Embrace of Faith

I

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.”

 

 II

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.”

 

III

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.”

 

IV

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.

 

V

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.

 

VI

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.”

 

VII

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.

 

VIII

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.

 

IX

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.

“Where, love?”

“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.

 

X

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.

 

XI

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.                                

 

XII

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.

 

XIII

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogshift

After first-year University, I was hired to be a fact checker at the London Free Press over the summer. This part-time student position felt like a step in the right direction toward my dream of becoming a journalist, a foreign correspondent. The week before I was to start, I was offered a job in the Ford automotive plant where I had also applied to work against my father’s wishes. Ford hired university students for the summer, and they paid four times the wage that any other job would pay. My father worked at Ford and I nagged him to get me an application. He eventually did so begrudgingly. My mother wanted me to work in the Ford plant because it was always all about money for my mother. She also seemed to love to see me graft it out in a factory because, too big for my britches in her estimation, factory work cut me down to proper size. It reminded me of my place in life. I was the daughter of factory works, and therefore, nothing special.

When I received the two offers it was a difficult decision. I weighed the pros and cons of both jobs. My mom and dad had gone to Scotland for a five-week holiday at the same time as I was hired to work at Ford, so I called my dad in Scotland to ask him what I should do.

“Work at the paper, hen,” he softly said. “I don’t want you in that place.”

“Let her make her aine decision,” my mom bellowed in the background.

I went to speak with the woman who had hired me to work at the Free Press. I wanted to know if there was any way that I could do both jobs.

“We will need you about thirty-seven hours a week,” she told me. “I don’t see how you could possibly do both. In addition, you’ll be working shift work at Ford.”

The woman at the paper was annoyed that I was considering not taking the position after she had offered it to me, and I felt guilty that I was letting her down but in the end I chose to go to Ford. I made my choice almost entirely based on the money I would earn, but I also wanted to prove to my father that I was tough enough to handle Ford. I needed my dad to be proud of me. I knew instinctively that I was making the wrong choice, but I did it anyway.

I was to start at Ford on the night shift. That meant that I was to report for work at four in the afternoon, and work until five the next morning. I was sick to my stomach when I drove myself to the St. Thomas factory for my first night of work, and shook when I walked through the factory gates. It resembled a prison and as I walked through the security doors, men dressed in blue coveralls whistled and cat-called from the scaffolding along the line. I wished that my dad was there to shield me. The men wouldn’t whistle if my dad was walking next to me.

The students were immediately pulled into a small room without any windows and told to stand against the far wall. Several foremen entered the room and chose who they wanted on their line. A small, bespeckled, and balding man except for one tuft of red hair on his freckled forehead, chose me, and told me to follow him. His name was Jorge-o Kist.

“I’m a good friend of your daddy’s. He asked me to look after you while he’s away,” he told me. “I promised him that I would watch out for you.”

That gave me some comfort. A friend of my father was looking out for me.

Jorge-o Kist assigned me to a job putting finished locks in the trunk of cars. I crawled inside the trunk of the moving vehicles as they progressed toward me from down the line. With a small, wooden mallet, I hammered the lock into the open hole sheared into the raw metal of each car before climbing out of the boot again. The tinny noises in the plant relentlessly vibrated as the line ceaselessly chugged towards me. The plant smelled of burning rubber, paint fumes and noxious glue. A little Irishmen who said ‘feck’ a lot, and three other men who knew my father, helped me to get the hang of the job by scrutinizing my technique and offering pointers. It helped to have them next to me on the line. Often they placed a friendly, paternal hand on my shoulder, or made me laugh on the line to break the monotony of the ten hour shifts we worked together. I was able to do the job quite effortlessly after a matter of hours though it was draining and droning labour.

Once I was settled into the job, Kist pulled me into his office and told me that I wasn’t cutting it.

“What are we going to do about this?” he would smirk. “You’re not pulling your weight.”

I sat in silence. I was mortified that I was letting down my father. I thought I was doing a good job but Kist would tell my dad that I was a poor worker. I glanced about Kist’s office. It was a small box perhaps six-by-six, with windows on every wall, which looked out into the plant. Pornographic magazines littered the shelves, and a few pictures of nude women hung on the walls of his glass encased, shit-box office. The legs of the centrefolds were splayed, exposing their vaginas, and their buxom breasts were bare. I was shocked that my dad would be friends with someone who had porn, and began not to trust that Jorge-o Kist was telling the truth when he said that my dad had asked him to look out for me.

“Do you have a boyfriend, Angela?”

I didn’t answer.

“Do you like sex?” he asked me, leering.

I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing.

“I’m going to pull you off the line and give you a broom. I don’t want you talking to anyone else on the line. I want you sweeping up for ten hours every night, right outside my office where I can watch you bending over my big, long, wood…..broom handle,” he laughed.

I took up my broom and swept in isolation, not speaking with anyone. My tears fell as I swept. I was terrified.

Kist continued to pull me off the line again and again.

“Where do you live?”

“With my parents.”

“Do you ever sneak out to meet your boyfriend?”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t want him to know that I didn’t have a boyfriend.

“Would you ever sneak out for sex?” he asked me.

I kept mum.

When Kist switched my job again, a man on the line told me that I was to be given three weeks to learn a job.

“Don’t you take any shit from Kist,” he told me. “You get three weeks to learn a job. That bastard is changing your job every few hours.”

I felt that I had to do as I was told. It was my dad’s work and I didn’t want to make trouble for my father, otherwise I would have quit rather than be bullied. Kist put me on yet another job. I was by myself on the line again, unable to see any other workers from where I stood. I was to hang the bumpers onto the cars and use my hands to run white putty along the rough edges of the raw metal. My hands were too small for the men’s gloves so I did it with bare hands and sliced open my skin in the process. The white putty smoothed along the edges of the raw metal was spotted red with bright drops of my blood.

