duct duct duct
subscribe submissions contributors back issues trumpet fiction contact us legal links
support ducts
art gallery
ducts stage
best of ducts

Leaving for America

Maura Mulligan

"It wasn't my fault I was going to America"

At 6 o'clock in the morning, the sun came stealing in through the window of our thatched house, just as if nothing new were going to happen. It showed the dust on the chiffonier and made the scrapes on the dark wood look like wounds.  The light rested on my new red bolero that looked out of place there on the back of the chair that was pushed under the table with the basket of brown and white eggs on it.  Marion, my best friend, said the bolero looked smashing over my new black pleated skirt and white blouse, with my suede wedge heel shoes, my going away outfit.

It didn't take long to get dressed because I'd done it so many times all night long in my mind.  My mother cooked a big breakfast of rashers, eggs, black pudding and sausage she had bought on credit from Conlon's shop. I took a few sips of tea, moved away from the table and put on my red bolero, now hanging on the back of the kitchen chair I was sitting on.

Dad was the only one not in the kitchen. My mother could tell I was looking for him the way my eyes kept moving to their bedroom door. A prolonged sigh like crying wind, came from her chest.

"Musha A Ghrá, he's in no shape to say goodbye," That was the second time that morning, she had used the term A Ghrá, meaning loved one, when addressing me. "The poor amadán is crying below in the room. He won't come up to see you off because he's ashamed to let you see him cry." She often called him an amadán. But sometimes, and this was one of those times, she said it in such a way, that I knew she meant it as a term of endearment instead of meaning to call him a fool.

"What'll I do so?" I asked.

"Sure, you'll have to just go.  That's the way it is, A Ghrá.  He feels awful lonesome."

I hung my head. It wasn't my fault I was going to America. Ever since I was a small girl, it was understood that I would go after my sixteenth birthday. In the fifties, most young people left Ireland for England or America. My Uncle Pat, who lived in New York, had paid my passage. I would stay with him and his daughter Nora. Dad knew this and agreed it would be a better life for me. But, he was sad and had been moping around the house for weeks.  A few times he'd tried to make conversation, asking if I had everything, if there was anything else I needed for the journey. When I'd say I had everything, he'd shake his head up and down as if saying 'yes.' But then not knowing what else to say, he'd light his pipe.

"So I'll have to go without saying goodbye to my own father?" My voice sounded like a small child's. Then pretending to be brave, I got up from the kitchen table, moved a little closer to the fire, and said, "I'll say goodbye to the rest a ye so." But I didn't know how to say goodbye to my younger siblings. What words would I say? My throat was tight, my mind blank.

Mag, fifteen, and a year younger than I, wore her best Sunday dress and cardigan. She sat at the kitchen table furthest away from the fire. She was staring at the raindrops that had just started to roll down the windowpane. Bridie sat on the milking stool putting on her shoes in front of the fire. PJ and Tommie were pushing each other just a little, wiping sleep from their eyes. They had pulled on pants and sweaters, but no shoes. They sat side by side on the form that was near the fire. John, the baby, was waking up.

"Let ye say goodbye to Maura now and wish her God speed and then go on back to bed 'tis too early to be up," my mother said standing at the kitchen table looking out the window. No one moved. They all at once seemed to look down at the flagged floor.  John came waddling out of his cradle by the fire.  Everyone looked at him as if they had never seen him before. He looked around at all our faces holding up his bottle for milk. I wanted to pick him up and hold him but something wouldn't let me. I was frozen there in the middle of the stone floor. I looked into the fire. It was bright as always but somehow different as if I were in someone else's house. I looked at my feet willing them to move. Mag spoke:

"I'll write to you and tell you who the Mayo Dancing Champion is next month."

"Oh do. Maybe it'll be you if you practice your steps? I mean, your stiffest competition will be out of the way," I tried to joke remembering my dancing teacher, Séamus Forde presenting me with a pair of Hornpipe shoes when he said goodbye.

Silence. My mother turned from the window, looked at the room door and looked out the window again.

 "I'll watch the lark for you." Bridie said. " I'll tell you when the scaltáns come out of the eggs."

"Oh do.  I'll be thinking of the baby larks getting bigger but...." My eyes filled up and my body began to shake. The sobs were uncontrollable. I wished my mother would hold me. I wished PJ and Tommie would start arguing, anything to distract me. Then my mother started to cry quietly. I knew because she was wiping her eyes with her knuckles. She began to pour tea into my father's mug and then back into the teapot again.

"Tis a sad thing indeed, A Ghrá," was all she said wiping her eyes now with the sleeve of her blue cardigan that always smelled of chicken feed. When Mag and Bridie started to sniffle, I tried to be brave.

