Sharing Christmas and a New Research Project

Fermentation Festival recap: There is a sourdough starter struggling for life in the kitchen, a kitchen kept cold because my parents are extremely economical and concerned about energy waste. I knew full well going into this that winter is not the time to try to cultivate a sourdough starter, but attempting to cultivate it we are. My brother’s into it, as he is into all things sciencey and involving fermentation, but I don’t have much hope that this starter is going to produce decent bread before I leave.

As for Mark’s reciprocal offering of his knowledge of brewing, we ran into holiday season troubles of companies being out of stock followed by late deliveries. His chosen brew was root beer, which he insists (to my agreement) on making with real sassafras root etc, but his normal supplier was out of certain ingredients, so he went to the secondary, and as of this writing the shipment from the secondary has still not arrived. Over burgers last night he speculated that the shipment might arrive Tuesday, leaving us Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to tinker with root beer before I leave Thursday — but this means I won’t get to see the project through to its end, nor taste it before I leave.

On an unrelated note to any of this, Mark and I hatched an idea for a research project yesterday evening. This is all going to sound kind of weird, but bear with me because you are about to meet my family. Mark and I went out the day before yesterday on an afternoon date to go scatter our late grandmother’s ashes. She died two years ago, and because she donated her body to science the ashes only arrived fairly recently, after the first-year medical students at Brown University had done their lessons. She had specified before she died that she wanted her ashes, in addition to going in part to my mother’s siblings, to be scattered in my mother’s compost pile and also at two particular beaches on the island. One of the beaches is Surfer’s End at Second Beach, where my grandmother liked to go sit in the car with my mom over hot tea in thermoses and watch the surfers bobbing up and down in the churning gray waters of Category 1 hurricanes. That’s where my brother and I went for our scattering. We crept up to the shoreline by some rocks (because this is vaguely illegal) and dumped the ashes. Then we watched the waves roll in, pick up the ashes, and roll back out to sea, and we retreated to some boulders, where we did what people in these situations do: talk about socialism.

This came up because after Grandma died and my parents were cleaning out the apartment, they found a gigantic leather-bound album filled with newspaper clippings. My mother said later that upon finding it she had no idea what it was but that it would probably interest me, so it was moved to the basement of my parents’ house. Mom was, as she maddeningly always is, correct. The album is filled with an odd mix of clippings from the turn of the 20th century to the 1930s including ones about the Catholic Church (the majority of the content), the Spanish Civil War, the Socialist Party in the US, immigration, education, China… Kind of a wide swath of subjects that, knowing my grandmother, made sense together.

When I first saw the album a few weeks after she died, it was right away clear to me that this was her research. Into what, I don’t know. It’s occupied no small part of my mind for the past two years and I’ve been wanting to make a project of it but it all has seemed overwhelming until now, after this afternoon at the beach with Mark. When I told him about it his face lit up (and he’s kind of robotic, he’d say so himself, so this indicated real excitement) and we talked about it for the rest of our walk on the beach, through much of dinner, and on the way home, where I showed the book to him. He had never seen or heard of it before.

We told Mom about our project and hauled the thing up from the basement. Talking to her was key in the whole thing because she cleared up some important things. Namely, she confirmed that the handwritten dates on the articles were not done by our grandmother’s hand. With that and the mysterious postcards in the back of the album, Mark and I were wondering who did the compilation of the material since it was obviously not the work of Grandma. The only trace of her handwriting was an index she’d made on the backs of Parent-Teacher Association agendas from 1959. When my mom saw the date on those agendas, her face turned white like they say faces turn white. The year 1959 coincided with the time that our grandmother’s father’s homestead was getting cleared out, after he died. My mother remembers being there, and figures my grandmother took the album from the house. My great-grandfather was the kind of person that my grandmother was, and that I am, a hoarder of clippings and research, a non credentialed historian, slightly obsessive maybe. It would have been no shocker that my grandmother would take such an artifact from the house.

Since she’s gone, we don’t know if she managed to get any further work done on whatever my great-grandfather was researching. My mother said that the organization of the album screamed Grandpa McHugh to her, but the subject matter was surprising, since the only issue she remembers him obsessing about was the Native American genocide. I’m fairly confident now that the album belongs to him, just a hunch, but I have in my worldly possessions back in France the family genealogy books, with photocopied handwritten letters, so I’m going to compare penmanship. Grandpa McHugh, I’ve been told, had extremely precise and flowerly penmanship, and proud of it, and the album shows that, so I’m just waiting to get back to do a confirmation.

