Twilight Chorus

Photo by Ben Godfrey/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Photo by Ben Godfrey/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

“I’m leaving for Philadelphia tomorrow,” I said, making sure to speak with confidence rather than fear or nervousness.

The wood in the fireplace crackled and the smoke wrapped itself around the room. I kept my eyes pointed forward and made sure not to let my hands fidget. I wanted every part of me to be as sure of this as my mind was. I was still and calm, so were they. Their silence was everything. It wasn’t a no and it wasn’t a yes; it was acceptance that this day had finally come, just as they both knew it would. The day their eldest daughter would do what each of her brothers and sisters had, what Mom had done herself – leave.

Mom had studied nursing in England just as I was about to do in America, but Dad was a different story. His experience was that of our opposite, only ever seeing people go, never being the one to leave. All his brothers and sisters went abroad at one point or another to find work, but they always returned. I think this is why he never tried to stop me. Once, a few years later, when I was all settled in America and he was sick at home, he called to tell me about a hospital in Dublin that I could work at if I returned. His voice was casual but it was wrapped in desperation. I knew then that he had never asked me to stay because he wanted me to be happy, but I realized that deep down he wanted me home. I didn’t see it on the day I told him I was leaving, maybe he didn’t either, and that was why he never tried to convince me to stay. He found peace in knowing I would one day return home. At the time, so did I.

Later that same night, after I told them I was leaving, I saw my mother outside. She was standing by the door with her head tilted slightly up towards the distant green trees in the field. She was listening for the birds, the twilight chorus. Each species whistled unique melodies to accompany the daylight as it retreated behind the horizon, welcoming the darkness as if greeting an old friend. My mother loved the birds and the role they played in that moment of in-between. From that night until the morning of my flight, I dreamt of what the chorus would sound like in America. Probably louder, I thought, with more kinds of birds, and the song would be that much more beautiful. Here in the U.S., I’ve always tried to listen for them, to tell Mom how wonderful they are, but you can’t really hear them here. 

I love the United States, but I have never considered it my home. My home is in Ireland, in the house where I grew up. It’s the smell of the fireplace, the crisp air of the coastline, the harmony in the songs of the twilight chorus. There is so much in Ireland that I never found in Philly, not that I was searching for it. They were separate, home and America, and I never tried to merge the two, but I moved around so much it was impossible for any place in America to feel like home. They were just houses and apartments, walls to be lived between. Even though I made the best of friends here, people I still love and care about to this day, there was nothing that grounded me to this country. My decision to stay only came when I was married and we were ready to have children. My relationship with my husband was built here, in New York, and it made sense to continue it here. It was a hard decision to make; I feared that it would be difficult to stay in touch with my parents and siblings while trying to raise my own family far away, but we made it work. My mom made sure of that. I called her every Sunday, and we visited as often as we could.

It has all felt good, until recently, the last year or so, because Mom and Dad aren’t here anymore. Now everything feels fleeting. I’ve started to worry, since losing my mom, if I made the right decision. I worry that staying in New York might have cost me something. Maybe not just me, but my parents and my children as well.

I look at my daughter and I see bits of my mother. It’s in her smarts, her wit, the way she goes about solving problems. In those moments, where glimmers of Mom come through, I get an incredible rush of joy. It’s the most exhilarating feeling, like something has transcended time, and I was the bridge it crossed. At the same time, there is doubt. I wonder if my daughter sees it too. I wonder if I’ve done enough to show her who she is and where she comes from. She once corrected me when I called her Irish, telling me that she was American with Irish roots. I didn’t push the subject but it hurt me to hear that. I wonder if being Irish means anything to her. Does she know that she has just as much a right to the smell of that fireplace as I do? That air and those singing birds? Does she know they are part of her and that she exists because of them?

