Chapter 14 Decisions to be Made
Relieved that much had been decided, John sang his way down the path to his house, his sweet tenor voice growing louder the closer he came to the door and the bairns tumblin’ out of the door. “Da, Da, what have ye?” and then fightin’ to reach around him, “We can see the bundle yer hidin’.”
John knelt down to the circle formin’ at his feet, “Ah, ye have brilliant eyes, haven’t ye, seein’ things right through me. Into the house now with ye, I’ve a bit a sweet from yer Uncle Philip, but we must share it with yer ma, so into the house, I tell ye.”
John went into the kitchen and laid the bundle on the table where Johannah was choppin’ cabbage. “Philip sent ye a present, just a wee gift to say haloo.” He pulled the rag off the top, peelin’ it back to reveal a fine loaf of brown bread. “Margaret made it for ye while we talked. Well, when she could bring herself to put the wee Daniel down. He’s a healthy lookin’ lad, but I fear his mother thought she’d never have a child, so she’s not about to put him down if she doesn’t have to.” John paused, a bit out of breath from that long proclamation. “Ennaway, she sends ye her regards and said to tell ye she’s sorry to have missed you.”
“Don’t touch it,” Johannah warned the little ones, seein’ their fingers creepin’ toward the crusty round loaf. “We’ll be having it with some soup before ye go to bed, so be off with ye while I talk with yer da.”
John and Johannah watched the children drag their feet toward the fire in the front room and as soon as they turned the corner, Johannah slipped round the table to John’s side, pullin’ his body close to her own. “Well, what news have ye? I know ye went with Andrew. His Mary came over and asked me the same, what were ye both up to? So, now I’ll be after askin’ ye the same, What were ye up to?”
And John told her all of it, cautionin’ her to tell no one till after they heard from Billie Lynch back in Pennsylvaney.
Then they et their soup and the brown bread and the children were off to bed. John exhausted from the long walk and all the talkin’ about the unknown, followed thebairns, sighin’ his way up the steps to bed.
Johannah studied the fire as though the flames reachin’ up into the chimney would tell her what she wanted to know. She whispered the words, the ones she heard from the song of the peat as it breathed into the darkness: John was right. You have to leave. John was right. You have to leave, the fire hissed. She crossed herself and let the tears fall, silent tears, wipin’ them away when they threatened to drip from her chin. She looked up the steps to where she could hear John’s heavy breathin’ and whispered a promised to him that she would be strong.
She rehearsed his last words before he climbed the stairs, the weight of the world hangin’ from his shoulders. “I waited till I knew what we should do for sure before tellin’ ye. I didn’t want it wearin’ on ye, the not knowin’, but Andrew and me, we made up our minds. We canna wait another year. The taties won’t last through another winter and we don’t want to wait until the workhouse is all there is. So now’s not the time for tears, yourn or mine.”
And then there were her own words, the promise she could not make, “I canna promise no tears, but I will promise ye that I will not let the bairns see me tears because that would most certainly scare the daylights out of them. Mammys and das are supposed to be the strong ones, the ones who never get afrightened, who never weep loud tears, and I’m not about to teach them different,” she had promised John. A thin promise, all the while knowin’ she would weep her heartbreak from the fire to the bed, wipin’ the last of the tears when she slid into bed, next to John or when she was after slidin’ the child closest to the edge of their bed over, makin’ room for her, so she could be touchin’ their brow, caressin’ their hair, still baby soft.
She wasna cryin’ over leavin’ Ireland exactly, she mused. It wasna the land, only what the land held. ‘Twas nigh onto 18 years since she laid her firstborn in the churchyard, the first wee Patrick. So tiny was he, so pale she remembered, and she thought she would die too when she heard the first tumbles of dirt hitting’ the tiny box as they lowered it into the ground. Then three years later she finally had another bairn, the longed for Mary, not longed for girl, but longed for livin’ child, the one she could lay in John’s arms, the way wives are to do, bare babies for their men. Only this wee lassie, her hair like silken threads of burnished copper was only a visitor, and like her brother Patrick, she slipped away before her first birthday and joined Patrick in the churchyard.
John thought, she knew he thought, she had problems somehow with the priest, but it wasna ennathing the priest had said that made it so hard to go into the church. Somehow, if she made to the churchyard, she felt she had to sit with the wee ones waitin’ there beneath the soil for her. And she fussed at the graves, waterin’ the ground that needed no more water what with the water from her own tears.
