One late October, just before Halloween, I remember my father raking leaves on the lawn in front of our house in Co. Donegal.
It was early evening, the sky was grey and the air was absolutely still, not a puff of wind about. Dry twigs cracked and split under my shoes as I walked toward him.
He was very mysterious to me. Stoic, self-contained, not much given to chatter. Dressed in an overcoat and a cloth cap, he gathered the large brown oak leaves into handy pyres and set fire to them one by one.
I loved that. The dense white smoke rising up like a spirit set free from a bottle.
Sometimes, not often, the leaves would catch fire and burn steadily. First they would glow red at the edges, then flame in the center and seem to dematerialize before your eyes.
He set about his tasks with enormous concentration. Off to the shed for the wheelbarrow; back to the shed for the rakes. For a difficult job he’d bring out a long gas burner; sometimes he’d stand back and survey all his work.
Our terriers would race across the lawn together. Neighbors would sometimes stop by the gate and say a few words.
We’d hear the church bell chime the half hour. Stillness, silence, himself and myself.
Our house was an old house when my great-grandfather was a boy. Located on the shoreline, overlooking the wide lough, it had settled into the timeless landscape of Donegal with a rare finality of its own.
Or so it seemed to me. I was about 10 at the time, so it was easy to imagine that it would always be there and that he would always be there.
Sometime he would sing while he worked. A few bars of an old tune, to beguile the effort, and to rest his hands.
Sometimes he'd comment slyly on the work at hand with a few bars of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” or something like it:
“I’ve lost all ambition for worldly acclaim/ I just want to be the one you love/ And with your admission that you feel the same/ I’ll have reached the goal I’m dreaming of, believe me…”
As a boy I treasured these moments because I understood their fragility. I had already learned that sooner or later a kind of wistfulness would overtake him and his expression would darken. He would stop singing and walk away.
He suffered from depression, they told me later. And who could blame him?
A few years earlier hadn't he had watched an old priest bury his young wife? She was his darling. She was only 33. It was no age at all to end your days.
He was inconsolable, of course, but he would not speak of it. Like so many stoic Irish men of his generation, he was not an emotionally demonstrative man.
It was a sad day, the locals said, huddling in small groups outside the little chapel. So young and so much to live for. Her three babies and her happy home.
They predicted his rapid decline. They sighed or shivered or fell silent as they turned back toward the town.
He didn’t heal. It became apparent that he never would.
Soon even his closest friends grew shy of him, and stopped calling. A crack was opening in the middle of his life that was becoming unbridgeable.
He ached for my mother, and that ache had opened in our home. But the sorrow that defined him was also the thing he could never speak of. So he was both the malady and the cure, the lock and key.
You can see and understand this when you're 10, but you can't fix it. That requires the maturity of time. So to me, at the time, he looked like a character in fairytale, someone laboring under a dark spell day and night.
When I think of him now (this was his birthday week) I always think of him as he was in those years when I had just started to know him. Kind, watchful but obviously detached, his eyes full of thought.
And I could already feel parts of the puzzle he had set me taking shape. I could feel him slipping away from the world, but I used to think if I could collect enough clues I could unlock his mystery. I could stem the root of the deep unhappiness that had swallowed up our home like a fog.
Perhaps I could dispel it too. I used to think like this.
So when I think of him now I think of him as he appeared to me that autumn when I was 10. When he looked so remote and resigned, so convinced that his own story had ended.
But in fact, his story hadn't ended. He had just lost sight of it. I'm telling it now.
Jackie Kennedy’s granddaughter has uncannily similar looks