Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

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It was Christmas week, 1958, and Mother was throwing a fit.

“Two weeks! Are you out of your mind? Do you have any idea what we have to do to get ready? The auction is not the half of it… I can’t believe you accepted that date.”

She was reacting to what Jimmy O’Connor, the auctioneer, told me after I rode my bike into Borris that rainy December morning to inquire about an opening in the schedule.  Peering at the appointments book from behind his horn-rimmed glasses, without looking up, he curtly broke the news: “January 2nd…that’s all’s open.  After that, it’ll be late March, if yer lucky. That’s when things start to pick up and the real auctions begin.” I thought ours was real enough, but no matter. He didn’t mean anything by the comment; just that he wasn’t going to make any real money on our very public humiliation.

I took the January opening. March seemed like eternity right then in the confines of his tiny office behind The Green Drake, the pub that was his main business. I was not about to give this thing a chance to unravel. A lot could happen if Mother had too much time to reflect.

“What was I supposed to do, wait for a miracle?” I replied. “We can be ready if we put our minds to it. I don’t see what’s so hard about putting a bunch of auld farm implements out in the yard? I can do it by meself if I have to.”

Predictably, this just bought more of the same. “Why did I ever let you talk me into this? You have no idea what you’ve gotten us into. We’re supposed to get ready to auction our life’s belongings, lease the land, book our fares to Sheffield, buy luggage and pack for the trip, settle up with the bank and say goodbye to everyone…all inside of two weeks. Oh, in case you forgot… there’s Christmas in there too, in case that slipped yer mind.”

It was already December 19th and I knew the implications of the deadline. But I didn’t care.  Delay only invited disaster—all sorts of opportunities for her to get cold feet. Or for my sisters to talk her out of it. More time for the chattering to seep in, for doubt to undermine our gossamer resolve.  Spring would soon be in the air. The adrenalin rush of lambing season would be upon us.  The light would return and, with it, fresh hope, rising like sap in the sycamores. The cycle would continue, only to come around to another dreary, dark December.

No!  It was now or never. We battled back and forth for another day, then decided it was… now.

Mother’s inventory of tasks understated the full undertaking. Booking our passage on the ferry, leasing the land, getting our travel papers in order, buying new luggage and packing—all that was relatively easy. Just a list of chores to knock off.

Saying goodbye to Davy, my 50- year-old neighbor and surrogate father figure, felt like ripping off an arm. I’d clearly underestimated the impact on him, botched our goodbye, and could not shake the sense of having betrayed a good and decent man—the best friend and mentor I’d ever have. Such gratitude.

And that still left unspoken our other emotional Mt. Everest, the auction: putting our cherished life-long possessions, including many of the animals we’d raised and loved, to the public gavel.

Without further debate, we set the wheels in motion. There would be no turning back. The auction was announced for January 2rd, 1959, the first working day of the New Year.

Christmas was a gloomy affair, without even our usual minimalist decorations or gifts. My five sisters—all in England, except for Ann, the oldest, who was in the U.S.—emphatically denounced our decision. They registered their upset by not coming home for Christmas, a first.   They saw our move as ill-advised, a dismantling of the family touchstone they called home.

True to form, some were more vocal than others. But no one, except Maureen, who lived in Sheffield, supported the decision.   The other sisters thought it was simply a whim of their sixteen-year-old brother, one that would surely pass with a little time. He was just being an ungrateful brat.  They could not understand what had precipitated such a hasty departure, a sentiment shared by most in a culture prone to suspicion—recall our ‘informers’ history—and a voracious appetite for scandal.

The truth—that we simply wanted a better life—didn’t cut it. Something didn’t add up here.  What were we not telling? Was Sonny in some kind of “trouble”—meaning some girl pregnant? If not that, what had changed so suddenly? Why now, just when you’re having such fabulous success? What will you do?  You have no education? Sure, you don’t want to be a ditch-digger in England? And what about Mother? What is she going to do with no training to fall back on? Do you want her to be a servant for some rich family in England? Wouldn’t it be far better to stay in Ballinvalley and be your own man on your own farm? That’s a dream many a man would give his right arm for, but never had the choice. You don’t know what you’re throwing away here…

And so it went…in relentless pursuit of unmasking the inexplicable.

Just as I’d feared, curiosity turned to inquisition as the auction date loomed. If Mother felt doubts, she kept them to herself.  Over the Christmas holidays, the neighbors—visiting in steady relays-- grew more insistent, more intrusive in their questioning, some from an honest sense of concern for us; others from pure schadenfreude. Mother intuitively knew the difference, and it bolstered her resolve.  I didn’t see a distinction or care.

