My Grandfather’s Christmas Eve.
He slipped out of the house and walked up the lane. From the top of the haggard, he would be able to look down towards the lake, and if he was lucky make out a few windows with a lighted candle – far fewer than when he was a child.
Mammy was cooking the bits that would go with the goose tomorrow, daddy was in his chair by the range, smoking his pipe and making dark comments about the state of the world. The girls were all down at the McHugh’s – no doubt giggling with them all evening. Michael was fixing a hinge on the barn door, and Thomas was down in the town, having a few glasses with his cronies.
In a couple of hours they would start the walk down the lane for Midnight Mass in St Brigid’s. Daddy would grumble about going out in the night, Mammy would try – and fail – to make him look respectable: “You’re not going out in the fields!” she’d say, pulling at his jacket, hitting his cap off her thigh to try and get the dust out of it.
They’d call in for the McAnancey McPartlands down the lane, then cross the big field to the Pat Byrne’s and catch up with them all, full of noise and laughter.. When they hit the road down through Barragh More, they’d call in for his sisters and the McHughs, and by the time they got down to the main road there would be twenty or thirty of them, the young ones joshing each other, the men talking, and the women discussing how much was still to be done in the house. They would gather Thomas and his pals from outside Wynne’s, the mammy making silent threats with her eyes as to his behaviour during Mass.
Coming back up the road, Christ’s birth celebrated, they would stop at every house, making a long dark journey bearable with the light of hospitality and friendship. There would be much discussion about the Wren on St Stephen’s Day and who would be doing what, and which houses they would call at first.
He leaned on the gate at the end of the lane. He could sense the lake rather than see it far below, and every now and then as a bush moved, in an inconsistent breeze, he’d think he could see a candle or a lamp across the fields, maybe even over the lake.
Thomas and the girls liked company, Michael was happiest when he was working, but, as Mammy always said: “John’s a quiet one like me; ye would never know what was happening in his head, but ye could never deny ’twould be interesting.”
He breathed in the air, let the wind blow over his face. It would be warm in the church, even hot, after an hour’s walk down the road. Everyone he knew in the world would be there – those who were not in America, or Dublin – and he would feel the childlike joy when the hymns were sung, and the Infant was welcomed into the world. Comfort was the word he most associated with Christmas – the security of familiar rituals, the safe surroundings, the people who made his life.
For all that, he loved these quiet moments, loved working a field on his own, crossing the mountain with only the odd group of miners passing him in a morning, loved the safety of the long lane with the ditches on either side, surrounding him with fuschia or blackberries, opening up on to small cabins, or views to the lake and the mountains. The crunch of his boots on the stony earth, the squelch as his legs sunk into the daub: these were his sounds in his place.
Christmas Eve always seemed dead quiet – like the fields themselves were waiting: a drawing in of breath before the celebration of birth, renewal, joy, and relief at another year mastered. The shadows of the whins around him seemed to be still and listening. In the crisp night silence between puffs of breeze, he heard a door creak hundreds of yards away, and knew by the direction that it would be Packie McGinn, out to get some turf for the range, to bank it up before heading off to church.
He turned and walked the lane back to the house; shadows moved behind the curtains, his feet knew the hollows of the path even in the dark. His twenty second Christmas in the house where he was born. Birth, life, survival – the rhythm of all he knew.
He thought that the best of Christmas was Mammy and Daddy, his brothers and sisters in the house, the neighbours across the fields, and the story of a baby’s birth.
He pushed open the door; his father grunted and his Mammy, wiping her hands on her apron, turned from the sink.
“Come on in, John!” she said, “or we’ll be late for church.”
He walked back to Summit Street from the trolley terminus; he’d been pleased to get the early shift, and finishing at 6 o’clock meant he got a proper Christmas Eve – for the first time in the four years he had been in America.
The streets he followed were familiar – he walked a great length of Hicks St – which was one of his Trolley routes – but the neighbourhood felt different when you walked it – without the responsibility of a car load of passengers, a lever to keep depressed, and a traction pole to keep in place. Coming by Brooklyn Heights the houses were grand, imposing, decorated ornately, and with stepped front stoops as high as some of the houses he remembered back home. He wondered how people got the money to build houses like these, three, four or even five storeys high. The answer, he knew, lay in the warehouses and docks ahead of him on his walk.