I was trying to hang in there until my dad came home from Scotland as Kist changed my job every night and pulled me off the floor several times during a shift to tell me that I was failing and letting the guys down. He repeated again and again that I wasn’t pulling my weight and asked what we were going to do about it. He peppered me with questions of a sexual nature as he sat ogling me from across his desk.

When I came home from the night shift on the Friday morning at the end of my first week on the line, the sun was trying to break through a cloud-filled sky. I stuffed a bed pillow in the two-by-four window of my basement bedroom to block out the morning light. A thunderstorm exploded in the early morning sky and shook the window of the house. The pillow popped out from the window, and fell upon the Royal Daulton figurine that my mother had bought for me several years before. She had bought my older sister the same statuette. The ceramic girl stands in a pale blue dress and looks at herself in a hand mirror. I never knew why my mother bought that figurine for each of us. I guessed this particular one was on sale, and that is why she bought two of them, one for each of us. When the pillow knocked my Daulton to the floor, the mirror snapped off leaving the girl grasping and gazing upon nothing of her reflection. I knew that my mother would rebuke me for breaking the figurine. I wouldn’t be believed when I told my mother the truth of how the girl came to be broken.

“The storm broke her,” I’d say and my mother would call me a bloody liar.

“Och! Ye did it for badness, so ye d’ud!” she’s yell.

My mother always accused me of doing things ‘for badness’.

 

Kist assigned me to another foreman. Ian was a tall, slender, handsome man with strawberry blonde hair and glasses. He was very sweet to me. He put me with a young man name Jude. He too was decent to me, and together Ian and Jude tried to shield me as much as they could from Kist. Ultimately, Kist had more seniority than both men and when Kist sent for me they seemed powerless to keep me from his grasp. The foreman would tell me to report to Kist’s office with a worried look on his face. Perhaps he could see my trepidation at being told to report to Kist. Perhaps Kist made a habit of harassing young girls in the plant and Ian wanted no part of it. Whatever the case, I saw my new foreman’s upset, and Jude’s, when I was repeatedly told to go see Kist.

I didn’t invite his attention. I drowned my tall, slender frame in medium men’s coveralls. I would pull them over my shorts and t-shirt before entering the plant while I was still in my car. If the car had had air conditioning, I would have dressed at home in my overalls, but it was too hot to dress in the boiler suit before the forty-minute drive to the Ford plant during the blistering July heat. I was also always careful not to wiggle into my gear in front of anyone. I wore no makeup to work, men’s safety goggles, and stuffed my long, blonde, wavy hair into a ball cap before I even entered the plant.

I had been working for two weeks in the plant, when Kist pulled me off the line again.

“Angela. Do you have a good sense of humour?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Well, I have always promised the guys up the line a gorgeous waitress. Will you go buy six coffees and deliver them to the guys up the line? You’ll have to take off those coveralls and shake your hair loose from that ball cap,” he said as he vibrated his speckled hands on either side of his bald head as if fluffing out a thick head of hair. He gave me a ten dollar bill and sent me into the cafeteria to buy the half dozen coffees.

I walked to the cafeteria in a haze. Nothing seemed real anymore. I started to cry while I was in line, and embarrassed of my tears, went into the women’s change-room to collect myself. I took off my ball cap, let down my hair and stripped off my coveralls. Three older women, who were next to me dressing for their shifts, noticed my tears.

“What is it, sweetie?” one asked me.

Barley able to speak, I told them what was going on. I told them that I was a nervous wreck.

“I can’t sleep. I’m terrified he’s going to fire me because I can’t do my jobs. My dad is going to be so ashamed of me.”

“Fucking Kist!” another of the women shouted.

“He’s a sleaze, honey. He’s always trying to get the girls in here to sleep with him. He’s a pig.”

“Tell him to go fuck himself,” the third one chimed in.

“I can’t. He’ll fire me,” I moaned.

“We’ll tell him for you!” the first one said. “We tell him to go fuck himself all the time.”

I left the washroom and took six coffees to the men up the line, and they howled with laughter. I felt humiliated, cheap. I returned to the ladies’ locker-room and dressed again in my coveralls. I pushed my hair back up inside my hat, and returned to the line.

I wasn’t there but forty minutes when my foreman came and told me that Kist wanted me again. I was to report to him after the lunch break. My heart sank.

My foreman studied me. “You know, Angela. You don’t have to go,” he told me.

Jude took me outside to eat our lunch in the cool of the night. It was about three in the morning. We sat with our backs pressed against the brick wall. Jude ate his sandwich and tried to chat with me but I was silent. Tears rolled down my face and Jude pretended not to notice at first.

“If you were my sister, I wouldn’t let you work here. You don’t have to stay here,” he said. “There are a lot of animals in here.”

Jude tried to share his cookies with me but I refused. I didn’t eat anything from my own lunch either. Instead, I sat looking at the lights above the parking lot. They sparkled against the black sky above. A stiff breeze blew my hat from my head, and Jude stood to retrieve it for me. I took my hat from Jude and put it back on my head.

“Thanks, Jude,” I said.

I realized in that moment that Jude was correct. I didn’t have to go back. I stood, lifted my safety goggles from the tarmac, walked to the time cards and clocked out. I left the plant through the front door and walked to the parking lot taking off my ball cap again and shaking loose my hair as I approached my car. I stepped out of my coveralls and climbed into my Ford and drove home. It had begun to rain softly and as I switched on my wipers I noticed a Monarch butterfly lay crushed on my windshield. I squirted my windows with cleaner and increased the intensity of my wipers until orange, black and gold carcass dropped from my view.

The next day I told my big sister what had been happening at Ford.

“That’s sexual harassment,” she quickly concluded. “We just learned about it at a McDonald’s managers training session. You could charge him.”

I was so happy to have her listen to me and support me in that way. That was all she said, but that was all I needed. My sister’s confirmation gave me the courage to call my dad in Scotland though I knew my mom would scream at me for calling long distance.

