Three sides to a story

My annual pilgrimage to Matewan Hospital where I was born February 21, 1949
Today, February 21, the sky shines crystal clear upon Herman McCoy’s account of my birthday—or better said, my birthnight.   
On foot, my uncle rounded the last curve between Freeburn, Kentucky, and his home in the McCoy Bottom. A heart light with love from courting Geraldine Hickman, he had no fear of darkness. His feet knew every inch of that mountain road.
Below, the McCoy homeplace came into view, all lit up after midnight! He suspected his older sister’s time had come to deliver her second child.
My uncle sped down the runoff and vaulted the gate that kept the milk cow off the road.  
In hard labor, Mom leaned against the well while Dad backed his car out of the garage. Uncle Herm hastened to take Mom’s hand and helped her into the passenger seat.
“Open the gate, Herm!” Dad said.
He drove onto the runoff and Uncle Herm closed the gate.
“Get in, Herm,” Dad said.
He raced past Freeburn, over Tug Fork into West Virginia and by Thacker Hollow, his birthplace October 24, 1922. Considerate in my prenatal state, I waited four more miles to reach Matewan Hospital to arrive within the hour.  
“You have another healthy girl, Mr. O’Brien,” the doctor said.
Dad kissed Mom good-bye and drove back home with Uncle Herm for a few hours sleep. They arose at daybreak that Monday morning and worked the farm. They spread the good news to neighbors who stopped by. Uncle Herm wasn’t the only one who saw lights in the McCoy homeplace the midnight before.
That’s all Uncle Herm remembers. It took gentle cajoling throughout the past ten years to wheedle that out of him. He’s never been comfortable talking about “women things.”
Since my mother held similar sentiments, she seldom spoke of her five childbirths. In the right mood, she’d let slip guarded pieces. “Libby came breach,” for instance, or, “Your dad and I were happiest when Patty was ‘borned’.” Libby and Patty appeared third and fourth respectively.
Long before Uncle Herm told his story, I found myself alone with Mom in her homeplace. She’d returned from a failed attempt to adapt to Florida living. I defied her signs of dementia and said, “Mom, please tell me about my birth.”
Memory drew a scowl on her face. “I waited for your dad to come and take us home. Then he came staggering up the steps loud and drunk.”
“Matewan Hospital’s steps?”
“Why, yes,” she replied, perturbed.
I’d trespassed my mother’s disappointment and regretted it.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“That was long ago.”
We sat quietly in the homeplace where she carried me, where I lived five years a stone’s throw from where Uncle Herm settled with his bride, Geraldine Hickman.
Dear Reader, today I see crystal clear the McCoy Bottom and Matewan Hospital, both sides of the story that tell of my birth and homecoming.
I ponder in my senior state, if I had asked, would my father have told the third side of the story?

Season of garden dreams

Maggie and Jack's big uptop garden, summer 2019
“Maggie wants to expand the garden this spring,” Jack said with a smile.
A truck driver for thirty-seven years, you can’t call Jack a slacker. Here in the depth of February, he’s happy as a tick on an old coon dog. The surgeon gave him two new hips last November, and he’s raring to go. It’s amazing what pain free joints can do for a man.
It’s not that the Fergusons need more flowers and food. It’s just that Maggie’s DNA says dig soon as the earth thaws. And dig throughout the summer. And dig through the fall until her trowel gives out.
My goodness, Maggie’s gardens blossom from narcissus to chrysanthemum. And high on “the big uptop garden” protected by Minnesota Mike’s Deer Proofing Fence, she grows everything from arugula to apples in raised beds.
Well, I exaggerated a bit for the sake of alliteration.
Nevertheless, it’s plain and simple. Jack and Maggie must live amidst beautiful and tasty things. And in winter, they must think and talk about blooms and food to sustain sanity.
But that’s not all there is to it. Jack must build trellises for Maggie’s butternut squash and Amana orange tomatoes according to the dictates of his DNA that says get out your toolbox!
And there’s Maggie’s swing overlooking her beloved zinnias and cosmos so she may sit and sing to them in her velvety voice.
Not just an ole rope swing.  Oh no—one fit for a queen, large enough to accommodate a royal robe if she chose to wear one.
But Maggie’s not fancy when she turns the earth, other than her sunhat. She dresses for dirt, the most marvelous resource on the planet. Serious about good husbandry, Maggie knows her soil.
So does Jack—her official assistant for hauling manure and other amendments uphill to sprout sensational seedlings.
Other than my granny’s, I’ve never seen a garden yield what Maggie’s does. Robust beans, green as any bean could be. In my opinion, the most colorful edible Maggie plants in her raised beds is nasturtium.
Yes, dear Reader, nasturtium is a perfect replacement for peppering a salad. Forgive me if you already know this fact about the herb, which also offers medicinal properties.
Speaking of properties, unlike the Fergusons, Mel and I are not expanding our vegetable garden this spring. He sowed a rye cover crop last fall to enrich the old plots. After last summer’s puny harvest, we’ll be tickled with a bumper crop of tomatoes and beans.
We served our last quart of greasy beans for Christmas dinner. We’ve only three jars of tomatoes and several containers of frozen asparagus soup left.
However, in this season of drooling over seed catalogs, I’m thinking of 75 new Grosso lavender plugs rooting in Telly’s Greenhouse. I must have rows of blooming lavender outside my kitchen window.
And I reckon as Maggie sips her hot coffee these frigid mornings, similar sentiments arise from their big uptop garden outside their back window.
I can hear her singing now.

