December 31, 1999— a new millennium would begin in a few hours.
I finished my glass of wine and went through to the sitting room, cozied into my favorite chair near the fireplace, smiled at the mayhem surrounding me— and died.
All of my living children, two daughters, and a son, along with thirteen grandkids and five great-grandchildren, accompanied by various spouses and significant others, were crowded into the dining room at two long tables. The latest addition, a great-great-granddaughter, sat in a highchair next to me at the head of the table.
My son stood, tapped a spoon three times to his glass, a hush went over the two tables. The baby looked at me with her bright blue eyes and screeched at the top of her lungs—the room filled with laughter.
“Maybe you would like to give the toast, little miss,” Jesse smiled and touched a finger to his great-granddaughter's nose.
“Come here, Kit-Kat.” I reached over and pulled her out of the highchair and started to bounce her on my knee. She put her tiny hand to my face to feed me a smashed-up piece of cupcake—the chocolate icing oozing between her fingers.
I licked some off her finger and made an mmm sound and smacked my lips. She giggled and tried to feed me more.
Maria Katherine O’Brien was named after her great-great-grandmother, my wife. God rest her soul. She had the same blue eyes and already a thick crop of wavy black hair that fell unruly about her face. The resemblance brought tears to my eyes. I nudged my nose close to her hair and made a raspberry into her ear.
Jesse tapped the glass again then raised it above his head. “A toast to Dad.”
“No, Son, wait.” I stood up and repositioned Kate into one arm and raised my glass. “Happy first birthday to this little one, the fifth generation in the room, and happy birthday to your mom. I miss her so much as I am sure you all do. She would have been ninety-five today.”
“Happy birthday Mom, happy birthday Kate, happy birthday Gran.” Everyone stood and drank from their glass.
“To Dad,” Jesse said again. “A century on this earth. One hundred years tomorrow.” He raised his glass high. “You’ll probably outlive us all.”
“To Dad, to Grandad, to Pop” Thirty-some voices all shouted in unison. Kit-Kat gave me a big chocolatey raspberry on my cheek.
The first to notice was my youngest granddaughter, Nora.
“Pop,” she said, “You okay” as she shook my shoulder. I slumped over to the side of the chair.
Nora was a nurse and quickly felt for a pulse. She dropped to her knees and pressed her head against my chest.
“No, no, no.” She began to sob and held me tight.
I hovered above the room before settling on the stairs with a few of the youngest children. We watched as the hysterics took over, the wrenching of hands and gnashing of teeth. Tear dampened faces staring in disbelief, glasses of wine and whiskey turned bottoms up. The older children consoling each other, the younger ones not knowing how they should feel.
Nora’s daughter Cailin came up the stairs and sat on the step below me. She hugged her little cousin, young Tommy.
“It will be alright. Pop-Pop has gone onto a better place. He’s gone to see Granny Kate again.”
“But he is still sitting there in the chair.” Tommy pointed, his arm protruding through the banister rails.
Cailin leaned her head on his and whispered, “I’ll miss you, Pop.”
“I’ll miss you too, m’chroi.”
She turned her head and looked up the stairs.
“Tell me the story again, Pop, about when you came from Ireland.” Cailin could listen to the tale every day if she had the chance.
She summoned the cousins to come and listen. She arranged them on the floor around my chair, placing the smaller ones closer.
“Shall I fetch you a glass of Guinness, Pop?” She knew I would need a drink if it were the long version I was to tell. She’d surely frown and pout her lower lip if I requested a Jamison on the rocks, knowing the tale to come was the abbreviated version.
Her eyes showed bright when I said, “A pint of the black stuff, lass.”
“Dinner’s almost ready, Da, don’t get too carried away.” My oldest daughter Deirdre called from the kitchen.
It always started the same, “I was but a wee lad, the same age as you, sweet Cailin.” The younger ones all turned and looked at her as if she was somehow part of the story.
“Me Da had gone off two years now. To Dublin in search of a paying position leaving Ma and me and four younger sisters to fend for ourselves. I found work on a fishing boat over on Galway Bay. A Galway Hooker with red and black sails.”
“The Bad Mor,” said Cailin.
“Now then that be the type of boat she was. Bad Mor means Big Boat. But her name was An Rosin Dubh- The little black rose. We just called her Rosie.”
“Tell them why the sails were red and black now, Pop.” Cailin interrupted.
“Who’s telling this story, little miss?”
“He had to rub them with butter,” she said.
‘Ew’ was the consensus from the younger generation.
I smiled and took a drink of beer. “Go on then.” I winked at her.
“He had to lay the sails out on the ground and crawl all over them with a bucket of butter and tar rubbing it into the cloth. And every year the sails got darker and darker.
“And sometimes he would slide over the sails on his belly.”
Another round of “ewes”. This time from the grown-ups. Giggles from the children.
I picked up the tale. “When I was a bit older we would sail far out to sea and let out long lines with hooks tied to them. Days and nights we sailed until we filled the ships hold with all sorts of fish.”
“Time went on and Ma got to thinking I should go to America. The ship was packed with lost souls leaving for the promise of a better life. The captain said we might have to change our destination if the British still had a blockade along the coast. They had started another war with the colonies in 1812.”
“Pop, that’s not how you came, it was a steamer out of Queenstown.” Cailin quickly corrected me.
Something was happening. I stopped and took another drink. The memory of horns blasting as the White Star line steamship pulled away from the quay at Queenstown blurred with the two masted Star of the Sea rounding the windward side of the Aran Islands a century before.
My mother told me of my birth in the Claddagh, the small fishing village situated where the fresh waters flowing swiftly from the River Corrib spilled into the tidal flats at the head of Galway Bay. It was new years day 1900.
“The weather blew us off course and instead of Boston we ended up in Philadelphia.” My voice whispered the words.
Another memory drifted out of my mind. A fog covered coastline. I rode in a long boat with a dragon’s head at the bow. On the shoreline, a band of people wearing animal hides and feathers in their hair appeared from the mist then vanished. I remembered the dragon boats. Five, maybe more raided our village along the coast. I woke up staring at the endless stars. We traveled for months across the sea always sailing toward the setting sun.
“I was fourteen, we rode overland along the Post road to Baltimore. The British attacked the second day I was there.”
“Pop.” I heard my son say. “Are you okay?”
I shook my head. I think I said “How do I know that?” aloud.
“We lived in a wood and earthen hut over the winter. Many of us died but I returned across the sea the next spring.”
“Who died Pop?” Cailin asked.
“Dinner’s on the table.” My daughter’s voice broke my spell.
The clock struck midnight as two men in green blazers with a funeral logo on the lapel placed me on a gurney.
They brought Kate over to me. “Give Poppy a kiss so he can go bye bye.”
She turned and reached her arms towards the staircase.
“Poppy,” she called out.
“Poppy’s right here on the bed,” her mother said. “Give him a kiss night night.”
She squirmed and wiggled in her arms. “Poppy,” she said reaching for the stairs.
I floated down to her, and she blew a raspberry into the air.
Centuries of memories filled the room. I saw the children from other times running through the parlor. Family gathered around the table, their faces so familiar yet distant. A fog blurred my vision as I lost a grasp on the room.
January 1, 2000 Galway
The young man skidded to a stop at the emergency room doors. He helped his wife into the lobby.
“I’ve gotta push,” she screamed.
Five minutes later the bells chimed all across the hospital intercoms.
I opened my eyes and gazed up into of a pair of bright blue eyes emanating unconditional love. She leaned down an kissed my forehead and spoke her first words to me.
“My sweet boy, born this new year’s day, may ye live to see the next century.”