A twilight fog had settled on the green and rocky hills of Clenchagora when a small steeple peeked over the next hill. Anne and I smiled as my Aunt Teresa crossed herself in the back seat apparently at the sight of a church. This was the Ireland from photographs; nothing like the bright sun-filled sky of the first two weeks of our visit. Maybe it was a gift from the evening fairies or some forgiving leprechaun who wanted us to get the full Ireland experience. Aunt Teresa was giving us the tour. Down the rutted, narrow road behind us was the three-room hut where she and my grandmother and their eight siblings had been born and slept on trundle beds in the big room. We’d stared in silence at the white-washed walls and simple rooms – big was a relative term – and at the rocky pastures that could barely support the three skinny sheep grazing in the distance never mind a family of twelve. No wonder Granny’d left for America at seventeen.
Aunt Teresa crossed herself again as we rounded the bend and I noticed the fenced graveyard in the grass behind the small church. We were still learning the patterns of her crossings or her answers of “God willin’” whenever we said good night or spoke of the future. She could pass a thousand-year-old Norman ruin without blinking an eye, but a church, a graveyard, a bar bombed out by the IRA (The Bad Boys, she called them) brought a silent prayer. This almost fearful awe in the face of the past and future fascinated and mystified us. I slowed the car. “My father was buried her,” Teresa said. “Your great grandfather and his father and his,” she added. “I’m not sure how far back.”
I pulled off the road, and we stepped out into the mist. “Spooky,” Anne said and I agreed. The simple white steeple rose against the purple and gray sky. The doors of the church were locked so I had to stand on my toes to peek in the window at the five of six rows of pews and the tiny altar.
I turned around to see Teresa ‘s gray head bent over a gravestone, pressed close to read the names. “I thought it was this one,” she said, “but…” The thin brown stones were weathered smooth by rain and wind. The worn edges of letters looked like hints of a lost language. As she moved to the next stone, the wind shifted, swirling the fog into cloudy shapes that danced and disappeared. Anne grabbed my hand and we shared the same chill. Something touched the back of my neck.
“It seems like they’re still here,” I said and Anne nodded. We followed Teresa down the row of tottering stones as darkness quickly fell.
“I think this one was his father,” she said, pointing to a grayish stone and ignoring the constant pale of haunting over the dusky landscape. The wind shifted and the day settled into the gloaming, and Anne and I, two suburban American twenty-somethings, were startled by each new swirling fog or whining wind. Anne’s family’s walls were lined with photographs of ancestors dating back to the Pilgrims, but I’d known only Granny and Grandpa and some dark, distant link back to Ireland. But this was the ground Granny had walked on as a child, the pews she’d knelt in, the ground in which her father and father’s father and father’s father’s father were buried. In the eerie mist I could feel them, as present as I was, past and present walking side by side. It was frightening and compelling and oddly satisfying. I wanted to stay and let the sun finishing setting and feel the place in the black of night. And I wanted to go, to get away as soon as possible. Anne’s hand squeezed tighter, and Teresa reminded us that her neighbors awaited us for dinner. We had to go.
“We can come back tomorrow if you want,” Teresa said as we climbed in the car. I looked out the window at the pale outline of the church in the darkness, the faint shadows of gravestones behind the fence and the still swirling mist in the distance and resisted the urge to cross myself.
“God willin’,” I said, and we drove off into the night.