“Did you see her majesty in the news? All she ever did was born!” Philomena declared with an air of contempt as she unwrapped her butterscotch candy. “Why — I could be the Queen! Hello, hello, hello!” She waved with a stiff palm, barely flicking her wrist.
“If you could be the Queen, then I could be the Pope,” Hugh said, as he drove.
“Oh, that old nutter,” Philomena made a noise that sounded like psht. It was dismissive and unapproving. Never mind the fact that she and Hugh had just been at Mass. And that Philomena had done a reading from the Gospel of Saint John. “Well, where should we go for lunch Hughie, dearie? The usual?” The usual was the creamery. And Hughie usually paid.
The creamery was on the edge of town right by the hurricane barrier. It was a grey day, and days always seemed greyer by the barrier. Philomena exited the car and was immediately welcomed by a sea breeze. It was cold, wet, and uncomfortable. And it was exactly why Philomena liked Massachusetts so much. If you stood in the perfect spot — like this miserable one by the creamery — it felt just like Ireland.
Philomena burst through the creamery door and walked right by a sign that read Please wait to be seated. Philomena was eighty-two years old. Her philosophy was that she had waited enough.
Hugh greeted the waitstaff and met Philomena at the booth she had selected. The booth exactly halfway between the entrance and the kitchen, with a view of the hurricane barrier. He sat down just in time to watch Philomena take a cigarette out of her purse, place it between her lips, and pull out a match book. He laughed a single, long, loud laugh that was punctured into smaller sounds only by his smiling teeth. It sounded like a snake who learned how to turn its hiss into a giggle. “Aunt Philomena, you cannot smoke in here. You haven’t been able to smoke in restaurants since like the 90s.”
“I know dear, but I always try. Never let the man keep you down.” She put her cigarette back into her purse in defeat.
“Well look at this,” Hugh said holding out the sticky menu to her, “you can get the Irish Breakfast.”
“Psht,” Philomena flipped her hand, dismissively. “If I wanted the Irish Breakfast I would have stayed in Ireland.”
“Did you ever think that you would have moved back there?” Hugh asked her.
“No,” she shook her head slowly. “I came to America assuming that I would never return to that godforsaken rock. There’s really no need to go back. I have been in America longer than I was ever in Ireland. Besides, all the good relatives followed me here.” She thought about Ireland. How green it could be and how grey it felt. She thought of the peat bogs and the hunger that never left her until she left Ireland itself. She would like to see Killarney one more time. Sometimes she saw it in her dreams. But she would never admit to something so sentimental. Embarrassed by her own unspoken emotion she decided to change the subject. “Hughie, I have an announcement to make.”
“And what is that?” Hugh asked.
She paused for dramatic effect. “I am leaving the Church.”
“I’ll draft the press release.”
“Be sure to site all the recent scandals and such for justification.”
“You should be careful though,” Hugh said, his tone still teasing “You’re an old woman, don’t you want to get into heaven?”
“Heaven is for squares and snobs, Hughie. Remember that.”
Hugh drove her home. They took the back way, past unfarmed farm land and stonewalls until they reached her little cottage on the salt marsh. She walked through the door and placed her keys on the table by the framed Irish toast May the Road Rise Up to Meet You and some such nonsense. She sat down in her favorite chair and looked at her statuette of Saint Patrick on the end table beside it. The whole iconography of her life was based on a place she had not been to in fifty-six years.
Philomena’s Monday was going exactly how a Monday should go. She woke up at 5:30 a.m. She had her morning tea and morning cigarette (perhaps in some odd way the carcinogen was preserving her. She was not about to test that theory by quitting.) Muriel called her at 9:00 a.m. and they decided to have breakfast together on Saturday. It was a bold move — making plans that far in advance at their age. Perhaps she should have suggested Thursday morning instead. She made her regular cheese sandwich for lunch and prepped her afternoon tea. But then at 1:15 p.m. the mail was delivered. It was a typical time for the mail to arrive. However, on this average and typical Monday, everything was about to change.
She waited until 7:00 p.m. to pick up the telephone. Philomena dialed with determination, hitting each button steadily. The line rang four times until she heard a familiar “Hello?”
“Hellooooo Hughie, dearie. It’s your Aunt. Philomena.”
“Thank you for clarifying,” Hugh replied.
“Well, I’m calling because I have some news,” she began.
“Are you rejoining the Church?”
“Pssssht! No! It seems that I have inherited a house.”
“A house?” Hugh asked.
“A house,” Philomena answered.
“My uncle’s house. In Waterville, County Kerry, Ireland. Apparently, I am the closest living relative” For the first time, Hugh did not have a quick reply. “I would like to go see the house. And I’d like for you to go with me.”
