I'm very friendly with someone who lives in the depths of Northern Irish rurality. We go way back. She's in her early eighties, in terrific health, and one of the most interesting characters whom I've ever befriended. She's known me since I was a schoolboy, a very cunning schoolboy who knocked on her door on my way home from school one afternoon to ask for 'a glass of water because I'm thirsty...but with some orange squash (orange concentrate in the US) or lemon barley juice in it, if you just happen to have any.' (Years later, she told me that initial request almost killed her because she laughed for hours.) I got orange 'pop' that day and everyday thereafter when I knocked on her door to ask for a glass of water. Sometimes, I even got Fanta (fizzy orange) and Pepsi Cola, the 'Rolls Royce' of juices.
She came to the States in her early teens and entered service. She cooked for a bunch of WASP families, apparently cooked very well, and shared with me countless yarns about her life in Boston. Her stories riveted me. (Another friend, Anne, an elderly Irish lady who moved to London and started a business with her sister who subsequently died of a broken heart, also shares stories about her girlhood in the countryside where my father was a boy, and then I. In fact, a few years ago, I spent time with her and recorded some of them with a view to writing something in the future, perhaps a story or two, a novel, we'll see. As a university student, I stayed with her a few times as well, and she played tricks on me (and I on her) which I'll divulge on another occasion.)
My friend left the States and returned to Ireland to look after her sister and brother who've since died. They lived in a version of the Irish whitewashed cottage cliche with its manicured thatched roof and rosebushes with pink blooms as big as men's fists by the door. They owned cows (tan and black Herefords) and sheep, in fact she still raises cows--sometimes sitting for hours in the barn during calving time--which she sends off to the market with the aid of a friendly neighbor. Despite having lived in America, she remains highly suspicious of automobiles.
"Learned to be wary of them back in Americay," she says.
I'm not exaggerating when I write she's suspicious. She walks everywhere; five miles to the nearest town, two miles to mass on Sundays. I believe she despises cars, actually. When they approach, she clutches her handbag in front of her tummy and mounts the ditch and waits like a statue till they pass her by. Everyone in the area is used to the 'Yank's' (that's what her nickname is) eccentricity and give her wide berth when they drive past. Some horrid adolescents sometimes swerve toward her as a joke.
Anne and she are the same kind of women as my late paternal grandmother whom I adored. They're very strong, have character and backbone, take no bullshit, none. They have no truck with insincerity. The three used to confab non-stop at the chapel gate after Sunday mass when I was an impatient youngster chaperoning my grandmother to the early service (my appointment no accident), impatient for her to stop her bloody yacking and bundle into my uncle's car so they could drive me to the shop for my 'Sunday after-mass treat' of ice-cream with a chocolate flake. (Oh yes, I was a most cunning child, streets ahead of my siblings.)
I also like my friend back in Northern Ireland because she doesn't give a shit about what people say or think about her. (It took guts to clear off to the States at age sixteen without knowing anyone, as I did years later, albeit I knew two people.) Some in the area where I grew-up--uncreative, conservative people, people obsessed with the church and a ticket into heaven--regard her as a loose canon; some guilt-ridden souls (perhaps the nervous too), if she's on route to pay a visit to her siblings graves, will literally whisk behind tombstones or stop and begin to pray rabidly over a non-family grave rather than converse with her. She sees this, of course. She does, because my friend knows everything that's going on in my old townland, knows exactly who's 'stepping out' with whom (the stealthy married ones as well as the legitimately single), knows when the pope and church are just plain wrong, knows what's going on in the youth club, knows exactly the value of her herd and land, knows if someone's trying to shortchange or pull the wool over her eyes, and tells them.
I owe a debt to these women because I had them in mind when I decided to try my hand at writing. They are talented and form part of a great Irish tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition rapidly vanishing due to the homogenization of the media and the decline of the ceili (an Irish word for visiting neighbors at home in rural communities for evenings of storytelling and/or dancing).
[technorati: ireland, northern ireland, ulster, women]