All I knew was that we were selling out and clearing out. The snow-tinged hills and foggy vistas no longer held either mystery or romance for me. In my mind’s eye, I’d already embarked on the grand adventure. It only remained for my body to gather itself and leap into the great unknown.

It could not come too soon.

At last, it was January 2nd, auction day.  Up at dawn after a restless night, I watched the sunrise emerge from the Irish Sea to the east, slowly raising the curtain on the Blackstairs Mountain Range. With a new awareness, it struck me for the first time the aching beauty I was leaving behind. Now that the die was cast, everything took on a new meaning. The funereal use of ‘last’ clung to every gesture, ritual or task. The last ghost story.The last ballad.The last laugh.

The auction would have the distinction of being both our first and last.

It was an ordeal to be endured, but—as with Davy—I’d given no thought to the emotional impact it would have. On me.  Jimmy ‘Connors’—as we called him—and his son, Liam,(“O’Connor and Son, Auctioneers,” the sign read over their pub in Borris) had worked with us to be sure nothing was ‘encumbered’ or contingent on meeting reserve bids. We assured them they had a free hand. Everything, even the dogs, had to go. We needed every penny if we were to pay off the bank and have enough to survive for a few months with unknown prospects in Sheffield, a smoggy steel town with little to recommend it—except that my sister Maureen had a boarding-house there.

The bidding began at 10 a.m. The farm machinery, a scant offering, went first. Then the livestock, with the horses, cattle, sheep, and dogs, in that order. First out was the pony, Toby, a crusty five-year-old bay who suffered fools (like me) lightly.  I led her out without any sense of loss and turned her over to her new owner, a distant neighbor named Mickey Nolan. No problem; this was business. 

Next up was Belgi, the magnificient Belgian colt I’d just trained and who’d been with me at my moment of truth: the decision to quit farming. Pulling the halter over his beloved head, complete with white star on the forehead, I was seized with a spasm of grief that almost knocked me down. I clung to his blond mane, sobbing convulsively, and begging his forgiveness for selling him to strangers. He reached back and rubbed his soft nostrils against my back, with characteristic playfulness. If the hand of fate had felled me in that moment, I would have felt only relief. 

The pause in the proceedings had gained the attention of the auction crowd, who were hidden from view beyond the stable wall.  Many had come just to bid on this gentle, well-bred colt.  Annoyed by the delay, Mother charged into the stable, but, seeing my state, quickly withdrew back to stall for time with the two hundred plus crowd.

A moment later she came back, alone and somber.  I can still hear her voice, cracking under the emotion: “Now listen, Sonny, if you don’t want to part with that horse, we can call this whole thing off—we can cancel this auction. You don’t have to do this.  No one is making you. I’d put a stop to this whole thing in a minute if that’s what you want. It’s up to you.” Now she, too, was losing control, tears streaming down her face, staining her lovely green dress. 

I wiped the tears away with my coat sleeve, reached back to that December decision in the rain, and said, “No, let’s do it. It was just that Belgi was …”  I couldn’t finish the sentence, afraid I’d break down, again. She checked me out one more time, smoothed her new dress and took a deep breath. She turned toward the auction, and I put on my game face and followed her out with Belgi prancing playfully behind. Five minutes later, he sold at a premium, and I turned over the reins without a backward glance.  One down, two to go.

Next it was time for the dogs. I had two great border collies, outstanding performers who’d trained me in how to handle them. It was the custom to demonstrate the talent of a working border before a sale.  These dogs loved to put on a show, and this was their moment.

 

We stepped out into the upper fields in full view of the auction crowd.  The sheep—sixty or so—were spread over a wedge-shaped expanse of meadow reaching all the way to the western boundary, 200 yards away. A light snow had etched a necklace around the boundary hedge, with frost -flakes sparkling in the morning sun like a vast field of diamonds.  Sheep dotted the landscape, and since these were pregnant ewes, it was critical that the dogs move in gently, without startling the herd. 

This was a rare opportunity to demonstrate just how attuned the borders were to a medley of finger whistles, which I demonstrated with considerable pride. I’d imagined winning a regional sheep-trial competition with these dogs. As it stood, I was simply beginning to establish their reputation (and mine) as contenders. One of the many might-have-beens…

Nell, my four-year-old pride-n’-joy, took the lower flank—her favorite route since she was a pup. Rory, the big shouldered, jet-black with-four white socks and white-tipped tail, our two-year-old prodigy, had taught me everything I knew about borders. With a seasoned handler, he could have won the All Ireland Sheep Trials; I believed that.  But he only had me—a 16-year-old lad—so he had to settle for being the envy of the parish.

This morning he was ready. Aware that he had an audience, he cut across the north flank with characteristic swagger, forming the pincer move with Nell we’d perfected since Rory showed his genius at eight weeks old. They both checked me out for a signal.  Beautiful. I felt ten feet tall. I whistled them to walk, the sheep picked up their presence, and the show began.

