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The Woman from Achille Isle

by Amy Kenneley

We cruised the aging neighborhood, looking for a parking spot not too far from St. John's Cathedral, just "a good stretch of the legs" as they say. The kids didn't want to miss the opening strains of the St. Patrick's Day parade in downtown Cleveland, and their dad was trying to accommodate them.

This was back when the parade marched past St. John's Cathedral on E. Ninth Street and continued up to Euclid Avenue and then to the Public Square.

We passed the warehouse stores and freight businesses, and my husband pulled to the curb on a short residential street lined with turn-of-the-nineteenth-century houses and we climbed out of the station wagon.

I did a last minute check of hats, mittens, coats-the weather was always an "iffy" thing-and we were ready to plunge out of the little street and onto the main thoroughfare to bring us in minutes to the steps of the cathedral, if we were swift-footed. There was a less-than-religious reason for standing there-the cathedral had bathrooms.

The kids were already in a half-trot, but my husband wasn't moving. He was standing on the weedy little tree lawn looking at the house opposite our parked car. The house was small, with an L-shaped porch that led to a worn, wooden screen door protecting a darker door behind. The paint was faded and chipped, the porch floorboards a little saggy, but otherwise it was a sturdy, comfy old thing.

"My grandmother's house," he said, his voice sort of choking. In his turning and maneuvering for a parking spot, he had inadvertently arrived at the old family home. Oh, I had heard the stories from him-how he had sat in the big kitchen and strained to catch the women's voices that would move from English to Gaelic when they thought a youngster was listening a little too intently.

He remembered the taste of the tea and the fresh-made scones as he watched her rocking, rocking and all the time with "the beads" in her hands. Her grandson cherished the time with her. "Tell me about Ireland," he begged. She would shake her head and say quietly, "Ireland is a poor place." She would say no more.

She left a home on Achille Island, County Mayo that had grown too small to fit easy when her stepmother arrived. She never returned.

She came to America with coins sewn into the hem of her skirts. She had told her grandson of the young boy caught as a stowaway on the ship, the one the captain was going to hang, she said. Only the pleadings of the passengers made the stern captain relent and allow the boy to work his way across the Atlantic.

When she arrived in Cleveland, she worked as a domestic in rich people's houses and then she married.

She was a short woman, this Mary O'Donnell who took the name of McDonnell when she married her Michael, he being from Galway. They had 8 children.

The man who was Grandfather was gone before his grandson started school. He was a dim memory, a man with a handlebar mustache in his wedding day photograph, and then suddenly gray and bent when the scrapbook page was turned.

Grandmother grew stocky as she grew older. Her graying hair, once long and fine, was now whipped efficiently into a bun at the nape of her neck. Her straight brows looked out on a world that had changed so much from the one she had known.

He remembers her astonishment when she heard of WWII battles being fought on Sundays. When television took front and center in the living room, she would shake her cane at any production that displeased her.

She was older and frailer when the grandson bid her goodbye before rejoining his ship for maneuvers. He was far at sea when she died.

Now here he stood, remembering the woman who had lived there, as though 30 years hadn't passed. "Look," he said to me. "Her rocker's right there on the porch"

A fine dusting of snow covered a very dilapidated-looking rocker of little merit.

We hurried past the house and the rocker to catch up with the kids who had a half-block on us already. Several hours later we returned to the car when the parade disbanded and crowds reversed direction away from the route.

A stiff wind had begun to blow, and the rocker on the porch moved with a little creak, in time with the wind's nudging. He stared at it as it rocked.

"Why don't you go up to the door, knock, and ask if you can take that rocker?" I suggested. "Explain to whoever answers that it was your grandmother's-you could offer to buy it. You do want it, don't you?"

He might have wanted it, but he wouldn't go. Perhaps a natural shyness held him back. Perhaps he felt he had no right to knock on a stranger's door with such a story.

We piled into the car and headed home.

Another St. Patrick's Day Parade came, and the following year we parked again in front of his grandmother's house. This time deliberately. The rocker still sat on the porch. This year the weather was mild, no snow dusting could lay a cosmetic doily over the obvious deterioration of the piece. The seat was rotted out.

Again, I suggested he knock at the door and explain about the rocker. Again, he said no.

Busy years intervened. The kids grew up and away. We moved. The Parade moved too, no longer coming up from the lake on E. 9th past St. John's Cathedral. We parked in other places

The story would end here, a little cautionary tale about those who hesitate and who lose chances, had the subject not come up in a conversation with his sister. At least 15 years had passed since we had first seen the rocker. Surely it wouldn't still be there.

No natural shyness held his sister back. Without hesitation, she enlisted her daughter to drive her to the house. Most knocks at a stranger's door would be met with suspicion, but the owner listened to the explanation about the house and the rocker. My sister-in-law and her daughter were invited in to tour the house. Then at the close of the tour, the owner kindly told them to take the rocker.

With a sense of triumph, she showed us her treasure. Brother and sister looked affectionately at it. "Remember how she would rock in it?" he said.

"And how it creaked?" she said. "I'll bet you could fix it"

"Maybe" he answered.

Now came several months of reconstruction, sanding, gluing, nailing. I made cushions for the new seat and the back-and it didn't creak anymore.

The rocker came into our living room and began to be the center of photo sessions. My husband sat in his grandma's rocker and had his picture taken. A son sat in his great-grandmother's rocker and had his picture taken. A grandson sat in his great-great-grandmother's rocker and had his picture taken.

The ugly duckling chair had become the beautiful swan.

Well, not exactly a swan. The rocking chair had never been of great value to begin with. It was sturdy and forthright, did its job and that was all. No one could truthfully say it was a beautiful chair. It probably looked better now than it had ever been when new.

But then, you know by now that it's not about furniture-it's about love.

I like to think that, as Mary McDonnell's grandson restored her rocker, her spirit was somewhere nearby. As he worked with the disjointed pieces of wood, putting each part of the rocker puzzle back into place, his memories of the past became clearer, more focused than the intervening years had allowed.

The grandmother that he loved, the one who had given him happy memories of his childhood, the one who died before he could say goodbye, was somehow closer to him now than she had been in many years.

I think she would be proud of her beautiful rocker her grandson restored.

I think she would be proud of her grandson.

I think her grandson finally had a chance to say goodbye.

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