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My Father’s Parting Gift by Orla McAlinden

Writing.ie | Magazine | Mining Memories | Tell Your Own Story

Orla McAlinden

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365 days ago, I had no idea that one year later I would have written a memoir. I have always known that I can make words leap and soar and bounce willingly through flaming hoops, but I never felt I had anything about which to write. “How many books about Teenage Mutant Ninja Vampires does the world actually need?” I wondered.

My father was my first love. We shared many interests: a passion for horses, history, old books, peace and quiet. These shared hobbies drove us out of our teeming over-populated semi, into the highways and by-ways of rural Armagh. He taught me to ride. He walked beside me, holding a long rope, for years, until I was judged safe, and released. During these long, self-indulgent trips a relationship grew that transcended the hero-worship small girls have for their fathers. We were friends.

My father died a year ago today, after an accident from which he was recovering slowly but satisfactorily. We re-arranged the furniture, on Friday, to facilitate his return from hospital on Monday. He died on Sunday morning.

The early, numb weeks passed in a straightforward fashion. I had four very young children, and a husband to organise. Women whispered at the school gates. “Isn’t she doing well? Isn’t she coping great?” I wondered what all the fuss was about. Friendly people commiserated and I would reply, “Yes indeed, he was a very elderly man. Yes, it was for the best. Yes, things could be a lot worse.” I really thought I meant it!

Afterwards? What I call ‘the lost weeks’. I would spend a morning full of murderous rage and frustration; tearing the house apart looking for my wallet, only to find it in the salad drawer of the fridge. I would return from Tesco to feed my family of six for a week, with a half-dozen unripe, unwanted mangoes, and no milk. I leapt to my feet, cursing, late for the school run, having sat down for five minutes, two hours previously.

As always, in times of crisis, I turned to the written word. I ploughed through heavy tomes by eminent psychologists and sociologists. Eventually I landed, by chance, upon ‘You’ll get over it’ by Virginia Ironside. She was full of wise advice and sympathy. I was not going mad; I was grieving!
On 27th July 2012, I opened my rarely used laptop. I would write a little story, a family history. It would be a secret tribute to my father. I would show nobody. Three hours later, I looked at the work. It was a dusty, half-remembered family legend, passed on to me, probably accidentally, while he re-told and embellished it for his own friends. The piece was finished. It was whole and complete. I did not think, or pause for breath. I submitted it everywhere! It was published in January 2013, by The Chatahoochee Review in Georgia, USA.

The writing continues. I sit down alone. Two hours later I read my new story. It spills out, fizzing, on to the screen, while I type, five or six disorganised fingers flailing, struggling to keep up with the words. Fiction, scripts, memoir, family tales.

A precious child-free hour, snatched here and there, equals a thousand words vomited into the open maw of a blank screen. During the other 160 hours per week the stories jostle and fight for position, shrieking to be released next from their incarceration. “Write me!” they plead. “Tell me.”
I edit in the kitchen, lunch-boxing a thousand ham sandwiches or stirring bolognese. Insomnia is my constant companion. I lie unquiet in the small hours; stories flash and streak across my mind until I long to clamp my hands over my brain’s ears, and scream “Enough! Let me be!”

My stories and memoirs whirl across the internet; a prize here, a shortlist there. A short story which has arrived in a blur of busy fingers, unprovoked, uninvited, lurks in my hard drive. Each time I log on, that story- a young woman deceived by an American GI during the war- screams its rage and its indignation. “I am not a story!” it yells; “I am a PROLOGUE, get me out of here!”

And the tears have come too. I cry constantly. I cry, listening to the news. I sob at adverts for cheese, and at Tom and Jerry. I weep when my children laugh. Thank God for Virginia Ironside!

How long can this exquisite torture last? If the beehive of buzzing words sinks back into somnolent hibernation, leaving me sane again, I will be ever grateful that I, briefly, wrote. My hope is that I have been permanently blessed; my father’s parting gift.

About the author

(c) Orla McAlinden

Orla McAlinden is a new writer of memoir and personal essays, approaching middle age and taking stock of life.  Born in Northern Ireland at the height of the ‘Troubles’, she moved, alone, to Dublin aged eighteen.  She currently lives in Kildare with her husband and four young children.  Having now spent more than half her life in the Republic of Ireland, she admits to being still a Northern girl at heart, with all the complications and contradictions that entails.  Her work is deeply rooted in that beautiful, difficult place.

Abridged extracts from her full length memoir “Union Jacks and Rosary Beads”, for which she is seeking an agent or publisher, have been published in America and on www.writing .ie  A further extract has been awarded second prize in The Valhalla Press flash memoir competition and another has just been selected as an  “Honorary Mention” in the Fish Short Memoir competition- winning inclusion in the Fish Anthology 2013.   Orla tweets at @orlamcawrites

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