“He said he was a friend of yours. That you told him to watch over me,” I said.

“I’m no bloody friends way that bastard! You bloody stay away frae him! He’s a bloody animal. When I get hame, I’ll bloody wait fer him in the parking lot one night. Don’t you worry, hen.”

“So he’s not a friend of yours?”

“No! He’s a bloody animal! Bloody filthy magazines all o’er his bloody office. You stay the hell away from him. He better watch himself when I get hame!”

My mother got on the phone.

“What the bloody hell is going on?” she shouted.

I told her.

“Oh, aye! And what are ye wearing tae the plant?” she demanded.

I told her.

“Medium coveralls, no makeup and my hair in a ball cap. Safety glasses,” I whimpered.

“Oh, aye. Yer never tae blame, lassie.  Yer embarrassing yer daddy at his bloody werk! Dae ye want him tae lose his bloody job? Dae ye? Fer you?” My mother uttered the word ‘you’ with particular distain.

I stayed off from Ford until my dad came home. I told him again what happened, sparing him from the really filthy comments that Kist had made to me. My dad was incensed. He was ready to kill Kist. My mother continued to blame me. When she and I were alone she would tell me again that it was my fault and maintained that I had asked for it. She also, as predicted, accused me of deliberately breaking my window and the Royal Daulton figurine. She refused to believe the storm had cracked the window and the popped pillow had knocked over the figurine.

“Ah, right! Ye broke them in yer temper! Yer a bad tempered bitch!” my mother screamed at me. “Ye did it fer badness! Bloody bitch!”

The female HR supervisor at the plant asked my dad to bring me in to discuss what had happened. My dad remained in the room with me as I recounted to the woman what went on. I felt embarrassed to have to repeat all of it especially in front of my father.

“How about we put you on the B shift?” she offered brightly.

I didn’t want my father to view me as a quitter so I agreed to go on the opposite shift though I didn’t want to ever go back there again. Working on the B shift meant that I would be on the opposite shift from Kist, but it also meant that I would be working on the reverse shift from my dad.

“The B shift is nicknamed ‘the Dog Shift’,” my dad later said. “Ye think those guys I work way are bad. Them guys is worse.”

The B shift was the second shift that had started at the plant. Younger men worked it, and there were drugs and sex on the line. The Dog Shift worked the same hours as my dad’s shift, but the Dog Shift was opposite to the A shift. When the A shift was on days, the B shift was on nights, and when the B shift worked days, my dad’s shift worked nights. My dad told me that the Dog Shift would pull a car off the line on a Friday night so they could go home early.

“A bunch of lazy swine!” My dad was disgusted with the Dog Shift.

As soon as I walked into the plant the men on the Dog Shift were on me. When I stood on the line one man whispered in my ear, “Wanna fuck, baby?”

“Oh! Don’t talk to her! Don’t talk to her! You’re harassing her,” another shouted, laughing.

Word that I had accused a foreman of sexual harassment had spread to the Dog Shift.

“Do your like sex and cocaine?” anther asked me.

“Do you like sex?” still another chimed me.

My dad would come to work early to see me on the line, and he’d bring me a pop. As I stood doing my job with tears streaming down my face, he would stand behind me, the cars moving towards us from down the line. He didn’t know what to do for me. At home, my mother just became increasingly infuriated if I mentioned any of what was going on so I kept mum about all of it. After another few weeks, I quit.

It was too late in the summer for a student to find another job. I felt too disgraced to return to the Free Press, cap in hand, to ask if they might still need someone there. I applied for unemployment and got it for the rest of the summer because I had been sexually harassed on the job. I tanned by the pool while collecting pogie. I felt demeaned that I had no job and that I hadn’t been tough enough to stick it out at Ford. My mother thought that I had planned it all out from the start so that I could be idle all summer, but I hadn’t. I had made a decision based on money, and I had not listened to my father, who knew best and who truly had my best interests at heart. Nor had I listened to my own heart, which told me to take the Free Pressjob.

I always wondered if my dad did hammer Kist as he left the plant one night. I don’t suppose he did, but he likely did have a wee word with Jorge-o Kist. That made me proud of my father and happy that he loved me enough to act on my behalf.

When we talked about it later my dad said to me, “I guess you’re just too gade lookin’, hen.”

My father didn’t blame me as my mother continued to. He understood the male mind and knew too many men like Jorge-o Kist to ever blame me.

 

 

Wingspan

In 1966 Scotland, Catholics must indicate religion on job applications, thwarting another work opportunity for them in Presbyterian Scotland. Billboard, radio and television advertisements invite worker Scots to go to Canada. In Glasgow’s Canada House, my father enquires about this place: Canada. A tall man with a soft Canadian accent rolls a map of Canada before my father and asks him where he wants to live and what sort of work he would like to do. Scotland has no place for him while Canada is a Proverbs’ bride offering hope, prosperity, and the optimistic future that has been denied him in his sectarian homeland because of his religion.

We live in newly constructed apartments on Hamilton Road in London, Ontario. A Dominion grocery store stands behind the apartments, its neon-lit red maple leaf brandishing its mocha-colored brick, and the Thames River flows nearby. At Easter, as I hunt for chocolate eggs, I find a bird trapped in the gold draperies over the glass patio doors. It swoops above my head and I feel air on my face from its frantic wingspan. I yelp and run down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, my tiny feet padding the cold linoleum. I sneak to my father’s side of the bed, and poke at his bare shoulder. My dad opens his big eyes and wants to know what’s wrang. I tell him there’s a bird trapped in the house.

“Och,” he says. “That’s a wee birdie yer mammy brought hame way her last night, hen. It has a broken wing.”

“Its wings are working now,” I tell him.

“Wha’s gain’ on?” My mother’s voice rises from the mound of blankets next to my father and I duck down beside my father’s side of the bed.

“Och. The wean’s frightened. The wee bird flew at her heid.”

