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  • Writer's pictureJeanette Baker

Birthright Excerpt

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

Chapter 1

Look at the time, half-eight, and not a child in the house washed. The expression was my late mother’s, voiced nearly every day in the house where I grew up, ten children tucked into two bedrooms with one bath upstairs. We were never close, my mother and me, not for any particular reason I can remember, we just didn’t get on. It was Fiona and Kathleen she preferred and Jimmy, always Jimmy, her middle child, the ciotogach, the red-headed lefty of our family who wasn’t supposed to amount to much and ended up in America with more in the bank than all of us put together. The funny thing is Jimmy loved Tralee, still does, more than Keith or Liam or Michael, certainly more than I ever did. I was desperate to immigrate and wouldn’t have come back, not after Boston, but some things can’t be planned and shouldn’t be remembered.

Never mind all that, my mother would say. Memories never emptied the sink or hung out the washing. All they’re good for is regret. She was right. I know now that she was a font of wisdom I didn’t appreciate. It was my dad I preferred, the jokester, the man’s man, always ready with a wink, a story and a pint. Even when he told me bees could be captured in a can without a lid because they never looked up and I tried it and nearly died from the experience, I blamed myself and never doubted him. Interesting how perspectives change after six decades.

Speaking of the washing, it’s a good day for it, breezy without a hint of rain. I’m moving slowly today, feeling unsettled, looking for an excuse to avoid housework. Fergus Murphy, the postman, on his way to the door, is as fine a reason as any to sit down for a pot of tea and a scone. “Good morning, Mrs. Malone,” he calls out. “How is the day treating you so far?”

“It’s a bit early to weigh in on the day, Mr. Murphy. Have you time for a cup of tea. It’s just made and the scones are fresh.”

He scratches his head, checks to see that his few remaining wisps of hair are positioned over the shiny dome of his head, and winks. “Wasn’t I just thinking how I’d like one of Mrs. Malone’s scones?”

“Come in, then.” I hold the door for him. “Mind the step and sit down.” I pour two cups of tea, set out the butter, a fresh knife, spoons and the milk jug. “I hear that Bridget Walsh’s son came home for good this time. Did his marriage go bad?”

“Isn’t it an awful shame?” he replies. “They’re different about marriage in America, replacing husbands and wives the same as they do their automobiles.”

As far as I’m concerned people in Ireland aren’t any different when it comes to replacing a spouse, only we don’t bother to make it legal. We just up and move in with someone else. But I won’t get any information by speaking my mind. “It is a shame,” I agree. “Poor Billy Walsh. She’s a lovely girl, though, isn’t she?” I refill his cup. He finishes one scone and eyes mine. “Would you like another scone, Mr. Murphy?”

“If you don’t mind, Mrs. Malone. This is a particularly delicious batch.”

“As I was saying, Mr. Murphy, Sheila Walsh is a lovely girl. I can’t imagine why Billy would leave her.”

“I heard it isn’t Billy who did the leaving.”

“Did you?”

“Aye. Word has it she’s tired of Billy’s drinking, that and no work for more than two years. Those American girls have expectations.”

“As we all should, Mr. Murphy.”

He drains the last of his tea. Only a few crumbs remain of the scone. “A pint now and then can be tolerated if a man brings home his earnings.”

I nod. “True enough. Given the circumstances, I can’t be too sorry for Billy Walsh.”

“We mustn’t be too hard on him, Mrs. Malone. A second chance may be just what he needs.”

A second chance with a mother who would wash his clothes, cook his meals and pick up after him. What a pity we aren’t all so lucky. Another sentiment I’ll keep to myself. If I collect a shilling every time I bite my tongue to keep the words in, I’ll be living in an estate in Ballyard. Instead, I smile. The postman has taken enough of my time. “Have a wonderful day, Mr. Murphy. Watch out for the dog living second next door. His bark is worse than his bite, but you never know.”

“I’ll do that, Mrs. Malone.” He reaches into his bag and draws out an envelope. “I have a letter for you, all the way from America.”

“I’ll take it off your hands, thanks very much.” I stuff it into the pocket of my apron hoping he hasn’t noticed the trembling of my hands.

He tips his hat. “My pleasure, Mrs. Malone. Tell himself I said hello. I hope he’s helping you here at home now that he’s taken redundancy.”

“He is and I will. Mind the step.” It takes enormous effort to smile and wave and watch him pass the house. I shut the door tightly and pull out the envelope. I don’t recognize the writing? Would I know it if I saw it? Would someone write after fifty years? The return address says California. Funny, I can’t see him in California. He’ll always be Boston to me, that city of uncompromising divisions, Southie and the North End, Beacon Hill and Roxbury, segregated neighborhoods amid the bluest blood in America, which, if you think about it, isn’t really very blue at all. Yes, Boston is a fitting place for lace-curtain Irish with immigrating sons, like the O’Sullivan family.

I tear the side open and pulled out the single sheet of paper. I don’t bother with the body of the letter, my eyes finding and focusing on the closing, the signature. Relief and the smallest hint of disappointment weakens my knees and I sit down quickly. Of course, it isn’t him. What do I expect after all these years? I turn my attention to the letter. Who on earth is Claire Williams and what does she want? The only people I know in America aren’t speaking to me.

Minutes later I manage to find my way to the bathroom and lock the door. Fumbling with the toilet lid, I let it fall into place and sit down heavily. I know I’m breathing. I must be breathing, or else I’d be dead. Dear, almighty God! I’m 69 years old. How could this happen? Surely after five decades, I ought to be safe. Damn those nuns.

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