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Writer's Corner- New Brunswick

by Robert Ervin Layden

   The Riordan family lived on an earth scrabble farm in Goshen, New Brunswick, too close to the beginning of a new century to be aware of it, too distant to know. Twelve children, six of each gender, as if God had been discriminating in his largesse, father Brendan and mother Caitlin, my grandparents.
   Born of parents emigrant from County Sligo, the two were members of a distinctly new generation, the beginning prototype of Irish Catholic Canadians. Since the permanent mold was not yet firmly shaped, their genetic passions at times were more unbridled than those of the citizens of English or French descent. The Irish seemed excess-bound for glory or disaster, as if in constant need of God's attentive restraint.
   I never saw my grandparents together. My grandfather died before my birth. I remember Caitlin as a Celtic grandmother with a fiery Catholic morality at her core. The marriage was surely a union of considerable emotion, at times turbulence. My mother's Scottish Protestant parents, who lived ten dirt-road country miles away in Mechanic Settlement, might have judged the Riordans' marital intensity unseemly were their homes closer.
   The trek to Mechanic was a stroll of a Saturday night for the wild Riordan boys when Mr. Robert Blake, wealthy mill owner, my maternal grandfather, hosted monthly parlor dances. The rough and ready Goshen lads were probably not high on his list of desirables. There were so many eligible and upright young Protestant men for his six daughters.
   Certainly the Blakes had a passion of their own, bringing forth thirteen children. Perhaps God had left the self-disciplined Protestants more to their own devices in the belief that they needed less of his intervention than the overweening Irish Catholics. He had created the Protestants to moderate themselves, largely in restrained spiritual mediocrity and realistic expectations. So said the Celts anyway.
    It might seem that one day God looked up from his toils in Goshen and discovered the number of offspring at the Blake's. Either because He regarded the number as excessive or simply as a muted echo of a bad time had by a relative, He drowned Robert Junior in the river pond, so artfully dammed for the mill wheel operation by Robert Senior.
   "Have I not enough trouble with the incorrigible Irish? Must you reasonable people be procreating like wayward rabbits? Whom can I rely upon in this world? You'd think my son would know. Where's the Ghost when I need his advice? I suppose he's vanished again, eh? Taken the form of the Paraclete and just flown away. This whole creation thing was his idea in the first place. John was right on that one."
   Mortals who struggled daily for survival might have imagined such heavenly discourse. Where was the order and rationale in existence? Who was in charge of all this pain, deprivation, and tragedy called life? God often seemed remote and uncaring.
   In the cold, cavernous, and unsympathetic barn, during moments of angry fear for his family's survival, Brendan can be envisioned, violently thrusting his arms wide, earth-creased palms opened upward at the sky, and snapping his head toward the tarred wood roof three stories above. The cracks between the warped planks admitted shards of heaven's harsh light.
   "For Christ's sake, explain to me this Divine Providence the priests are forever blathering about. I don't see any of them behind the plow or pulling a cow's tits on a winter morning.
    "When Maureen scalded Edward's knee with boiling kettle water last year, no priest was around listening to the child's screams or telling me how to bandage him. Caitlin was there, but nary a priest."
   Eternal happiness was a distant promise which didn't pay the bank notes, or till the soil, or restrain the rain when it capriciously washed out the slavishly nurtured shoots of corn. Winter cold froze the spirit. Summer sun seared the soul. Each day was a combat. A traitor within each warrior was the unmanning prospect of defeat. Unemployment compensation? Not invented yet. Welfare was when the neighbor three furlongs down the indifferent road could finish his own chores and come to assist.
   During the period when Robert Junior drowned in Mechanic, Brendan had set son Edward, barely seven years in age and only 5'8" in manhood, to plow the unwooded field across the river facing the house. As told to me, only four searing times, all Edward, my father, could see behind the towering draft horses were sweat-lathered, laboring haunches, black-threaded swishing tails, and occasionally exposed anuses.
   He trudged lonely and small, clinging to the weathered wood plow handles. The first few furrows were laborious.
   How, one might indignantly ask today, could a child be expected to perform this man's chore?
   Brendan rarely explained, but if he felt the ignorant question even worthy of a response.
   "There was no one else to do it. A son of mine should be able to carry his share of the load."
    Edward struggled with it, but the recalcitrant soil yielded with intensifying resistance. The stones clattered against the plow blade.
   "Who is this insignificant kid to be driving his clumsy animals and casting us aside? How comes he to turn earth so long at peace?"
   The plow began to tilt. The horses lugged harder and toppled the it ass over kilter down the hill. Aroused as only stolid farm studs can be, red eyed in furious fear, they bolted. Up the hill, right onto the dusty, pebbled, quarter mile entry road, down the hill, over the rude wood river bridge, right onto the narrower lane, and past the house. Besottedly fleeing the overturned machine behind them, scraping the ground on its handles, they thundered to the barn door, where Brendan contained them. His own fury at the harrow's damage and the son's dereliction dwarfed the frenzy of the stallions.
   Edward took the same route, more slowly and reluctantly than the horses.
    Into the barn went father and son. Understanding was unspoken. Brendan scrupulously chose a medium sized horse strap. Even in his rage he did not wish to damage the boy with the heaviest leather. Even in his restraint he did not want to let Edward off lightly with a thrashing of slight reins.
    The beating began. Edward was an obedient child. He stood as the black scourge lashed into his flesh, again and again. At some point, he fell, palms bonded to the heedless soil floor by a shim of their mingled perspiration and droplets of his own blood. Brendan had exacted punishment for the infraction. His passion abated.
   Perhaps God was over in Mechanic Settlement that afternoon, drowning Robert. Pop never knew. Each time he told me, his tears burned into my spirit, a salty scar, a momento of God's caring for an Irish child on a Canadian hillside.


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