After Mom died, we took a blanket she knitted for her chair in her living room back to New York with us. It looks like a quilted blanket but she actually just knitted different sections of colors together. There are patches of dark maroon next to warm sunset oranges, next to dark blues with strings of white thrown in, to make it look like clouds running across the sky, next to solid blocks of tradition light greens. It stayed on her chair where she would read, knit, watch TV, and make calls to all her children. Mom would pull it over us when we sat there, even if we were warm enough from the heat of the fireplace. It was a staple of the house; a picture of the living room was not complete without that blanket. It didn’t even last a day on our couch before my daughter moved it to her room. She was a teenager, too old for security blankets, but I could tell it meant something to her, like she needed it for something. Late one night I walked into her room, ready to argue about the volume of her music but I found her already asleep, clinging to the blanket. I wanted to wake her up, comfort her, tell her I missed grandma too, that she’s still here with us, and she loved us so much too. Instead I turned her speakers off and left the room as quietly as I could. I was scared that if she didn’t see herself as Irish, the only connection she allowed herself to feel to Ireland was to her family that still lived there. She knew our visits would come less often now that grandma wasn’t around, and that was true, but I think she felt there was nothing left. I’ve felt that before, that unwillingness to let go. I didn’t want to her to think the only thing left of grandma, of her Irish roots at all, was that blanket, but I didn’t know how to have that conversation.

When I moved to America for my nursing program, we were put up in a respectable apartment in the South Philly that was near to, but not necessarily close to, our hospital. We were given specific and detailed instructions about how to get from our apartment to the hospital, and all four of us were confident as we walked towards the subway. Out of nowhere, I felt a slam on my shoulder and the strap of my bag fell down my arm. My instinct was to catch it, so I bent my arm up and spread my fingers out, allowing the strap to wrap around my pinky. When I looked up, I saw a man pulling from the other end. I clenched my pinky to my palm and pulled with all my might, grabbing the strap with my other hand now, leaning the weight of my body backward. My roommates were all in shock, too afraid and unsure to help me, and maybe, looking back, I should have just been safe and let go, but I was not afraid so I continued to pull and scream for help. It didn’t take long for someone to peek their head out of a window above us and yell down that he was calling the police. This made my assailant instantly drop the strap and run away from us, turning back to see if we were chasing him. I, of course, wasn’t.

Once I had it back in my hand, I inspected my purse; thankfully, there was no sign of damage. It was a small navy blue bag that snapped closed like an envelope. It was not worth very much, and even though it contained important papers and money, it wouldn’t have been so bad if I had just let go. But it was a gift from my mother, one of the few things I brought to Philadelphia to remind myself of her, and I couldn’t let that go. Was it worth breaking my pinky over? Perhaps not, but as excited as I was to be here, I wouldn’t let my visit take anything from me. This was an adventure, a journey, but I was at the helm, and I was only going where I wanted to go, not where this country would attempt to take me. I don’t remember what happened to that bag, I don’t think I have it anymore.

I told my daughter this story, hoping it would spark a conversation about the blanket and grandma, but I was only given a few head nods and a criticism for being so silly as to risk my life, holding on to a purse. I decided to push a little harder, telling her that grandma was still here with us, in our hearts and in our Irish blood. She corrected me, yet again, insisting that she was not Irish. I tried to correct her, pointing out that she has an Irish family, that she is an Irish citizen, and she’s been to Ireland more times than either of us can count. My words meant nothing to her. She recounted with a long-winded explanation the differences between citizenship, culture, and heritage, spitting back that she’s not Irish just because I am, and it doesn’t matter how long you visit or live in any country, that doesn’t make it your home, it doesn’t make it you.

Sometime during my first month working in New York, one of my patients was curious about my accent. I told him a short history of my life – how I grew up in rural Ireland and moved here to work and explore. He told me his story as well, born and raised in Brooklyn, living in the Bronx now because, as he said, that’s where life took him. We spoke for a while and I enjoyed his interest in my history. Towards the end of our conversation, he asked me how I liked being an American. I wasn’t bothered by his question; it wasn’t the first time someone had asked me that, and it certainly wasn’t the last, but I couldn’t leave a statement like that uncorrected. Living here does not make me an American, I told him. I’m Irish through and through. That’s me, that’s who I am, that’s my family and my story.

The other day my daughter and I were driving home from a day trip to the movies and I thought she was upset about something. She was leaning her head against the window, her eyes gazing up at the sky. Her finger tapped the armrest, giving rhythm to our drive. After a minute she let me in on the secret, lifting her head off the window and pressing her finger to the glass. “Look at that cloud,” she said, “it looks like the clouds in Ireland.”

I smiled and nodded in approval. Tears welled in my eyes but I held them back because I didn’t want her to worry. It hit me then, that she has it too—a connection to my home that I’d worried for so long was missing. For me it is the air, and the fireplace, and the twilight songs of the birds my mother loved so much, but for my daughter it is the clouds, and that is just as beautiful. I thought that maybe she sees Ireland the way I see America – a part of her but not the whole. That feels right to me.

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