Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Fairy Tale of Drumshambo

There's a song my boyfriend sings to me in Gaelic. It's about a little boy who needs shoes. His family is too poor for all the kids to have a pair, so the youngest has to wait until he'’s old enough for such a grown-up luxury. I hear this song, and I think of my father.

My father was born in 1933 in Drumshambo, County Leitrum, Ireland. Drumshambo. What a mouthful for a little girl. As I was growing up, my father would tell my sister and me bits and pieces of his life in Drumshambo. When I was about six or seven, my older sister took me aside and whispered in my ear; "There's no such place as Drumshambo. It’s just an Irish fairy tale." And so it was. For me, Drumshambo, County Leitrum, was a mystical, magical place, suspended in a mist in my father's own imagination.

Stories and rhymes...
It was that imagination and ability to tell a story that helped me go to sleep many nights as a child. If my father came into my room at bedtime, and he had a comb in his hand, I knew I was in for a great story. He would sit on the bed and tell me about Gulliver and his travels. Oh the places Gulliver went, but my favourite was Lilliput. My father told me how the people of Lilliput captured the giant Gulliver. Putting the comb against my leg, he showed me how the Lilliputians had to climb, and climb, and climb to get onto giant Gulliver. Closing my eyes, I was the size of Gulliver and could imagine the little people of Lilliput scrambling to capture me. When the story finished, out would come a piece of tissue paper which my father placed over the comb, and he would show me how a piece of black plastic with pointy little teeth could make music. And then, goodnight and lights out. But how could I sleep with the music of the comb still playing in my head and dozens of Lilliputians dancing on my bed? I would wonder if Lilliput was like Drumshambo.

Libidigister, Mr. McGibb, Bad P, Runaway & Standstill. All characters in a little story my dad would tell while driving the car. I can't remember the story, but the names of those characters still fly easily off my tongue and produce a smile as I remember him telling me about them. Were they friends of my dad's? Did they come from Ireland? Asking these questions would get me a wink and a laugh as he drove our monster-sized Delta 88, but never a concrete answer. Or, maybe he would just go onto another story or rhyme;

"I went to the chapel tomorrow,
I took a front seat in the back,
I fell from the floor to the ceiling,
And broke a front bone in my back"

I don’t know how many times I asked my dad to repeat this, trying to make order out of the linguistic mess he’d just offered. I’d go over it again and again, but to no avail. He knew something I didn’t and I felt it must be a grown-up thing; something I would understand when I got older.

Homemade Bubbles...
It wasn’t often that my father’s humour upset me, but there is one day that stands out in my memory where the twinkle in his eye did not win me over. It had to do with bubbles. We were in the supermarket, and I was firmly planted in front of the section with comic books and small toys. A bright pink bottle with a picture of a girl blowing bubbles caught my eye. I had to have that bottle and the bubbles that must be hiding inside. I grabbed it, and ran down the aisles looking for my dad. When I found him rummaging in the bread section, I showed him what he needed to buy for me. “I want bubbles!” I told him as I put the bottle in the cart. He smiled, removed it, and said it was a waste of money. “We can make our own bubbles. You’ll see.” He gave it back to me and told me to return it to the shelf. He continued to look for a loaf of bread from the counter in front of him. I stood firmly and mustered up as much conviction as my six years would allow. I put the bubbles back in the cart. “I want these bubbles.” He removed them again. “We’ll make our own. Put these back.”

The floodgates broke and the tears were streaming down my face. To no avail, I might add. He continued searching for the perfect loaf. His ignoring me made the tears come harder. And then I got the hiccoughs. I was a hyperventilating, hiccoughing, snotty mess. I wanted to scream. But, instead of a noise emanating from my mouth, a huge bubble of mucous came out my nose and just hung there on my face. My dad looked at me trying to suppress a smile. But he couldn’t do it; he started to laugh. And what did he say? “See? Didn’t I tell you could make your own bubbles?” Needless to say, my six-year old self didn’t see the humour in the situation.

After a stony-silent car ride home, I went to my bedroom and slammed the door. I was never going to leave. But soon, my dad was calling me. He was on the back balcony. My curiosity got the best of me, and I went out. Our balcony was on the second floor and looked out over a small backyard. When I got outside, I saw on the picnic table below a bowl of water, a bottle of dish soap, and a coat hanger. “Come on. I’ll show you something,” he said as he took my hand and brought me downstairs.

He showed me how to unhook the clothes hanger and make a wand with a circular end. He mixed up the soap and water and poured it onto a flat plate. He dipped the wand into the water, blew on the transparent rainbow in the circle and voila! A perfect bubble popped out and floated across the backyard. I was in awe. For me, it was as if magic had been performed. I spent the rest of the afternoon creating the perfect bubble, knowing they were so much better than the pansy sissy bubbles still trapped in that pink bottle at the supermarket.

You lead, I go first…
My father taught me yet another linguistic turn-of-phrase as he helped me onto my first bike ever. It was navy blue, had a banana seat and that cool looking loop of metal that acted as a back support behind the seat. From the end of each handlebar hung multicoloured tassels that would flap in the wind. Well, I could only imagine them flapping in the wind, really. I couldn’t ride my bike. I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I had absolutely no balance and would topple over the moment I sat on that cushy banana seat. So, my dad would stand behind the bike, hold onto the metal loop, and off we would go. I would pedal, he would run, saying all the time; “See, you’ve got it! You’re riding the bike. I’m going to let go now.” And I would holler back; “Don’t let go!”