He took the roads through Red Hook which were nearest the river, guided by the mast tops of the ships towards the direction of the Atlantic Basin. The warehouses made the streets dark, there was little lighting, and, looking up, the stars were easy to plot.
Muffled noises and shifting light came from some of the huge buildings by the river, but others were silent and cast a cold, unmoving shadow. Occasionally a couple of men or a group would pass him – sailors or longshoremen, collars turned up, caps at an angle, heading for a bar or café. Many spoke unfamiliar languages. John’s part of the area was largely Irish and Italian; nearer the river, the Scandinavians who worked on the big ships from Europe seemed to have settled.
After he had turned down Degraw St and was moving along Van Brunt, he headed for a familiar spot where he could see the river between the long low buildings, and make out the lights of Manhattan across the water.
When he wasn’t a conductor on the trolleys, he was a transfer agent – helping passengers switch between Brooklyn’s cable cars and Manhattan’s electric system. You met a lot of people in a day – from all kinds of backgrounds and with many different attitudes. It was the opposite of Drumnafaughnan – where everybody knew your business, your family, your history. You could be completely invisible here – and sometimes that felt easier, sometimes chosen loneliness was less of a burden than the blinding glare of universally shared familiarity.
The lights on the tall buildings across the river seemed to shiver slightly in their reflections as the currents flowed; somewhere was the throb of a steamship engine, and the braying hoot of a siren. The rattling of ropes on empty masts carried from the Basin, like the cracking of wood in the bonfires they had built as children. He must ask Thomas about that – though he would be in the bar by now, and not likely to be out in time for Midnight Mass. He had thought to stay with his brother would make the city easier, but Thomas went his own ways, and had spent his time in Brooklyn proving just how different could be two boys born in the same year.
He turned and walked up Summit, passing between tenement buildings where people shouted their lives out into the street, their accents and languages merging into a kind of background noise, proclaiming that this was where working people lived, and fought, and loved, and died. He smiled his way along the sidewalk. The busyness of business was attractive to him. He was a quiet man himself, but these days he never minded being surrounded by bustle.
At the intersection with Columbia St he had to stop and wait for a chance to cross. Carts, pulled by horses or pushed by men, were everywhere – a steady stream of goods for sale, possessions, parcels and furniture, seemingly forever moving on Brooklyn’s streets. Brewery wagons, their horses straining with the weight, warehousing carts, making slow but steady progress, the occasional trap, skipping through the slower wagons as if the driver thought he was back home on a country lane. The ding ding of the trolleys, a wave from a colleague, harsh yellow light in every doorway and most of the windows.
Once across the main thoroughfare, his own part of the street was quieter, just a mumbling coming from the occasional open window, the quick steps across the way of someone in a hurry.
At the stoop, he paused and sat on the top step. You could never take life for granted. This was his 28th Christmas Eve, his fourth in New York. Michael was in Scotland, in Edinburgh, married to a Scottish girl, Elizabeth, working in a provision store, with plans to open his own shop. The girls were all in service in Brooklyn; he sometimes saw Ellen at the Gallaghers, where the Irish congregated on Sunday evenings and told each other how well they were doing and how they didn’t miss home one bit. Anne and Biddy were lost to him; he didn’t like to think about their lives; you heard such tales.
His big brother, by ten months, was happy working as a ‘labourer’. He picked up work on the docks, in the warehouses, unloading ships, handling horses. For him work was more a case of finding ‘buddies’ as they said here, rather than building a future. When he left their room in the morning, as often as not he didn’t know where he would be working or what he would be doing.
Michael thought they should join him in Scotland – he had grand plans, as always. McPartlin Brothers Provisions would take the city by storm, he said. John was open to the idea. He had saved his money well, he was no drinker or socialiser. He didn’t know how many more of those hot, humid, stifling Brooklyn summers he could take. Sometimes it got so bad he had to climb up to the new Bridge just to get some air from the river below. He should take Thomas back across the ocean, before he got into any trouble here. They could work together, selling produce from Drumnafaughnan in shops in Edinburgh.
As he got up from the cold step, he wondered if that was a crazy Christmas dream, or a sound proposition.
