The very heart of my family is on the Black Isle of Scotland, near the town of Fortrose on the Moray Firth. It's where my parents met, although Mam was an Irish lass and Da was a German boy. It is the place of our dreams and will always be.
Gone these many years, I can feel our Mother's presence still. Her story began on a cold early December day near Derry, Ireland, in 1874. On that day, she became Bronagh Emer Shannon when she was barely two weeks old, carried into St. Claire’s Catholic Church, and wrapped in Granny Nutt’s fine wool blanket that had been knitted on narrow wooden needles the twenty years before. The blanket, according to its maker, had been created under the watchful eye of a guardian angel that had appeared at the cast on. Having shared that with her community, it then became tradition to carry the babes into Mass on their baptism day, wrapped in the very same blanket.
Once the rite had begun, it was the responsibility of the maternal grandmother to slip the cherished blanket into the worn linen bag with hand-sewn seams of delicate silk thread, which bore an occasional repair here and there. One year Dougal Shannon, all of six weeks of age and a huge baby by all reports, refused to let the blanket go as he was in route to the baptismal font, and in the ensuing struggle somehow stuck a pudgy foot into the holding bag and ripped a swatch along the seam.
After that, silk thread was always on hand for such a happening. This became the responsibility of the paternal grandmother, who kept a spool of silk tucked neatly in the sleeve of her dress, a needle slipped under her collar for safekeeping. The thread didn’t always match the original or any previous repair, for that matter; as long as it was genuine silk, that’s all anyone really cared about. At home again, the blanket and bag would be placed in the bottom drawer of the baby bureau, way in the back, not to be disturbed until needed again within the community.
Bronagh, which means “sadness” in the Gaelic, became a Redfern when she married my Da two weeks after her seventeenth birthday and that day she was dressed in her mother’s own wedding gown. They took their vows in the same church where her baptism had occurred. Among the wedding gifts was Granny Nutt’s baptismal blanket, now in desperate need of repair. It was suspected it came from Caren O’Donnell, who had just had her eighth child, and wanted no more. Some felt that the blanket was the real reason why our family grew as big as it did, so blessed we all were.
My father, John Redfern, had come to Scotland with his dog Jack when he was seventeen. He was an orphan hailing from Germany, and already becoming a man of the sea by then. He and Jack had put into port at Black Isle, after being on the water for the good part of six months, and there they stayed. Da lied about his age so he could work the docks and get a feel for the country he had assumed. Stories of how he came to be a sailing man in the first place kept me and my siblings enthralled for most of our childhood, but the story of how he gave it all up when he first met our Mam was always our favorite.
Da was not handsome in the traditional sense of the word. His face and body bore scars, some from abuse as a child, and some from his hard times at sea. His mouth was wide and generous with a smile. He had gnarled and chunky hands, even when he was young. He also had a flame of red hair, which earned him the nickname of “Red” even more than his last name did. He was a tall man and had a way of looking down at our small Mam; it melted her heart so. Even as they aged, even when there were too many children to count, they would always stand close to one another, melting into one shadow, one being, so when you looked at them from a distance you couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other began. He would move his head down on top of hers, his cheek or chin lying gently on her golden hair, and just listen as she talked. He loved her brogue, loved everything about her, even her tired fingers and sad eyes. When they spoke like this, huddled together, they always whispered as if they had some terrific secret to share. It could have only been about the wash, or the wind or the weather coming, but to us kids it looked like something only for them and we never interfered. They stood like that, her arms wrapped around his waist, when she told him of babies coming, and he would gently place his large hands on the small of her back and pull her close, comforting her as she cried.
Da liked to touch everything, as if he had been blind once and never got over the idea of feeling things, to know them. We always held his hand when we walked, even when we were too old to hold anyone’s hand to be safe. At night, before sleep, he would look very close at our faces, peering into our eyes, our noses, our ears, as if he was looking for some errant bug that was crawling about. His wide mouth would suddenly smile, eyes crinkling at the edges. Then he would tuck us in all around and we’d wait expectantly. He’d sit back in his soft chair and begin.