My father in the kitchen door

Warren O'Brien and his five daughters: (L-R lower) Iris, Sonia, Libby (L-R upper): Linda, Patty
In February 1995, my father called. Caution threw up a hand. This wasn’t about my birthday.
“You don’t know who this is?” he said in his belittling tone.
“I didn’t expect you to call. You usually drop by. Are you okay?” 
“I need you to drive me to St. John’s Hospital Tuesday morning.”
“What’s the matter? You never go to the hospital.”
“The doctor says I need a stint in my heart before he works on my legs. It’s varicose veins again.”
“Why didn’t you call me earlier? I would’ve driven you to the doctor.”
Dad hoped the stint would repair his heart and keep him on his feet, as if his long-term symptoms caused by a lifetime of smoking, drinking, and barbering didn’t exist.
I recalled Dad holding onto the doorframe when he walked up the step into our kitchen. He could barely ambulate from his car to our house.
A WW II Marine who never missed a day’s work, I’d thought my Irish dad invincible as a child. Now very ill at age 72, Dad must recover his health and sobriety to live independently.
“I’d be happy to drive you to St. John’s.”
A sister joined me in the hospital’s waiting room during Dad’s surgery. While he slept, the surgeon gave us two minutes and no hope for Dad’s recovery. Two days later, the doctor discharged Dad after delirium tremens ran its course. I should’ve never left my father alone in the hospital.
Our vacant downstairs bedroom made the perfect infirmary. Each day I observed a clear decline in Dad’s health. He couldn’t eat. Not even meat and potatoes.  
For three days I waited for a return phone call from his doctor. Remarkably, Dad walked to the car for an appointment with a local physician.
“Mr. O’Brien, I suspect internal bleeding is distending your stomach.”
We fell quiet on our drive to Troy Beaumont’s emergency.
That night, after my family and I left his bedside, Dad suffered cardiac arrest. Without consulting the signed DNR document, Beaumont staff stabilized him enough for transport from Troy to Royal Oak.
Our sister from Kentucky drove in an ice storm to stand with us in Dad’s bedside vigil for five days.
He would wake and attempt to talk. We’d ask questions and he’d nod or shake his head. Yes, he knew we loved him. Yes, he loved us.
Then his kidneys failed. The nurse removed the breathing tube. At last, Dad could talk. He was prepared to meet Jesus.
March 3, 1995, our father let his last breath surrounded by four of his five daughters, one  in transit to the hospital. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue ushered him into Glory. How he loved that music!
Dear Reader, come February, I remember Dad’s phone call—our two demanding and blessed weeks together. I’m now one year shy of the age my father said good-bye.
Thus, within the peace of his repurposed infirmary, I write for dear life. This perennial memory of my father in the kitchen door.  

Illumination of the written word

The Book of Kells, Illuminated illustrations of the Gospels, 800 AD
Libraries call my name wherever I travel. Our forefathers speak their history and literature—what mattered most, why they invested their means and talents to build a house of books and letters for posterity.
I recall the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. Weeks after 9/11, my daughter Kelly and I walked cobbled streets to the Library’s Long Room built between 1712 and 1732.
Marble busts of Irish philosophers and writers the likes of Jonathan Swift lined the length of shelves bearing 200,000 of the library’s oldest tomes. Shakespeare amongst them.
A stunning sight indeed.
After our stroll through the Long Room, Kelly and I stood side-by-side before the exhibit of the Book of Kells, illuminated illustrations of the Gospels dated 800 AD.
A twenty-first century woman of Celtic ancestry, I couldn’t fathom the brilliance, devotion, and resourcefulness of the ancients. I considered the artwork and calligraphy in silence.
Sometimes, the holiness of beauty and story holds you speechless.
Years later, the Book of Kells came to mind when I first laid eyes upon Frederick Wiley’s illuminated painted windows in the Detroit Public Library on Woodward Avenue.
There I also learned about documents preserved in the building’s vaults and stacks: French licenses of voyageurs from the 1700’s, and Grace Bedell’s iconic letter written at age eleven to Abraham Lincoln, for example. Grace suggested Mr. Lincoln grow whiskers to encourage men to vote for him.
Toting my first novel to forty libraries within a fifty-mile radius last spring, I observed each public library possesses its own personality, inside and out.
Although I admire the magnificence of a grand structure, my local Addison Township Library is where my affection rests. Humble and friendly, the library’s Director, Jaema Berman, and her staff know my name. I know theirs. We thrive on learning and making history with every page we turn.
We’re in the midst of fund-raising for a new building. To be part of this growth brings hope for our future. As our ancestors, we’re firm believers in the durable lifespan of books.
As is Kay Hurd, Director of the Henry Stephens Memorial Library in Almont. I stopped in the charming library last week with a copy of The Mantle, my novel.
“We promote local authors and would love your book.” Kay said.
In a brief tour, she stopped before a display case memorializing Henry Stephens. “This is our library’s patron,” Kay said. 
Born in Dublin in 1823, Henry immigrated to Almont where he settled and made his fortune as a lumberman, merchant, and financier.
I followed Kay to the basement where they keep their microfiche reader machine. “The library began recording the Tri-City-Times in 1886. We have almost every issue published,” she said.
This means much of the tri-city area’s history remains conserved—a library within a library.
Dear Reader, I imagine this mattered to Henry Stephens. Perhaps the Dubliner walked the Long Room in Trinity Library before he sailed for America.
Perhaps he paused before the illuminated pages of the Book of Kells, envisioned a library where the librarians know your name.