It all turns on affection

My grandmother had a phrase “the longer you live in a place, the longer you live”.  I found it a curious phrase, one that tended to be used on the death of a friend or neighbour I remember.  Like many of my grandmothers utterances,  I never stopped the conversation or brought it back to explore the particular phrase.  Regret for sure.

My Grandmother lived in a home where at least two generations had lived previously.  Her mothers father, Bill Malone had moved to the area during the famine that swept Ireland in 1847.  He moved with what he owned using a small Prong (local boat)as transport.  Rowing from a small area up the river Barrow called (from memory) Clearystown.  Did he marry in to an existing family?  I never heard my Gran talk on it, I certainly never thought to ask.  If he had, then obviously our homestead is a lot older than I imagined.

 My Gran, apart from her time living in homes as a maid spent her whole life in and around this acre of land in Cheekpoint beside the Suir.

She often lamented those that had to move away, those who had emigrated.  I remember her sadness, her thoughts far away, as she recalled the Great Western carrying the body of her dead brother home from England following a fall from scaffold on a building site in Brighton.  He laid in a hospital bed for a few weeks, enough for her father and brother to get across and be with him as he died.  Years later I saw a photo of the ship passing up the harbour within view of the house, carrying his body back to be buried. 

The photo was returned in an album from American cousins.  No doubt it was part of a package that was sent across, I imagine the letter long faded, that communicated the tragedy of Michael Moran’s death to his brother and extended family.

The American connection was also real and tangible.  As kids we used to get the packages, funny smelling clothes, stange designs and patterns that we never saw the like of, and bunches of school supplies.  At some point, these cousins arrived.  Strangely dressed, strangely accented.  They drove a car, and as a child I believed they drove from Long Island New York. 

Three brothers resided there belonging to my gran.  Only one would ever return to her, to die within a few short years, the other two died in America.  All dying, in her opinion, before their time.

I often wondered was it from this she took her saying.  This cycle of emigration, hard work and early death.  In her own way was she reflecting on an economic system that crushed the very life out of people.  If she was, it was an analysis that certainly never extended to the Catholic Church and it's role in our life.

I was reminded of her phrase as I watched Wendell Berry deliver the 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, entitled “It All Turns on Affection,” from the Concert Hall of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on April 23rd, this year.

 Wendell championed the position of small farmers and their unique and intrinsic value to a small community.  He spoke of his own family, back to his grandfather in the 1890’s and how he was mistreated by big business, and almost reduced to penury.  He spoke of how his family has persisted however, how they had roots, how they belonged, identified with and gave value to a small piece of land and a small rural community that afforded them a meagre income. 

I thought of my gran as he spoke of abuse by the rich tobacco tycoon James B Duke how he had through political and economic control, essentially decided what he would pay to farmers, not what their crops were worth.  I remembered my grandmother’s story of the day she had sold a fish on her way to market.  How the fish monger heard and warned that if she ever did likewise, he would blacken her name and not only would he not buy her families fish, but neither would anyone else.

But I thought of her too in the love and genuine affection that both he has and she had for the place they were born.  For the place of family.  For the place of neighbours.  For the place of friends. 

I loved Wendell’s turn of phrase.  Obviously a well educated man.  But for all my Grans lack of an education, I loved hers more.  The longer you live in a place, the longer you live.