke not remembering any of what had occurred the night before and continued with my regular morning routine. As I was making my bed before leaving for school, my clock radio burst forth in song. It was odd that this occurred for two reasons. The first reason was that my alarm was set for five to accommodate my morning run and not the hour of seven. Secondly, I never set my clock on music. I always set it on buzzer, for only that piercing shrill would make me stir. The song that was playing was a high school favourite: London Callingby The Clash.As the song played, I remembered my visitor and fell to my knees in prayer. Heaven had heard my desperate whispers and had sent to me an answer clearly and directly: I was to go home.
Home?To London. That was His answer, and I resisted it at first. Over the next three months it came again and again with increasing clarity. Home.The writing was on the proverbial wall, and God’s finger had etched it there for me to see.
In truth, I had always wanted to leave the small town I taught in. I had stayed for the sake of a teaching position that ended every year in a lay-off notice anyway. I felt I could teach elsewhere and struggle through the lean years of academic cut-backs in a place where at least I wanted to put down roots. I had accepted the position because it was within commuting distance to where I lived with my husband. John was established as a teacher in the city where he had lived all his life surrounded by his family and his friends. It was never my city. I had always wanted us to leave. I had thought of teaching out in British Columbia, or in Britain or even where my family resided.
John always said, “I don’t want to live and die in this city, babe.”
“The only thing that will prevent that is if you physically leave here,” I told him.
He would never leave and I could never make it my home.
I believed so strongly in what I had experienced that night in October 1995 that I knew God would look after me and grant me another post when the time was ripe. For the moment, I could only focus on re-establishing myself in the right place, where my life could begin once more. I knew my visitor hadn’t been a dream. I knew I had received a celestial caller.
I requested a leave for second semester and packed up my apartment. I gave to charity much of what I owned and sold the rest to HAl the Used Furniture Guybefore I bundled a few precious belongings into my car in preparation for my return to my parents’ home. Two days before I left, a childhood friend telephoned to tell me that her husband had left her after three years of marriage. Marina was beside herself with grief. Her Eastern European husband had bullied her for many years. She was never thin enough, smart enough or beautiful enough for his taste although he was insignificant in every way. He told Marina that he deserved to be with her more beautiful, younger sister who was also married and had a child. Marina had started to lose her hair from all the stress he caused her.
“It’s coming out in handfuls in the shower,” she told me weeping uncontrollably into the phone. I tried to console her, but it was impossible especially long-distance. “I am moving in with my folks,” she sobbed.
“I am too,” I said and we both laughed. “Thirty is going to be great!” I told her. “Just you wait! It will be our banner year!” Marina’s birthday was two weeks before mine. We would both be turning thirty in the upcoming month of January. Marina continued to sob openly into the phone. “I’ll be home soon,” I promised her. “Hold tight.”
I drove home on a snowy, icy December 23rd. As I navigated the 403 and the 401, I remembered how often John and I had made that drive together and I missed him.
John tried to get me to come home once. He called my apartment, but I told him to leave me alone and never bother me again. He never did bother me again until one year after we separated when he called to tell me that we needed to sign some annulment papers. We agreed to meet at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop located on the highway between our places of residence on a cold, rainy November night. I saw John’s car and ran from my old vehicle to sit next to him in his new car. We were pleasant to one another and I quickly signed all of the papers with which he presented me. We inquired into the well-being of one another and our respective families before a pall of silence shrouded the car. His vehicle shook in the robust winds like a ship rocking on the water determined to break free of its mooring.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband to you, babe,” John finally spoke. “I want you to know that because of you, despite how much it hurt when you left me, I’ll be a better husband to my next wife. I’ll be stronger.”
As he wept next to me in the car, I thought though his words were sweet, and likely words that he needed to express to me, they were strange. It was odd to hear him speak of his next wife. I looked at his big, beautiful, green eyes shining with tears in the night, and wept too. He reached for my hand and I leaned into his shoulder.
“I wish I had been a better wife to you too, John,” I said softly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t capable of being a good wife to you. You deserve to be adored. I want that for you more than I want it for myself.”
“Just promise me one thing, babe,” John said. “Promise me that you won’t go back to your family.” I nodded and asked him if he were seeing someone new and he said that he was. I told him that I was glad he was with someone and he seemed to be stung by the realization that I wanted him to move on and be happy. He furrowed his brow. “And you know what, babe? She has sisters too, but I like her sisters. They’re good people.” Saint John, blessed be the peacemaker, liked everyone on earth but despised my two sisters and my parents because he felt that they treated me like garbage. He wasn’t wrong.
We gently kissed and hugged before releasing one another to an uncertain future. I jumped from his car and ran back into the lashing rain that washed the salt from my tear-stained face. I knew then that I had loved John as much as I was able, but just not well enough. I had rejected the only human love that had ever been offered me in short, because I didn’t feel that I deserved to be loved. I was incapable of loving myself. As I drove home that December night, I felt a great sense of despair and was disappointed in myself for all of the poor choices I’d made in my life, particularly in that past few years. I hated who I had become.
I stopped at a 7-11 convenience store along the highway and gave the clerk twenty-five dollars for a small, fully decorated Christmas tree that he had on the counter next to the till. I sat the tree next to me in the passenger seat and continued the drive home. I thought of how I had vowed to never return when I ran from the city eight years before. That was the same year that I later met and married John. Yet, here I was making my way home through a year-end blizzard. This London couldn’t be where I was supposed to end up, however.
“Surely not, God,” I prayed. “Surely not.”
Once in London, I stopped at Marina’s childhood home before I continued on to my parents’ place. I took the little Christmas tree from my car and ran through the falling snow to the front door. Through the window I could see Marina sitting at the dining-room table with her family, enjoying dinner together. Her family, close and loving, was the opposite of mine. I felt embarrassed that I was intruding and thought of leaving the tree on her doorstep without saying hello. I rang the bell instead. Marina was the one to answer the door, and when I thrust the tree at her, she burst into tears and flew into my open arms, laughing. I held my broken friend close to me.