"I'm not afraid and I'll be back in a few years," I tried. But my voice was quivering. I touched my new handbag and felt the coolness of the shiny plastic against my fingers. "I'm not afraid and I'll send everyone a pres.."

But it was no good. I couldn't speak. Suddenly, my mother moved from the window to the door as if she were the one leaving.  Mag took a few steps after her and then Bridie. I followed.  My mother lifted the latch of the half door and I stepped on to the cobblestone street.  James Nolan, our neighbor, who was also the hackney driver, came into the house, took my bag and put it into the car.

My mother followed me outside and, as James Nolan opened the car door, she reached to hug me.  I felt the brush of her kiss on my cheek and the warmth of her plumpness against my new clothes but as I attempted to return her embrace, she gently pushed me into the car.  Then she took a bottle of holy water from out of the pocket of her cardigan and sprinkled me.

"Go and good luck to you, A Ghrá, and May the good Lord and His blessed mother grant you a safe journey.  In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."

I felt blessed, but I also felt thrown away. I thought the holy water might give me some sort of comfort but it didn't. I looked straight ahead, focused on the hens and chickens that were oblivious of my situation.  They were there on the cobblestone street and on the stonewall near the reek of turf, ignoring me.

The car pulled slowly away from the door.  Mag and Bridie had come out into the street hands waving with reluctant movement. Bridie opened her fingers to wave again and then dropped her hand, closing her fist. I looked at the boys by the half door, PJ and Tommie, side by side, heads down and eyes raised like puppies shouted at for chasing chickens. 

My mother rushed into the house and came out with John under her right arm, head forward, and feet sticking out behind her. He was laughing and gurgling, happy to be picked up. The car stopped. She lifted him to the open window and I kissed him goodbye on his forehead. He reached out a little hand and I felt a pulling within my chest when she took him away from the window and put him on the ground. My head fell to my lap. I suddenly grabbed hold of the door handle but then my mother spoke with urgency in her voice:

"Let you go now, and God speed you, A Ghrá." 

She was waving the holy water bottle. James Nolan knew she was signaling for him to move. As the car pulled away, out of the street and down the narrow road that we called the bótherín, I noticed the wild strawberries on the side of the road bowing their unripe heads in the morning breeze, the primroses growing beside them, still asleep. 

My mother climbed the three stone steps and was in the field in front of the house when the car drove slowly by like a hearse when it passes the home of its former occupant.  She stood directly in front of the kitchen window, and from the road I imagined I could see the rose buds on the bushes that climbed along the whitewashed wall behind her.  In a month's time, the roses would be in bloom and she'd be picking the biggest of them to put in a jam jar on the kitchen table. By then, I might have a job with the New York Telephone Company, where lots of Irish girls worked.

At the train station in Claremorris, I saw Anne O' Conner, another girl leaving from our village. We dried our eyes with our new hankies and put our suitcases in the baggage compartment near the door. When the train pulled away from the station, the primrose- scented wind felt cool on my wet cheeks as it whistled through the open windows. Anne and I tried to cheer ourselves up eating bars of chocolate we brought for the journey.

We wondered what America would really be like. I said I'd make phone calls to fancy sounding places like Tallahassee when I got a job with the phone company. Anne said she'd work in an office because she had taken typing class. We would not be maids, we said.

I dozed off in spite of Anne's chatter and dreamt I was in the hag, my settle bed, in the kitchen only a few feet from the hearth. Two faded floral bed curtains closed me away from the world, where the moon's light was pushing its way through the window.  Finding a slit between the curtains, it cast a glow on the bare whitewashed wall on the other side of my bed. In the scene that followed, my mother was waving a white handkerchief as she stood by the half door that kept moving backwards. My father stood behind her but was barely visible as the smoke from his pipe caused a fog to rise.

I woke up in Ennis. At Limerick Junction, we caught the train to Cork where we boarded the ship for New York. Eating the chocolate helped me keep my eyes off the shoreline. I didn't want to see it grow smaller.  Some people were waving white handkerchiefs and others cried out loud. 

I found that when I thought only about the taste of the chocolate, I could block out the crying, the land receding and even the white handkerchiefs. It was an amazing discovery.

I said to Anne that my friend Marion told me her Aunt Delia had said American chocolate bars were as big as cabbage leaves. She said that if everyone in America ate chocolate bars as big as cabbage leaves, Yanks must be fat people. I tried to laugh but a noise that sounded like a whimper came from my throat. I threw a tiny piece of chocolate to one of the seagulls that stayed on deck as the land faded out of sight.