All her young life, Molly had adored her grandmother (or Seanmháthair – Irish Gaelic for grandmother) and the two shared a love for stories and storytelling. I loved writing this scene, imagining them together, cozy and happy in the small room.
MOLLY AND HER GRANDMOTHER
“Here we are, Mum,” Molly heard from outside her bedroom. She shut her journal and tucked it under her pillow. “Molly, open the door.”
She did, and her mother peered in. Molly’s grandmother leaned on her arm. “Your grandmother wants you to read to her.”
Molly led her grandmother into the room as her mother headed back downstairs. Molly and her grandmother shared the room with Molly’s two younger sisters. Molly liked the feel of her grandmother’s soft hand on her arm, but even more she loved the way the thin arms wrapped around her when they got a chance, giving and receiving hugs. Mum called Molly and her grandmother inseparable, and that was fine with Molly .
“What should I read?”
“It don’t matter. You need not read anything at all,” her grandmother said, settling onto her bed. “I just wanted to get away from the noise. Ach, your father has the devil in him tonight.”
“He’s always angry about something.”
“He wasn’t always so.”
Molly made herself comfortable, curling onto her bed to listen. Nights like this felt almost magical to Molly. Just her and her grandmother, telling stories.
“Tell me what he was like as a boy.”
“He was a rascal. Like your brother, Mikey. That boy’s just like his father.”
Molly couldn’t imagine it. She pulled her journal out from under the pillow so she could take notes while her grandmother spoke.
“I had my hands full with that lad. He was always into something, and he’d come singing to me about it, happy as a lark. He came into my arms as happily as you do. But when he got older, well, he became a different boy altogether. I told my husband I feared our son might be one of them fairy changelings.”
“Ha! My father a fairy!” When her grandmother didn’t laugh, she lowered her voice. “Did you believe in fairies when you were younger?”
She looked surprised. “Well, aye. Still do.”
“Really? Are there any in Toronto?” She was only partly joking.
“I don’t see why not, though I believe most stayed behind.”
Images of tiny, winged people hiding behind trees and peeking out from under fallen leaves sprang into Molly’s mind, and she scribbled the information onto her page. She knew she’d be looking for fairies on the way to school tomorrow.
“Why did you think my father was one of them?”
“He changed so much all at once. I got used to the dear lad’s happy face, then I didn’t worry so much over him when my other children were growing. The little ones needed me more than he did. You know your father had fourteen brothers and sisters, aye? He was right in the middle of ‘em all.” She turned her head slightly so Molly almost thought she was looking at her through those blind eyes. “I couldn’t do everything, could I?”
“I wish I’d met some of them.”
“You may one day, Mallaidh. Most of my children are in Ireland, the ones who are still alive, but maybe they’ll come here. Or maybe you’ll go there.”
What a thought. Molly wrote Maybe someday I can go to Ireland then stared at the words in surprise.
“When your father was the same age as Richie, he was off on his own most of the time. He told me once about a group of lads, all older than him. He admired them, wanted to be like them, but they wanted nothing to do with him. They said he was too small, he told me. But my Garret was a stubborn boy, just as he’s a stubborn man. He never takes no for an answer, does he? So one day he came home late, and I barely saw him in the dark, so covered in bruises and cuts as he was.” She blinked, and Molly was surprised to see the pale eyes had filled with tears. “’What’s happened?’ I cried, and he stood there and looked at me, tryin’ to stand tall as a man, but his lower lip just a-wigglin’ as if he was half his age. I went to hold him, but he’d have none of that. He was in that in-between time, and there’s nothing so hard as that for a boy. ‘I’m in the group now,’ he told me, and I could see how he fought not to cry, so I cleaned him up and fought not to put my arms around him. Oh, he was a tough wee thing.”
“How did he get hurt?” Molly asked.
Muriel Ryan steepled her fingers before her face, her knuckles swollen with arthritis, the veins on the back of her hands like tiny, dark rivers. “He wouldn’t tell me, but your Uncle Dara did because he was so angry at his wee brother’s foolhardiness.” A brief smile surfaced then died. “He told me the gang said if Garret wanted to be one of them he’d have to fight all of them. And of course my boy agreed to it. That’s the kind of lad he was. Just like your brother Mikey, no?” She shook her head. “I was so disappointed. Men are a foolish lot, always keen to bloody themselves for one cause or another, but a boy has no place in that.”
Molly agreed. She didn’t understand her brothers at all sometimes. If they got in fights, they came home black and blue, but they wore their injuries like medals.