He would take a moment at Midnight Mass and pray for a bit of guidance. He would sit reflecting, surrounded by the Kelly’s and Riley’s, McDonaghs and McTernans. Nodding to McGovern’s, smiling at O’Hara’s and avoiding the gaze of the crazy Ryan girls. At the end, after “Ite, missa est”, he would nod to Father O’Reilly and thank him, he would walk through a crowd of people he hardly knew.
But now it was time for something to eat, a letter home to his parents, change out of his trolley conductor’s uniform, and get ready for the childlike joy of the Mass of the Nativity
In Brooklyn, it only took a minute to walk from his rooms to St Stephen’s on the corner of Summit and Hicks Street, and on the way back, you were unlikely to be detained by neighbours.
He locked the door of the shop and looked up and down Buccleuch St. It was just before ten and the roadway was deserted. He hoped he had remembered all the orders, and to put the extra butter and potatoes in the boxes for those he knew were having a hard time. Often he would stay open later than this – for you never knew when anyone in the neighbourhood might need something, but on Christmas Eve, time was needed – for reflection, to get ready for Midnight Mass, and to get the family organised.
Pausing half way along the street, he checked the lock on the rented store room. Opposite, lights glowed from chandeliers inside the tall windows of the Archers’ Hall; some grand dinner, he supposed.
It was a cold night and there was a halo round the street lights. He liked this street – busy when it needed to be, but – caught between the green of the Meadows and the rocks of Arthur Seat, he felt it was a good place, a representative place, to have spent the most of his life – a compromise between the far off calm of his childhood and the youthful noise of his Brooklyn years.
His 59th Christmas Eve, and how these last years had changed them all.
His big brother had come back with him to Edinburgh, in 1893, eventually agreeing it was for the best. John had met Katie from Roscommon on the boat across to Liverpool, he knew her vaguely as she had been in service at the Gallaghers. By the time they came ashore they were engaged, and now had been married for 29 years. Thomas had met a woman with a child and they had married, but his health was wrecked and he’d died before the turn of the century.
Then had come the war. Only Joe, their eldest, had been old enough to fight. He had been wounded and captured in 1918 – for a long time they had thought he was dead, but he had come back to them, only to die this year at the age of 26 – hardly old enough to have made any plans, never mind fulfill them. Michael and his wife had died just after the war, within a year of each other. Their family was scattered –some in America, the rest in Glasgow.
He missed Joe – the steady, serious, confident oldest child – good enough to be made a Sergeant, to lead men, and to be promoted in the civil service. Paul was a good man, helpful in the shop, but quiet, John and James were rascals – God knows what they would do with their lives, Frank and Maria were making their way successfully through school. All in all, he was lucky, he knew that, and thanked God every night – but he was glad you couldn’t see where life was taking you.
In the hundred yards or so that he had just walked, he had passed the houses of around 30 Great War casualties. In his own stair alone, as well as Joe, there had been three losses. At home in Ireland, boys had been lost fighting in the War of Independence and now in the Civil War. Death seemed far closer than it had when he was young.
He paused at the door at the foot of his stair. Buccleuch Place stretched away from him across the road, an imposing stretch of Edwardian Edinburgh, lamps reflected in the cobbles, the short steps up to each door casting a pattern of shadows, soft light escaping on to the pavement at irregular intervals.
A neighbour passed by and raised his hat to him: “Good evening, Paddy”. Over a quarter of a century here, and he was still a paddy mac – and Irish Scotsman in the capital city. He was proud of the fact, and always noted the Irish accent asserting itself on his children’s tongues when they returned from a summer in Leitrim. On the 1921 census, under ‘other languages spoken’, he had proudly written “Irish” – and wasn’t McPartlin the Irish version of McPartland anyway!
He turned to climb the stairs to the top floor flat. Katie would be cooking and tidying, Maria and Paul helping her. Frank would be hiding away in the bedroom, and God knows where John and James would be – but there would be wigs on the green if they weren’t back in time for Midnight Mass. They would go to St Columba’s as a family –and walk there and back together – it wasn’t a quarter of the distance he had walked as a child.
He grasped the bannisters and started to climb. He thought that the best of Christmas was himself and Katie, his children in the flat, the customers he was able to serve in the shop , and the story of a baby’s birth.
As he reached the top landing, he heard the street door open and close loudly. Looking over the bannister, he saw the figure of his third son, coat open, scarf flying out behind him as he rushed for the stairs.
“Get a move on up those stairs, John!” he said, “or we’ll be late for church.”