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  • The Prodigal Daughter
  • M. G. Stephens (bio)

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[End Page 82]

At the time of her mother’s death, Eileen had called her once a week from London. She even wrote the odd letter now and then, getting into a correspondence with the old one. They made promises to meet, and her mother reminded Eileen that the old woman was not long for the mortal coil. It was now or never. [End Page 83] So Eileen booked a flight to Dublin and came over one weekday morning in November. Her mother asked Eileen to take her to Clare, where the mother was from, and Eileen agreed, renting a car at the airport before she drove over to Sandymount, where her family’s house had been for generations. They packed a small valise with clothes and a lunch basket to sustain them in the journey and lit out of Dublin for the frontiers of the west.

Her mother wanted to go to the usual places a tourist might visit, so it was not so much a sentimental journey to her mother’s childhood haunts as it was a trip to the Cliffs of Moher and an afternoon exploring the Burren. The Cliffs were crowded with tourists, even in November, so they purchased a few trinkets from a traveller girl and then went on their way. At the Burren, they lingered much longer, and when the chill wind dug far into them, they sought shelter in the rental car, which was small enough that it almost felt like it might lift off the ground from the force of the wind.

From her handbag, Eileen’s mom surprised her daughter with a copy of one of Seamus Heaney’s books.

“I didn’t know you read poetry,” Eileen said.

“There’s a lot about me you don’t know,” her mother said.

Her mother read Eileen a poem about being at the sea in Clare.

After the poem was read, they sat in silence. The Irish were good with their silences. Then her mother cleared her throat.

“It’s sentimental,” her mother said. “But I like it. I like it the way one likes a greeting card or a popular song that is sentimental.”

Eileen listened to the wind whipping around outside. It was as if she were playing Cordelia to her mother’s King Lear.

“His later work is sentimental,” her mother went on. “It’s the early work that counts.”

“I didn’t know you liked poetry, Mother.”

“When you become an OAP, you have to do something with your time. I take the odd class or two, Introduction to Poetry, the Poetry of Ireland, stuff like that. It fills the time.”

“Why?” Eileen asked, being a kind of itinerant journalist, poet and philosopher herself.

“I thought it would help me to understand yourself and the work you do.”

“Did,” Eileen said. “I haven’t published a proper book in donkey’s years.” [End Page 84]

“Now, don’t spoil the view with a shedful of self-pity, Eileen Elizabeth; there is no need for that out here on the Burren, where we are more pagan than Christian and more two women than a mother and child.”

“I’m sorry,” Eileen said. “Usually I’m a bit more sanguine.”

“You were quite the emotional bundle of goods as a child.”

“Don’t let’s get into me childhood, Ma.”

“Luckily I can’t remember a thing about it anymore,” her mother said.

Eileen set the rental car into drive and moved off. Behind them, the Burren receded; its craggy shore, its colorful weeds, its winds, drifted out of sight in the rearview mirror of the rental car. It looked like it had a million years ago, before history. The only one to age had been Eileen. Her mother looked as she had when Eileen was a girl. Her mother was a woman of perpetual middle age, even in old age. She had her rosy cheeks and disposition, her plaid wool skirt like a third-rate royal, her silk scarf tied around her head and her waterproof overcoat of cotton and synthetic cloth...


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pp. 82-92
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