celtic spirituality family story

I’m cleaning the kitchen, I mean REALLY cleaning it. My Mother would call my kitchens current state a shit-mess! It has been weeks since the sink has been free of dishes. My first restaurant job at 13 was dishwasher, you’d think 44 years later I’d be good at minimizing the number of dishes I generate. Anyone who spends time in my home knows that my ability to create an unholy kitchen mess defies physics.

Having a clean kitchen complete with an empty sink feels like a luxury to me these days.

I learned how to keep a kitchen, how to feed people, from my Mom of course. Her kitchen was often cluttered with dishes and leftovers, until my Dad ordered us kids in to clean it top to bottom. I did the least amount of cleaning I could get away with, but my sister policed me, making sure my work was not too half-assed. Where’s a big sister when you need one?

I could order my kids to clean more. They do the basics, but not all they could be doing for their single Dad. I know it’s not ideal parenting to do the dishes myself, but I don’t want to give up my kitchen duties until I get it right. There’s a bar I’m trying to hit, even if I don’t quite know what it is or why I can’t just let it go.

Maybe I just feel they deserve more of a home than I’ve been able to give them since Terry died.

My Mom was clearly the homemaker of our family, Dad was the breadwinner. They were both Hearthkeepers though, a term associated with Celts in general and the Irish in particular. The tradition of offering hospitality among the Irish was originally required under ancient rules known as Brehon Laws. All households were obliged to provide some measure of oigidecht (hospitality) to travelers. Stranger or friend it didn’t matter, you were expected to make a warm welcome for whomever arrived at your door. The Irish hearth became a symbol of a vibrant culture. Irish hospitality was nourished through the centuries by her humblest and noblest people alike, interrupted only by war and famine. Of course there was quite a bit of war and famine to go around.

Dad would entertain whomever we dragged home or he invited over, usually from the university where he taught. Sitting in the den, a fire roaring on winter nights, his pipe dangling precariously out of the corner of his mouth, he’d ask after our guests family and how they were spending their lives. If it were Satan, he’d have asked him blithely how business was going? Did he expect an uptick in sinners during the next presidential election? Would he like a drink? Had he read Joyce?

After an hour of civilized conversation our guests were welcomed to a bounteous table conjured into being by Mom. She was the daughter of a working class cook from the west coast. He was quite skilled, feeding presidents and the working class fisherman of the SF Bay alike. Like him, she knew how to crank out delicious food. The kitchen was her domain, at times she was reluctant to leave it. Dad would have to yell in the direction of her queendom several times to get her to join the latest tribe forming at the dinner table.

“Sheila get in here, what are you doing?”
“JOHN!” She would huff (somehow making Dads name into an expletive) before shoving a platter of food into my hands. “Timothy bring this to your father and tell him I’ll be in there when the fucking salad is done!”
She inherited her fathers tongue along with his cooking talent.

I would not tell my Dad the “fucking salad” was done, that could earn you a serving of the “famous Flynn backhand“. Besides the neighbors across the street could likely hear Sheila’s every word, no need to repeat. After an hour of feasting, conversations would continue well into the night with wine and hard liquor lubricating conversations among professors, judges, politicians, dancers, actors, artists, and our latest pack of motley teen friends. People who wouldn’t nod to each other on the streets would leave feeling as if they were kin. Dinner at the Flynns was a prized event that many never forgot.

I can’t live up to their example. We’re too isolated and my kids are too young to guzzle wine until midnight – though I have been tempted to rope them in from time to time. I am a good cook, in addition to Moms training I worked as a line cook in a restaurant so I know how to keep food moving out into a room full of hungry bellies. My table is a place of welcoming and warmth. But I am typically so busy driving them somewhere and working that I barely have time to shower more than a few times a week. Not the best poster boy for hospitality unless you’re looking for that ripe barnyard experience. Our nights are limited to the warmth we can conjure together, with the occasional traveler wandering in for a night or two of time together.

The ancient Irish legend “The Settling of the Manor at Tara” assigns Hearth, abundance and prosperity to the direction of the East. This is the place of the rising sun, the dawn of each day and required for the dawn of any new life. Life was hard back then, a lot of children died well before their tenth year. We must feast on the abundance of the world if we are going to survive the early years of being here.

