Tír na nÓg

by Wm. Anthony Connolly
I

It’s summer vacation and we are in the car, heading west. The sky is cerulean and clear, the sun bright and scorching. “We’re almost there,” my dad, in his slight cockney, says in one of his frequent updates. I sit at my mom’s feet on the hard carpet in the front beneath the glove compartment, playing with my toy soldiers when the car swerves. I look up; my mom’s chin is buried in her chest, her eyes closed; she’s sleeping, her head rocks to and fro. When the car jerks suddenly, Mom opens her eyes, not at all quickly. Dad likes to do this; as soon as Mom falls asleep, Dad twists the steering wheel. We all have a good laugh, my brother Kevin, sister Denise, and me. Mom turns, sticks out her tiny pink tongue and gives Dad a raspberry – Zptpplit!!!!!

The car is stuffy and smells of potato chips, and the bubble gum Denise chews in the backseat. Her popping gum plays along with Elvis, Paul Anka, and Stompin’ Tom Connors on the crackly radio. I am deep in some military maneuver with my men, when the car turns again and hits a gravel road. The bumps from the road make my teeth chatter. The sound of crunching stone; Dad turns off the radio, and stops the car. The car is so silent I can hear Dad rolling a butterscotch lozenger across his teeth. “Look at that…” Mom smiles down at me. I grip her cold leg.

Doors open, and everyone piles out of the car. “Come on, wee Sonny,” says Mom. I hop out and find that we have come to a forest. The air is cooler than inside the car, and everywhere there is green and yellow. The wet grass is tall; the trees, white and black, sway in a wind; and there is the sound of rushing water. My skin is traced in water beads. I circle the car and come face to face with a raging river and feel as if I might just fall in.

My brother and sister scamper toward it with peals of glee; Mom turns to light a Players Plain unfiltered, tugs down her headscarf bow and follows Denise and Kevin. I stand, shivering, and soon find myself hoisted up in the air in the fuzzy, warm, and strong arms of my dad. “You’re alright, Sonny,” he reassures me. “You’re alright.”
          
II

We always went on holidays or vacations. Every summer it was something we did, what the worker bees did. My father would say we might not have air-conditioning or the fanciest car, but we always traveled; we went places. To my parents it was important, to see as much of their adopted country as they could – and we were taken along for the ride. Other families had beach cottages or mountain cabins, to be sure. My father said some people never left home. We took to the road. Every family has a pattern of movement, its very own odyssey; my family’s flux was out and back, out and back. Brothers left, and came back. Sisters did the same. Out and back. Weeks would pass or months, sometimes years. Out and back. Out there. Back home. My parents left their childhood home and traveled west, Tír Na nÓg for the Irish, to live in another country, but returned to bury the dead or to be among the living there briefly. Of the children, Michael left first, running away, and came back with long hair and a guitar. He is in a lot of ways my history. Elizabeth Anne, San, went next, out to join the Hippies, and left again, returning with long, blonde hair, out, returning with short hair, only to leave and return to take me under her wings and leave and return so many more times each time a slightly different version of herself. She is in a lot of ways my spirit. Denise left, but with seemingly less drama and came back, and has never left again. She is in a lot of ways my rock. Kevin left, and in a lot of ways, never returned. He is in a lot of ways my mystery. When it came to my time, I went out across the sea after high school and came back, boomerang, to move away some more and stay distant.

III

Recalling now long gone summers, out west in the golden time that I had yet begun to act like myself, the self that would be forevermore tattooed with scalene trinity, longing and hope, a yearling soul of inchoate sensations. Out west, we traveled, first distant Ireland, and then from Scotland before I was born, then from Nova Scotia when I was a child, and during the summers thereafter, we ventured west into the gauze of heat waves, prairie-lands, tall trees, mountains, and water. On summer vacation, we joined the others; faux-wood paneled station wagons, jury-rigged jalopies, stuffed with luggage, brothers, sisters, and parents, skimming the concrete snake of a highway in search of gas stations with exotic rubber arrowheads or spy rings, plastic pirate booty, historical markers, and motels with pools. Out those car windows, the land sluiced by as if so much ribbon or liquid under expansive skies, void of clouds. I would sit on my mother’s lap and lean against her small frame, or alternatively, play at her feet under the dashboard with my toys – tiny metal cars, or miniature military men. Sometimes my bare delicate fingers would morph into talking hand puppets. The radio played Elvis or Stompin’ Tom Connors, Paul Anka. My mother, Euegenie, Jean, sang along to some, fell asleep to others, her chin buried in her chest, her head rolled to and fro in locomotive lullaby. My father, Denis, Jock, driving and cursing the erratic drivers, if in a playful mood would swerve the racing car to awake my mother while Denise, my tomboy sister and my small-boned and bookish brother Kevin laughed it up in the backseat. My elder sister and brother, Elizabeth Anne and Michael were elsewhere, living in Jesus Freak communes or Hippie hostels, smoking pot and listening to Cat Stevens and old Beatles albums. My platinum head would poke up to see the reaction on my mother’s elastic face. She woke with her eyes first, and she’d turn her head to slowly look up to raspberry the driver:  Zptpplit!!!!! In almost every other car – I spy with my little eye something that is blue – we saw on our journey the same tableau of engorged bags, fathers with black horn-rimmed glasses and brush cuts; mothers with scarves and red lipstick; children, toothsome, and freckled clamoring about, or asleep, faces smeared against greasy windows – families just like ours, dysfunctional, yet happy. The highway was a steady stream of these vehicles and the occasional truck hauling grain or livestock. It was summer for the working class, my father was an air force electrician, my mother a nurse’s aide, and it was time to spend a little of that hard-earned money. My immigrant parents relished the idea, the sheer audacity of motor travel across a massive country without worry. There was so much open space before us, a vanishing point receding behind us. We stopped infrequently, my father eager to arrive.  