Then Margaret was born, sturdy Maggie. She grew like a beanstalk, tall and thin and learned so fast, all the time followin’ them around and imitatin’ her ma and her da, no matter what they did. Two years later the next Patrick came and she was glad of the boy, glad he could carry on the name for the family, but he would never wipe away the tears shed for her first born. Ah, she loved the little Patrick, even arguin’ with Maggie that Patrick was just Maggie’s baby brother, not her own babe.
Johannah worried the Virgin, she knew she did, with her prayin’ all the time for healthy bairns, for a way to bear the pain of the loss, tryin’ to remember some sin that might have brought all this pain to her doorstep. But after the next one died, her first Bridget, before she was a month old, Johannah grew convinced the Blessed Virgin could not hear her prayers, or would not. And Bridget joined her brother and sister sleepin’ in the churchyard.
Aye, Johannah was grateful that the next two lived, Timothy and the second babe to wear the name Bridget, but when the fourth child died, little John named after his da, it was all she could do to pray. Even the short heart prayers that came out when she wasna even thinkin’.
And now leavin’ Ireland, she thought, would somehow be leavin’ her babies, the ones she visited and picked flowers for, each headstone, each child getting’ some color, when for too long, Johannah thought the color had left her life with their deaths.
She was thankful for Patrick and Timothy and Bridget, and Maggie – even though she was now in service, but her heart broke every time she thought of the wee babes lyin’ in the churchyard. She wasna sure she could leave them and sail across the sea. Ah, she knew she could, she would. All the mothers she knew had learned to somehow go on. It’s just that now she would have to leave the dead to save the livin’ bairns. She kissed the three sweet heads lyin’ asleep and found herself slidin’ into her own bed, wrappin’ herself around her John.
Ah, she was thankful he had talked with his brothers and finally the decision was made. Now t’was the doin’ of it that remained. And a lot of the doin’ of it in the house was up to her, the sortin’ and the packin’. She thought about the settle down along the wall by the fire wonderin’ if it was sturdy enough to go with them. It was a hard journey to make the ocean crossin’ filled with what they might need to start over in the new land. The plates and cups and pots, and she knew she had to stop her runaway thinkin’ what was keepin’ her from sleep.
“So where will we be going to? “Johannah whispered up past John’s chin.
“What’s that you say,” he whispered back in the dark, rollin’ over into her arms.
“Where will we be goin’ to,” she repeated.
“Well, Philip said he didna want to leave his home, but he gave us his blessing and said when the time come, he might be about helpin’ us some.”
“But I asked ye, where will we be goin’?” exasperation pointin’ the words.
“Remember that letter from Uncle Billy Lynch? He writ there was food a plenty for everyone in Pennsylvaney. He said a farmer could own his land forever and sell whatever he wanted to, or keep whatever he wanted to. He said there was a whole village there of Irish. Why they even called it Irish Hill where they all be livin’. I be thinkin’ I will be after askin’ the Father to write Uncle Billy back and tell him we might be likin’ to join him there. Why, once we get settled, it will be like home, only better. Lots of Irish family and friends, and no English to exact their tithe.”
Johannah pulled the rough blanket up over their shoulders, prayin’ the while for the day she lay next to John in a house of their own in the new land where Uncle Billy and Aunt Cathy and all the cousins waited.
First one side, then the other, Johannah rolled back and forth rearrangin’ the blanket and hopin’ she was not keepin’ John awake. First she prayed Bless me for I have sinned, then Hail Mary full of Grace, then the Our Father. Finally, in her head, she wandered the rooms of their cottage, pickin’ up and layin’ down the lace cloth on the sideboard, the candlesticks on the mantle over the fireplace, the teapot her grandmother had given them when they married, the plates and bowls, aye, even the chipped ones, and then the blankets, surely they would need their blankets and she laid them in the settle and …t’was mornin’.
from the story of my greatgreatgrandparents journey from Moyne, Ireland to Standing Stone, Pennsylvania Carol Brennan King
bread photo from http://www.grandmamolasses.com/irish-soda-bread-with-molasses/
cemetery photo from https://www.flickr.com/photos/clairable_view/4615929321