“Ah, your Mam then. That’s what you always want to hear isn’t it? Johnny, are you tired of the tale yet?”
“No, Da. Never,” I would say, almost in a whisper to not break the magic.
“Well, then, where to begin?”
Little Millie, the youngest, would speak up at her cue, playing her part. “Da! You know where. It’s at the beginning you need to start.”
The story began with a picnic; my mother’s family on Black Isle in Scotland for a holiday with her parents, and a lonely lad with nothing better to do than spy on a gathering of people that looked a little like heaven to him. The sun was up and young “Red” as the boys called him, was taking a day for himself to explore. Wandering away from the docks for the first time in months had an eerie and uncomfortable feel to it at first, he said, like being away from home without permission, but exciting too. He was, after all, a seafarer used to seeing new places and going on adventures as part of his life. He thought going inland shouldn’t be any different.
Red and Jack had left the wharfs to their own devices, as well as his fellow dock workers. Red had no real friends there, except his dog. There was no one his age in that hard working group; most of the men had families with children to feed and those who didn’t were simply trying to keep their heads above water until the right girlie came along.
“So, after walking quite a bit, Jack and I found ourselves in a little church yard, with the stones spread about like headstones and come to find that’s exactly what they were. Kind of a quiet day, it was, where there was little color to be seen save the blue sky above, and only the distant call of a red throated loon to mark the silence.”
He'd close his eyes in memory then, looking for all the world as if he were on that isle still and hearing the bark of the loon in his ears. We tried to see and hear in our own heads just what he was describing.
On and on he would go, and as each one of us succumbed to sleep, he eventually found himself to be the only one left, listening to the sound of his own voice. Little rumbles of snoring would signal it was time to stop, but he did so knowing he had sent us in our dreams to a place he loved.
The angry part of my mother came out the night my father died, and never left her. It happened quietly. He had told his story once again, and for the last time, unknown to us. We had all fallen asleep to the sound of his voice, describing what it was like to look into the face of an angel, sitting on a plaid blanket and eating a piece of chicken from a basket. The touch of her hand as she gave him some of her meal, with a smile as sweet as a meadow flower in first bloom, and golden red hair, as beautiful as the morning sun. We all saw her then, believed that hidden beneath the work worn hands, the lined face, and graying hair of the mother we knew and saw every day, there existed an angel still who possessed great beauty and love.
The voice that pulled us all out of our dreams, however, was not that of an angel.
“John! John, wake up!” She sounded frightened and angry at the same time.
She was shaking Da, her hands grabbing his shoulders tightly and bringing them forward and back with a strength I did not know she possessed. His head had an unnatural loll to it, as if it was not supported by anything. Finally she stopped and laid him gently back against the chair again, deliberately pushing the hair that had fallen across his brow away. She straightened up and put both of her hands to cover her mouth. Despite that, the scream that tore from her could have been heard across the Firth. We all got out of bed and went to her side, not knowing what to do to make her stop the awful noise. Little Millie began to cry and pretty soon everyone was crying and my mother’s screams could still be heard above us all, sobbing for our lost father.
Mam sent me to fetch the doctor, and when we returned she was much calmer. Too calm by my standards, while I was still near hysteria.
“No need, doctor. The time is already passed. There’s no good you can do my John now and I’m sorry you came.”
My mother seemed to recover somewhat over the next year, in the sense that she could cook and clean and take care of her family, but there was so much missing in her face, her very being, that you couldn’t really say that she was living. She moved slowly, appeared even more exhausted than before and seemed unwilling to break a smile in the course of her long day. After the funeral, Mam never again set foot in the St. Claire's where they had wed, except for the one time she went back in the dark of night and left Granny Nuttt’s baptismal blanket in the last pew; left for anyone who would have it.
Those nights, I lay for a long time before sleep took over. I thought of that long ago day when a young, lonely sailor looked upon the face of an angel and followed his heart on Scotland’s Black Isle. It was a story I would tell my own children and because of the telling, our Da would be with us forever. And just like Grannie Nuttt’s baptismal blanket and the silk thread that ran through the seams of the bag that held it, Da and the story he told, would forever be.