I asked my dad what he thought about turning sixty.
“I feel fine about it,” he said, “mainly because I don’t feel one bit different inside than when I was twenty-five.”
He lived in Zambia then, with a bride of twenty he’d met at a céilí dance in Cork. He had a contract to teach in Africa, and UCC Commerce and a convent dormitory were not enough to keep her from following him. Together they walked into the Allied Irish Bank on Patrick Street to close his account. “Sixteen shillings and sixpence!” my mother mocks. “That’s all he had when I married him.” They were married on a snowy day in Silvermines not long after they met. I’m biased, of course, but they were lovely: both wide-eyed, dark-haired, and fine-boned. They got taken for brother and sister as often as not.
Zambia was newly independent, and had money from copper. Ireland, with a forty-year headstart as a republic, had just turned out the first generation of kids to go through free secondary schooling. Africa was hopeful, and so were they. Many of that first crop of Irish peasant graduates took their engineering, teaching, and nursing degrees to the bush and the mines; a paddy Peace Corps without the confident zeal of the Americans who had grown up in Eisenhower comfort.
My father was one of them. He had parlayed the first Leaving Cert in the family into a degree at University College Galway. He paid for college by working the building sites in London, mixing cement with Connemara men who spoke no English and pined for a home they rarely saw. They were not too different from his own Roscommon family. On the Kelly side, my granny was the only one to marry near home. George took his tuberculosis to Australia, and didn’t forgive Ireland for forty years. John worked in the M&M factory in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Pat and Charlie stayed bachelors, maybe for want of money, or maybe for want of brides in a part of the country where the women left young.
It was Pat and Charlie Kelly who fostered my father and his sister for a few years while his own father fought off a cancer of the nose and mouth. His mother kept the farm running and cared for the two toddlers left at home. They had given grandad up, more or less, when some quack gave him a caustic poultice to wear on his nose for nine nights. It melted the flesh away, a terrible agony, but he survived to ride his bicycle into his eighties, probably in spite of the quack. The parish priest advised granny to take up smoking to calm her nerves, and it was she who died twenty years before him.
Once the schoolteacher came up to the house. “John is bright. He should have books,” he said. My granny bought him two, and he read them in an afternoon, like a starveling. This made her decide books weren’t good value, and he didn’t get any more. Time enough for cutting turf, saving the hay, and thinning turnips, without books to bother with. (But is this a family legend, told by Mum, I’ve wondered since–a bogeyman story for a bookworm girl? Granny always seemed so kind, though I’m sure money for books was as scarce as Mercedes.)
The nearest town was Strokestown, where the grocer’s shop shared our last name, and the hotel is named for Percy French. The wide and stately main street seems to belong to Regency Bath rather than to a place where the old and the very young outnumber the breeders. Strokestown Park House is now the country’s famine museum; a small, belated restitution for the cruelty of the local landlord, Major Dennis Mahon, who evicted two-thirds of the tenants at the worst of the hunger. A few years ago, on holiday in Sicily, Dad met his English descendant, a Pakenham-Mahon who wanted to bond over memories of boyhood holidays at the family place in Roscommon. They had held onto it until 1979, and Dad remembered them, with no fondness, as leaving the gates open on his father’s land as they galloped through on their hunters.
He went to Mansa as a small farmer’s son, taught first by a drunk in a pink, two-room schoolhouse, and so perhaps he arrived at Mr. Elias’s brick secondary school as an equal rather than a missionary or a mercenary. I like to think he felt the frugal, country kinship that Dervla Murphy brings to her books, where the traveler’s eye alights on chickens scratching in the dirt and sees eggs rather than postcards.
For me, Zambia is pressed in an album. I’m there, a dusty baby with an infected vaccination scar, with my stand-in godmother who was later eaten by crocodiles. (Or did I make that up, too?) On another page, the football team my father coached hangs out of the back of a truck, hooting. They are beautiful young men in knee socks and soccer shorts; many are probably long dead. There are tigers and elephants; a snake or two; and my mother on a motorcycle. (Though not all in the same photo.) Fragments.
There’s his schoolmaster colleague, an English former public school boy, who jolted the three of us around Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe in his Volkswagen when I was six months old. He spoke only to dad, my mother complains, though from time to time he tried to teach me Latin verbs. That was the trip when they pitched camp in the path of the hippos’ watering hole, and only the rumbling approach gave them time to dive clear. Hippos were rare in Roscommon. Camping was unusual.
I have to look up the Wikipedia to see where it was they really lived. Mansa is an imaginary place that exists in the dimensions of time and stories, not space. Several friends have gone to Zambia over the years–Ranger Tim kayaked down the Zambezi, and my old college flatmate oversaw Ireland’s AIDS mission to Zim and Zam–but I’ve stayed resolutely ignorant of news outside those little square, white-bordered snapshots. Sometimes little details click,like when I read VS Naipaul’s stories of Asians in Africa and realize how it was that dad came to like saris better than miniskirts. But it’s only writing this that I study the population, the geography, the climate, and the forty years that have betrayed the hopes of independence and mineral wealth.
“Do you remember, in Zambia, the Russian engineers would drink tea out of jam jars…Do you remember, in Zambia…”
Dad taught school there for three and a half years. He read Ulysses. He helped deliver me, though that was the end of his New Man efforts for two decades. They went home when his grandmother fell ill, and thought they would soon go back. They still talk about going back. Instead, they moved to Limerick, and added more small girls to the family.
When my sisters fought in the back seat, Dad would stop the car outside a church. “Go inside and pray for each other,” he’d order, “And don’t come out until Baby Jesus knows you mean it.” We never disobeyed him, though he didn’t go to Mass, and we were fairly sure he never consulted Baby Jesus on anything. They’d slam the car door and in they’d stomp, torn between enmity and a common enemy. “It’s important to give them something to unite against,” he’d say, as we watched them march back down the gravel path, friends again but scowling at him. It took us years to realize that he kept his stash of private jokes in plain sight.
I see how good his life is these days, and that he’s made it so. He squabbles with my mother over who got more wine in the last top-up. He has taught for thirty-five years, thirty at the same school, and when we walk around Limerick together, he is greeted at every corner.
“Howrya, sorr,” say kids from 14 to 45. “How’re you keeping, Seán?”
“Jesus, I can’t put a name to that fella,” he’ll say, shaking his head, but I’m amazed at the number he does remember–and their families, life histories, and temperament, too. Those who care enough to pay attention can appraise us pretty well at fifteen, before we lacquer adult polish over our essential natures.
Even here in San Francisco, I meet people who remember him and are grateful. Though he sends me hopeful text messages about Dublin job openings at Google, it’s his work that I envy–how it has woven him into the fabric of his community, and still left him time to have a rich life beyond it. He’ll spend his birthday in Pompeii, with my mother and good friends. Now that Ryanair has opened up Europe, they go to a different city every mid-term break–Rome, Palermo, Dubrovnik, Prague… Over Christmas, he took a group of schoolkids skiing in Italy, as he does every year. For Easter, he’ll visit my sister in Ottawa. They might come here in August, though I tell them over and over that San Francisco has a summer only a toad could love. He isn’t daunted.
We bought him a birthday bicycle, a fit present for a man who doesn’t feel one bit different inside than he did when he was twenty-five. We say that he has mellowed gracefully, all the same.