Griffins

It is while I study in Glasgow, that I meet my dad’s older brother, my Uncle Pádraic, for the first time. He travels from Coventry, England where he lives and works to meet me at Glasgow Central Station. I stand in a coffee shop in the train depot and watch for him. I am excited to meet my dad’s older brother because I know little of that side of my family. I’ve heard a few stories about the Griffins from my father and mother, and I fill in the blanks with my imagination. The first piece of writing I sold, aptly entitled, My Father’s Eyes, was about my father’s life. I wrote of sitting quietly with my dad before he headed out to work the night shift in the Ford plant, and I studied his face as he did the London Free Press crossword. I imagine what he was like as a small boy playing football in Glasgow, losing his own dad at age seven, serving two years in the military in Cyprus as a young man of eighteen, a bridegroom at twenty-four, first time father at age twenty-five, and an immigrant at age twenty-nine. I wrote of his life as best I understood it. It appeared in the newspaper’s Father’s Day magazine supplement in June 1985 at the end of my first year of university, and I was paid seventy-five dollars for it. My feelings for my father are complex. I love him, and though he has raised his hand to me often I long for his approval. When my dad read the piece that I wrote about his life, he wept.

“Och! Away ye go, ye big suck, ye!” my mother waved her hand at my father and he jumped up from the kitchen table and ran into the back yard to hide his tears. I felt so hurt for my dad and angry with my mother for shaming him for showing his emotions as she did.

A small man in a navy-blue knit cap paces in front of the Glasgow train depot coffee shop several times. When I see that he has the big, blue Griffin eyes, I feel certain that he is my dad’s older brother. I walk toward this man in Glasgow Central Station who has the look of my father and offer him a handshake. He hugs me close to him instead and kisses my cheek hello.

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My Uncle Pádraic and I travel to Edinburgh together. We go for tea and visit Holyrood Palace and several museums. My dad would never be interested in doing those sorts of things with me but as an engineer, Pádraic is educated in ways my father is not. My Grandfather Griffin had insisted that his sons be educated but my dad was still a child when his father died. My father’s older brothers, Dànaidh and Pádraic, were young men by the time their father died. They were both formed men serving as soldiers in Her Majesty’s Royal army during in the Second World War when their father died. My dad was just a boy. He didn’t receive the same advantages as did his older brothers, and left school at age fifteen. He was not close to his family, which is why I grew up disconnected from that side of my family tree. During our time together, Pádraic tells me stories of the Griffin family that I had never heard, and I drink in every word.

“Do you wish that your mammy and daddy had stayed in Scotland?’ he asks me. “I never even knew they had immigrated. I came up to Scotland and was told they were away to Canada. They were gone a year or two by that time.”

My mother often spoke disparagingly of my father’s family. “That’s bloody Griffins fer ye!” she’d say. She complained that none of my dad’s family had ever tried to help him. “Pádraic could’ve gotten yer daddy a job in England but no one offered tae help us,” she said. “When we went tae stay with him and his wife in England afta’ we was married, his wife coonted oot the peas. ‘A spoonful fer you, wan fer Joseph, wan fer me and wan fer Pádraic.’ Tight as Casey’s bloody drum,” my mother concluded.

“Yes,” I answer my uncle. “I wish they would have stayed in Scotland. I would have liked to have family as I grew up. We have no one in Canada. We would have went to university in Scotland the same as we did in Canada.”

My uncle takes me to visit my aunts, his sisters, in Glasgow. We visit Mary in Govan. My Auntie Mary never once smiles at me. She sits, smokes and stares at me as I face her in her wee flat, which is just down the corridor from her sister’s flat. Mary has the same big, blue Griffin eyes, but her gaze upon me is cool. I know some of her story. Mary adored my father when he was wee. She, the eldest in the family, was eighteen when my father was born. She used to take my dad to the pictures when he was small. She became pregnant during the war after an affair with a married man who came from the Isle of Barra, and her family shunned her. She raised her daughter while living with her best friend and her best friend’s mother. Members of my father’s family were not to speak with Mary if ever they saw her along the road. Pádraic told me that he came home from the army after the war, and he saw Mary pushing a pram up the town. When he got home he asked his mother who the baby was with Mary and no one answered him. There was only silence.