“Merry Christmas, Marina,” I said, and I kissed the top of her head.
“Merry Christmas, Ange!” she bubbled through her tears.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “It’s better not to be with a man who brutalizes your spirit.” She nodded her head and took the tree from my grasp, laughing at it with joy despite her flowing tears. “Put it in your room, next to your bed,” I said. “It’s just for you. I’ll call you in a few days. Tell your folks ‘Merry Christmas’ from me,” I told her. I dashed back to my car.
“I will. Same to your mom and dad,” she shouted after me. When I turned to wave, I saw her wipe away her tears, and go back inside carrying her little tree, giggling.
My parents lived less than five minutes from Marina’s parents, and all-too-quickly I arrived. I knew that my family didn’t want me back home, and I was desolate when I drove onto the street where I had grown up. I stopped a few houses back from my parents’ home and shut off my headlights. I let my engine idle to provide me with warmth against the December snowstorm that swirled all around. I sat in my car and wept, and then I prayed for Christ’s strength to get me through the door.
I did make it through the door and as the days passed, I found myself alone. My family shunned me over Christmas. I was not invited to my sister’s home for the family dinner, and my father didn’t speak to me. I felt that I shouldn’t have come home seeking solace. They didn’t want me.
After the October angel, I began to trust in God’s plan for my life, and it gave me the wings I’d long lacked. For the first time in my life, I believed in the real-world presence of Christ in a way I simply had not prior to that celestial messenger. I trusted that God was invested in the outcome of my life and began to feel confident that God would look after me if I let go of what I had always known to venture into the unknown. That is why, though I did move back to my childhood home in December 1995, within days of living there, I bought a ticket to fly to London, England on New Year’s Eve 1995. I felt increasingly rootless in Canada and, in the end, I told myself that the London that was calling me was that of England and not of Canada.
Of course, I was running away, my modes operandi. Perhaps I sensed that I had nothing left within me with which to stay and fight for a place at my family’s table, so I decided to flee. As I prepared for that New Year’s Eve flight to London, England, I cried as I packed, unpacked and then repacked my suitcases several times. My devastated heart underwent a tug-of-war. I felt that though I had to leave, something within told me that I needed to stay. My dad came into my room. Undoubtedly, my mother had sent him in. He held me in his sturdy arms.
“You don’t need to go, Ange,” he said to me. Those were the only words he had spoken to me since I’d arrived home.
“Yes, I do, Dad. I need to go.” With that declaration I packed my cases one last time and left for my New Year’s Eve flight. On December 31st, 1995, I flew to London, England toasting the New Year in two different time zones with champagne and tears. I didn’t know why I was so weepy. New Year’s Eve was my wedding anniversary. That could have been why I was crying, but I wasn’t sure.
In England, I stayed with one of my cousins and her husband. Cousin Christianna was the daughter of my father’s sister, Murrin Griffin. Murrin had had Christianna out-of-wedlock after the Second World War. She had had an affair with a married man from the Isle of Barra and once she became pregnant with her daughter, the man returned to his wife and family on Barra, leaving Murrin to deal with the pregnancy alone in 1950s Scotland. When her own family learned that she was expecting, Murrin was shunned by the Griffins. I personally knew what it felt like to be exiled by that blood. I didn’t know my cousin, Christianna. She had grown up not knowing any family, excommunicated by my father’s mother, our grandmother, Cecilia Griffin, just as my own sisters had always shunned me. I reached out to Christianna, my cousin overseas, because I had no sense of family at home.
I landed on January 1st, 1996. Christianna’s husband picked me up at the airport and drove me to their charming, little cottage in Croydon, where my cousin awaited my arrival. She wasn’t very welcoming as I walked through her front door and I felt that perhaps she didn’t want me in her home either. As time passed, we did come to know one another, and Christianna proved to be that comforting older sister I’d never had in my own big sister. She and I went out together in London. She took me to Harrods and her favourite haunts about town. On one occasion, we hopped on a red double-decker and one of my bags blocked the aisle. A man struggled to get over it as he disembarked and he muttered something under his breath, which I didn’t hear but my big cousin did.
“She’s only just arrived from Canada!” Christianna shouted across the bus in her classy, Scottish BBC voice. “Bastard!!”
The man quickly exited, and I giggled. It was after that incident that she and I became better acquainted. No one had ever fought for me like that before.
My cousin and I stayed for a weekend at the exclusive apartment of her husband’s old auntie in the wealthiest area of London around the corner from Harrods. The old woman had all of her groceries sent round from Harrods. As I looked in her cupboards all I saw was Harrods’ fare in tins and packages. The bathroom, like the rest of the flat, was luxurious. There was a white, oval whirlpool bathtub in the washroom, and my cousin insisted that I treat myself to a soak in it. From the tub I could see Jaguars and BMWs lining the cobble walkway beyond the windows. My big cousin was willing to give me the love and support I needed to start over there because like me she was hungry for family.
Within a week of arriving in England, a small voice whispered to my heart that I needed to go home. I stood on Platform Seven in London, England’s Victoria Station on January 6th, 1996 equipped with a map of the city and a tube guide as I set off on as series of job interviews. I was certified to teach in Britain, and as I was born in Scotland I was legally allowed to work in the United Kingdom. It was Friday morning rush hour and I studied the people who were taking the tube, focused on reaching their destinations. Everyone seemed to have a mobile to chat on as if it was part of the corporate uniform, and I could see myself chatting on my mobile to friends as I rode the tube to work or home. As I stood there observing the commuters and deciding for myself where I would fit in there, I felt what I can only refer to as a presence.I looked up Platform Seven and I felt something roll towards me. There was a winded sound like fire as it seeks to engulf a bystander with its flames. It rushed over me with an electrifying whoosh. There was no voice nor was there anything that I saw, but as its energy rolled across where I was standing, I heard in my heart the message, “You must go home.” The internal voice that would become clearer in time was beginning to whisper to me then.
