Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Death of the Earth Mother

The Irish do not prosper so well; they love to drink and to quarrel . . . from Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1781)

My father was a man of few words. “Jews are better to work for than Protestants,” he once said. And French people cannot be trusted, he would say. That was about it. The thing about French people was not a prejudice. Just the opposite. He wasn’t prejudiced against French people. He was prejudiced against everyone else except French people. He liked French people and his relatives would marry French people. Into his old age his only remaining friends were French people. I think he loved French people more than he loved the Irish and that’s what scared him.

The only people who worked in the factories in Fall River, Massachusetts were French people and Irish people, until the Portuguese came in, but then it was too late. So the only people you could trust were French people and Irish people. And you couldn’t really trust the French all the way, although they were Catholic, because they weren’t Irish. His employment maxim about Jews was more complex. At the heart of the matter was the core intuition that lived secretly in the collective heart of certain working-class Irish factory workers in New England in those days that Protestant people couldn’t really run things on their own because they were guided by blind optimism, unfettered by the heart, and if they tried to do things on a large scale without the aid of Jews, things would fall apart. This at a time and place where Yankees had deep roots and the Irish were new arrivals. Thus, there was a complex tribal prejudice toward Jews; they were smarter and not as predictable as Yankees -- and then there was a prejudice against them; they were not Catholics, of course, like we were. But they were a mystical force of nature. It resembled somewhat the prejudice that certain primitive religious groups in the Appalachians have about the Jews secretly controlling the world’s money supply, but it was just the opposite. It wasn’t secret and it wasn’t a conspiracy, it was supposed to be that way. It was nature. So some of the old Irish believed that in the modern world, Jews brought inner balance and were the only ones able to grasp the forces unseen; without them the world would fall apart. A notion that may have been carried across the ocean from Manchester, England when Disraeli was prime minister in Queen Victoria’s era, where a good percentage of the Irish and a half dozen of my living relatives at that time spent an interim decade or so awaiting passage to America. It is not unlike the common widespread mystic belief in fed chairman Alan Greenspan as a benevolent shaman/economist in recent times, without whose singular vision it would all go to pieces. And we working-class Irish were politically allied with Jews and polarized against Yankee Protestants. My father, who entered factory life after high school, once confided that the reason the Egyptians were a great nation thousands of years ago was because of the Jews, even though they were kept slaves, and all the history of the world was like that. It was a startling and complex observation by a man who went to daily mass and communion and said the rosary every evening with the family. And the American metamorphosis that brought this sincerely devout man from the vortex of the cavernous Mission Church in South Boston that he was born into, where the toes of the statue of the crucified Jesus were worn through the paint by humble pilgrims kissing the feet in the pale light; pilgrims who had left behind crutches, wheelchairs, eye glasses and leg braces at the feet of Jesus in surrounding piles to signify the miracles that had taken place, led him at the end of his life to seder feasts in a new eclectic Catholicism, which he didn’t fully understand but had no choice but to accept.

My Aunt Nora would babysit for Jews and sneak the babies down to the Catholic Church to be baptized, but I inherited the wise guide secret Irish folkloric tradition of my father. In college, I’d look for Jewish names among the professors in the course listings and take their courses. Then, after I left home, most of my friends were Jews. Most still are. My father’s folk prejudices about Jews and French people, passed on as a secret intuition in a rite of passage to his son in order to keep him oriented in the outer world, did no damage. I’ve always felt that I belong to Jews and French and Portuguese people more than to other outsiders, and in fact I do, as my closest cousins and native family are French/Irish.

It has been almost 40 years since I left Fall River but I still feel a strong bonding. Whenever I see that most wonderful of all photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt of the sailor kissing the nurse at Times Square at war’s end, magically composed around the sailor’s huge, strong, magnificent hand, it first crosses my mind that the sailor is from Fall River (which he is). Or when chef Emeril pops up on television I’ll say to my wife: he’s from Fall River.

The one prejudice that lived on tenaciously was toward the Yankee Protestant. They named their kids “Ike” and the Yankee preachers had fierce masculine smiles. Irish children knew that anyone with knowledge of God did not smile. And although people of my generation -- the Jews, the French, the Portuguese and the Irish -- were not particularly religious (it was a generation in which real men did not go to church and if they loved Jesus, they kept it to themselves), we considered ourselves organically rich and alive and in certain cases among the Irish, wild and aboriginal in animal power and poetry. This was not a religious prejudice. Our friends were Protestant; Episcopalian, Unitarian and Baptist and it didn’t seem to apply to them.

