Tuesday, May 14, 1996

Bill Reilly

My publisher asked if I loved life, for he was held at gunpoint, & he questioned where all that passion came from. I’m not sure which passion he was referring to, living, or the taking of a life. The question came on the eve of my uncle Bill’s death, his funeral on the day I left for Russia, I didn’t cancel my tickets, I wrongly assumed I was exempt from grief because he was an enemy. He once tried to sell my grandmother's house and land behind her back “for her own good” because she was “getting on, and I was growing up too wild.” He made her cry, bullying her with that first-born energy. My grandmother was a strong woman but a son is next to God in an Irish family. In a white-hot rage, I attacked my uncle, pummeling him with my small fists, a skinny 12-year-old who once wanted him dead. I felt nothing when I heard the news of his lung cancer. Now he’s dead, and I was surprised to find myself in a fog, suffering from grief because I discovered that blood is indeed like the cliché—thicker than reason or emotion—no matter how disfunctional the family. I will learn this lesson again when my parents die.

I’ve never been held at gunpoint, other than at a roadblock deep in the Guatamalan jungle—with no witnesses. We were lucky to escape with our lives. I have never been held at gunpoint, but I watched the campesinos sleep with studied indifference as the soldiers practiced kickboxing with uzis slung over their shoulders. Back home in the safety of America, I will have nightmares about snipers. In Peru, we came upon the body of a lawyer dumped in front of the Chorillos tunnel in Lima—his crime, a brilliant lawyer for the other side. I cannot shake the larger images of war from my mind, it wasn't my own life I was worried about, but the perpetual genocides committed by both factions in the name of liberty—for whom?

I am the grand-daughter of a revolutionary but I keep an uneasy truce with those roots. My grandfather, while working for the San Francisco city jail, shipped suitcases of guns to Ireland during the Rebellion, he knew Parnell and the executed Liam Mellows first hand. We have photos of him and Mellows in the field below our house in Forest Knolls. Did he know Michael Collins? Probably. My mother’s cousin is named after him.

He and my grand-uncles met in safe basements, filed serial numbers off the guns confiscated by the police force, and shipped them to a contact in New York. To Liverpool, and to Cork. A grand-uncle missed one serial number in the muzzle, and the shipment was traced back to my grandfather. When the feds tried to intimidate my grandfather into a confession, he said, just try and prove it, for he knew his law. Some vow there will never be peace in Ireland until the fifth field is no longer in British bondage. My aunt Jane helped airlift Irish kids out of Belfast so they could experience a normal life, if only for a summer.

My grandfather was a thorn in the side of the English. When the Germans fought the British in WW1, he was an acting German Consulate for San Francisco. We don’t know the details, he was a closed-mouthed man. When India struggled for independence, he was involved. When Indians were not allowed to own land, bought Fresno farmlands for them. A grateful Jahn Singh (Singh means lion) sent us oranges and raisins every Christmas. My grandfather must’ve sent guns to India too. I came across an engraved invitation from the Indian Consulate dated 1945, inviting my family to the Independence celebration in San Francisco. A thank you letter from (James) Seamus Mooney, an infamous political prisoner of the ’30s who was held responsible for the death of a longshoreman during a union riot (I was surprised to hear a lawyer, speaking of ethics, refer back to the Mooney case). My grandfather took the city on, suing them and winning the landmark case (he was his own lawyer, having “read” the law, the Bar didn’t exist) when they discriminated against him, passing him up for promotion to High Sherriff in favor of someone else. My family emigrated to America after the Famine, so, we know no other passion, other than to survive.

My second cousin, a mathematician, was whisked off right out of high school to Chicago, to White Oak, Tennesee, to Alamagordo, then to a PO Box address in New Mexico. When she died of cancer, the story came out.  They said Manhattan Project. Fermi Institute. In Santa Fe, I stood at the bridge where the Rosenbergs were captured, and shivered in the sunlight, Born during this age of Light, I have no choice but to weave the stories. Nor could I stop crying at Los Alamos—what we've done in the name of an idea. Remember the Bay of Pigs? The scars go deep, and I cannot stop writing about it. Bearing witness—it is this writing I cannot get published because it's too dark.

Yes, I am uneasy about the new Russia, as I am about the new Latin America. Now that we've had our cake, we (who really do see the other side of the coin) have the audacity to tell them they can't have it—when we've set up the wish list of ultimate attainment to begin with. I know we can't convince the Olegs of the world—they are incapable of seeing out of the trench of their miserable lives, and there's something in the Slavic character, that will continue to hold them there—the root word “slave” speaks volumes and needs no interpretation. What traits I admired in Oleg while we were in the Ukraine evaporated on American soil. Oleg's limited vision and inability to look inward for root causes is a microcosm of the whole; have we deluded ourselves into thinking that the ideals of communism (vs. anti-capitalism) or another system could overcome some basic human traits?

No matter the country, it's the same old story—war between the sexes, only I'm no one's footstool. I love life because I love my art—and every man seems to want that space for himself. And having been the victim of men's desire, I know first-hand of death, having nearly died because of the babies I gave back. I was the product of a divorce; I saw my mother go crazy (and the suicide attempts that followed), an aunt and drunken husband & co. where violence and poverty was second nature to breathing—to know better than to leave myself at the mercy of society as a single mother. I've been the psych wards from the inside and have no intention of becoming an inmate.

I love life because I know how easy it is to abdicate—the way my 17-year-old cousin did at 4 a.m. in downtown Santa Rosa on a Harley at full throttle. Maybe drugs were involved. I don't know. But when he died , I was there with him in my dreams—and I never wanted to wake up to hear the news. I dreamed the darkness, the fog, and the red light of my cousin's death—only we're not supposed to remember these things during our waking hours. My mother banging on the door to wake me with the news, but I refused to waken, because waking was worse than the nightmare. There are things I tell no one, but it comes out in my poetry; sometimes I worry about there being too much death in my work, but I am a witness.

Perhaps that’s why I teach poetry in the schools. I search for the bright ones—and despair when whole classes show nary a shining star. I sometimes wonder why I bother, the work is so exausting, but ultimately I have faith. The brilliant gift of a 2nd grader, Trevor Yeats (great-grand-nephew to William Butler Yeats) sustains me:

This body is to ask
this question of the mind:
Is the sun to shine on the day of my death?
Is the hole in the universe to stay as big?
Tell me, tell me, where is the answer?

Where is the answer to lie in today’s hands?
This is the breath, to breathe this air.

Trevor Yeats
2nd grade,
Higham Family School
Santa Rosa, Ca

© 1996 revised 2000 Maureen Hurley

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