Creative Nonfiction: Losing the Thread
By Saoirse E. Doyle
My mother lost her first child when she was twenty years old.
My father started to lose his native tongue as a boy in 1920s Ireland.
I lost my virginity at least twenty times before I turned nine. Twenty times is not even close.
At the hands of an almost twenty-year-old neighboring farmer.
I don’t quite know why twenty is important. It just keeps showing up.
Some strange thread.
Recently, a text thread from a friend disappeared on my iPhone.
Just one thread. From that one friend.
Panicked, I left her a voicemail: I can’t quite figure out how this has happened. Do you still have your thread? She did. I found comfort in that. At least the thread itself wasn’t completely gone along with all its interactions about life and writing and gratitude.
Still, its loss from my phone gnawed at me. How unexpected its disappearance. How powerless I felt at this unplanned forfeiture. Something gone I assumed had belonged to me. Some deep discomfort sailing in with this now empty scroll. I’d grown up with losses sewn into the landscape. My mother pointed daily to the back field as the site of her lost wedding ring. My father paced back and forth from our narrow hallway to our kitchen to jog loose Irish words disappearing from the daily vernacular. To hear my parents’ losses was to lose myself in them. To melt away under the palpable burden of things gone. Things leaving, every day.
Things I couldn’t even name.
The text thread a departure I hadn’t planned.
My father was always leaving.
His bad heart dictated his imminent departure. For those around him, it dictated a life of dread and constant uncertainty. His pallor—pale or gray—his humor—good or bad—his appetite—hearty or poor—his hand tremors, his level of excitability were we children to act out, all such things the constant checklist of my five-year-old self. But such hypervigilance, no matter its en garde state of readiness, proved no match for an aorta on its last legs.
I didn’t know that.
In my mind, I pictured a frayed thread in Dadda’s chest that, were my nimble fingers—long, thin instruments of pure intent that could already fix a mangled audiotape and make it play again—allowed into the cavity that housed his beating heart, I’d find that knackered artery, the one my mother so often discussed with my aunt across the road, and I’d braid it, over, under, over, under, with nylon fishing wire, restore it to steel-pipe strength.
I was sure I could do it.
Another thing of which I was certain was that I’d be the one to find my mother’s lost wedding band. It was a story we all heard. She was carrying an armful of clothes to the line in the back field. Swung her short legs over the back wall. Hung out whatever sopping bedsheets and jumpers and pants and shirts she hoped would shake some wet out of them in a rare dry spell, and then, on her way back in over the wall, she noticed her ring was gone.
I always hated that part of the story.
Each and every time, it drove me out the back door, stomping down the harsh reeds that dug their heels into the cement bricks around the backyard, unforgiving tangles of wiry grasses that rooted themselves to every tin can and Mars bar wrapper that had landed there in a squall. I’d kick and pull and pray and wait for that glint of gold—gold would surely glint even in watery winter light.
I never saw that glint. But sometimes, I’d spot a buried treasure, and my heart would pound, for just a few seconds, at the dull bronze of a coin’s outline, my imagination sprinting ahead to that intoxicating sensation of triumph.
She who could accomplish the impossible.
Already, I had it firmly in my head that I’d be the one to marry Mamma and Dadda again. By virtue of placing the band on Mamma’s finger. Me. The unofficial officiant. After, of course, I had scoured the wedding band with Lifebuoy soap. But then, I’d hack free from its mucky grave some useless old penny the size of a saucer and whisper blast. Blast and arsethe very worst curse words I knew.
When I came back into the kitchen, matted with sweat and failure, my mother would say, any luck?
No, I’d say.
You’re such a good girl for trying, she’d say, and I’d mop up her look of gratitude and, dare I say, admiration into a kind of marriage of its own between us. The kind that said I’d fight for her. I’d dig the field ten times over to find what she had lost. The way any gallant hero would. If they had a good heart and were half able.
There were days that my father looked like a small breeze might knock him right over.
Those were the days none of us could afford to lose anything. Not our tempers. Not a screech from vexed lips. Not a cup elbowed from the table lest the crash on the tile floor knock a hop out of Dadda that could kill him. Those days were the days a person could well do with just staying in bed all day long and only rising to use the piss pot.