My dad climbs from his bed, and takes my small hand in his hard palm as we walk together into the living-room. The bird careens at a rapid speed above our heads.

“See, Dad?”

“Aye, pet. I see right enough.”

My dad opens the patio door.

“Fly away, little bird,” I say.

“The wee thing’s frightened, darlin’. He’ll f’un his way oot when he’s ready tae gae.”

The cold air from outside invades the apartment and I shiver in need of a pee. My dad asks if I want cereal, and I say ‘yes’. He pulls a small, blue plastic bowl from the cupboard and fills it with Cornflakes, sugar and ice cold milk.

“Sit up here, pet-lamb,” he says.

I climb onto the stool next to the countertop. On the chipped formica lies a shoe box, holes pierced in its lid. Inside the shoebox is a terry facecloth. I want to know what the box is for.

“Yer mammy made the wee birdie a bed.”

My dad asks me if I managed to find any Easter eggs, and I shake my head no. I look up at the bird as I eat my cereal. He flies too fast for me to get a good look at him. I don’t want to be afraid, but I cover my head with my hands each time he plunges past.

“Och, he’ll no hurt you, hen,” my dad says. “He’s a harmless, wee sparrow.”

The bird finally finds an opening through the gold drapes and escapes into the April sky pregnant with the promise of an icy, Easter morning rain.

“That’s him away,” my dad says.

“Where to?” I ask, relieved the bird is gone.

“He’s away back hame,” my father says, following the bird’s flight with his bright, blue eyes. My dad turns, winks at me and smiles.

We’re home already, I know. Canada gave us the life denied us in Scotland.

 

 

Apple of My Eye

My little sister, Lil, had terrible allergies. We shared a room after Sissy, my older sister, insisted I be moved from our shared room to Lil’s nursery. I could not sleep with Lil’s nightly coughing, snoring and wheezing. I was suffering from a lack of sleep, which exacerbated stress at school. My dad came into the living-room one night to find me asleep on the sofa and nudged me awake.

“Come on, hen. Back tae yer bed.”

Taking my hand, he escorted me to my room where the wheezing, snoring and coughing of my unconscious little sister prevailed.

“It’s her noises from her allergies, dad,” I sobbed. “I can’t sleep in here. I sleep on the couch once everyone else goes to bed.” I was crying in frustration and noticed that he too had tears in his eyes.

“Ye know yer th’ apple o’ ma eye, don’t ye?” my father said to me.

His lower lip quivered, and he looked away from me discomfited by his show of emotion. I stared at my dad’s beautiful face. I hadn’t known that. How could I? He never said it or even told me that he loved me.

After I confided in my father that I could not share a room with Lil’s allergies, my dad set about making me a bedroom in the basement. Though that room would never have overhead electricity, finished beading, curtains on the tiny, basement window or closet doors, it was my haven in that hellish home. It was a place all my own.

The best Christmas that I ever had occurred that same year. In 1975, we spent Christmas in Scotland. We were surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. I felt part of a family during that holiday in a way that I never felt with my own family in Canada.

My Grandfather Creron died that year. I was in Grade five at St. Francis Separate School. Grade five was already a dreadful year for me because there was division between the girls in my class. Everyone who had developed breasts and had their periods joined together and sex became the focal point of their discussions. My close friends, Lina and Nikki – both Italian and early bloomers – were firmly entrenched in the camp that had breasts. I stood with Marina, who though half-Italian herself was as flat-chested as I, in the detachment that didn’t yet need a brassiere. Marina and I continued to shoot hoops with the boys at recess, while the other half of our peer group stood about the playground discussing periods, bras, boys and shaving practices. Neither I nor Marina had anything to add to these topics. I was happy to have Marina still with me as my friend, but I missed my best friend, Lina Caro.

A French Canadian girl joined our class that year. Soire had short blonde hair, angular facial features, green eyes, and she was a figure-skater. Many of the girls seemed drawn to her and I felt that my power as their leader was threatened. In French class, Soire would draw dirty pictures and send them around the room. I refused to laugh at her filthy figures, and I wanted to shove her out of the group because I felt threatened by her overt sexuality and the affection the girls held for her, particularly Lina.

My teacher that year was a short, dumpy Italian. Ms. Baldassio was in her late thirties or early forties, single, bitter and flirted shamelessly with all of the male teachers in the building. She regularly falsely accused me of cheating on reading tasks and tests, and the more I proclaimed my innocence the greater convinced was she of my guilt. As she indicted me, I towered above her in height and looked down at her, focused on her crooked teeth and droopy, Italian gold earrings. Of course, she loved my Italian friends, Lina and Nikki, and she discouraged them from remaining friends with me.

“I don’t think Angela is the best choice for you,” Ms. Baldassio told them. Apart from her personal comments she also made similar remarks to the entire class. “Angela might not be the best choice for leader in this room,” Ms. Baldassio told the class.

Ms. Baldassio had taught Sissy, and thought the world of her in large part because my older sister was content to be a wallflower in life in ways I never could be. Sissy was a plain Jane with freckles, a capped front tooth, and she wore granny glasses. The kids actually called her Granny; Granny was Sissy’s nickname. I’d punched a kid in the face for calling Sissy Granny. I was a blue-eyed, blonde, athletic girl who also excelled academically and had lots of friends. I stood out in ways that irked my dwarf-teacher, and she seemed to resent me for shining though I was a child. Whatever the reason, Ms. Baldassio worked to tear me down.

“Angela’s not her sister,” Ms. Baldassio told my mother during parent-teacher interview night. She was laughing.

“No. Angela isnee her sister,” my mother said annoyed with this teacher’s veiled criticism of her second daughter. “Angela is Angela. She’s her aine person. She’s always been her aine person, and always w’ull be.”

My mother recounted this story to me later. “Bloody bitch! I didnee miss her and hit th’ bloody wall. I telt her. Yer yer aine person, so you are.”

