My Irish grandmother prepared family meals on a wood stove, even though her large eat-in kitchen also had a modern cooktop. Back in the Olde Sod, it would have been fueled by peat, but she emigrated here as a teenager and no doubt thought using wood was state-of-the-art. She must have missed it though, since a bonus to cooking with peat is that it emits a sweet smell wafting from the chimney.
My siblings and I took turns every summer, spending one week with our grandmother, Bridget Reilly. Her house, atop one of the foothills of a local mountain, had been a summertime resort called Cedar Heights. It encompassed a hundred acres of mountainside where New Yorkers could have a respite in nature – swimming in the pond, hiking amongst boulders and logging trails, playing croquet and badminton on the expansive lawn where my brother and sister and I played the same games fifty years later. The spacious kitchen where my grandmother baked Irish soda bread (the fancy version, with raisins) was once a dining area and the large living room that took up half the house had been a dance hall, enlivened in the evenings with a spirited piano. In the tiny bedroom above, I dreamt each night of phantom ragtime music and pounding dance steps to the Turkey Trot.
Bridget wasn’t an interactive grandma, walking the fields and up the mountainside with us, or splashing in the pond or fishing in the stream. Rather, she opened the front door every sunny morning and told us “Go outside and play.” And that we did. Exhausted by evening, she set us in front of the large river-stone fireplace, spinning tales of the banshee, and the little people. Decades later, during a trip to Ireland with my two sisters, we listened to our Great Aunt Theresa’s fervent description of hearing the banshee wail . . . and the next sunrise they learned the neighbor’s wife had died during the night. My grandmother also told us our future by reading the tea leaves in our morning cuppa, warning us of a sign of the “dark man” or one of the subterranean lakes that turned maidens into swans.
Leaning in an umbrella stand on my grandmother’s porch was a rough-hewn walking stick. The shillelagh, made of blackthorn, found in the darkest and densest thickets, carried its own legends and was used as a weapon as well. The knob was actually the tree root and could pack a significant whack, which I know from experience. I’ve kept one in an umbrella stand in every home I lived in, and occasionally, kept it under the bed to ward off either the banshee or the Pookah, a hobgoblin that carries you off on a mad dash around the countryside.
In their younger years, I babysat my three grandchildren every Wednesday. Once, we were all trying to trap a gnome in the hollowed-out tree, leaving cats-eye marbles as bait since my grandmother had told me those were prized by “the little people.” We constructed a tiny matchbox home with crayoned door and windows to entice a leprechaun to join us for St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not sure if that was just to get a good look at him, or to grab his gold, but we whiled away a chilly March afternoon with that project.
When my twin granddaughters celebrated a milestone birthday, the gifts I chose were two not-identical-twin fairy dolls accompanied by a quote from John Lennon about always believing in fairies, and a white-board to hang on their bedroom wall, along with neon markers. They immediately opened the package of markers and split the board in half, drawing flowers, butterflies and yes, fairies, next to their names.
I’m grateful that my grandchildren took all this for granted, just like I did back at Cedar Heights, always on the lookout for the magic in the world.