Buck got the genealogy idea from his mother when we visited her last May. I was meeting his family for the first time, and not thrilled about it. Of course it crossed my mind that they might call me Yoko Ono or Soon Yi behind my back (never mind that I’m only half Asian, and that half is neither Japanese nor Korean), and wonder how such a nice, clean-cut, all-American boy could have gotten mixed up with that vixeny half-breed tramp, wondering how my name could be Miranda McGee when I look like that.
Buck’s mother married three times; she had been Miss Elizabeth Mahoney at one time in the first half of the century, then Mrs. Riley, Mrs. Peters, and Mrs. Brennan. Buck’s siblings and half-siblings and many extended family members all lived in Arizona, where the girls married Harpers, Bakers, and Reynolds, and the boys got jobs with the phone company and the claims adjustor. Meanwhile Buck Brennan has the largest collection of CDs from Mali of anyone I know. He’s learned to cook Yunanese cuisine. He wants to take music lessons though he can’t decide between the bodhran and the bazouki. He follows New Zealand football and rugby teams, and owns an Aborigine painting titled “Rain Dreaming,” which graces the wall of his apartment in Manhattan. He’s a divorced, lapsed Catholic, the only member of his family who doesn’t have children but who is learning to read Russian, the better to visit the Hermitage someday. And then one particular day in spring, he introduced me to his family.
Brothers, sisters, half-siblings and in-laws hearing my name and turning to look, nieces and nephews staring outright the way all children did (didn’t they?), names I didn’t remember, faces I couldn’t tell apart, conversations I didn’t understand that didn’t have anything to do with me (did they?). That was how it went, more or less, and before I could react to any of it, they abruptly left, Home Depot or Little League or Applebee’s calling them away, and it was just Buck and his mother and me, in a livingroom with brightly floral upholstery that clashed the nautical décor (husband 3 had been in the navy; 2 and 1 had been cops). I set my Police Academy mug of tepid Lipton on the captain’s wheel end table and waited for whatever was supposed to happen next.
Mrs. Brennan looked like a woman who had outlived three husbands and a great deal more. She didn’t seem to know what to do with us—as though we were people she’d met years ago and given a quick “If you’re ever in Phoenix, stop on by!” never dreaming that we’d show up—though it didn’t appear to upset her all that much, either. At one point in the afternoon she disappeared into another room without a word and returned a half-hour later, mildly surprised to see that we were still there. “Hi, Mom,” Buck said, sarcastically, as though we’d just arrived. She peered at us, bemused, and then began to search for something in a bookshelf (model ships, People magazine stacks, few books).
“Yes, I did find those boxes after the move,” she said as though answering some question put to her. “Jimmy said he’d put the pictures in albums one day but he never got around to it. He did put them in boxes, anyway. Here, I think this is the one; it’s got the Brennans and Mahoneys.”
The photographs that she pulled out one by one and passed to Buck went back to when the Brennans and Mahoneys weren’t much more than black-and-white blurs. Yet I could see, when they were passed to me, that the link between them was clear; these were, unquestionably, pictures of one family. “That’s grand-dad, all right,” Liz Brennan said. “Looks an awful lot like you, doesn’t he, Buck.”
They all looked an awful lot like Buck, even some of the relatives by marriage only. Buck regarded the picture briefly before he passed it on to me as his mother handed him another, saying, “Now here’s Robert and me. A fine shot of him, don’t you think?”
Buck nodded at the picture of his parents and again passed that on to me without comment. I was holding a pile of photographs by then, not sure what I was supposed to do with them. I looked over at Mrs. Brennan but she was now silent and still. There were no more photos, save for the endless framed snapshots of her endless ranks of grandchildren spilling off tables and shelves—and even those carrot-topped cherubic faces matched the ones in my hands.
Sorry Mrs. Brennan, I smiled beatifically as I put the photos back in the box. It’s the end of the line. The next photos will be of mutts with slanty eyes and auburn hair, freckled cheeks on faces round as pie. At least there’s no chance of webbed hands or feet, though I suppose that’s a small price to pay for the comforting reassurance of inbreeding.
