Sunday, 21 June 2015

Miss Lily says Goodbye, Miss Emily says Hello

It has been a tough week.  Ireland is grieving the deaths of six young people who died when a balcony in Berkeley collapsed under them. America is grieving the deaths of nine innocents in Charleston. Alaska is on fire. Our house is upside down.

‘I don’t like all this dying stuff on the news,’ says Lily. She is learning about tiny deaths as we sort our transatlantic move. 

Her Special Olympic soccer team honored her yesterday. There were goals and a score of three all. Each week the score includes the word all. Then a party in the club house. Robbie and Tommy, the two sweet and fit Dads have helped the cluster of kids figure out how to be a team, how to dribble, how to get mad and get over it, how to shoot to the proper goal, how to shake hands after a match. Us parents gather at the side lines each week. We admire the progress and each other. I know we will meet many good people in Oregon. But these soccer people are kith. Irreplaceable, steadfast.

Everything was going well at the party. There was a cake with our names on it. We cut it together. ‘You have been the highlight of our week for years,’ I said. Then each soccer player gave Lily a card and a hug. Lily smiled. I did not wipe the pink of strawberries off her chin. I stopped doing that years ago. Sun poured in through the big windows that stand watch over the bogs and hills of Connemara. The coaches gave Lily compliments, and a photo of the team in a frame decorated with the word friends. Roisin Walsh gave a speech: ‘You are my best friend forever, Lily, I will miss you every day, I love you so much, my dear best friend.’

And then there were tears. From all of us, for all of us. More teenage hugs. Foggy glasses. ‘I’m all emotional,’ said Lily. The long good bye; the photographs of my tear-stained daughter with her peers show her smiling and crying at the same time, determined to pull herself together gracefully.

My soccer team equivalent has been my monthly writer’s group called The Peers. Ten years ago a letter came to me addressed to Mary Mullen, writer, near Kinvara, Co. Galway; an invitation to join the group. It was from Nuala Ni Chonchuir. For years we met around her dining room table in Ballinasloe. Twelve writers worked for three hours giving feedback, criticism, encouragement. The Peers became the rhythm to my Irish life. We watched Nuala’s two boys grow to teenage-hood and manhood and celebrated the birth of her daughter; we celebrated the launch of many books born into the world written by The Peers. We eventually moved the group to Dublin where Sara Mullen and Patrick Chapman hosted us.  Our June meeting was my last. More kith; irreplaceable, steadfast.
We ate Japanese food for our last supper, and we had a farewell drink at Panti’s bar on Capel Street in Dublin. Nuala slipped me a gift as we were leaving; an advance uncorrected proof of her third novel, Miss Emily.

I let The Peers stroke the cover. ‘I have to read the first page,’ said one. ‘The dialogue is flawless,’ said another. 

I devoured Miss Emily, a story about Emily Dickinson’s Irish maid and her relationship with Emily Dickinson. My eyes sped along each perfectly researched sentence. Nuala (New-la) Ni Chonchuir (Nee Coo Hoor), for the purposes of this book, used her given surname, O’Connor. She has been chided for doing this. (The world of writers in Ireland is often vicious.) I applaud her for doing so. O’Connor is the most common surname in Ireland and also the name of Nuala’s mother. It will easily roll off Oprah’s tongue. 

Miss Emily, published by Penguin Books in North America will be a huge success. An overnight success after twenty years of writing three hours a day, driving an old banger, producing volumes of short stories and poems, juggling three children and a supportive husband, maintaining a friendship with her ex-husband, being a sister and a daughter, winning prizes and nominations, hunting for the right agent for years, quietly bringing other authors to their fullest, being the target of ridicule by lesser writers; standing tall all the while, Nuala’s work will burn across North America like wildfire.

Miss Emily will be released in mid July. Beyond the relationship between Miss Emily and her maid, Ada Concannon, the story is about classism, racism, love, New England, coconut cake, violence, kindness. I would like to tell you the story, but I won’t. 

The story is a tribute to good writing and to thorough research. You can’t have one without the other.

Meanwhile, belong. Kiss your kith.