Dadda said that a language lost its gallop the way a cart full of turf lost its steam up a steep hill. No way that only one donkey could manage unless a mess of strong shoulders shoved from behind. Dadda spent every night wearing a trail up the slight hill of the village lane to his eldest sister. They had grown up at a time when English was the school tongue, and Irish was the home tongue. Now, English was the home tongue, and Irish was the struggling subject of every school in the country.
To sit in Dadda’s classroom while he followed the newfangled curriculum for teaching natives our own native tongue was something, even in childhood, that felt wrong. Awkward. You knew something was off. But you couldn’t quite put your finger on it.
Every night, Dadda went to his sister’s fireside armchair, and they reversed their way back into their own childhoods to find proverbs and prayers and jokes that had once been throwaways. Now, their elders were gone. And they were losing things every night with the dint of what they couldn’t remember.
Gone, Dadda would say some nights when he came home. That word is gone. Helena can’t bring it to mind either.
And I’d head for the room off the kitchen.
Another place where lost things went in our house.
The room off the kitchen was the secret we hid from visitors.
The dumping ground for all the things we just couldn’t throw away. Lest someone come looking for that exact thing later.
Half-filled cans of hardened emulsion in dull mustards or matte blacks, wallpaper rolls eaten with mold that might have some good left in them, coats with torn lining, shoes without soles, schoolbags soured with spilled milk, sacks of rotting spuds and broken lamps and yard-brushes and rusty shovels and crusty buckets and hair-curlers and toy guns and limbless dolls and Christmas decorations and rubber car mats and even once, for a long while, a ten-speed racer bike, a spare tire, an extra gas tank for our oven, and a pram. Had we managed to fit any of the several Morris Minors rotting in the fields, we would have.
The room itself had once been a five-by-ten chicken coop attached to the northern gable of the house, and somewhere along the line, it was converted into a storage shed. Someone had the bright idea to knock a door from our kitchen corner into its newly plastered walls and bare concrete floor. A bad idea really because pretty soon, it became the hold-all for some terrible disease we all carried: some genetic inability to sort the essential from the unimportant. Everything, every blessed thing, large and small, ran the risk of becoming a lost thing for us. And when it became a lost thing, it became a missing thing. And when it became a missing thing, it became a wound. A gaping wound we couldn’t manage.
And the only balm to salve it was the room off the kitchen.
Whichever of us woke in a lather of sweat, trashing our arms for some Latin copybook or some knitting pattern to which we now attached life or death importance, the room off the kitchen became a promise, promise enough to pull us back from the brink.
The brink of what, we never quite knew.
But we all felt it just the same.
Mamma and I felt it more than the others. I was always sure of that.
She and I shared what we called the Saint Anthony knack.
We could find most lost things.
Something of my skill in particular made of me a family totem.
It suited me well to be seen as magical. Being the youngest girl of four bigger siblings made me mostly a nuisance. But my reputation to track down the smallest hairclip gave me status. I never told anyone that there was no magic to what I did. I just never gave up.
Instead, I arrived on the scene of every lost thing like Columbo. Peppered the mewling sister or growling brother with questions as to their exact movements. Tracked, with my mind’s eye, every step of their recent travels, and felt myself calm into near joy at the scope of all the places a lost thing could hide.
What I did not know was that part of my role as she who locates lost things was to take on board the pain of those who had lost those very things. A two-for-one deal that I did not understand till later, much later, that even as I set off on my exploration, I had also become a room off the kitchen. She into whom unwanted feelings were dumped so that others carried on with their schoolwork or squabbling while I lost days to searches till finally, maybe God took pity on me, or my faith rewarded me, and I’d stumble across the Parker pen or the Patrick’s Day badge and would hoist it aloft like the Olympic flame to the crowded kitchen. In those moments, you could fly a kite across the delight that lightened the air between us all. Gales of laughter, and ripples of release.
She did it, she did it, the chorus, as though all worries were forever over because I had proved yet again I would save the day. And in so doing, would stand in the way of all things leaving, or trying to leave.
