Reflections from the Swamp
Old Edmond used to tell great stories. After a thunderstorm, the rainbows anchor themselves on The Isthmus of St. Patrick. The Isthmus is where the leprechauns keep their pots of gold out in the swamp. He told stories about the first Irish immigrants to Corkery, their history, and the struggles in a new land. None of his stories compared in elegance and embellishment to the story about The Knucklebone of Saint Ann de Beaupre.
For those of you whose knowledge of saints is murky, St. Ann was the mother of The Virgin Mary. Although Ann’s history is shrouded in mystery, tradition tells us that Mary, like Jesus, was miraculously conceived by Ann, who was blessed, to understate the point. In short, Ann had a resume suitable enough for sainthood.
For a long period of Catholic history, churches would seek relics of the saints to add prestige to their buildings and draw in pilgrims. People travelled throughout Europe to see splinters and nails of the cross of Jesus, straw from the manger, or sandals from one of the apostles. Often bone fragments of the saints became relics.
In his book, The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain recalls that he saw enough nails from the cross to fill two oak barrels and enough wood fragments of the cross to build a wagon while travelling throughout Europe. I sense that he may have been skeptical about the authenticity of the relics. It was such a bone fragment of St. Ann that was carried from Ireland by the Kennedy family to Corkery and placed in the walls of Edmond’s childhood home, the home that became our home in Corkery.
We rented Edmond’s house for a year with an option to buy. No real estate agents graced our home to extol the virtues of the house. Instead, Edmond told us about the leprechauns and the knucklebone of St. Ann du Beaupre. He did this to enhance his asking price for the property. “This house is eternally blessed because Huge Kennedy placed a knucklebone of St. Ann that was carried over from County Cork in Ireland in the house’s walls. No harm will ever come to this house; it has the blessing of St. Ann herself to protect you from any calamity which may befall you, your home, or your kin.”
Edmond told his story about St. Ann to our family while we sat at the kitchen table. Edmond keeps a Scotch bottle in our fridge because he couldn’t keep a bottle at his home. He hardly drank but enjoyed a Scotch now and then. As Edmond had another Scotch, his elocution improved dramatically, and our four kids grew keenly interested in the knucklebone story. Our five-year-old son Ben asked in which wall was the bone located. Edmond admitted that he didn’t know for sure, but he thought it was in one of the bedroom walls upstairs.
Unbeknownst to us, Ben was disturbed by the knucklebone story. The old house had a lath and plaster finish with hairline cracks and small holes. One small spot was cracked open at eye level to Ben while lying on the bed. He started picking at it, and it soon became a hole about the size of an orange. My bride saw the cavity in the wall and placed a picture over it to hide it.
Ben removed the picture and continued to worry the wall until a hole about the size of a basketball appeared, showing several pieces of lath below. Crumbled chalk covered his sheets. My bride told me to fix the wall, so I found an even bigger picture to hide Ben’s mining operation and gave him a stern rebuke.
Several days later, I returned home after visiting a brother in another town. Before I even had a chance to remove my coat, my bride told me to go upstairs and look at Ben’s wall. A hole about the size of a fridge greeted me as I entered the room. I was flabbergasted! I found a metal garbage can, Ben, a broom and a dustpan. I started breathing in deep breaths as instructed by the Zen masters to prevent me from stuffing Ben in the garbage can. Then I found Edmonds bottle of Scotch in the fridge and poured myself a tall glass.
When I returned to Ben’s room to watch him clean up the mess, I noticed that he examined each piece of plaster before placing them in the garbage can. “What are you doing, Ben?” “Just looking for the knucklebone,” he replied as he dropped another piece of chalk into the garbage. Although bewildered for a moment, I finally realized that he was looking for the knucklebone of St. Ann. He showed me several samples of plaster that he had set aside in case they were the knucklebone.
On a Sunday at the beginning of March Break, we all went to Wakefield to visit friends. That evening, we received a phone call from my father to inform us that our house was on fire. I left my family behind and travelled home with my friend to find that the house had burned entirely down. Not a wall was left standing.
We farmed out our kids and stayed with a neighbour. Several weeks later, I was shovelling through the ashes looking for anything of value when a black car arrived carrying two of Edmond’s sisters. “Terrible sorry about your loss,” they said; we feel the loss too. This place was our childhood home. It’s hard to believe. This home was eternally blessed; it had the knucklebone of St. Ann buried in the walls.
We built a new home in about the same place as the old farmhouse. The ashes of St. Ann’s knucklebone are somewhere down in the foundation.
I learned that the blessings in a house reside in the hearts of those who dwell within. Making a house a home takes more than a hammer, nails, and a knucklebone.