I still struggled to believe that I had truly seen the visitor who I was only just beginning to characterize as an angel. I didn’t believe folk could see such things, but in childhood I had been told that I had a guardian angel, everyone had. After the October angel’s visit, I started to view life differently, and felt assured that we were not alone in our struggles. Christ was alive and invested in the well-being of people on earth, and He would intervene to draw us close to Him in love.
I buttoned my jacket collar against the January chill, walked to the train station’s bookshop and bought a postcard with a red double-decker bus on it. I wrote: England is the wrong place for you. I mailed it to myself as a reminder when I returned home in case I second-guessed the decision to return to London, Ontario at a later date. I knew then that I would resurrect my life in Canada, but first I yearned to see my Uncle Frank in Ireland where he had retired to the Griffin land in Donegal. I could talk to my Uncle Frank in ways my father and I never could. Like my father, my uncle was a devout Catholic, and I worried what he would say about my divorce. My Uncle Frank had been a seminarian before marrying a Clydebank lass named Bridie. I called my uncle to ask if I might come and see him, though I dreaded having to tell him of my divorce.
“Is John with you?” he asked.
“I’m on my own,” I answered.
“We’re roughing it here, Angela. We’re building a house. I’d feel ashamed to bring you here now,” he said.
“I just want to see you,” I said. There was a long pause during which I braced myself for his refusal.
“Céad míle fáilte,” he said at last.
“What does that mean?” I asked him.
“A hundred thousand welcomes.”
I had to travel from London to Holyhead in Wales where I could get a ferry across the sea to Ireland. My cousin’s husband drove me to the station early in the morning. When I climbed aboard the five-forty-five morning train in London, I looked forward to napping throughout the journey, but that proved to be impossible. Within minutes the train began to fill with boisterous, Welsh rugby players who appeared to be intoxicated.
An elderly couple, both of whom were blind, clamoured onto the carriage tapping their way with white canes. They sat in the seat in front of mine with their middle-aged daughter who also seemed to be somewhat visually impaired. The three of them immediately began to bellow to one another in the Irish for the entire time they inhabited that carriage. Even the rowdy rugby players vacated our carriage in due course. I wanted to ask the Gaelic-shouting couple and their daughter to please speak softly toon another, but didn’t because they were blind. I had read of West coast folk speaking loud in the Irish as was this as a way of forcefully displaying Gaelic in English-controlled Éire. I wondered if my own northern, west coast Irish ancestors had done this. I wondered if perhaps my Grandfather Griffin spoke Gaelic. He lived in Donegal during the Easter Rising of 1916, and I always wondered if he left Ireland as a consequence for having been involved in rebel activities. Had that been the case, it certainly would have explained my own rebellious nature.
I turned up the volume on my Walkman and blasted the Stones, Jackson Brown and Fleetwood Mac from a mixed tape I’d made, trying to drown out the Gaelic conversation ricocheting through the train carriage. I wondered where my home was in this world. I never seemed to feel entirely at home in either Canada or Scotland though I loved both countries. I always longed for Scotland, the country of my birth. The same romantic nostalgia that surrounded Scotland for many also affected me. My heart ached for it as though it were my home. My family referred to Scotland as ‘back home’, as in: “We’re gain’ back hame fer Christmas.” When we said ‘back home’ or ‘back hame’ we meant Scotland. But Scotland wasn’t home for me. I was a stranger whom the locals thought spoke with ‘an American accent’. Maybe Ireland would prove to be the place where I felt a sense of home, family and belonging.
The train stopped in Holyhead in late afternoon. The three blind Gaelic bellowers navigated their way off of the train, and onto the boat that would ferry us across the Irish Sea. I watched where they went and walked in the opposite direction. A dense mist was settled atop the water, and the sound of foghorns rolled in from the sea. Seated next to a window, I was surrounded by Irish teens returning from some sort of school excursion. The girls were dressed in kilts and blazers, and their male counterparts wore the same emerald green, gold crested blazer with camel-coloured, flannel trousers. They were noisy, as teens tend to be, and I knew that once again my attempt to find a quiet place to kip had been thwarted.
“There will be a travel delay,” the ship’s captain announced in a pleasant Dublin accent. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I walked to a confectionary on the ship and I purchased a postcard with a Celtic cross on it, a sandwich and a cup of tea. I tucked the postcard inside my purse and returned to my seat to eat my spot of lunch. The delay turned into a wait of several hours. In fact, it was dusk by the time we got underway.
The Irish Sea unmercifully tossed our small vessel as if it were a bath tub tugboat in the hand of an elated toddler. An hour into the journey, things became very quiet aboard the ferry. I sat still with my eyes closed in order to stave off waves of nausea. When I felt that I was going to lose my battle against my churning stomach, I went to the toilet so I could vomit privately, but the lavatory was bursting with the kilted youth hurling in tandem into porcelain pots. The sound of their retching and gagging as well as the smell of their vomit, made me feel worse, and I quickly exited. Holding myself upright with the vessel’s walls as the boat dipped and ascended on the crashing waves of the cresting sea, I lurched back to my seat. I sat completely still, afraid if I raised my head a second time I would be physically ill where I sat. Silently, I recited the words of Christ, “Peace, be still. Peace be still. Peace be still.”With those words, I redirected my thoughts from my desire to vomit to the peace only Christ can give.
Within two hours, the Spirit of Éire deposited us at Dublin’s dock already shrouded in winter’s cloak of night at half-past-five. I’d been traveling for ten hours. Exhausted, I boarded a bus marked for the city center. A woman named Mary, who looked to be in her early fifties, sat next to me on the bus and upon learning I was from Canada, offered me some advice.
“It’s not safe to be walking these streets alone at night, love. Never go out alone at night. Dublin is not the city it once was.”
She asked me if I knew where to stay in Dublin, and when I said I didn’t, she told me that she would walk me to a place she knew to be clean, safe and reasonably priced. I thanked her for her kindness. We disembarked together and Mary walked me to lovely but inexpensive B&B. A streetlight burned through the fog that wrapped itself around Dublin, allowing me to see little of the city. She walked with me to the door of the B&B, and left me there only after I promised her that I would indeed not venture out on my own at night.