In the car, racing back to the hotel, “Well, that was fun,” I said, giving Buck’s thigh a jovial slap. My wicked thoughts over the photos, and the fact that the meeting had finally come to an end, had given me a kind of champagne-glee.
“That had nothing to do with you,” Buck said quickly. “It’s me. I could be bring home a giraffe for all they care. They’ve never given a fuck about anything I’ve ever done, good or bad. When I got a fellowship to grad school, Mom sniffed and wondered why I had rejected the police academy. When I told Jimmy how you and I backpacked through southeast Asia last summer, he asked me if I knew how much it cost to get into Disneyland because he wanted to take the kids next year. When I got divorced, everybody shrugged. Now I visit for the first time in years and Mom decides to bring out a box of photos that nobody’s cared about for decades. And Jimmy, Catherine, Bob, and the others didn’t even stick around long enough for that.”
His tone surprised me, kept me from giggling outright the way I’d wanted to in his mother’s house. I looked over at him. All I could think to say was, “I’m not a giraffe.”
* * * * *
It may not have been the intended result, but the photographs stirred a keen interest in Buck about his family tree. In fact, his mother and the rest of his family were indifferent to the whole project; they seemed to view it as just another one of Buck’s new wild ideas, up there with camping in the Australian outback and cooking Tibetan momos for dinner on a Tuesday night. Not surprisingly, Buck doesn’t talk to his family much. It seems strange to me, then, that he should go through all the trouble of investigating the lives of people distantly related to him but long gone, when those closely related to him were still alive but off the radar screen. Maybe it’s easier and more immediately rewarding to feel connected to a mass of people than it is to attempt connection with isolated members of that mass. I can certainly understand that. What does Buck have to say to his mother these days, after all? What do I have to say to mine? But the idea of what each of them represented, the idea of being Irish, of being Chinese—now that was something that could speak to us. It spoke to him, anyway.
The strangest thing about all of this is that Buck used to be a little scornful of all those Americans who crossed the Atlantic to search for their “roots,” proudly announcing to the locals that their great grandparents were born in this town, “saying it as though they’ll be slapped on the back and welcomed as one of the family,” he had once sneered as we were setting off for Kyoto, in the opposite direction from the Emerald Isle. “As though it sets them apart from the other gazillion people who come tramping through, on a quest to kiss the Blarney stone or find the best deal on Waterford crystal.”
“It must amuse the locals, anyway,” I offered. “At least until they’ve gone through it too many times. Then it would probably be as welcome as foot-and-mouth disease.”
“What do they care if your ancestors were from their town? You didn’t know those ancestors. The current residents didn’t know them. Those people are all long dead, buried and decomposed—and you are just another ingratiating American tourist.” That said, he picked up his pen and mine (we had been marking things in guidebooks and writing in our travel journals to pass the time) and practiced chopsticks maneuvers, the better for slurping down soba and udon.
Now in a Dublin government office, he sifts reverentially through ancient birth, marriage and death certificates—precious papers on which names and numbers had once been scrawled with an obvious lack of concern for accuracy or posterity. His eyes burn with the kind of intensity he usually only displays when he finds a ludicrously cheap fare to Morocco or a hitherto undiscovered Pacific island that’s only two short stopovers away. He is certainly taking this project very much to heart. Of course he has always been fascinated by things Celtic, but then so, too, has he been fascinated by things Baltic and Aztec and just about anything else. And yet his Celtic obsession seems different, more intense.
“Why would anybody put up a statue of Oliver Cromwell,” he growled during our initial weekend in London; “it’s like putting up a statue of Hitler.” American tourists nearby photographing the English Hitler looked startled at overhearing his words; from the way they looked at the statue, I figured they hadn’t known who Cromwell was. Perhaps they thought he was another king or poet laureate.
I kept quiet then, as I do now, as though the documents office were a cathedral. I wouldn’t dare remind Buck of the things he’d once said while he expresses his apparently new view that because a set of grandparents came from this land, he has solid basis for personal righteous indignation against those rotten English fiends. Of course, my mother came from Hong Kong and my father’s grandparents from Scotland, so I guess I have as much claim to that righteous indignation as he did. Right: Down the British.
