After I left my marriage, feeling rootless in Canada, I traveled several days by plane, train, ferry and bus to reach the remote, coastal village in Donegal that was Griffin ancestral land. I crossed the border into the Republic of Ireland at Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Still two years before the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, armed British soldiers stood guard at the border crossing. My Uncle Frank awaited my arrival beneath a bus depot light, newspaper tucked beneath his arm, navy knit-cap resting above bright, blue eyes so like my father’s and my own.
“A hundred thousand welcomes,” he said, smiling.
It was midnight before my uncle mutely led me to his cottage, each of us puffing frozen exhales into an aubergine sky. My fatigue was replaced by a sense of marvel at the brilliance of the stars against the blackness of night. A simple mattress placed in front of his fireplace was to be my bed, and after a snack of warm biscuits and hot tea, I slept feeling closer to God than I had in sometime.
In the morning, I opened the curtains to look upon a postcard view that the darkness had hidden from sight the previous night. White cottages dotted emerald hills, white clouds broke an azure sky, and white sailboats danced on cobalt water. My uncle and his toothless hound-dog, Binbo, walked towards town. Pulling on my boots, I chased after them.
The Catholic Church was white and quaint in its splendour. My uncle and I took turns entering the chapel and standing outside with Binbo. As we departed the chapel, my uncle said, “It’s divorce, then?” Ashamed, I could only nod. “Give it to God. He gives beauty for ashes,” Frank said.
My uncle was constructing a home for himself and his wife, Bridie, with the help of my Griffin cousins. I joined in the assembly and physical exertion and the sweet sensation of belonging began to quell my grief. I attended daily Mass with my uncle, and found that my faith sustained me.
On my daily run over the surrounding hills, I’d stop at the white cottage that was my grandfather’s birthplace. Touching its damp stones, the same prayer always settled on my lips. “God. Carry me.” My heart was shattered.
I bought a postcard showing the village chapel. 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.
Rain christened Donegal on my last day in Ireland. I plucked a rock from the north wall of my grandfather’s cottage to bring Griffin strength home with me when I left that place that had proven to be my sanctuary in January 1996. My uncle took me to a seaside cemetery and together we examined family headstones.
“There’s always arms for you to fall into, Angela,” Frank said.
I turned to face the seashore, hiding my tears from him. Ocean waves washed clean silver sands, the water reclaiming in its visiting grasp life stuck there, eager to return to the sea. The rain, fragrant with Donegal bell heather, fell ever softly. Something sacred surrounded me and the internal voice I was beginning to heed whispered above the roar of the Irish Sea: I’m with you always.
In the doorway of the bus station, a British soldier stood guard, his unwavering gaze fixed past me. Inside the station, I wrote on an ocean-view postcard: You’re never alone. I mailed it to myself.