Ms. Baldassio handed out to every girl in our class a small lilac and pink booklet with a lavender cartoon woman with cherry bouffant hair on the cover, that told us about the physical process of becoming a woman. The boys were sent out for recess while we remained inside to receive our booklets. I turned to look out the classroom window and saw the boys, some climbing over the backs of shorter boys in front, straining to get a look inside the classroom at the girls still at our desks. They were curious as to why we were held back from recess. I viewed the small booklet and felt embarrassed of my still undeveloped body and lack of menstrual cycle. As the female division within our class continued to deepen, my grades began to fall and I started to sleep in and arrive late to school each day. I was coming later in large part to avoid the teacher who hated me, but my daily tardiness caused my teacher to harass me further, which only added to my anxiety of being a student in her classroom.

When my mom’s brother called with the news that their father had died, my mother made high pitched wailing sounds and rolled on the living-room floor clutching the phone to her breast. I stood watching her from the hallway that ran opposite the kitchen not knowing how I might comfort her.

“Oh no, no, no,” she wailed. “No, no, no.”

My mom decided not to fly home for her father’s funeral. She decided instead that we would go home for Christmas as a family to fill the void left by his passing for my grandmother. I loved the idea of going home to Scotland for Christmas to be surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. We had no family in Canada to speak of, and my own sisters wanted nothing to do with me. As we were going for four weeks, I was doubly pleased to get an additional two weeks off from Baldassio’s class.

My mom took us to Scotland ahead of my dad because he could only come for two weeks. When we arrived at my Gran’s, my mother discovered that she couldn’t find her traveler’s cheques. Immediately the yelling, screaming and wailing started. My grandmother came into the sitting room.

“God’s sake. What is it, Mairéad?”

“Shut up, mother!” my mother snapped at hers.

We were told to get on our knees and pray to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost articles, which we did. Shortly thereafter, my father called to say that he had found the traveler’s cheques. The family dog, an intelligent, chocolate-brown poodle named Nöel, had taken them under my parents’ bed and had chewed them up. The crisis was over but not before my mother’s sharp tongue stripped each of us of our humanity. My mother, of course, never apologized for her harsh words or raging temper.

During that holiday, I counted the minutes until my father would join us in Scotland. My mother’s youngest sister took me on my own Christmas shopping for my father in the Glasgow markets called the Barrows so called because vendors sell their wares out of the back of wheelbarrows in the streets. I bought a watch for my dad for a five pound note. I loved the Scottish money. I loved the hexagon-shaped fifty pence piece, the large pennies or two pence pieces, and the wide pound notes. I was so proud of the watch but my mother laughed at the cheapness of it. It stopped working the day after I’d purchased it and my auntie set it on top of my gran’s television to make it run again. I was heart-broken and my mother laughed at my cheap gift that didn’t work.

“Oor Angela paid a fiver fer that watch!” she mocked. “A watch that doesnee werk. They saw her comin’ so they dud!”

My auntie and I bought black crepe paper for the crèche, and I helped her make the radio portal at my Gran’s into the nativity manger. Once the paper was affixed to the walls of the alcove, I was allowed to spray it with canned snow that smelled like sickening sweet Styrofoam. When I went to place the infant Jesus in the manger, my auntie stopped me.

“Och no. You have tae wait until after midnight on Christmas Eve,” she said.

“Can I place Him in there then?” I asked, afraid that honour might be bestowed upon the eldest or the youngest rather than the middle child.

“Och, aye. You can dae it, hen,” she told me.

I made certain I’d have the honour by pocketing the baby Jesus. I didn’t let Jesus out of my sight until it was time to place Him in the manger after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Finally, it was time for my father to arrive. One of my mom’s brothers took Sissy, me and his youngest daughter, my cousin Mary-Cate, to meet my dad at the airport. Mary-Cate was a year older than I. Mary-Cate was a pretty little girl with dark hair and blue eyes who talked non-stop. My mother often said, “Will that lassie ever shut up?” She never did for as long as I knew her. “She’s a bloody yap like her mother,” my mom said. My mother hated Mary-Cate’s mother. On the way to the airport to collect my dad, Uncle John stopped to get petrol. Mary-Cate and I were lying down in the backseat of my uncle’s car and she was blethering away. Being in a car at night still soothed me. I loved the sound of my uncle’s quiet engine as we drove down the highway. I loved the drone of the passing vehicles and the twinkling of street lights that flashed through the windows. Mary-Cate told me to close my eyes and pressed a small toy into my hand.

“Okay. Open them,” she said.

In my palm was a small, apricot-coloured poodle with a green and white check cape. It reminded me of our pet poodle at home. I missed Nöel during that holiday, and I was delighted with the present as I clutched it in my hands in the backseat of my uncle’s car. I continued to hold onto it in the airport lounge while we waited for my father. My dad’s flight was delayed because of a snowstorm over London, England so my uncle pulled steel- rimmed, pleather seats and benches together to give us a place to sleep for the night.

“We’ll camp oot here th’ night,” he said.

There were round swivel seats with small televisions attached to them but we couldn’t get any programs on them even after we put in our fifty pence to make them play. We ran wild through the deserted airport, playing tag and hide-and-seek, until we felt hungry at which time my uncle bought all sorts of junk food from the airport vending machines, and we had a late night picnic consisting of crisps, sandwiches, chocolate bars and coca-cola.

My dad’s plane landed at seven the next morning. When I saw him walk through the arrival gate I broke away from the pack and leapt into my father’s open arms. I clung to his neck as he carried me and walked toward Sissy, my uncle and cousin. Sissy clutched onto our dad’s grey raincoat pocket as we walked to the car. He said he had been put up overnight at a hotel in Heathrow due to inclement weather.

