I know Martha.
I have walked down lonely, skinny roads that edge along impossibly green valleys in County Tipperary with her by my side. I have marvelled with her at the smell of wet, dewy grass in the hazy mornings of spring. How it is sweet in its own way, crisp and fresh and bright. It is the smell that is called green, the answer to the questions that come in the rain.
The great gray ship hovered dangerously over the pier the day she left it all behind. There was a goodbye in the air, a goodbye to those roads and valleys and wet mornings, an acknowledgment that with the scent of sea air, there was an irreversible exchange taking place. Ireland for William. William, a man from England, a man from another land and religion, the forbidden bond that had formed between them forging a future that only they would share. In America.
Martha loved him and that rewrote her story. She would walk a path that had not been marked for her. She would be the trailblazer. I helped her pack her simple bag, nodded through a curtain of tears from the dock to tell her that yes, she should go. “This reckless, wild, emotional flight is good,” I whisper. “It is what love should be. It is brave. Go.”
I held her when he died. Martha and William had just begun their lives in California, and yet, here she was. With Joseph and Leo, their two small children by her side, extravagant grief blended with harsh practicality that forced another move and took her to a little house in Newark, New Jersey. Just a couple of turns from where I live today, actually. She struggled to survive, working as a dressmaker and renting a room to another woman. I balanced the books with Martha, and even with a boarder they really didn’t balance at all. But she did her best.
Newark was a far cry from the Golden Valley, the eden-like stretch of Ireland that still visited her in her dreams, that still caught at the edges of her memory when a cool summer rain fell on the dusty streets she walked along in those heavy days. Even then, even with her world so weighed down, she carried herself with shoulders back, head high. She was Irish, proud and strong, resilient as the land that had birthed her.
And then Tipperary called her home. Or at least that’s how I imagine it went, when she died at the age of fifty-two. Her journey in America had, quite literally, taken her from sea to shining sea. But in the end, she came back to what she knew, where the wild mountain thyme grows around the blooming heather. To Ireland. I walked with her again, and we laughed because the grass smelled just the same as it had all those years ago. She was young again then.
Her courage is what drives me forward on days when I feel like quitting. She makes me trust myself to the whispers of love. She reminds me that I can survive anything, that if she could leave Ireland, surely I can take the comparatively small risks that my life requires. She whispers, with a voice that is both strong and sweet, in that brogue that I have come to love, that I am a woman born of strong women. That I would do well to carry forward their legacy and to hand it to my daughter every day I get the chance.
Martha was my great great grandmother. She lived from 1858-1910. How I love her.