David Whyte in his book “Crossing the Unknown Sea” tells the story of his Irish mother.
Merely twelve years old, her own mother lay sick in a dim bedroom of her home in Ireland. She wanted to stay with her, to hold her hand, and talk to her; but her mother asked her to go and sing in a local vocal contest, for she had the loveliest voice in Waterford City. Reluctantly, she left her mother’s side, and went to the hall where the contest was held and sang, “A Mother’s Love Is a Blessing”. When she finished there was stunned silence in the hall and then rousing applause. She had won the contest.
She returned home to find her father and uncles grieving in the hallway outside her mother’s bedroom, for she had passed away while she was gone. “She hadn’t been with her mother when she passed away. She was away singing…” The fear of being left alone. The shame of not being at her side. She never sang “A Mother’s Love Is a Blessing” again in her life.
“In my mother’s youth, young Irish people, following an old migratory pattern familiar since the famine, left their homes and emigrated all over the world…My mother was a scant 15, just three years from her mother’s death when she left to cross the water.”
She borrowed her 16 year old sisters passport to leave her father’s house.
“My grandfather in his grief at the prospect of her leaving him at such a young age, found and then hid the passport fetching it out from behind a picture only after a night of weeping and pleading from his distraught daughter.”
The passport was left on the mantle of the fireplace and a knife stuck into the chair in front of the fire where his grandfather had plunged it in his grief and helplessness.
“The story is so Irish I want to weep at the thought of it – the effervescent, temporary power of leaving-taking, and the powerlessness of those left behind.”
His mother’s brothers made their living boxing. Taking all comers. A hard life. Whyte remembers seeing his Uncle John’s eyes from behind the gloves as he bobbed and weaved, showing him, as a young boy, how to box. He also learned to love a good fight.
“I remember one work fight that began with an insult, a direct insult from a manager at a large company. I was shocked at what he called me and so was the rest of the room. It’s a rare moment in any organization when someone picks a very public fight, in a very public place, and in such a vehement way. It was a moment of truth. The man was not only attacking me but the whole educational initiative within the company of which I was a part.”
Whyte felt the spirit of his ancestors well up in his heart. His orphaned mother crossing the sea to find work at 15. His Uncles taking beatings for money to support their families. His grandfather’s knife plunged into the chair in front of the fire.
“I asked him (the manager) why he wasn’t prepared to ask some serious questions of my work in the session instead of ducking the issue and trying to humiliate me. He ignored me and turned to leave. I said he couldn’t leave, he had called me a very bad name…Also what was he doing wasting his valuable time as a senior executive, only half participating in a program that was supposed to be voluntary?”
“…my uncle John was circling eyes bobbing, behind the red gloves, jabbing and feinting.”
A crowd of managers followed the two all the way to the lunchroom; but the bullying and belligerent manager took flight. He didn’t return to the course and soon left the company.
Whyte offers this beautiful paragraph:
“I do believe in dignity and the preservation of personal honor. I believe in dignity; not in dignity’s old shadow of puffery and self-importance, but it’s power to keep us true to our own spirit. With dignity comes honesty and an unwillingness to sell yourself short, to temporize or collude in cowardly ways that may keep our jobs but not our honor. There are certain things we should not do, certain people we should not work for, lines we should not cross, conversations to which we should not descend, money we should not earn no matter how easily it may come; things we should not allow ourselves to be called in public.”
Later a strange compliment came Whyte’s way. There was a warning circulating around the company.
“Whatever you do, don’t f— with the poet.”
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!