She was different from my father’s mother, Mary Elizabeth King Sheehan right out of Cork. There was an elegant thirty-year widow for you, tall and gracious, precise of language, with her little black widow’s hat on her head and the shiny glasses on her nose and a bread roll or two in her pocketbook whenever she supped outside her Somerville home. Her pocketbook was always black. It always shone the light around it. A touch of new leather at her hands as if a bargain had just been made. At Ginn and Co. in Cambridge, she was a bookbinder, for more than sixty years eventually, and never baked a pie in her life it seems. Or baked bread. But she could wash your feet and scrub your back on a visit with her slender fingers and make you feel new all over.
And she knew history and got books with broken covers or those which were not yet bound, geographies and histories and once in a great while there’d be poems of Amergin
or Columcille or Donnchadh Mor O’Dala or Dallan MacMore or Saint Ita or Saint Colman, about Saint Patrick and Eileen Aroon and Fionn and Saint Brendan and Diarmaid and Grainne and a host of kings afoot on the very land itself. Much of it told to me, of course, though I was a reader, according to my grandfather, long before some of his own children brought the pages home to comfort.
Grandma Igoe would stand beside that great stove or by the buffet in the front room where she stored her finished goods, the pies and tarts and cakes and cream puffs so elegant you could steal but for the threat of the Lord hanging in the air over you. Her jelly rolls were historic, mounded and rolled and sugared, the sweet red line twisting its marble
pattern you could only see from the end view, gathering inward until it disappeared, the way it could disappear sure down that b’y’s t’roat. Buffet drawers were crammed with her baked goods, the big ones at the bottom and the small ones at the top, and the cubbyholes behind doors at each end. My grandfather said she baked every day of her last thirty years, the memory of hunger in the old country hanging its dark face at the head of the stairs, waiting to visit again.
“Jayzuz, bless the memory,” he would say. And I could hear her say, “Hunger,” in that musical voice of hers, “’twill be a guest here if I ever once t’turn my back t’him.”
Flour clung about her like weeds against a fence. It might have been atomized on her before the atomizer was thought of. Her arms were white with it, and her apron and the neck of her dress where her hands were always at work fixing herself as if something wasn’t set right or she had an itch waiting on her. White was her hair, too, like snow left over from late March and April in the back yard. Yet patches of sweat, dark as plaster
in a leaky ceiling, were squeezed under her arms and moved perilously on her large breasts. Sometimes, though I dared never tell her, but especially when she wore her blue dress, I’d pretend the patches of sweat were maps of parts of the world I wanted to visit, maps I’d seen in the Atlas at the library with my grandfather.
All of Russia came up, dark with its lakes and seas and strange names at the edges of oceans. The steamy Congo he told me about came also, plunked in the middle of Africa, with rivers and hidden lakes, and creatures that ate up little people in a single bite. Once, from the first moment, a deep stain was Brazil, down there under my feet. The country kept growing and growing. It grew with the pies and the cakes and the six loaves of bread. All morning it grew and she never knew how big that country got, that it might grow so ponderous geography books would have to be done over and the globe itself would tip on its side and bring her down. But she made it past this point in life I’m at now, at times the hurry peeking over the hill.
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