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.