Saturday, December 5, 2009

Belfast . . .

I've had a lot of nice comments on my new photo. Thank you :-)

It's cold here in Chicagoland. Yesterday the temps were about 23 - 26 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill in the teens. No snow that sticks yet, at least not where I live, but I'm sure it's not too far behind. My roof had a dusting yesterday morning as I left for work.

I've been back about a month from my trip and am still sorting out the photos, but I have not stopped thinking about Belfast.

I'm a first-generation American. Not so common anymore. My mother was born in Belfast on a street called Damascus in a neighborhood known as The Holy Lands. My grandfather was Roman Catholic and my grandmother was Presbyterian. They lived in a time that most of us cannot even imagine - in a civil war that split their country. They left shortly thereafter, in 1922.
My mom came to the United States as a baby - my grandfather came through Ellis Island and wrote back to my grandmother and said, "don't come this way." So my grandmother and her sister came on a ship with a 2-year-old (my late uncle), and a babe in arms (my late mom). They came up the St. Lawrence Seaway and their port of entry to the United States was Detroit, Michigan. Everyone else in the family went to Canada except my grandparents.

According to my mom, my grandfather always wanted to go back, but my grandmother never did. And so they stayed, and built a life here. My grandfather worked for the railroad. He died before I was born, but I understand he had a marvelous singing voice and I can tell from the photos that he was very handsome. Of all my cousins, I'm the one who has the most and best memories of my grandmother because after my father died, my mom moved back home, where we lived with Grandma until she died when I was nine years old.

My other cousins who are around my age mostly remember her as mean, which always surprises me. She wasn't mean at all. I've come to the conclusion that they were all naughty when they were little ;-) and she was in her 70's and probably couldn't chase after them. My oldest cousin's (that would be my crazy cousin, D) most vivid memory of Grandma was of her saying to him, "You! Sit in that chair and don't move!"

But I spent many happy hours in her company. Here we are at a Chicago park (yes, that's me!), probably in South Shore, where we lived before my dad died. Going to the park (any park) to play was always a favorite pastime for me and my cousins for our entire childhoods. Grandma looks old to me in this photo, and I think she was just in her early 70's, but her hands look just like my mother's hands (I got my dad's hands), which is very comforting, even now. I had tea with Grandma every afternoon. Well, I had just enough of it in my milk to make me think I was having tea, I guess :-) To this day, whenever I put the kettle on, I think of her.

I'm a knitter because of her - she taught me. So two of the things I enjoy the most, music and handwork, came from my Irish grandparents. I say that because although my mom had a lovely singing voice, she liked to say that the handwork skipped a generation. She knew how to knit, but she never enjoyed it as much as I do.

So - this trip of mine - I had always wanted to go to see where my mother was born, and I finally had the chance, so I took it - and I wish I could have stayed longer. This is the house on Damascus Street. That's my Great Grandmother standing there. I would guess that this is in the early 1900's - maybe 1910?

And here it is today. Except for the hedge instead of the metal fence, it looks exactly the same. It has likely been converted to student housing - many of these row houses have been converted, and from the limited conversations I had with locals, not everyone is happy about that. I looked for buildings that I could tell were standing when my grandparents lived there - places they might have walked, sites they might have seen. That their home is still there, not bombed, not torn down is really amazing to me. I imagined them there - I touched the stones at the door, knowing that my grandparents and Aunt Lily had touched them, and I walked down the street to the River Lagan, knowing they must have done that so many times.

I rang the bell at the house, but no one answered. The Holy Lands neighborhood is now mostly student housing for Queen's University, and on the blustery wet day that I was there, no one was stirring on the street.

I had two days in Belfast, and I could have stayed the whole week there, I think. I walked everywhere, I took a double-decker bus tour, I rode The Wheel at City Hall, I saw City Hall, and yet, I know that I only scratched the surface of this fascinating city. Perhaps it's only fascinating to me because of the history that ties me to it - but I don't think so. Belfast seemed to me to be a city of contrasts in pretty much every area.

Clearly affected by the current economic conditions, and yet very, very vital in so many ways. I wished for more time to just talk to people, to experience more of the culture of the city, and just get to know it. Still many signs of a country at war with itself - peace walls, and gates that still close at night in some areas, unionist and loyalist murals, and yet that was only in one or two areas of the city.

I was walking around on a Monday - and I saw mostly young people and older people - very few middle-aged people. I'm assuming they were all at work :-) There is more here for me - and I will be back. I don't know when, but I know it will be.

Once I left the city and headed up the Antrim coast, the scenery was very different . . . but I'll save that for another post :-)


candy t said...

Beautiful story and great pictures. I know that special feeling, to touch something that special people in your life had touched, to stand where they stood, walk where they did. It's is a wonderful moment and I'm so happy for you! And thanks again for the photos!

Debbie said...

Beautiful post. You are not done :)

Nancy said...

Lovely post, A. The (almost) side-by-side posting of the pictures of the house where your mother was born gave me goosebumps.

Michelle said...

What a wonderful opportunity to get close to your roots! I am a second-generation American, so more than many I feel a pull to the past. But I don't have the photos or information to find my grandparents' homes in Sweden or Germany; still, I would love to visit someday.