“The Queen is going to Ireland next month, why don’t you go with her,” Hugh offered. She could hear his smile.
“Oh, go to hell.” Philomena hung up the phone and made a note to call a travel agent the next day for two tickets to the godforsaken rock she thought she would never see again.
Ireland came into view of the small plane window. It looked like land formed by a cookie cutter and left in the ocean. To rot or to thrive she couldn’t be sure. Philomena could see the raised cliffs, the green land, and felt her heart catch in her chest. Hugh snored beside her. She thought for a moment that she had made a mistake. But of course, it was too late to think about that. The plane made a jerky landing in Shannon, right next to sheep fields. Of course, Philomena thought. Sheep to greet me. Now where are the leprechauns?
Once they were on the opposite side of the security gate Philomena spotted her first. A young woman with a flame of red hair and a sprinkle of freckles across her face. She held a sign that said Aunt Philomena, but Philomena would have known it was her without the sign. She looked exactly like her sister Margaret. Her name was Julia, and she was the granddaughter of her brother John. Philomena always thought John was a fool to stay in Ireland. She did not tell Julia this. Instead she thanked her for picking her and Hugh up from the airport and they made their way to Waterville.
The house, it turned out, was a blue house on a cliff that met the sea. Philomena was disappointed it did not have a thatched roof but — not all cottages can. As they approached, Philomena noticed a line of cars up the drive and people milling about outside.
“Julia — who are all these people?” she asked her great-niece.
“Oh, cousins and some neighbors. They wanted to meet you, but mostly — they wanted a view of the American.”
“They want to see the American. This American?” Philomena pointed in disbelief to a laughing Hugh. “Well, they are going to be sorely disappointed. Hugh’s head is just as big and square as the next Irishman’s.”
Philomena exited the car and happily greeted everyone outside the blue house. Without a word being said she could tell who was related to her. This young man looked like Jimmy Hayes. That young lady looked like Mary Margaret Fitzpatrick. It was as if she was being greeted by the ghosts of her past. The lawyer John — who was also her cousin and went by Jackie Boy before she had left for America — was there and opened the house. All the relatives and neighbors ventured inside where, earlier; John’s wife had set up scones with clotted cream. Philomena immediately started looking through the kitchen cupboards as everyone settled in the parlor. She pulled out ten whiskey glasses and five pint glasses, which would have to do. Out of nowhere, she seemed to procure a bottle of whiskey. She heard Hugh let out his snake laugh behind her “When did you manage to get a bottle of whiskey!?!” he asked her.
“Hughie — never ask a lady her age, her weight, or how she has acquired her whiskey.” Philomena poured the liquor into each glass and distributed them among her guests. “A toast!” she declared.
“A toast!” everyone answered with a raised glass.
“To fifty-six years! To family! To Munster! And to Ireland!”
“To Ireland!” everyone repeated. Philomena raised her glass and shot the whiskey back in one big, burning gulp.
The next morning, the realtor arrived right on time. They discussed market value, likely timeline of a sale, and asking price. “Are you sure you want to sell the house?” He asked her, as he stood on the front steps to leave.
“Yes, of course. I’m an old woman and I’m an American now.”
“‘Tis a shame,” he said, with a slight shake of the head. “‘Tis a shame.”
Now that business was over, Philomena wanted what she had dreamt of for the past fifty-six years. She and Hugh drove the Ring of Kerry. They saw cliffs that went straight into the ocean. They saw forests and lakes that looked like no one had ever been so lucky to set eyes on them before. They saw ruins of stone houses and penny walls. You could feel the famine, the magic, and the fight of the Irish all at once. And they ended the drive in Killarney. Beautiful Killarney which deserves all the songs that were ever written about it.
They parked just outside the center of town and got out to walk to a pub for a bite to eat. Everything was new and familiar all at once. The sidewalks were filled with Irish, tourists, and anyone that you could picture. As they walked, Philomena noticed two Irish women engaged in an animated conversation. One was seated on a storefront window ledge, and the second was standing on the sidewalk, dragging on a cigarette in between bursts of a story that she was telling. As they got closer, they heard the standing woman say “She’s a cunt. She’s a fucking cunt!” before she paused to have another casual drag of her cigarette.
“Ah, they remember me here I see,” Philomena said. They left the two women behind to their story as they found a pub open just ahead. It was dark on the inside, a little dingy, and perfect in every way. Philomena did not even look at the menu before ordering lamb stew and a Beamish. As they waited for their dinner to arrive Philomena felt her heart leap in her chest again and she knew what she had to do.
“Well, Hughie, dearie, I think that I will be staying.”