One Kodachrome memory:    
  
We stopped near a stream. Trees, undulating hill, glade, sunshine. To this day I can recall my sense of fright; perhaps it was the rushing mountain waters, its gurgle, sibilant and syllabic, and its cool sheering power. I remember being scared as my family drew nearer to the rushing stream and to stave off my crying, my father noticing my quivering, moistened bottom lip hoisted me up on his side and into the bend of his arm. In the crook of my father’s steady embrace, I was perched over the mountain stream. He consoled me; he might have even jiggled me the way fathers used to as if this stimulation would somehow shake loose my worry. My brother and sister, unafraid and smiling in the dappled light for the camera, are on their hands and knees leaning into the water. Mother took the picture.

We always went on holidays or vacations. Every summer it was something we did, what the worker bees did. My father would say we might not have air-conditioning or the fanciest car, but we always traveled; we went places. To my parents it was important, to see as much of their adopted country as they could – and we were taken along for the ride. Other families had beach cottages or mountain cabins, to be sure. My father said some people never left home. We took to the road. Every family has a pattern of movement, its very own odyssey; my family’s flux was out and back, out and back. Brothers left, and came back. Sisters did the same. Out and back. Weeks would pass or months, sometimes years. Out and back. Out there. Back home. My parents left their childhood home to live in another country, but returned to bury the dead or to be among the living there briefly. Of the children, Michael left first, running away, and came back with long hair and a guitar. He is in a lot of ways my history. Elizabeth Anne, San, went next, out to join the Hippies, and left again, returning with long, blonde hair, out, returning with short hair, only to leave and return to take me under her wings and leave and return so many more times each time a slightly different version of herself. She is in a lot of ways my spirit. Denise left, but with seemingly less drama and came back, and has never left again. She is in a lot of ways my rock. Kevin left, and in a lot of ways, never returned. He is in a lot of ways my mystery. When it came to my time, I went out across the sea after high school and came back, boomerang, to move away some more and stay distant. Since we have traveler’s blood in our veins on account of my father’s Irish parents and cousins traversing the Irish Sea, and my mother’s tinker parents, Scottish gypsies, I always assumed it was to this – blood is thicker than Valvoline – our wanderlust could find its source. But as I too have grown into a traveler, a wanderer, I now know it’s more than that. My family doesn’t really know, has never known, exactly where it belonged or fit. All of us – five siblings – have traveled great distances to say to those who ask: We are not from here; we’re from over there. I have never found a reason for this. Might it be that we, more than most, are aware that while the stream is beautiful and wondrous; it never stops and cares little who is on its banks worried about being carried away?

We gather what we can, or be carried
away water surge, we scurry harried
one eye on the river, hand on the chest
considering where our lives will come to rest
            you don’t step into the
                        same river twice
            cool rushing nature
                        running through
depositing, placing, remains here and there
an old photo pierced in a tree, appearing in mid air
child’s running shoe drifting in the swollen appetite
belongings that held us together, give up
            you don’t step into the
                        same river twice
            silent relentless beast
                        taking all
as we enter that uncertain stream, one last time
wondering, as we carried out, lives
            into the
            same river twice
burdened, in a hurry and yet taking
            our time.

In my imagination, someone in my family is holding a small mirror and is lowering it into the cool mountain stream, out west in the Land of Tír na nÓg, where youth is eternal and no one ever dies.
Wm. Anthony Connolly is a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at the University of Missouri .  He is a Canadian and the proud son of Euegenie and Denis Connolly, Scottish immigrants to North America.

© 2008, Wm. Anthony Connolly