And there we were, flying around the block for the 10th time, my dad panting and me ecstatic as the tassels flapped around at the end of the handles.

Of course, the inevitable happened. I looked behind me. Sure enough, my dad was there, running and panting as I pedaled, but he wasn’t holding the bar. I immediately lost my balance and fell off the bike. I demanded to know why he hadn’t been holding on. “Well, you did fine on your own the first 9 times around, I saw no reason to start now.” The wink, the smile, the laugh. I couldn’t believe it. I had been riding on my own? There’s no way. It was that Drumshambo magic appearing yet again.

I never needed my dad to run behind after that. From then on, he would be on his own snappy ten-speed, a bike he had put together himself with various parts. We’d go on journeys up and down the streets of our neighbourhood, sometimes even venturing over into the next neighbourhood where my Grandparents and Uncle Mike lived. At the beginning of each bike ride, as we saddled up for the journey, he would turn to me and say; “You lead, I go first.” And off we would go.

Tummy in, chest out...
The first day of school. Playing trumpet in a music recital. Going up to bat in a softball game. My first job. Going away to university. Moving to Japan. These are all milestones in my life, and the first step of each of these challenges began with the phrase; “Tummy in, chest out.” This advice from my dad has been my mantra from as far back as I can remember. When you pull your tummy in, when you push your chest out, the surge of confidence is tangible. This four word imperative has seen me through some of the most challenging experiences of my life.

My dad showed me a photo last Christmas. It was a grainy black and white, circa 1939. He had brought it back from his trip to Ireland, and it was the first photo I had ever seen of Drumshambo. In it were children ranging in age from about five to fifteen. He pointed at the building behind the kids. “This was in front of my school. All the kids studied together.” They were all lined up, little ones in front, bigger kids in back, looking very intent and serious, hands at their sides, standing soldier-straight. Not a sloucher in the bunch. “Tummy in, chest out.” It looked like that must have been their mantra, too.

I looked more closely at the picture. The kids in the front had no shoes. “Where are their shoes?” I asked my father. He laughed and answered, “If you were hungry, what would be more important – food or shoes?” And it became clear to me that Drumshambo was not a fairy tale. It was real, and achingly so. The poverty, the hard work, the need to find a better life were all staring back at me from that photo. My dad could have told the hard tale of his youth to my sister and me. He could have talked about being hungry and walking to school in bare feet. Rather, he let Drumshambo create its own magic by not filling us in on all the details of its harsh reality. And for that, I am grateful.

Any regrets...
When my father moved to Canada in his twenties he probably didn’t realize he wouldn’t return to Ireland until four decades later. He never visited Ireland when I was growing up. Maybe that was another reason it didn’t seem real to me. Sure, there was some Irish paraphernalia here and there in the house. A shillelagh hanging on the wall, a bottle of holy water from Knock Shrine, an Irish record or two tucked away; but that was all. Living in Japan, I’m surrounded by foreigners, myself included, who regularly wax nostalgic for their country, their hometown, their culture. I often hear comparisons made between Japan and the various homelands, with the country of birth usually being touted as the more superior. My father never did that. He came to Canada, and that was that.

He went back to Ireland a few years ago, and was shocked at the wealth and success of the people now living there. Those same people he had walked barefoot to school with now owned million dollar homes and holidayed in places like Mojorca and Ibiza. Did my father wonder if he should have stayed? I haven’t asked. I suppose I’m afraid he’ll say yes, that leaving one difficult life and stepping into another reality that was just as harsh, if not sometimes worse, was a mistake. When he arrived in Canada, he had joined the army and was promptly sent as far north as possible. While he patrolled the Distant Early Warning lines in -40 degree temperatures, did he imagine Drumshambo as a fairy tale as well?

For most, trekking off to a foreign land to forge a new life is taking the road less traveled. Not so for an Irishman of my dad’s generation. He chose the road out of Ireland that was well worn-in by thousands of emigres before him. It was those who stayed behind that were taking a bigger gamble, and, by all appearances, they hit the jackpot. Does my father ever wonder; “What if I had stayed?”


I went to Ireland last month. I had a lump in my throat as I made my way into the town of my father’s childhood. I drove out into the countryside to look at the mines where my father had worked. They’re closed down now, but still carry out tours that are advertised with the line; “Discover for yourself the fascinating and exciting life of the miners!” I can imagine my father laughing at such on odd take on his former employment. I went to the opening of the shaft that years before brought the miners down into the depths of the earth to dig for coal. As the elevator made its way down, did my father tell himself; “Tummy in, chest out!” as he prepared for the hard work ahead of him? Was it the fairy tale of a land called Canada that kept him going?

As my flight leaves Ireland, I look out the window at the vast, green expanse below and, even though I saw it with my own eyes, I still question if that place was really there…

There is a land, far, far away. It is a land where people have strange names and talk in riddle form. They tell stories and blow perfect bubbles while riding on little, blue bicycles. Their music flows out of the teeth of combs. On shoeless feet they stand tall and proud while the twinkle in their eyes tells a story of a lifetime. The name of this land is Drumshambo.

The end