When I was a young child at school, it seemed to me as though I was the only one without a grandmother, and I felt this absence keenly. Even those children who had lost their parents, somehow managed to hang on to their grandmothers. Some were being raised by them; some had their grandmothers living close by, or at most a few miles away. It was easy for them to go to grandmother's house. They could hop a bus to visit, or drive a short drive to drop by.
To skip across the schoolyard and share in the chant, 'to grandmother's house I go', was not a part of my childhood, because my grandmothers and I did not exist in the same dimension of time. My maternal grandmother died when my own mother was barely five years old, and my father's mother died more than a decade before I came along. For me, a grandmother was someone who existed only in old photographs, was rarely spoken about, and had long ago turned to dust. The facts of the matter did not dissuade me, though. They haunted my dreams, these grandmothers, and so I made a decision.
'To grandmother's house I go...'
It is not such a long journey, once I am in Dublin. It is grandmother Mary's house I decide to visit first. On the south side of the Liffey, it is in a neighbourhood that has always sounded like magic to me, Ringsend. I travel across a stone bridge, up and over the Grand Canal, and notice the ruins of an ancient mill to my right, a spray of deep green English Ivy across a wire fence to my left. I turn one corner, and then another; the house is about half way down the street. Among the rows of smokey red brick, I spy its silken black painted door, and golden door knocker.
I find myself slightly short of breath, as I stand across from the small row house on Gordon Street. Inexplicably, I search the upper windows for any sign of her looking out. A deep pain echoes in my chest, and tears begin to stream down my face, mourning the loss of someone I never even had a hold of, 'Grandmother'. I take the word and roll it around inside my mouth, 'grandmother', 'mother grand'. It sounds like celebration. I think about the word in Irish: 'seanmháthair', 'old mother', one who is old and wise, and takes care of you. I think about the word en français: 'grand-mére', 'great mother', like something which towers over you, towers over your life.
Leaving Gordon Street behind, I take my bicycle up and over the Liffey, travelling along the quays and then north into Stoneybatter, and grandmother Anne's childhood home, another erasure. I am drawn directly to the little cream painted cottage on Ostman Place, with its bright canary-coloured door. I run my hand along the smoothness of its plaster facade. It is cool to the touch, and somehow feels familiar. Under the shadow of the afternoon clouds, I envision her face in the window, 'Grandmother', her cheek pressed up against the cool of the glass, waiting for her brother to return, listening for the strike of his boots on the cobblestone road. The sound which never arrived.
What is it I expected to find? Did I imagine that somehow gazing upon these stone buildings, and whispering the magical word, 'Grandmother', would bring these women back to me? Doors would open wide, welcoming arms would draw me in to sit before a turf fire, to learn all of their stories, and to share mine. It is too much to bear. I climb on my bicycle and travel back down the hill toward Collins Barracks and Irish History, away from family history, and grandmother's house.