* * * * *
People look at me sometimes like they’re searching for the seams in my face where the scraps were sewn together, like they’re frowning at puzzle pieces that don’t fit. Old friends used to say things like, “You have your mother’s eyes, your father’s nose, your mother’s mouth, your father’s chin…” as they pieced me together, feature by feature, like a Mr. Potato Head toy. Dark, tilting eyes; angular nose. Short like my mother, lanky like my father. A Chinese face on the head of a Scot. You could get silly and go down the entire list of human anatomy—Dad’s small intestine? Ma’s left scapula?
With strangers, though, it’s different. They look, but they don’t say anything. It’s a peculiar look, not threatening or hateful; in some ways it’s almost similar to the look you get when someone thinks you might be someone they know. It’s a search for the familiar—but with me, they never are sure they’ve found it.
I get this look a dozen times in our trek through West Ireland. Most of the time we spend in the car, driving the looping roads between ruined castles and ruminating sheep, seeking out bits and pieces of Buck’s past. Once we get out to face the past, though, the past gets a look at me.
This has never mattered much to me before, except in moments on questionnaires and census polls asking me to “choose one.” In truth I have never seen myself as being either one or the other entirely. I don’t see myself as neither, though. I’ve always assumed that I fell into another category. People never know what I am; they guess everything from Filipina to Eskimo. And I like it. It pleases me to know that something about me could provide a possible connection, even if illusory, to so many different people.
But now that we are hot on the trail of James Brennan and Eileen Daley, I’m starting to wonder. These were Buck’s grandparents, born and raised on the same street in the same tiny town in County Clare (the town has a lengthy Gaelic name that Buck tells me can only be pronounced if you ignore every other letter). They had known each other all their lives in Ireland, though they only married after they’d separately journeyed to America and bumped into each other living on the same street in the same city of New York. Tomorrow we are going to try to find that tiny town of their birth, though I can’t imagine what will happen once we’re there—beyond the certainty that I’m sure to encounter the look again.
“I have this feeling—I know it sounds stupid, but…” Buck tries to explain that night in our Galway City hotel room, faltering, then trying again. “Well, I think maybe it’ll feel like coming home.”
I try to imagine this but can’t. The failure of it bothers me. Until now I have quite contentedly thought of this trip was “Buck’s thing” and not mine. Most of our travels together have been his idea, in fact. But until now, it’s been for escape, adventure, new experiences—to feel the strangeness of the world brushing up against you, reaffirming who you really are. As he used to put it, anyway.
And now suddenly Buck wants to go home. “Is this to be the cure for your wanderlust?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the desire to fill that empty, pastless American void we all seem to be trapped in,” he says sardonically. “At some point you get tired of filling it with disposable income.”
I know what he means, but the funny thing is, I don’t think of myself as trapped in that way. I like being a kind of ground zero, the first in the line, a factory original; I don’t have to feel particularly bound to one land, one people, to the exclusion of all others. The problem with being this way, though, is that I don’t entirely belong anywhere: I’m never entirely at home; I never quite get away.
And now something new occurs to me: Am I the end of everything? Have I failed my family, my ancestors, history and the human race by letting things go? If everyone let things go like this, would there be nothing left? Would I destroy cultures thousands of years in the making? No, that’s ridiculous and grandiose, and I can’t carry all that on my shoulders. That’s an even bigger burden than carrying on one culture to the next generation. By comparison, all Buck has to do is listen to his Chieftains CDs and clench an angry fist over Northern Ireland when the topic comes up in conversation.
I look over at Buck, who’s frowning over his maps. “It’s somewhere right in here,” he says, tracing a circle on a map with his finger. He’s talking about the house where his grandfather was raised. “Right here in this big blank space,” he adds wryly.
I look at the blank space with something almost, but not quite, like longing. At least it’s something he can point to.
* * * * *
Around midday on our journey, we pass a pub called Brennan’s. We’re still very far from our destination, but, “Come on, we have to stop,” Buck insists. It’s unlikely that these are “his” Brennans, as Grandad’s kin came from farther north than the moist green hills surrounding this quiet hamlet. Still, though, every now and then Buck feels like playing tourist and doing something silly, like having his picture taken by a sign with his name on it.
