Someone who loved order must have spared the twin maples twenty paces in front of the old, clapboard farmhouse in central New Jersey. They lent a symmetry otherwise lacking and graciously shaded the lawn. The bank dropped sharply to a dirt road and a swampy pasture where weeping willows concealed the Dead River but not the hills rising beyond. All this, common birds and butterflies, a rusty cultivator, and whatever else was carelessly left, formed my Grandma’s view from the long, weathered porch where she worked on summer days. How can a river be dead, I wondered.
It was all tangles of green and, like they say in wordy books, “dazzling sunny patches in-terwoven with deep shades.” The atmosphere was languid, though alive with peepers. High winds and high tensions passed over the tops of surrounding hills.
She sat rather still, did Ellen Marie Killoran Deeny. Tired, I guess, with 77 years behind her by 1951. A hungry child in Sligo, at fourteen she’d crossed the Atlantic where, she sang somberly, “many brave hearts are asleep in the deep.” Here she became a dairy farmer’s wife. I learned of 13 pregnancies in 20 years, two miscarriages; three dead in their first year, seven raised, one dead at 37 from a heart infection. Now, her oldest daughter, also Ellen Marie, my mother, who moved back to the farm after college to help her parents, was ill and (no one dared to think) dying from the same disease.
Grandpa was dead. I gathered the only person he could stand toward the end was my father, and vice versa. Daddy was good with him, gave him a shave every morning. His father had died some 20 years prior and I guess he thought a crazy old man was better than none. Old Hughie wasn’t suited to his fate. A skilled cabinetmaker, he remembered dancers and teachers among the Deenys in Donegal. His father had a fishing boat on the North Sea. He had three sons and the youngest was disabled. Hugh’s mother died young and his father remarried quickly. The stepmother didn’t like Hugh, the middle child, so at about 12 years of age Hugh walked away, came to America, to build his life. He was a pretty good dairy farmer, but not good enough against the Farm Depression of the late 20’s and 30’s. Nevertheless, he sent his brilliant children to college, Radcliffe and such.
Somehow, Grandma Deeny accepted all things in life. She loved her children, did what she could, and left the rest to Providence. Daddy said she was the only good Catholic he knew (he loved to exaggerate) and drove her to Mass every Sunday. I watched her, com-fortably stooped in a straight chair, wearing an old cotton dress, shelling peas. The soft wind just lifted her wisps of hair. She split the pods, gave me that melancholy smile, and said nothing. I said nothing, too. A child respects a reverie sometimes, I’ve discovered.
Swiped peas are the sweetest, warm as the day as they rolled off her thumb and dropped in the kettle at her feet. I don’t think she minded, though they were to be cooked for supper and many people were entitled. They were mine after all. My mother and father had planted and picked them and so on, and on and on spun my simple universe.
What was she thinking? Did I remind her of herself as a girl of three and make her long for her most green home? Did she wonder where the hungry tow-headed elf with her eyes would find her strength in adversity? Was she recalling her life in the light of the Immortality of the Soul and the Forgiveness of Sins? I don’t know. She was lost to me in the secret ecstasy of woman’s work so rhythmic and expert the mind is free to exult or pine, the eye to be caught by a butterfly. And she stays with me that way.
My cousin said the other day I was too young to remember her. He’s forgotten how vivid life can be to a young child, how a vision, a feeling of love can endure for a lifetime, like a song I can hear, that I silently sing.
Martha Pinson is a filmmaker and writer based in New York City. She grew up in rural New Jersey, graduated from Vassar College with a degree in English Literature. She has lived in New York City since 1979, working on films as the Script Supervisor for such greats as Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Milos For-man, and Oliver Stone. Between jobs she raised her son, wrote numerous screenplays, directed off-Broadway plays and short films. Her short, “Don’t Nobody Love the Game More than Me,” won numerous festival prizes and aired on PBS. She is now in Post Production on the feature film “Tomorrow,” which she directed in London and Spain last year.