She waved her hand over the jewelry pieces. “Choose something.” We sat across from one another, at my mom’s oval table. Between us, lay necklaces, earrings, and pins. Remnants of a 84 year-old life brought 3,000 miles from a green island to a Connecticut kitchen.
My grandmother died twelve years ago today in Athenry, County Galway, Ireland (February 5, 2001). I know where I was when I heard the news (digging out our van from a blizzard in the early dark of winter). I can still see my eight-year old daughter, leaning out the door, phone in hand. It was the day before my mother’s birthday, Mary Curran’s third child of eleven, second daughter of eight girls. February is filled with the birthdays of Mary Curran’s daughters.
On February 8, my sisters and I joined my mother, her siblings and most of our cousins in the house where Mary Curran bore her children, and in the kitchen where all of her grandchildren, even the American ones, had shared meals, boiled water for tea, and been subjected to the humiliation of having a grandmother iron our underwear.
Mary Curran was a force of nature. She was elegant, tough, educated, demanding, generous, well-traveled, doted on by her children, feared and respected by us all. Make no mistake about it: she was a matriarch. She was the center of the family. She knew comfort, and she knew hardship. She loved God, her family and her country (which, despite a U.S. birth certificate, was Ireland).
When I was a child, she sometimes would refer to our family in the States as "Yanks" (which irked us) or would chide me about some nonsense I said or did, but then a day later, slip me some money to buy something nice for myself: “Don’t tell anyone.” Only many years later, did we cousins discover she did that with all of us: made us feel special, in on a secret with Grandma.
As a young adult, I was once sitting next to Grandma in church. I can’t remember if it was in Connecticut or County Galway. But I do remember my grandmother’s fervent worship in prayer. I could hear her telling the Lord how much she loved him. I was embarrassed, but I was moved. I knew then that my beloved, intimidating grandmother had a personal relationship with God.
My grandmother left behind a huge legacy of Irish, Irish-American and English relatives who enjoy (mostly) one another’s company. I did wonder if the deep ties she had established with extended family would sever in her absence. Her absence is still felt, but the family ties remain.
The jewelry on the table was not expensive or glamorous. But it was my grandmother’s, and I did want something that had belonged to her. It would be an ongoing tie to her life, our family history. A silver pin caught my eye: it was an Irish coin made into a piece of elegant art. I caught my breath at the coin’s date: it was my birth year.
I pinned it on my jacket.