“You’ll be safe here,” Mary patted my hand farewell.
I managed to thank her for guiding me to a safe place before she vanished into the vapor as though she had never been there.
The next morning, I awoke to discover that the bus I needed to take from Dublin to Glenvar was not running that day.
“That bus only runs every second day, love,” the B&B proprietress informed me at breakfast.
“I will need to telephone my uncle,” I told her. “Will I be able to stay here another night?”
“Of course, dear. Of course. January is the slow season here. We’ve loads of rooms available. You can ring your uncle from the house phone after breakfast.”
I telephoned my Uncle Frank after I finished eating.
“Go to the National Gallery while you’re there. Go and see some of Dublin. Ring me when you’re coming tomorrow.”
I walked to St. Stephen’s Green and stopped on a wooden bridge overlooking a small pond in the common. Two white swans swam close together so that a black swan, which appeared considerably smaller, couldn’t separate them. The black swan was rejected and eventually swam away on its own. I was the black swan that had always tried to fit in between my two sisters, one older and one younger, but was never accepted by them.
I did as my Uncle Frank suggested and visited Dublin’s National Gallery. A dozen schoolchildren marched ahead of me along the corridor as I entered the portico. How magnificent to be exposed to these paintings so young, I marveled. There was no such exposure to great art in London, Ontario where I’d spent my own youth. There was one tiny gallery in London, Ontario which housed a few paintings by Ontario artists and perhaps a clay pot fired and glazed in reds and blues. The children chatted excitedly as they gathered before various masterpieces in a nearby room, and I stepped away to enjoy a solitary moment of contemplation. I found myself before a number of paintings illustrating the life of Christ. I stared at the Taking of Christ, 1602 by Michelangelo.I pondered the look of pain in the eyes of the Savior as He is taken to his death. Then another portrait of Christ, painted by Gerard David of the Netherlands in the fourteenth century, drew my eye: Christ Bidding Farewell to the Virgin.Christ appears to be exhausted as He raises a solemn hand in benediction. His auburn hair is thin and his dark eyes appear weary. His creased brow keenly depicts his cavernous sense of fatigue.
Two teenage girls ran past me, giggling. The blonde one was dressed in a navy-blue and black plaid kilt and navy stockings that rolled over her slender knees to rest upon milky, trim thighs. Her outfit was very like the school uniform I donned as a Catholic Central student though her skirt was markedly shorter than mine had been permitted to be, and my navy socks had stopped at my knees. I found myself before another masterpiece highlighted with brilliant blues. It was touted as Ireland’s favourite painting. Hellelil and Hildebrand: The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, by Irish artist F.W. Burton, depicts the final embrace between the ill-fated lovers meeting on the stone, turret steps of a medieval tower. The princess and her bodyguard fell in love, but the king disapproved of the match and ordered his sons to slay the amorous sentry. The portrait shows the couple’s final embrace as the doomed sentinel bids farewell to the king’s virgin. I saw myself in that portrait, which poignantly illustrates the reluctance of two lovers to release one another and their obvious distress at being forced to do so. I certainly was not fully the princess in the portrait. I had as much in common with the painting’s condemned lover as with the distraught princess.
I left the National Gallery and breathed in the brisk evening air. The painting of the star-crossed lovers continued to tug at my heart as I strolled back to my B&B and I knew instinctively that I needed peace. It was peace for which I had long searched in my life. I felt in my purse for a peppermint, and my fingertips caressed the postcard I had purchased on the ferry crossing to Ireland. I’d forgotten all about it. I stopped, fished a pen from my purse and wrote: Peace, be stillon the back of it. I popped it into a green mailbox just off O’Connell Street. It would await my arrival when I did return home to Canada, which I would in due course. I knew that I had to go home to face all the things from which I had been running all these years.
Before I left Dublin the following morning, I telephoned my uncle and told him that I was coming ahead.
“You’ll never find us unless I come and get you,” he told me. “I’ll meet you in Letterkenny and bring you the rest of the way myself.”
I got the six o’clock bus leaving from Dublin destined for Donegal after asking the driver if his bus went to Donegal.
“You’re grand,” he said. “On you come.”
As I settled in with my music, some snacks and a boring book for the journey, a young mother jostled onto the bus with an infant. Mother and child sat across the aisle from me, and I prayed the child was a happy traveler, and even that she would sleep for the duration of our journey north. The baby gurgled and giggled as her mother made big eyes and smiled widely at her daughter. As I watched mother and child, I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother had ever been that playful with me or my sisters. It wasn’t in her nature to be warm or silly. I am not sure why my mother ever had children except that it was expected that young women in the 1960s would become virgin brides and mothers immediately after the wedding. Women, especially young, Catholic women who were not going to become nuns, would marry and have a family.
When the bus reached Ballyshannon, LetterKenny, the driver announced that it was the final stop and ordered all passengers to disembark. I clamoured off the bus, and looked for my uncle, but I suspected that I was not at the correct stop. I felt that I had further north to travel. When I failed to find my uncle at the depot, I walked up and down the main street of the small town looking for him. I was certain that I had disembarked at the wrong place. I was in Ballyshannon, Letterkenny and not in Letterkenny itself. When I walked back to the bus depot I saw that it was closed. It became apparent that I would not be going any further north that day.
I looked on the exterior bus schedule for the place called Glenvar – the area in Donegal where Frank actually lived – but there was no such place listed. I thought I would need to get a room in a local B&B and make my way north the following day, but I remained unsure as to what bus to get from Ballyshannon. I asked a few locals what bus I needed to take to get to Glenvar.
“Never heard of it, darlin’.”
No one I asked knew where Glenvar was located. I wandered the streets of Ballyshannon, looking for a phone box to use. I found one inside a local pub and called my Uncle Frank.
“I got off at the wrong stop,” I told him, choked with tears.
