‘Goodbye’ is the one word a mother can never get used to

Thirty-five years ago I was the one being dropped at the airport. Now it is my turn to wave off a daughter and wipe away a tear

Marie Gallagher with Annemarie: homecoming tears mist the eyes just when the arrival doors open

Marie Gallagher with Annemarie: homecoming tears mist the eyes just when the arrival doors open

 

Some routines are so familiar that, no matter how much we dislike them, we grudgingly accept that they must be done, and we do them. Such as going to the dentist or cleaning the drains. Other routines are complicated, layered with anticipation and dread.

I should be used to them by now: the joy-filled Christmas homecomings and the tear-stained January leavetakings. But I’m not used to them, and I don’t expect that I ever will be.

Like most things in life that involve loving and loathing, it helps to find a middle ground, one that might hold me steady when the tides of emotion wash away my defences, never mind my mascara. Tears make a mess no matter where they come from.

Homecoming tears arrive like a winter bloom, unexpected and marvellous. They mist the eyes just when the arrival doors open and there she is, my own girl come home, and I want to look at her and hold her close, as I did on the day when she really was a new arrival.

These tears give way easily, and soon laughter and ease take their place when, bundled into the car with bags and gifts, home is where we’re heading.

Home for Christmas. Three words with a trolleyload of baggage. Welcomes and hugs and dinners and family, and it is wonderful. Times of warmth and togetherness that forge a sense of wellbeing to carry us into the bleak days of January.

But with the striking of the midnight clock, and the singing of Auld Lang Syne, my own countdown begins. How many more evenings gathered around the table sharing stories of new places and people and adventures? How many days until we make the return journey to the airport? How will I hold back the leavetaking tears this time, the ones that gather force deep inside and make a slow, steady ascent through chest and throat and, unbidden, sear the eyes and leave wet stains on coat lapels?

I should be used to it by now. Thirty-five years ago I was the one being waved off at the airport, striking out on a bright new life, full of dreams and ambitions, and giving hardly a backward glance to my own parents, who stood behind a barrier and watched and waved until they could see me no more.

They weren’t used to it, either. In the autumn of 1956 they set sail for New York, two young and eager Irish emigrants among the thousands who left that year, dreaming of a new, American life.

They also had their turn waving goodbye to parents on the quayside, with promises of regular letters, and of coming home soon. Soon.

Building new lives takes time, and the promise of “soon” translates into months and years. Long years. But home they came, with a new dream and a growing family. That family included this nine-year-old New Yorker, who did not want to be in Ireland – no way, no how.

And the first chance I got I was off to see the world: teaching in France, working for a magazine back in New York, climbing in the Swiss Alps, spending a snowy Christmas Eve in an Italian diner in the Bronx with homesick Irish friends, learning that people everywhere want the same things, and they are the things no money can buy.

All of that was many years ago, and when the pull of Ireland grew too strong even I came home. Happily, this time.

And now the cycle of homecoming and leavetaking carries into another generation, and it is my turn to wave off a daughter and wipe away a tear, saying, “Be safe, my darling. See you soon . . . ”

“Goodbye” is the one word I will never get used to.

The Irish Times would like to speak with emigrants and their parents about the homes they have left behind - particularly their old bedrooms. Interested? Email emigration@irishtimes.com for more details.

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