Throughout that two week Christmas holiday, we gathered for sing songs and we received simple presents from some of our relatives. Uncle Laurel’s wife gave me lavender scented notepaper that year. I loved that beautiful box of purple paper and used it all up to write my cousins once we returned to Canada. Sissy got scented notepaper too. Hers was white and green, and apple-scented. I asked for Sissy’s paper once mine was gone, but she refused to give it to me though she never wrote to anyone back home or anywhere else. That box of paper sat unused well into adulthood at which time it lost its scent, became discoloured and was thrown out. We got beaded craft dolls, Sissy and I, and we made them over the holiday in Scotland. Sissy’s was a yellow-gowned Spanish senorita and mine was a red-headed Scottish lass. I finished mine in less than twenty minutes then ran out to play. Sissy took days to complete hers, painstakingly placing every bead with precision. We walked as a family to St. Stephen’s church for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and then came home to the sound of pealing bells, the clock having struck one. I placed baby Jesus in the manger as soon as I burst through my gran’s front door.

On Christmas Day we had a special dinner. Before eating, we snapped open Christmas crackers to get yellow, red, green, purple, orange and pink tissue-paper hats, which we wore at the table as knells of laughter competed with my grandmother’s weeping for my granddad.

“Ma mon, ma mon, ma poor deid mon,” she cried.

My mom looked embarrassed at her mother’s show of emotion. “Och, mother,” she said. “For goodness sake!”

My grandmother never gave my grandfather a minute’s peace when he was alive. They were always fighting. He would hide the playing cards on her, under his seat, and she would turn the house upside down looking for them, her vast backside sticking in the air as she searched for the cards.

“Gae me them flamin’ cards ye auld bugger, ye!” she’d shriek at him and eventually he would throw the pack of cards at her from across the room, and then go back to his pipe and paper. After he died she would wail for “her mon, her mon, her poor deid mon.” I didn’t get it.

The same auntie who gave me scented notepaper took us to a pantomime that Christmas.  I didn’t enjoy it but they served ice cream and sweets at intermission, which I did enjoy. At a fair on St. Stephen’s Day, we went on rides with another of my uncle’s kids. Those cousins lived in Liverpool and talked like the Beatles. My father’s birthday was December 31stand my gran baked him a birthday Christmas pudding. We wrapped coins in paper and inserted them into the cake before it went into the oven. We had a party for his birthday on Hogmanay with New Year’s horns and whistles. The cousins were allowed to bang pots and pans in the street on Durban Avenue at midnight as we awaited a tall, dark and handsome stranger to First Foot my gran. If one came, we were informed, she would have good luck all year.

My father had to depart for home before us after that holiday. The night he was to fly home, I was asleep with my Creron cousins in my gran’s back bedroom. Six of us slept head to toe in a double-bed, as the adults continued to have a farewell party for my dad in the front room. When my father went up the road to say cheerio to the Cannon sisters, my grandmother locked him out of the house. No one could convince her to let him in as he chapped the door softly so as to not wake the children in the back bedroom, nor could they get the big iron key off of her to open the door to him. When I heard the commotion I crept out of bed and watched the turmoil from the hallway. My mom’s youngest sister had her arms on either side of my granny’s sizable girth as my grandmother held something behind her back. My dad’s face was visible through the frosted glass of the front door, and I realized that my dad was locked out in the cold and that my auntie was trying to get the long, iron key off of my gran who held it behind her back. I started to scream for someone to open the door to him. My gran turned to see me hollering and, embarrassed, quickly handed my auntie the key. My father was admitted and he rushed towards me to calm me sweeping me up in his arms.

“I want to come with you, Dad,” I cried. “Take me home with you!”

My dad shushed me, gently stroking my back. He lifted me back to bed and I, all the while, begged him to take me with him. I hated my grandmother for the way she treated my father. She treated him like that because he never held a grudge against her but always soothed her and forgave her, just as he did that night though I thought he should have telt th’ auld bitch tae gae straight tae hell.

When I returned to school after our trip home to Scotland, I saw Lina in class. She didn’t speak to me all day but at the end of the day she walked over to me carrying a bag.

“This is for you,” she handed me the bag. Inside was a brightly wrapped Christmas present. Her mom probably bought it for her to give to me.

“Thanks,” I said. “I brought you a souvenir from Scotland.” I handed Lina a Scottish doll that I had bought for her in Glasgow. It was encased in a clear plastic cylinder. The doll wore a white bearskin hat, a red and white kilt and white boots.

“Thanks,” she said holding the clear cylinder in her hands and admiring the doll from all directions. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

She walked away and then she turned to face me again. “Maybe we can eat lunch together tomorrow or something,” she said.

“Okay.” I said smiling. “That would be good.”

With that, the St. Francis Grade five feud finally finished, and all that was left was my sadness for losing a grandfather I had just come to know a year or so before he died. That was my best Christmas ever. Despite everything, I wasn’t lonely that year at Christmas. I was surrounded by kin and I had my father’s love.

 

 

 

 

Remains of Union

I am divorced. Worse yet, I am a divorced Catholic. Of course, the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize divorce. A Catholic must pursue an annulment to dissolve a marriage. Even then, an annulment does not terminate a marriage; rather, it says that marriage never took place.

When I received notification that my divorce was final, I told a friend and she high-fived me. It didn’t feel like a high-five moment. My former husband hadn’t been cruel to me. He never called me names, lifted his hand or raised his voice to me. He had never been to a strip club. He had never looked at pornography. He simply had too much respect for himself and women to do so. His friends teased him about this calling him: ‘Mr. Clean’. And he was. He was also well-educated, funny, kind, devout, tall, fit, dark-haired and very handsome. He was a Catholic educator, and a great dancer. He wrote me love letters in calligraphy. I didn’t appreciate how rare a find he was until years after I’d left him.

I was grateful to him for pursuing an annulment so quickly. I was afraid of the annulment process, but it was that process that enabled us to find the closure we both sorely needed.