Inside, the pub is everything an Irish-American tourist could dream of—sweet-smelling sawdust on the floor, a warmly glowing fireplace, a “Guinness is good for you” sign above the bar and another announcing “Irish music tonight.” A wizened bartender pours a stout for Buck and a cider for me while the radio tells us the weather in Gaelic before launching into a sprightly jig.
The bartender sets our drinks down. He gives me a very brief look, then turns away, setting Buck’s change down by the glasses.
“Thanks,” says Buck. He adds, shyly and proudly, “We saw this place and just had to come in. I’m a Brennan, too.”
The man nods faintly, or perhaps he’s merely shaking a fly off his head, and returns to his newspaper.
It’s very quiet. We are the only people in the bar.
Halfway through my cider I excuse myself to the ladies’ room. After a few minutes I hear the bartender finally start talking to Buck, asking the usual politenesses—where he’s from, where we are staying. I take my time washing my hands. I had felt badly for Buck (though I’d seen it coming) when the man had failed to be impressed by his name—worse than I had felt about the look, which after all I’m pretty much used to by now. So I know it would make Buck happy to talk to the bartender at Brennan’s Pub, and I know the man will probably run out of things to say as soon as I return.
I’m right; it’s quiet again in the bar. The quiet transfers itself to the car when we leave the pub. I can’t imagine what Buck’s thinking in his pensive silence. This has been happening a lot while we’re here, disturbingly so. It’s as though, in his attempt to go home, he’s leaving me circling around outside somewhere on the fringes, occasionally pressing my nose to the window but otherwise not in contact, not connecting.
It’s very late in the afternoon by the time we arrive at Buck’s ancestral hometown, leaving us less time to look than we’d wanted. But at first glance, there’s little to see that we haven’t already seen before. It’s another small town in the West—a main street of sorts, a small cluster of one- and not-quite-two-story buildings serving as the downtown area, then farther out are fields, crumbling stone walls, stationary puffs of sheep, and the occasional ruin of a famine-era cottage. To my private relief, there are very few people wandering about. (No, I realize, that’s wrong. We’re the ones wandering; they have a reason to be here—they’re home.) They stare openly at us, Buck too, since despite the red hair and freckles there’s no hiding his Americanness. But I’ve seen the look again, I know I have.
Buck seems too distracted to perceive any of this, though. “Everything’s shut down,” he says, disappointed. “Or maybe it’s always like this. Anyway, I guess we’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday, you heathen,” I chide.
At first he looks puzzled, like that shouldn’t be any reason to keep us shut out of the town. Then he realizes: of course, if the town is this dead today, it’ll be mummified on the Sabbath. “Monday, then,” he says with a shrug. He hasn’t given up on finding his way home.
Before we leave, I take a picture of Buck standing next to the sign with the town’s name. The mysterious string of vowels and consonants seems like a code, one that might not be of any use to me even if I could figure it out. Buck’s face, next to the sign, is a cipher as well.
On the way back to Galway, we have to stop at another pub, because it’s a McGee’s (though of course there’s no chance at all that these are “my” McGees, not that I’ve ever done any intensive, Buck-like delving into the matter). The pub is just as atmospheric as Brennan’s, with musical instruments on the walls and a one-eyed, motley-coated mutt curled peacefully in the corner. A plump, pleasant-looking woman behind the bar (someone addresses her as Molly, in fact, and I wonder if all of Ireland turning into a theme park of itself) approaches us with a smile and pointedly, unquestionably, speaks to me and only me. “What’ll you be having?” she says, looking steadily into my eyes as though Buck were only an overlarge handbag I’ve brought in with me. Two ales, I order smoothly, betraying no surprise or confusion. And to eat? Soup and bread for me—and Buck, I confide, will have the shepherd’s pie.
So that’s it, it occurs to me with unexpected relief. Maybe they are all employing some old-fashioned code: men speak to men, women speak to women, and never the twain should meet, at least not in a public house. It has very little to do with me personally at all. “It’s funny, isn’t it,” Buck comments in a low voice after Molly left.
