My Irish grandmother was married to my grandfather for 65 years. They had four children together. I remember sitting in the pub with my grandparents when I was a child as he drank his Guinness and she drank her port and lemon thinking this is what togetherness is. But I wasn’t sure if it was really what love was. They were of that generation who were not demonstrative in public. I was at the stage where I was reading Emily Bronte and imagining that one day I would be swept away by an uncontrolled passion where I found my own Heathcliff; so to witness my grandparents in the easy rhythm of their days seemed like holding a red rose in my hands that was slowly being stripped of its colour.
Every February my grandmother would act like a person in mourning, standing for hours in the bone-numbing cold on the beach that edged the North Atlantic, paddling along the shoreline in boots cracked at the heels, leaving offerings of seaglass, feathers and small bouquets of dried flowers for the sea gods to carry out to the depths no colour could penetrate. She was uncommunicative at this time. Undisputedly lost. My grandfather pretended not to notice, drinking homemade crabapple wine in huge tumblers thick as jars as he played cards with his friends.
Once a bird washed up on shore, an Iceland Gull, pretty in mottled brown and white, his little eyes pleading for rescue from the water and the cold, his wing flapping uselessly. My grandmother made him a bed in the warm kitchen, feeding him mashed up salmon and splinting his wing. She moved through the day with a greater sense of purpose while the gull was recuperating, twittering softly to him as he struggled in his box, keen for freedom.
One day the gull was better. His splint was removed and he was let loose in the garden where he circled the house a few times before flying off in the direction of the open sea. My grandmother cried as if saying goodbye to a friend. I found her standing on the beach in the evening as if waiting for the gull’s return. There were tears in her eyes. ‘That bird was sent to me,’ she said. ‘I can hardly bear to let him go.’
As she walked up the hill to the house I was full of questions. Who sent the gull? Why can’t you let him go? Why are you so sad? But my grandmother pressed on as if I hadn’t spoken. Later that night I found her filling the wood-burning stove in one of the outbuildings with sheaves of paper. The fire wouldn’t light because of the wind from the sea coming down the flue and the ashes that remained, damp as snowflakes. Frustrated, Grandma stuffed the offending pieces of paper beneath her coat and went back to the house. A single scrap remained, containing three words :
wait for me.
Six months before my Grandmother died I received a letter from her. It was as if she knew that all those years I had wondered about the gull and her February sadness and the mysterious scrap of paper, for in the letter she told me the real story of her life.
She loved a man before she met my grandfather. A fisherman named Joe. They were to be married on her 18th birthday. Joe worked hard on the fishing boats, saving for the wedding, even taking a job that included travelling to the seas around Iceland and Scandinavia, searching for the big catch. Joe sent my Grandma letters from every port, one of them mentioned that his trip would take a little longer than expected; wait for me, it urged.
One dark February day, a month before her 18th birthday my Grandma got the news that would haunt her for the rest of her life. Joe’s boat had been lost at sea. My grandma waited for seven long years for his return, but he was gone. Her family pressured her to marry my grandfather because at 25 in the 1930s she was beginning to be considered an old maid. She married him and her life was good but she never forgot her love swept away by the sea. On her death bed she told my cousin she would be with him again, that he was waiting, holding out his hand. You might think that over time with the clarity that comes with living that my Grandmother’s love for Joe would be spent and worn thin but it remained as strong as it ever was; because I know in her heart she believed – love never dies. It’s a story that touches me every time I think of it.
That is indeed very touching. I guess in some way we all remember our ‘first love.’ I was at the Ronald Reagan presidential library this weekend and saw a small film that so clearly showed the love the Ronald and Nancy Reagan felt for each other. It’s the type of love that makes you want to be a better spouse. Love is something, isn’t it?
What a beautiful story yet so sad. I do hope that in death she got to see Joe again to finally lay to rest her aching heart.
i do believe we love only once,, and i fully intend to join my love someday….. to do what we could not do here….
this was beautiful…..
Wow. Reading this my heart breaks for your grandmother.
AND your grandfather.
what an incredible story. so touching and heartbreaking. oh, selma, why don’t you think of writing a book on your grandmother’s life….there is a beautiful, unique love story waiting to be told there…the title, what else, WAIT FOR ME. it really tugged at my heart and you wrote it with much tenderness. thank you for sharing…
What did Alfred, Lord Tennyson write ;
“Tis better to to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all”
Another touching story.
I think that kind of love can come round again though.
Wow…what a powerful story.
Wow Selma, they don’t make stories like that anymore. Well told!
just beautiful – it’s tales like this that make me hope for and in the future.
A very touching, moving story. ‘Stoic’ is the best adjective to describe our grandparents’s generation. Thanks, DavidM
So beautiful and poignant.
Why do I suddenly hear Celine Dion crooning the Titanic theme in my head?
Oh Selma – your story brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful grandmother you had to be so capable of love that she never left go the memory of her first love, but yet was able to carve out a life with your grandfather. Best, she was able to tell you what she must have sensed you wanted to know – and in a final act of love, she let you know.
MICHAEL – I remember seeing something about the Reagans and the love between them was so touching. Love like that sure is something.
GYPSY – I hope she got to see him again too.
PAISLEY – I hope you get to meet your love again…..
BRITT – I feel for both of them too. For many years I had no idea….
REBECCA – I am so glad you liked it and I have thought about writing a book about it. It’s a great story. I really appreciate your comments.
DIAMONDS – great to hear from you. I think it can come around again too.
DOCSGIRL – it freaked me out when I first heard it. I had no idea.
CAROLINE – thanks so much. It is a story from another era, for sure.
BEC – it gave me hope too. Glad you liked it.
DAVID – they were definitely stoic. Life was much harder for them in many ways, wasn’t it?
KAREN – so glad you liked it.
CHRIS – that would definitely be a fitting theme. Great choice.
KATE – it was incredible to hear my Grandmother’s story. It has made a huge impact on me and I am so grateful she trusted me enough to confide in me!
Oh that was such a beautiful story. She waited 7 years hoping for his return….well that just makes me tear up over here…I dont think true love ever dies.
I’m glad I came across your post on Valentine’s Day. It’s an honest-to-gosh love story. Those are the very best kind…because they’re so beautiful, rare and poignant.
MELEAH – I was in tears when I found out that she waited for 7 years. There was so much pressure on her from her family to get married because in those days it was shameful to be an ‘old maid.’ I am so sorry she lost her true love, it makes me sad whenever I think about it.
JONAS – thanks so much for stopping by. I am so glad you liked my story. You are very welcome.
This is such a beauty. I gotta tell ya, you can write, my friend. Rebecca is right, you should develop this into a longer story.
I really like this story. The symbolism with the gull is very well done. Your Grandma thought the gull was sent to her by Joe. It’s highly likely that it was.
MEL – maybe I will. So much to do….
PETE – thanks for visiting. I’d like to think the gull was sent by Joe. How wonderful if it really was!
beautiful and sad,
CRAFTY GREEN – it is a sad story. A lot of love stories are sad, don’t you think?