“Wait there. I’ll come to you,” he told me.
“There are no other buses running from here tonight,” I told him.
“Yes. There is. The one I will take to get in to you will bring us right back home again. Get something to eat and I’ll meet you at the depot in two hours.”
“Okay,” I told him.
I entered the pub and asked for broiled or steamed vegetables.
“No meat?” the waitress asked me.
“Just vegetables,” I requested again.
She brought me a plate of soggy carrots and watery, bland potatoes. I ate what I could and then ventured outside.
I wandered the streets taking photographs of Ballyshannon. I rambled into Ballyshannon’s St. Patrick’s Church and took some photographs before lighting a candle and saying a prayer for my family’s peace. I left the chapel and wandered further along the lane. I found myself in front of a convent. I wondered why I always ended up in front of a convent. Was God calling me to religious life? If He were, wouldn’t I feel joyous at the prospect instead of saddened, which is how I felt when I thought of taking the veil. I took pictures of the monastery and sat in the garden for a time before pushing on. Down cobblestone laneways stood beautiful, white cottages with flower boxes on the windowsills still vibrant with green and crimson blooms though January. There were some old ruins overgrown with deep green, climbing vines alive with violet blooms. I snapped a picture of a fly fisherman who, though far from the bank, stood knee deep in the Ballyshannon River casting his rod. He smiled and tipped his hat to me. I smiled and discreetly waved to him.
I came across a historical plaque in Ballyshannon that commemorated the river as a famine departure point in the 1840s and I wondered how many of my ancestors starved to death or left Donegal in that terrible time. In Montréal there was a town called Griffintown established by a Griffin woman in the 1820’s and populated by Irish immigrants and their descendants. Was I related to that woman? How many Griffin relatives left Ireland and made it to Canada before my family crossed the sea in 1966? All had come from Ireland hopeful for a better life. My parents had certainly found a richer life materially in Canada, but we were deprived of family. We did not have grandparents, aunties, uncles or cousins in Canada. It was a lonely life we had made for ourselves outside of Scotland.
I walked out into the countryside and petted some horses who playfully hung their heads over a mesh fence. Their large eyes looked into mine with such trust and defenselessness that I felt my heart break open with love for their vulnerability. I returned to the town and thought I would seek out a cup of tea, but when I looked at my watch, I noticed that it was time to meet my uncle. I made my way back to the Ballyshannon bus depot, and saw my uncle standing beneath a station light. He had a newspaper tucked under his arm, and his navy, knit cap rested above his bright, blue Griffin eyes. We smiled at one another and I kissed his grizzly cheek ‘hello’.
“A hundred thousand welcomes,” he said in English this time.
He and I departed together on the ten o’clock bus and traveled to his home. It was midnight by the time my uncle and I silently trailed the cobble walkway to his cottage, puffing frozen exhales into the aubergine sky. My fatigue was replaced by a sense of marvel at the blackness of the Irish night blanketing us as my uncle mutely led me into his cottage. There was a simple mattress for me to sleep upon placed in front of his fireplace. After a snack of warm biscuits and hot tea, I slept feeling closer to God than I had in sometime.
I had always been true to my faith in terms of belief, but I had not always been true to myself or to my relationship with God. I’d offended God with my behavior often. I was ashamed of that and felt then that God did not love me because I was imperfect just as my parents and sisters refused to love me because I was imperfect. The angel’s visit demonstrated to me that God was there walking beside me despite my human shortcomings. He saw all that I did – good and bad – and He knew all that I’d suffered. He saw how deeply I had been wounded in my life, and He witnessed all the ways that I continued to be hurt by my family’s indifference towards me. He wanted me to heal. He was directing my life in ways that I was unable to do alone in order to restore peace to my heart. I was beginning to understand that.
The brilliant morning sun lit up the postcard view beyond the front windowpane. White cottages dotted emerald hills, silvery clouds broke an azure sky and bleached sailboats danced upon the cobalt water of Mulroy Bay. I spotted my uncle walking to town with his toothless, hound dog, Binbo. Pulling on my boots, I chased after them. He and I took turns entering the chapel and standing outside with Binbo. Like all the buildings of Glenvar, the Catholic Church was white and small in its splendor. My uncle never passed a Catholic church without blessing himself with the cross of our faith. It was an unobtrusive, reverent gesture I noticed when he and I spent time together in Edinburgh in 1991.
“Your faith is your most precious gift, Angela,” he said as we left the chapel.
Hesitantly I responded, “I’m afraid you’ll disown me, Uncle Frank.”
“It’s divorce then?” he looked to me for confirmation. He waved his hand. “Give it to God. He gives beauty for ashes.”
Beauty for ashes.I thought it a lovely sentiment and held tight to it.
Over the next few days, my uncle introduced me to many Griffin relatives. “Your cousins want to meet you,” he told me simply.
I met who my uncle told me was my dad’s cousin, Sheena, and her husband, Tam. Sheena was a great-granddaughter of my great-grandfather, Dainéal Griffin. Dainéal had been married twice. He had my grandfather, Ever Griffin (my dad’s father), with his wife Roísìn, then a daughter also named Roísìn, but when Dainéal’s wife died in childbirth with their third child, Iain, Dainéal Griffin remarried. The woman with whom he married as a widower was Sheena’s great-grandmother. Sheena’s father, James Griffin, was Ever Griffin’s half-brother. My dad and Sheena then were half-cousins. Frank and my father never told me that my great-grandfather, Dainéal Griffin, had married a second time. It was as if they felt ashamed that their grandfather had married twice and kept it a secret.
Frank took me to where he constructed the new home he was building for himself and my Auntie Bridie. It would be ready by Easter and named in the Gaelic, Teach Bridie, which meansBridie’s House.
I met three bachelor brothers, who were my dad’s uncles and my great-uncles. They were three men in their sixties, who lived together on the family farm adjacent to Uncle Frank’s property.
“I must warn you,” Frank told me. “Their house is not clean. I wouldn’t use the lavatory if I were you.”