It was purely a class and political prejudice. They, the Yankee Protestants, were an inert class of business keepers. They cared about nothing except business. That was the way we saw it, and this deep and tenacious prejudice came to play out in final destiny in the single warrior political combat of John F. Kennedy and Henry Cabot Lodge. We saw no irony later when we did come of age and our first guides in the river between childhood and adulthood were Protestant singers with old rugged cross authenticity, brought up from the Appalachians in Virginia and North Carolina and the Mississippi Delta for the emerging folk scene; Doc Watson, the Weavers, Elizabeth Kitchen.

That was about all my father ever said, but that was enough. I can’t imagine having one of those fathers who talks all of the time like nowadays. Father bonding is less than freedom. I’d always felt man enough coming up as a boy and didn’t particularly want any interference. My friends were the same; go out in the morning, come home at night. So as most of the fathers bonded among themselves generationally during the Second World War, we developed early relationships among ourselves.

Mine was a perfect father and I couldn’t ask for more in a man. He was the last in a massive wave of Irish immigrants to work in a city of quite beautiful stone and glass cotton mills numbering up to 150 in its heyday and employing over a million and a half at the height of the Great Migration. He worked in the last mill to head south in the 1950s and he was the last to leave. He was the electrician. He turned the lights out.

It may be an Irish thing, not to particularly devalue men and the role of men, but to see the universe in women, and in the eyes of one’s mother. Irish or not, I certainly inherited that view. A father should do his work and shut his mouth; work like a man and die like a man. That’s what my father did. It was a nice discovery finding Lao Tsu and the Tao Te Ching, who found poetry in it.

If I had anything to say as a child, it was to my mother. I notice my boys are the same way.

I remember being under the table in the living room with my mother while she was ironing, and the house was warm, and I remember the rhythm and the smell of the iron sliding and the sound it made. She watched the Garry Moore Show when we had our first TV set, because he had as a host a pretty singer named Gisele MacKensey. She was Irish and although my mother thought she was Protestant, it was close enough in the 1950s when the Irish thing was dwindling fast.

It was a perfect paradise between us and little was said, and I experienced it again when my daughter was born. Her hands were just like my mother’s, her eyes quiet like my mother’s and the time we spent holding hands together seemed virtually the same moment as the time my mother and I were together quietly while the others were at school or at work. It was a brief interval of love and grace, a moment perfect in a world that resolves itself into death. It is life’s greatest respite. Twice now I have found it before the outer world and the world of work would call.

School was hard to enter and I had to leave my mother to herself. It meant leaving paradise for a man-made matrix of beating steam pipes, strict nuns and onward and upward to sergeants and corporate managers. Then eventually my daughter would have to leave for a few hours a day for play school, just as I did. She had wanted to go to school, of course, like her brothers. But when the time came she was dreary the day before. Then when the time came, she cried for a moment at the door, composed herself, let go of my hand, and left the celestial bliss behind and went in. That afternoon she came out a kid.

I took longer and even after 50 years have never really adjusted to the outside. But she had the strength, the primal strength, of my mother. Whenever I have had to do something very hard in adult life, I recalled the strength of my mother at difficult moments. It was not that my father was weak, he was not. It was that I as a child already felt I held all a man needed and had nothing more to gain from another man. Indeed, it would weaken a boy to find strength from another man. But what a woman had was beyond the curtain. And when she showed strength it was greater than a man’s. It did not come from orders from the language centers of the brain or from a testosterone chemical directive, but from the heart or someplace secret that a man can’t know.

My mother was fair natured and like many Irish who were raised still with stories of the old country and occasionally even hearing the rosary in Gaelic said with rented death wailers at an Irish wake, she was passive toward the work of the outside world and preferred quiet. But the passive field had a fierce center, a tiger in the rain, that would rise only rarely, when it was challenged. I’d be dead if I didn’t find it in her because I don’t believe I have it in myself and certainly have never seen that force so fierce in another man. But her strength was mine and now it is my daughter’s.

A lot of my mother's family were fey and Elf-like, almost translucent and singularly tall and fine-boned. I think they no longer exists as a race. Many died of lung disease working in factories when they first arrived. I had pneumonia twice and three collapsed lungs by the time I was 30. The general idea was that if you made it past 30 you could count on getting through to 85 or so. Although the conditions that caused brown lung were probably a factor in the older generation, it was their introverted nature that was unsuited to the matrix world of factory life and the mass culture of industrialization. It is certainly too late to lodge a complaint, and anyway, I’m glad to be here under any circumstances. But consider if a society is designed so all of the robust extroverts prosper and all of the delicate introverts fail and eventually die, then the society develops without artists, without vision and without grace. It is a society that is out of balance and one that cannot find balance.

