Review of ‘Remembering Ahanagran’

Remembering Ahanagran
Richard White (Hill and Wang)

In a work he describes as "an easy collaboration between me and my mother and an uneasy collaboration between history and memory," Richard White explores the past through his mother Sara's eyes. With affection and insight, he re-creates the story of a woman, born in 1919 on a farm in Ireland that "produced children more reliably than...crops or cattle," who emigrated to America where, in 1941, she became the second female hired at what was to become Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

"I entered into my mother's stories so fully that I am not always sure now whether I remember my mother's stories about a place that I had never seen or my own combinations of the stories," White writes of his foray into memory. His task was sometimes hindered by Sara's Irish relatives who didn't see the point of the author's digging up a past about which they had little interest.

Speaking of a ruined castle in Ireland, visible from his uncle Johnny's field, the author notes, "He has passed it a thousand times and more. He has wondered about it not at all." When Sara asks her brother who destroyed the castle, "his eyes become lively as his body grows still. 'How the hell should I know who destroyed the castle, Sara!' he says." When Sara inquires about people they'd known as children, he says, "For God's sake, Sara, they're dead."

"The very idea of seeking information about the dead makes Johnny erupt with laughter," writes White. "He tries to hold it in, but his body shakes like an old building when a train passes."

The Ireland of Sara's childhood was a place where the boundaries between fact and fantasy very often were blurred. "The fairies lived in this landscape," writes Sara's son, "and the dead sometimes walked among the living." Even the author, born and bred in the U.S.A., seems to accept the reality of fairies as an integral part of Ireland's past. Dating the time Sara's father emigrated to America in hopes of earning money to save the family farm, White writes matter-of-factly, "It was roughly a year after the fairies had put Richard Mackessey's pony up the tree that Jack Walsh left for America."

Sara, too, emigrated to the States. She was 16, and it was a terrifying journey. "'All I knew of the world,' she says, '...was the farm where I was born and the village where we went to Mass on Sunday, with one general store there, the creamery, and the half dozen public houses.'"

Sara might have remained in the world of Chicago's Irish, were it not for the war, which swept her "into the swirl of people lifted up from all over America, moved across the country in trains, planes, buses and trucks, and mixed together in ways once unusual and now common. It was how she met my father, a meeting that would have been unimaginable in peacetime," writes White.

"There was her Irishness and his Jewishness," he says of his parents' unlikely marriage, "but there were other differences. He had graduated cum laude from Harvard. She had finished fourth grade at the Ballylongford National School." It was a union that "only the war could have made possible."

Sara does not like her son stirring up memories of his deceased father. "Here, more than anyplace else, she wants her memory uncontested," he writes. "She does not want me talking to others, gathering other stories, looking into the remnants of my father's past. When she is silent, she wants those things about which she refuses to speak to remain as quiet as the tomb."

The reader suspects from White's final sentence that he has respected those silences. "My mother's stories, and silences," he writes in his epilogue, "have made the world more dense and interesting than I ever imagined."

Writer Emily D'Aulaire is a freelancer who lives in Connecticut.

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