This has all caused some amount of excitement. Emails are being sent. My brother and I are exchanging glances of conspiracy. All is good in the household.


(My brother, at the beach, talking about grandma and research.)

Economies of sharing in rural Ireland + I guess nothing changes with me

An excerpt from the book I’m rereading right now, O Come Ye Back to Ireland, my favorite book when I was a kid, recently discovered anew after twenty years of gathering dust on my parents’ bookshelves. I guess I haven’t changed at all because I still love it.

Comhair is an Irish word for which there is really no English equivalent. Literally, it means help, but in the context of the West [of Ireland] it has come to mean something much more than that. The comhair, as it was called long ago, was the word for the powerful sense of community in a place, whereby men and women “gave” each other days, sharing labors on the farm and on the bog. In a time of great poverty it was this kind of teamwork that enabled each farm in a townland to get turf cut, to get the potatoes in, and to tram or bring in the hay. The men might be at O’Shea’s today, they would be at Breen’s tomorrow. Comhair. It is the mechanism of community.

Since we arrived in Kiltumper we had already witnessed many examples of it in the kindness and help of our neighbors. From television aerials to chimneys, to turf, to spuds; we had help with them all. And if the modern days of tractors and machinery have made each farmer a little more self-reliant, there is still a strong sense of comhair between them.

The day we were finally to dig the front garden into ridges for the winter, Mary and Joe came down the road with shovel and fork in hand. We were delighted to have them. Mary is a fury in the garden, pulling weeds wherever she sees them, and demonstrating in a moment just why she has the prettiest flower garden in Tumper. And Joe, beside her, is a skilled man with the fork. So easy and peaceful, he makes a mockery of our sweating and bustling efforts, as he seems to make the ridges mound up before him in an ancient, timeless rhythm. We have never seen the like of him before. He spits into his bare hands every few minutes to keep the wooden handle from slipping from his grasp and smokes his cigarettes every half hour, resting huge cracked and thick hands on top of the spade. He bends one knee, resting his foot on top of the blade, and looks across Hayes’ Hill. He rarely says a word.

We were delighted when he reappeared two days later to give us another helping hand. Joe explained that if the garden was laid to rest in these ridges over the winter, where more of the surface was actually exposed, two things would happen. First, the frost would kill any roots exposed to the air, which in our case was a lot. And second, the process of freezing and thawing repeatedly over the winter would help to break down the heavy soil into fine tilth, facilitating spring sowing.

As Joe and Chris and I began that afternoon on the eastern half of the garden, my mind was full of gratitude and thoughts of the comhair. Here was a man, I thought, giving his time without personal motive and sharing his knowledge and skills with us. What a staggering contrast this was to the days of Manhattan. I sunk my fork into the earth while Joe lit a cigarette and watched on. And then the afternoon was pierced with the jangling of the telephone. It was Michael Donnellan. He has promised to bring a neighbor, Sadie, into Kilrush for her eye test that afternoon, but his car had just broken down. Could I take her instead? By rights I couldn’t. Joe was here to work with us, and in any other world I shouldn’t have left. But this was not anywhere else, and even as I said yes, giving over the afternoon to taking an elderly countrywoman the twelve miles to Kilrush, I realized that this was yet another measure of our coming into the community. We were part of the comhair.

Things to ponder. This book tells about experiences from the mid 1980s so no doubt the situation in this part of Ireland is extremely different today, but I wonder if this idea of the comhair still exists. To investigate. (Edit: it appears that the book’s authors still live there and blog now and then, so maybe I’ll just drop them a line and ask.)

Also, am I wrong in thinking that this is kind of weird reading for a nine year old? I don’t remember exactly how old I was when my grandmother gave this book to me, but I know I was around late elementary school to early middle school age. It would make sense because that was at the height of my obsession with Sarah, Plain and Tall, Little House on the Prairie, and all things Boxcar Children. It’s really an odd sensation to rediscover when you’re older the obsessions you had as a child and realize that you still have pretty much all the same interests. And also to realize the subtle ways the books you read influenced your way of thinking.

