My father once believed in the mysterious alchemy of his purehearted blood. That by tracing his lines in this American clay back to the rocky soil of his ancestral homeland, he could rise above the scattered facts of who he was: a black-haired, black-eyed runt of a boy living on top of his father's tavern with its crumbling limestone walls and beveled-glass doorknobs, each one holding rainbows when morning fell through the drapes just right. He wore his Irish name like a crest, helped mop the linoleum floors and run a damp cloth over the sticky mahogany bar-top--just a flight of stairs down from his bedroom.
I imagine him at night, a boy awake in his bed--listening to the clinking glasses and boisterous men downstairs...his own proud Irish father standing tall and slinging beers. When my grandfather died, I was a black-haired, black-eyed runt of a girl of three years old and the bar became my father's...his inherited career, his lifestyle, his fate.
This, in and of itself, is a bit of a cliche--my American-born father filled with history and looking to his exiled ancestry as a dream, much in the way his cliched kin did, looking to the future and emigrating to America. The result is a feeling of being between two worlds--of somehow severed roots. The other Irish-American cliches--bullshitter, fighter, and drinker...he has been them all as if it was inherited with the name. Now, he has shed these as well--this, where the mystery comes in for me--this might be the magic.
A dozen years ago, before he was well and before I was of legal drinking age, we went to a bar to have lunch. It was the first contact we'd had in eight months and halfway into it, he offered me a silver claddagh ring--a man's ring, MADE IN IRELAND--that he had found down in the bar's cellar, ancient and blackened with years of abandonment. He cleaned it up, he told me, but it didn't fit him...on a whim, he tucked it in his pocket as he headed out to meet me--thinking I might want it. I slid it on my middle finger--heart pointing out, of course, I was still single. This almost-cliched Irish symbol became mine then as well. I had a sudden hope that maybe this find would mean something for my father and I. When I wear it now--the heart always faces in, I am taken...when I wear it now, I always think of him and his trembling gift to a prodigal daughter. I read this poem about cliche and symbol and thought of him too:
by Lynne McMahon
Common all over Ireland, unknown to me,
(tell me again what is this thing?)
it's a claddagh, a sweetheart ring,
silver hands clasping a rounded heart,
an apple, I'd mistakenly thought,
topped by a crown.
I still think of it as my regnant pomme
because it's French, and wrong,
and invented etymologies pass the time
those days you're gone.
Irish cliches, like certain songs,
wring from me
a momentary recognition that trash
sent bowling down the street
by sudden wind, or showery smoke trees
whipsawing across the path
their fine debris, means home to me,
and however long
estranged we've been, or silvered over
by borrowed themes,
these homely things make meaning for us.
I feel it just as much as you--
that near-empty diner in Sligo
where you found the ring
wedged in the cushioned booth,
rejected, perhaps, or lost,
hidden while the lover nervously rehearsed
his lines, then abruptly interrupted,
who knows how, and now distraught,
had no more thought for such
sentiment as this. I never take it off.
Time passes and I understand that cliches exist because there is a deep seed of truth buried there...like the ones in the distant Celtic dirt I've never set foot on--and this homeland where Spring finds me planting Bells of Ireland in jagged green-veined rows along the sun-drenched fence--waiting for the blooms yet to be.