At the marriage tribunal, two older priests and a young curate sat across a broad, wooden conference table from me, a tape recorder positioned between us. At my word the young priest switched it on. He asked if I knew what a Catholic union entailed. I was twenty-two when I wed and I honestly answered that I had no true idea of what a Catholic commitment in marriage necessitated. They asked if I’d willingly entered into the marriage and again, I responded ‘no’. I’d tried to break things off before our marriage on at least three occasions, but my husband would not let me go telling me that I’d never find anyone to love me as he did. My mother told me I’d never find anyone to ever love me at all, something she’d told me all my life. Pressure came from all directions for me to wed.

I was asked what my thoughts were when I first saw my husband. I felt my throat constrict and my eyes fill with tears. One priest turned off the recorder and another fetched me some water.

“Take your time,” he said, handing me the glass.

My hand trembled slightly as I sipped slowly. “He had the kindest eyes I’d ever seen,” I said. Then I wept.

The young priest asked me to come with him for a smoke. I didn’t smoke but I accompanied him outside. As he puffed on a cigarette, he said to me, “You have your annulment. You only need two considerations on this checklist, and you have several. You didn’t enter into the matter of your own free will and you didn’t know what a Catholic marriage entailed. Your annulment will be granted.”

I left the tribunal feeling somewhat saddened but I knew that I had started the healing process. It would take years before I felt in anyway whole but that had not to do with the dissolution of my Catholic marriage. That was the result of growing up in an abusive, volatile home. That was the reason that I couldn’t love my wonderful husband and accept his love in turn. If you don’t love yourself, you cannot accept love from another. It would take me decades to understand that. A lifetime.

Postcards to Myself

After I left my marriage, feeling rootless in Canada, I decided to begin life anew in the country of my birth. On New Year’s Eve 1995, I flew to London, England toasting the New Year in two different time zones with champagne and tears.

Within two weeks of arriving in England, a small voice whispered to my heart that I needed to go home. Buttoning my jacket collar against the January chill, I 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.

I would resurrect my life in Canada but first I yearned to see my Uncle Frank in Ireland. My father’s elder brother, I could talk to my Uncle Frank in ways my father and I never could. Like my father, my uncle was a devout Catholic. My Uncle Frank had been a seminarian before marrying. 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, bracing myself for his refusal.

“Céad míle fáilte,” he said at last.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“A hundred thousand welcomes.”

I traveled for two days by rail, bus and ferry to reach the coastal village of Glenveagh, Donegal that was his home. When I saw my uncle, he stood beneath a depot light, newspaper tucked under his arm, his navy, knit cap resting above bright, blue eyes so like my father’s and  my own. We smiled at one another and I kissed his grizzly cheek ‘hello’.

“A hundred thousand welcomes,” he said in English this time.

It was midnight by the time my uncle and I silently tread 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. The plush, velvet heavens caressed the formless fields commissioning the Glenveagh stars to my soul. A brilliant, full moon illuminated our path 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.

The resplendent morning sun lit up the postcard view beyond the front windowpane. White cottages dotted emerald hills, white clouds broke an azure sky and white sailboats danced on cobalt water. 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 Glenveagh, the Catholic Church was white and small in its splendor. My uncle never passed a 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.”

My uncle took me to where my Irish cousins constructed the new home he was building for himself and my Auntie Betty. It would be ready by Easter and named in Gaelic, Betty’s House.

“Your cousins want to meet you,” he told me simply.

I communed with my cousins to erect my uncle’s home over the next several weeks. I was confounded at the sorrow I felt over a marriage I’d wished to end, but physical exertion and the sweet sensation of belonging began to quell my grief. I attended daily Mass with my uncle. My parents had entrusted me to God’s divine embrace on the day of my baptism; throughout my life my faith sustained me. In Glenveagh, 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. 

The white cottage that was my grandfather’s birthplace, still in pristine condition, was the first place I went on my morning run. I would achingly touch the damp stones of the ancestral home, closing my eyes. My tears readily fell and a prayer 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.

Rain christened the Glenveagh hills on my last day with my Uncle Frank.My wetfingers plucked a rock from the south wall of my grandfather’s cottage. I’d bring Griffin strength home when I left this place that had proven to be mysanctuary in early days of 1996. My uncle took me tothe seaside chapel cemetery and together we washed clean family headstones.

“There are always arms for you to fall into,” he told me.

I strolled to the shore contemplating ocean waves rhythmically washing clean the silver sand, reclaiming in the water’s visiting grasp life stuck in sand wishing to return to the sea. The rain, fragrant with Donegal bell heather, fell softly. Something sacred surrounded me and the internal voice I’d become accustomed to heeding whispered to my heart above the roar of the sea.

Returning with my uncle to his home, I wrote on an ocean-view postcard: You’re never alone.

I mailed it to myself.

 

 

 

 

Away

I am from away. I live in a place different than where I was born.

I was born in Scotland in 1965. When you’re Scottish, you are never truly anything else. Yet, when you are taken out of Scotland as a child, you are never fully Scots either. You are forevermore without a country, and whenever you are in one of those places in the future – the country of your birth or the nation in which you grow up – you inevitably feel homesick for the other place. You are destined to be an outsider in both places. You are forevermore without a home.

In 1960s Scotland, expectant mothers went into hospital to give birth only if they were ill. My mother suffered from toxemia when she carried my big sister, Sissy, so she was admitted to hospital to deliver her first-born child in 1962. But my mother is physically healthy while pregnant with me so she gives birth to me in my grandmother’s house, her mother’s home, at 79 Dalhousie Avenue in Dalmuir, Scotland. It is the last day in January – a Sunday – and it is the only Sunday my father ever misses Mass. He misses Mass awaiting my arrival.

I am ten pounds, four ounces when I am born. It takes two days for me to be dragged into the world, the doctor using forceps to pull me the rest of the way into it. Those surgical steel instruments leave dents on either side of my tender, newborn head. When I do finally debut, my Grandmother Creron brings the attending physician, Dr. Halfferty, a shot of whiskey. When he refuses the dram, my grandmother, who claims to be tea-total, throws it back herself. I remain the biggest baby Halfferty ever delivers throughout his medical career.