For example, Sarah, Plain and Tall is the reason why I was incapable of baking bread for so long. There’s a scene in it describing one of the daughters making bread dough, and says something about the way the dough looked and felt like an infant. That image stuck in my head all the way through to my twenties, when I started attempting bread and would each time add enough flour to make dough the consistency of a baby. Not that I’ve ever poked a baby in the belly to test its consistency. I mean more like its weight — I was making bread dough that weighed as much as a newborn, which translates into baked bread coming out like cinderblocks. I realized my error through enough reading plus listening to a really helpful NPR interview segment with the owner of Amy’s Bread in New York, but it wasn’t until I was poking around in my parents’ basement on a trip back home and found and reread Sarah, Plain and Tall that I realized, son of a bitch, it was you!!! You, Patricia MacLachan, were behind all my bread failures! Damn you, historical fiction writer! (Her description of the bread dough was likely accurate — after all the flour they would have been using in the story would make for a heavier dough, and prairie bread at that time was denser, not the sort of all-purpose flour baguettes I was failing at in the early 2000s.)

Back to my reading couch. I have to say it’s also such a pleasure to read something like this, a break from heaviness and doom and gloom. I know, crop failures, rained-out summers, and peasant life — but next to what I’m normally reading…. At least in this book there’s talk of fairies and giants.



Today I forgave my yarn and discovered a long lost book

The past 24 hours have been amazing. Nothing crazy, just crocheting and reading, but what I was crocheting and reading was the amazing part of it, to me.

First, the crochet – after I calmed down from yesterday’s hissy fit I looked up another pattern to work on for crochet. This time, no booties. I’m done with booties for the immediate future, maybe it’s a mental block. I was stuck, however, on what to do next. I only had two smallish skeins of yarn of two different sizes and colors, so scarves etc were out. Lucas put in an order a while back for a pouch for his tobacco and rolling papers, so I browsed through the patterns for pouches and clutches on Ravelry and found nothing except for the most amazing crocheted uterus pouch for carrying tampons or a moon cup (the drawstrings are fallopian tubes). I am absolutely making one someday, but I figured Lucas wouldn’t care to carry his tobacco in a uterus so I moved on to other project ideas.

Finally I settled on a pattern for fingerless gloves called “Dead Simple Fingerless Mitts,” which has lived up to its name because not only can I manage them, but they’re turning out nicely enough that I plan to give them to a friend. I only started working on them last night and have nearly finished the first, made with a woodsy brown merino wool-silk blend yarn that my mother had extra of and gave to me so I wouldn’t have to go back to the yarn shop in town for more of the stuff I’d bought before. (She also gave me a fat stack of batik fabric that she thought I’d like, because I’d said a while ago that I’d like to get into sewing. Melanie, how about our sewing session? I know you’re reading this, you can’t hide.) When I’m done with the gloves I’ll post a photo. My wounded ego is repaired. I think my fingerless gloves are the most beautiful fingerless gloves I’ve ever seen. Lesson: never give up.

Reading: When I was around nine years old, my grandmother lent me a book that she said I would like. I was flattered because this was a grown-up book with only a few pictures (pen and ink drawings), and she was right, I loved it. It reappeared a few months ago on my mental radar, and I’ve been going on and on about it to Mas, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember the title. I tried several times googling a string of phrases like “husband and wife move from New York to Ireland, start a farm,” and obviously with that nothing came up. Assuming it was a nearly lost cause and hoping only that some day I would just spontaneously remember the title, I gave up active looking. Then today I walked past one of the bookshelves in my parents’ house, and it was there clearly sitting on the shelf in the Ireland section. (My mother organizes the house’s books like a library.)

The book is called O Come Ye Back to Ireland, by Niall Williams and Christine Breen, and if you google the title you get 40,000 search results, which indicates that it is clearly not that obscure of a book. The story is that Niall and Christine ditched their stressful lives and dull careers in New York to move to rural Ireland (Niall is Irish and Christine is of Irish descent), and the narrative is about their first year back in the old country winging it as farmers. I read it at least three times as a kid, and apparently never gave it back to my grandmother. I don’t remember when my obsession (unabated to this day) with stories such as this began, but I know that this was not the launch of my farming dreams, only fuel to the fire. Ireland is for sure not top on my list of places to farm — too damp, and also probably populated enough already with nostalgic third generation Irish Americans searching for their roots — but I love this story and reading it again is making me want to head off to the green, green hills.

That, then, has been my day so far. Cozy. Now back to it.