“That’s when he changed.” Her grandmother’s voice was softer now. “He didn’t talk so much after that, and he didn’t laugh at all. He stayed out late with the other boys, and he never brought none of them home to meet us, and that told me all I needed to know.” She sighed. “But his heart was still good. He and his brothers looked after the farm when their father died, and he was the one, after all, who brought me here.”
“He still doesn’t talk much,” Molly said. “And he never laughs.”
“No. But he’s raising you kids right,” her grandmother said kindly, “so I know his heart is still good, even if he is gruff.” She moved her slender shoulders a little, stretching. “Mallaidh, dear, I know it’s early, but I’m tired.”
“I will be very quiet, Seanmháthair,” she promised, helping her grandmother prepare for bed, then tucking her in. “I am just going to write in my book.”
“You’re a sweet child, Mallaidh.”
“I love your stories,” Molly replied, returning to her own bed.
“And I love you,” her grandmother replied.
LATER ON (about 1929)
As Jack Frost painted the lone windowpane in her bedroom and wind gusts shuddered through the house, Molly leaned against her headboard and tucked herself under her blankets. She hugged her knees to her chest for warmth as she listened to her grandmother speak, only letting go when she needed both hands free for note taking. Story time with Seanmháthair had changed from what it once was. These days, it was a rare night when the two of them were alone. Cindy and Tom often huddled together on Cindy’s bed, sitting still as long as they could, Louise listened until she couldn’t hold her eyes open any longer, and even Mikey appeared on occasion. One time Molly watched him fall asleep, lulled by their grandmother’s low, humming voice, her curling English highlighted with Gaelic.
At first Molly hadn’t wanted to share her treasured time with Seanmháthair, but she didn’t mind anymore. She knew how the stories made her feel, filling her with someone else’s fuzzy, warm memories, and it fascinated her to watch how her brothers and sisters fell under the spell. As if their grandmother put them all under a spell. Perhaps, she thought, the reason their grandmother had spoken so confidently about fairies in the past was because she was one of them. And if she was descended from them, then so was Molly.
There were times, when the two of them were alone, that her grandmother refused to tell her stories, saying it was Molly’s turn. Molly had long before run through all the precious books she had, but that hardly mattered. One of her favourite places on earth was the library, and coming home with a new book was like opening a door to a whole new adventure. She could hardly wait to rush into the story and share it with her grandmother, who loved them equally, if not more, since they allowed her to see again.
One night when the others were somewhere else, her grandmother asked what she was always writing.
“I write down a lot of stuff that you tell me,” Molly admitted. “I want to remember your stories forever. I write a journal, too, talking about what I did that day, or how I felt. You know.”
“No, I don’t know. But I would like to.” Her grandmother snuggled under her own blankets and waited, just like Molly did every night. “Please read to me from your little book tonight.”
Molly wouldn’t share her writing with anyone else, but she’d do practically anything for her Seanmháthair. Deep down, she’d almost hoped for the request, because she longed to hear her grandmother’s thoughts on her writing. Trying to think of what she might like, Molly flipped back to a journal entry from a few weeks ago.
“Okay. This one is about how friendships change.”
Seanmháthair closed her eyes and folded her hands on her chest.
“For as long as I can remember ,” Molly read, starting slowly, “I have always had the same friends. There have been other friends along the way, but the ones I’ve known from childhood are like my second family. Maybe even my first family sometimes. I suppose I never really thought about how lucky I was to have those perfect friendships, but now that we are getting older, I notice things are changing between us. Now that Max is away at school, Richie has stopped talking about him and the things they did together. He is secretive about what he does with his new friends, and I haven’t seen him throw a baseball in a long time. Luckily, Hannah and I are closer than ever. She misses Max terribly, as do I. And even though he’s still here, I miss Richie.”
Something inside Molly rejoiced when she looked up and saw her grandmother’s tired face lift with appreciation.
“When Max comes home after his four years at McMaster, things will change again, and I wonder if there’s any way for me to prepare for that, or if I even should. He will have made new friends at school, and he will have filled his mind with so many smarter things that I know nothing about . Hannah will love having him back. She is so good at science that she will sit with him for hours in their home, learning from him while she fits back into his life. Not me. I will see him outside, and sometimes when they have me over for supper, but I won’t have all that time with him that Hannah gets.
“When I think about that, I get angry at myself for two reasons. First, Hannah will spend more time with him, so I will be jealous that she’s not spending that time with me. Second, Hannah will spend more time with him, so I will be jealous that I’m not with Max as much as she is. It’s very, very selfish of me, I know. I am already angry at myself, and I haven’t done anything wrong yet.”
She glanced up again. Her grandmother was nodding almost imperceptibly.