“How’s the fightin’ man?” Dr. Halfferty asks my Auntie Jeannie, my mother’s youngest sister, who is a mid-wife and a nurse and who works with Dr. Halferty on occasion after we emigrate. Dr. Halfferty is referring to my father who threw him against a wall during my delivery because my dad was worried over my mother and me, and the good doctor never forgets my father, the fightin’ man.

When we go back home to Scotland for a visit in the summer of 1972, Auntie Jeannie takes me to meet the doctor responsible for my arrival in Scotland. The doctor looks like Dr. Bombay on Bewitched, the rotund wizard with the funny moustache. He doesn’t seem that excited to meet me when my aunt marches me into his Dalmuir office. The only thing he says to me is, “How’s the fightin’ man?” And I don’t know who that is.

My mother blames me for my natal girth, but my mother never met a fish supper wrapped in greasy newsprint that she didn’t like. While pregnant with me, she craves grease and the smells of tar and gasoline. She walks the streets of Clydebank, my big sister, Sissy, in her stroller, and stops by construction sites to inhale the fumes of hot tar. She rambles by gas stations in the same manner to breathe in petrol fumes. It’s a miracle I am born with any working brain cells at all.

While the rest of the family awaits my arrival, my Grandfather Creron, my mother’s father, takes Sissy out for the day. My grandfather and Sissy visit the bookies and then the horse races, my sister’s invisible friend, Paul, in tow. Sissy roars on the buses if anyone sits where Paul is sitting when she is up the town with my mother and her imperceptible pal, Paul.

“Ahhhhh! She’s sitting on Paul! That lady’s sitting on Paul!” Sissy wails.

When my grandfather, Sissy (and Paul) return that Sunday, Sissy finds my mother cradling the newborn that is me in her arms.  Sissy, who is two-and-a-half at the time, flies into a rage, “Get that baby out of here! Get that baby out of here! I hate that baby!”

This story is meant to be funny family folklore, and would be had love developed between Sissy and me, but it never does. Sissy never allows herself to love me despite my futile attempts to win her throughout the first five decades of my life.

My mother says I am advanced for my age. She says I was talking at ten months and walking at twelve. “Yer first word was ‘Angela’. Ye were lyin’ back on th’ sofa and saying yer name tae yerself and ma mother asked me what ye were sayin’. ‘What dae ye think she’s sayin’?’ I asked ma mother. ‘Angela,’ she said. ‘Aye. Well, right enough. That’s what she’s sayin’. And ye’ve been talkin’ aboot yerself e’er since,” she concludes.

I crawl for my dad’s paper and slippers when he comes in from work. Sissy had done this before there was me and now I race her on my knees, shoving her aside to do it myself. I’m trying to become part of things, part of that routine Sissy and my father established together, but my mother remembers it in a more sinister fashion as though I am capable of malicious forethought as a wee tot barely able to crawl.

“Yer big sista stepped aside and let ye dae it all on yer aine todd so she dud.”

As newlyweds in Scotland my parents buy a flat on Scott Street at a time when the Scots simply do not buy homes but rent living accommodations all of their lives. Even then, living in Scotland, my mother is ambitious for better for her own children. The flat is in a three-story walk-up tenement building. One day Sissy hides behind the wardrobe in my parents’ bedroom. She may be playing a game, but it is more likely that she is hiding from my mother who is undoubtedly in one of her black moods. My mother calls for my sister, but cannot find her anywhere. The bedroom curtains billow in the gentle spring breeze blowing in from the open window. My mother freezes in fear at the sight of that open bedroom window. She cannot peer outside frightened that Sissy is splat on the pavement below. My sister still does not answer my mother’s screams. My mother is crying hysterically and Sissy finally reveals herself. When she does poke out from behind the wardrobe, my mother batters my sister who is not yet three.

At that time in Presbyterian Scotland, it is difficult for Catholics to find work. On job applications you have to write ‘R.C.’ for Roman Catholic and that is the end of it. When my father is laid off from yet another job, he goes down to the Labour Exchange and demands work in his own country. The clerk holds a job ticket close to his chest so my father cannot see the name of the plant looking for labourers.

“Let me see it!” my father shouts.

When the clerk continues to refuse to show my father the job slip, the fighting man who is my father leaps over the counter and grabs the wee man about his starched collar. My dad is flung out of the employment office, but later that night the clerk comes to my parents’ flat on Scott Street and gives my father the information he had earlier requested. My father goes after the job the next day and once again finds himself gainfully employed. My dad takes a bus, train and boat to get to his work. Everything but a plane. When that job ends, as they all do because of a sluggish economy and discrimination against Catholics, my father walks into Canada House in Glasgow to find out about this place: Canada.

There are billboard ads, radio spots and television commercials telling folk to come to Canada. Everywhere you went, you were hit in the face with an invitation to immigrate to Canada where you could make a better life for your family. My dad goes to Canada House on a day when he feels particularly vulnerable because of the erratic employment situation in Scotland. He wants to ask some simple questions about Canada, but before he can ask anyone anything, a man comes out from the back of the room and tells my father to step behind a curtain and take off his shirt so that they can take a chest X-ray. The Canada House representative then rolls a map of Canada in front of my father and asks him where he wants to live and what sort of work he would like to do.

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute, Sonny Jim! I’m only wantin’ tae fun oot aboot this place. I’m no ready tae go th’ day, like!”

Despite these protests delivered in his thick Glaswegian bur, the irony isn’t lost on my father. Scotland has no place for him. There is no work in his home country while this expansive country called Canada is spreading herself before him like an eager Proverbs’ bride offering him hope, prosperity and a future that has always been denied him in Scotland. It doesn’t take my parents long to decide to give Canada a chance. The Canadian government pays their plane fares across the Atlantic, and we are off to Canada to begin a new life as a young family – my parents, Sissy and I. We’re away.