The bachelor cousins were hulking men with hands the size of shovels, toothless smiles and little to say. They presented me with old family photographs, some of which showed my father as a small boy. My dad looked the same as he did in adulthood just miniature size. His pale blue eyes were so large they occupied his entire face when he was a small child. They looked ghostly white as they peered out of the black and white snaps. My eyes showed up in my black and white baby pictures in the same way. The bachelor cousins, delighted to have company, offered me tea in a chipped, stained cup and pound cake sliced with a knife that one brother wiped on his filthy coveralls. The bathroom was so soiled that I gagged when I went to use it. Feeling I should have heeded my uncle’s warning I merely washed my hands and kept my jeans on. I wondered if my great-grandfather and grandfather had lived in such filth.
My uncle coached a men’s football club in Glenvar. His players were required to take Gaelic lessons from my learned uncle if they wished to remain on the team.
“I’m afraid the language of Ireland will die if we don’t protect it,” he told me. “You never hear it anymore. We have one Gaelic television station and one Gaelic radio channel. It’s a sin.”
I thought of the west coast Irish Gaelic bellowers on the train. I’d heard plenty of the Irish during that long, early morning train ride.
“What happens if your players miss a class?” I asked.
“They’re benched! They don’t play unless they come to Gaelic classes! I don’t care who it is. That’s the way it is!” my uncle shouted, pounding the air before him with closed fists.
I nodded and smiled as I thought my father, football mad as he was, would never bench a player for lack of attendance in Gaelic classes especially if the player were a great competitor.
Waves of grief washed over me at unexpected moments while I was in Glenvar, and I was confounded at the sorrow that I felt over a marriage I’d ended. I told God then that I wasn’t ready to go it alone yet.
“I need you, God, every day. Please just hold me close. Just hold me, hold me, hold me,” I prayed.
In truth, I couldn’t see the day coming when I could go it alone. I came to see that I needed God in my life every day from that day forward.
I worked with my cousins and helped to erect my uncle’s home over the next several weeks, and in time, physical exertion and the sweet sensation of belonging helped to quell my grief. I attended daily Mass with my uncle, and that too led to light filling the cracks of my shattered heart. In Kerrykeel, I bought a postcard showing the quaint village chapel my uncle and I frequented. On it I wrote: I’m in God’s country. Standing where your father stood. Walking where he walked. I mailed it to my father in Canada with the PS: Don’t tell mom I’m in Ireland. She’ll go daft.
The white cottage that was my grandfather’s birthplace, still in pristine condition, was the first place I went on my morning run each day. It stood at the foot of Knockalla Mountain. I would achingly touch the damp stones of the ancestral home, closing my eyes. The earnest sea breeze blowing in from the Irish Sea always enveloped me. My tears readily fell and the same prayer always settled on my lips.
“Walk with me on my journey. Please help me reclaim my fighting, Irish spirit.”
My heart was in pieces and alone I didn’t possess the necessary strength to begin again. I could never walk alone again. I needed Christ to go before me, to walk beside me, to lie beneath me, to hover above me, and to rest within me. He was to be my bejeweled breastplate for the rest of my life.
I had a lot of time to walk and think while I stayed with my Uncle Frank. As I strode upon the country roads, countless people stopped to ask if I needed a lift. I told my uncle about the countless rides I was daily offered, and he laughed and said that folk there didn’t believe in walking the length of themselves.
I walked into town to do my laundry and stumbled through the process with the help of the young girl who managed the launderette. Despite her limited English and my non-existent Polish, we managed to communicate with one another. She took my clothes from my hands and loaded up the washers for me, demonstrating the workings of the facilities as I keenly observed. Despite the young girl’s assistance in the LetterKenny launderette, I realized that though my clothes were clean, the ultra-hot dryer had shrunk every article of clothing that I had with me. I walked back to my uncle’s place slightly miffed, and left my wash folded in my bag before I set off to meet with a cousin at her home. I stopped to ask directions several times before finding the little coach house where Dearbhail lived with her new baby and husband. When I chapped the door Dearbhail answered and welcomed me into her home.
“Come through, Angela. We’re in the front room.”
An electric fire warmed the sitting-room and I looked at Dearbhail’s wedding pictures standing along the fireplace mantel. She and her husband had been married at an Irish castle. Both were dark-haired and blue-eyed from large, Irish, Catholic families. I watched Dearbhail play with her infant son, Aaron, who thought his mother’s comic expressions were completely delightful, and who became equally distressed by his grandfather’s funny faces.
“What’s it like being a mother?” I asked Dearbhail who was so obviously a loving, gentle mother to her son.
“Ah now. It’s lovely, isn’t it?” she said.
Dearbhail certainly made it seem so.
I went to Mass each Sunday in Glenvar at St. Mary, Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church. During my final week with my uncle, I was at early morning Sunday Mass when I saw three little girls adorned in white dresses and elaborate veils. They looked like miniature brides. Two young boys dressed in dark suits and tiny neckties sat at either end of the little girls. The little children were very solemn as they participated in the Mass, which seemed to be their First Holy Communion. Youngsters at home and seemingly in Ireland, no longer made their First Communion with their Grade two classes in May, which is how it was when I made mine. They made their First Holy Communion intermittently throughout the year.
I thought of my own First Holy Communion. I had to wear my older sister’s hand-me-down Communion dress and veil. My mother had made both. She used an ugly sheer polka dot material for the dress, likely the cheapest material she could find. The sleeves of the dress were puffy and the elastics at the wrists were so tight my circulation was cut off. The veil puffed forward and covered my entire face. The one thing my mother had bought for my First Holy Communion was a pair of white knee high socks. After I’d put on my dress, I went to my mother’s bedroom in search of my new socks. My mom was dressing and when I asked for my socks, my mother walloped me until I cowered in the corner covering my face with my small hands. Her slaps left a red palm print on my right thigh. I noticed her red hand mark on my leg while I was church, sitting in the pew next to my best friend, Lina Caro. As my white dress slid up my leg, I had tugged at my hemline to cover the mark, but Lina had already noticed it.