“I love my family. I love Mum, Dad, Seanmháthair, Richie, Mikey, Tom, Cindy, and all the rest of them. But I miss Max a lot. Every day I think about him. Sometimes I wonder if I would be that sad if one of my sisters or brothers went away.”
She took a breath, hoping her grandmother wouldn’t disapprove, then continued. “Is it wrong that sometimes I feel as if I love Hannah and Max even more than I love my own family? Life feels easier when I am with them . When I am with my family there is always something I must do, but when I am with my friends, all I must do is be myself.
“Getting older means a lot of things change. Seanmháthair tells me I must be patient, but that is so difficult to do. Still, I know she is right. I will be patient. I will be myself. And I will remind myself of that every day. Word of the Day: Patience.”
“Is cailín cliste tú,” her grandmother exhaled. “A smart girl and a …” She searched for the words then shook her head. “Léirsteanach. You know this meaning?”
Molly wasn’t sure she did.
“You see inside. You see others do not see.”
She searched her rapidly growing vocabulary. “Insightful?”
“Yes! You are an insightful girl. Do not lose that, child.” She paused. “And do not worry. Max will always love you as you love him. A lifelong friendship rarely ends without reason .”
Molly was swallowed up by a sadness she had never imagined. She hugged herself, wishing it was her grandmother doing it, and held her sobs inside. Even when she wanted to howl with grief, she needed to stay quiet. Everyone would know about her grandmother soon enough, but right now it was just the two of them, one last time. Molly didn’t want to share. Not yet.
She stared at the familiar features of her grandmother’s face, now adjusted to their newly sunken base. Very gently, she put her fingers under her grandmother’s chin and eased the stiff jaw closed, thinking of Seanmháthair’s pride. Until she’d lost her sight, she’d always been embarrassed about the state of her teeth.
Was it all right to kiss a dead person goodbye? Should she hug her? Because she wanted to. Unless Molly held her grandmother one more time, she could not really say goodbye. She would always long for that last embrace.
She listened for the familiar creaking of boards throughout the rest of the house, but it was still early. Her brothers would have left already, bundling up best as they could before stepping out into the darkness for their paper routes. Her mother was moving in the kitchen, and Molly smelled onions in the fry pan. Everyone else was asleep. Or dead.
Cindy awoke first, hopping happily onto her sister’s bed as she always did. Molly wheeled around on the two little girls, furious, though they had no idea why.
“Hush,” Molly said. “Show some respect.”
The little girls edged toward their grandmother’s bed, alarmed by Molly’s tone. Like her, they stood and stared down at the body, not knowing what else to do.
“Is she dead?” Louise whispered, and Cindy began to cry.
Molly took one look at Cindy’s tears and let her own go, giving way to the sobs that had built inside. “Don’t touch her,” she said, then she went for her mother.
“Oh no.” Molly’s mother knelt carefully beside her mother-in-law’s bed, staring at the body. She brushed thin, grey strands of hair off the cool brow then leaned down to kiss her cheek.
Molly turned back, hearing an unfamiliar sound behind her. Her mother had lowered her head onto her grandmother’s chest, and her back was rising and falling, rising and falling in jerky little movements. Molly realized she’d never seen her mother cry before, despite everything she’d survived. Her father heard the noise and came running, and Molly’s brothers were right behind him, filling the room with a thick, stunned silence.
Now that everyone knew, there was nothing they could do but carry on as if it was a regular school day. In a daze, Molly and the others ate what their mother had cooked, put on their coats and boots and stepped outside like they always did. Max, Hannah, and three of their four little sisters waited for them by the street, unaware, but they realized something was wrong right away. Molly fell into Hannah’s arms, sobbing, and as soon as she felt ready to explain, little Matthew cried out,
“Seanmháthair is dead!” as if it were terrible but exciting news, and Hannah hugged Molly tighter. When they arrived in the classroom, Hannah quietly told their Grade 9 teacher what had happened. Miss O’Leary was sympathetic, and she left Molly alone for the day. All day long, all Molly could think of were her grandmother’s long, veiny hands moving like leaves in the breeze while she told her stories. Her subtle nod and searching eyes. When she tried to remember her smile, Molly saw again the awful yellow teeth that only showed when she laughed. Molly didn’t mind those teeth. She never had. And she would do anything to see her grandmother laugh again.
Molly barely ate supper that night, and what she did manage to swallow tasted like paper. No one chastised her or said she had to clean her plate. No one said much of anything. Everything in the house moved slowly, as if the air was clogged.
Two days later, their neighbours and members of their church, some of whom Molly had never seen before, came to see Seanmháthair and tell the Ryans how sorry they were for their loss. Could she see all these people walking past her in silence? Could she see Molly all the way down here?