Things kept leaving my mother, like her once thick hair, now brittle from childbirth and anemia.
Comfortable shoes, too, kept leaving her, insoles cut from cardboard to make a fair day purchase from some stall kinder to her ulcerated ankles. And decent wallpaper, there was thick enough paste to combat the maps of damp and mildew everywhere. As for curtains like those in the films, which hung in velvet folds from aristocratic alcoves, there never came a drape on any window in our house that didn’t lift from unseen breezes. Every gale collected by the Atlantic on its crossing from America lobbed at us from every side—north, south, east, and west. Nothing spared of the weather’s venting.
A dump, Mamma often called the house.
The comfort of indoor plumbing and gas light gone from her life the moment she arrived, as a young bride, to this single street two hundred miles from her east coast childhood. Married to a man twenty years her senior in a remote western village split down the center by the still fetid hatreds left behind by the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. One side convinced the partition of the country was the only way to secure, at last, a free and Irish state, even if it lost its head in the process, the top six counties lopped off as ransom to the British government. The other side sworn to the notion that you couldn’t give back a torn flag of twenty-six counties to a people and tell them their nation was now whole.
Ireland, in my childhood, framed by two words: The Troubles.
Northern Troubles nightly on the news, car bombings, violent clashes, tit-for-tat killings like some terrible game where every goal was a life ended. No take backs. No substitutes. And it wasn’t just Catholic against Protestant. All around us, it was old IRA versus new IRA, disloyalty to the resurrected paramilitary cause, no matter your politics, its own dodgy business. Lips sewn shut the only medicine. You couldn’t be shot for something you didn’t say.
Even at six and seven, I knew that. It was the sort of thing you picked up like a schoolyard rule. Someone asked you a question. You said nothing. Nothing left your lips.
Wars were won or lost with silence.
My mother often said it was my father’s silence that hurt her most. His silence when they first married and came to the village house to live with his aging mother. A sharp-tongued woman who could lacerate a person from across a room with her insults, English or Irish. Who viewed my mother as the beginning of the end of everything native. Everything previously hers. Like her eldest son, whom she viewed as more hers than Mamma’s, and soon, her house.
Your poor mother, my auntie later said. She got lashings she never deserved. And your father never stopped them. Nor did I.
From the moment my mother landed at the village house, she declared war on its decrepitude. And maybe, in its own tit for tat, it took her ring from her.
There was another story about her wedding band. Mamma was pulling old stout bottles away from that same back wall where hundreds had been lined up since the turn of the century for wakes and weddings and station masses. All the dead soldiers of whiskey and sherry and poitín returned to bog and overgrowth. And maybe my mother’s ring slipped down some wide-necked empty, not even a tinkle to announce its landing. My mother, in those early years of marriage, surrounded by hazards that seemed, to her, endless and insurmountable—walls that wept with every rainstorm, chimneys that puffed into hall and kitchen, well water that circumvented sanitation’s boiling.
For my mother, gathering the glass bottles before her children were tall enough to scale those walls would have possibly been a way to avoid future losses. She had already lost her first child to gastroenteritis when that girl was six months old. She rarely spoke of her to any of us.
Once, in a letter to an older sister, she wrote: Not a day goes by I don’t still feel her loss.
When I came along, the sixth of seven, I also suffered from frequent bouts of gastroenteritis.
Right from the cradle, nights and days of severe vomiting and dehydration that threw my mother into panic. Sometimes, my aunt from across the way popped in to check my reflexes, take my pulse. She had been a nurse during the war years in England. Had the title of alarmist from my father because she took a grim view of any sickness. In my teens, she would share of gaping sockets where eyes used to be and phantom limbs over which she had to place a warm cloth to assure a soldier their leg cramp was real.
Don’t like her color, she’d say to Mamma of me, a Sweet Afton withering to ash between her lips, her eyes half closed while she pressed a palm to my forehead. Such calm in her touch that I often wanted her to stay till my tank was filled with whatever poured from her skin.
Any alarm at all in her voice and Mamma would latch on.
Almost died on me again last night, Mamma would proclaim. And she’d sit at the kitchen table to light another Silk Cut and tap some hidden Morse across her eyebrow.
