Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Preparing for my son’s return

My son is on his way home for a few weeks after almost four years away, but I can’t help thinking about the goodbye already

Sat, Jun 1, 2013, 00:01


Elaine Hartigan

Six months on from telling our family’s experience of emigration, my son is on his way home for a few weeks. A family wedding is one of the points of reference, but also it has been a long time since Ben has touched base. His last visit was for Christmas 2009, the time of the big blizzards of snow.

Home has become an arbitrary concept. Home is Ranelagh in Dublin for us, in the same house where Ben grew up. Yet Auckland is his home now and is the place he has finally settled in and plans to stay and put down his roots. So technically he is back for a holiday to stay in our home, not his. It is a moot point but a salient one.

The front door has been painted, the gardens tidied and the guest bedroom is like a hotel room, resplendent in new bed linen and fluffy towels. It has also been decluttered and the Christmas decorations have been parked elsewhere. Only a few plastic storage clothes bags, the ones you suck out the air from with the Hoover, are packed in the wardrobe, awaiting his forensic eye. After six years, they are probably going nowhere other than down the road to the Vinnie’s. I will be the dragon mother on their fate, they are either going to New Zealand or the charity shop, the wardrobe doors here are closed!

I tracked their flights from Auckland yesterday – the flight status read “On its way!”. Ben and his girlfriend Lisa left Auckland at 12 noon Irish time yesterday. They flew for nine and a half hours to Singapore, where they are breaking the journey for 24 hours before climbing back into the plane for a long-haul to Frankfurt. From there they travel to Dublin and arrive midday on Monday. The troops will be out, as no doubt will be the tissues.

The family are getting together that evening, to welcome them back and to slag each other about the slow but deadly march of time on all our physiques. Ben’s uncle John, who has no hair, is going to have a field day with the grey hairs on his nephew’s temples, as had to endure years of merciless taunting. He is not going to pass up on this opportunity.

The weeks are stacked with a full itinerary. The wedding will be the focus of the first, while week two will feature a family break on a remote peninsula in West Cork, visited many years ago before Ben left, to celebrate his Dads fiftieth birthday. We are taking time out as a complete family, with the bonus of the company of the two lovely women in our sons’ lives.

There is no mobile coverage, which means no phones, laptops or Sky TV. We are bringing ourselves plus our togs, plenty of food and wine, scrabble, knitting, books and cards. It will be an old fashioned holiday, where the space of land and sky will give us all space to wake up to no distractions. To babble, banter, chat, slag and catch up. My sister, Ben’s godmother, is coming in from abroad too. It’s 30 odd years since she has been to West Cork and she will enjoy being in the company of her two nephews, and being part of the homecoming.

We will be bringing the binoculars, as whales and dolphins are often spotted in the seas out beyond. For me, I want to lie down on the grass at night and look up at the magnificent sky, where no city lights obscure the beauty of the constellations above. I used to do this when boys were small, trying to identify the various stars whilst often catching a shooting star. I loved listening to their nervous chatter echoing in the black inky night, both somewhat scared and somewhat thrilled with it all.

I try not to fast-forward to the leave-taking. I talk to friends about this peculiar self destruction, almost like a cattle prod, which seeps up through my consciousness, particularly at night. They tell me to stop, but I think it too is part of the homecoming. We prepare for the visit but the mind prepares us, whether we like it or not, for the departure. Yin and Yang, night and day, hello and goodbye. As we get older, we truly learn that nothing is certain and there are no givens. We are all on our own particular runway, awaiting an unscheduled take off. Life is short, intensely good and intensely terrible at times.

On foot of the last piece I wrote in December, I experienced the most wonderful empathy and support from other parents whose children had also emigrated. They thanked me for voicing the many shared feelings and shed tears at the mention of the saved but redundant polling cards. They hugged me and shone a light in on the experience, telling me of grandchildren born in other worlds and the visits and holidays that become part of the fabric of Nana and Grandpa’s life. They are experts at Googling airline offers. They take off to sons and daughters far away, camping down in Sydney, Beijing, Perth or Auckland for as long as possible. A new brigade of travellers going south, not just down the road to Spain or Italy but to the other side of the world, where their extended roots have found new ground there is room for all. It is a comforting thought in the scheme of things.

Meanwhile, the next few weeks are to be lived. Bring them on.

Read Elaine Hartigan’s previous article for Generation Emigration, First my uncle left, then my siblings, now my son. For more about the experiences of parents left behind when children emigrate see Emigration: the parents’ experience.