Once Mary brought her infant daughter to visit her mother in the family’s Pollock home, and my Grandmother Griffin refused to look at the baby. Mary’s best friend had accompanied Mary to my grandmother’s home for moral support. There was no crib for the baby so they placed the child in a drawer while they visited. After some time of being ignored, Mary’s best friend said, “Right, Mary. Get that baby! Get that baby! We’re away!” Mary lifted her child from the makeshift cradle and slumped out of my gran’s house holding her daughter to her breast. But the family spoke to her again after my grandmother died in 1958, and Mary was at my parents’ wedding with her daughter in 1961.

“That’s your Auntie Róisín’s flat there,” Pádraic points to a door not ten feet from Mary’s door. We go in and have a cup of tea with my Auntie Róisín who is very sweet. She has small, dark eyes and a warm smile. She is a virtual invalid from having contracted tuberculosis when she was young. She does’t say much but listens to Pádraic chat away. As we leave her flat my Uncle Pádraic says, “They are sisters living up the hall from one another and they haven’t spoken to each other in over twenty years. Stubborn,” he says. “Silly!”

My Uncle Pádraic likes to write the same as I, and I encourage him to write down the Griffin stories that he has shared with me. He writes plays based on Irish mythology and has  a few produced locally in the small village from which the Griffins hail in Ireland, but he doesn’t write down the Griffin history.

I love my year in Scotland but I am not living a true reality. I am financially supported by my husband and parents. I don’t have to work for the first year in my life since I starting a news carrier and baby-sitting business at eleven years of age. I am free to travel about Scotland, and just enjoy the year. I know that to visit Scotland and to live there are two very different things. I romanticize Scotland in the way Sir Walter Scott did when he called Dunbartonshire, where I was born, ‘that dear, green place’, but I know the reality of living there is quite different from the fantasy. Still, I dream of being able to live there with a substantial bank account one day. That is the only way I could return to live there and I dream of that day coming.

I fly home to Canada for five weeks over Easter. My parents come with Jack to greet my flight at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. I am amazed that they drove from London to Toronto just to catch a glimpse of me. Jack hands me a dozen red roses and then we walk to the car park together. Jack and I climb into our car and my parents get in their vehicle and drive straight back to London. Jack and I go to Hamilton. We had given up our Charlton Avenue apartment in order to finance my year in Glasgow, so he is living in his parents’ basement for the year. Everyone sacrificed to give me that opportunity in Scotland in 1990. I feel euphoric to be home, to see friends again, and am kept busy organizing the details of Lina’s and Chubba’s wedding. Lina and Chubba book the Sheraton Hotel for their reception and they get a suite for Jack and me at the downtown hotel so we will not have to drive anywhere after the reception. When Jack and I retreat to our room after the reception, I act too sexually aggressive towards my husband in the hotel suite, and he doesn’t approve. He looks at me with furrowed brow, and I feel umpired by him in the bedroom.

I interview with a local, small Catholic School Board over that Easter break too. I walk into the board’s conference room to find seated around the massive meeting table one female and eleven male administrators. Each fires questions at me and as I exit the room I hear a collective laugh rise from the men. I know that I have the job. What’s more I guess that they are hiring me predominantly because of my looks like any bartending job I’ve ever secured.

I complete my year at Jordanhill by that July, and make ready to fly home to Canada. My grandmother calls to say cheerio before my Uncle Jock drives me to the airport. I don’t even go see her before I leave. She cries on the phone as we say good-bye. She sounds so old and fragile. She drives people away and then weeps that she is alone. It is a pattern I am just beginning to recognize in my own behavior though I had always readily identified it in my mother’s actions.

I have a teaching job to come home to. I am to teach Grade seven in the fall. I am not happy to be going into an elementary school rather than a secondary school when I am exclusively senior qualified. I am doubly upset that I will be commuting to teach. I quit my Toronto job in part because of the winter commute, and now I will still commute for forty-five minutes twice each day but in the opposite direction from Toronto, and along the 403 rather than the 401. There are no teaching jobs in Canada in 1990 and I know that I am lucky to have one. Despite that, often I drive home to Hamilton and wonder how my life ended up like this. How did I end up teaching in the armpit of Canada and living in its asshole married to a man I don’t truly love? I let life carry me along and ended up stuck in places and with people I never would have chosen consciously.


 

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