Generation Emigration

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad

Aerograms

Philip Lynch remembers his parents as two middle-aged and capable people, as he wasn’t around to watch them grow old; the aerograms his mother diligently sent to him in Australia are all he has left of them after their death.

Thu, Apr 26, 2012, 09:10

   

Philip Lynch remembers his parents as two middle-aged and capable people, as he wasn’t around to watch them grow old; the aerograms his mother diligently sent to him in Australia are all he has left of them after their death.

 

Philip Lynch in Tasmania

We grew up poor in on a small farm in rural Westmeath. And as soon as most of my brothers and sisters were old enough, we were out the door. By the end of the 1980s five of us were gone.

Back then, that fleeting economic phenomenon, the Celtic Tiger hadn’t yet arrived to bloat and ultimately bankrupt the country’s economy. Year in, year out, it seemed, Lionel Ritchie, Kenny Rogers, Abba and Elton John and a host of forgettable country and western singers were hogging the new RTE FM radio station. And, across the border, up in the North, a scant thirty miles away, the bloody sectarian war was ushering in new acts of barbarity and showing no signs of abating. And, then, as if to cap things off, one January night in 1984, at a grotto – of all places – in nearby Granard, fifteen year-old Anne Lovett and her baby boy died, just after she gave birth. Debate and fury at their tragic deaths would reverberate around the country for years.

For many years, several of my brothers lived as illegal emigrants in New York. Even though I wasn’t particularly ambitious, I wanted out. My Leaving Cert wasn’t good enough to get me into university and I just wanted to go. Bittersweet regret about leaving my parents would come much later.

On the June morning I left, I looked for and found my mother in an upstairs bedroom. She was already well past the point of consolation. Ever impatient, the old man was tooting the car horn so, feeling like a cur, I stumbled away from her mumbling my goodbye. We drove to the near deserted railway station in Mullingar, and on the platform, at the last minute; we shook hands as the diesel squealed to a stop. Telling me to “mind myself,” he pressed folded pound notes into my hand and some holy medals that he’d pulled out of his breast pocket. I boarded the train without a backward glance.

In Dublin, like thousands before me I caught the ferry to Holyhead and the overnight train to London, staying in the East End with my sister while I waited for my cheap one way flight to Melbourne. I chose Australia because I didn’t want to be just another Paddy in London. Within a week, summer in Ireland had changed into winter in Melbourne. Five days after arriving, and still jetlagged, I started my new life as a cleaner in a hospital. Like manna from heaven, the regular pay packet instilled a sense of wonder. I had so much and yet I felt so alone.

The surprise and shock of seeing my mother so upset that morning stayed with me for a long time. I tried to make amends by writing regularly. Looking back now, I have to admit I had a degree of carefreeness in the weeks leading up to my leaving. I’d blithely organised my possessions, flogging my Yamaha 80 motorbike and buying a rucksack from the army disposal shop in Mullingar on the weekend before I left. I figured that just being another one to go wouldn’t be such a big deal – that it would be something my mother was growing used to. No doubt she viewed things differently. Whatever thoughts the old man had about me going, he kept to himself. As we’d driven to the station that morning, he’d taken in what was happening in the fields. Commenting on who’d mowed their meadows and who’d cut silage as we drove along. He’d even brought a trailer load of wool to sell to a merchant in Mullingar. This added practicality of the trip helped, I think, to obscure the poignancy of my leaving; as if his business in town was counterbalancing the business of sending me on my way.

Thirty years later, and three months apart, my parents would be buried during one of the coldest winters on record. Although almost a decade younger, my mother went first. My father would follow.

Living on the other side of the world, I wasn’t around to see them grow old, or to witness their decline. So my enduring memories of them are as middle-aged parents. In a time when he could cut turf, shear sheep, mow meadows, repair machinery and manage the farm (save from occasional misfortune like still born claves and weather ravaged crops) with aplomb; in a time when she made raising ten kids look easy.

In his final years, his mind was faltering; he wouldn’t walk, and he barely managed monosyllables. He couldn’t read or even take in the dross on daytime TV, although it was always turned on keep him company. He was oblivious to the country’s imploding economy. He was unaware of the economic madness; the ultimately phony building boom, the excessive speculative borrowings and the incredible debt people were embracing. He wouldn’t have known that over 300,000 empty houses or ghost estates are dotted around the countryside.

We arrived from London, New York and Melbourne to take turns sitting in a silent vigil by their open coffins in the freezing parlour. For me, it all felt too little too late but I kept my thoughts to myself. We sat in the front pew at their funeral Masses and carried their coffins to their final resting place. And afterwards we adjourned to the hotel in town for soup and sandwiches and small talk; and within a few days, those of us who had to go, left again.

For those of us who left, as we reached our adulthood, there was no opportunity to form any sort of meaningful relationship with either of them. Instead the chief form of correspondence over the decades remained the aerogram; that wafer thin pre-stamped paper with its three folds and little over an A4 size on which to cram titbits. My mother wrote to me consistently, diligently, and predictably. Over the years her handwriting never altered – neat flowing writing sloping a little forward. Brief sentences, typically no longer than eight simple words; like the way she spoke. I imagine her in the evening sitting at the kitchen table, pen in her hand. Jotting down those carefully crafted neutral sentences and then folding the aerogram, and the next morning cycling down the mile to the post office to slip the wafer thin letter into the letter box.

I still have all her aerograms; they don’t say much but they’re all that’s left.

 

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