Perhaps it is meant to be like that: perhaps the industrial movement since the 1830s is a bridge to a new world, the Titan in the icon of the ascending zodiac constellation of Aquarius pouring the water into the new world; people flowing from all corners of the world abandoning caste, religion, race and national purpose to come to the United States. And when they are all here, the bridge will collapse. Nature wastes nothing. And here, in the “land of the red-faced people,” as a Tibetan prophecy of twelve hundred years ago calls it, it will begin again.

Maybe the Black Death already killed off all the introverts and left only the extroverts. Europe a hundred years before was certainly a different place – the land of Mary when she was still primarily the Earth Mother – than it was after – the land of the muscular Jesus in Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel ceiling fresco, up from the earth and flying alone into the sky.

Maybe it is supposed to be like that.

Those with subtle mind experience the death of others. Van Cliburn froze on stage in New York the moment his mother died in Texas. I have experienced the death of others, though not my mother’s. The pain of her death was only relieved years later when my daughter was born, and the odd thing was that I didn’t ever particularly like my mother.

The very first dream I had as a child was that there was a tiger in my room. I was frightened to death and woke up screaming. My mother came in to soothe things down and bring it back to the quiet night. It was incidental that I named a novel 30 years later Tiger in the Rain, but in hindsight it seemed related to the first dream. I'd written the novel in New York City. On the night I finished it I had a dream about flying to a mountain top and meeting a Chinese women flying in white robes from the East. We consumated our marriage in a Greek-looking temple on top of the mountain. The next day I back went to work and met my wife.

When I was a child we had a yellow cat which my mother hated. I vaguely recall the smell of plaster in our new post-war house with my mother looking like Queen Elizabeth in an apron, standing in the center of the room, frozen solid in terror, while Sally, the little yellow kitten, brushed against her ankle with the back of her neck.

The incident with my mother might have triggered the first tiger dream in which the ascending life force appeared quietly in a passive field – a tiger in the rain would scare the wits out of the small child. I was afraid of life before I left the family and went to Thailand to military service. Then I wasn’t afraid anymore.

My family is not afraid of cats. In fact, we love cats and have a framed picture of a particular cat on an ancient bureau, more sacred to us than any of the ancestors.

Now, last year, I dreamed the same dream again. There was a tiger pouncing in my room, but I was not afraid. It was a vision dream; a dream, as Indians say, that has a particularly tangible quality or reality that is denser than an ordinary dream or ordinary waking reality. It is the essence of consciousness and makes waking reality seem pale by comparison. When I got up and went to wake up my little daughter in the morning, she said, “Do you see the tiger?” pointing up and all around the ceiling, laughing. “It’s there,” she laughed, “it’s there,” although I’d not told her about the dream. Two years later she had her first dream and it was about tigers.

I dreamed of the tiger three times in my life: as my first dream, 25 years later when I wrote Tiger in the Rain, and last year at Halloween. This coincides with the three phases of life: youth, active middle age and old age. Each time I had the experience a cat appeared at my door and I took her into my house.

Some of my ancestors are Anglican Irish and some Roman Catholic. All came from Ireland. The Anglicans were on my mother’s side. They found their way into the working class after Victoria went to the throne and the potato famine drove them out. Industrialization gave them a generation or so in Manchester, England, before they managed to find their way in a large homogeneous group to a mill town along the Saconnet River in Massachusetts. After thousands of years in one place, one town, they lived from 1840 to 1914 in three countries, and when they settled, they faced participation in two wars and the Great Depression. But perhaps work was worse: virtually half of them died while working in cotton mills. My mother quit school at 16, after her father and older brother died in her house on the same day of different causes, to support her mother and the remaining children. That was between the wars at the beginning of the Great Depression.

On the day my mother died twelve years ago, I built a solid wooden gate with concrete footings, but standing alone and without a fence attached to it, in the middle of my sheep pasture in North Carolina, hoping she would return.

The dead find no comfort here and return to Europe. I dream of my Aunt Nora, the sister of my mother, long dead, whenever someone in my family is about to die or to be born, even a beloved animal. But we will be staying here now. When my daughter was about to be born Nora appeared in a dream and said, "Oh, we're all coming over here now." Presumably she meant the souls of the ancestors who had returned to Ireland.

Now they would be coming back.

I understood that until the event approaching, until the birth of the girl, they had found no purpose in remaining here.

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