“There isn’t a story in the world that isn’t in part, at least, addressed to the past,” (299).
I read Let the Great World Spin at a lonely time in my city life, missing friends who seemed to have all moved away within 6 months of each other. Colum McCann’s book reminded me to look for beauty and redemption, and I credit it with pulling me out of what felt like a long winter.
I picked up his latest, Transatlantic, excited, but sadly for the first half of the book found myself bored with what felt like three mostly disparate short stories, (though connected to Ireland and America, which I loved): the first of two men who flew across the Atlantic in 1919, the second in the voice of Frederick Douglass and the time he spent in Ireland in 1845, and the third in the voice of George Mitchell, who helped write the peace accords in Ireland in 1998. I wanted to dive into a story and get to know a character well, and these chapters felt like something I had to push myself through. But then the book shifted half way through and McCann began to tell the story of four generations of women whose family had been affected by each of the events described in the first half of the book. I began to see a beautiful lineage and purpose to what McCann was crafting.
And, like in Let the Great World Spin, I found in his work a way to process the ways that life can weigh on me–and I was caught by surprise finishing the book this morning when I found myself remembering my grandpa who my large Irish family lost last month, and our lineage: my great grandmother who came to New York as a young teenager, settling later in the Irish section Washington Heights. My grandpa causing all kinds of trouble and enlisting in the Navy at 16, becoming a frogman in the Pacific. Marrying my grandmother who lived in the same building. Moving to the country (as western Long Island was called at the time) and buying the house from which he would never move.
There is a moment at the end of the story where one of the women, in 2011, looks at a scholar with whom she is relaying bits of her family’s history and thinks: “What distances had he come? What stories did he himself carry?” (285). This was one of the hardest parts for me to read this morning, because I found myself thinking about all the stories my grandfather carried, some of which only came out as people came to the wake and the funeral and shared the ways my grandpa had helped take care of them in some way over the years: things he never even thought to tell us about simply because it was just the way he lived. You do the right thing. You give people chances. You offer a hand to your friends. And you definitely complain if a restaurant isn’t up to your standards. Ha.
Part of the story revolves around a letter that gets passed down through the generations and one of the characters remarks: “We seldom know what echo our actions will find, but our stories will most certainly outlast us,” (295). And this is exactly what I needed to read as I’ve grieved for a man so unique, humble, and fearless. Immediately my mind drifted to the cool June evening after his funeral, with almost my entire family sitting in his small house together, laughing and crying, remembering the stories that bind us all together, the ones we love to retell and share. This is intangible beauty–and what will outlast my grandpa’s physical presence.
My most recent favorite memory of him is connected: the night before my wedding, my family gathered, in fine Irish tradition, in the sports bar of the hotel where we were all staying and laughed well into the night. I think of my grandpa there, often, sitting at the corner of the bar minding the “kitty”, telling stories, and taking in his family. The next day, my bridesmaids rode in one limo to the ceremony and I rode with my parents and my grandpa in another. My husband met my grandpa in the hospital not long after we got engaged, and sitting next to him on the way to my wedding was an answered prayer and the entire ride a surreal one that I’m sure I will describe and add to the collection of stories passed down through the Yager family.
I don’t write this to publicly grieve, but to simply say: may you have stories that bind your heart when it feels most fragile. May you come across the written word in transforming ways.
And, may the road rise to meet you.