“Will you have another cuppa? … Emma?”
My Mum’s voice snapped me from my daydream, and I looked up at her.
“Sorry, I was miles away. No, I thank ye. I was actually in a mind to take a wee stroll up the village,” I said, and so she’d let me go I quickly added, “I want to see who’s coming tonight.” I knew my Mum was wild for any gossip of who was attending tonight’s “American wake,” proudly hosted by our family, but really for all eleven of us emigrating from our tiny village of Killyderg, in Derry, Ireland. They were called American wakes because once you emigrated to America, you’d be lucky to set foot on Irish soil again. I shook the thought of homesickness off, and thought to myself, this is real progress we live in! I lived in modern times! It was March 1917, and change was starting to trickle in, even in our remote spot north of Derry City. The big ships were readying for the season, and I was leaving for America from Belfast with my Uncle Dermot and my fiancé, John. For New York City, even!
“Right, off ye go then, but hurry back and bring any news. Tell Mrs. Duffy that I have her good green shawl mended if ye see her.” Mum stared at me for a pause, as if she’d something to say, then shook her head and with that she was clearing up the tea and moving on to the next item on her busy list. I stole a glance at her while she was saving the cakes. I looked so like her, I thought, with our identical blue eyes and thick black hair. But we were so different in every aspect. She was content just to be… content, and I wanted so much more. And I would find it in America with John! I knew it. Still, there was a deep pain in my ribcage at the thought of leaving my mother.
Thinking about a long ship voyage made my scalp crawl and my armpits prickle with anticipation, and I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirts as I walked out of my family’s cottage and into the mid-afternoon light. I could hear the crank and bellow of Mr. Hanlon’s motorcar trying to start up. Good luck to him. It hadn’t run since the week after he came chugging into the village, scaring up every chicken in sight, half the women, and Mr. McShea. Modern times really were everywhere, I thought.
On 7 March, Prime Minister George had declared parts of Ireland could self-govern if they were so inclined, except of course the Protestant (loyalist, most economically secure) northern part of Ireland. We were in that northern part, so it put speed on our plans to leave. Our entire village were Nationalists all, and proud to be. So there was political pressure to emigrate, especially because my John had fought in the Easter Rebellion last year.
“Alongside Michael Collins himself,” he always liked to boast, but secretly I knew he’d fought in the rear of the GPO, reloading weapons, and bringing supplies with the other young lads who wanted a taste of freeing Ireland but had never fired a weapon in the heat of battle. It saved him from the firing squad though, only getting six months in gaol. When he got out, the decision was made to emigrate along with the rest of the group, with my uncle as chaperone.
Will America have many motorcars? Probably thousands, I thought, daydreaming of skyscrapers and opportunity everywhere! Why, I could even become a woman of commerce! Laughing at the thought, I wondered if we’d have servants to mind our future children. John was going to be a solicitor in America, then maybe even a judge someday.
I listened for Mr. Hanlon’s car, now a lost cause, and paused to take off my shoes so I could save them through the boggy bit of ground that mucked up after a rain. It led around a bend, under the shade of swaying willows, to the center of the village, and I could smell the peat fires all burning mingled with the smells of different feasts as everyone cooked for the wake and their suppers. The loamy soil, cool and springy between my toes, felt nice, and I decided to stay barefoot. I’d be taking a bath before tonight anyway. I had a new dress for my trip, which I would wear to the American wake. A deep blue skirt to match my eyes, with a ruffled white blouse that we’d had sent special from London! It was a real treat to own, and I almost felt guilty, then thought of John seeing me in my outfit and my heart pounded.
I stopped for a minute at Mrs. Duffy’s cottage, to give her Mum’s message about her shawl. She gave me a dozen eggs and a bit of cheese and told me not to be dawdling when there was work to be done. Typical Mrs. Duffy, then. That seemed like my cue to turn back towards our place, but just to be contrary I decided I would dawdle a wee bit. I stopped and sat down under the willow trees after the mucky bit, and decided to watch my village just be… content.
Was that so bad, after all? I pondered. In the distance I could hear Mr. McElroy yell at his wife and then she yelled back louder and shoved him off to the pub and I sighed. Just then the wind changed, bringing the smell of fresh baked pies.
Mrs. McCarthy’s place, will she still sell them when half the village has gone?
I could also smell deep, rich earth and sunshine and played with a blade of grass as I observed a skylark land on a willow branch opposite me. It quickly flew away again, and I let my attention wander as far down the lane as I could see towards my home. After a long moment of peaceful silence, I spied young Seamus Devlin running my way. Sighing, I knew that Seamus had no end to his energy and therefore was the village’s messenger for bits of string or a pretty rock, so he was likely on his way to escort me home to help.
Feeling only slightly guilty at being caught out resting, I gathered my shoes and the eggs and cheese and met Seamus on the path. Grinning up at me with one missing front tooth and one half-grown in, he reached for my hand.
“Your Ma’s after sending me to fetch you home and says I’m to take ye by the hand if I must.” His little hand was hot and sticky in mine, and I wondered whose cakes he’d got into. We were silent after that, Seamus happy to skip along, and with a start I realized I was perfectly… content.
Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as I thought, I concluded. But in America…I could be both content and much, much more. I smiled and headed home, barefoot and the sun at my back, daydreaming towards home and my own American wake.