“You noticed it too?”
“Hard not to. It’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s like instantly you aren’t even in the room when the other sex is there.” He laughs, shaking his head. “Come to Ireland, travel back in time.”
I laugh, too. I’m about to bring up the look, ask him if he’s noticed that, too. But Molly returns with our drinks so we muffle the giggles. Buck sits like a stone while I thank her; “Sure,” she says to me, and only me; “and your dinners will be comin’ right out.”
We sip our drinks, leaning against each other and gazing into another glowing fireplace. “Ah, the Irish. They’re insane in many wonderful ways,” Buck says softly. “Stubborn, hot-tempered, squanderers of money and holders of eternal grudges. And those are their good qualities. A land of drunken orgies on Saturday and repressive Catholic mass on Sunday. Poetry to make you weep, and a cuisine, unfortunately, to match.” He sets down his glass. “Yes, those are my people.”
I look over at the reflection of flames flickering in his eyes. He’s been in Ireland for four weeks of his life, I calculate; I’ve known him for over four years. It would seem, then, wouldn’t it, that he has more in common with me, in our shared lives, than any of the people in this country. But perhaps all two people of the same group have to do, whatever that group may be, is say a few words, or hum a melody, or even simply gesture, and there would be a shared and knowing moment of silence between them, a complicit nod, eyes locked in mutual understanding. And the outsider, in this case me, would only know that she’d never understand what that meant.
Even if that isn’t true, it worries me, saddens me all the same, that maybe the things he and I do together here will never mean as much to me as to him. And, as a jealous corollary (casting a paranoid glance over my vegetable soup at the doorway, as though Buck’s family members might make an appearance), these things might mean more if he did them with someone else who shared that one essential thing with him.
The one-eyed dog looks up from his corner, giving us what seems like an endless and ambiguous wink. “What’s his problem?” Buck nudges me. “Hasn’t he ever seen American tourists before?”
“Perhaps he’s never seen another mutt before,” I suggest.
Buck looks at me for a moment and grins. “Possibly. You two are pretty unique here. But then so are we two, I suppose, to him.” He raises a forkful of mashed potatoes halfway to his mouth, and the grin becomes a chuckle. “Who are we kidding. He’s looking at the food. Probably can’t even see us at all.” Buck waves his fork slowly, tantalizingly, left and right, to see if the dog follows its motion. The dog snorts, knowing he’s being teased, and puts his head back down. “That’s it, bide your time. You know you’ll be getting our scraps soon enough.”
“Greedy little beggar,” says Molly from the bar. The dog, as if responding to his own name, wags his stump of a tail. “I found him wandering ’round the streets last winter. Blown about like a leaf, skinny as one too. Never seen a dog like that here before—just look at his colors, that tail. Of course I took him in. Now look at him—thinks he owns the place.” Now she winks at me behind Buck’s head. “That’s all they want, to be taken in and fed. Simple creatures. And it’s not just dogs I’m meaning!”
I smile and nod knowingly, but then as we finish our meals, I realize that at least part of what I’ve been thinking here is wrong. Maybe being here means more to me than Buck, simply because I wouldn’t be in this place at all but for him. The embrace of what is familiar feels like being loved—being safe and comfortable, being taken in. But then perhaps embracing what is unfamiliar feels like falling in love. Familiar or unfamiliar, both are necessary. I don’t always feel safe and comfortable here, or anywhere for that matter, but I’m here nevertheless, and now I think I know why. Buck came here thinking he wanted to feel Ireland holding him, but it turns out we both want the same thing: to open our arms and reach out into blank space.
So when Buck says, “We can hang around Galway tomorrow, then go back to the town Monday; that leaves two more days before we go home,” I don’t tease him about his shifting alliance to homelands; I don’t so much as raise an eyebrow, be it Ma’s eyebrow or Dad’s. I know that blank space can be anything.
Letitia Moffitt’s fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have been published in literary journals including Black Warrior Review, Aux Arc Review, Jabberwock Review, Coe Review, The MacGuffin, and Dos Passos Review. She received a doctoral degree from Binghamton University in New York, and she currently teaches creative writing as an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University.