Slowly they moved in from the back boundary and started a gentle amble toward the farmyard. By the time they reached the field next to the farmyard, where the auction was being staged, the borders were in full control, each positioned to cover any breakaways, patrolling back and forth with a soft-eyed vigilance the crowd could fully appreciate. Herding sheep was hard for any pair of dogs. Herding pregnant ewes raised the bar another notch, and few dogs kept their cool under the pressure.

With a full grasp of the feat they were witnessing, the neighbors gave us a round of applause—unheard of at an auction—as the herd entered the corral gate, moving gently, without any sense of urgency or danger to their delicate state. I closed the gate behind them, a signal to the dogs that their work was done and it was time to celebrate. They jumped on me for our usual hugs, pats, and licks. This time I even had a few treats, knowing that his roundup would surely be our last.

Then it was back to business.  First the sheep. Next the dogs. The bidding on the dogs went on for a long time, with two respected trainers from Ballymurphy, our adjoining village, competing for both of them. I’d stipulated that the dogs stay together. It was a non-negotiable condition of sale, though I had no idea what I’d do if no one bid on them. Finally, the more dour of the bidders dropped out with a curse of resignation.

I reached for the leashes, which I’d had trouble finding, as they were seldom used. Now the dogs, sensing something amiss, hesitated before submitting. I handed Rory’s leash over to the new owner and knelt down to pat the big dog farewell. He looked at me for some assurance, with his usual air of playful expectancy. Nell, always quicker than her cousin, looked at me with blue-green eyes that will haunt me forever. It was an unmistakable look of betrayal and, yes, panic. How could this be happening? How could I be abandoning her? What was she going to do? This could not be happening?  While Rory went along stoically, Nell struggled all the way to the waiting Land Rover, fighting the leash, growling at her new owner. 

I watched her scramble into the back window for one last glimpse of me and Ballinvalley until the van disappeared down the Ballybrack Road.

 

For the second time in an hour, I felt that same visceral guilt as when I broke the news to Davy.  Today, right now, I’d just betrayed three more of my best friends—this time innocent creatures who’d trusted me. All the rationalizations in the world—which flowed glibly from every quarter—about their being “only animals,” did nothing to leaven the feeling. Like it or not, there was no denying the fact that the auction had inflicted real pain, real trauma, on both Nell and Rory. Maybe on Belgi, too. This was the price of my decision, made in a moment of frustration, but one I alone had made and must now own the consequences.

Facing the empty farmyard, it finally hit me. This is what it feels like to abandon 300 years of family tradition. To sell out. To sever the ties of a lifetime.  For … what?   I stared at the distant tree line over Borris and knew the answer: adventure. The world out there. I was 16 years old, and I’d always wondered what lay beyond that tree line.

 

It was time to find out.

 

What I didn’t know that January day was that the anguish of the auction was only a small down-payment on the full price of my decision. The balance would be extracted slowly, slowly —like Shylock’s ‘pound of flesh’—over the next several months and years, as I faced the tender mercies of Mother England in the emigrant parade, marching through the smog into the belly of the beast in Sheffield, steel capital of the world. Later it would be the streets of Queens, New York, where—though the winds of change were churning—Darwin still ruled, and immigrants were still called “registered aliens.”

 

 

 

Thomas Rice was born in rural Ireland and lived there until he was 16. He dropped out of school at 13, emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and, later graduated from Cornell University. He went on to get a Ph.D. in Sociology and spent 20 years in academe. Along the way, he’s been a farmer, breeder of border collies, construction worker, tractor driver, bartender, licensed carpenter, social activist, founder of an institute for social justice, and story-teller. Rice has been a Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, a Research Associate at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an NEH Fellow at Berkeley. He is the co-author of four books and over 50 articles and essays in a wide array of refereed academic journals and editorial pages of such newspapers as The Boston Globe, In These Times, and The Chicago Tribune. He writes a regular blog for his website, http://barrowriverpress.org Since 2012, his writing has been edited by Professor Wayne Johnson, best-selling author and Iowa Writers’ Workshop Faculty .

Beginning in 2009, Rice has dedicated himself to writing full-time. Since then he has published six short stories, one novella and a memoir . His first novella, “Hard Truths,” was selected by Otto Penzler and Robert Crais for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2012.  In 2010, he published a memoir about growing up in post-WWII Ireland, called, Far from the Land: An Irish Memoir. He has recently completed a collection of novellas and short stories (10 stories; 250 pages), titled Rites of Passage & Other Irish Stories, and is currently working on a novel , Finding Nora, about a case of child abandonment and reunification.