CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Blowin’ In: Love Distilled

“When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one . . .

I remembered her breath in mine,
our fluent dipping knives
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.”

(from “Clearances” by Seamus Heaney)

I stood in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin one grey April day. Silent tears streamed down my cheeks in wonder, in relief, in thanksgiving. My daughter’s unexpected diagnosis of ITP (Immune thrombocytopenia), a rare, but treatable, chronic blood disorder effected my journey to Dublin that spring.

Upon her release from the Irish hospital that unfortunately defined her spring holiday, my dear girl was practically transparent: her skin the color of ivory, her frame too delicate for words, but she was alive. At the time, we did not know what the future would hold, or how her body would respond to all the infusions and future course of medications.

The only thing that I could do at that moment was pray and feed her lavish food: seafood chowders infused with fresh Irish cream, artisanal cheeses, organic meats and greens. The half-Italian mother in me believes in long hugs and nourishing food as a curative for our ailments.

When I was satisfied that my girl would be okay for the afternoon in the competent care of her boyfriend, I boarded the city bus for the Seamus Heaney exhibit at the library. One of my favorite poets, Heaney writes of family, the earth, simple gifts, and love. And so, I stood in the darkened exhibit hall with verses to “The Tollund Man” etched at my feet, and Heaney’s words from “Digging,” By God, the old man could handle a spade, just like his old man, resounding in my ears.

I could not hold back the tears any longer. I cried over the beauty of Heaney’s words. I cried for the blessing of family. I cried for my daughter. The burning tears fell at my feet as I stared at the image of the Tollund Man, a 5th century corpse preserved in a Scandinavian bog, and hid my emotion from the passing crowd.

It was then that the kind woman who helps run the exhibit gifted me with a handwritten note that held a passage from “Clearances” part of Heaney’s eight-sonnet tribute to his mother.

Oftentimes, complete strangers tell me their stories, and I listen. This time, I was the one oversharing my stories with the curator as she stamped my entrance ticket. I told her about my concern over my daughter’s health, the story of my mother’s final words to me about blackberries and how the essay that I wrote about Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking” resonated with her girlhood memories, the blackberries that my daughter and I have etched on our outer wrists.

A spew of words. A spew of emotion.

Patrick and Katie

The Distillation of Love
The curator sensed my need for comfort and gave me a precious gift. Her note illustrated our shared love for Heaney’s art. She thought that one passage from Clearances would assuage the worry and grief in my heart.
The poem evokes the memory of a mother and son peeling potatoes. Despite the seeming simplicity of this moment, the image is a powerful metaphor for the distillation of love.

This past autumn my daughter and I walked through the city streets of her Chicago neighborhood. We ruminated on her journey and talked about the past. I tried to explain the almost ethereal connection between our familial ties.

I talked about fate and how a girl from southern Missouri married a boy from Chicago, and how a girl from Chicago married an Irish boy from Cleveland, and how that girl comes to love Ireland as much as her native home.

I tried to explain my awe at the interconnectedness of our journeys: how my father taught high school English to her Irish aunt’s nephews, how multiple members of our combined families share birthdays, how my mother’s spirit seems to follow my daughter on her life’s adventures. I maintained that our courses almost seem fated. My daughter, the future lawyer, disagreed. She argued that life just directs you on various paths and ultimately it is your choice to live that dictates your fate, not something mystical or intangible.

At that moment, a cardinal landed on the tangled branches of the odd shrub that grew along the city sidewalks. I remarked, “Really? Mema seems to be accompanying us on yet another journey.”  My daughter shook her head in understanding as we walked toward the Addison L station.

Cardinals in shrubs, a handwritten letter, a time when the stars align. Our lives are filled with moments of grace when metaphors for real life, real pain, real love reveal themselves before our unsuspecting eyes.

This February, my mother would have turned ninety-one. She loved the bustle of the city as well as the birds and beasts in our natural world. When the night is starlit and biting cold, I like to walk with my dog through our neighborhood and into the small woods.

I can feel the warmth of my mother’s memory when she appears laughing in my dreams, and in the silence of my thoughts when I am walking with Lucy on our familiar path.  Last year, on what would have been the night of my mother’s 90th birthday, an owl emerged from a tall pine and flew wide winged and humpbacked over my head. I could not imagine such remarkable fiction if I tried.

Earlier this winter when we were visiting my dad at Crooked Lake, my holiday insomnia once again reared its weary head. Seeking fresh air, I stepped out onto the wintry lawn and looked at the skeletal branches of the sycamore tree. How my mother loved that tree as it bent crookedly toward the water of Crooked Lake.

Crooked Lake
A crooked tree on a crooked lake, I mused with fond remembrance. I looked up to the sky expecting to see my mother’s face painted in the midnight air. In truth, constellations of stars were framed by the branches of her favorite tree.

We have often thought about cutting down that sycamore tree. It is the last to be graced with spring leaves and the first to lose its wide leaves. I have written about this tree in prose and verse. It is part of my narrative, one of the many symbols that tell the story of my mother and dad’s journey.

At times I am glad for my midnight wanderings and the luxury of silence. If I were asleep, I would have missed yet another vision marked in the night sky.

When December moved toward January, the sky was winter clear. Yet again, my spaniel and I were restless. I opened the screen door to step outside with Lucy into the cold darkness. A full moon hovered over the lake, and a shimmering path led from the moon across the gentle lapping waves toward the darkened silhouette of my spaniel beneath the old sycamore tree.

There is a simple truth to the struggle that sometimes paves our journey. Beauty is our reward as distillations of love manifest when life holds fast to light.

Find this column and others from the February issue here!

Sue Mangan

Sue Mangan

*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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