After thinking for a minute, my mother said, “Maybe I’ll go to Las Vegas. Or maybe Florida!”
“Why would I want to go to Ireland?” she said. “Most of those people are dead.”
First we visited Dublin, and a few days later we arrived by train in County Cork.
Just an hour or so after our arrival in Cork, Laura and I unpacked a few things and threw on clean clothes for Noam’s meeting with a group of people who had worked at the Vita Cortex factory. During their sit-in a year before, while at risk of being laid off without pay, Noam wrote letters of encouragement and a statement of support via striker Darren O’Keefee, the spokesperson and organizer of his group.
We met Noam in the lobby, and after brief introductions, the three of us followed Darren to a conference room. When we entered, close to a dozen men and women stood quietly in unison. Laura and I took seats in the back, where we could observe unobtrusively, but to be honest, the wordless greeting had moved me, and I felt the need for some distance. Noam approached the strikers, who introduced themselves to him one at a time, speaking softly – a little out of our range.
I was pulling a pad of paper and pen from my bag when Noam called out to me from their midst, “Bev, this man is a Walsh!' I rushed over and took his hand and introduced myself, asking whether he had an ancestor named Ellen Walsh. He said there are so many all over Cork, and in Waterford, that he couldn’t be sure. The magic of my long-awaited dream of meeting my Irish relatives mingled with the reality that I hadn't done my homework, but standing here in a conference room in Cork, firmly clasping the hand of a man named Alan Walsh, was enough for the moment.
The strikers looked out of place seated in the chrome and black swivel chairs surrounding the large polished maple conference table. Someone had placed two pitchers of water at even intervals on the rectangular tabletop, and an inverted drinking glass at each seat. We knew that the group had reached a settlement since Noam's involvement, but he wanted to learn the details of the sit in, and see how they were faring with the settlement behind them. I was fixed on their faces, their gestures, and the way they held themselves. Some had gaps in their mouths where teeth used to be, and I wondered about their medical and dental care, assuming they lived below the standards enjoyed by many of us back home. Otherwise, this scene appeared much the same as a meeting of professors back at our Linguistics and Philosophy Department at MIT.
“Mary over there,” Darren said, pointing to her, “was one of the two female strikers. She slept at the plant for 130 nights, right next to her machine, the one she worked on during her shifts.”
“Why were you sleeping at the plant?” Noam asked, looking over at Mary.
Darren answered. “To make sure Jack Ronan’s people didn’t come in overnight and remove the equipment and empty the place out before paying us our redundancy," he said.
Ronan was the company’s owner who had laid them off from their jobs making textiles for bus and plane seats. I had not heard the word “redundancy” in this way before – they were referring to what we would call severance pay. I turned the pronunciation over and over in my head. Re-doon-den-cee. I tried to remember Memé’s voice. Did she share this accent? I remembered only that she talked in a “different” way, but to my five-year-old mind, that was how old ladies (in their late sixties) spoke. I couldn’t remember whether she had a similar accent, and I could no longer ask my mother.
“And what was Jack Ronan’s response to your sleeping at the plant?” Noam asked.
I was again focused on the solemn faces around the table, and by their strong working hands folded on the table tops, and I missed Darren’s reply. I eyeballed the untouched clear glass pitchers of water on the table, trying to figure out a way to move away from my own welling emotions. Jack Ronan had been messing with these people, my people.
“How did the people in the town react? Did they support you?” Noam asked. The room was quiet – all eyes were on Noam, and they, in turn, had his full attention.
“Friends and neighbors supported us, even strangers. We got food from the local grocers, pizza shops brought pizza, and a local sporting goods store brought warm jackets, as there was no heat at night.” Noam listened intently, nodding now and then. “People brought food and money to support our families, as we weren’t bringing home any pay. Support came from all around, not just from the people in our town. Some people even sent lottery tickets. The woman at the bakery had a dying husband, so she closed the doors to her shop a month or two before the strike. When she found out my birthday was coming, she opened the bakery just to make me a special cake to share with the other strikers.
That was it for me - I had to get up. I handed Laura my note pad and whispered, “Write down the main points,” and I moved to the table and reached for one of the water pitchers, and began filling glasses. Each person looked up at me in turn with grateful eyes, just for the pouring, and I was out of the frying pan and into the fire. One set of blue eyes the exact color of my mother’s, a sparkling light gray-blue, looked up at me in gratitude, and I had to look away.
Afterwards, outside the conference room, Laura and I hugged Noam, and I told him, "You made me cry again." He looked amused. I offered to hold his papers while he took off his jacket.
“I’m giving them to Laura,” he said, handing them to her. “I don’t want you to get tear stains all over them.”
I never fail to be comforted by Noam’s ability to witness hardship with complete attention and compassion, to listen and take action without letting the pain of it seep into him. At least that’s how it seems to me. As a therapist, Laura is also able to listen to people’s stories without feeling drained by the end of her day. She had cried in the conference room, too, but I decided to let her disclose that if she chose. Plus, we were in a hurry. We had exactly one hour to shop for rings.
To be continued
To be continued