This quote is from The Manor at Tara when the most ancient and wisest person recounts how the land was originally settled:
“‘Her prosperity then,’ said he, ‘and her supplies, her bee-hives, her contests, her feats of arms, her householders, her nobles, her wonders, her good custom, her good manners, her splendour, her abundance, her dignity, her strength, her wealth, her householding, her many arts, her accoutrements, her many treasures, her satin, her serge, her silks, her cloths, her green spotted cloth, her hospitality, from the eastern part in the east.’”

The Irish understood that abundance is diminished if it is held selfishly. The body of Ireland, the divine presence of Sovereignty, pours forth nourishment for all. She must be respected. Taken as a subtle quality that is a part of every person, it calls forth a generous grace from each of us.

Am I a Hearthkeeper? I think I’ve been in training to be one for the last five years or so. I’ve had proclivities in that direction but I needed our small family to help ripen that in me. Hearth is more than just food and warm place to sleep, its about being able to live in the reciprocity of life. You need to be able to rest in the giving and receiving that is life.

Lofty thoughts as I sweep an apple core off the counter that’s been hiding behind the paprika for at least a week. Bleh.

Tonight my son Tadg and I are going to make ramen from scratch. During the pandemic we all cooked together almost nightly. It was good for our souls. I try to share my cooking skills with both of them, making sure we make things they love even if I don’t like them. Tadg has never had a ramen broth made from duck. I know he’ll love it. We’ll work the noodle dough together and talk about what makes duck different than chicken, why it’s so essential to Asian culture with its rice farming, how the fat of ducks, especially wild ducks has been so nourishing for countless generations.

I ordered new ramen bowls for this special event. Dark and heavy ceramic, they’re much closer to a classic Japanese bowl than the Pokemon ramen bowls I got last Christmas. When I unboxed the new bowls one was broken. Instead of four bowls we’ll have three. That’s right, we’re three, not four. Last week I re-posted a pandemic blog post Place Settings. I talked about ordering a set of camping dishes so each of us could be responsible for cleaning our own dishes. After they arrived I asked Truly to label each setting with our names. Since there were four pairs of plates and bowls she labeled one for “Mom.” She saw Terrys absence even when I didn’t. Now, with only three bowls there is no room for Mom. Truly won’t notice the missing bowl, but she hasn’t lost sight of Momma. The other day, driving to school, her chin tipped down, she started to cry.

“I won’t ever have a Momma again, will I?” This was the first time she had seen her life rolling out before her without a mother.
“Honey, I am so sorry. I wish I could order up a Momma. I am working hard. We just haven’t found her yet.”
“But we might not ever.”
“Yes honey, I’m sorry, but that is true.”

She had a long deep cry that eventually faded into watching the land roll by. I didn’t know my heart could break more for her, but it certainly did then. She was stepping away from the illusion of hope she’d carried for the last five years, now looking at what a future without Mom could look like. At ten years old she is a giant person. I felt pathetic and small. What am I doing to find someone? The one we both hoped would work out just wouldn’t fit. We’ve both accepted that, begrudgingly. Am I really looking? I need to get off my ass on this one.

I signed up for more dating apps, which never work for me. Old dad with young kids is not as appealing as you might think. By the time we finally got to school her mood shifted, but she has changed, grown older. Her maturity will look different than her friends. She has a big backpack that holds losing two Moms, one through adoption and the other from cancer. Her back does not bend beneath its weight though. Despite my failure to find her a Mom, despite watching her Mother fade and die, the fire within her has been completely undiminished.

Sometimes I look at her face and see a light there that I will never understand. How is it you are so unfailingly radiant?

She makes this so much easier for me. As bright and warm as my hearth may be it might never be shared with another. I need to face that too. I have her and her brother to fill my days with light and wonder. They may not be a lover and a partner, but they are blessed company indeed.

Truly and I will be tending a hearth at her school in a few weeks. The previous tenants at her school built a cob oven during the pandemic so children could sit around that warm earthen oven during the winter, learning together even if they had to be outside for social distancing. Last year we fired it up and started feeding people. My ancestors built their homes with cob, a mixture of mud, sand and straw. Terry build many cob structures, including a community oven on our land. We are experts in this kind of ancient hearth. Truly and I get to share our cooking time tending our ancestral fire and coaxing what nourishment from it we can. She is a natural Hearthkeeper, if only because she is a child that always lives from her heart.

Truth be told, she’s is my best Hearthkeeping teacher. My learning continues. What a radiant gift she is.

Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.

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