“What happened?” she stroked my leg with her white gloved hand. Lina looked beautiful. She wore an extravagant, white satin dress trimmed with Irish lace, and white lace gloves to match. She even had a little, white stain purse to carry. All of it brand new.
“Don’t know,” I shrugged.
I told a lie to Lina in church on the day that I was to receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time. I was ashamed of my mother’s raging temper. My mother’s black moods always tainted what was sacred in my life.
I watched the Irish children go to the altar rails of the village chapel and kneel as they received the Eucharist for the first time. The gold plate gleamed beneath their tiny chins as the altar servers held it there, and the sacred host was deposited on eager, innocent tongues. Though they did not yet understand the Catholic religion, I knew that their faith may prove one day to be a sustaining force in their lives as it had in my own. Religion, with all its tenets, was manmade and therefore fallible. Faith was something different entirely. Faith was a God-given gift always there to draw upon. I objected to some aspects of the Catholic Church, but I chose to celebrate my faith through the Catholic religion because it kept me steadfast. The practice of the Catholic religion reminded me of God’s presence, God’s word, and what was truly important in life: to love God, love others and love myself. My faith was more personal. It was about a more intimate relationship with God that had nothing to do with the rules of any religion.
After Mass, I walked along roads that had become familiar by then. It still was not home for me though, and I knew that the time had come for me to go home to Canada. It was time for me to do as the angel had directed me, and I felt ready to tackle my life head on. I knew with God holding me, I would be invincible in my flight to my new sun.
Rain christened Ranny Hill on my last day with my Uncle Frank in Glenvar.I plucked two rocks from the north wall of my Grandfather Griffin’s cottage and pocketed them: one for me and one for my father. I would carry Griffin strength with me even after I left this place that had proven to be mysanctuary in early days of 1996. My uncle took me to St. Mary’s Star of the Sea seaside chapel, and we visited the cemetery. He showed me where my Great Uncle Patrick Griffin lay, a Catholic bishop of Ireland, and together Uncle Frank and I washed clean family headstones.
“God loves you, Angela,” my uncle said suddenly as he wiped raindrops from his face. “There are always arms for you to fall into,” he told me. “His arms are the only arms you ever need. Trust.”
I strolled to the shore contemplating ocean waves rhythmically washing clean the silver sand, reclaiming in the water’s visiting grasp life stuck but wishing to return to the sea. The rain, fragrant with Glenvar bell heather, fell softly. Something sacred surrounded me and the internal voice I’d become accustomed to heeding whispered its message to my heart above the roar of the sea: “I am with you always.”
Returning with my uncle to his home, I wrote on an ocean-view postcard: You’re never alone, and I mailed it to myself.
When I traveled back to my cousin’s in England, I waited for Christianna outside her office building. We had arranged to meet so that she could give me the key for her place. A bride and groom walking hand-in-hand suddenly appeared to my left. A wedding photographer traipsed after them. The bride’s shining, green eyes met mine and I wished her good luck as she smiled widely and gave me a nod of gratitude. They crossed over the road to pose in front of a cathedral for photographs. The morning sun shone on the beautiful bride – a tall, fair, blonde woman who appeared to be in her early thirties – and provided a gentle warmth for the newlyweds. The bride radiated joy as she looked upon her groom, a man of similar age, who was ebony-skinned. I thought they looked beautiful standing next to one another, her stark whiteness in skin and gown magnificent next to his dark, morning suit and black skin. Both looked so happy. I hadn’t shone with joy on my wedding day, and I was beginning to forgive myself for that as I came to understand why. The people who need love most are the first to run from it when it arrives.
My cousin greeted me outside her workplace with a look of sheer delight.
“I’ve loads to tell you,” she said rather breathlessly. She kneaded her hands together.
“What is it?”
“My husband and I are chucking it. He’s had an affair. I found out the night before you arrived. We’d been to a New Year’s party. She confronted me at that party. He’s moved out,” she told me.
“Oh, Christianna,” I said. “That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.”
“Och. It’s fine! It’s fine!” she said. “I’m relieved.” Her obvious agitation belied her professed jubilation. “That was why I was so funny the morning you arrived. I’m very sorry for my mood that day.”
“Och. You were fine,” I lied. “I thought you were just hung over.”
“Well. That’s all finished now. He’s moved out so we can have a proper chat when I get home tonight.”
“Okay,” I said. “See you at home later then.” She handed me her house keys.
We hugged goodbye and she ran back inside her office building. I walked towards the shelter where I would catch the bus back to her wee cottage. The newlyweds had vanished.
I knew that it wasn’t my fault that my big cousin had thrown out her husband, still part of me felt that she made the decision to leave her marriage so quickly because her wee, divorced cousin from Canada was staying with her. Maybe I’d made freedom look appealing. If I had, it was an illusion and it was unintentional.
Christianna and I did have a chat that night. She drank a lot of wine and we listened to an Oasiscd she’d just purchased.
“I think they’re idiots,” I said referring to the feuding Gallagher brothers.
“I think they’re lovely,” my cousin swooned.
“Och, yer aff yer face, hen,” I said and we chuckled together.
I returned home to Canada shortly after that. I left my cousin to end her marriage and I returned to London, Ontario to wrestle with my own past. It was a struggle to live in London again. It was at the end of that month, on the night of January 31st1996, that I broke in my mother’s arms. I told her I felt broken inside and didn’t know how to put myself back together again. She just held me and rocked me. She stroked my hair as she had done when I was a small child crying with the pain of an earache. When I was ill was the only time my mother would be tender with me in childhood. When she held me in my adulthood, I did not have the strength to return my mother’s embrace. I just asked her repeatedly to not let me go. Many times, I turned to my father and asked that he hold me in his arms always so solid and strong. He told me anytime I needed his arms, they were there for me to fall into. I needed his strength again and again. Likewise, I would ask my mother periodically to again hold me, just for the moment, and she would though I know it made her feel uncomfortable. It was really my faith that sustained me then. Of course, it was my parents who first gave me over to Christ’s divine embrace on the morning of my Christening on February 14th, 1965 in Scotland’s St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church. The gift of my faith was the greatest gift they ever gave me. It was always there for me to draw upon. It was always to the living well of Christ that I went to quench my thirst. I’d be forever grateful to them for that precious, life-sustaining gift.