I didn’t fully understand death and dying.
I knew my father’s heart was always on the verge of failing. But I didn’t know, truly know, what that meant for me or anyone in terms of life and its finality.
But when Mamma’s voice hit a certain note, her desperation translated into something I dared not name. Something that spilled into the air between us. Care. Exquisite care. The sort that could fill you toes to skull with delight. Intoxicating in its prominence. Such demonstrations rare in our household. Such displays of affection bestowed mostly on my father, to keep him above ground and among us. For the rest of us, the dropped sock of some endearment such as pet and good girlthe stuff of a whole blanket.
That alarm between my aunt and my mother some balm I wished to protract. Its effect magical, even as I lay wan on the kitchen sofa, an overcoat from the hall pegs thrown across me for warmth. Even while my stomach heaved and roiled, unceasing in its mission to kill me, even then, the tinge of despair in Mamma and Auntie like some found treasure to my nervous system.
A treasure I hadn’t even known was missing.
When the text thread went missing from my phone, all I wanted to do was lose myself in that old room off the kitchen. I longed to stand among the stacks, piled floor to ceiling, helter-skelter, left and right, in that converted chicken coop. To close the door behind me and block out the muffled sounds of our black-and-white television perched on top of the knife and fork cupboard, so named for the cutlery drawer directly beneath it.
I wanted to hear again the familiar ring of the Angelus bell at six, and then, the evening news with Maurice Doherty or Don Cockburn, their reports somber and serious, maybe about Dr. Herrema’s kidnapping, or the death of De Valera, or the general elections so close, a whisker couldn’t be shoved between some seat counts. I wanted it back. All of it. That room off the kitchen where things went to die. That place where things could also be found, as long as the search continued.
I wanted to find that child, right before that neighbor first laid a terrible finger on her. Before she lost what she had assumed belonged to her and always would. Right before she disappeared without a trace and left instead some empty vessel to take her place. I wanted to pluck her from that exact moment when her cup was bright and full, snatch her from drafts and mold, from lost babies and wedding rings, from failing hearts and dying tongues, from the meager care of which there was only ever enough to save one—her father.
Instead, I sat alone by the California shoreline. Tossed my discomfort to the tide. I knew it had little to do with the lost text thread. It never does.
What tugged at my chest was the litany of things taken before I knew the meaning of consent. Before I knew that I would walk into a neighbor’s room as one girl. Walk back out as another. That it would be twenty years before I would find a new room in a new country in which to search afresh for all that had been taken.
Right there, on the Pacific shoreline, I said a prayer for all things I had ever lost.
For all things I had never found.
For all things that came instead.
For everyone I knew and loved. My father, long gone. My mother, in that village still. The old room off the kitchen long since made pretty.
And then, for old time’s sake, I prayed to Saint Anthony.
I asked, not for the return of the lost text thread, but instead, for the room inside that no longer has to find what is lost in order to salve what is missing in me, or anyone.
If maybe at last, a lost thread can be just that. A lost thread.
That it doesn’t have to signify the lost ring for which I must make up a whole marriage.
Or the lost vernacular for which I must preserve a native tongue.
Or the lost first child for whom I must be twice as good now, twice as precious.
Some threads, at last, simply meant for losing.
Some things, at last, all right to lose.
Saoirse E. Doyle’s writing has appeared in Bryant Literary Review, Agave Magazine, Delmarva Review, White Wall Review, Sweet Tree Review, String Poet, Peregrine, Sinister Wisdom, Big Muddy, The Ignatian Literary Magazine, The Courage to Heal, Entropy Magazine, and The Magic of Memoir. She spent the last twenty years attending writing workshops across America. She was a Pat Schneider Poetry Contest Honorable Mention winner; long listed in the National Poetry Competition United Kingdom in 2017; a Winner of the Eastern Iowa Review’s Lyric Essay Contest in 2018; and a Top Ten Finalist in the Fish Short Memoir Prize contest in 2018. She enjoys photography, searching for the elusive “perfect chair,” and public speaking. Saoirse E. Doyle is a pen name.