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.