I continued to find peace in London’s St. Peter’s Basilica during that tumultuous period. I went to the cathedral to bask in its solitude just as I had when I was a high school and university student in that city. I usually had the cathedral to myself, and I would sit still in the surrounding silence, my heart whispering my troubles to God. Daily I asked that He help me make it through another day. I could no longer stuff down the pains of my childhood, and it was then that I started to confront my past once and for all, and miraculously, I began to heal.
I learned that God does not just hold me when I ask Him to. I thought I had His embrace for a short time, and that He would tire of holding me eventually, and my time to be carried would be exhausted. Others needed Him more than I, did they not? I was being selfish, hoarding His affections, manipulating His attention. He would have to leave me to toddle on my own again soon. I feared that time coming. Thus, I decided to tell Him I could not see the day coming that I could let Him release me from His embrace. I needed Him every day, forevermore, to illuminate my path and protect me from becoming lost along the way.
By July of 1996, things were more settled for me in London, Ontario. I was working full-time though not in teaching. I had also made friends, and I walked downtown to join some of those friends on an outdoor patio for coffee. The summer sun had been cooled by the night air, so sweet and thickly fragrant with the perfumes of the July black spurs. Something sacred was next to me in that summer night air, leading me, whispering to my heart above the soft chirpings of the nocturnal crickets. I strolled past St. Peter’s Basilica, admiring the way its spires were illuminated by three soft spotlights pointing up at the Cathedral from its plush green lawn. I walked on from St. Peter’s and found myself in front of Catholic Central, my old high school. As I stood in front of the Kennedy football field, I saw a navy-blue sweatshirt peeking out from the dried earth.
The school had erected a twentv-foot fence around the track so that it was inaccessible to the public. I scaled the fence, walked to the blue sweatshirt and pulled it from the mound of muck in which it found itself entombed. I brushed dust from its logo. It was not a Catholic Central sweatshirt as I had thought, but rather a ROOTS CANADA sweatshirt. As I held it in front of me, the internal voice that had become my companion by then whispered once again to my heart.
“You will teach here one day.”
Later that evening, I told my mother what I’d heard.
“That’d be wonderful, but how?” she asked me. “There are no teaching jobs in London.”
“I don’t know, but I feel like I will teach there one day. I’ll leave it up to God as to when and how.”
I researched the experience of seeing an angel during that time. I took out many books on the topic of angels, God and the Gnostic Gospels from the London Public Library. On a day when I took out thirteen at one time, the young, male librarian asked me if I was becoming a nun.
“No,” I answered with a smile.
“I figured with all of these books,” he motioned toward the stack of texts with his laser.
“Just interested in the subject manner,” I smiled at him a second time. People were funny, I thought as I gathered the books in my arms and walked toward the exit still smiling.
The accounts in the books were identical to my own experience of an angelic visitor. People reported seeing and experiencing what I had. All of the figures had translucent skin. Each angel looked like someone known to the person to whom the messenger was sent. That made the otherworldly visit less frightening to the individual who was graced by the angel’s visit. The celestial visitors were dressed in clothing of the current era. They sported no wings, nor a halo. In each case, the angel did not smile. Those visited felt a sense of peace come over them as had I. The descriptions of all of the experiences were exactly as my own had been. Upon reading through all of the accounts recorded in the books, I became convinced that an angel had visited me, though I still could not believe that I mattered enough to God to warrant such attention from Him, my heavenly Father.
During that time, when I slept at night, I would feel the weight of someone sitting at the foot of my bed. The first time it happened, I froze beneath my blankets. Once I felt courageous enough, I peeked out from under my covers expecting to see some madman seated at the foot of my bed but saw no one. I could still feel the weight of someone by my feet. It was my angel returned and I came to welcome his nightly presence. I would even call for him if he had not yet shown up for the night. I would always ask him to wrap his arms around me and I always felt arms enfold me. I decided that it was my guardian angel watching over me during those years of personal restoration. At times I wondered if it was just my imagination but one night Marina stayed with me in my room after we had been out late that night. She crashed next to me in my bed like we used to do as kids and in high school on occasion, and the next morning she mentioned to me that she had felt the weight of someone at the bottom of my bed. She said that she had felt frightened because she had thought that someone had entered my bedroom and was sitting at the end of my bed during the night.
“I know. It happens every night,” I told her.
Her eyes grew wide. “What do you mean?”
“I feel him there every night. I believe it’s my guardian angel watching over me.”
She accepted what I said. She too was Catholic and a very spiritual person. The fact that she felt his presence validated what I had been experiencing nightly for some months.
By 1999 I was teaching at Catholic Central High School through no initiative of my own. It just was. It was simply God’s intent for my life. Teaching was a salve for me. The daily love and respect that my students gave to me, showed me that I was worth loving. I feel though I was a good educator, the best I knew how to be, it was my students who taught me great life lessons. They gave me more than I could ever give them, and their collective love healed me.
My faith has proven to be the one sustaining force in my life. I’ve learned to be still and know God. I’ve been a witness to the real-world presence of Christ in such a way that I can never doubt again that I’m loved by God and that I matter. I’ve learned that my life will unfold in God’s time and in God’s way. I need only be present to His gentle, guiding grace. Definitively, I came to know what it meant to be saved by Christ. He was my Savior. He lifted me out of the pit of my despair and breathed life into me once more. I found the love and recognition that had been withheld from me by my earthly father and mother through their human shortcomings, in the relationship I engendered with my heavenly Father. It was the realization that I could turn to God for the love and approval for which I had longed craved that allowed me to walk on. With God firmly by my side, I worked toward a healing and hoped for better days ahead.